Several months ago, my wife Lissette gave a talk in sacrament meeting on the topic of modern prophets and continuing revelation. She wanted to provide something different, something the congregation could really chew on (no “theological Twinkies“). She ended up discussing how modern-day prophets model the process of revelation for us. Drawing on Elder Bednar’s analogy of revelation as light, she illustrated that revelation could come in a sudden burst of inspiration (like a light switch) or as more gradual, increasing discernment (like a sunrise). Yet, those singular, sudden revelatory events are often incremental steps in a bigger picture. What’s more, future revelations often shed even more light on past ones. As an example, she used Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision. “While Joseph Smith’s vision was a singular event (akin to Bednar’s example of the light switch),” she said,
its significance and impact evolved with additional experience and revelation (much like Bednar’s sunrise). The four major accounts of the First Vision differ in their details, with perhaps the biggest one being Joseph’s interpretation of the visitation’s purpose. The 1832 account focuses on Joseph’s forgiveness of sins; a kind of personal conversion story. By 1838, the narrative shifted to concerns regarding religious confusion and the eventual establishment of the Lord’s church. While these purposes are not mutually exclusive, Joseph’s understanding of the experience nonetheless expanded over time. I believe that this example of gradual development should not be seen as an outlier, but as the general pattern of revelation. It is a feature, not a bug.
She went on to point out that The Joseph Smith Papers have demonstrated that the Prophet’s written revelations were revised, rewritten, and updated to correspond with newer revelations and contexts. Finally, quoting from Elder Uchtdorf’s 2013 CES address and the parable of the blind men and the elephant, she concluded,
Prophets in a sense invite us to take hold of the elephant alongside them and progressively piece together the different parts into a coherent whole. Elder Uchtdorf was quick to point out, however, that trusting the guiding hands of the prophets “does not relieve us from the responsibility to know for ourselves…Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth.” …Prophets don’t simply report their perusals of the elephant. They take our hand and place it on the beast. Prophets aren’t interested in creating blind followers. Their goal is to put us directly in contact with God.
Lissette noted that the reaction to her talk was a bit different than other ones. She had several ward members describe her talk as “interesting” and “informative.” My guess is that many were not used to the kind of content and sources she was citing. Furthermore, it grappled with a couple subjects that we as Latter-day Saints have yet to truly flesh out theologically: the nature of prophethood and revelation.
It is within this murky theological territory that The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts–one of the newest releases from Greg Kofford Books–resides. Collaborating with UVU, the editors Blair G. Van Dyke, Brian D. Birch, and Boyd J. Peterson have brought together a fairly wide-ranging group of papers that explore the complexities and implications of Mormonism’s open canon. The volume has plenty of noteworthy essays, from Claudia Bushman discussing women in the scriptures to the Shepherds’ exploration of early patriarchal blessings. However, the following selections I think provide an excellent window into the overall quality of the book.
Coming strong out of the gate, Harvard’s David Holland (son of Elder Holland) focuses on the tensions between ancient scripture, living prophets, and personal revelation, revealing how each one in part competes for sovereignty. This “triangulated process” (a phrase he borrows from Spencer Fluhman) reveals the interweaving and complicated relationship these three points of divine-human contact share. One of the more interesting insights Holland provides is the possibility that Church leadership’s rhetoric emphasizing “follow the prophet” may be a way of compensating for the lack of prophetic primacy in everyday practice. Or, to put it another way, the Spirit and scripture are the typical go-to authority in the daily lives of Latter-day Saints. These two authorities reinforce one another: the text (think Moroni 10) encourages spiritual confirmation and the Spirit confirms the text. These experiences are what ultimately legitimize modern-day prophets. Rarely does it work the other way around, with prophets being taken as the initial authoritative source that legitimizes scripture and personal revelation. So while “follow the prophet” may strike many as borderline authoritarian, it may in fact reflect an attempt to balance the personal (scripture & Spirit) and communal (Church leaders) spirituality of Latter-day Saints.
Tackling the Book of Moses, scholar David Bokovoy describes the text as a kind of inspired pseudepigraphy. He first argues that the book cannot be a strictly first-person, historical account for several reasons. First off, “archaeological evidence indicates that biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and any other individuals prior to the time of the divided monarchy most likely did not possess an actual written language. If they did, it certainly would not have been Hebrew, and we would have no idea what that script possibly could have been. One could make an argument that Moses might have possibly known how to write in an Egyptian hieroglyphic script and that Abraham could have written in some type of early cuneiform, but given the complexity of these systems and the fact that such knowledge was highly restricted to those devoted to years and years of highly technical scribal education, this hypothesis seems highly unlikely. More importantly, there is simply no historical evidence to support the idea that these men actually wrote records” (pg. 129). Furthermore, “Moses 1 constantly invokes the voice of an omniscient narrator speaking about Moses in third person. Statements such as “And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence. And God spake unto Moses” (Moses 1:2-3; emphasis added), appear all throughout the course of Smith’s entire revelation” (pg. 131). Finally, he compares the revelatory text of the Book of Moses to Joseph Smith’s later revision in the King Follett discourse:
- In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Gen. 1:1 KJV)
- In the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest. (Moses 2:1-2)
- The head [One] of the Gods brought forth the Gods. (Joseph Smith urtext)
Joseph Smith apparently did not believe the opening of the creation account in the Book of Moses represented the one true translation, despite the fact that he claimed it as revelation. As Brigham Young taught, “there has not yet been a perfect revelation given, because we cannot understand it, yet we receive a little here and a little there. [I] should not be stumbled if the prophet should translate the Bible forty thousand times over and yet it should be different in some places every time, because when God speaks, he always speaks according to the capacity of the people.”
Similarly, BYU historian Grant Underwood’s contribution highlights the gradual and refining nature of revelation. With the wonderful title “Relishing the Revisions: The Doctrine & Covenants and the Revelatory Process,” Underwood explains that
most of the 1832-33 redactions found in the [“Book of Commandments and Revelations”] were made by [John] Whitmer, Cowdery, or Phelps, apparently without Joseph’s direct involvement. Significantly, he rarely revised or removed their revisions later on. To this day, their revisions stand as part of the official Doctrine and Covenants. This reality invites us to adjust our assumptions about Joseph’s role in revising the revelation texts and, therefore, about how he viewed the revelatory process itself. The data suggest that in getting the revelation texts into print, Joseph focused on the message, the ideas, or what he called “the sense” of the revelation he received, and he welcomed assistance from members of the Literary Firm in refining the language or enriching the texts to include all that God had revealed to him (pg. 181).
The historical and textual evidence suggests that Joseph was not “a mere human fax machine through whom God communicated finished revelation texts composed in heaven…His contemporary Orson Pratt believed that Joseph received messages from God and then had to “clothe those ideas with such words as came to his mind”” (pg. 182). When “communicating his word and will to his prophets, God does not override their humanity” (pg. 183). Underwood concludes, “Seeing scriptural texts as both fully divine and fully human allows ample room for regarding as inspired both their earliest wording and their subsequent revisions. In the end, as F. Henry Edwards reminds believers, the revelation texts should be seen as a “gateway” to God rather than an idol that replaces Him”” (pg. 183).
Given these accompanying essays, James Faulconer’s becomes all the more relevant. He offers a useful approach to the misguided literal vs. figurative debate, declaring that we should read the scriptures literally. Yet, “when we speak of a literal reading we ordinarily mean “in a real or actual sense,” in other words “without metaphor, exaggeration, or distortion” or perhaps more simply “as an accurate historical account” (pg. 53). As he goes on to note, this ignores the question of genre. In order to read the scriptures literally, we must understand what we are actually reading. To read a parable as history is not a literal reading, but a misreading. We have to read the scriptures as they were intended to be read. N.T. Wright had similar thoughts:
Religious studies scholar Ann Taves offers up an interpretation of Joseph Smith’s gold plates, arguing that the physical plates were constructed by Smith himself and then (in his mind and the minds of others) metaphysically transformed into the Nephite records. His imaginative capacities as a seer and visionary allowed him to endow the fake plates with a new metaphysical identity; just as the Eucharistic wafer becomes the body of Christ in the minds of the devout. Or, to reference the Book of Mormon example employed by Taves, how the Brother of Jared’s stones became light with the touch of God’s hand (Ether 3). While I think there are legitimate criticisms of Taves’ interpretation of the historical record, I think her approach provides a useful and intriguing metaphysics a la Stephen Webb: “[B]oth Mormons and Catholics believe in transubstantiation. They just locate [it] in different theological places…For Catholics, transubstantiation is dramatized in a quite literal way in the Eucharist, where the bread and wine become the first fruits of the eschatological economy of Christ’s abundantly capacious body. That drama for Mormons is not localized in such a specific way…[T]he Saints actually locate transubstantiation in the potential for every event, no matter how mundane, to convey the physically uplifting power of God’s grace…For the Saints, everything we do should rise to the occasion of the Lord’s Supper.” I think this has profound implications for how Latter-day Saints can understand the concept of consecration: the reorienting and repurposing of our time, talents, and means.
What’s more, Taves’ essay reminds me of a point made by Christian apologist Gary Habermas regarding the resurrection of Christ. In his scholarly work, he points out that most scholars–believers and non-believers alike–acknowledge that the early Christian disciples at the very least believed they had experienced the risen Jesus. “As we have mentioned throughout,” he writes, “there are certainly disagreements about the nature of the experiences. But it is still crucial that the nearly unanimous consent of critical scholars is that, in some sense, the early followers of Jesus thought that they had seen the risen Jesus.” Taves’ work may indicate that critical scholars of Mormonism are starting to move in a similar direction: Joseph Smith and the early witnesses sincerely believed they had experienced visions and visitations. From a believer’s standpoint, this will likely be seen as a positive trend, demonstrating that faith in early Mormon claims are perhaps more reasonable than typically assumed.
My selection of essays thus far may lead some to conclude that the book is geared toward deconstructing the historicity of scripture. While I think that would be an incomplete and unfair reading, it’s nonetheless worth highlighting Richard Bushman’s offering to counter that implication. In his essay, the Joseph Smith biographer presents a compelling take on Nephi’s small plates, diving into the intricacies of the Book of Mormon’s structure and narrative by focusing on the way the small plates operate within the text itself. “Political aims drove the writing so long as Nephi was the chief historian,” he explains,
but as the small account passed to his brother Jacob and down through his lineage, its underlying purpose shifted. It became a different kind of book. As the Lamanites became a more distant threat rather than an ever-present reality, the immediate need for justification of Nephi’s rule faded, and the small account assumed a different character. Instead of an indictment of Laman and Lemuel, it took the form of instruction to the Nephite people. Its aim was to keep the Nephites on the straight path and help them understand their place in the history of God’s people. No longer was it necessary to discredit the wicked brothers. Jacob, Nephi’s brother, even acknowledged that the Lamanites had become more righteous than the Nephites, an admission Nephi would have found hard to make (Jacob 3:5-9) (pg. 90).
Bushman’s position could easily be seen as an apology for Book of Mormon historicity:
The small plates could indeed have been an invention to rescue the floundering translator. But the plates were no Band-Aid to patch up a wounded narrative. They were deeply integrated into the plot and in some sense its cornerstone. The struggle between the brothers told so forcibly in Nephi’s favor on the small plates motivates the rest of the narrative. The small plates were not just the physical carrier of the story but a major player in the entire Nephite drama. So it is that the Book of Mormon frustrates easy judgments about the creator of the small plate…The small plates seem like anything but an afterthought. Within the story they appear to be a necessary instrument of Nephi’s campaign for dominance. The small plates may be Joseph’s creation to bail him out of his difficulties, but Nephi also used them to bail himself out of his difficulties. They could be wholly Nephi’s (pg. 90-91).
Continuing revelation, other scripture, modern-day prophets: Latter-day Saints have become so accustomed to these ideas that they often forget how radical they are. To claim any of these is to boldly claim that the heavens are open. Familiarity can dull us to the strangeness of an open heaven. Too often the process of revelation is mechanized without being fully understood. The essays in this volume draw on the texts, practices, and history of Mormonism in order to peel back the layers of divine-human interactions. Doing so can be uncomfortable, but also enlightening. For scholars, this book will provide significant details related to Mormon history and textual criticism. For believers, it will provide insights into the meaning and making of scripture as well as the process of revelation. All in all, The Expanded Canon is another solid addition to Greg Kofford Books’ already impressive output.
- One could cite his translation the Book of Abraham–which was influenced by his study of Hebrew–as another example of differing creation accounts: “And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abr 3:1). The Endowment’s account could even be thrown into the mix: Elohim instructs Jehovah and Michael to “go ye down” and form “matter unorganized…into a world like unto the worlds that we have heretofore formed.” This provides Latter-day Saints with a total of five differing creation accounts from authoritative sources.
- Underwood’s essay is a combination of his 2009 BYU Studies article and his contribution to the Oxford-published Foundational Texts in Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources.
- She has published her views elsewhere in a 2014 Numen article and her Princeton-published book Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths.
- Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints, pg. 74-75.
I disagree with the bit about the small plates of Nephi. It is a true record by a great prophet who called it as it really was. Writings like this undermine the Book of Mormon and validity of our church.
Thanks for this review. I don’t usually go in for essay compilations such as this, but between the Bushmans, Bokovoy, Taves, and Falconer, this looks like a collection that can challenge and guide my thinking in many new ways.
This is such an interesting and provocative read! Thank you!
Nice review, Walker. Thank you.
Interesting and engaging commentary, thank you…
Re: ” the Spirit and scripture are the typical go-to authority in the daily lives of Latter-day Saints. These two authorities reinforce one another: the text (think Moroni 10) encourages spiritual confirmation and the Spirit confirms the text ” ( I assume these are Holland’s sentiments) – I have always read it that the Spirit confirms the ‘truth’ not the ‘text’.
I think engaging with the historicity question is trickier than some make it. The approach that’s become common of just saying they believe is insufficient. For instance the problem with Taves isn’t that she merely has Joseph being a believer but that she has him being a believer of a particular sort of belief that really isn’t attested outside of an ambiguous and problematic statement by his uncle. The problem is that Joseph’s stated beliefs seem to be at odds with this “instantiating a vision” belief. I don’t think this has been well grappled with and differentiates Mormon thought from the other examples Taves deals with. (Say the cognitive science of gloassalia)
Others, like Bushman’s own work, can try to adopt the middle ground of asking about belief without going too far into content. However as soon as we ask about the material entities associated with Mormonism, that becomes somewhat problematic. This in turn leads to problems when we ask these more difficult questions interrogating the nature of our own texts. It’s precisely here that those open to a more fictional approach to scripture butt heads the most with those who see the problems in doing that.
That said, even for the believer in historicity the texts offer difficulties. Reconciling the various creation accounts is an obvious one. Now into this some add the problem that Moses and Abraham according to scholarship couldn’t have written texts. So whatever the nature of our textual revisions to Genesis they become much later works. However this in turn has problems. First off the claims about Moses and Abraham are arguments from silence. It assumes the lack of texts implies they did not have a textual tradition. This is particularly problematic for both those figures given the narratives have them as educated elites with close contacts with the highly textual Egyptian empires. Yet Genesis 1 – 2 are usually seen as postexilic for various reasons. What then does that mean relative to Genesis, Moses and Abraham? Not to mention to Lehi’s own paraphrases and references?
I think there’s a lot to unpack and I suspect scholars will be discussing this for decades to come.