Segment 5 | The exigent two doctrinal problems in the Book of Mormon
In summary, the Book of Mormon was a manuscript published in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr., who claimed that a heavenly messenger delivered to him golden plates upon which an ancient record was compiled that he would proceed to translate “by the gift and power of God.” According to this record, several ancient peoples migrated to what we now know as the American continents, the most noteworthy being a group from the Israelite tribe of Joseph shortly before the Babylonian incursion of Jerusalem in 598 B.C. During the next 600 years this expedition allegedly went on to populate the continents, produce several warring tribes and carry on Jewish traditions that culminated with an alleged appearance by Jesus Christ, who delivered the gospel to these inhabitants of ancient America and founded the church on the continent.
Mormonism marshals criticisms against the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of “apostasy and restoration” of Christ’s church, in which at the hands of the Roman Catholic institution, the message of the gospel was contaminated by corrupt clergy not long after the apostolic (New Testament) period, and the gospel ultimately was absent for about 1,200 years, until 1830 with the arrival of the Book of Mormon. Mormonism refers to this spiritual vacuum as “The Great Apostasy.” To be fair, we’ll include how the biography defines the purpose of the Book of Mormon:
“The purpose of the Book of Mormon was to restore the ‘plain and precious’ doctrines that were missing from the Bible, to clear up any ambiguity within the Bible. The Book of Mormon spoke in greater clarity about baptism, the Holy Ghost, the state of the soul after death, administration of communion, the gathering of Israel, and church organization and governance. It did not take long, after the Book of Mormon was published, for men to distort the simplicity of the gospel once more, Bickerton perceived, so that Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Brigham Young preached contrasting interpretations. That is why the mantle had fallen to Bickerton.” (Chapter 5)
As this position attempts to answer why the Restorationist movement went askew, what it fails to recognize is that the fruit is bad because the branches are bad because the trunk is bad because the root is bad. The entire crop of Mormonism sprouted out of corruption. There are many difficulties to be found within and surrounding the Book of Mormon, among them: anachronisms and logistical inconsistencies in the book’s narrative; Smith’s own conflicting accounts of how the record resurfaced and how it was used in the Book of Mormon translation; and Smith’s longtime, well-documented involvement with the occult and sorcery.
On top of all this, God supposedly (conveniently) confiscated the “golden plates” at the end of the Book of Mormon “translation” process, so there has never been a single extant manuscript from which we can examine the Book of Mormon’s claims of being an ancient, historical document, superior in reliability to the Bible.
Over and above the plurality of problems, there are two principal assertions by the Book of Mormon that Christians must immediately address, permitting all the other issues to fall in the periphery:
- The Bible is not a reliable text, and the main reason the Book of Mormon appeared was to recover “plain and precious parts” of the gospel (not simply “doctrines,” as Bickerton’s biography vaguely states) and “many covenants” that were taken out of the Bible. According to the Book of Mormon, the Bible was tampered with by “the great and abominable church” — which is all but identified by name in the Book of Mormon — to the point that its message of salvation was removed, causing Christians to stumble and fall into the grip of Satan (cf. I Nephi 13:23-29, Book of Mormon). As part of this theory of the Bible’s degradation and the Book of Mormon as a more enduring document, a person who believes only in the Bible as God’s Word is a “fool” (II Nephi 29:3-10). (This point calls for a more detailed explanation of the Book of Mormon text. For a more thorough discussion of how the Book of Mormon categorically denies the integrity of the Bible’s textual transmission, please read my Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel: A Comparative Analysis, especially pp. 8, 17.)
In stating that essential gospel truths were corrupted from the text of the Bible, the Book of Mormon imposes a simple dilemma: Either the Book of Mormon is necessary to have a complete gospel message, and therefore it is unavoidably necessary for salvation; or the Bible has (and has always had) a complete gospel message, in which case the claims of the Book of Mormon are patently false.
- Forgiveness of sins, as well as justification — two components of what we understand to be salvation in Christ — are obtained not by grace through faith, but by human obedience to commandments (cf. III Nephi 12:19-20, Moroni 8:25-26). The Book of Mormon does mention “grace,” and “faith,” and even “justification,” but just using Bible words is not enough: terms must be defined if we are to ensure we’re using them biblically. In this case, for the Book of Mormon to state that justification comes by a combination of faith and works, of course, is to lose the gospel of grace (cf. Romans 11:6). Justification by a mixture of faith and works is not justification by grace. (For a more thorough discussion of the Book of Mormon’s assertions against the Bible’s gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, please read my Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel: A Comparative Analysis, especially pp. 22, 27, 31.)
Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and then, William Bickerton would have us believe that the Bible is insufficient, and therefore its presentation of the gospel is not enough for us to know how we are saved. According to the doctrine they purveyed, what is missing from the Bible is that basically, God’s grace is not enough to save us and we must earn our salvation through sacramental rites, namely, baptism.
To the modern student of church history, specifically, the Protestant Reformation, these assertions should sound disturbingly familiar.
We recall that in the 16th century, that there were essentially two causes of the Protestant Reformation from the existing Roman Catholic system: the formal cause, which is the dispute over the supreme authority of Scripture to govern God’s people; and the material cause, that is, the controversy concerning justification by faith alone as the means of salvation for the Christian.
In other words, the most prominent and visible reason for the Reformation was the dispute about how a person is saved: by grace alone through faith alone, or through obedience to commandments and the intermediary system of church sacraments (also called sacerdotalism). Yet, the underlying reason, the reason that was not conspicuous but which was “the real eye of the storm,” was that of what is Christianity’s greatest authority: whether that is the Bible alone, or the Bible needing to be interpreted by the pope, a magisterium, a system of traditions, etc. The rites and sacraments of Christianity by no means are inherently wrong. But orthodox Christianity understands the sacraments are divinely ordered, and they are performed in response to our right standing before God, never as the meritorious ground of our right standing.
In the same passage as above, the biography posits:
“Protestants of the day would have agreed that the Roman Catholic Church had altered some of the Bible’s foundational principles involving the mode of baptism, the eucharist, and the ecclesiastical structure of the church.” (Chapter 5)
Any Protestant who is familiar with history knows it would make no sense to deny that the Roman Catholic Church deviated from biblical doctrine, but there is a sharp distinction to be made between that admission and Mormonism’s categorical doctrine that the transmission of the actual biblical text was corrupted. (The Roman Catholic Church has never claimed, as Mormonism does, that the biblical text is not preserved, but their positions are similar on the sufficiency of the Bible to communicate the gospel of salvation.)
There is an enormous disparity between Protestantism and Restorationism: Protestantism set about to reform the Lord’s church using the original source material, namely, the Bible; where Restorationism presumed to restore the Lord’s church using a new text completely outside the Bible, that is, the Book of Mormon. The very essence of Protestantism is that Christians stand on the Bible’s promises that God has preserved his Word, and that the Bible is sufficient for faith and life. Any Protestant, whether in the year 1517, 1830 or 2018, who would bend to some other notion is not a good Protestant.
Thus, the doctrinal challenges that Mormonism brought were not fundamentally new. The Book of Mormon undermined the gospel of salvation by way of its fundamentally supplanting the Bible’s authority, forcing room instead for its own authority. In perhaps its most brazen claim, the Book of Mormon contends not only that the Bible is insufficient for salvation, but the Book of Mormon also threatens eternal condemnation to those who reject it (Book of Mormon Title Page, last line, 1830, II Nephi 29:3-10, II Nephi 33:10-15, Mormon 8:12, 17, Ether 12:25-26).
As mentioned, all of this is nothing less than the struggle for divine revelation, and therefore eternal salvation. In fact, the stakes are as high as what human beings believe, and therefore where people will spend eternity.