I was recently referred to a blog article by a young Mormon writer and scholar, Daniel McClellan. He seems like a bright, intelligent young man, though, sadly, he has clearly been influenced by the less-than-mature behavioral ticks of his mentors at BYU, men like Daniel C. Peterson and William Hamblin. We will note how this mars his otherwise interesting article below.
I would like to use Mr. McClellan’s discussion in two ways. First, I wish to use it as a lens through which to view the rapidly changing landscape within Mormonism. Secondly, I would like to respond to his claims and demonstrate that the current forms of Mormon apologetic are incoherent and self-referentially destructive (let alone just bad examples of apologetic argumentation in defense of Joseph Smith’s religion).
It might be best to provide the context first. I had been sent a link to a promotional video featuring Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, speaking at the General Conference of the LDS Church. It was actually an edited version, with background music and the like. Mr. McClellan linked to the actual talk, or, at least a longer section of the talk. Let’s listen to what this Apostle of the LDS Church had to say:
There are many things that can and should be said in response to this assertion. You will note that, ironically, Holland engages in the very activity McClellan will accuse me of, only, this time, he is really doing it for the very “sectarian” purposes McClellan attributes to me. Specifically, he makes a confusing and unclear presentation of the Christian position relating to the Bible’s teaching about God’s nature (monotheism, the existence of three divine Persons, the equality of those Persons), and uses the context-less “strangeness” of the resultant presentation as a “sectarian” argument against the historic position of Christians relating to the Trinity. The Christian with an understanding of his faith quickly realizes that Holland either does not understand Christian beliefs, or is misrepresenting them. In either case, the presentation called for some kind of response. The version I saw was different, however. I’m pretty certain this is the one I had seen:
This is the response I recorded:
The New Mormon Apologists
Anyone who has spent time reading in the early LDS sources (in such compilations as the Journal of Discourses, or in works such as Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, etc.) knows that there is a deep and pervasive anti-establishment mindset in the thinking of Smith and his early compatriots. The reason is obvious, of course: though the First Vision was not actually a part of the earliest apologetic of the LDS movement (indeed, evidence shows it to be a later accretion, coming toward the end of Smith’s life, and is not contemporary with the founding of the LDS Church in 1830), the movement was still very “restorationist” and hence anti-establishment in its outlook. Almost all charismatic, prophet-led movements of the day emphasized the direct spiritual nature of its leaders so as to give it a foundation to move away from the established churches. Mormonism was no different, but that emphasis remained central even after the relative isolation of the religion in the inter-mountain West. Mormons even to recent times were well known for eschewing “human wisdom” and the authority of “scholarship.”
But times have changed. Brigham Young University was founded, and over time, the desire to be viewed as presenting credible “scholarship” within the “academy” has entered into the thinking of the LDS leadership (which is often drawn from the graduates of BYU). I remember clearly conversations with LDS elders nearly thirty years ago now where they emphasized the centrality of direst spiritual witness over against “man’s arguments” and “human scholarship.” But now, note the repetitive use of the new apologetic by Mr. McClellan:
Because James’ concerns about Mormonism derive from sectarianism and not from an objective or intelligent assessment of Mormonism’s position within or without Christianity, his argument can only be made on dogmatic grounds. He cannot argue his position from an academic or a logical point of view. It always comes back to simple dogmatic sectarianism. James disagrees with this, of course, but he cannot defend his dogmatism on an academic or intellectual level.
In neither case does Mr. McClellan defend his broad-brushed assertions (one hardly needs to do so in the context of BYU), but that is secondary to the fact that he is claiming to be “objective” and “intelligent” and “academic” and “logical” and “intellectual,” all things I, of course, have no concept of, being a mere dogmatist who never thinks to offer evidence or reason in my assertions. But this is not the language of the early Mormons, this is the language of the New Mormonism.
Even more important than this shift in thinking is the shift in sources from which Mr. McClellan draws his materials. The early Mormons surely developed a strong bias against the accuracy and historical validity of the Bible, out of necessity. Joseph Smith’s religion, which lacks a self-sufficient, self-sustaining God, is so far removed at its foundation from historic and biblical Christianity that the resultant anti-biblical attitude is hardly shocking. The writings of the early Mormons are filled with comments about corruptions of the Bible. Orson Pratt was particularly notorious for this. In a pamphlet titled “Spiritual Gifts” Pratt opined that “These clashing translations are circulated…as the words of God, when, in reality, they are the words of translators;…the Bible in…all the languages of the earth, except the original in which it was given, is not the word of God, but the word of uninspired translators…so far as the uninspired translators and the people are concerned, no part of the Bible can, with certainty, be known by them to be the word of God” (p. 70). Now, notice the phrase “uninspired” here. Smith claimed “inspiration” for his “translation,” yet most LDS scholars today are loathe to even attempt to defend his obvious emendations and ahistorical tinkering with the text. Mormons have been quick to attack “worldly scholarship” and put it in contrast to the Spirit-given insights provided to LDS prophets and apostles.
But what about the Bible as it was originally written? Pratt continued, “The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible from which translations have been made, are evidently very much corrupted,…the learned are under the necessity of translating from such mutilated, imperfect, and, in very many instances, contradictory copies as still exist. This uncertainty, combined with the imperfections of uninspired translators, renders the Bibles of all languages, at the present day, emphatically the words of men, intead of the pure word of God.” Sounds a lot like what we hear from our Muslim friends, or from the radical atheists and skeptics who roam the halls of academia. So radical was Pratt’s anti-biblicism that, upon having launched such an attack upon the Bible, Brigham Young, speaking after him, said, “…this congregation heard brother O. Pratt scan the validity of the Bible, and I thought by the time he got through, that you would scarcely think a Bible worth picking up and carrying home, should you find one in the streets” (Journal of Discourses 3:116). Of course, Young went on to claim that “our testimony, witnesses, evidence and knowledge of these facts are ten thousand times more than can be produced in favor of the Bible,” a claim that surely makes any “intelligent” and “objective” person wince. Be that as it may, the point is this: the attack upon the Bible was intimately connected with a spiritual claim to the superiority of LDS Scriptures and the prophethood of Joseph Smith, all of which placed Mormonism very much in the charismatic/prophetic tradition, but surely not in the realm of skepticism and naturalistic materialism. Mormonism was not claiming to speak from the midst of “the academy.” It spoke, back then, with a singular voice, and claimed a singular authority.
Daniel McClellan does not sound much like Joseph Smith. You can read Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith until you have his cadence and thinking memorized, and you will not hear him speak as Mr. McClellan. Smith spoke as one claiming prophetic unction; McClellan speaks as the religious liberal. Consider the key phrase from which I obtained the title for this series of blog entries:
No religion is based exclusively, or even primarily, on the Bible. James states that the Book of Mormon contradicts the Bible in numerous places, but he himself contradicts the Bible, as does the very Bible itself. It is not univocal. It contains numerous different, and not uncommonly contradictory, viewpoints. James disagrees with this, of course, but he cannot defend his dogmatism on an academic or intellectual level.
The view of Scripture McClellan presents, while sharing elements of disbelief with preceding generations of Mormons, likewise departs from them in this very important aspect: the disbelief expressed by earlier generations of Mormons was due to a spiritual acceptance of a higher authority, likewise enscripturated in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price; but these enscripturated works only pointed to the higher reality of the continued presence of revelation in the restored church, i.e., to “Latter-day revelation.” As LeGrand Richards repeatedly emphasized in his oft-read work, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder,, Joseph Smith did not get his religion from the Bible. As he said regarding the Book of Mormon (p. 69), “and he did not get it, neither could he have gotten it, by reading the Bible only. He received it by revelation from the Lord through the Angel Moroni.” A little later, in discussing the LDS concept of the priesthood, he writes, “Again, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did not obtain this information from reading the Bible, but from the revelations of the Lord to them and by their own experiences through obedience to divine instruction” (p. 106). In each instance the diminishment of the role of the Bible is couched in the context of promoting “latter-day revelation.” It does not come from a general post-modernism that finds the Bible an inadequate and confusing text. In fact, the original LDS idea was that the Bible, as originally written, was not self-contradictory, but that it had been corrupted over time.
But Mr. McClellan represents the new generation of LDS students who come to us with a very interesting pedigree. While Mormonism continues to speak often of latter-day revelation, there is just one little problem: we don’t see any of it. Oh, general and vague discussions of God’s “leadership” of the church are common, but let’s face it: the days of Joseph Smith are past. Gone are the days of almost daily revelations having to do with sending this person on a mission here, this matter of the church there. The charismatic period is gone, and if the current prophet were to come out tomorrow and say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” and give some new revelation that he would expect to be published in the next edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the LDS church would reel under the implications. Mormonism is transitioning and changing, and while the doctrinal structure has yet to be radically altered (and, I would argue, really cannot be radically altered without substantially changing the very essence of Mormonism), the expression of that theology, and especially its application and teaching, differs today from what it was only twenty or thirty years ago. Mr. McClellan now not only relies upon the academy and what he thinks is “objectivity” and “intelligence,” but he has drunk deeply from a worldview and a realm of scholarship that was totally foreign to his predecessors. His teachers at BYU, longing for recognition by the world, have opened the door to this new world, but I truly wonder…do even they realize the Pandora’s Box they have opened for Mormonism as a whole?
You see, the only forms of scholarship that Mormonism can draw from to reinforce its own self-identity, as seen in McClellan’s article, are those that denigrate the clarity and perspicuity of biblical revelation. But—those same forms of scholarship undercut the heart and soul of Mormonism as well. Consider this element of McLellan’s argument:
James has no more a corner on the Bible than Mormonism. It’s a variegated and conflicted book that has as many interpretations as it has readers, and as we’ve seen, for other Christians James’ own positions fail the text of Christianity.
The Bible has “as many interpreters as it has readers.” Really? Are they all equal to one another? He will later say the Bible contradicts itself as well. So, the Bible is no safe guide, for it is self-contradictory and incapable of communicating a single, clear message. But why does McClellan think this? Will he say the same about the Book of Mormon? Even more importantly, what about the sources of his scholarship? Does the broad world of scholarship view the Book of Mormon as an ancient record, accurately representing the inhabitants of Meso-America? How about the Book of Abraham? Does the same realm of scholarship, academia, intellect, etc., from which he draws his attacks upon the Bible spare the Book of Abraham? Or is it not the fact that the vast majority of scholars have never even heard of the Book of Abraham because its claims about itself are so manifestly absurd and false that no one outside of Mormonism takes it seriously? It is a book fancifully drawn from irrational speculation by an ignorant man about figures he found on a first century Egyptian funerary document, nothing more. So, by bringing the realm of modern skepticism into his attack upon the validity and consistency of the Bible, how does Mr. McClellan and his mentors avoid turning that same light upon the LDS religion’s most sacred documents? Surely a double standard results when Mormonism’s defenders are willing to use one strand of argumentation against biblical Christianity, while at the same time using a different strand of argumentation in defense of the indefensible, such as the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. They only have themselves to blame when the inevitable takes place.
It is impossible to hold together the world of Joseph Smith, with his personal revelations and seer stones and ancient Nephite civilizations and angelic visitations and Masonic ordinances and polygamy, and the high-brow academic world that, evidently, represents the very celestial kingdom for the staff of BYU. So deep is the desire for fundamental acceptance in “the guild” of scholarship that BYU’s leading scholars are willing to inject into the bloodstream of the LDS Church a concoction whose final results only the future can possibly reveal. Unless something highly unusual takes place, BYU will remain the premier institution of LDS education, and as long as it continues inculcating the same kind of thinking into its students that is seen in the current crop of LDS apologists, from Peterson through Hamblin now to McClellan, the tension will continue to mount, much like the dangerous situation at Fukushima: the pressure that exists between continuing to affirm the prophethood of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, along with all their pre-critical, a-historical theological documents and beliefs, and the ever-corrosive anti-supernaturalism of the modern academy together with its rejection of objective truth and naturalistic biases, will eventually rupture any containment structure the aging General Authorities in Salt Lake City can erect.