Great (but Healthy) Expectations

Despite what some believe, there is nothing to be afraid of in Judeo-Christian or Mormon history as long as you have a healthy perspective. Here are some healthy concepts that every Christian should understand. More precisely, these are concepts that every Mormon should understand in order to avoid the risk of having a crisis of faith after stumbling upon unexpected historical facts.

1. God Does His Earthly Work through Imperfect People

When someone prays for help, it’s usually through a mortal that God answers the prayer. We are God’s hands. As we do his work, we gain charity, which is very important to have: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). God works through imperfect people. The main reason for this is that he works through mortals, and mortals are all imperfect. If God didn’t work through flawed people, you and I would be left out of his work, and that would be sad.

2. Even the Prophets are and were Flawed and Fallible

“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

The main reason prophets are fallible is that they are people. God worked and works through them anyway (see #2).

3. Joseph Smith was No Exception

Joseph Smith was a rough-hewn farm boy with very little education. He made plenty of mistakes, including in his translation of the Book of Mormon (not the least of which was the loss of 116 manuscript pages!). But that’s okay. The Book of Mormon is still a divine gift and a masterpiece and serves the function for which it was intended–to bring us closer to God.

4. Scriptures have their Share of Errors

Because prophets (and scribes and others) write scriptures, and these people are fallible, scriptures have mistakes. What? Don’t we learn that the scriptures are the word of God? Well, yes, they are the word of God in that they contain God’s message for us. But in general, the words in the scriptures were spoken and written by fallible men — often inspired, but still fallible. Some Christians believe the Bible to be inerrant. Mormons do not (or should not) believe the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or any other scripture to be inerrant. The Book of Mormon itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant (Mormon 8:17). Besides errors from their fallible original authors, scriptures accumulate errors as they are copied, translated, copied, and translated again, etc. Each step introduces accidental errors as well as unavoidable ambiguities and errors due to the impossibility of creating a perfect translation between very different languages. Meanings are often lost, and gained, in translation. Copyist errors (as well as intentional changes meant to correct previous errors) are also common. Biblical manuscripts often had glosses (notes written in margins to clarify the text), and these were sometimes inserted into the text itself by later copyists. Even though more akin to artistic license than error, sometimes Old Testament scriptures are adapted to new situations in both the Book of Mormon and New Testament.

The current edition of the Book of Mormon differs in many places from the printer’s manuscript, which in turn differs from the original manuscript, which in turn no doubt differs from the preceding iteration of text. But didn’t Joseph Smith teach that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth”? Yes, and in the next phrase he explained what he meant: “. . . and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Joseph Smith’s concern with correctness was with doctrine more than with grammar or historical detail. This was how he judged scripture. (It was also how he approached much of his “translation” of the Bible.) Scripture is written, not to be grammatically flawless or historically inerrant, but to bring us to God by explaining and illustrating correct doctrine. This means that all of the stories in scripture do not necessarily have to be factual in every detail–or in any detail, for that matter. They may be allegorical — in other words, fictional. Even in the stories in the Bible that are factual, the words that were historically spoken by the characters are, of course, not the same words that appear in our English Bibles. Different words were spoken because a different language was spoken. Also, there are usually phrases (idioms) that don’t translate word for word between languages. A translator must then choose between translating the words or conveying the general idea. Also, the original recorder of an event generally could not have known the exact words spoken by the participants, and would have had to try to reconstruct conversations based on his understanding of the circumstances. In the Book of Mormon, such reconstructions are sometimes preceded by “after this manner,” which means “along these lines.” Also, standards of journalism and authorship were much different in ancient times than they are today. This is all okay. Scriptures, like prophets, are not to be objects of our worship, but rather instruments that God uses to get our attention. Those instruments can fulfill their purpose without being infallible or inerrant. Only God is perfect, and we worship only him.

5. Some Things are Really Important

It is important to believe in the goodness of God–that he loves us with a greater love than we are capable of understanding, that he will not ask us do no anything that is not for our ultimate happiness, and that he working for our good. I received a strong spiritual witness of God’s goodness when I was a teenager. I had been reading and pondering the scriptures when suddenly my spiritual eyes were opened and I perceived the great love and concern God has for us. It was not a feeling so much as an understanding. The experience was soon a memory, but that memory has reverberated through my life to the present. It has helped sustain me in trials and has helped me sustain others.

It is important to believe in the power of Christ to save us. Faith in the atonement of Christ gives us hope to leave our ugly past behind and become new creatures. So much has been said of this that I have nothing new to add–not in any way to diminish the central importance of this belief.

It is important to believe in the divine purpose of scripture. This is not to say that the scriptures are inerrant — that every story is factual, that every quote is historical, or that every statement is true. It is rather to believe that the scriptures, even with their flaws (like people), are provided to us by God to bring us closer to him, and that they can do that if we let them.

It is important to believe in the role of a prophet. Prophets are not our exemplars — Christ alone rightfully has that title. Their purpose is to call to repentance, to warn of judgments to come, to reveal the word and will of God. In this they are not perfect, but they are the best we have.

6. The Church is Us

Some complain that “the Church” is deceiving us about how Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon, or “the Church” teaches such and such incorrect thing about Church history. We are “the Church.” Those who write the lesson manuals, approve the content of those manuals, and teach the lessons are people like you and me who learned Church history in Sunday school and from the books available to us. We pass on what we have learned, adding our own set of biases and misperceptions. There are no angels enforcing inerrancy in Church materials or teaching. There are plenty of errors, and we, as “the Church,” are the ones who need to correct the errors, not lose faith or get angry because of them.

More fascinating reading

Letter to a Doubter by Terryl Givens
Pied Beauty
Do You Think the Bible Contains Errors?
Interpolation (manuscripts)
Mormons Aim To Address Messy Parts Of Church History, Theology
Richard Bushman Interview

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