Holding Fast to the Word:
A Review of Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures
Holding Fast to the Word: A Review of Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures
Reviewed by Keith H. Lane
It was probably inevitable that a need for a book like this would arise. It is
a valuable book and meets the challenges at hand. Let me explain. For the Christian
world in general, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not kind to traditional
belief in the historicity of the events recounted in scripture. Miraculous events
from turning the water to wine, walking on water, feeding the multitudes, and
raising the dead, to Christ’s resurrection have been dismissed or argued
away by those who have brought a completely naturalized worldview to the Bible.
Though the majority of Christians probably believe such events actually occurred,
the same cannot be said for many scholars, historians, or theologians of Christianity.
Those who sought to judge the teachings and practices of Christianity by the standards
and values of the Enlightenment clearly diminished the strength of Christian belief
and the role it plays in the lives of individuals.
It can only be expected, then, that such secularized scholarship would find its
way into studies of Latter-day Saint scripture, belief, and practice. A recent
trend among a minority of writers has been to give an alternative reading to Latter-day
scripture, seeing, for example, the Book of Mormon as an elaborate parable or
as a book containing a meaningful ethics or theology, but whose characters and
events have no basis in history and whose origin is not what Joseph Smith claimed
Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures responds to the assertion
that Latter-day Saint scripture could be in some sense meaningful even if the
events and people mentioned in it were not actually real. The resounding response
from those whose essays appear in this collection is that it is crucial for
Latter-day Saints to hold to the historicity—historical authenticity—of
scripture, while at the same time insisting that scripture is more than mere
history. And the clear warning is that blindly following naturalism and the
Enlightenment when it comes to thinking about Latter-day Saint scripture will
lead to a diminished faith for Latter-day Saints.
Edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson, this book contains articles by Elder Alexander B.
Morrison, James E. Faulconer, John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, Paul Y. Hoskisson,
Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Matthews, Louis Midgley, Robert L. Millet, Daniel C.
Peterson, John S. Tanner, and Elder Dallin H. Oaks. With the exception of the
articles by Elder Oaks and Faulconer, the presentations were part of a symposium
held at BYU in 1996. It will not be my aim here to comment on every article, but
to give an overview of many of the articles and to help the reader to see the
direction and the spirit of this volume.
Three of the articles (those by Jackson, Midgley, and Oaks) deal directly with
the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon—that is, whether the
Book of Mormon is what it claims to be and was received as Joseph claimed it was
or, if its historicity is in doubt, whether instead it could still be “true”
in some moral or theological sense if its historical contents were rejected or
explained away. Perhaps the assertion by these three contributors could be exemplified
by Elder Dallin H. Oaks’s statement in “The Historicity of the Book
There is something strange about accepting the moral or religious content of a
book while rejecting the truthfulness of its authors’ declarations, predictions,
and statements. This approach not only rejects the concepts of faith and revelation
that the Book of Mormon explains and advocates, but it is also not even good scholarship.
With characteristic insight, Elder Oaks points out what is at stake here—the
foundation of faith for Latter-day Saints. “The argument that it makes no
difference whether the Book of Mormon is fact or fable is surely a sibling to
the argument that it makes no difference whether Jesus Christ ever lived”
(p. 244). The other authors who deal exclusively with the Book of Mormon
offer similar perspectives.
In his article “Joseph Smith and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,”
Kent P. Jackson reviews carefully the witnesses to the historicity of the Book
of Mormon. For instance, turning to Joseph Smith’s account of the reception
and translation of the Book of Mormon, Jackson lays out the logical options: (1)
Joseph deliberately deceived others; (2) Joseph was deluded; (3) an angel appeared,
but there were no plates; (4) Joseph really received and translated plates, but
what the plates say regarding historicity is false; or (5) the account of the
Book of Mormon as traditionally held by believing Latter-day Saints is true. Jackson
similarly sets before his readers the logical options with regard to what the
Doctrine and Covenants says about the Book of Mormon and to what the Three Witnesses
and the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon claim to have seen and experienced.
Having reviewed Joseph’s claims and what the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine
and Covenants, and the Three and Eight Witnesses say about the book, Jackson asks,
“what credibility could any of these sources have if the book is not historical?”
(p. 137). All of this comes to a question of what one could trust if there
is not a historical grounding for this book. Jackson directs his focus on the
crux of the matter:
Can the Book of Mormon indeed be “true,” in any sense, if it lies
repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately regarding its own historicity? Can Joseph
Smith be viewed with any level of credibility if he repeatedly, explicitly, and
deliberately lied concerning the historicity of the book? Can we have any degree
of confidence in what are presented as the words of God in the Doctrine and Covenants
if they repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately lie by asserting the historicity
of the Book of Mormon? If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, what
possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith
and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints given the consistent assertions
that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that describes ancient events? (pp. 137-38)
The strength of Jackson’s article is in its careful and detailed reasoning
about the issue and why Latter-day Saints must stand by the traditional account
of the Book of Mormon.
Similarly, Louis Midgley, in “No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity
of the Book of Mormon,” focuses on the nontraditional belief that there
are acceptable alternative explanations for the Book of Mormon. Those advocating
a so-called middle ground will argue that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient
book but that Joseph Smith was also not a deceiver, that somehow he and the book
can still be held to be inspired, though the book is not a true record of the
past. Midgley observes that “these critics often do not understand why Latter-day
Saints refuse to accept their essentially secular, naturalistic explanations.”
And while there may be a possible middle ground on many other issues, when it
comes to the question of whether Joseph was a prophet or whether the Book of Mormon
is an ancient text, “there is simply no possible middle ground . . .
as Latter-day Saints understand such matters” (p. 158).
What is significant here is that the effort to find a middle ground evades the
central, inevitable question: Yes or no? Do you believe Joseph’s account
of receiving and translating the plates and that the book is what it claims to
be—an ancient record of a fallen people? Stated as such, the question is
not a historical or a scientific one; it is no wonder that the disinterested observer
does not want to push that question but rather wants to foster thinking that will
help people understand without having to bring to the fore the real question—will
you believe or not?
While it is understandable that non-Latter-day Saints might not comprehend
why the Saints hold so tenaciously to the traditional understanding, Midgley is
rightly impatient with some Mormon philosophers and historians who urge Latter-day
Saints to move away from embarrassing claims of visions, appearances, translation
of plates, restorations of keys, and so on, toward a respectable theology. Such
thinkers want “to make a distinction between [the Book of Mormon’s]
historicity and its prophetic teachings” (p. 161). The move toward
theology, Midgley argues, is not consistent with scripture and revelation, particularly
since theology, if it is not merely descriptive, borrows from philosophical categories
and is founded on “a philosophical culture that sees only scandal in prophetic
charisms” (p. 164).
The efforts of some historians and theologians to find a kind of philosophical
or historical certainty fail because of the tentative and inconclusive nature
of both philosophy and history. Such “will not—cannot—provide
certainty. . . . For me, and I believe for faithful Latter-day Saints
generally, the accounts of the prophets and the record of God’s mighty acts
are sufficient for both the ground and the content of faith. Faith is, after all,
not merely believing something but trusting God” (p. 165).
Beyond these three articles that deal specifically with the Book of Mormon, many
of the other articles deal with theological issues surrounding the question of
historicity and Latter-day Saint understanding of scripture in general.
“Notes on History and Inerrancy” by Daniel C. Peterson confronts those
who “want us to believe that the scriptural stories can still be religiously
meaningful even if they are purely fictional” (p. 208). Peterson acknowledges
that in some instances this can be true and that “people can find life-orientational
significance in stories that did not actually occur” (p. 209). The
issue, of course, is the difference in meaning something will have if we assume
it actually happened or if we believe it is simply a meaning-giving mythology
with no basis in history. And with foundational issues, this is all-important.
As Peterson says, “it matters very much whether the story of Christ really
happened as the Gospels say it did” (p. 208). Why?—because, for
instance “if the purpose of the story of Jesus’ resurrection is to
illustrate divine love or the triumph of good over evil, but Jesus did not in
fact rise from the grave, God actually looks worse or less powerful than if the
story had not been told at all” (p. 210). Indeed, it seems that a Christ
figure triumphant only symbolically over death—perhaps one whose message
of love is resurrected in the hearts of his followers when he dies—is very
different from a living Christ truly triumphant over death and hell.
Peterson makes a similar connection with the Book of Mormon: taking this as “an
authentic record of a real God’s genuine interventions and self-disclosures
in literal history is a very different thing from [taking] the Book of Mormon
as a fictional expression of a nineteenth-century farm boy’s touching faith
in such an intervening and self-disclosing God” (p. 211).
Robert L. Millet’s “The Historical Jesus: A Latter-day Saint Perspective”
traces certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements toward a naturalization
of the life of Jesus and the efforts to find a scientific and historical understanding
of who Jesus was and what he taught. Millet examines briefly the movements’
focus on various forms of biblical criticism—historical, textual (both
higher and lower), form criticism, and redaction. In one way or another, these
approaches to the Bible seek to find out what “really” happened in
the events recounted in the Gospels and what Jesus really did or did not say. All of this, Millet shows, leads to these key questions:
To what degree can we trust the canonical Gospels in regard to what Jesus said
and did? Has the Christian Church transformed a lowly Nazarene into a God? Is
it possible to tear away the faithful film of believing tradition and get back
to the way things really were? Can we excise from the biblical text those theological
perspectives that preclude an “accurate” view of Jesus? Indeed, the
question of the ages is, “What think ye of Christ?” (Matt 22:42).
Millet goes on to assert that indeed Christ is exactly who both he and the Gospels
claim he is: “the literal Son of God, the Only Begotten Son in the flesh
of the Eternal Father” (p. 186).
Millet argues that those who have followed the aforementioned modes of biblical
criticism have, in most cases, simply denied anything supernatural, not allowing
in the Gospel accounts such fundamental things as “prophecy, revelation,
and divine intervention” (p. 186). Such a view simply cannot make room
for these things, and we ought not to be surprised at the conclusions that biblical
criticism alone leaves us.
Millet goes on to show what help the restored gospel offers us in these issues
and how the revelations “attest to the person and powers of Jesus of Nazareth
and confirm that the Jesus of history is in fact the Christ of faith” (p. 190).
He also adds (and this is a crucial addition) that “The final great test
is the test of the spirit, the test of individual revelation, with the assurance
that all can know” (p. 190).
Addressing many of the same issues as Millet (namely those arising from the Enlightenment
and its emphasis on the natural and scientific as well as its virtual dismissal
of other ways of knowing), Paul Y. Hoskisson deals with the need for historicity,
both in developing faith and in establishing obligation. Hoskisson sets out to
show why critics “are wrong when they contend that historicity is not necessary
to develop scriptural faith” and why it is right to maintain that “the
historicity of certain central, scriptural events is necessary for there to be
substance to our faith” (p. 101).
Before turning his attention to the relation of history and historical obligation,
Hoskisson clarifies several things with respect to the issue of historicity and
faith for the Latter-day Saints. First, “we believe that central scriptural
events must be historical, but we do not require historical evidence in order
to develop our faith” (p. 101). Second, though Latter-day Saints maintain
the historicity of scripture, “we have no need to assert the inerrancy or
all-inclusive nature of scripture, and therefore we do not feel the need to defend
every tittle, jot, word, or phrase” (p. 103). Third, Latter-day Saints
do not need to “accept or reject in its totality the historicity of all
scripture,” though it is clear that some parts of scripture “require
historicity in order to add content to our faith” (p. 103).
Hoskisson then shows how the Enlightenment and the move to rationality gradually
established reason as “a supplement to revelation, [and] began to replace
it as the path to knowledge of God” (p. 105). Hoskisson shows how a
tenacious holding to the terms and methods of the Enlightenment leads repeatedly
to conclusions such as Strauss’s—he “denied the miraculous elements
in the history of Christ while trying to maintain a belief in the man Jesus”
(p. 109). Hoskisson maintains that Latter-day Saints are in a position not
to be fooled by the premises of the Enlightenment and to then see why they ought
to hold to the historicity of scripture.
Scripture’s historicity is bound up, Hoskisson argues, with historical obligation.
For instance, if Jesus was not actually baptized, then no requirement can be laid
on us. “If, on the other hand, Christ Himself was baptized, then we cannot
escape its necessity and must also be baptized” (p. 113). Similar claims
can be made about other events from the many acts of Christ, to the covenant made
with Abraham and the sacrifice required of him, to the death and resurrection
of Christ. Take away their historicity and you take away the obligation that comes
with them. At the same time, such a move takes away that which gives “content
in our doctrine, substance to our faith, and reason for our hope” (p. 116).
Two of the best articles in helping Latter-day Saints understand what scripture
is are those by John S. Tanner and James E. Faulconer. In “The World and the
Word: History, Literature, and Scripture,” Tanner argues that “scripture has
textual as well as historical dimensions, and these twin aspects of scripture
are not necessarily in opposition,” and that careful reading of scripture “should
give due weight to both the historicity and textuality of the word of God” (p. 217).
While being cognizant of the historicity and textuality of scripture, Tanner
reminds us that the right way to read scripture “is neither as history nor as
literature alone, but as scripture” (p. 218, emphasis
added). Scripture has the literary and historical aspects, but its aim and nature
are something higher:
Scripture is best regarded as testament. Testaments are, to be sure, essentially
and overwhelmingly historiographic, written by prophets and telling of events
which not only can be coordinated with time and space but which often order and
give meaning to time and space. At the same time, testaments are also the record
of testators or witnesses, whose purpose is not merely to record facts but to
bear witness. (p. 222)
If we view scripture as testament, we will neither dismiss its historicity nor
deny its textuality but will take all of these into account along with what scripture
is bearing witness to and what it is asking us to believe and do.
Tanner goes on to show a number of potential dangers in some literary approaches
to scriptures that “regularly downplay or deny its historicity” (p. 225)
and in approaches that are too literalistic and may “miss the point by undervaluing
the literary” (p. 226). To exemplify a proper reading that does not
get weighed down by historical literacy but that is informed by appreciation for
the literary, Tanner turns to the allegory of the olive tree. Here he shows how
much richer this work becomes when read beyond a mere correlating of incidents
in the parable with actual history. As Tanner observes, “We are meant to
learn more and to feel more.. . . For if we let the symbols work on
our hearts, as well as inform our minds, we will feel truths that apply not only
to particular historical moments but to all times, all places, and all people”
In a similar way, Faulconer addresses the historical and the figurative,
the real and the symbolic in scripture. His “Scripture as Incarnation”
is perhaps the most innovative of the articles in this volume, opening up fertile
ground for thought and deeper understanding. The article, though not obtuse, is
complex and takes real effort to plumb its depths. But it is worth such effort.
Faulconer points to a richer way of understanding and approaching scripture (and
ritual) than the general modern worldview allows.
Faulconer argues that the scriptures are indeed historical but that our modern
notions of history do not account for what those who wrote scripture (the premoderns)
meant by history. We need, therefore, to be cautious about looking at scripture
historically, not because there is no historicity, but because what history
was for the premoderns seems to be something different than for moderns. “Thus,
difficulties occur when, with the onset of modernism, scripture becomes, like
any other book, something that is understood merely referentially, and religion
ceases to be thought of as the ordering power of the world and becomes
one sphere of interest among many” (p. 34). The claim here is not that
modern history is bad, but that to view scripture merely in modern historical
terms is to miss what scripture should be and the richness it has to offer.
Those who wrote scripture had a broader and more religiously meaningful conception
of history—a history that included the divine and was given its fundamental
meaning by the divine.
For the modern mind, there are the “actual events” and then the words
of scripture that refer to those events. For the ancients, scripture had a different
purpose rather than simply as a reference. “Instead of referring to the
divine as do ordinary signs, the words of scripture are an embodiment of the divine,
an incarnation; they embody the divine order of that to which, on a modern view,
they seem only to refer” (p. 38).
Faulconer asserts that scripture speaks of “real people and real events” but
that “premodern interpreters do not think it sufficient (or possible) to portray
the real events of real history without letting us see them in the light of
that which gives them their significance—their reality, the enactment
of which they are part—as history, namely the symbolic order that they
incarnate” (p. 44). For the premodern a “literal history”—a history
by the letter—”necessarily incorporates and reveals [a divine] order.
Any history that does not incorporate it is incomplete and, therefore, inaccurate”
(p. 45). Furthermore, distinguishing between the literal and figurative
(though such categories are not totally obliterated) is not as problematic for
the premoderns. For them, “reading the story of Moses and Israel typologically,
figurally, anagogically, or allegorically is not what one does instead of
or in addition to reading literally. Such readings are part and parcel
of a literal reading” (p. 48).
Faulconer ends his paper by suggesting that most Latter-day Saints already read
scripture as giving us a symbolic ordering—an incarnation—of the divine,
though they may not speak of it in those terms. “Nevertheless, it remains
possible not only to continue to read scripture as incarnational rather than merely
referential, but to do so more explicitly than we have done” (p. 49).
My overview of these articles should be enough to give readers a sense of the
purpose of this book and the strength of the articles in it. It is a timely book
and helpful in clarifying why Latter-day Saints hold fast to the historicity of
scripture. Of course, what is said here may seem obvious to most Latter-day Saints
who believe and have a witness of the Spirit. Nevertheless, this book is helpful
in giving us better ways to think and talk about these issues. And it is certainly
helpful in showing Latter-day Saints and others that there are intelligent, educated
people who believe in Christ and his historicity, and in scripture (ancient and
latter-day) and its historicity.
Ultimately, for me, and I think for the authors of this book, the question of
the historicity of Latter-day scripture is not solely or primarily historical.
That is, it is not a question that can or should be answered with historical evidence
alone. To raise the question of historicity of scripture is to ask a question
that includes more than the historical. It is an issue for faith, one that is
settled—as several of the authors point out—by prayer and revelation.
Though one may want to study something out historically, and though one may find
historical evidence that confirms, but does not prove, the scriptures, that historical
search will not settle the matter. It is first and last a question for faith.
I do not find the Book of Mormon to be true because I have found its historicity
to be true, but rather I take the historicity to be true because I have received
a witness that the Book of Mormon is true—and “true” here includes
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein saw the issue of scripture and historicity
with uncanny insight:
Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers
us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative
with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through
thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you
have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical
narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.—There
is nothing paradoxical about that!1
When Wittgenstein says Christianity is not founded on a historical truth, he is
not commenting on the historicity of Jesus or the resurrection but rather on the
nature of historical truth and the nature of religious truth. Religious truth
(Latter-day Saints might say “revealed truth”) is in a different category
and learned in a different way than historical truth. While the resurrection is
historical, as a believer I do not receive my witness of it, nor form my attitudes
toward it, through the categories of history. To paraphrase Christ’s response
to Peter: flesh and blood (history) does not reveal this, but the Father which
is in heaven. A proclamation such as “Christ is risen” or a testimony
that the Book of Mormon is true or that the keys of the kingdom of God were restored
to Joseph Smith is rife with historicity (they really happened), but such statements
are different from and more than historical claims. They are, as Tanner notes
of scripture, testimonies. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called such
statements “existence communications”2—that is, communications
that require the receiver to respond with one’s soul: to believe and follow,
or to disbelieve and not follow. What such communications do not allow is that
one can hedge on what is being communicated and try to change it into something
more intellectually or culturally acceptable. In other words, one cannot go about
spiritualizing away the resurrection or making the Book of Mormon true only in
the sense that it teaches great ideas so as to make one’s acceptance of
such things easier to bear, relying on human reason and wisdom alone without faith
and revelation. Such is a nonreligious response to what requires a religious response—that
is, a response that requires one’s life, a whole-souled response to the
The authors in this important volume see what is at stake here and will not
allow for either a diminishing of the claims of latter-day scripture or a lessening
of what scripture demands of every individual—faith and obedience, including
an already submissive response in our acceptance of scripture and the claims
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1980), 32e, emphasis in original.
- See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans.
David F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941). This is one
of the best philosophical treatments of the relation of history and Christianity,
and Latter-day Saints would be profited by reading this long, challenging, but
tremendously insightful work.