Lots of people would like outsiders to look at the Book of Mormon in serious ways. I’m excited to introduce Dr. Christopher Thomas. He teaches at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, and is a New Testament scholar. We’ll get acquainted with him and his book, “A Pentecostal Reads the Book of Mormon,” and find out why he decided to read the book in the first place.
Chris: I decided I wanted to kind of hear the story from the LDS side of the fence, not just my old mentor, John L. Smith, accurately named. So, I wound up taking what they used to call a home study course through BYU on Joseph Smith and the restoration. Ivan K. Barrett wrote the textbook and so it began with Smith’s early years–his birth, I think, and it went through the exodus across the Mississippi. I sometimes tell people, “You can see the taillights on the back of the wagons as they were crossing the Mississippi.” My seminary Professor, church history professor, used it as the basis of a directed study. So, I actually got three hours of graduate credit on LDS history through that experience. After that, I read various things that would come along. I read most Smith biographies. I read a biography of Brigham Young by Leonard Arrington. I wasn’t terribly impressed with it. He didn’t ask the questions that I had as I was reading along. Years later, I would repent for any bad feelings I had toward Arrington, because I learned that he was quite the historian and worked under duress, as it were.
Chris: But, I’d kind of put it on the shelf and John Turner, from George Mason [University,] he’s at George Mason now. He wrote what I consider a magnificent biography of Brigham Young. I managed to meet John and talk with him some. I had a sabbatic coming, I think it was when I was turning 60. I had a sabbatic coming and, I thought, “You know, I’m going to close the loop on this. I think I’m going to try to do a graduate level reading course on the Book of Mormon.” So, BYU wasn’t quite set up for that. I wound up doing it at Community of Christ, with a guy named Dale Luffman, who was an apostle, but had just written a book on the Book of Mormon. Somewhere between setting up the course, and making my way to Independence for a week, I knew what I what I was supposed to do, and that was to write a book. It started out as like 150-page short introduction and grew. I’m not very good at short things. But the trip to Independence was amazing. The printer’s manuscript was still there in those days. I had access to that.
GT: I think your book is actually longer than the Book of Mormon. Is that about right?
Chris: Well, I would like to say it’s more interesting.
Chris: It’s sort of a Reader’s Digest version in that section. I had a great experience there. They brought out various artifacts, Emma’s wedding band, Joseph’s Bible, a seer stone, which there were lots of fights over who’s got the real seer stone.
Are you excited to hear an outsider’s perspective of the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon is known for talking about lots of wars, eventually ending in the extermination of Nephites. But is the central message a pacifist message? Dr. Christopher Thomas teaches at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary and made a startling discovery. The story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies is in the exact center of the book. He says that is not a coincidence.
Chris: Now, there are bigger issues, like I was reading, Alma. I was reading the 1830 edition, not an original, but the replica or I wouldn’t be on Gospel Tangents. So, I’m reading along, and it’s the story of the anti-Nephi-Lehies.
Chris: Did I get that right?
GT: That’s right.
Chris 23:08 Anti-Nephi-Lehies. That is a really moving story about pacifism, right after their conversion, their deaths, etc., and all of the sort-of reactions. I’m in my study, at home, and I’m reading it and all of a sudden, I just noticed, “Man, this story looks like it’s in the middle of the book.” So, I did a page count in the 1830 edition, and it looked like it was. So, then I wrote a buddy at BYU and said, “Hey, has anybody ever counted the words in the Book of Mormon? ”
He said, “Chris, we count everything. Of course, we’ve counted the words in the Book of Mormon.”
I said, “Can you send me the data?” Man, that story’s just about dead in the middle of the book.
Now, a historical critic would say, “Oh, well, isn’t that an interesting coincidence,” but somebody’s paying attention to narrative, being in the dead center of the book, that’s theologically and literarily significant. So, in this book that’s got these real–I mean, it’s like, there’s so many wars. As a new reader, I’m reading them, and I’m thinking, “No, not another bloody war.”
Chris: You have this kind of subtext that subverts that dominant theme, not just the Alma stuff but you think about the words of Jesus. Then, you think about how that the anti-Nephi Lehies are kind of lifted up as models. I think it’s in 3rd Nephi and then in 4th Nephi, you’ve got the Golden Age, the 200 years, but you only get, I don’t know, what, about eight verses about it after all this.
Chris: Then, at the end, Mormon is just kind of worn out from war. He’s like, “Listen, don’t take up your swords against anybody unless God tells you.” So, I wanted to know what the lay of the land is. The difference, I would say, in a typical LDS knowledge of the Book of Mormon and my overview is, I tried to pay real attention to kind of the structural markers. A friend of mine at BYU was reading the book, and we would meet weekly over Skype, I think it was, and he would say to me, “I knew you were wrong about such and such. Then, I went back and read the text, but you were right, and it’s what I had been told this meant, that had kind of led me astray.”
GT: Oh, interesting.
Chris: One of my weaknesses is, I don’t know the tradition, and so I’m never sure if what I’m seeing is actually there. So, I wanted to do that, and then I wanted to look at kind of the theology of the book, not compared to the Bible, but what the theology of the Book of Mormon is.
Do you agree?
What do evangelical scholars think of Book of Mormon theology? We’ll find out when Dr. Chris Thomas gives the book a serious, scholarly treatment.
Chris: I was interested in what’s actually in the book. So, there are certain categories that you would expect. What does the book say about God, about Jesus, about the Spirit? There’s a lot about tongues in the Book of Mormon, which I saw, and I’m sure other people saw. They just didn’t say anything about it. Then, there’s some categories that you wouldn’t expect in a normal book of theology on the Bible, necessarily. I have a chapter on angels. I have a chapter on the theology of the plates. I have a chapter on ecclesiology, the studies of the church. You tend to have these two dominant churches, but there are even additional ones that come up in a careful reading of the book.
GT: You’re talking about the Church of God and the church of the devil?
Chris: Yes, and then other, even more nuanced kinds of references to church. Then, I do a little section on women, or the lack thereof. I do a little section on the theme of murmuring, which shows up a lot in the early part. All of those occurrences, except one, are negative occurrences. So, I say I try to let the text set the terms, right? I try to let the text say what’s important, not me telling the text what’s important. So, you get some distinctive things like, what’s often called the fortunate fall.
Chris: [I discuss] when Adam and Eve fall. But what also struck me about that was just how much there was on this, the devastating nature of the fall. It was not just all fortunate. So, I don’t want to necessarily say there’s tension. But there is a more kind of nuanced discussion of the fall. It’s like the nature of God, it looks pretty Trinitarian. But it’s got a little modalistic fuzziness around the edges, a lot like some Pentecostals I know. So, to me, it was like, well, having a grasp of the theological concepts that insider or outsider could look at and say, “Yeah, that’s right. You got it right there.” Obviously, with Jesus, he’s showing up all over the place before the incarnation, so that’s a biggie. But I got a little bit of help in terms of entering into that world. You know, you enter the into the world of the Book of Mormon, and it’s a little bit like science fiction. You have to suspend your disbelief, or you’re not going to experience it. If you watch science fiction, and if you’re always saying, “Well, that could never happen.” You’re done. So, what really got in my way, in reading the narrative was not that steel is there and horses are there or whatever, but, the fact that Jesus and all this New Testament stuff is so early, before he ever turns up, according to the Bible.
What are your thoughts on the fortunate fall of Adam & Eve, in relation to the rest of Christianity’s view of the fall? Do you agree that the Book of Mormon is trinitarian?