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Whose Word Can We Trust?

When any book that claims to be from God makes statements that cannot be verified, we can either take its claims on faith, or we can base our trust on the book’s track record of verified claims on other subjects.

My attempt to transfer my ordination credentials to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was rejected because I insisted that we need more grounds on which to believe the Bible than simply because it claims to be the word of God. I refuse to believe that a book comes from God simply because it says so. Any book can make that claim. (As Jesus asks, “Which is easier: to say, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise and walk?”)

The folks in the EPC thought I was demanding proof from God, rather than accepting the Bible’s word on faith. What I was saying was that we fallible humans need a little help from God to show us why we should believe the claims of the Bible, and not the claims of the Quran or the Book of Mormon as well. And what we need is more than simply the testimony of the Spirit, to which both the Westminster Confession and Moroni 10:4 ultimately appeal. The testimony of the Spirit can easily be misidentified.

And yet, I get it: as Cornelius Van Til argues, people can read evidence any way they want to. What some view as errors or falsehoods, may be seen differently by others. Only God can open our eyes to see the evidence for what it is. I’m just glad God has been merciful enough to give us a lot more than unreliable feelings to lead us.

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the two books that make more historically verifiable claims than the scriptures of any other religion. The Quran is mostly Muhammad’s word on what Allah has spoken, although there are a few revisions of events narrated on the Bible, and items such as the Gnostic account of Jesus as a child making clay pigeons come to life. Here again, it’s the Quran’s word versus the Bible’s. But the Bible and the Book of Mormon make far more claims that can be tested.

I insist on being no tougher on the Book of Mormon than I am on the Bible. I’ll give the Book of Mormon the same benefit of the doubt that I give to the Bible. If the LDS wish to view difficulties in their scriptures the same way that we who believe in Biblical inerrancy see our difficulties, I will grant them that prerogative, even though I do not believe their book to be from God. I will even affirm the Book of Mormon to be more reliable in its teachings on the Trinity and polygamy than later LDS teachings.

I would not want to have to defend the Book of Mormon’s claim that on Good Friday, mountains and cities collapsed on the American continent (3 Nephi 8:12-19, 9:3-8). Granted, the Bible itself makes the more modest claim of a local earthquake on Good Friday (Matthew 27:51), which itself must be taken on faith, aside from a Talmud tradition of the Temple doors opening automatically 40 years before Jerusalem was destroyed (p Yoma 6:3, b Yoma 4:1). These are the sorts of historical references that can strengthen our confidence in a book that makes statements about God and morality which cannot otherwise be proved.

LDS scholars have tried to verify the Book of Mormon through Mesoamerican archaeology, with mixed results. The chief problem is our inability to correlate Book of Mormon personal and place names with what we know about ancient America, although the language situation and the scarcity of writing magnify the difficulty (see https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Book_of_Mormon/Archaeology/Compared_to_the_Bible).

Yes, for both Bible and Book of Mormon, absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. But the Bible’s text is so much easier to demonstrate as reliable. In cases such as Sennacherib’s showdown with Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-37 = 2 Kings 18:13-19:37) and Israel’s war with King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3), we have the opposing king’s version of the story, which correlates with the Bible’s version in amazing detail. In the case of the Gospels, we have the criteria of authenticity, where the testimony of the four Gospel authors can be rigorously cross-examined to show that it is reliable. (See next week’s post, “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph.”)

In either case, we all, both LDS and Nicene Christians, should reject the approach that treats our respective scriptures as mere inspirational fiction. To see the resurrection of Jesus as a well-intentioned myth is an assault on both of our faiths. And what good is an inspiring story about Esther, or Alma, that never really happened? For more of my thoughts on this, I invite you to search online for my 3-part series “Historicity: Does It Matter?” in the Presbyterian Outlook.

I have much less problem believing that Jesus could have come to America after his resurrection, than I do believing that our Native Americans are descended from Jews who crossed the Pacific in a boat in 600 BCE. And when we turn our attention to the Book of Abraham found in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price, I see overwhelming problems, although our LDS friends would choose to approach them differently. (We’ll save that for another post.)

Ultimately, if an authoritative text has proven itself reliable to us at points where we can verify its truth, we will trust it at points where its truth is challenged, whether it be the existence of Solomon’s empire, or the existence of Zarahemla. And when our two authoritative texts may fundamentally disagree, we must decide which one we trust more.