Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are Divine Translations "Perfect"?

[The following was written by LDS professor N. L. Nelson in 1913 and was published in the Deseret Evening News. It was part of a lengthy response to the pamphlet written by the Reverend Franklin S. Spalding's, entitled Joseph Smith Jr., as a Translator and addresses the issue of imperfections in Scripture].

Is it not about time, my dear fellow worker, that we gave up that foolish proposition, which forms the backbone of your inquiry, viz., that any document put forward as a divine revelation must be "flawless" by all the human standards that happen to be in vogue at the time?

Suppose a given revelation, touching upon controversial matters, were in fact pronounced flawless by the best human learning of the day; would it not still be full of "inaccuracies" to  advanced intelligences, like the angels, or even to earth-people who are to live a century in the future?

Again, if God's perfection must be mirrored in every document which his voice proclaims to be "true;" then we should have a revelation utterly meaningless to man till such time as he shall attain to the same perfection. To make this plain, we have only to suppose the modern geological explanation of creation to have been given to the ancients instead of the account in Genesis. What meaning could it possibly have had for them? Such a bit of modern truth injected out of relation with all the rest of the thoughts and experiences of the race for several thousand years to come? But could God not have revealed a sufficient arc of creation, as modern science now understands it, so as to bring- the ancients nearer to truth?

The answer is no. First, because to do so would violate the fundamental principle of divine education, the absolute need of self-effort to psychic development; and, second, because the more truth he would reveal, as moderns see truth, the more would the mental life of the ancients have been confused; just as the truths now known to intelligences a million ages in advance of us, would, were they imposed upon our intellects by divine fiat, serve only to blight our spiritual development. For though we might hold such "truths" reverently, they would not be "true" to us, any more than a stone would be digestible, because held in the stomach. That only is true to any one which can be felt to be true; i. e., which can be assimilated, and incorporated  with the body of his experiences. Man may and should hold reverently many things, because of the authority that utters them; but they will become true to him only when the time comes that they can be woven into the tapestry of his soul-life.

In the third place, any considerable revelation of modern science, could not have been made to the ancients, out of sheer failure of being able to voice it. Nay, even the symbols necessary to convey the thought were not in existence.

Consider as an illustration the case of the Prophet Mormon himself. Suppose, after God had commanded him to make, from the tomes of Nephite records at hand, the abridgment now known by his name — suppose, I repeat the divine Spirit guiding him, had held him up, whenever there came into his mind an aspect of botany, zoology, geography, astronomy, or any other such Nephite experience, the expression of which would not be up-to-date with what the Spirit might foresee would be known of these things in the twentieth century. Would not his pen have been paralyzed every little while? Suppose the Spirit of Inspiration had then, against his will, seized his hand and written those passages wherein his knowledge failed to measure up to what would be the exactions of modern truth — would he, Mormon, have stood for such passages? Would they not have seemed unintelligible, not to say false, to him? And would they not have been essentially false as a portrayal of the life of an ancient people?

Now, such a supposition is foolish, from the fact that divine inspiration could not thus have seized the ancient writer's hand, for that would have been violating man's free agency. The Book of Mormon may thus be "true," both as reflecting truly, by its very inaccuracies, an imperfect people, and as being fitted, even by its very short-comings, for assimilation by the poor and lowly of another people 1,500 years in the future.

That is true for us which is fitted to awaken and keep growing our soul-life, however incorrect it may be as measured by a more perfect standard. Genesis was therefore the "truest" document concerning the creation that could have been revealed to the ancient world: and considering the class of souls God meant to draw together for the foundation of his Church in this dispensation, the Book of Mormon is also "true" — truer, indeed, than a more perfect revelation — a revelation classic in diction and flawless as to scientific concepts — could possibly have been.

[N. L. Nelson, “An Open Letter to Bishop Spalding,” Deseret Evening News, February 15, 1913].

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Testimony of the Witnesses and the Testimony of Scholars: Some Important Distinctions (John A. Widtsoe 1913)

[In 1913 scientist John A. Widtsoe, who would later become an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published several articles responding to criticisms of LDS scriptures which had been raised by the Reverend F. S. Spalding in a pamphlet entitled Joseph Smith Jr. as a Translator. The Rev. Spalding had published statements of eight scholars of the day who dismissed the Book of Abraham as a fraud. He then argued that the combined testimony of these eight scholars had more weight than those of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The relevant part of Widtsoe's response to this argument is as follows].

The loose spirit of your methods of inquiry is well shown in your summary disposition of my first charge, that you secured the opinions of only eight scholars in the somewhat inexact  field of Egyptology, when many more were available. To this you simply answer that eleven men of Egyptian learning have labeled approximately alike, the main figures in Plates 1 and 2; eleven witnesses, only, testified publicly to having seen and handled the plates from which the Book of  Mormon was translated — hence your jury is large enough. Certainly, it is an unexpected tribute that you pay to the authority of Joseph Smith. I should be interested to know just how far you are willing to submit to the example of the "Mormon" prophet. The witnesses to the Book of Mormon testify that they saw and handled the golden plates. Your jury testify to the accepted inferences concerning matters submerged in the twilight of antiquity, into which new light is daily being thrown, often to the destruction of former inferences. Assuming, if you will permit me, that the two sets of men are equally honest, which evidence possesses the higher degree of credibility? Eleven men could scarcely disagree on the big fact that they saw and handled a series of metallic plates covered with inscriptions, though they might vitally disagree on the minor matters of the exact size of the plates, the nature of the inscriptions or the quality of the metal.  On the other hand, eleven or eleven hundred men might disagree fundamentally on inferences concerning things and conditions of the past which never may be known directly by the present — unless indeed they slavishly follow some high authority, to which they should be subjected for examination. The only big agreement among your jury is with respect to the general meaning of Plates 1 and 2 and the use of Plate 3— and this agreement is not based on tangible facts like the  handling of material things or the connected logical steps of thought that lead to certainty.

Much as I dislike to disagree with you, I must insist that eleven witnesses, especially since they admit their examination is cursory, and are unwilling to make it extensive, are not  sufficient to settle this question that roots in the uncertain past. I will predict that if your jury be enlarged, freed from prejudice and asked to go into the whole question of figures, script and names, in the light of the Book of Abraham, you will be greatly surprised. If such a thorough examination should point to the correctness of Joseph Smith's work, would you be as willing to enter the "Mormon" Church as you suggest I should be to leave it should the examination turn  against the prophet's correctness?

Moreover, the use you make of your eleven testimonies is vastly different from that made by the Prophet or the Church, of the eleven testimonies for the Book of Mormon. You rest your whole case on your eleven lightly written reports. No more can be said. Your childlike reverence of pointed authority is sublime! I envy you: for life has fastened upon me the habit of analyzing, for myself, every vital matter, irrespective of the authority from which it proceeds.

To the "Mormon" the testimonies of the eleven witnesses are important but only partial evidences of the genuineness of the Book of Mormon. In fact, in ''Mormon" literature you will find a whole host of other evidences, held of equal value with the testimonies of the witnesses. The book itself gives the supreme test. Have you read it? Have you tried it? It can do no harm:

 "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." (Book of Mormon, Moroni: 10: 4).

I received and read your book on "Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator" with the love of truth in my heart. After giving the matter considerable thought I wrote you as I had promised, my candid opinion of it, and pointed out the great flaw which to my mind invalidated your conclusion — that of careless superficiality. I specified 12 reasons, as above summarized, for my  view, and 12 others are waiting to be presented when the first lot have been disposed of. In reply you ignore 10 of my reasons by insisting that your book is not and does not pretend to be a  thoroughgoing search after truth. You again present letters from three scholars — how you must revel and riot in the effulgence of letter writing authorities—to support your contention that the jury of Egyptologists is fully agreed. You have added very little to your contention. You then proceed to meet my criticism that your jury, in view of the great importance of the subject and the uncertain and growing field of Egyptology, should have been larger, by saying that there are  11 men in your jury and only 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and all that in face of the common knowledge that although the Book of Mormon witnesses actually saw and handled the  plates, their testimonies are only one of many in establishing the truth of the Book of Mormon, whereas you base everything upon your 11 unwilling or prejudiced witnesses. You have chosen  the wrong comparison, and my first charge stands intact.

[John A. Widtsoe, “Dr. Widtsoe's Reply to Rev. Spalding,” Deseret Evening News, March 8, 1913].