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?
Am I interested in an outsider’s view of the Book of Mormon? Sure. Much more interested in that than, say, a BYU religion professor’s.
I’m honestly shocked a Pentecostal professor would take the Book of Mormon seriously as a religious text (on an ahistorical basis of course). I know there have been hopes for such work to be done on the Book of Mormon by those outside the Mormon community so it’s interesting to see it happening.
Yes, the Book of Mormon is absolutely trinitarian. It’s as plain as day.
Really interesting read and take on the Book of Mormon. He’s spot on about the theology. Trinitarianism with a hint of modalism. The emphasis of Jesus and God being separate personages and not one in substance came after the Book of Mormon.
What I think is interesting is how he is most interested in theology. Theology, after all, is of primary interest to Protestants. Lacking human authority in their church structures, they treat the Bible as solely divinely authoritative. For them, theology, philosophical engagement of the Bible to justify past interpretations done by important figures in their history such as Calvin, is paramount. By contrast, Mormons do not care about theology. They treat Joseph Smith and his successors as the authorities and pay more heed to what they say than the scriptures. Mormons do a fair amount of prooftexting (taking scriptural passages out of context to justify their teachings) to tie authoritative teachings to scripture, but completely shrug off theology. God and Jesus are separate not because of deep reasoning with the Bible, but because Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders said so. In the larger culture, Mormons mostly do not know or understand the Bible (except for the gospels). For Mormons, Paul ranks fairly low. For Protestants, Paul is a leading figure. Mormon culture talks about and quotes Book of Mormon stories more than Bible stories.
I have to agree that most members of the church are not very familiar with the Bible. I’d bet that most have read only a few verses of the OT, and have never read the NT clear through. It is interesting to hear what someone who has read all of the Bible thinks of the BOM.
There was a MormonLand podcast interview recently with a bishop from CoC (higher ranking than one of our bishops), and she said that the Community of Christ is trinitarian, although she struggled to explain the difference between the Godhead and the Trinity, as I think we all do. Since they also use the Book of Mormon, I thought that was an interesting point. Growing up I remember being taught that Trinitarians were bad and foolish and didn’t “get it,” but we “got it” because we had the Godhead which was nothing like the Trinity, but sounded exactly like the Trinity. I still don’t really know what the difference is between them, or why it matters.
FYI, “o felix culpa” is a discussion that has been used in the Catholic church as early as Augustin and probably earlier. It was a theological issue for the Reformers as well. It would be interesting to know, in condensed form (leaving out it came to pass, etc) what precisely the religion of the Native American Israelites was. In other words, what they did on any given Sunday, what they did during the week, and how their rituals were performed.
I highly recommend Richard Rohr’s book, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” (Whitaker House, 2016), which I’ve been reading along with Diana Butler Bass’s latest book, “Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence” (HarperOne, 2021).
It’s interesting and fortunate that it was CofC Apostle Dale Luffman that Dr. Thomas contacted. Not only did he write that book on BofM theology (“The Book of Mormon’s Witness to Its First Readers”) but he served initially as CofC representative when the church joined the U.S. National Council of Churches a couple decades ago. They were especially interested in how the church valued and used the BofM as well as just how trinitarian the church was. Apparently, the NCC was satisfied as the CofC is a full member now. Sadly, Dale, who had a doctorate in theology from Princeton, died in early 2020 after a bout with throat cancer.
For me, the best part of this interview BY FAR is when Dr. Thomas indicates that he was able to extract something beneficial, interesting, or even doctrinally sound from the BoM through reading it “a little bit like science fiction. You have to suspend your disbelief, or you’re not going to experience it.” This is EXACTLY how I choose to read it (or teach from it) these days, and the only way in which I gain anything productive. Let go of the historicity pursuits and inerrant doctrinal declarations, bring on motifs and metaphorical truths.
I would be very interested in a non-LDS take on the BoM. agree with many of the comments about re: it being trinitarian (whatever that means).
re: the fortunate fall, I’m curious about his take on that. When I’ve tried to talk to my evangelical friends about the “fortunate fall” / Eve being a heroine, they’ve thought I was absolutely insane & were not buying it at all.
Something your comment about the “fortunate fall” made me remember. On my mission to England in the 90s, I gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting and referenced the Fall, and quite confidently stated that Eve contemplated and comprehended the consequences in either partaking of the fruit (bringing about God’s ultimate purposes), or refusing to do so and frustrating “the plan.” I painted her in a positive light and gave credit for her persuasion of Adam to do the same.
I was approached after the meeting by a member who was a bit concerned why I would give her that credit (as opposed to simply being deceived I guess) and my source for doing so. Being relatively fresh out of the MTC, I asked if he had been to the temple and suggested that you could not interpret the temple narrative any other way. He had no come-back, and didn’t attempt to challenge me scripturally. But I guess there are some even within the church who do not see her role as “heroic” or do not believe the temple narrative to be superior to the bible version.
@counselor in fairness even our doctrine on that is contradictory – Eve was heroic and brave but she was also punished and therefore has to obey her husband, and there’ve been plenty of negative things said about her, etc – but at least we have a viable positive interpretation even if there is definitely still some misogyny there.
But really, I tried to sell my evangelical friends on it because I love Eve as a wisdom teacher / guide and they were like uh uh no way. Now, they think Adam was equally culpable and it’s not fair to give her all the blame but they don’t think there’s anything good about the fall. I do think that’s a beautiful spin on the story we’ve got.
100% agree, and as with most issues involving comparison/purpose of gender in the church, there are more questions than answers.
And I failed to explain how at that time of my life, I took the temple to be higher/more reliable than scripture based on how the ceremony and related things were explained to me by trusted people. To be clear, I now do NOT believe that to be the case at all, and giggle/shudder recollecting my missionary self spewing forth reason and wisdom so confidently.