Sunday, June 7, 2009

“The Most Correct of ANY Book on Earth”?

In 1842, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat, who was asked by an acquaintance, George Barstow, for information about the Saints. Barstow was writing a history of New Hampshire and wanted to include information about the Mormons. In response, the Prophet sent Mr. Wentworth a very brief history including thirteen statements of belief, what we today know as the thirteen Articles of Faith.

The eighth article of faith states that “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." Since the phrase “as far as it is translated correctly” does not follow our statement of belief in the Book of Mormon, some critics of the Church charge that we believe the Book of Mormon to be perfect.

Do we believe that the Book of Mormon is inerrant? It is no secret that there have been numerous changes to the text of the Book of Mormon between the 1830 edition and modern LDS editions; almost four thousand changes according to the Tanners, Salt Lake City-based Mormon critics.

Sadly, many uninformed LDS do make the inerrancy assumption and back it up with a typically misconstrued passage in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon:

Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.’” (emphasis added)

The term “correct” in this instance, however, does not necessarily mean perfect. In fact, in 1841 when Joseph uttered these words, the word “correct” meant “set right, made straight,” or “conformable to truth, or conformable to a just standard.” In accordance with this definition, the Book of Mormon indeed is correct.

What is more, the book itself repeatedly feigns inerrancy. Moroni himself acknowledged that “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men” (Book of Mormon, Title Page; see also Mormon 8:17). Similarly, the Brief Explanation about the Book of Mormon includes the following statement:

About this edition: Some minor errors in the text have been perpetuated in past editions of the Book of Mormon. This edition contains corrections that seem appropriate to bring the material into conformity with prepublication manuscripts and early editions edited by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

[Now, be honest, did you know this statement was in the Book of Mormon before now? I actually just read that for the first time last week, and I deem myself fairly well-read in the scriptures.]

In other words, the same text-critical concerns that LDS have with the Bible certainly exist with the various Book of Mormon manuscripts. Scripture, including the Book of Mormon, is recorded by fallible men who can and do make mistakes. Therefore, the possibility of mistranslation or misinterpretation of Hebrew and Greek (or reformed Egyptian, for that matter) exists. Undoubtedly, however, the Book of Mormon is much less textually uncertain than the Bible as a result of the shorter and simpler transmission history. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone can authoritatively state that we believe either text is free from verbal inerrancy in their present form.

What is more, a closer reading of the Prophet’s statement reveals his stress on the “precepts” of the book, and therefore his inference to the correctness of the book’s doctrinal content, not the book itself. Read in this view, the Book of Mormon certainly is correct in the doctrines and principles it teaches, however, it does not claim to contain all truth. Although it may constitute “the most correct of any book on earth,” according to this interpretation, it unmistakably is not comprehensive in its truth.


FelixAndAva said...

There are two obvious comments here:
that anything involving human beings is by definition imperfect, and that since only about 1/3 of the Book of Mormon was translated (the unsealed portion) and part of that (the 116 pages) got lost, we know there's a lot that is not in the Book of Mormon as it presently stands, so of course it's comprehensive.

To me, the part about "most correct" has to do with preservation from transmission error, and Divine involvement in the translation process.

Matthew Chapman said...

I believe that Joseph Smith himself, in making the comment: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book." defines what he means by "correct":

"a man [may] get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."

Jeremy said...

FelixAndAva, thanks for stopping by. However, as I stated in the post, I don't believe we can attribute the term "correct" to the translation process, or the lexicography of the book, for there clearly have been several grammatical changes made. The book itself attests to its imperfectness.

Instead, I think Matthew Chapman is more along the lines of what I was trying to get across. It is the "precepts" in the book that are correct, and any man that wants to grow closer to God would do well to abide by said precepts.

Jared said...

What we need are more members with testimonies that the Book of Mormon does in fact provide the means to get close to God. I have put it to the test and by experience can testify it does. As a result of following the examples of the men who became prophets in the Book of Mormon I have have been the recipient of manifestations of the Spirit that can only come by the power of the Holy Ghost: dreams, visions, ministering of angel (unseen), promptings, comfort, discernment, and etc.

I'm concerned that so few members appear to be taking advantage of the power contained in the Book of Mormon, but instead are spending their time and energy "looking beyond the mark" by studying all kinds of subjects that contribute little to acquiring the gift of the Holy Ghost, and allowing those things that help us acquire the gift of the HG undone.

It would be interesting to conduct a well thought out and implemented poll to see how many in the Bloggernacle are experiencing the fruits of the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

Nibley's Since Cumorah addresses the 'correct-ness', and changes made to the Book of Mormon. Obviously calling it the most correct is talking specifically about the teachings and precepts within the book. Nibley is careful to point out that the original manuscript contained no punctuation, so it was merely an enormous run-on sentence. The printer was given generous leeway in the setting of the text (consider that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery lacked sufficient schooling to expect a perfected writing style). Since the printing, changes have only been made to make the text clearer-- never to change the meaning. Nibley defends each in this handful of changes, proving that the original meaning was preserved. I think it's also interesting that Nibley says he prefers first-edition versions to study (language errors and all).

A lot of that was rambling, but it's important to realize that the Book of Mormon is absolutely correct. Perhaps it falls short in temporal or intellectual terms, but it wasn't written to satiate the appetite of the mind.

Jeremy said...

Thanks, Anon. It's been a while since I have read Nibley's "Since Cumorah." Part of my thinking in this regard comes from his work.

Thanks for stopping by; valid points.