A BYU Studies issue late last year (Volume 60:3) was devoted to the topic of open questions in Latter-day Saint theology. It’s not behind a paywall. Follow the link and you can read the whole issue. There is an introduction by Eric Eliason and Terryl Givens, editors of this issue, plus twenty short essays by a variety of LDS authors. As you would expect from a BYU publication, the essays treat controversial issues rather delicately at times, and it’s hard to read some of them without an eyeroll or two. Still, many readers will find the discussions quite interesting, partly for the content itself and partly as an indication of just how far an LDS scholar operating under the umbrella of the official Church and BYU can go in addressing tough issues. These are the sort of discussions that ought to be included or at least reflected in the LDS curriculum, which seems to get worse with every cycle. You’d think with a hundred billion sitting in the bank, they could cut a few checks for twenty grand (as a summer research stipend) to a handful of LDS scholars and say, “Get together at BYU this summer and write us a couple of good manuals.” Heck, some of them would do it for free. I would do it for free.
Anyway, I will discuss a few of the more interesting essays in the paragraphs below. You can go read the full table of contents. Readers with particular interests might add a paragraph or two about some of the essays I don’t get to.
“Introduction,” by Eric A. Eliason and Terryl L. Givens. Reading the essay, it feels like they are stepping gingerly through the minefield of Mormon orthodoxy, careful not to say anything that would generate a phone call from someone at the COB. But they deserve credit for addressing head-on in this issue some “open questions” (what others might call controversial issues) in LDS theology. Here is a paragraph referencing one land mine they are going to avoid:
Our focus is on ideas about which mainly, or even exclusively, Latter-day Saints might entertain multiple views. This is also not a collection of Latter-day heresies. So, “the Book of Mormon is fiction that took place nowhere” versus “it recounts events that happened in the past somewhere” are not opposing views we will consider. Some may believe the first proposition, but it has not been, and is not now, what William James would call a metaphysical “live option” within the framework of restored gospel orthodoxy.
Here is an interesting paragraph explaining what might be termed “the shrinking of Mormon doctrine” over the years. I’m inclined to think this is, in fact, a positive development.
In the past, the term “Mormon doctrine” might have been used quite expansively to refer to a vast corpus of varied ideas espoused by Latter-day Saints over many years—much of it speculative and beyond the scope of today’s official teaching. More recently, as our lead essay shows, Church leaders, acting in their divinely ordained role of defining and promoting doctrine, have made a concerted effort to more precisely reserve the term “doctrine” for the core beliefs and principles of the restored gospel. This does not necessarily mean ideas once imprecisely called “doctrine” are no longer true. It just means they are more open for discussion from various perspectives.
If that topic interests you, go read the first essay, “Oh Say What Is Truth: Approaches to Doctrine,” by Michael Goodman. It’s really about approaches to Mormon doctrine, but you can’t call it that anymore.
“Is God Subject to or the Creator of Eternal Law?” by James M. McLachlan. This essay isn’t discussing a hot button issue, but it’s the most theological of the essays. The orthodox Christian position is that God is omnipotent and created all things (the whole universe) ex nihilo, therefore God transcends and, in some sense or another, controls all things. The LDS position leans toward the idea that some laws or principles of the Universe somehow stand independent of and outside of God, with God existing in time and space, to some degree subject to or operating within the limits of those independent laws or principles (not transcending them) and working His marvels in conjunction with or by accessing the power of those laws and principles. McLachlan provides a straightforward and enlightening summary of the general theological question and the particular Mormon discussions of it in LDS scripture and by various LDS leaders.
“The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible: Ancient Material Restored or Inspired Commentary? Canonical or Optional? Finished or Unfinished?” by Jared W. Ludlow. This essay is one of the more candid essays, more or less acknowledging that the JST isn’t a T at all. Here’s from the first paragraph:
Joseph Smith began an ambitious program to revise the biblical text in June 1830, not long after the organization of the Church of Christ and the publication of the Book of Mormon. While the result came to be known as the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), it was not a literal word-for-word *translation* of ancient biblical languages from a manuscript but more of an inspired revision or paraphrase based on the King James Version in English, carried out primarily between June 1830 and July 1833. Since Joseph Smith never specifically addressed *how* or exactly *why* he made the particular changes he did, it is an open question whether he felt he was restoring ancient material, making inspired commentary, modernizing the language, a combination of things, or something else.
[As an aside, let me note that our blog settings display quotations in italics, so when I post a quotation that employs italics, I use *asterisks* as an alternate method of displaying the author’s emphasis of a term or phrase.]
Ludlow expands on those suggestions later in the essay, for example in this passage where he calls into question the widely believed idea (among LDS) that a lot of things were removed from the Bible and that the long JST insertions constitute a restoration or replacement of that lost material:
However, skeptics of this perspective question why so much would be taken away from ancient manuscripts when the usual scribal change is the addition of new material. Furthermore, since the time of Joseph Smith ancient manuscripts have been discovered, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which show they are not that drastically different from later transmitted manuscripts that became the basis for the traditional received text (of course there is a significant chronological gap backward from the Dead Sea Scrolls to an autograph copy, so we do not what changes may have occurred then).
Ludlow goes on to discuss recent work by Thomas Wayment and Haley Wilson-Lemmon showing a significant degree of reliance on Adam Clarke’s widely available commentary on the Bible in many of the changes or additions made by the JST. A lot of LDS confusion over the years about the status and content of the JST would have been avoided if Joseph and his collaborators would simply have made comments in a blank notebook (rather than inserting and interweaving many of the changes into the biblical text of an actual Bible they were using) and then published those comments separately as the Joseph Smith Commentary on the Bible. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess, although that makes hindsight sound easy. There are still many LDS commentators who remain confused about the JST even with the benefit of hindsight, and this essay is very useful to enlighten any such person in your circle. Say your Gospel Doctrine teacher or your kid’s seminary instructor. Maybe you should just buy the hardcopy issue and send the whole thing to your kid’s seminary teacher.
“Book of Mormon Geographies,” by Andrew H. Hedges. I’ll comment on this essay because Rick just posted on the same topic here at W&T. Right up front, Hedges notes “the once-popular Hemispheric model,” limited geography models focusing on Central America favored by LDS apologists, and the Heartland model that has received a lot of attention in recent years (largely from LDS apologists defending their Mesoamerican turf). Hedges then adds:
Other suggestions include the west coast of South America, the Baja Peninsula, and even the Malay Peninsula or parts of Africa. Still others have suggested that the entire endeavor is a fool’s errand, as the destruction that reportedly accompanied Christ’s crucifixion so altered the book’s described geography as to make it unrecognizable today (see 3 Ne. 8).
Some of you might think of an alternate way that “the entire endeavor is a fool’s errand,” but as promised in the introduction to the issue, that theory is not discussed explicitly. However, it is refuted in a preaching-to-the-choir sort of way later in the essay, suggesting no reasonable person, and certainly no reasonable Latter-day Saint, would ever doubt that the events narrated in the Book of Mormon actually happened somewhere (we don’t know where) in the real world:
Like many other questions Latter-day Saints grapple with, this one has its basis in taking both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon at their word. Both claim that the book is, in fact, a real history of real people who lived somewhere in the Americas hundreds of years before its European discovery in the fifteenth century. Smith’s account of finding the plates, protecting them from harm, translating them by means of a special instrument that had been buried with them, and finally showing them and other tangible artifacts to some of his close associates all underscore the physical existence of the record and, by extension, the people who created it. So, too, does the language of the book itself, much of which is written in the first-person voice of the ancient prophets who reportedly wrote and compiled it. In addition, hundreds of passages—at least 550 of them by one count—discuss physical features like cities, villages, rivers, mountains, plains, forests, and seas, all of which fit into a remarkably internally consistent geography that serves as the backdrop for the movements, preaching, and warfare that make up the contents of the book. Neither Smith’s account nor the book’s internal claims, of course, can be seen as irrefutable “proof” that the Book of Mormon is real history, but they do bring its readers face-to-face with the question of the record’s authenticity. And for those who answer in the affirmative, the follow-up question of where, exactly, all these things took place is not an easy one to answer.
I’m including the entire paragraph to be fair to the author. Sometimes, in an official publication issued under the watchful eye of BYU and LDS orthodoxy, there are clues or hints that the author’s true opinions or views differ somewhat from what is apparently stated in an article. Read the last couple of sentences in the paragraph closely. It almost seems like there is a missing or suppressed sentence at the very end, something like: “But for those who answer in the negative, there is really no problem or question at all.”
Everything else. Honestly, I could do another half dozen blurbs on these interesting articles. There are several essays by authors who have, at various times, been active contributors to the Bloggernacle (that’s sort of a dated term, but there you go), such as Rosalynde Welch on the foreknowledge of God and Nathan B. Oman on civil disobedience in LDS thought. I haven’t read all of the essays — so much to read, so little time — but they all seem worth reading.