Question: Do Latter-day Saints consider the Bible "insufficient?"

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Question: Do Latter-day Saints consider the Bible "insufficient?"

Half of all of the organized study of the scriptures for members of the LDS Church is spent on the Bible

Some Christians interpret the following statement by Orson Pratt to mean that the Bible is "insufficient."

"Add all this imperfection to the uncertainty of the translation, and who, in his right mind, could, for one moment, suppose that the Bible in its present form to be a perfect guide? Who knows that even one verse of the whole Bible has escaped pollution, so as to convey the same sense now that it did in the original?" [1]:195-196

One of the fundamental programs for teenage members of the LDS Church is the Seminary program. Over the course of the four high-school years, a year is spent on each of the following standard works: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price. This is a revolving course of study, and guarantees that each teenager will get all four courses. Of course, this is merely an indicator that the Bible is held in as high a standing as the other standard works. The LDS Church's Sunday School curriculum for those over fourteen years of age likewise follows a similar pattern. The Book of Mormon was the subject for Sunday School lessons in 2000, the D&C was the subject of Sunday School lessons in 2001, while 2002 and 2003 will be devoted to the Old and New Testaments respectively. Half of all of the organized study of the scriptures for members of the LDS Church is spent on the Bible.

Pratt's observations at the time were valid. There is no question that the manuscripts of the Bible are not in agreement

What is the imperfection of which Pratt speaks at the beginning of the citation? He spells it out in his text as follows:

We all know that but a few of the inspired writings have descended to our times, which few quote the names of some twenty other books which are lost, and it is quite certain there were many other inspired books that even the names have not reached us. What few have come down to our day, have been mutilated, changed and corrupted, in such a shameful manner that no two manuscripts agree. Verses and even whole chapters have been added by unknown persons; and we do not know the authors of some whole books; and we are not certain that all those which we do know, were written by inspiration.[1]:195-196

Pratt also makes the following observations:

Would God reveal a system of religion expressed in such indefinite terms that a thousand different religions should grow out of it? Has God revealed the system of salvation in such vague uncertain language on purpose to delight Himself with the quarrels and contentions of His creatures in relation to it? Would God think so much of fallen man, that He would give His Only Begotten Son to die for them, and then reveal His doctrine to them in a language altogether ambiguous and uncertain? [1]:196-197

What is the solution according to Pratt? Divine revelation. Both on an individual basis, and through prophets called by God.[1]:198 This is his theme, and it reflects the core beliefs on scripture of the LDS faith.

Pratt's observations at the time were valid. There is no question that the manuscripts of the Bible are not in agreement. We have the addition or subtraction of whole chapters, particularly in the Old Testament where differing traditions place two substantially different versions of the Book of Jeremiah for example. Or, the only English translation of the Bible available to Pratt, the King James Version, which contained the Johanine Comma: a passage in 1 John long recognized as a corruption which has since been removed from nearly every modern translation of the text. The fact that the oldest manuscripts did not agree in all points everywhere has not changed since Pratt wrote this. Does this invalidate the text? No. Does Pratt indicate that this invalidates the text. No, he does not. Instead, he suggests that because of these evidences-evidences which are based in clearly observable facts, that the Bible itself cannot stand as its own witness to its truth.

This concept has been repeated again and again, and not just within LDS circles. The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy admits that only in the original autographs (the original documents penned by the apostles and the other inspired writers) were the Biblical texts inerrant. Do we have such a document? No. Can such a condition or belief guarantee then that the inspired word is provided with complete accuracy? No.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appears to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.[2]

This same document also stresses the need for the witness from the Spirit of God as to the truth of the document

Here, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy indicates that the scripture is insufficient as its own witness, just as Pratt wrote:

The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.[3]

Would not this witness of the Spirit of God qualify as divine revelation?

The Roman Catholic Church in 1943 issued a Papal Encyclical by Pope Pius XII entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu. This document officially recognized within the Roman Catholic Church the need for the church to recognize textual criticism to restore the text of the Bible to as close to its original form as was possible. Of the Encyclical, the following two passages are noteworthy:

Wherefore let him diligently apply himself so as to acquire daily a greater facility in biblical as well as in other oriental languages and to support his interpretation by the aids which all branches of philology supply. This indeed St. Jerome strove earnestly to achieve, as far as the science of his time permitted; to this also aspired with untiring zeal and no small fruit not a few of the great exegetes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the knowledge of languages then was much less than at the present day. In like manner therefore ought we to explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern; this can be done all the more easily and fruitfully, if to the knowledge of languages be joined a real skill in literary criticism of the same text.

In the present day indeed this art, which is called textual criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings, is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books, because of that very reverence which is due to the Divine Oracles. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists and be freed, as far as may be done, from glosses and omissions, from the interchange and repetition of words and from all other kinds of mistakes, which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries. [4]

We may ask, what is the difference between Pratt's remarks and the above? To most of us there is very little difference. The major point of disagreement is that Pratt sees that only God can restore the original truth given the likelihood of producing the original text. Both of the other documents state that scholarship can restore to us the original text as far as is both possible and necessary.

Now, let's examine the LDS Church's characterization of the Bible. Brigham Young said in July of 1853, in a General Conference of the Church:

I have acknowledged the Bible from the time I could be taught by my parents to revere it. They taught me that it was the sacred word of God. And as far as it could be translated correctly from the Hebrew and Greek languages, it is given to us as pure as it possibly could be given. The Bible is mine, and I am not prepared to have you rob me of it, without my consent. The doctrine in it is mine, which I firmly believe.[5]

Joseph Smith remarked, "I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers." [6] This is the same thing that the drafters of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy would state more than a century later.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Orson Pratt, Orson Pratt's Works (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1945).
  2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Section III, Paragraph e. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was produced at an international summit conference of evangelical leaders sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) and held at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in the fall of 1978. It is nearly universally accepted by Evangelicals and holds wide support among other groups of Protestants.
  3. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Section I, paragraph 3.
  4. Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943, paragraphs 16-17. (emphasis added)
  5. Brigham Young, "Effects and Privileges of the Gospel, Etc.," Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 24 July 1853, Vol. 1 (London: Latter-Day Saint's Book Depot, 1854), 238-239.
  6. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 327. off-site