Holland and the gap, again

Leaving aside disagreements about Elder Holland’s tone and speculations about the talk’s effect on believers and skeptics—not that those are unimportant, but that they’re being vigorously played out elsewhere—I want to make a narrow point about the philosophical underpinnings* of his talk. Bloggers and commenters have compared Sunday afternoon’s “Safety for the Soul” with Elder Holland’s remarks in the 2006 PBS documentary “The Mormons,” most people observing the differences in tone between the two. But I was struck on the contrary by the continuity between Elder Holland’s comments on Book of Mormon authorship in both venues. He said on Sunday:

For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator.

Compare that with an excerpt from the published transcripts of the 2006 interview:

I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, … [he] could have written that book.

The argument in both passages seems to be the same: naturalistic authorship theories fail, thus Joseph’s claim of divine inspiration must be true. Elder Holland makes a kind of “god-of-the-gaps” appeal, in other words: at the limits of human knowledge, there lies evidence of God. I defended this rhetorical move in a post a few years ago, and I think the points I make there are relevant to this more recent talk, as well. In the earlier post I basically argue that while there are problems with traditional “god-of-the-gaps” arguments, Elder Holland’s version can be justified in the context of Mormonism’s verificationalist foundations—all spirit is matter, God is a material being, and ultimate reality is knowable. Of course, if you reject that reading of Mormon epistemology—and it’s not the only possible reading, of course—then Elder Holland’s claim gets a bit more difficult.

In the conference talk, Elder Holland pairs the point about authorship with testimony of the Book of Mormon based on revealed knowledge:

But my testimony of this record and the peace it brings to the human heart is as binding and unequivocal as was theirs. Like them “[I] give [my name] unto the world, to witness unto the world that which [I] have seen.” And like them, “[I] lie not, God bearing witness of it.”

Elder Holland implies, though he does not quite state, that confirmation of the book’s divine origin has been directly revealed to him in some spiritual way. This points up the epistemological differences between his two kinds of testimonies: one is based on reasoned judgment, the other on revealed knowledge. Both ways of knowing have their advantages and limits: reasoned judgment is transparent and, to some extent, transferrable from person to person, but it is always vulnerable to new evidence and only as good as one’s own rational faculties. Directly revealed spiritual knowledge is safe from falsification and independent of one’s own intellectual failings, but it is opaque and non-transferrable. So I suppose you pick your poison, or else you base your commitment to the Church on both.

*I am not actually a philosopher, but a mere literary shadow on the wall of the cave, and maybe I have got the philosophy mixed up here.

56 comments for “Holland and the gap, again

  1. October 8, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I have always hated talks and testimonies based on proof that Joseph Smith didn’t make it all up. I’d always felt that by trying to prove he didn’t all you were doing was giving weight to the argument that he did. One time in my ward in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a young girl got up and bore her testimony of Joseph Smith. She basically said, “I believe in Joseph Smith, even though THIS, and even though THAT,” and at the time I hadn’t heard any of it and suddenly I went, WHAT?

    And then for three years my testimony of Joseph Smith was shot.

    These past few months I’ve been praying for a strengthened testimony of Brother Joseph and I tell you, the Lord does provide. I suppose I was in the right frame of mind then for Elder Holland’s talk on Sunday, because it was beautiful and strengthening and never made me roll my eyes or doubt my faith once.

    (The same can’t wholly be said for my experience watching him on the PBS documentary a few years ago, sadly.)

    I suppose then my thesis is that it all depends on where you are spiritually, and that is likely why we have such divided viewpoints on the effect of his talk on Sunday? Or maybe not. ?

  2. October 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Rosalynde, nice post.

    Mostly, I just think it’s odd to see what becomes controversial in the Bloggernacle. It seems to occur whenever someone actually speaks clearly and with strong conviction and uses inflection rather than just lilt.

    Love the talk. I thought “truth to power” was in style these days.

  3. Matt Evans
    October 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook.

    This claim is made about the Quran, too, but I’ve still never bothered to read more than a few selections. The claim resonates only with people who already believe. I’m certain every one of my investigators, or anyone I’ve shared the Book of Mormon with, period, would have been more impressed by an angelic visit than by the statement that Joseph Smith had almost no formal education and was only 24 when the Book of Mormon was published.

  4. October 8, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Nice post.

    I agree with you that we need both rational/empirical and spiritual foundations to our testimony. I used to feel differently, believing that the only thing that counts when it comes to the Gospel, is spiritual insight. This erroneous view led me to a spiritual crisis. Which I have described in detail:
    There is a further problem that spiritual and rational justifications seem incompatible and often produce paradoxical results. Embracing both types of sources for my testimony forced me to simply accept theses paradoxes.

  5. DavidH
    October 8, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    The God of the Gaps was, at one point, written into the missionary discussions. When I served a mission 35 years ago, part of the discussions was to ask an investigator to stop while reading the Book of Mormon, every few pages, and prayerfully ask him or herself: “Could Any Man Have Written This Book?”

  6. California Condor
    October 8, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Elder Holland is an alpha personality. He has more charisma and gravitas than most of us could ever dream of having. He’s the type of guy who was uber-popular in high school (in fact he once admitted this at a BYU devotional).

    I appreciate his testimony of the Book of Mormon; I think he has a powerful influence over millions. But I wish that he didn’t use the word “pathetic.” It’s just not very diplomatic. In fact, I think his talk would have been better had he avoided any reference at all to alternative theories about the origin of the Book of Mormon.

  7. DavidH
    October 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Elder McConkie ties the God of the gaps to spiritual witness this way:

    ‘There is another and simpler test that all who seek to know the truth might well take. It calls for us simply to read, ponder, and pray—all in the spirit of faith and with an open mind. To keep ourselves alert to the issues at hand—as we do read, ponder, and pray—we should ask ourselves a thousand times, ‘Could any man have written this book?’

    “And it is absolutely guaranteed that sometime between the first and thousandth time this question is asked, every sincere and genuine truth seeker will come to know by the power of the Spirit that the Book of Mormon is true, that it is the mind and will and voice of the Lord to the whole world in our day.”

    Bruce R. McConkie, “What Think Ye of the Book of Mormon?,” Ensign, Nov 1983, 72

  8. October 8, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Matt #3

    David Hume uses the same type of argument to argue against the existence of miracles. In essence he argues that to accept a miracle as legitimate, those bearing witness to it must be so trustworthy that the possibility that they are lying or mistaken would end up being a greater miracle than the one they are describing. Hume believed that this strict standard had never been met. It seems like Elder Holland is saying that now it finally has.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    October 8, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Matt: Obviously, being impressed by Joseph writing the Book of Mormon himself would require that one has actually given it a close and careful reading, and noticed its complex structure and its self-consistent and articulate religious message, including explanations of issues like moral agency and the Atonement and the exercise of faith that are refeshingly clear and intelligent. Knowing something about the marks of Hebraic origin of its contents and format, its knowledge of authentic Egyptian and Hebrew names that were not known in 1829, its accurate description (even naming) of little known aspects of Arabian geography, its depiction of a volcanic super eruption a half century before any Westerner had ever described one, recovering (in the assessment of Harold Bloom) the arcana of Kabbalistic Judaism, all raise questions of how someone with little formal education, on the American frontier, could have produced a book that acquires more and more authentic marks of ancient origin with each decade’s progress in religious history and recovery of ancient texts. Having such knowledge, the idea of someone who is younger than all of my children (one of whom is actually writing books), producing the Book of Mormon out of his own head, is a process that is inexplicable by naturalistic science. That is an explanatory gap that leaves a lot of room for God.

    While we are mentioning the God-of-the-Gaps notion, as a characterization by atheists of those who see the human limits of explanation to invite God into the picture, the entire force of the argument is based on the assumption that human science is making such great strides in revealing the laws of nature that soon there will be no gaps for God to hide in. Yet the reality of science is to the contrary. Einstein himself noted that the more we know, the more questions we find we must ask. After all, if scientists really believed this, they would be telling their graduate students to switch to law school.

    Anyone who is familiar with modern physics and cosmology has to laugh at the claim that we are at the end of scientific history. String theory is all theory and no experiment. Over 90% of the universe is made of an unknown Dark Matter that does not interact with light but has enough gravity that it makes our galaxy spin like a solid disk instead of separate objects in orbits, and Dark Energy that has an accelerating anti-gravity that is blowing the universe to smithereens, pushing distant galaxies to relative light speed and outside our ability to observe. Those are pretty big gaps.

    Elder Holland is simply pointing out that the simplest (Occam’s Razor) and most intellectually consistent and fruitful explanation for the Book of Mormon is the one that was attested to by 12 men, to the ends of their lives.

  10. rob
    October 8, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    I found the church when I was 20 years old. I am now 56. I vaugley remember simply knowing in my heart that it was true and that my being able to communicate that understanding to people I shared that with, didn’t require a vast understanding of the Scriptures or Church History for them to accept it for themselves.

    Now that I’ve become so educated in both, I sort of long for that simple feeling again. What is it that I have done to myself with all this knowledge?

    While I know the accumulation of knowledge has increased my intellectual testimony, I feel feel like I need someone like Joseph Smith or half scared Moses or Jeremiah to just stand before me and bear a real testimony that seems to have died within me.

    I know I had that inner fire at one time and I know it was real, but why do I feel like I have to recall these feelings as oposed to just living them like I used to? It’s almost like a dream to me now…

  11. October 8, 2009 at 6:22 pm


    I’ve noticed the same phenomenon as I have studied the Gospel. I think this similar to the way a movie loses its “magic” when you know more about it. Knowing how the shots were filmed, where the lights were placed, and what techniques the actors were employing makes it harder to simply sit back and lose yourself in the film. Learning a lot about the Gospel can often detract from its beautiful simplicity.

  12. Dan
    October 8, 2009 at 7:00 pm



    Mostly, I just think it’s odd to see what becomes controversial in the Bloggernacle. It seems to occur whenever someone actually speaks clearly and with strong conviction and uses inflection rather than just lilt.

    That’s not really the case. It’s the particular topic, rather than the way someone speaks. Speaking boldly is not controversial if the topic is not controversial. The divinity of the Book of Mormon isn’t really that controversial in the Bloggernacle, at least I don’t think it is.

  13. October 8, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Here’s the applicable definition of “pathetic” from my dictionary: “pitifully inferior or inadequate.” Is Elder Holland correct in claiming the various competing theories of the origin of the Book of Mormon are inadequate? Yes, I think so. If there was one adequate alternative explanation of the Book of Mormon, we wouldn’t be talking about a variety of alternative explanations. It only takes one really good alternative theory to do the job, it’s just that critics can’t quite come up with it.

    It is true that for some people, the Joseph Smith story itself is not an adequate explanation. But the lack of a good alternative explanation at least makes it easier to give Joseph a fair hearing — like actually reading the book, for example.

  14. jsg
    October 8, 2009 at 7:47 pm


    As we get older some of us with scientific inclinations get better at formulating alternative hypotheses to explain the things we observe. We get more creative about possibilities. Good science always involves competing hypotheses, and accounting for every possibility. This way, effective experiments can be performed that will help resolve which hypothesis is closer to the truth. With spiritual matters, I believe it is a healthy thing to pit competing hypotheses against each other, as Elder Holland did in his talk. However, the purely objective approach that works so well in science is disastrous when approaching questions involving faith. This is because our best experiment for resolving such questions requires hope. God set it up this way so that we stay humble as he imparts really special knowledge to us. Scientists shouldn’t hope for any particular outcome from an experiment; disciples should. But disciples should still perform experiments, trying the Word wherever and whenever they can. The results of these experiments will gradually shake out, punctuated by moments of clarity. Our “natural man” intellects cause these moments of clarity to fade fast, which is why we should keep journals (I keep my journal, I just don’t write in it as much as I should). Unfortunately, the most clear-cut results from our spiritual experiments don’t come until we’re out of this world. I maintain a firm hope that when I get to that point, I’ll find that I wasn’t led amiss. In the meantime, I’m very happy about the interim results from my spiritual experiments.

  15. Matt A.
    October 8, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Re: 11 (Sgarff) – “Learning a lot about the Gospel can often detract from its beautiful simplicity.”

    May I respectfully disagree with you here? It has been my experience that the more I study a subject (whatever that subject may be), the more I appreciate its complexities and nuances. The more expertise I gain, the better my perceptions are – I see things that eluded me previously. This opens up a whole new world of previously inaccessible beauty.

    That being said, I do agree that there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees, where the gospel is concerned. When learning the details obscures the central truth of the Atonement of Christ, we can run into problems.

  16. October 8, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Matt A.

    I think we may actually be in agreement. I cherish the insights I gain from systematic and complex study of the Gospel. I especially love the secular study of Mormonism (I also like learning how movies were made). I think you are absolutely right that in depth study of any subject, especially the Gospel, enhances our appreciation of that subject.

    This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any negative effects from such study. Some people even loose their faith in the process. However, in the end I think the net result of such study is positive. The key is to not let this study replace the more important spiritual and interpersonal aspects of the Gospel. I think Rob’s (#14) suggestions about maintaing humility and journal keeping are helpful.

    I’ve written more in-depth on my views about this here:


  17. Bob
    October 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    #13: The Church says the truefullness of the BoM is spiritual. Science is comfortable the BoM is a fiction. Fine, why not leave it that way? Why the fight? Just agree to disagree.
    I see no reason for name calling (“pathetic” or “inadequate” ). Or, for either side to see evil in how the other views things.

  18. October 8, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Raymond, if the Book of Mormon were being empirically proved more each decade, we would see an increasing number of empirically-minded people embracing it as the work of angels. Harold Bloom wouldn’t be calling Joseph Smith an American genius, he’d be calling him an Instrument of the Lord. The only people who think the evidences of the Book of Mormon are growing are those who already believe it. Those who don’t already accept the Book of Mormon are more likely to know that the only change to the Book of Mormon over the past 30 years is the church’s retreating from the claim that Lamanites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians in the face of new empirical research casting doubt on their semitic origins.

    Most of the world thinks it’s as impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written, as you and I and Elder Holland do that the unlearned Muhammad could have written the Quran.

  19. Mark D.
    October 9, 2009 at 1:23 am

    The divinity of the Book of Mormon isn’t really that controversial in the Bloggernacle, at least I don’t think it is.

    I don’t think so either. What is controversial is the historicity, or the degree of historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  20. Russ Frandsen
    October 9, 2009 at 3:05 am

    “God of the Gaps” is a phrase I have never liked. Rosalynde, I think you misapprehend the phrase and its application.

    Wikipedia provides a handy description of the phrase:

    “The term goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th century evangelist lecturer, from his Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man. He chastises those Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain — “gaps which they will fill up with God” — and urges them to embrace all nature as God’s, as the work of “… an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”[3]

    “In the 20th century Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terminology in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison during World War II, which were not made public until years later.[4] Bonhoeffer wrote, for example: “…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”[5]

    “The term gained some attention when it was used in the 1955 book Science and Christian Belief by Charles Alfred Coulson, where Coulson states: “There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.”[6]”

    I do not think Elder Holland was making a “God of the Gaps” argument at all. He was using a time-honored technique of legal argument known as “res ipsa loquitur” – the thing speaks for itself (or the thing itself speaks). The argument is used primarily in tort law: “Latin for ‘the thing speaks for itself.’ The phrase refers to a rule of evidence whereby Negligence of the alleged wrongdoer may be inferred from the mere fact that the accident happened, provided that (1) in the absence of negligence, the accident would not have occurred and (2) the thing that caused the injury is shown to have been under the exclusive control of the alleged wrongdoer. This shifts the burden to the defendant, who is thereby charged with introducing evidence to refute the Presumption of negligence that has been created.” http://www.answers.com/topic/res-ipsa-loquitur.

    The application of this style of argumentation or logic to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is: (A) The Book of Mormon exists (in all its complexity); (B) It was always within the control of Joseph Smith; (c) It is not the type of thing of thing that could come into existence without divine intervention, i.e., it is not the type of thing Joseph Smith could have created by himself; (d) the burden of persuasion shifts to those asserting otherwise.

    This type of reasoning is quite common in the writing of history and may be validly applied to the case of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.

    Finally, Elder Holland’s argument is not diminished by expanding knowledge about the Book of Mormon, but is strengthened by our expanding knowledge. The more we know about it, the more we appreciate the extraordinary nature of the text, the more we apprehend that the Book of Mormon speaks for itself. Our increased knowledge about the text and of the text allows us to hear with much greater clarity as the Book of Mormon “speaks for itself”. Elder Holland has said that the burden of proof has shifted to those who do not accept divine intervention in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he believes they have pathetically failed to carry the burden of proof.

    In any event, the “God of the Gaps” argument assumes that if we reach a greater understanding and can articulate a well-founded rational explanation, then God has nothing to do with it. But there is no logic in that for the Latter-day Saints. We believe God works according to law. If we are able to come to an understanding, in part, of such laws, it is no argument that God does not understand the law and uses it to accomplish his purposes. In fact God wants us to come to a full understanding of his laws and ways. A “God of the Gaps” is foreign to the LDS intellectual tradition.

  21. It's Not Me
    October 9, 2009 at 7:03 am

    While “the Church” may have retreated from its claims about the Lamanites in the past 30 years, that teaching (that modern-day Indians have Lamanites among their ancestors, but are not exclusive) has been around in the Church for nearly 60 years.

  22. Bob
    October 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

    #20: Nice comments.
    “…failed to carry the burden of proof.” In keeping with your legal model, what would you say the burden of proof is: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt or Preponderance of Evidence?
    It seems to me Faith uses no Doubt, and the Secular World is happy with Preponderance of Evidence?

  23. October 9, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Russ, that Bonhoeffer quote is very strong — thanks for pointing that out. I like where you’re going with that.

  24. Rosalynde Welch
    October 9, 2009 at 9:34 am

    (I’m confronted with the pleasant problem of what I should call my father on the blog—hi Daddy!—I think I will go with “Russ” so others know who I’m talking to)

    Russ— Thanks for the rich comment. I appreciate your “res ipsa loquitur” explanation—that is new to me, and it’s a valuable idea, definitely relevant to BoM apologetics. I still read the Holland talk differently than you do; I do think that Holland is making a “god of the gaps” argument. My paraphrase of his point is: because no rational naturalistic explanation has yet achieved wide-spread acceptance, we can infer that God (or a super-natural agent) must be responsible. I think this paraphrase is correct, and I do think it is a G-o-t-G move, closely analogous to classic god-of-the-gaps arguments in evolution, etc.

    However, we really are mostly in agreement. In the earlier post I linked to, I make the same argument you do at the end of your comment. I defend Holland’s G-o-t-G in the context of Mormonism’s unique theology. I agree with your reading of Mormonism’s finitist, verificationalist theology (in fact, I probably was first taught it by you!). But as you know from discussions with other members of our family (hi Rachel!), not everyone subscribes to this view of what Mormonism means. I do think that we are right, though. :)

  25. Observer
    October 9, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Rosalynde, please keep writing on this blog. Your contributions really boost its stock price.

  26. James Olsen
    October 9, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I enjoyed your post Rosalynde. Our need for both rational and spiritual testimony in our day seems particularly poignant, and it seems to me something that Mormonism has inherently recognized and emphasized since the beginning. It’s the reason for the difference between the 8 and the 3 witnesses. It’s the union of heaven and earth, the recognition that salvation is embodied, that we build heaven, that we can articulate truths of God, that God’s presence in history is literal and continual, that God has limits and that humans can be deified.

    And in all of this it seems to highlight the truth perhaps best stated by William James (and also reaffirmed recently in General Conference), that part of faith is choice. There are always good arguments on both sides (I can say this and still agree with Elder Holland that the naturalistic arguments for the BofM’s origins thus far are frankly pathetic, since the weight and seriousness of a naturalistic position is anything but).

    Thank God for Elder Holland, who forces us all to look seriously at these issues.

  27. James Olsen
    October 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    One other point: Rosalynde does a fantastic job pointing out the underlying consistency between the PBS documentary statements and Elder Hollands GC witness. Others have mentioned times when they personally heard him speak the same sort of message. Shortly after being made an Apostle, Elder Holland published “Christ and the New Covenant” (1997). The final chapter of that book is remarkably similar to his GC address. He gives the same quote from his great-great-great grandfather and takes the same either/or stand on the book’s veracity:

    I am suggesting that one has to take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take – morally, literarily, historically, or theologically

    Clearly one can disagree with this either/or stance. But I think it much more difficult to make the point that Elder Holland’s being inconsistent than to make the point that he’s always held this line. Elder Holland apparently has no problem holding this line and STILL reaching out and trying to include everyone, whatever their level of heterodoxy. So should we.

  28. Nathan Bunker
    October 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I think this is must closer to “Occam’s Razor” than “god-of-the-gaps.”

  29. Bob
    October 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    #27: :…”take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it”
    James, I am not ready to take that peremptory position, or accept that ultimatum. I am ready to consider other ideas that do not cancel out all that has been done in good faith by those who believed they were doing what was right for them and their families.

  30. James Olsen
    October 9, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Bob: I fully believe that you can do just that, and do so in good faith, and do so firmly in the ranks of Mormonism. I think Elder Holland would agree, though he would obviously maintain that the end of your “considering” ought to find you in the ranks of the orthodox. My point was that 1. Elder Holland’s not been inconsistent in his stances; and 2. His taking the “do-or-die” stand does not keep him, or the rest of us (whatever our position), from being very inclusive.

  31. Norbert
    October 10, 2009 at 2:31 am

    Based on the title, I was hoping this was an analysis of international football. Disappointed again…

  32. queuno
    October 10, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I think that Holland has become one of the go-to apostles (along with Oaks, increasingly, and Nelson, occasionally) for a “we’re drawing a line in the sand, HERE” message. It doesn’t prevent us from pondering around those lines, but it is nice to know where the apostles are drawing the line…

  33. Adam Greenwood
    October 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Matt E.,
    do you have any particular reason to think that Koran wasn’t inspired (in the autograph)?

  34. October 11, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    My default assumption is that books aren’t inspired, and certainly not that the welfare of my eternal soul depends on my opinion of their authorship or message, and I have no particular reason to think the Quran an exception.

  35. October 12, 2009 at 1:16 am

    Most of the world thinks it’s as impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written, as you and I and Elder Holland do that the unlearned Muhammad could have written the Quran.

    That seems exactly right.

    To go further, I think that some number of church members in prior decades expected empirical evidence to surface which would prove the Book of Mormon. I remember conversations about DNA and Dead Sea Scrolls and so on, how science would eventually realize that the Book of Mormon was a literal history. Those conversations seem to have become less common in recent years. And some empirical analyses of the Book of Mormon have ended up failing spectacularly (one prominent example being Southerton) (yes, I know that Southerton doesn’t affirmatively disprove the possibility of the Book of Mormon, and that apologists have suggested ways to reconcile Asiatic DNA with Book of Mormon accounts through various limited geography models — but the research, as collected by critics including Southerton, does seem to rule out many grand-scale conceptions of Lehite ancestry, and also suggests that Lehite ancestry will not be provable through DNA).

    Maybe it’s just a consequence of having different conversations with different people, but I just don’t sense the same enthusiasm for a possible future scientific proof of the Book of Mormon as I did in discussions a few decades ago.

  36. Bob
    October 12, 2009 at 8:25 am

    #35:”Most of the world thinks it’s as impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written, as you and I and Elder Holland do that the unlearned Muhammad could have written the Quran”.
    I don’t know what to say about this statement. Most of the world knows nothing about the BoM or the Quran. Those that do, who are not Mormon or Islam, do think it was the work of Joseph Smith, Muhammad, or other men.

  37. Adam Greenwood
    October 12, 2009 at 9:25 am

    My default assumption is that books aren’t inspired, and certainly not that the welfare of my eternal soul depends on my opinion of their authorship or message, and I have no particular reason to think the Quran an exception.

    Certainly this is a reasonable default assumption, because very few books claim differently. The Book of Mormon and, I suppose, the Koran, are exceptions.

  38. October 12, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Bob (36), that’s what Matt is saying. Reread his sentence.

  39. Bob
    October 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    #38: I don’t disagree with Matt. I am only confused by the opening quote of #35 and your agreement with it (?) Maybe a ‘not’ was left out?

  40. Aaron Brown
    October 12, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    “I just don’t sense the same enthusiasm for a possible future scientific proof of the Book of Mormon as I did in discussions a few decades ago.”

    In case anyone is wondering, Kaimi is 90. :)

  41. October 12, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Adam, I don’t how we could find out, but I’ll bet there are hundreds of books that claim to not only be inspired but effectively capable of judging our souls.

  42. October 12, 2009 at 3:13 pm


    Matt is saying that many Mormons see the BoM as proof of Joseph Smith’s divine calling, because no uninspired person could have written such a book. This is the gist of Elder Holland’s argument.

    Many Muslims make the same argument about the Koran: There is no way that the uneducated Mohammed could have simply written the book, therefore it must be divine.

    Such arguments are not likely to be convincing to outsiders. Non-Muslims may see the Koran as a pretty nifty book, but generally not as stand-alone proof of divine origin. The same will apply to non-Mormons and the Book of Mormon. It’s not realistic to think that outside observers will all be blown away by the impossibility of anyone authoring the book. There are a lot of nifty books (like the Koran), and they can’t all come from God, can they? Therefore, mere mortals are capable of writing nifty books. It may be unusual, but it happens sometimes.

  43. October 12, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Yea Aaron, I thought that was funny too. Kaimi and I aren’t old enough to be talking about our discussions from a few decades ago. Only your generation can talk that way.

  44. October 12, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Kaimi: How much do non-Muslims really know about the Koran to be able to even assess such an argument? Maybe the argument has merit if we just knew more about the Koran. What is certain is that those who are ignorant of the Koran aren’t in a position to assess the argument. In fact, it strikes me that there is nothing really remarkable about a person who claims divine revelation and produces a book like the Koran. I’ve read the Koran many times (tho never in Arabic) and it seems to me to be run-of-the-mill revelatory documents on par with pseudepigrapha.

    I’ve stated that I don’t find the either-or argument to be a knock-down proof, but surely it has some merit and some weight. Perhaps a knowledgeable person (one who actually is knowledgeable about the ancient Near East, Ancient Americas and also 19th century America) would be able to develop such evidence that the argument becomes more compelling. All that is required for an argument to have merit is that it is logically valid and its premises reasonably believable. The problem with either God-or-devil arguments is that there is also a vast range of what humans are capable of doing without God — and it is really hard to assess what humans are capable of producing on their own without divine help. To the atheist with naturalistic assumptions, virtually everything that humans do must be so explainable. But that approach rather begs the questions.

    As one at least somewhat knowledgeable about at least some of these issues, I believe that the argument that it was beyond Joseph Smith’s capacities and indeed of any other person in the 19th century to come up with the Book of Mormon to have merit and to be worth bringing up — and certainly enough to warrant further investigation.

    What is unique about the Book of Mormon is that it cannot possibly be what it claims to be and it is still the case that Joseph didn’t have really magnificently unusual assistance — divine or demonic — to produce it. However, I think that the argument is at least persuasive that any demonic help to produce the Book of Mormon would be self-defeating (tho maybe Satan and/or his cohorts are just that stupid). To that extent, it seems to me that the argument has some weight and some merit even if not a free-will denying compulsion of proof. Asking that of any argument is demanding rather too much (and it would seem to to be counterproductive to the faith that really is essential to a testimony of the Book of Mormon).

    Let me also say that Roslynde has done a good job laying out how Holland is consistent at least with his own prior arguments.

  45. DavidH
    October 12, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Some other writings claimed to originate from God as or similar to scripture:

    CofC D&C
    Revelations in various polygamists offshoots of LDS Church
    A Course in Miracles
    Writings of Ellen White (Seventh Day Adventists http://www.whiteestate.org/issues/scripsda.html)
    Writings of Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Scientists)

    I am sure there are plenty of others.

    I have read the Qur’an once, and think it is a wonderful book. I have not applied Moroni’s promise to the Qur’an, for reasons outlined pretty well in William James’ essay Will To Believe.

    I do not have any close friends who are devout Muslims, but it would not surprise me if such devout Muslims have felt a divine witness of the authenticity of the Qur’an, just as many non-LDS Christians may have felt a divine witness of the authenticity and sufficiency of the Bible.

  46. Bob
    October 12, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    In #18 Matt says “Most of the world thinks it’s as impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written”. I don’t agree with that statement.
    In #42, Kaimi says “Matt is saying that many Mormons see the BoM as proof of Joseph Smith’s divine calling, because no uninspired person could have written such a book. I agree with that statement.
    I know of no writer or scientist, outside of the Church, who states the BoM could not have been written by uninspired men(?)

  47. October 12, 2009 at 6:34 pm


    You’re missing an important preposition:

    “Most of the world thinks it’s AS impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written, AS you and I and Elder Holland do that the unlearned Muhammad could have written the Quran.”

    Matt does NOT say that “Most of the world thinks it’s impossible that Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon, or had it written.” That seems to be how you’re reading it, but that is not what he’s saying.

  48. Rachel
    October 12, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    #20 (Daddy)
    The res ipsa loquitur premise for understanding Elder Holland’s talk works nicely at first, but res ipsa loquitur is really only applicable where there is no evidence available to the plaintiff to prove his allegation. Practically speaking, the church doesn’t take that approach. Missionaries don’t tell investigators that the default assumption is that the BoM is true, and that they should weigh the evidence of the opposition to see if it is compelling, they prompt their investigators to search out for themselves and prove to themselves that the BoM is divine in origin. Tell me if I’m wrong, but for the BoM to be divine in origin, it has to have really been written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith. Most of the time we are urged to find evidence of the truthfulness of the BoM through spiritual manifestations (which can’t be disputed by fact and I would say is thus not empirical), but another way of proving it would be to establish incontrovertible evidence that it was written by ancient prophets etc (which can be disputed by fact, and is subject to the God of the Gaps trouble. Or rather, subject to falsification). Either way, it seems like the believer still bears the burden of proof.

    But, I don’t believe you need to prove anything to a third party anyway, or rather, I don’t believe you can prove anything to a third party. Like Rosalynde said, I don’t believe in that verificationalist/finitist interpretation of Mormonism (though I do like Mormonism’s materialist theology).

  49. October 12, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    It’s a whole pride of Frandsens — horray!

  50. Bob
    October 12, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    #47: Kaimi, you are right, I am wrong. During my drive-by readings of the post, I went right thru the AS stop sign.

    I am still uncomfortable with the image of an “unlearned” Joseph Smith. It is only about ten years between the coming of the BoM and Nauvoo. Clearly, during this time, Joseph Smith showed he was a great man in speech and religious thought, if not in writing. (Not just a farm boy). This is not to say he wrote the BoM. I am only talking about the unlearned farm boy image as compelling evidence of his inabilities.

  51. Bob
    October 12, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    #48: Res ipsa loquitur can only be a beginning. In Tort law, you still have the burden to define the negligence and ID the negligent party.

  52. Adam Greenwood
    October 13, 2009 at 8:38 am

    My understanding, also, is that Muslims claim that no man could have written the Koran because of the exceptional beauty of its language and the force of its doctrine. It seems to me that this is essentially a different class of claim from the ones made by Mormon apologists.

  53. JT
    October 13, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    When is Brigham (Frandsen) going to weigh in? I was on his freshman floor at BYU. One of the brightest people I have ever met. It apparently runs in the family.

  54. Douglas Hunter
    October 17, 2009 at 1:28 am

    “For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed . . .”

    I have yet to see a deconstruction of the BOM, but would certainly welcome it as Christianity in general as well as Mormonism contain a good deal of deconstructive potential. A deconstruction of the BOM would, I think, bring a lot of the book’s radical potential to the forefront. Potential that is so often held in check by the conservative and merely heroic approach so often taken to the BOM. A deconstruction of the BOM would represent a true moment of the return of the repressed.

  55. October 18, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Does the church allow for the possibility that the Quran or at least portions of it are inspired? I believe so. In 1978, the First Presidency said, “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” First Presidency statement, Feb. 15, 1978.

  56. Mark D.
    October 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I have a hard time believing that anything of any merit whatsoever isn’t partially inspired.

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