Here’s a thorough piece from The Christian Century on Mormonism and its texts.
A Latter-day Saint friend of mine once invited an evangelical coworker to church. The coworker found much that was familiar in the LDS service: hymn singing, an informal sermon style, robust fellowshiping and scripture-driven Sunday school. But then came the moment when the Sunday school teacher, after beginning with Genesis, said “Let’s now turn to the Book of Moses” and began reading: “The presence of God withdrew from Moses . . . and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.’” I am told that the visitor reflexively searched through his Bible before he realized that he’d never heard of such a book, though of course the story of the burning bush was familiar. And while he didn’t mind the sentiments expressed in the words he’d heard, he knew that they were not in his Bible.
This mix of the familiar and the strange is a common experience for any who have spent even minimal time with the Latter-day Saints. The greatest contributing factor to this mix is Mormonism’s dependence on and sophisticated redaction of the Bible. All of Mormonism, even its most unfamiliar tenants, rests in some element of the biblical narrative. Academics would explain this in terms of intertextuality, noting that the meanings of Mormonism, even its unique scriptures, are achieved within the larger complex of the Christian canon. You don’t need to be a scholar to recognize this. You need only open and read the first words you see in any one of Mormonism’s unique scriptures.
The Latter-day Saint canon consists of four books: the Bible and three other texts—the Book of Mormon, the Book of Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Each reads very much like the Bible in type and breadth of thematic concerns and literary forms (history, law, psalm). Even the rhetorical stance of each canon is biblical: God is speaking to prophets faced with temporal crises of spiritual significance. In terms of the authority granted these four texts, all have equal weight, including both Bible testaments, as historical witnesses to God’s promise of salvation, enacted by covenant with the Israelites and fulfilled in the atonement of Jesus Christ as the only begotten of the Father.
The LDS Church’s confidence in the authority and historicity of the Bible is mitigated only by scruples regarding the Bible’s history as a book. The Bible is “the word of God insofar as it is translated correctly.” The other three Latter-day Saint scriptures are also believed to be historical witnesses to God’s promise of salvation. Considered translations by or direct revelation to Joseph Smith, the church’s founding prophet, they are considered correct in their representation of God’s will and word, though they possibly contain flaws resulting from “the mistakes of men.” What follows is a brief description of these three texts and a few examples of how they reshape Christian tradition and influence Latter-day Saint belief and practice.
The Book of Mormon is the narrative of a prophet-led people’s experience with God over a thousand-year period, beginning with the flight of two Israelite families from Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE on the eve of Babylonian captivity. The people of God eventually create a complex civilization in the Western Hemisphere. The story is a cautionary tale of cycles of conversion and backsliding. It concludes in approximately the fourth century CE with an account of wickedness and consequent destruction. The climax of the narrative occurs midway with the appearance of Jesus Christ immediately after his resurrection to a chastened remnant in the Americas who are taught by him to repent, embrace the gospel and establish a church. Thus, the Book of Mormon not only echoes the narrative style and certain contents of the Bible, such as the Beatitudes, but also functions as second witness to the Bible’s testimony that Jesus is the source of salvation for all.
The Book of Mormon clearly deviates from Christian tradition by not limiting Christ’s ministry to a particular people and time. The rejection of such limitations is one of the book’s main points. The claim that “we need no more Bible” is made the object of God’s rebuke: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? . . . because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another.” Clearly, the Book of Mormon’s purpose is not only to second the biblical witness but also to evidence the ongoing revelation of the gospel. Notwithstanding its orthodox representation of that gospel, the Book of Mormon takes a position on certain historic theological questions. For example, while teaching the reality and catastrophe of the Fall, the prophets of the Book of Mormon reject notions of human creatureliness and depravity. Humans are not utterly foreign to God’s being. They are inherently made capable of acting for good, though only through Christ’s sacrifice is this capacity liberated from the enslaving effect of the Fall on human will. It is “by grace we are saved after all we can do.” Thus in Mormonism God’s economy of salvation is broad, though not universal in its promise of glory. Humans are prone to sin, free to reject grace and may fall from grace. Nevertheless, grace is freely given to those who in faith repent.
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