Understanding the Book of Mormon? He "Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks"

Review of Ross Anderson. Understanding
the Book of Mormon: A Quick Christian Guide to the Mormon Holy Book.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. 176 pp., incl. subject and scripture
indexes. $14.99.

Understanding the Book of Mormon? He “Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks”

Reviewed by Ben McQuire

bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
So by my former lecture and advice,
Shall you my son. You have me, have you not?1

Imagine picking up a book with the title Understanding
2 After reading through a basic synopsis, some biographical information on
Shakespeare, and perhaps some chronological details explaining the historical
context of the drama, you come across a section with the heading “Should I
Read Hamlet?”
And what does it say? “I don’t see any harm in reading [Hamlet].
. . . It will be time-consuming. You may find parts of it boring or confusing.
But reading the [play] is a good way to engage your friend in conversation”
(p. 92).

In his preface, Ross Anderson shares with us his objective
for his small book. It was “written both to explain and to evaluate the
Book of Mormon from the perspective of the historic Christian faith” (p.
7). This is a rather curious way to start a book whose title suggests “understanding.”
In reviewing this book, I have four objectives in mind: First, I want to
discuss the notion of a “historic Christian faith,” what it means and
how it is used in a comparative study like this one. Second, I want to explore
the polemical nature of Anderson’s book within this context of comparative religious
studies. Third, I want to take a closer look at Anderson’s notion of “understanding
the Book of Mormon.” Finally, I want to examine a couple of specific
apologetic arguments raised by Anderson against Mormonism.

The Historic Christian Faith, the Early Church, or Simple, Primitive

The phrase “the historic Christian faith” is not
all that uncommon, particularly in evangelical literature. What does it mean?
In his book The
Remnant Spirit
, Douglas Cowan discusses the use of this phrase by
evangelicals. He tells us it is a “floating signifier” that is interpreted
“within rigorous conceptual boundaries. That which transgresses those
boundaries is, by definition, located outside the pale of that historic
Christian faith.” He then explains that

the problem with this is that, as a signifier of anything
other than that which is interpreted to support and maintain the conservative
Protestant vision of Christianity, “the historic Christian faith” is
simply an empty concept. Although it is often used this way, history is not an
objective circumstance that can be abstracted and made to command fealty for purposes
of ideological advancement. There is no one authoritative version of history
that can indisputably separate the authentic from the inauthentic. Rather, in
terms of its contribution to the social construction of reality, history is an
intricate, often murky and inconsistent complex of situations and forces,
attitudes and choices, memories and anti-memories, all of which serve the interpretive
agendas of those who deploy history as something demanding allegiance. And, in
deploying something like “the historic Christian faith” as a binding
signifier, reform and renewal movements almost consistently ignore the fact
that there is no such thing as Christianity per se; there are instead, both geographically
and across time, multiple, often competing, sometimes mutually incompatible
Christianities. The historic Christian faith as it is understood, for example,
by the Greek Orthodox monks at the monastery on Mount Athos (at which not even
female farm animals are allowed) is considerably different than that embraced
by fundamentalist congregations in the Ozark Mountains whose faith is actualized
through handling poisonous snakes. Yet, neither would deny they inhabit the
historic Christian faith, although they may deny such inhabitance to the other.3

Anderson invokes the notion of a historic Christian belief
several times,4 with
the intent to claim that position for himself and to exclude the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from this inhabitance. He gives us perhaps an
even better indication of the point he wishes to make when he writes of his
desire to avoid referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by
its preferred abbreviated form: the Church of Jesus Christ. “Yet in my
mind, this implies an exclusive status that I cannot grant” (p. 8).
Actually, it is not merely an exclusive status that Anderson denies; it is the
position that the LDS faith might somehow be a part of that “historic Christian

Illustrating Cowan’s point, Joseph Smith also made this
claim, although he used language that was much more at home in restoration
movements in the early nineteenth century. We find this language for example,
in the Articles of Faith, written by Joseph Smith in 1842 in a letter to John
Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat. The sixth
article reads: “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive
, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists,
and so forth.” This kind of language was popularized at the end of the
eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century by the
influential Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley (although he certainly was not
the only writer using this language). For these writers, the primitive church
represented the simple, earliest Christianity that had been modified and corrupted
and whose doctrines had been expanded from a range of heathen and Platonic
sources. So, for example, in one of his letters to the Reverend James Barnard,
Priestley tells us that the “primitive church” was not Trinitarian at
all. Rather, he explains,

the doctrine of the Trinity, as it was first
advanced, did not appear to infringe so much upon the doctrine of the unity of God as it did afterwards; and this infringement was absolutely disclaimed by those
who held it. . . . This I prove from the great resemblance between their
doctrine of the Trinity and the principles of Platonism; a resemblance pointed
out, and even greatly magnified, by themselves; from their known attachment to
the doctrines of Plato, and from their natural wish to avail themselves
of the new idea they hereby got concerning the person of Christ, to make their
religion appear to more advantage in the eyes of Heathen philosophers, and
persons of distinction in their time.5

In 1988, Jonathan Smith gave a series of lectures discussing
how the scholarship of comparative religions has largely been driven by
Protestant-Catholic polemics. In this discussion, both sides laid claim to be a
part of the tradition that best represented the early Christian faith, while
accusing the other side of having departed from it. As Smith notes in his
preface: “In what follows, I shall be reflecting on the comparative
endeavor by means of a classic and privileged example: the comparison of early
Christianities and the religions of Late Antiquity, especially the so-called
mystery cults.”6 I bring this up because the discussion here is quite similar. Two faiths, each
claiming to represent that early Christian faith (either as the primitive
church or as the historic Christian faith), are being compared—and the result
looks very similar to the past several hundred years of similar polemical
arguments between competing faith traditions. Smith tells us, though, that “the
entire enterprise of comparison . . . needs to be looked at again.”7

So what constitutes that
historic Christian faith in Anderson’s perspective? He does not provide us with
much, though he does give us four well-known points—the traditional
doctrine of the Trinity and three of the five solas. First, Trinitarian doctrine: “Mormonism
denies the traditional doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 42). Then sola gratia: “According
to the Bible, a person is saved by God’s grace, through a response of turning
from sin and trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ” (p. 45).
Then sola scriptura: “Historically, Christians have seen the Bible alone as God’s final,
authoritative word to humanity” (p. 49). Finally solus Christus: “By
contrast, the historic Christian position is that God’s conclusive revelation
to humanity has already been given in the person of Jesus Christ, as elaborated
in the Bible” (p. 50).

With the exception of Trinitarian dogma, Anderson’s
discussion of these issues might well be taken whole cloth from a Protestant
anti-Catholic tract. These core issues of the Reformation are tied tightly to
the five points of Calvinism. It seems impossible, though, to determine to what
extent Anderson believes in these five points. He is not as interested in the
comparison set out in his preface as he is in pointing out that Mormonism does
not meet his vision of the ideology of the historic Christian faith. However,
the language that he has crafted provides us with some insight. For example, he
provides a particularly evangelical interpretation of sola
in this comment: “Historically, Christians have seen
the Bible alone as God’s final, authoritative word to humanity” (p. 49).
Keith Mathison describes this belief in this way:

The modern Evangelical [concept] of solo scriptura [as
distinguished from sola scriptura] is nothing more than a new version of
Tradition 0. Instead of being defined as the sole infallible authority, the Bible is said to be the “sole basis of authority.”
Tradition is not allowed in any sense; the ecumenical creeds are virtually
dismissed; and the Church is denied any real authority. On the surface it would
seem that this modern Evangelical doctrine would have nothing in common with
the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox doctrines of authority. But despite the
very real differences, the modern Evangelical position shares one major flaw
with both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox positions. Each results
in auto­nomy. Each results in final authority being placed somewhere other
than God and His Word.8

To some extent Mathison’s comments can be directed to the conflict
between Anderson’s interpretation of the role of the Bible and that put forward
in the Westminster Confession of Faith, where “use of the ordinary means”
is necessary for a sufficient understanding of scripture.9 For Mathison,
this notion of solo scriptura—the idea that only the Bible can be
considered authoritative—was not a doctrine of the early church, and here
it further illustrates the issues with Anderson’s use of the term “historic
Christian faith.”

Each of these points can be examined in the same way. These
are the core issues of the Protestant-Catholic debate, such that, as Smith puts
it, “literally thousands of monographs, dissertations and articles have
been addressed to the question”10 of
comparative religion.

A Polemical Work

Hamlet: O! but she’ll keep her word.
King: Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in ‘t?
Hamlet: No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i’ the world.11

Why the fuss over such a short
phrase in Anderson’s preface? He follows his remarks on the historic Christian
faith with this statement:

I submitted the most controversial chapters to faithful Latter-day
Saints for critique, who, along with others, have helped me to avoid words that
might seem contemptuous or argumentative. . . . I hope to provide insight about
the subject, but also to model a way of interacting with others that speaks the
truth in love, with gentleness and respect. Ironically, Latter-day Saints will
probably view this as an “anti-Mormon” book despite my efforts to be
fair and kind, simply because I have not agreed with them. (p. 7)

This is an interesting argument. Does carefully choosing
words—and avoiding those that seem particularly
argumentative—actually make a text less polemical (or even nonpolemical)?
Does this help one avoid the label of “anti-Mormon”? And has Anderson
succeeded in this endeavor? Does an anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic text become
something else if the author is trying to be “kind and fair” and
avoids argumentative language? Does the atheist who presents his arguments in a
way that avoids contemptuous language become somehow less anti-religious?

Jonathan Smith provides a vocabulary to clarify the
polemical discussion taken from the writings of Joseph Priestley. Priestley
wrote that the early church had those whom he identifies as “philosophical”
or “Platonizing” Christians. These “adapted,” “accommodated,”
“added” to, “adopted,” made “agreeable,” “annexed,”
“built” on, “derived,” “extended,” “introduced,”
“mixed,” “modified,” “received,” and so on,
religious ideas from a variety of sources and thereby infected ancient doctrine
and genuine Christian principles.12 Likewise, for Anderson, Joseph Smith starts from a position that is quite close
to Anderson’s own historic Christian faith. But soon Joseph’s teachings were “embellished”
(p. 32) and “developed” and became “innovations” (p. 48).
Joseph “expands” (p. 54), items were “added,”  “a revision” was made, and
things were “corrected” (p. 56) and “borrowed” (p. 58) until
what Joseph taught became “increasingly distant from both the Book of Mormon
and the Bible” (p. 48), and hence from historic Christian faith. As
Anderson later tells us, “To Latter-day Saints, raising issues like this
will probably seem like an ‘anti-Mormon’ attack. A sincere inquirer should not
be expected to ignore honest questions that bear on the Book of Mormon’s credibility.
Yet we should raise these questions with sensitivity and humility” (p.

There would be little difference if we were to simply take
from Joseph Priestley’s work and substitute Mormonism for the “philosophical”
or “Platonizing Christians.” Of course, this isn’t how Joseph Smith
or his followers described what happened. For them, they were abandoning
neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon; instead they were continuing to
restore the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the primitive
church. So in section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants we read this from then
prophet Joseph F. Smith: “While I was thus engaged, my mind reverted to
the writings of the apostle Peter, to the primitive saints scattered abroad throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and other parts
of Asia, where the gospel had been preached after the crucifixion of the Lord”
(Doctrine and Covenants 138:5).

And to Anderson’s explicit statement of honest inquiry,
Jonathan Smith seems to respond: “The question is not merely one of a
revised taxonomy, urgent as that may be, but of interests. The history of the
comparative venture reviewed in these chapters has been the history of an
enterprise undertaken in bad faith. The interests have rarely been cognitive,
but rather almost always apologetic.”13 In short, Anderson’s
book is not a book about “understanding.”

It is not going to “model” a new way of
interacting in love, with gentleness and respect. And even in trying to avoid
contemptuous or argumentative language Anderson fails. Why? The entire method,
the process, the way of presenting, according to Jonathan Smith, poisons
everything with the centuries of debate, inspired by the Catholic-Protestant
polemic of the past. Hence the language, despite Anderson’s appeal to having a
more respectful and more gentle discussion, is nonetheless still the language
of a polemic; and Anderson’s agenda is not one of understanding, but one of confrontation
and attack.

Understanding the Book of Mormon?


Carrying, I say, the stamp of
one defect,
Being nature’s
livery, or fortune’s star,—
Their virtues
else—be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as
man may undergo—
Shall in the
general censure take corruption
From that
particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the
noble substance of a doubt
To his own

After Anderson has provided his readers with his list of
cast members and a basic synopsis, he explains at the end of chapter 3 that “the
next chapter takes another look inside the Book of Mormon—this time not
to understand its story line, but to learn more about its message” (p.
39). This sounds quite appealing. Finally, a look at the meaning of the Book of
Mormon—especially as it compares to that historic Christian faith. But
the results are disappointing. With Anderson’s need for an apologetic message,
the Book of Mormon apparently does not provide a very fruitful ground.

In the first paragraph of chapter 4, Anderson observes: “Yet
many central doctrines espoused by the LDS church are not found in the Book of
Mormon. In many ways, its teachings resemble biblical doctrines more than they
do the later teachings of Joseph Smith and contemporary Mormonism” (p.
40). The core of his conclusion is curious. His primary objection is that,
while “the picture of Jesus presented in the Book of Mormon is similar to
that of the Bible,” “the Book of Mormon tells us too much about Jesus”
(pp. 41–42). Anderson is actually critical of the message of the Book of

Anderson also discusses the notion that the Book of Mormon
doesn’t teach sola gratia—salvation by grace alone. Rather, it
presents a “progression: if you turn from ungodliness, and if you love God
completely, then God’s grace is sufficient. The Book of Mormon, then, teaches
salvation by a combination of God’s grace added to human exertion” (pp.
45–46). This is, however, merely a slight difference in the order of
events in Anderson’s theology: “According to the Bible, a person is saved
by God’s grace, through a response of turning from sin and trusting in the
person and work of Jesus Christ. This leads to a changed life characterized by
good works” (p. 45).

It appears that, from Anderson’s perspective, grounded as it
is in some variety of evangelical religiosity, individuals are first justified
by grace through faith alone, and then they may, if already predestined to
salvation, respond to being saved by turning from sin and trusting in Jesus
Christ. But the actions of individuals can have no significant impact on
whether salvation takes place. Why? If God predestines one for salvation, there
is nothing that person can do about it.

Anderson quotes passages
from the Book of Mormon that serve his polemical purposes. But he does not
quote language that provides a far more nuanced perspective of the Book of
Mormon’s teachings on divine mercy, sanctification, or justification: “I
say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the
beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that
ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you
from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your
whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). This
raises a substantial issue about which a great deal has been written. Anderson’s
goal, though, is not to understand but to polemicize; once Anderson finishes
with these criticisms his interest in the Book of Mormon “and its message”
flies out the window. When the Book of Mormon doesn’t provide sufficient
contrast to his historic Christian faith, Anderson moves on to current LDS
theology and practices. His focus turns from examining the Book of Mormon,
which has “much in common with biblical doctrine” (p. 47), to
questioning the LDS understanding of the nature of God, the preexistence, our
continued existence after death, and other LDS views that conflict with his
Calvinist theology. These issues, Anderson admits, don’t reflect the teachings
of the Book of Mormon. He tells us: “These concepts are not found anywhere
in the Book of Mormon” (p. 43). “Again, later teachings of Mormonism
go far beyond what the Book of Mormon teaches” (p. 44). “These
doctrines, too, are not found in the Book of Mormon” (p. 44). “None
of these ideas are derived from the Book of Mormon” (p. 46). “Yet
this view does not seem to reflect the Book of Mormon” (p. 43). But
Anderson never explains how these views conflict with his evangelical beliefs
or why these views are incompatible with his historic Christian faith. Perhaps
he merely assumes that his audience will be familiar with his evangelical
theology—but many, if not most, LDS readers will simply assume that these
doctrines represent early Christian beliefs restored through Joseph Smith and
later LDS prophets.

At the end of chapter 4 we know far more about what the Book
of Mormon does not teach than we know about what it does teach. Anderson wants
to have his cake and eat it too. He asks, “How do we know the truth?”
And he insists that “the kind of test” he has “spelled out is
not experience but comparison of doctrinal truth” (p. 84) contained in
contemporary evangelical theology. He looks for truth by examining everything
he can about the Book of Mormon except its crucial prophetic message about the
saving power of Jesus Christ.

The Criticisms

At the beginning of his book, Anderson tries to impress upon
the reader his qualifications to speak on Mormon topics. He tells us of his
experience “growing up Mormon and leading a [Protestant] church in Utah.”
The inside panel to the front cover describes him as an “adult convert to
Christianity.” His church’s Web site tells us that “Pastor Anderson .
. . is a Utah native, born and raised in the LDS Church. He came to a saving
faith in Christ in 1976.”15 In that year Anderson was a freshman in his undergraduate program in biochemistry
at the University of California, San Diego. Certainly he grew up in a
Latter-day Saint family, but finding a “saving faith” as a teenager
doesn’t exactly correspond to being an adult convert, and Anderson could probably
have clarified that the church he led in Utah was an evangelical church.
Similarly, Anderson’s perspective of the Book of Mormon is quite similar to
that which many young people have of their religious texts—more an object
to be pointed to than a source of wisdom and understanding. In some ways, his Understanding
the Book of Mormon
fits this description quite well.

There is much in this book that deals with evidences of
various sorts. An apologetic text needs to have a systematic approach to dealing
with evidence. Of course, my essay here is also an apologetic text. I make no
pretenses about it. But there is a need for such things. As Thomas Jefferson
wrote to John Adams:

I have read his [Priestley’s] Corruptions of Christianity,
and Early Opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them, and on
Middleton’s writings, especially his letters from Rome, and [his letter] to
Waterland, as the basis of my own faith. These writings have never been
answered . . . therefore I cling to their learning, so much superior to my own.16

Anderson is quite content to
be the provider of superior learning. Just before his concluding remarks, he
tells us that we don’t need to read the Book of Mormon to understand it. He
tells his readers that “you’ve gained a lot of insight about the Book of
Mormon as you’ve read this book” (p. 85). And in his concluding remarks he
claims that his “hope is that you will be prepared to talk to your Mormon
neighbors and friends when the opportunities arise. . . . So my prayer is that
God will use you to help others discover the truth, as you graciously share
with them the insights you have learned” (p. 93).

I have striven to look closely at a few of Anderson’s
claims: first, his claims about the Bible and his belief in it, which he then
compares to what he thinks is the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Bible;
and, second, his approach to those whom Latter-day Saints see as prophets. The
other issues that Anderson raises are not new, and all of them have been
previously addressed by LDS literature in great detail.

Anderson introduces his discussion of the relationship
between the Book of Mormon and the Bible in this way: “A closer look at
the relationship between the two books suggests that the Book of Mormon may
have borrowed much of its content directly from the Bible” (p. 58). This
is not an unexpected claim. After all, the Bible (as we have it now) was put
together relatively late. Its texts were often circulated independently, and
the individual books borrowed extensively from one another. Take for example an
entire chapter of material that is found in both 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18.
There are numerous other examples, but the religious texts of Israel and later
of Judah borrowed from each other, just as the New Testament frequently uses
the Old Testament.

Anderson’s point, invariably, is that these borrowings point
to a modern authorship. But the borrowings in the Old Testament can also point
to a different issue that Anderson raises. He tells us, referring to the Bible’s
reliability, that

in graduate school, I studied the text of Isaiah found in
the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predated the oldest previously known copy of Isaiah
by one thousand years. Even over ten centuries of copying, the two texts showed
only trivial differences. Far from many “plain and precious things”
having been removed, no major biblical doctrine is affected by any scribal
error. (p. 61)

This is an interesting
argument. But there are other ways to look at the evidence. And in this case,
we turn to those parallel texts of 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. In a recent study,
David J. A. Clines discusses this particular set of passages, including their
differences. “We have had in our hands, however, in the Masoretic text
itself the best evidence for its instability we could ask for, namely, the
existence of variant parallel texts, i.e. texts in double transmission.”17 In this particular case, he divides the differences between the two texts into
three categories: additions (he finds 49), changes in word order (there are 3),
and other variants (he finds 52). So between these two chapters in the
Masoretic text, he identifies 104 different variants. And he tells us that

since, as I believe can easily be demonstrated, the two
texts transmit a single original text, every variant shows one text or the
other to be corrupt. If the text of 2 Samuel 22 // Psalm 18 is at all typical
of the Hebrew Bible, one word in four in the Hebrew Bible may be textually corrupt. Since we cannot know which word in each set of four words is likely to be the
corrupt one, we could find ourselves in a situation of radical doubt about the
text of the Hebrew Bible. But things are worse than they appear.18

How are things worse? Clines then takes all of the variants
of this passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls and from other ancient versions (like
the LXX). He eliminates those that are clearly scribal errors and suggests that

what is especially interesting is not just the existence of
such variants but their number. I found in the evidence of Qumran and the
Septuagint 73 variants to our parallel texts of 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. I
conclude therefore that we know of the existence in pre-Masoretic times of 177
variants within this poem. . . . If 177 words have attested variants, almost one
word in two
(2.16, to be exact) is textually open to question. Is
there any reason why we should not extrapolate this state of affairs to the
rest of the Hebrew Bible?19

All of these errors, Clines
explains, crept in before the Masoretes began their careful copying of the
text. The purpose of his article was to discuss the ways in which this issue
can be addressed. This is not so difficult an issue for the Church of Jesus
Christ as it is for Anderson’s evangelical belief. It is hard to claim that “the
Bible alone is God’s final authoritative word to humanity” when you
suspect that it may be inaccurate, and worse when you cannot say where that
inaccuracy lies. One of the problems with comparative religious polemic of this
sort is that it works with blinders. It addresses merely those issues that it
feels it needs to for its partisan apologetic agenda. It does not recognize
external scholarship or alternative viewpoints. Anderson points to Bruce
Metzger in his footnotes for support. But if we turn to other scholars, we get
a different view altogether. Bart Ehrman, for example, tells us that

there are certain views of
the inspiration of Scripture, such as the one I had pounded into me as a late
teenager, that do not stand up well to the facts of textual criticism. For most
Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had,
these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to
challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very
words that God inspired in the Bible. . . . In any event, as I indicated, these
theses themselves were almost entirely noncontroversial. Who can deny that we
have thousands of manuscripts? Or hundreds of thousands of variants? Or that
lots of the variants involve spelling? Or that scholars continue to debate what
the original text was in lots of places? All of these statements are factually

The one statement that has stirred up controversy is my
claim that some of these variations are significant. This view has been
objected to by some conservative evangelicals and no one else that I know of.
That gives me pause—why is this criticism coming only from people with a
particular set of theological views?20

Part of the reason this kind of discussion (on the Bible)
gets included in Understanding the Book of Mormon stems back to the polemical
debates between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Anderson discusses the
issues involved with errors and anachronisms in the text of the Book of
Mormon—but it comes primarily from an evangelical set of theological
views. Latter-day Saints, despite the article of faith suggesting that “we
also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God” (Articles of Faith 1:8), simply do not have the
associated theology that an Evangelical does. For the Saints, there is no sola
since religious texts are allowed to contain errors and to
be incomplete—and even more, noncanonical texts can contain truth, if
read by those enlightened by the Spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 91). And while
Anderson’s assertion may be a useful apologetic in a text written primarily for
Evangelicals, it loses its force among Latter-day Saints. Ehrman notes that “these
textual facts can be interesting” without being a challenge to faith. But
in his apologetic endeavor, Anderson has failed to provide his evangelical
audience with an approach that will achieve his objectives: “my hope is
that you will be prepared to talk to your Mormon neighbors and friends when opportunities
arise” (p. 93).

Likewise, the implications of prophets are spelled out quite
clearly from Anderson’s point of view. He tells us that “every LDS Church
president is viewed by Mormons as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Thus no holy
book carries final authority in Mormonism. In the end, the word of a living
prophet stands above the authority of written scripture” (p. 50).

Much of Anderson’s discussion of prophets hinges on a single
issue—that a prophet (who claims to reveal God’s word) must in some way
be infallible. Perhaps he assumes that we have a doctrine of an infallible
prophet (much as he has a doctrine of an infallible biblical text). And
Anderson points his view back to the historical debate: “We are also
cautious because history affords many examples of religious leaders who have
tried to undermine the Bible’s unique authority in order to introduce their own”
(p. 51). For Anderson’s theology, the message of a prophet is completely beside
the point. It is the existence of a prophet as one who can reveal something
from God apart from the Bible that is the offense. It is a question of
authority. For the Saints, who see final authority resting with God and not
with a text or a person, such attacks simply don’t carry the same weight.

The Latter-day Saint view is illustrated in one particular
narrative in the Book of Mormon (one referenced by Anderson as well). After
Lehi receives and shares his vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8), Nephi’s
narrative provides us with two responses. His own response is to ask God for
the vision, which he receives, although it is experienced and therefore
different from his father’s vision (1 Nephi 11–14). The other response is
that of Laman and Lemuel, who ask Nephi to explain the vision. Nephi asks them,
“Have ye inquired of the Lord?” They respond: “We have not; for
the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:8–9).

Because of his evangelical perspective (and despite his
upbringing in the Mormon faith), Anderson has missed an essential Latter-day
Saint belief—namely, the most important revelation we have is the one we
personally receive from God. Anderson claims to understand the Book of Mormon.
He fails at this endeavor in every way. He fails to understand it as an object
at the center of a religious movement. He fails to understand the meaning of
its texts. He fails to understand the role it plays in the lives of believing
members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And his
book—a polemical comparison between his notion of a historic Christian
faith and the Church of Jesus Christ—is merely another example in a long
list of examples of such works.

The other side of his intention—”to interact with
Mormonism in a spirit of kindness and civility” (p. 7)—suffers
equally, for Anderson frames his discussion entirely in terms that are long
familiar from the polemics of comparative religion. In doing so he distances
himself and his readers from any understanding of Mormonism from the
perspective of its believers.


1. Polonius, in William
Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 2, scene 1.

2. There are, in fact, several
books that have been published with this title or similar titles, for example,
Peter Winders, Understanding “Hamlet” (Oxford: Pergamon,
1975); Timothy John Kelly, Understanding Shakespeare: Hamlet (Brisbane:
Jacaranda, 1964); Don Nardo, Understanding Hamlet (San Diego:
Lucent, 2000); and Richard Corum, Understanding Hamlet: A Student Casebook to
Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents
(Westport, CT: Greenwood,

3. Douglas E. Cowan, The Remnant
Spirit: Conservative Reform in Mainline Protestantism
(Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2003), 166–67.

4. Examples include the
following: “the historic Christian faith” (p. 7), “historic biblical
Christianity” (pp. 47, 84), “the historic Christian position”
(p. 50).

5. Quoted in John Rutt, ed., The
Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, LL.D. F.R.S. etc.
(London: G. Smallfield, 1790), 62–63.

6. Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), vii.

7. Smith, Drudgery
, 143.

8. Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of
Sola Scriptura
(Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 238–9. He
indicates that the term solo scriptura was coined in 1997 by Douglas Jones to
refer to “this aberrant Evangelical version of sola scriptura.”
Mathison references Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor
Books, 1986), 22. It is worth noting in the context of this essay that Mathison’s
proposal for sola scriptura is one that he claims was believed and
used by the “early church.” Mathison himself follows the Reformed
Protestant tradition.

9. Westminster Confession of
Faith, http://theconfessionproject.com/wmcf.html (accessed 23 June 2010).

10. Smith, Drudgery
, vii.

11. Shakespeare, Hamlet,
act 3, scene 2.

12. Smith, Drudgery
, 9–12. The list here is taken from Smith, but it is
only a small sampling.

13. Smith, Drudgery
, 143.

14. Shakespeare, Hamlet,
act 1, scene 4.

15. www.wasatchchurch.org/app/w_page.php?id=9&type=section
(accessed 10 June 2010).

16. Thomas Jefferson to John
Adams, quoted in Smith, Drudgery Divine, 20. Smith references Lester J.
Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between
Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams
(Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:369.

17. David J. A. Clines, “What
Remains of the Hebrew Bible? Its Text and Language in a Postmodern Age,” Studia
54 (2001): 76.

18. Clines, What Remains
of the Hebrew Bible?
78, emphasis added in last sentence.

19. Clines, What Remains
of the Hebrew Bible?
80, emphasis in original.

20. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus
Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t
Know About Them)
(New York: Harper One, 2009), 185.