Friday, February 13, 2015

A non-literal testimony of the Book of Mormon

My testimony of the Book of Mormon is this:

  1. I know that it is inspired scripture, useful for the LDS people to discuss spiritual values. I have experienced its scriptural power while reading it, in teaching from it, and I have felt its power changing my life.  I know the Book of Mormon inspires and uplifts me, and is very effective at laying out a number of extremely important gospel principles, including how to survive our trial of faith and improve the truthfulness of our faith.
  2. I know the Book of Mormon testifies of Christ, because the influence I feel in the book is the same as that of the Christ I have come to know throughout my life.  As circular as a reason as this seems to be, it is about a personal relationship, not any degree of epistemology.  I experience the Christ through the writings as well as in my personal meditations and supplications.
  3. I completely reject the book as any kind of history.  The proofs of this are too numerous to list here, and have been listed by others for years.  It's not important to me.  At best, it was created through a process that might be called "automatic writing", but by Joseph Smith's own account, he did not translate it in any way that scholars would consider translation.  He expressed explicitly about the Book of Mormon itself, that it was revealed through the mind and heart (see D&C 8:1-3):

This is probably not the normal Mormon testimony (no surprise there), but it may leave a bit of a dilemma: how can the Book of Mormon be "true" scripture" while it is distinctly not historical?

To me, the answer is simple and clear: it never claimed to be a literal history.

Scriptural Basis of the Book of Mormon being non-historical

The title page of the Book of Mormon says nothing about being historical.  It expresses a specific purpose:
"Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations"
Throughout the book, it refers to the idea that Nephi created two sets of plates, a larger set containing history, and a smaller set containing sacred teachings.  The smaller plates ran out of space after Omni, and Mormon created a set of plates that were an abridgment of the larger plates.  From the description of the plates, it seems that the abridgment was on the same, smaller format plates as the "small plates" of Nephi.  Al though the source material for the larger plates, containing the record from Mosiah to the end of the book, was from the larger plates containing history, Mormon's abridgment was not intended to capture the history, but rather, the sacred content.  Mormon's intent was not to give an "account" (history), but rather to a pastoral purpose.

Here are the key scriptures within the book, and apart from the "title page" above, describing the purpose and nature of the Book of Mormon, demonstrating that the book had no intent of being a history, but rather, a witness of Christ:

1.  Nephi is commanded to make the larger plates of Nephi as a record (history) of his people 1 Nephi 19:1
And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them.
2. Nephi was commanded to create a set of small plates that would NOT contain a history of his people.  2 Nephi 5:29-33:
And I, Nephi, had kept the records upon my plates, which I had made, of my people thus far.
And it came to pass that the Lord God said unto me: Make other plates; and thou shalt engraven many things upon them which are good in my sight, for the profit of thy people.
Wherefore, I, Nephi, to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord, went and made these plates upon which I have engraven these things.
And I engraved that which is pleasing unto God. And if my people are pleased with the things of God they will be pleased with mine engravings which are upon these plates.
And if my people desire to know the more particular part of the history of my people they must search mine other plates.
3.  Nephi explains the non-historical purpose of the small plates 1 Nephi 19:3, 6
And after I had made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord.
Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. 
4.  Nephi again confirms that he is not to write a history of his people on the small plates, stating that it is to be an account of the ministry of the people.  2 Nephi 9:2-4
And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people; for the plates upon which I make a full account of my people I have given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi, after mine own name; and these plates also are called the plates of Nephi.
Nevertheless, I have received a commandment of the Lord that I should make these plates, for the special purpose that there should be an account engraven of the ministry of my people.
Upon the other plates should be engraven an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people; wherefore these plates are for the more part of the ministry; and the other plates are for the more part of the reign of the kings and the wars and contentions of my people.
5.  Jacob confirms that the history of his people should be written upon the "other plates".
Specifically, "these plates" were to hold the "heads of" (summary of) the sacred, the revelations, the prophesying; for "Christ's sake, and for the sake of our people."  Jacob 1:3-4
For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation.
And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people.
6.  The other plates are described to be larger -- that is, not the same structure or format as the "smaller plates" of Nephi.  Jacob 3:13
And a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, which now began to be numerous, cannot be written upon these plates; but many of their proceedings are written upon the larger plates, and their wars, and their contentions, and the reigns of their kings.
7.  Mormon expresses that he would make a "small abridgment" of the records of the people without a full account (history) of what he had seen (in his life or among the records).  Mormon 5:9
And also that a knowledge of these things must come unto the remnant of these people, and also unto the Gentiles, who the Lord hath said should scatter this people, and this people should be counted as naught among them—therefore I write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of the things which I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.
8.  Mormon expresses the intent of his abridgment and writings, none of which is historical: Mormon 5:10-15
And now behold, this I speak unto their seed, and also to the Gentiles who have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come.
For I know that such will sorrow for the calamity of the house of Israel; yea, they will sorrow for the destruction of this people; they will sorrow that this people had not repented that they might have been clasped in the arms of Jesus.
Now these things are written unto the remnant of the house of Jacob; and they are written after this manner, because it is known of God that wickedness will not bring them forth unto them; and they are to be hid up unto the Lord that they may come forth in his own due time.
And this is the commandment which I have received; and behold, they shall come forth according to the commandment of the Lord, when he shall see fit, in his wisdom.
And behold, they shall go unto the unbelieving of the Jews; and for this intent shall they go—that they may be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; that the Father may bring about, through his most Beloved, his great and eternal purpose, in restoring the Jews, or all the house of Israel, to the land of their inheritance, which the Lord their God hath given them, unto the fulfilling of his covenant;  And also that the seed of this people may more fully believe his gospel...


My bishop once told a story about three people having an interview for getting into heaven, where each was asked a question, "Tell me about Jesus Christ".  The first said he was a prophet, a very good man.  The second said he was the Son of God and redeemer of the world.  The third, upon entering the room, bowed down and exclaimed, "Oh Lord, my God".  We can believe all we want about Jesus Christ, and say the right things, but the type of knowledge that actually saves is not that, but rather, the personal relationship with God.

In my wayfaring, I have had encounters with a Presence that has relieved my addictions, pulled me out of the gutter of guilt and shame, and has embraced me over and over again with unconditional love and grace.  This is the Christ, to me.  Having had them, undeniably so, I can say with equal confidence that whatever I thought I knew about Jesus Christ is immaterial.  Words cannot contain or describe an encounter with god, at least in my experience.

When I am told by defenders of Christianity that I must accept the bible as the literal, inerrant and infallible Word of God, lest I be not saved; when I am told by defenders of Mormonism that I must accept the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, lest I be not "worthy" of being a Mormon, I simply realize that those who insist on such have not met the same Source of unconditional Love as I have experienced.  Perhaps they have met the "True God", but I think it more likely that we have differing gifts and means to approach deity.  I know only this, that whatever is divine, is to me a matter of experience and faith, and not of empirical knowledge.  Such faith cannot be defended, it can only be realized, experienced, and encountered.

I have had that encounter with the Book of Mormon.  I don't need it to be literal or historical.

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