Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon

Introduction to Textual Criticism
Part VI

Somewhere in some book I perused about existentialism is the comment that any philosophical movement that can contain both a devout Christian like Søren 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:

D&C 65
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.

7 thoughts on “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon”

  1. “The comment, invitation and commandment mean that truth is more important than perfection, that truth does not depend on formal beauty or perfection.”

    This is fantastic, Harlow. The more I get to know God through scripture and through living, the more I come to believe that the dialog between us and Him and the messiness that results is precisely the point. As you point out, if the gap between how we conceive him and how he presents his will is so huge, so alien that we can’t even begin to approach it then how can we even began to progress, even take a step on the road to where He is?

    That doesn’t mean that there’s no truth or even Truth — that everything is relative* — but rather that faith and humility and charity need to be operative parts of our quest to know the mind and will of the Lord.

    * the horrors of relativism as the fruits of postmodernism is a major bugaboo for some Mormons. I never experience that horror.

  2. .

    Indeed, I believe he strove greatly to develop a style that could match the sublimity of the visions he received.

    Ergo the poetic D&C 76?

    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.

    This has to be one of the most Mormon things I have ever heard.

    And I’m with William: Messiness is totally of God. He recognizes what we’re like and he seems reasonably satisfied to meet us where we are. (For now.)

  3. Are any of you who have posted thus far old enough to remember the teachings of such notables as Joseph Fielding Smith saying there were no errors in the BofM, or earlier brethren saying that every word of the BofM was approved of by God? It is one thing to take the viewpoint that Harlow takes (which I now share) but it requires some of us to jettison the teachings of the prophets we grew up on, that solidified our testimonies. When I was making the transition from the BofM as literal word of God to a book flawed in its language but profound in its teachings, there were few places where I could find others making a similar transition. Indeed, others of my generation, coming to this conclusion, have completely left the church since its founding scripture, to anyone who studies it, is definitely not error-free, and is filled with ponderous passages and lugubrious prose. I just wish there were more thinkers such as Harlow who could have made my transition from literal-minded Mormon to open-minded Mormon easier than it was.

  4. I find comfort in the thought that truth and perfection are the goal of scriptural communication – that is, the end toward which scriptural communication is intended to guide us – and not its necessary conditions.

    Both my academic training and my practical experience as an informational writer/editor tell me that truth isn’t something that can be captured in words. The most that words – even inspired words, I believe – can hope to do is bring us closer to an understanding of truth in our own minds. I look at things like D&C 121:33, where Joseph Smith revels in the process of revelation which, like rolling waters, won’t remain impure, and the scriptural injunctions about learning line upon line – and my own personal experiences with divine inspiration – and I really think God is much more interested in the process of bringing us closer to him than he is in avoiding error along the way – including errors in our own understanding which nonetheless can be corrected going forward.

    I agree with Thom that this requires rejecting the way some people think about what “must” be true about scripture, but it’s also an approach that I think is much more true of fundamental Mormon ideas. And it also makes it easier for some of us to stay in the Church.

  5. Wm. said, “the horrors of relativism as the fruits of postmodernism is a major bugaboo for some Mormons. I never experience that horror.”

    Most people who say truth is relative treat relative as a synonym for arbitrary. Jim Faulconer once said something to the effect that people may say morals are conventional, but God called the convention. Similarly, you can qualify the statement truth is relative by noting that our Heavenly Parents are the first relatives, the ones who produced all the other relatives and set the vast web of relatives vibrating with the music of the spheres. Truth is related to the person who says or lives it–“truth embraceth truth” (D&C 88:40).

    Even a rock solid truth like “Jesus wrought an atonement for us” is related to the person who says it. Suppose you saw a short film praising Jesus as Lord and Savior and at the end a man in a dark business suit stepped onscreen and said, “My name is Satan and I approved this message” (See Mark 3:11-12 ).

    We like to say that Satan will tell 1,000 truths to get us to believe one lie, but Satan is incapable of telling truth. Everything he says is a lie (another insight from Jim Faulconer), so even if the words he speaks would be true if, say, Chieko Okazaki spoke them, Satan doesn’t believe their truth, so the words are a lie. Truth is not related to the words spoken–it is related to the intent of the speaker’s heart.

    Of course, that word intent raises the question, how do we know the intent of another’s heart? which we sometimes treat as rhetorical. But it’s not. I saw a copy of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie on the library’s sales table, which I read 20 years ago after an Institute instructor in Seattle mentioned it. Peck says lies breed confusion, and if you feel constantly confused around someone, that person may be lying to you.

    And if you don’t find yourself confused, if you find joy in another person’s words, you may be tasting truth (see part II of the King Follett Discourse in the May 1971 Ensign, page 13 or 14, or just Yahoo “you say honey is sweet”)

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