As someone who has spent countless hours reading the Bible for instruction, inspiration and guidance, I find it a little unsettling each time I bump into the common misconception that Mormons think the Bible is a second-rate (or worse) scripture. As the criticism typically is expressed, Mormon theology replaces the unreliable Bible with the infallible Book of Mormon, which in turn demonstrates that the Mormons worship some other God than you do.
The criticism is wrong, but only entirely. In fact, Mormons believe that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are essential tools to understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We use both, embrace both, but worship neither.
Mormons and the Bible
Under the category of “can’t win for losing,” in what Mormons believe was a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1832, he was chided by the Lord for spending too much time teaching from the Bible, while “treating lightly” the teachings of the Book of Mormon. (Doctrine and Covenants 84:55-57). In fact, most of Joseph Smith’s sermons that we know about cited the Bible almost exclusively (perhaps in large part because the Book of Mormon was not published in a chapter:verse format at the time, which made it difficult to reference). But now the situation is turned on its head, as people outside the Church suggest that we give no weight to the Bible at all.
Here’s where the trouble comes from: The Eighth Article of Faith (a summary of beliefs of the Church written by Joseph Smith) says, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” Critics of the Church point to the “as far as it is translated correctly” language to assert that we believe the Bible to be fundamentally flawed.
Granted, we do believe that in passing through the hands of multiple translators, editors, and selection committees, the Bible has emerged with some of its truths diluted or obscured. Some of the changes over thousands of years were inadvertent, others may have been intentional. However, that does not change the fact that we believe the essence of the text is generally reliable. We accept the Bible as a witness of Christ.
That view actually is consistent with the views of much of mainstream Christianity. In fact, Mormons tend to be more conservative about the Bible in many respects than other Christians. I spent some time recently in the “Bibles” section at Barnes and Noble, reading a poster that was provided by the store to help customers navigate through the shelves of different English translations of the Bible. Almost all of these translations post-date Joseph Smith, and each raises the same question to me: What is the need for a “new” translation, if the previous translations were not somehow lacking? Exactly which translation of the Holy Bible are we supposed to treat as the inviolable truth? The multiple versions of the Bible demonstrates that, just like the Mormons, the rest of the Christian world accepts the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly.”
It is worth noting that the LDS Church uses the King James Version of the Bible as its “official” Bible, rather than one of the more recent translations or renditions. In that sense, we actually are more traditional in our approach to the Bible and more resistant to changes to the text than are other Christians. I won’t hold my breath for us to get Brownie points for that, however.
Mormons and the Book of Mormon
Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is a book of scripture that records God’s dealings with a group of ancient inhabitants of the American continents. We believe that the record was made on metal plates that were delivered to Joseph Smith in the 1820’s by a heavenly messenger. We believe that Joseph Smith translated those plates by the gift and power of God. We point to the Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ, standing together with the Bible as a witness of His mission, His divinity, and His atonement on the behalf of mankind.
Members of the LDS Church sometimes find themselves challenged to defend a position that the Church has never taken. Critics of the Church claim that Mormons insist that the Book of Mormon is a perfect book, and then they point to grammatical errors or editorial revisions of the Book of Mormon as the ultimate “gotcha.”
But this reflects two misunderstandings about Mormon belief. First, the Church never has claimed that the Book of Mormon is a “perfect” book. The closest anyone has come is Joseph’s Smith statement that it was the “most correct” of any book, but that is decidedly different from saying that the book is untouchable. Joseph Smith certainly didn’t believe it was perfect, as he made corrections to the text during his lifetime. (The original manuscript had no punctuation at all…who would have wanted to deal with that kind of mess?). Also, the Book of Mormon contains “apologies” from the ancient writers themselves who felt their writings to be inadequate. So while people outside the Church might howl at a change here or there, the best those inside the Church can give you is a shrug.
The second thing that critics of the Church don’t understand is that Mormons are this way about everything. Because we believe in continuing revelation, we don’t believe that the final word has been spoken about anything. Granted, that stands out as unique from other Christians, but in order to understand what we believe, you have to understand why we believe it.
The real question is whether a church that believes that the heavens are open and that God can and does reveal additional truth still holds any reverence for the Bible. The answer is “yes.” Just as Christianity did not divorce itself from Old Testament scripture upon the “New Testament” of Christ, Mormonism does not divorce itself from the Bible upon receipt of an additional testament of Christ.