The Great Mormon Indictment: Part 2

“We believe in the Bible so far as it is translated correctly. The Bible has been corrupted by men over the years and cannot be trusted by itself as the Word of God.” This is the bold claim made by Mormons in an effort to subvert the reliability of the Bible and to prop up their claim that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth and should be seen as the restoration of God’s Word to people. The problems with this claim are too numerous to tackle in one article, so I will do my best to restate some things I have said in conversations with Mormon missionaries. I will also include some information that I gave to the Mormons in order to show them that the Bible is reliable.

The first question I asked after the Mormons made the claim that the Bible was trustworthy insofar as it is translated correctly was, “How do you know which parts are translated correctly and which parts aren’t translated correctly?” I am not joking when I say that their reply was, “That’s a good question. We don’t really know.” I was stunned but also very appreciative of their honesty. I then said, “Okay, as far as I am concerned, if any part of the Bible is wrong, corrupted, or untrustworthy, then you have to throw the whole thing out.” The reality is that we should not trust anything as the Word of God if it has been corrupted or made untrustworthy. That would seem to indicate that God doesn’t have enough sovereignty over his Word in order to preserve it.

It is very common for those who get into conversations with Mormons on this matter to jump right to the contradictions and issues with the Book of Mormon. This has its place, but lets first address the claim that the Bible is corrupt. I am not an expert in biblical transmission, but I know enough to at least be convinced myself that the Bible is totally and completely reliable. And this is exactly where I took the Mormons to show them that the Bible is reliable. I am not going to get into every detail, but there is a brief and easy-to-read article here on Bible transmission from Bible.org.

As is relates to reliable manuscripts, there is no other document that even comes close to the Bible. The Bible has tens of thousands of manuscripts from various text types. You would think that with the number of manuscripts from a number of text types that it would surely lead to significant changes and variations within the biblical text, however, it has proven quite the opposite. No doubt there are variations within the text types, but nothing that has lead to or demanded a change in absolute doctrinal issues. These changes are often noted with some sort of indicator that would lead to a foot note that says something like, “some manuscripts read…”

These were the kinds of things relating to Bible transmission that I explained to the Mormons the first time we met, and by the time I was a ways into it they had to leave.  Before they left, they asked if I could explain more about the transmission of the Bible when they came back the next time. Thankfully, there was a next time and I decided to start with the scribal tradition of the Masoretes.  You can read about some of the rigorous requirements for copying the biblical text under the Masoretic scribal tradition in section B of the article linked above on Bible.org. Needless to say, I used to make my students do a project that required them to copy a Bible passage using just a few of the standards from the Masoretic scribal tradition, and it was a project that no student has ever forgotten.

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts in existence were from the Masoretes from around 900 A.D. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, there were Old Testament texts found that date back to as early as 200 B.C. What they realized when they compared those early texts to those of the Masorets is that the texts were virtually the same in every way. This goes to show how careful the Masoretes were in copying the text and that their texts were completely reliable without the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, it sure is nice to have those scrolls.

In terms of the New Testament, some of the thousands of manuscripts we have date back to the beginning of the second century. The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is the oldest manuscript fragment of the New Testament that contains a small portion of John’s Gospel and dates to 100-125 A.D. If the dating of of John’s Gospel is correct then that would put the fragment within five to thirty years of its original penning. While many of the early manuscripts of the New Testament are dated later than this, what shows their reliability is their consistency throughout the years of transmission.

If the biblical text has been tampered with, corrupted, or changed in any significant way from the originals, it would have had to be one of the greatest and most successful conspiracies of all time that only the Mormons have noticed. As it relates to the Mormon claim that the Bible is corrupted, I am taken back to the question of how they know which parts of the Bible have been corrupted, because if they are going to use the Bible at all and if it has been corrupted, they would have to know what parts have been tainted. My guess is that, according to them, any part of the Bible that conflicts with Mormon doctrine has been corrupted. This would be difficult for at least one reason. This would mean that the purpose of corrupting the Bible would be to undermine Mormon doctrine. It is hard to spot any hint of explicit Mormon doctrine prior to 1830 when the Mormon church was officially organized. None of the thousands of manuscript copies from the different text types hints at any of the alleged corruption. With the insurmountable manuscript evidence that shows the Bible is reliable, and considering the incredible conspiracy that would have to take place to replace Mormon doctrine in the Bible without anyone noticing until 1830 makes the Mormon claim that the Bible has been corrupted far too fantastic.

There is another significant problem with the Mormon claim that the Bible has been corrupted, especially as it relates to the BOM, that I will illustrate with part of the conversation I had with Mormon missionaries that also included a former Mormon bishop. I said, “In light of you claiming that the Bible has been corrupted despite the overwhelming manuscript evidence against the claim, the Book of Mormon claims to be the most correct book on earth, yet there is absolutely no manuscript support to show that it is the same or at least similar to the original source because the golden plates were taken back to heaven (as the story goes).” The former bishop’s response was, “I have an 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon if you would like to see it.” I said, “That’s great, but that is not what I am talking about. I may have a 1611 edition of the King James Bible, but that doesn’t prove that it is the same or similar to the original source texts.” My point is not is not to turn the focus to the BOM. My point is that it’s a pretty audacious thing to claim that the Bible is corrupt despite the manuscript evidence against the claim while at the same time having to come to terms with the fact that the BOM has absolutely no original source text to compare to in order to know that it is reliable.

What I have stated above is just a synopsis of the conversation I had with Mormon missionaries with just some of the evidence I showed to make the case that the Bible is reliable. In the end, I asked them plainly, “After showing you the support for the reliability of the Bible, do you trust that the Bible is actually reliable?” I was stunned when both of them shook their heads in affirmation that they indeed believed that the Bible was reliable. I can’t take credit for the progress because I was merely presenting evidence that God, in his sovereignty, displayed for us to know that his Word is trustworthy. From there, we encouraged the missionaries to read the Bible as if it can be fully trusted. Then, from there, I just prayed that the Holy Spirit would work.

If you are a Christian and are reading this, please understand that Mormons are just as lost as the rest of the world and need the true gospel that the Bible speaks of. We were only able to get to this point with the Mormon missionaries because we did our best to develop trust. We brought them into our home, fed them, and treated them as people who needed the real Jesus. As a result, our conversations with them happened on almost a weekly basis for close to a year. Being confrontational and staying on the offensive does not get anywhere. Knowing the flaws of Mormonism is helpful to a degree, but keep in mind that most people who come out of Mormonism become atheist or agnostic because they are told their whole lives that if Mormonism isn’t true then nothing is. We have to be ready to give them something instead.

If, by chance, you are Mormon and reading this, it is perfectly appropriate to seek out answers to know that something is true besides just praying about it. When we pray to God to know that something is true and evidence comes along that affirms or denies something being true, it is perfectly acceptable to look into it.  Having faith does not mean we accept something to be true despite the lack of evidence. We must consider the role that reason plays with faith. But, I also know what you are up against. I asked the Mormon missionaries what would happen if they rejected Mormonism. What they said was heart-breaking. They said they would lose their family, their friends, their community, and ultimately their sense of belonging with everything they have ever known. This is why I know it is so hard for you to think of what would happen if you began to ask questions that might display doubt. I can assure you that the Jesus of the Bible is infinitely worth every bit of loss that would you would incur for rejecting the Jesus of Mormonism. Paul says something like this in Philippians 3:8 where he says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order than I may gain Christ.”

The Great Mormon Indictment: Part 1

“We are the one true church. After all, look at how many different churches you Protestants have. How do you know which one is the correct one?” The foundation of Mormonism hangs on this question. As the story goes, Joseph Smith and his family lived in Palmyra, New York at a time of religious revival after the Second Great Awakening. There were a number of different Protestant denominations in the immediate area. Smith claims that he wanted to know which of the denominations he should join, and after coming across James 1:5, he prayed to God and asked which of the churches he should join. Smith then had a vision of God the Father and God the Son telling him that he shouldn’t join any of the churches because they were all wrong. Smith then claims to have had a series of visions over the course of the next decade that led to the establishment of the Mormon church.

It is of great benefit to read about the establishment of the Mormon church in more detail, but the purpose of this post will be to address the Mormon indictment that there are many Protestant denominations and, therefore, there can be no way to know which one is correct. Mormonism claims to solve the problem by being the “one true church”, and we have Joseph Smith to thank for being the prophet to establish the one true church. The claim I will make is that it was completely unnecessary for Joseph Smith to start his own church.

What I realized in the course of my conversations with Mormon missionaries is that the claim that it is impossible to know which Protestant denomination is correct comes from the Mormons’ lack of understanding in denominational history and formation. The helpful tool that I used to explain denominational differences is the classification of doctrine done in what Albert Mohler calls theological triage. You can read the article Mohler wrote about the issue here. This is not only helpful for Mormons but it also helpful for Protestant Christians to think through why we have denominational differences.

In short, theological triage employs the same practices the emergency room doctors and nurses do when sorting through the urgency of medical issues but with theological matters. When a person comes into an emergency room, someone with a gunshot wound to the chest is going to be treated with greater urgency than someone with a broken arm. And someone with a broken arm is going to be treated with greater urgency than someone with a migraine headache. With that idea in mind, Christians treat certain doctrines with greater importance than others. I call these different categories of importance: absolutes, convictions, and preferences. Absolutes are of first-level of importance and cannot be compromised on. Convictions are of second-level importance and depending on what it is, these things can be seen as less important than others. And the third-level of importance is preferences, which are still important, but of less importance than convictions or absolutes.

So, what kind of things belong in each of these theological categories of triage? Here is a helpful visual that would show what kinds of doctrines or theological issues we would put in each category:

theological triage

When we consider the importance of absolute or first-importance doctrine, none of the doctrines in the absolute category can be taken out. For example, if you take the deity of Christ as anything other than first-importance, then you don’t have it. Also, if you take anything that is of second or third-importance and put it in the category of first-importance, you don’t have it. In general, the things of second or third-importance stay in those categories, however, it is possible for some things to move up or down in second or third-importance.

Here’s where it matters. Typically, we see denominational differences occur in doctrines of second-importance. For example, Baptists and Presbyterians differ on the issue of who gets baptized. Baptists hold to believer’s baptism while Presbyterians will baptize infants. Both sides have good reasons for doing so, although, I side with the Baptist mode of baptism. However, I still call Presbyterians my brothers and sisters in Christ because we hold the same absolutes.

This is where the claim of the Mormon church to be the one true church fails. It was completely unnecessary for Joseph Smith to start his own church. While Protestants may have a number of denominations based on doctrinal convictions, Protestants are still one true church because of the absolutes we hold together. This is also why we cannot include our Mormon friends in our one true church because as you look at our theological triage model, there are a number of doctrines that Mormons take out of first-importance, and there are a number second-importance doctrines that they put as first importance.

How then do we answer their question of how we know which denomination is correct? The answer is that they all are correct in terms of absolutes. And while we may have more than warm debates about convictions, what makes us still one true church are the absolutes we hold in common. And as a side note, we can pose the same question back to Mormons which they must answer differently. They claim to have the one true church, but there are plenty of different off-shoots of the LDS church that practice different things, like polygamy in the RLDS church which boasts 250,000 members. How do we know with branch of Mormonism is true?

When I first explained theological triage to a couple of Mormon missionaries, they demanded to know more. The next time they came back I clarified some things, and they came to a greater understanding as to why Protestants have different denominations. I told them that having different denominations is really no problem at all when considering who has the one true church. Though we may differ on issue of second and third-importance, we still hold doctrines of first-importance together. We have seen things like this in the Bible where Paul and Barnabas hold different convictions on whether or not to take John Mark with them. Even after the disagreement and separation, both parties went on missionary journeys to proclaim the gospel.

As far as the great Mormon indictment regarding the Bible, that will come in part 2. For now, as far as I can tell, there was no need for Joseph Smith to start his own church. There is no indictment that can stand against Protestants having multiple denominations. The true gospel has always been proclaimed in these churches even if their methods, convictions, and preferences might be different. In the end, there’s not only a lesson for Mormons to learn, but there’s a lesson for all Christians to understand that having these differences is perfectly acceptable and should be discussed in the most cordial of fashions.