Mormonism and the Bible/Completeness of Latter-day Saint scripture canon

Completeness of Latter-day Saint scripture canon


Question: Is Mormonism in error because Christianity requires a "closed canon" instead of the Church's "open canon"?

The doctrine of a closed canon and the end of authoritative revelation is not found in the Bible

Other churches sometimes claim that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in error because Christianity requires a "closed canon" (no more authoritative revelation) instead of the Church's "open canon" (potential for more binding revelation).

The doctrine of a closed canon and the end of authoritative revelation is not found in the Bible. To insist upon this doctrine is to place a non-Biblical doctrine in a place of pre-eminence, and insist that God must be bound by it. Such a doctrine would require the very revelation it denies to be authoritative. Even the proper interpretation of Biblical teachings requires authoritative revelation, which are necessarily extra-Biblical.

Critics are free to hold these beliefs if they wish, but they ought not to criticize the LDS for believing extra-Biblical doctrines when they themselves insist upon the non-Biblical closed canon.

God is superior even to His Word

The Bible is an important record of God's message to humanity. However, the Bible—or any other written text—cannot be the focus of the Christian's life or faith. Only one deserves that place: God.

One non-LDS Christian author cautioned believers from placing the Bible 'ahead' of God:

It is possible, however, to stress the Bible so much and give it so central a place that the sensitive Christian conscience must rebel. We may illustrate such overstress on the Bible by the often-used (and perhaps misused) quotation from Chillingworth: “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestantism.” Or we may recall how often it has been said that the Bible is the final authority for the Christian. If it will not seem too facetious, I would like to put in a good word for God. It is God and not the Bible who is the central fact for the Christian. When we speak of “the Word of God” we use a phrase which, properly used, may apply to the Bible, but it has a deeper primary meaning. It is God who speaks to man. But he does not do so only through the Bible. He speaks through prophets and apostles. He speaks through specific events. And while his unique message to the Church finds its central record and written expression in the Bible, this very reference to the Bible reminds us that Christ is the Word of God in a living, personal way which surpasses what we have even in this unique book. Even the Bible proves to be the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit working within us attests the truth and divine authority of what the Scripture says. Faith must not give to the aids that God provides the reverence and attention that Belong only to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope is in God; our life is in Christ; our power is in the Spirit. The Bible speaks to us of the divine center of all life and help and power, but it is not the center. The Christian teaching about the canon must not deify the Scripture.[1]

To argue that the canon is closed effectively seeks to place God's written word (the Bible) above God Himself. Some have even called this practice "bibolatry" or "bibliolatry." Critics are effectively ordering God not to reveal anything further, or refusing to even consider that He might choose to speak again.

Closed canon is not a Biblical doctrine

The idea of a closed canon is not a Biblical doctrine. The Bible bears record that God called prophets in the past. Why could He not—indeed, why would He not—continue to do so?

Ironically, it would seem that the only way to know that there can be no extra-Biblical revelation is via revelation: otherwise, decisions about God's Word are being made by human intellect alone. Yet, since the Bible does not claim that it is the sole source of revealed truth, the only potential source of a revelation to close the canon would be extra-Biblical. Thus, those who insist on a closed canon are in the uncomfortable position of requiring extra-Biblical revelation to rule out extra-Biblical revelation![2]

As one non-LDS scholar observed: "For evidence about what was within the canon, one had to go outside the canon itself." After all, there was “no scriptural evidence to decide what were the exact limits of the canon.”[3]

Throughout Biblical history, the canon was clearly not closed. New prophets were called, and new authoritative writing was made. It would seem strange for this to cease without revelatory notice being given that God's practices were about to change.

Some authors are even now asking if the decision to close the canon was a mistake:

The first question, and the most important one, is whether the church was right in perceiving the need for a closed canon of scriptures....did such a move toward a closed canon of scriptures ultimately (and unconsciously) limit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church?...Does God act in the church today and by the same Spirit? On what biblical or historical grounds has the inspiration of God been limited to the written documents that the Church now calls its Bible?...one must surely ask about the appropriateness of tying the church of the twentieth century to a canon that emerged out of the historical circumstances in the second to the fifth centuries CE. How are we supposed to make the experience of that church absolute for all time?...Was the church in the Nicene and post-Nicene eras infallible in its decisions or not? Finally, if the Spirit inspired only the written documents of the first century, does that mean that the same Spirit does not speak today in the church about matters that are of significant concern, for example, the use of contraceptives, abortion, liberation, ecological irresponsibility, equal rights, euthanasia, nuclear proliferation, global genocide, economic and social justice, and so on?...[4]

These are striking questions, and those who insist upon a closed canon may have difficulty resolving the issues which they raise. Joseph Smith's insistence that God did not cease to speak, and that the canon was not closed, resolved these issues many decades before modern Christians began to grapple with them.

Early Christians did not have a closed canon

The early Christian Church did not have a fixed canon, nor did it restrict itself to the canon used by most modern Christian churches:

If the term “Christian” is defined by the examples and beliefs passed on by earliest followers of Jesus, then we must at least ponder the question of whether the notion of a biblical canon is necessarily “Christian.” They did not have such canons as the church possesses today, nor did they indicate that their successors should draw them up....

Even in regard to the OT canon, it has been shown that the early church’s collections of scriptures were considerably broader in scope than those presently found in either the Catholic or Protestant canons and that they demonstrated much more flexibility than our present collections allow....in regard to the OT, should the church be limited to an OT canon to which Jesus and his first disciples were clearly not limited?[5]

Scriptural interpretation requires revelation

Even if one were to grant that the Bible contains all necessary teachings, it is clear from Christian history that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways by sincere readers. What else but additional, on-going revelation can settle legitimate questions of interpretation and application of God's word? Are we to rely on human reason alone to do so? Does this not in essence turn to an extra-Biblical source for information about divine matters?


Question: What does the Book of Mormon mean when it says that "plain and precious" things have been taken out of the bible?

So called "lost scripture" is in reference to writings mentioned or cited within the present Biblical record, but which are not in the Bible itself

I've heard about "lost scripture" mentioned in the Bible. What is this about, and what implications does it have for the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and sufficiency?

1. Biblical writers considered writings not in the present canon to be scriptural writings.
2. Christian groups do not agree on what constitutes the Biblical canon—any claim that the canon is closed, complete, and sufficient must answer:

a) which canon?
b) what establishes this canon as authoritative and not some other?

3. Differences in canon between Christian groups and Biblical authors' clear belief in the scriptural status of other non-Biblical texts argue against a coherent doctrine of Biblical sufficiency and inerrancy drawn from the Bible itself. Such a claim must come from outside the Bible.

Stephen E. Robinson said the following of this subject:

"The Book of Mormon teaches that "plain and precious" things have been taken out of the Bible (1 Nephi 13:24-29). Both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals often assume this means that the present biblical books went through a cut-and-paste process to remove these things...However, I see no reason to understand things this way, and in fact I it is largely erroneous. The pertinent passages from the Book of Mormon give no reason to assume that the process of removing plain and precious things from Scripture was one exclusively or even primarily of editing the books of the present canon. The bulk of the text-critical evidence is against a process of wholesale cutting and pasting...

It is clear to me, therefore, that "the plain and precious truths" were not necessarily in the originals of the present biblical books, and I suspect that the editing process that excised them did not consist solely or even primarily of cutting and pasting the present books, but rather largely in keeping other apostolic or prophetic writings from being included in the canon. In other words, "the plain and precious truths" were primarily excised not by means of controlling the text, but by means of controlling the canon."[6]

So called "lost scripture" is in reference to writings mentioned or cited within the present Biblical record, but which are not in the Bible itself. Some of these writings are known from other sources, and some are not.

Examples of "lost scripture"

Lost writing Biblical citation to the lost writing
Book of the Wars of the Lord Numbers 21:14
Book of Jasher Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18
Book of the Acts of Solomon 1 Kings 11:41
Book of Samuel the Seer 1 Chronicles 29:29
Book of Gad the Seer 1 Chronicles 29:29
Book of Nathan the Prophet 1 Chronicles 29:29, 2 Chronicles 9:29
Prophecy of Ahijah 2 Chronicles 9:29
Visions of Iddo the Seer 2 Chronicles 9:29, 2 Chronicles 12:15, 2 Chronicles 13:22
Book of Shemaiah 2 Chronicles 12:15
Book of Jehu 2 Chronicles 20:34
Sayings of the Seers 2 Chronicles 33:19
Lament for Josiah 2 Chronicles 35:25
Paul's epistle to Corinthians before our "1 Corinthians" 1 Corinthians 5:9
Paul's possible earlier Ephesians epistle Ephesians 3:3
Paul's epistle to Church at Laodicea Colossians 4:16
1 Enoch 1:19 and The Assumption of Moses Jude 1:14-15
1 Enoch "It influenced Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, Jude (which quotes it directly) and Revelation (with numerous points of contact)…in molding New Testament doctrines concerning the nature of the Messiah, the Son of Man, the messianic kingdom, demonology, the future, resurrection, the final judgment, the whole eschatological theater, and symbolism."[7]

Examples of canonical differences among Bibles

The picture is further complicated by the fact that Christians have not always agreed on the "canon"—that is, they have not always agreed upon which writings were "scripture" and which were not.

Some examples of these variations:

Christian Person or Group Difference in canon from Protestant Bible (e.g., the KJV)
Catholics Apocrypha is canonical
Orthodox Apocrypha is canonical
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 200) Included in canon:
  • Epistle of Barnabas
  • Epistle of Clement
  • The Preaching of Peter[8]
Roman Christians (circa A.D. 200) Included in canon:
  • Revelation of Peter
  • Wisdom of Solomon

Excluded from canon:

  • Hebrews
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 3 John[9]
Origen (date) Included in canon:
  • Epistle of Barnabas
  • Shepherd of Hermas[10]

Excluded from canon:

  • James
  • Jude
  • 2 John
  • Those disputed by Rome (see above)[11]
Syriac Peshitta Excluded from the canon:
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
  • Revelation of St. John[12]
Armenian Church Included in canon:
  • 3 Corinthians

Excluded from canon:

  • Revelation of St. John prior to 12th century[13]
Ethiopian Church Included in canon:
  • Sinodos
  • Clement
  • Book of the Covenant
  • Didascalia[14]
Martin Luther Considered Epistle of James "a right strawy epistle."[15] Also didn't agree with Sermon on the Mount because didn't match his "grace only" theology.

Implications for inerrancy and sufficiency doctrine of the Bible

All these canons cannot be correct. Why must we accept that the critic's Bible is complete and inerrant? By what authority is this declared? Such an authority would have to be outside the Bible, thus demonstrating that there is some other source for the Word of God besides the Bible.

Furthermore, one should remember that Biblical writers were not aware of the Bible canon, because the Bible was not compiled until centuries later. Thus, Biblical writers cannot have referred to completeness and sufficiency of the canon, because the canon did not exist.

The clear evidence of "lost scripture" from the Bible was a common early LDS argument. See, for example:

  • J. Goodson, "Dear Sir," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 3 no. 1 (October 1836), 397–99.


Question: Does the Bible alone contain all necessary or essential knowledge to assure salvation, thus making the Book of Mormon and modern prophets unnecessary?

The Bible nowhere makes the claim for sufficiency or completeness

Other churches claim the Bible contains all necessary or essential knowledge to assure salvation. Therefore, things like modern prophets or additional scripture (such as the Book of Mormon) are unnecessary or even blasphemous.

Claiming inerrancy and completeness:

  • is not a Biblical doctrine
  • has not been sufficient to prevent a vast range of Biblical interpretations and Christian practices, all of which cannot be correct
  • ignores that the Biblical canon is not unanimous among Christians, and ignores non-canonical books which the Bible itself cites as being authoritative
  • ignores that the Bible contains some errors and internal inconsistencies

However, Mormons cherish the Bible. Those who claim otherwise are mistaken. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said:

Occasionally, a few in the Church let the justified caveat about the Bible—“as far as it is translated correctly”—diminish their exultation over the New Testament. Inaccuracy of some translating must not, however, diminish our appreciation for the powerful testimony and ample historicity of the New Testament...

So when we read and turn the pages of the precious New Testament, there is a barely audible rustling like the quiet stirrings of the Spirit, something to be 'spiritually discerned.' (1 Corinthians 2:14). The witnessing words came to us—not slowly, laboriously, or equivocally through the corridors of the centuries, but rather, swiftly, deftly, and clearly. Upon the wings of the Spirit these words proclaim, again and anew, “JESUS LIVED. JESUS LIVES!”[16]

The Bible nowhere makes the claim for sufficiency or completeness.

Furthermore, the thousands of Christian sects and groups provide ample testimony that the Bible has not been sufficient to encourage unanimity among Christians about proper authority, doctrine, or practice. Critics would like us to accept that their reading is the correct one, but this means we must appeal to some other standard—one cannot use their reading of the Bible to prove their reading of the Bible!

There is also no unanimity among Christians concerning what constitutes the "true" Bible canon—once again, some other standard is needed to determine which Bible is the "true" or "inerrant" version.

There are also other writings which the Bible itself refers to as authoritative, and yet these books are not in the present Bible canon. Either the Bible is wrong in referring to these writings as authoritative, or some modern Christians are wrong for arguing that the Bible is a complete record of all God's word to His children.

Mormons consider the Bible an inspired volume of scripture of great value, but they also recognize that there are some errors and contradictions

While the LDS do not like to denigrate the Bible or call attention to its errors, since they consider it an inspired volume of scripture of great value, they also recognize that there are some errors and contradictions in the Bible which are the result of human error or tampering. This does not reduce the Bible's value in their estimation, but it does call into question any claims for the Bible's "inerrancy."

Said early LDS leader George Q. Cannon:

This book [the Bible] is of priceless worth; its value cannot estimated by anything that is known among men upon which value is fixed. ... But in the Latter-day Saints it should always be a precious treasure. Beyond any people now upon the face of the earth, they should value it, for the reason that from its pages, from the doctrines set forth by its writers, the epitome of the plan of salvation which is there given unto us, we derive the highest consolation, we obtain the greatest strength. It is, as it were, a constant fountain sending forth streams of living life to satisfy the souls of all who peruse its pages.[17]

∗       ∗       ∗

We are not called to teach the errors of translators but the truth of God's word. It is our mission to develop faith in the revelations from God in the hearts of the children, and "How can that best be done?" is the question that confronts us. Certainly not by emphasizing doubts, creating difficulties or teaching negations.... The clause in the Articles of Faith regarding mistakes in the translation of the Bible was never intended to encourage us to spend our time in searching out and studying those errors, but to emphasize the idea that it is the truth and the truth only that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts, no matter where it is found.[18]


Notes

  1. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 20–21.
  2. Joseph Smith made this observation in Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 61. off-site
  3. James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 24–25; emphases in original.
  4. Lee Martin McDonald, Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Hendrickson Publishers; Rev Sub edition, 1995), 254–255.
  5. Lee Martin McDonald, Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Hendrickson Publishers; Rev Sub edition, 1995), 254–255.
  6. Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 63. ISBN 0830819916.
  7. E. Isaac, "1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch," in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, 2 vols, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 1:10; cited in Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, no date). off-site
  8. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, no date). off-site
  9. Mike Ash, "Is the Bible Complete?" (FAIR Brochure): 1.
  10. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, no date). off-site; citing Clyde L. Manschreck, A History of Christianity in the World, 2d. ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985), 52.
  11. Mike Ash, "Is the Bible Complete?" (FAIR Brochure): 1.
  12. William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site; citing Kurt Aland, Nestle-Aland Greek-English New Testament, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1990), 769–75; see also Craig A. Evans, Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), 190–219, who provides almost 1,500 quotations, allusions, and parallels between noncanonical sources and the New Testament.
  13. William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site
  14. William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site
  15. Timothy George, "'A Right Strawy Epistle': Reformation Perspectives on James," The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Fall 2000), 20–31.
  16. Neal Maxwell, "The New Testament—A Matchless Portrait of the Savior," Ensign (December 1986), 20. (italics in original)
  17. George Q. Cannon, "The Blessings Enjoyed Through Possessing The Ancient Records, etc.," (8 May 1881) Journal of Discourses 22:261-262.
  18. George Q. Cannon, "?," The Juvenile Instructor 36 no. ? (1 April 1901), 208.