Introduction to Textual Criticism
Somewhere in some book I perused about existentialism is the comment that any philosophical movement that can contain both a devout Christian like SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard and a devout anti-Christian like Friedrich Nietszche must be very broad indeed. I mentioned that once to Jim Faulconer, from whom I took several philosophy classes, and he said, “Nietszche wasn’t an anti-Christ. I don’t believe in the same God Nietszche didn’t believe in.”
As Jim said several times in class, the god of philosophers and theologians is wholly other than we are, so radically different that it makes no sense to suppose that we might someday become like God, and yet eternal life depends on knowing this radically unknowable being. If the radically unknowable version of God is the only version you know it may make sense to call yourself an atheist. For one thing is God is so radically different from you how do you have any way of knowing that your worship is authentic or acceptable?
Jim suggested that if Nietszche had had a different definition of God available to him, he might have had defined his relationship to that God differently–perhaps if he had known Kierkegaard.
In Part V I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity when he found out the Bible is not inerrant and unchanging. But the idea of scripture as inerrant is not the only definition of scripture. D&C 68:4 says, “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture,” so scripture can be spoken as well as written, or can be the written record of something spoken. (I suggested in my first introductory post that the Book of Mormon is an oral document.)
But what if the speaker is not eloquent? What if the writer is unskilled? Does the lack of eloquence or writing skill affect the truth of the message? Is the medium the message? These are questions that faced church leaders meeting in Hiram, Ohio in November 1831 to consider publishing revelations Joseph Smith had received up to that point. They decided to publish The Book of Commandments and the Lord revealed a preface which included this declaration: “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24).
The Lord also wanted to publish the written testimony of those present that the revelations were true, but after they had received the preface there was some discussion about “the manner of [Joseph Smith’s] language.” Was it a suitable vessel for the words of the Lord? Joseph wondered the same thing, keenly aware of his crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect Language” (quoted in Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants, Deseret Book 2008, p. 245).
In reply the Lord gave a revelation commenting on the discussion and issuing an invitation and a commandment:
5 Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know.
6 Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you;
7 Or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true;
8 But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true.
9 For ye know that there is no unrighteousness in them, and that which is righteous cometh down from above, from the Father of lights.
The comment, invitation and commandment mean that truth is more important than perfection, that truth does not depend on formal beauty or perfection. That sounds like an odd statement from a writer who values playful elegant language. I might not have said it if I hadn’t been reading Steven Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants since the beginning of the year, but I think about it more for what it says about Joseph Smith’s willingness to edit his revelations and translations than what it suggests about his attitude towards literary style. Indeed, I believe he strove greatly to develop a style that could match the sublimity of the visions he received.
When I began this series of introductory posts I thought the assumption underlying scriptural inerrancy was that the Lord has the power to do whatever he wants, and therefore the power to keep the scriptures free of blemish (yes, I’m listening to Leviticus just now), but in thinking about this post it occurs to me that the assumption is probably more like God is a perfectionist, and therefore would not allow scripture to go forth that was not utterly perfect.
Joseph Smith didn’t believe in perfect utterance, and if a prophet stutters, or utters something broken and imperfect, or engraves a record clumsily the Lord will allow the broken and imperfect language to pass into the record, and send another revelation or a later prophet to correct the imperfections, and yet a later revelation to correct that prophet’s imperfections–even so until the end of the world. Amen.