Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Book of Mormon

I recently finished the Book of Mormon!  Here are some thoughts:

A.  Let’s start with a summary of what the Book of Mormon is about.

Jerusalem is about to be destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E..  Lehi, who lives in Jerusalem but is descended from Jacob’s son Joseph, leaves Jerusalem on a ship with his family.  Lehi is a righteous man.  His son Nephi is also righteous.  But his son Laman is not: Laman resents Nephi, loves riches, and does not want to leave Jerusalem.

Lehi’s family arrives in America.  The Lamanites descend from Laman, and the Nephites descend from Nephi.  The Lamanites are warlike and desire power.  They carry around a distorted memory that their ancestor Nephi deprived them of what was rightfully theirs.  The Nephites are somewhat like Israel in the Old Testament: they have the truth, and there are times when they are fairly righteous, but they often stray from the straight and narrow.

A lot of the Book of Mormon describes conflict between the Lamanites and the Nephites.  God often uses the Lamanites to punish the Nephites when the Nephites are unrighteous; the Nephites do well, however, when they trust in God to help them in battle.

At one point, some Nephites send missionaries to the Lamanites.  A group of Lamanites convert, and they decide to forswear war, at great cost to themselves.  God does not require pacifism in the Book of Mormon, but these Lamanites want to repudiate their warlike past, so they covenant with God not to fight in wars anymore.

Zarahemla is a region in America.  My impression is that it was started by other Jews who left Jerusalem when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed.  Nephites offer to rule Zarahemla, and Zarahemla accepts their rule.

Jesus Christ comes to America in the first century C.E. and preaches to the Nephites, the Lamanites, and Lehi’s other descendants.  Jesus preaches some of the things that are in the New Testament, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and pieces of his last speech in the Gospel of John.  Jesus also establishes a church in America.

At this point, the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites becomes rather confusing.  On the one hand, there are indications that the Nephites and the Lamanites are no longer racial or ethnic groups, but rather religious groups: the Nephites are those who accept Jesus Christ, regardless of what their nationality may be, whereas the Lamanites are those who reject Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, there also seem to be indications that the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites is still ethnic, or racial.  There was a prophecy before Jesus came to America that the Nephites would be exterminated in four hundred years on account of their sin, and, when this prophecy was made, the Nephites were still Nephites in a racial or ethnic sense.  And, four hundred years later, long after the coming of Christ, the Nephites were fatally defeated because they had fallen into deep iniquity.  This prophecy-and-fulfillment would make more sense if the Nephites remained an ethnic group before and after Christ came; maybe the solution is that most of the ethnic Nephites accepted Christ, whereas most of the ethnic Lamanites did not.

Mormons consider the Lamanites to be the ancestors of at least some of the Native Americans.  In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites receive dark skin twice: one time before Christ came, and the other time after Christ came.

There is another group in the Americas, and it is discussed in the Book of Ether.  These people descended from Jared’s family, which came to America after God scattered the people at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  The Jaredites had successions of righteous and wicked kings, and there was political infighting.  Centuries later, the Nephite Moroni, who also hid the Book of Mormon, read the Jaredites’ records.

B.  There were a lot of surprises in the Book of Mormon.  Mormons are often associated with polygamy, on account of their history.  But the Book of Mormon condemns polygamy!  In terms of their view on the Godhead, Mormons are usually labeled as tritheists: people who focus on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three distinct beings rather than their unity in one Godhead.  In the Book of Mormon, however, there are places in which Jesus seems to be equated with God the Father, as if the two are the exact same person; that would be modalism, not tritheism!  (There are also places in which the Father and Son appear to be distinct.)  Mormons fall on the continuationist side of the cessationist-continuationist debate.  On the one hand, that is not much of a surprise: after all, they believe that Scripture was written after the time of the New Testament, so, in their mind, prophetic gifts must not have ceased after the completion of the New Testament canon!  On the other hand, it is surprising because I never thought that Mormons believed in speaking in tongues or the continuing existence of miraculous healing!  The Book of Mormon says that these gifts remain and that, if they are not around, it is due to a lack of faith.

Some friends who have read about Mormonism helped me out on some of these items.  One said that Mormonism changed its position on polygamy and noted that the Book of Mormon is not the final authority within Mormonism, since there is the Pearl of Great Price.

(UPDATE: Something else that surprised me about the Book of Mormon was that it lacked the heresies or oddities that many say are characteristic of Mormonism: Satan and Jesus being brothers, God the Father once being a baby on a planet, human beings becoming God, people being married in the afterlife, etc.)  

C.  There seemed to me to be some interaction in the Book of Mormon with nineteenth century thought.  Universalism, the idea that all people will eventually be saved, is criticized in the Book of Mormon.  There is also a criticism of atheism, as a hero uses the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the idea that people should have faith to support belief in God.  Another idea that gets criticized a couple of times is the idea that God could not become flesh; perhaps the Book of Mormon, in that case, is arguing against a nineteenth century idea that Jesus was merely a man.  The Book of Mormon also takes a swipe at people who form secret societies to overthrow kings.  Could that reflect concern about Masons or the Illuminati, or something like that?  (I am just speculating here.)

D.  Related to (C.), one indication to me that the Book of Mormon was written in the nineteenth century, as opposed to having authentic pre-Christian documents, is that its prophecies about Jesus are so heavy-handed and specific!  In the Book of Mormon, people in the B.C. era knew who Christ was, and some were even converting to Christ in the Christian sense.  The Old Testament is not that heavy-handed and specific when it supposedly predicts the advent of Christ!

E.  In the Book of Mormon, salvation comes by faith, repentance, and baptism.  It does not believe in once-saved-always-saved, for it maintains that a person can fall from the faith and become worse than he was before, even more hardened to God and morality.  My impression (and this is subject to correction) is that it held that Christians need to uphold their salvation through continued repentance.

F. The Book of Mormon is against the baptism of children because it believes that children are innocent, perhaps in the sense that they are not yet accountable.  In fact, the Book says that those who promote the baptism of children will themselves go to hell!

G.  A question that I had in my mind is whether the Book of Mormon maintains that only those who accept the Book of Mormon will be saved.  There is a sense in the Book of Mormon that the Gentile world, or Christendom, has the truth, on some level, for there is a prophecy that the Gentiles will bring the New Testament to America.  At the same time, Christendom is deemed to be corrupt and immoral; there seem to be a couple of swipes in the Book of Mormon against Christians who preach grace-only!  There do appear to be statements that true Christians will accept the Book of Mormon.  The argument for the Book of Mormon in a few of these passages is that it encourages people to do good, and this shows that it is from God.  But couldn’t the same be said about the Bhagavad Gita?  And suppose that people do good without guidance from the Book of Mormon.  Why wouldn’t God accept them?  What would Mormonism say about that?  The Book of Mormon may be edifying, but what does it add, that is not already in the Old and New Testaments?

H.  There is a passage in the Book of Mormon that appears to suggest that everyone is invited to attend services; I thought that Mormons were more secluded or mysterious than that, but I am open to correction.  While all can attend services, however, communion can only be taken by actual believers, who are also subject to church discipline.

I.  On the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum, the Book of Mormon seems to me to fall more on the Arminian side.  There appears to be an acknowledgment of prevenient grace, and a belief that Christians can lose their salvation.  At the same time, in an enigmatic passage, there seems to be an indication that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a necessary part of God’s plan.  In 2 Nephi 2:23-24, we read that, had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would have had no children.  V 4 then says, “But all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.”  This reminds me of the Calvinist view that God decreed the Fall, yet I do not want to say that Calvinists and the Book of Mormon are exactly alike in regarding the Fall as positive.  I should also note that there are places in the Book of Mormon in which the Fall is treated as negative.

J.  2 Nephi 18:19 intrigued me.  It is drawing from Isaiah 8:19, yet diverges from it on a significant detail.  Isaiah 8:19 states: “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?” (KJV, emphasis mine).  2 Nephi 18:19 states: “And when they say unto you: Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter—-should not a people seek unto their God for the living to hear from the dead?”  (Emphasis mine)  Do you see the difference?  Isaiah 8:19 forbids consulting the dead.  2 Nephi 18:19, however, seems to say that consulting the dead is acceptable, as long as people do so through God.  Why would the Book of Mormon change Isaiah 8:19?  My speculation is that it did so because of its belief that Moroni, long after his death, appeared to Joseph Smith and told him where he (Moroni) buried the plates.  Joseph Smith heard from a dead person, but not by going to wizards or fortunetellers.  Maybe I am reading too much into 2 Nephi 18:19, but its difference from Isaiah 8:19 certainly stood out to me.

A final word: I apologize for any distortions or important omissions in this book write-up.  Any distortions are not intentional.  This write-up is my informal general impression of the Book of Mormon.   

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