The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.
Scholarship and the Book of Mormon
Mark D. Thomas
[p.63]Although different in some ways, the Book of Mormon shares certain features with other religious and secular works. Its historical setting necessarily influenced its writing; its text has developed; and it contains nouns, verbs, symbols, and a wide variety of literary forms open to interpretation. For these reasons, many, if not most, of the principles used to interpret the Book of Mormon should be no different from those used to interpret any book. And biblical scholarship during the past two centuries has clearly shown how basic interpretive principles can greatly enrich our understanding of and appreciation for sacred texts.
Given the enormous cultural and linguistic differences which stand between the text of the Book of Mormon and current twentieth-century readers, misinterpretation and misunderstanding are bound to occur. The very plainness with which the Book of Mormon wishes to address us becomes a stumbling block in an age that values ambiguity and subtlety. As literary critic Wayne Booth has said, “We have looked so long at foggy landscapes reflected in misty mirrors that we come to like fog.”1 For the Book of Mormon everything is either black or white. For us, nothing is strictly black or white. This is just one example of the gulf separating the Book of Mormon from our age. It is the role of scholarship to detect these hidden meanings and assumptions and let the estranged parties communicate. And with literary and biblical scholarship as models, the effort will be worth it.
[p.64]The world view reflected in the Book of Mormon is fundamentally different from the world view held by most of its current readers. When scholarship can help us see that “foreign” world view, it will challenge our unnoticed assumptions about life. If we let it, scholarship can help us listen to the Book of Mormon for the first time in its own “language.” For in the Book of Mormon we are not dealing with a work that only broadens our view or charms our sense of the aesthetic. No, we are dealing with a work of encyclopedic form, a work of bombastic aspiration and revolutionary intent. It portrays itself as the spiritual answer, the instigator of a latter-day reformation which will convert Jew and Indian and warn Gentile from apocalyptic catastrophe. Even today, we hear stories of people losing sleep and missing meals while the book works its visionary wonders. Yet these readers sometimes misinterpret the intent of certain passages. For these reasons, the future of the Book of Mormon lies, to a degree, in the future of scholarship. Let us then examine past scholarly approaches to the Book of Mormon and explore where future scholarship may lead us.
Before we can ever think of interpreting a work, we must first obtain the best possible text. Any student of the parables of Jesus must be first and foremost a textual critic of the New Testament. Anyone seriously interested in understanding the dialogues of Plato must be thoroughly aware of their textual history before he or she may begin.
Most research on the Book of Mormon text focuses on the early nineteenth-century manuscripts. There are still important textual issues which need to be addressed, but we can arrive at a fairly good text.2 The first set of textual problems came about as scribes transcribed what Joseph Smith spoke in the formulation of the original dictated manuscript. Later Oliver Cowdery copied the entire original manuscript to produce a second manuscript which the printer used in setting the type of the 1830 edition. When Cowdery made this second, or printer’s, copy, he corrected some grammatical errors, made some copying errors of his own, and in a few instances actually changed or added words to clarify meaning.
An example of a problem caused by Cowdery’s miscopying can be seen in the story of Korihor (LDS Al. 30; RLDS Al. 16). Korihor is struck dumb and makes his confession. He says that he knows that only the power of God could have caused this curse: “yea [p.65] & I always Knew that there was a God” (original manuscript). In copying this statement, Cowdery mistakenly wrote “also” in the place of “always.” This change gives the impression that Korihor once knew that there was a God but ceased believing in him. But the original manuscript helps us understand that Korihor was deliberately deceiving people. This particular error was not corrected in LDS editions until 1981.
Neither the original manuscript nor the printer’s copy was punctuated. Punctuation and paragraphing were added by the original printer. Joseph Smith made changes in the 1837 and 1840 editions to correct mistakes and, in some instances, to expand or clarify a thought. Other less significant changes have been made in subsequent editions. But only a handful of these changes have doctrinal significance.
By tracing the history of the text, we discover two basic types of changes. The first type can be called “static” change. These changes include accidental scribal mistakes, printer’s errors, corrections of bad grammar, and modifications that clarify original authorial intent. The copy error in the Korihor story is an example. The majority of textual changes are of this first type.
The second type or “prophetic” change allows the text to be modified to reflect expanding theological insight. It is interesting to note that a similar interpretive method shaped early Christian texts.3 One example can be found in 1 Nephi 15:35 (RLDS 1 Ne. 4:6). Both handwritten texts and the 1830 edition state that Satan is the “preparator” of hell. In reworking the text for the 1837 edition, however, Joseph Smith first changed “preparator” to “father” in the manuscript. He then crossed out “father” and wrote “foundation.” “Foundation” is a word which implies a more permanent and powerful relationship between evil and Satan. Another example can be found in 1 Nephi 13:40 (RLDS 1 Ne. 3:193). In 1837 the phrase “the lamb of God is the eternal father” was expanded to read “the lamb of God is the son of the eternal Father.” Also in 1837 the trinitarian formula “mother of God” in Nephi’s vision was changed to “mother of the son of God.” (We will examine this change in greater detail later.) Early Mormon doctrine tended to reflect a form of trinitarianism.4 But by the mid-1830s the church had come to believe that God and Jesus Christ were separate beings. These 1837 alterations reflect the changing theology.
[p.66]This prophetic spirit was, to adopt RLDS church historian Richard Howard’s language, “editorially formulated with no particular reference to any … revelatory experience.”5 The transmission of Mormon church history and the development of the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations, reveal this same prophetic tendency. The conflict between static and prophetic texts is caused by a fundamental tension in Mormonism. The early church believed that the gospel was a static fullness and that new revelation merely stacked revelatory blocks on past blocks (either teaching new principles or delivering specific instructions). That is how revelation was perceived. But the revelations were in fact “organic”—doctrines changed as new revelation came. It is this tension between the perceived and actual nature of early church revelation that caused this textual conflict. This tension still exists in the Mormon churches today.
These two types of change, the static and the prophetic, reveal the basic elements of interpretive theory. One is an attempt at an objective text; the other is an attempt to make the text pertinent to the present. Both of these elements are necessary for a complete interpretation.
Once we establish the text to be interpreted, the next step is to reach a historical understanding of the text. Of course there is no consensus as to when the Book of Mormon was actually written. Because of this, almost all historical investigations into the book have been apologetic—that is, defending either the ancient or modern origins of the book. Apologetics has its place but not at the exclusion of interpretation. Every text can to a greater or lesser degree be better understood with a knowledge of the original historical language, setting, and author. It is tempting to avoid the question of the origin of the Book of Mormon in order to address both Mormons and non-Mormons. And in certain approaches this is possible. There are passages that are more or less self-contained literary units not needing historical interpretive aids. Or one can appeal to the audience instead of the author as the focal point of interpretation. However, the question of origin cannot ultimately be ignored because the functions and meanings of Book of Mormon passages are intimately connected to history. A summary of past historical investigations will help us see some future interpretive possibilities.
The quality of research varies in works dealing with American archeology and the Book of Mormon. Generally such research reveals more wishful thinking than accurate knowledge. This, unfortunately, has made it difficult for more precise Mormon scholarship to gain an audience. Personally, I do not believe that the approach from American archeology will provide significant results for two reasons: first, because of lack of material. The Book of Mormon provides an approximate idea of the relative position of many of its cities, the narrow neck of land, and other physical landmarks. But no archeologist has been able to locate a single Nephite text or city. We cannot even locate with certainty the approximate areas of the Nephite or Lamanite civilizations. Despite valiant attempts, we know nothing of the Nephites except what is provided in the Book of Mormon. The geographic approach, therefore, has concentrated its efforts on civilizations that postdate the Book of Mormon in hopes of finding Nephite or Lamanite antecedents. Because of the lack of historical data, this approach is only used apologetically.
This leads to the second major difficulty of the historical approach: much of the material used to show Nephite or Lamanite influence in ancient America was available to Joseph Smith. Thus even the apologetic value is weak. An example is the legend of the appearance of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was a fair-skinned, bearded god of the Mayan religion. Mormons often see this story as a corrupted form of Jesus Christ’s visit to America. A number of Mormon authors have used this legend to prove the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon. But it is never mentioned that the story of Quetzalcoatl was readily available to Joseph Smith.6 In short, this geographic approach to the Book of Mormon provides no interpretive aids and only weak apologetic material.
The Near Eastern approach recognizes the difficulty with Nephite archeology and attempts to place the Nephite scripture in its old world setting. It has been used for both interpretive and apologetic purposes. Many Mormon writers use this approach because they believe the nations in the Book of Mormon came from the Near East. Certainly the Book of Mormon does not appear on the surface to be in the tradition of nineteenth-century literature. Its closest relative would seem to be a product of the Near East: the Christian Bible. If I had to choose one phrase to describe the Book of Mormon, I would call it “The American Bible.” The form of the book [p.68] as a whole and many of its smaller literary units are based on biblical forms of literature. Throughout the Book of Mormon are hundreds of biblical quotes and allusions presented in a biblical style.7
The Book of Mormon came both to interpret the Bible and to defend it. Most of these biblical phrases—such as “it came to pass” and “verily, verily I say unto you”—have no special interpretative significance and can be traced to no particular biblical passage. Some biblical passages can be located more precisely such as “the judgment seat of Christ” found in Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10, and on the title page of the Book of Mormon. On the whole, such phrases simply represent the holy language Of Israel in which the King James Bible was written. Their main function is to provide biblical verisimilitude and hence credibility to the text. They also present an aura of holiness by association.
There are, however, other parallels that interpret a biblical passage or proof text of a particular doctrine by referring back to the biblical passage. The interpretation may come by a change in the wording in the biblical text, by an explicit interpretation following the quotation, or by a simple allusion that adds insight or depth to the text. I refer to these as “interpretive biblical parallels.” Other sections of the Book of Mormon take related biblical images and phrases and combine them into a coherent literary meditation. For example, Jacob 4 weaves a discussion of Jesus Christ around various similar biblical images—a stone, a stumbling block, the head of a corner, the foundation.
A third kind of parallel between the Bible and the Book of Mormon is structural. The Book of Mormon uses various literary forms, events, motifs, and character types, mirroring biblical events for some reason. It universalizes some events so that they hold meaning for its latter-day audience. For example, the conversion of Paul in the Bible and of Alma in the Book of Mormon are similar. The Book of Mormon, like evangelicals in the nineteenth century, sees in the conversion of Paul a model for conversion in all ages. At the end of his conversion, Alma universalizes his experience as an essential step toward salvation. So Book of Mormon events and characters can serve as an interpretive bridge between the Bible and the latter-day audience.
Mormons and non-Mormons alike have agreed that the Book of Mormon quotes verbatim or nearly verbatim from the King James [p.69] Bible. Many of the Book of Mormon’s changes in text correspond to ancient textual variations published in nineteenth-century biblical commentaries. The changes in the biblical texts quoted in the Book of Mormon are either paraphrases or intentional modifications meant to display a better text.
Many of those who believe that the Book of Mormon is modern will want to reduce the Near Eastern approach to a biblical approach. But a simple skimming of the Bible as a source book for Joseph Smith will prove inadequate; the Book of Mormon absorbed more from the Bible than is obvious. Mormon scholars have purposely sought Near Eastern elements in the Book of Mormon which cannot be traced to the Bible in order to prove that the Book of Mormon is ancient. But I believe the important interpretive aids must be sought through the Bible itself, because it is the Book of Mormon’s predecessor or “literary parent.”
Let us take an example of how a biblical quote can help interpret a Book of Mormon passage: “Wherefore, he said unto Eve, yea, even that old serpent, who is the devil, who is the father of all lies, wherefore he said: Partake of the forbidden fruit, and ye shall not die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good from evil.” This passage from 2 Nephi 2:18 (RLDS 2 Ne. 1:104) is clearly taken from Genesis 3:4-5. The Book of Mormon explicitly interprets the serpent as the devil (using phrases from Rev. 20:2 and John 8:44). Also the phrase “ye shall be as gods” has been changed to “ye shall be as God.” For the Book of Mormon, there is only one God. This doctrine is summarized in Alma 11: “Now Zeezrom said: Is there more than one God? And he [Amulek] answered, No” (LDS vv. 28-29; RLDS Al. 8:81-82). “Gods” in Genesis 3 was probably seen as a textual corruption and corrected in 2 Nephi. Thus the subtle differences in the wording between 2 Nephi and Genesis can lead to deeper understanding of the Book of Mormon. This example illustrates one aspect of the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon.8
Non-Mormons have been exploring the nineteenth-century roots of the Book of Mormon since its publication. Even the best works using this approach are almost totally concerned with proofs of when the book originated. There has been relative little interpretive effort.
A simple use of this method reduces the Book of Mormon [p.70] into a rubber stamp of its age. The Book of Mormon has been called a “sponge” and a “mirror” of the nineteenth century. Alexander Campbell stated that it discussed every issue current in early nineteenth-century New York.9 Although reducing any work only to its historical setting distorts it, such distortions of the Book of Mormon contain some truth. Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and others clearly address a nineteenth-century audience. Thus we find nineteenth-century theological issues in the book; also style and word usage combine the English of the King James Bible and nineteenth-century American English. Certain words and phrases can only be adequately understood in the theological and historical setting of Joseph Smith’s age.
One example of this can be found in Mormon 8:31 (RLDS Morm. 4:38): “Yea, it [the Book of Mormon] shall come in a day when there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth.” I have heard this verse used a number of times to prove the prophetic value of the Book of Mormon. The speakers have pointed to the great environmental pollution as the fulfillment of this prophecy. But the word “pollution” in Joseph Smith’s day never referred to a physical pollution, only to moral corruption or sin. It is clear from its context that Mormon 8 is using the term “pollution” in the nineteenth-century sense.
Another example can be found on the title page to the Book of Mormon which states that one of the book’s purposes is to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God. Protestants since Luther and Calvin have often seen scripture functioning as a revelation of Jesus Christ and his salvation. This is called an incarnational theory of scripture. Many Protestants from a wide variety of churches employed typologies and other spiritual interpretations of biblical texts in such a way as to understand Jesus as the central hidden meaning. Such a christocentric view of scripture in Protestantism was quite common. There is no fully developed incarnational theory of scripture in the Book of Mormon, but in the Book of Mormon scripture is seen as similar to the manifestation of God through Christ (LDS 1 Ne. 19; RLDS 1 Ne. 5:218-6:7).
What does the title page to the Book of Mormon mean when it states that it has come to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God? We can understand that best in the context of the trinitarian debates of the early nineteenth century.
[p.71]The word “Christ” in the Book of Mormon is frequently used simply as part of the name of Jesus-“Jesus Christ.” But to state that Jesus is the Christ on the title page is to say that he is the savior of the world. To say that Jesus is the Eternal God is to take a stand on the trinitarian debates occurring when the book appeared.
After the British Restoration (1660), a number of heresies arose, including Arianism and Socianianism. Arians believed that Jesus was separate from and less than the supreme God, yet in some sense he was divine. Socinianism taught that Jesus was a mere human with a special mission from God. Unitarianism included both of these views. The Unitarian tradition in Great Britain included such notables as John Locke and Isaac Newton. Prior to the American Revolution there were few Unitarians in America. By the early nineteenth century the Unitarian threat was widespread. In 1803 a Baptist church was denied association with its sister churches due to its Unitarian teachings.10
A host of primitivists jumped on the Unitarian band wagon including followers of the O’Kelly offshoot from Methodism, New Light Presbyterians, and Millard’s Christian churches in western New York. But the real leadership came from liberal Congregationalists such as Channing, Norton, and Buckminister. In 1825 these liberals formally organized the Unitarian church. The Unitarian view was opposed to trinitarianism, the more orthodox view of God. There were a great variety of trinitarian notions in the early nineteenth century. The various trinitarians generally agreed that God was one essence manifested in three persons and that Jesus Christ was a union of God and man (“very God and very man,” according to traditional creeds). Unitarians claimed that the trinitarian view was unscriptural and irrational. They believed that Jesus had a single, rather than a dual nature, and that he was separate from God.
Both sides saw God as transcendent, a being beyond limits. In contrast to God was the creation, which was finite. There were several ways of referring to God or titles of God that indicated his transcendent nature—”Omniscient,” “the Infinite God,” and the “Eternal God.” The title page of the Book of Mormon calls Jesus Christ the Eternal God. The Eternity of God refers to the fact that he exists above time. He was not born nor will he die. He exists from eternity to eternity.
[p.72]One of the central issues between Unitarians and trinitarians was whether Jesus was God or a separate being. The point is made clearest when we refer to Jesus as the “Eternal God” or “Supreme God” (some Unitarians believed Jesus was divine in some sense, but not the transcendent God). George Peck reports a debate in a Methodist district in which the Joseph Smith, Sr., family lived where a Baptist contended that “Christ was not the eternal God, but the eternal Son of God.” Trinitarians such as Timothy Dwight, William Phoebus, and Moses Stuart cited John 1:1 as evidence that Jesus was the Eternal God since he was in the beginning with God. (Their arguments date back to at least Elizabethean England.) The Unitarian, Andrews Norton, responded by saying that John 1 refers to the logos (word) as the power of God and not to Jesus himself.11 It was typical among trinitarians to use other scriptures as well to prove the eternity of Christ. In a sermon by the biblical commentator Thomas Scott, republished in America in 1817, we find a typical summary of the proofs of Jesus as the eternal God. He summarizes his arguments by stating that we cannot “affix any meaning to the words as they stand [in scripture] unless we allow him [Jesus Christ] to be the eternal God.”
The Book of Mormon uses the notion of Eternal God in a trinitarian sense. This is clear because it uses other Trinitarian formulas, theological discussions, and concepts throughout. The Book of Mormon uses eternity as applied to God to mean above time or without beginning and without end.12 It contrasts the “eternal and infinite” nature of God with finite human nature (LDS Mos. 3:5; RLDS Mos. 1:97; LDS Moro. 8:18; RLDS Moro. 8:19). 2 Nephi 26:12 (RLDS 2 Ne. 11:78) states that the intention of the book is to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Christ and the Gentiles that this is the Eternal God himself. In short, the book wishes to heal the Jews of their disbelief and the Gentiles of both their disbelief and Unitarian heresies. In 1 Nephi 11:21, 32, and 13:40 (RLDS 1 Ne. 3:62, 86, 193), the Lamb of God is called the “Eternal Father,” or “everlasting God” in the original and printer’s manuscripts and in the 1830 edition. By 1837 Mormon theology had changed from a trinitarian view, teaching that God and Jesus were separate beings. So the 1837 edition was modified in these verses and “the son of” was inserted. Thus 1 Nephi 13:40 (RLDS 1 Ne. 3:193) reported that “the lamb of God is the son of the eternal Father.” The Book of Mormon uses other common [p.73] trinitarian formulas, such as referring to Jesus as “very God” and to Mary as the “mother of God.”
The phrase “mother of God” derives from the Alexandrian Christology, in the early centuries of the Christian church. This emphasized the divine nature of Jesus rather than the human. The logos entered Mary’s womb and directed his development even from the start. The Antiochean school opposed the notion of theotokos (mother of God). The Council of Chalcedon reached a compromise on its trinitarian thought in which the phrase was retained.
The Creed of Chalcedon was an influential trinitarian creed familiar in early nineteenth-century writings. The body of the Chalcedon Creed expressed the paradox of Christ—”very God” and also “very man”; born of Mary (the “mother of God”) but according to manhood. In the Book of Mormon the divine side of the trinitarian formulas is used and the expression of Christ as human is dropped, because it is the express mission of the Book of Mormon to defend the belief in Christ as God.
Another example of a nineteenth-century phrase in the Book of Mormon can be seen in the sacramental prayer in Moroni 4: those who partake of the bread signify that “they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son [Christ]” (LDS v. 3: RLDS Moro. 4:4). In the Book of Mormon we see frequent references to the “name of Christ” (believe on his name, worship in his name, pray in his name, and do miracles in his name). These phrases have biblical antecedents.13
But the phrase “take the name of Christ upon you” is not biblical and must be understood in the nineteenth-century context. To understand the phrase, we must first examine the primitivist movement in Joseph Smith’s time.14 The primitivist movement started in America after the Revolution. It was, in part, a reaction to sectarian conflict, and it affected thousands of Americans in the early nineteenth century. These various primitivist movements and churches believed that the existing churches were corrupt, having departed from primitive Christianity. A number of these groups believed that the only proper biblical appellation for the church and the true believer was simply “Christian.” For primitivists in Joseph Smith’s area, to “take upon you the name of Christ” meant to take upon you the designation “Christian” or “Christ.”15 Recent research indicates that the phrase “take the name of Christ upon you” was [p.74] common among Protestants of all sorts in the nineteenth century. It appears to be based on a dubious interpretation of passages in Acts. Primitivists (along with the Book of Mormon) took the admonition to “take the name of Christ upon you” more literally than other Protestants.
As with primitivists, the Book of Mormon uses this phrase for the name of the true church and as a designation for individuals: “all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come” (LDS Al. 46:15; RLDS Al. 21:45).16 But in the Book of Mormon, this title signifies more than a name. It is unclear whether taking the name of Christ comes as prerequisite to baptism or through baptism itself (LDS Moro. 6:2-4; LDS 2 Ne. 31:13; LDS Mos. 25:23; RLDS Moro. 6:2-5; RLDS 2 Ne. 13:16-17; RLDS Mos. 11:103), but it is accompanied by covenants of obedience and spiritual rebirth (ibid.; also LDS Mos. 5:1-6:3; RLDS Mos. 3:1-4:4). It signifies that Christ is close to the intentions and thoughts of one’s heart (LDS Mos. 5:1-6:3, esp. v. 13; RLDS Mos. 3:1-4:4, esp. v. 17), and implies a certain relationship between the individual and Christ. For both the church and the individual, it signifies possession by Christ. The “name” is only blotted out of one’s heart through transgression (LDS Mos. 1:12, 5:11; RLDS Mos. 1:18, 3:14). The taking of Christ’s name by the church implies that it teaches his doctrine (LDS 3 Ne. 27:1-9; RLDS 3 Ne. 12:14-21). So we can see why “there is no other name whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ” (LDS Mos. 5:8; RLDS Mos. 3:10-11). These are only a few of the many instances when nineteenth-century usage is helpful in interpreting the Book of Mormon.
In discussing historical criticism, we have seen how the Book of Mormon relies on earlier historical sources and creatively molds each of them in a different way. We are entering the beginning of an era of interpretive historical criticism in Book of Mormon research. This approach will examine all of these inherited sources and demonstrate how the Book of Mormon shapes them for its own purposes.
The newest interpretative discipline to approach the Book of Mormon is literary criticism. Religion and literature are intimate companions. As one literary critic put it, “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”17 Images, myths, and sym-[p.75]bols are the very substance of the spiritual life.18 It is impossible to fully understand the message of the Book of Mormon without understanding literary criticism. The literary critic is in an ideal position to teach us the subtlety and variety of language in the Book of Mormon.
The importance of literary criticism can be seen in the interpretation of Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision. Lehi’s dream is a spiritual map which contains a cluster of symbols. Nephi’s vision follows this dream. In Nephi’s vision, an angel interprets or transforms the cluster of symbols into historical allegory; the symbols are transformed into signs of historical events. Signs function quite differently from symbols, and Nephi’s vision in certain respects modifies Lehi’s dream. There is a strong moral dualism in both the dream and vision; there are only two roads, two destinations, and only two churches. In Lehi’s dream, the building is a symbol of evil or “the world.” But in Nephi’s vision the building represents all false religion.19 In 1 Nephi 15 (RLDS 1 Ne. 4) Nephi tells his brothers that the dream has two levels of meaning: a “spiritual” level and a “temporal” level. This is a typical nineteenth-century interpretive methodology. The temporal or literal meaning of Lehi’s dream is a series of historical events. The spiritual meaning is a series of symbols representing interior spiritual life.
This is an example of the first task of literary criticism—defining literary units and understanding their function. There is a wide variety of literary units in the Bible—from letter to dramatic monologue. And each one functions differently. We see examples all around us that may help us understand the importance of literary form. For instance, if I were to see a story which begins, “Once upon a time” and ends “They lived happily ever after,” I should not attempt to criticize the story for its absurdity. In fact, I would expect it to be ahistorical. If I were to see another written document which begins, “Our Father in Heaven” and ends “Amen,” I would have to conclude that its language is being used in a fundamentally different manner from that of the former document.
We cannot ignore literary forms in the Book of Mormon because form and message are inseparable. In fact, knowing the form will help us discover the message. Form criticism must be based on historical criticism because forms are historically conditioned. Even prophets speak in the language they inherit.
[p.76]Once these individual units are interpreted, we will be in a better position to interpret the entire work. The literary-historical interpretation of individual units will lay the groundwork for a number of other approaches, for example, a broad theological approach. Since the Book of Mormon is such an ambitious work (it speaks on everything from political economy to infant baptism), nothing less than a theological overview will be able to grasp its broad messages. Most theological attempts to date have twisted the Book of Mormon to match a preconceived theology.20
We have seen how the literary approach can be used to interpret historically conditioned forms. Every work to some degree is a prisoner of its historical setting. But there is a second task for literary criticism. Symbolic and religious language often contain hidden elements which transcend historical setting. A strictly historical approach to the Book of Mormon can make it look strange from a modern point of view. So the literary critic asks us to understand ourselves anew in the presence of a historical text. The literary critic can help us not only understand the original meaning of sacred language but also restore its significance to a world where nothing is significant and everything is relative. This cultural difference between the Book of Mormon and our age is large and there are two temptations to be avoided. We must avoid being too proud to let the Book of Mormon challenge our modern presumptions and beware of being too gullible to let modern presumptions challenge the Book of Mormon. If we avoid these, the dialogue will be a challenging dialogue of fundamental questions between the reader and the Book of Mormon. That dialogue must rest upon and be the driving inspiration for sound scholarship.
Book of Mormon scholarship of the future will be different from that of the past. Its apologetic past has made it a defense of faith. But its interpretive nature in the future will give it power to mold and modify faith. I personally hope that Book of Mormon scholarship can mold a purer faith and a nobler Mormonism. I believe that a spiritual trek is at hand for Mormonism and that the scholar’s word will be one of those guiding the church’s future. Any Book of Mormon scholarship giving direction to this journey will have to be an eclectic scholarship, combining textual, historical, and literary criticisms.
Mark D. Thomas, an assistant vice-president at Seafirst Bank, Seattle, Washington, studied the New Testament at Northwestern University. “Scholarship and the Book of Mormon” first appeared in Sunstone 5 (May/June 1980): 24-29 as “Scholarship and the Future of the Book of Mormon.”