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.
Thanks for the link and good intro to this material that otherwise is known by and accessible only to those that know where to search.
If our church doctrine, curriculum, and general discussions could be more honest and open like these essays, what a different church experience we would have!
It also strikes me as very odd that within our religion our brightest thinkers, scholars often employed by church institutions, and those willing to explore in the weeds are not cited, promoted, or given any “airtime” within the general curriculum or conferences. What does that say about our top leadership? What does that say about our general membership’s engagement with the divine? What could that be doing to stifle real growth and positive interactions in the world to bless all humankind? Sorry for the rhetorical rant.
My favorite carpool moment, and high school kid’s real life application of, “Is God Subject to or the Creator of Eternal Law?”:
When I made sure everyone’s seatbelt was fastened, one kid told me, “God is my seatbelt”
It still makes me laugh.
And honestly, the concept applies in many ways, like wearing masks and physical distancing during a pandemic.
Reading the Table of Contents, I have to say, none of those topics keep me awake at night. I was hoping it would address some of our more worrisome topics.
I believe that God is progressing. I think this agrees with the speculations of Joseph and Brigham, but not Bruce. I don’t believe He is omniscient and many of the other omni’s. But I do believe that He is omnibenevolent.
I believe that we too can progressing eternally. Toward what goal is uncertain. I also believe that we can take our knowledge and experience from this world into the next.
The problem is I’m an agnostic. And the Church is moving closer and closer to conservative Christianity. And away from my speculations.
I think these topics would have been really interesting to me 15-20 years ago. Feels like they’re answering questions that nobody is really asking anymore.
I’m interested in the topic addressed by Philip L. Barlow’s essay: “Shards of Combat; How Did Satan Seek to Destroy the Agency of Man?”
I’ve long since discarded the idea that Satan wanted to force everyone to be righteous. The most commonly used tactic in the Book of Mormon is to insist that sins don’t matter and you can be saved in your sins without repentance and change. I would guess that the most LDS believe that Satan’s chosen tactic was coercion.
Barlow quotes Orson Pratt as summarizing these two options: “Orson Pratt planted the seeds of what became the prevailing theories as early as 1853. “If Satan had been permitted to carry out his plan,” wrote Pratt, “it would either have destroyed the agency of man, so that he could not commit sin; or it would have redeemed him in his sins and wickedness without any repentance or reformation of life.”
Fascinating. The essay gives a good summary of the historical development of each idea, and astutely points out that, “This matters because the ways in which believers conceive the mode of Satanic opposition dictate the threats they envision for purposes of defense and prevention.” The Church defends against its biggest threats. It used to see government coercion as the biggest threat, and now it sees licentiousness and excusing sin as the biggest threat.
It would be interesting to know what method Satan intended to use in the pre-existence. The essay really made me think about how my certainty that Satan commonly uses one method more than another is based on my own personal experience and how people have hurt me.
Thanks for this post.
The one about the King Follett Discourse was really interesting too. [The King Follett Discourse: Pinnacle or Peripheral? by James E. Faulconer, Susannah Morrison.] It was interesting to read an analysis about what points of doctrine had already been accepted by the church (ordinances for the dead) as compared to doctrines propounded for the first time.
“That is the only one of Joseph Smith’s teachings in the King Follett Sermon which stands out as being made public for perhaps the first time: that the Father was once a human being on an earth like our own. ” That rocked a whole bunch of boats, both inside the church and out. I don’t like that teaching myself and it always jarred me when someone recited Lorenzo Snow’s couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”
The author traces the back and forth about this idea – from Brigham Young insisting it was literally true to Widtsoe and Talmage soft-pedaling the idea to some form of progression without saying God was a mortal man at some point, to Hinckley saying we don’t emphasize that teaching (when being interviewed). That’s good context. It isn’t settled doctrine. It sounds kooky enough that official publications dodge the issue entirely. I can see why the Church leaders don’t want this one clarified. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were pretty clear about an idea that would REALLY raise some eyebrows nowadays. With Pres Nelson’s hope to fit in and de-weird the Church, this doctrine just has to stay on the Church’s shelf.
(Ha! The Church has a shelf too!)
I have to agree with Lily. These are not the big questions I am looking for answers to from religion. I am more interested in questions like: What is God’s plan for those left out of the traditional CLDS narrative like LGBTQ individuals? What does God personally expect of me in terms of personal sacrifice and activism to address the racism, nationalism, bullying, and to alleviate the poverty and suffering that is all around me in my community and in the world? What does forgiving others and going the second mile mean in a world where abusers use these ideas to exploit others? What does God expect from me in terms of parenting adult children, including those with mental health challenges or making poor life choices? Are psychopaths evil or are such individuals just under the influence of strong genetic factors that would cause any other person to behave similarly? (I.e. how much of others behavior is truly theirs to ccchoose?How should our civic and spiritual institutions deal with people whose actions cause harm to society, but that might not be capable of making better choices? When, if ever, is violence (i.e. war) against another nation, group, or individual morally appropriate? What does God expect of me in terms of seeking out sensual experiences? (I e. How can I judge wisely if a particular way of seeking beauty or joy or pleasure is harmful ? )
“Was Jesus Married?” by Christopher James Blythe
I remember being somewhat horrified reading a book about polygamy that I found at Deseret Book and running across a polygamy-apologist claiming that Jesus was not only married, but he was polygamously married and Mary and Martha were his plural wives. Um. Early Church leaders taught that Christ was married, but then the subject fell out of favor and shifted to the answer “we don’t know.”
This detail should have been included in D&C 132, now that I think about it. Or Joseph Smith should have said something in the JST. The article says Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt and William Smith (Joseph Smith’s younger brother) preached that idea. The article doesn’t say that Joseph Smith taught that Christ was married. Christ’s marital status was pop-doctrine, apparently, maybe on par with the Three Nephites.
I’m with Lily and 10ac in thinking there are more pressing open-ended questions at hand. For example, in Bryce Cook’s fantastic essay “What Do We Know of God’s Will For His LGBT Children?” (from 2017 IIRC), he makes a strong case that the assertions of today’s church leaders about same-sex marriage are a lot less doctrinally *settled* than they are made out to be (as well as scientifically and sociologically bankrupt).
Also, I know I bring this up a lot when I comment so I apologize for being repetitive, but what’s the point of having prophets if so many vitally important questions go unanswered for a hundred years? Like, what is RMN’s job if not to get to the bottom of this stuff? Not that I want him to come out swinging with new doctrine or anything (in fact I think that would most likely be disastrous)—I’m just baffled that any man could describe himself as a prophet, seer, and revelator and not spend every waking moment in pursuit of an actual prophecy or vision or at least a good epiphany about some grand question.
@kirkstall, there are many reasons I won’t sit for a TR interview anymore but high on the list is that I think it’s downright laughable to call those guys prophets seers or revelators. Please someone show me something they’ve prophesied seen or revealed and I’ll change my mind but …
I would be ashamed of myself.
To Mike Spendlove’s point, I tend to agree. I feel like so much of what LDS folks took for granted as bedrock truth (i.e., the early history of the Restoration, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the historicity of LDS views of the Patriarchs with regard to proto-Christianity and the temple, and the near infallibility of Church leaders) turned out to be much more like beach sand. Some have left, some have become much more nuanced, and the rest find themselves simply defending select parts of the once-dominant historical narrative. None of those are particularly great platforms from which to launch deeper investigations into Mormon theology. If you believe that Joseph Smith and his successors were simply making things up or at best transmitting stories that may have spiritual value but are not based in real history, does any further speculation about various LDS doctrines feel like anything more than trying to write restorationist fan fiction? I know that comes off as very cynical, but can you blame anyone for feeling that way when we find out that the foundation of our faith turned out to be very different from what we were told? I used to belong to a Church that I absolutely knew was God’s one church that would eventually usher in the Second Coming. At its best, that was an exhilarating idea (not that the everyday work we were doing to make it come to pass was that exciting). Now? Not nearly so much. Nuance may be more honest, but it’s a lot less inspiring.
Where do we draw the line on speculative theology?
The institution has excommunicated good saints for writing too imaginatively and for speaking too freely–yet, some erroneous and totally unsubstantiated belief systems continue to be published by the institution.
It seems speculative LDS theology is published based on tone rather than truth.