The Book of Mormon, long a lynchpin of the Mormon faith, has both captivated and perplexed people all over the world. Many Latter-day Saints hold this work as the keystone to their entire worldview. In fact, former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson once said, "Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon."
One of the central claims to the Book of Mormon's authority is that the work completes (rather than compliments) the doctrines of salvation as found in the Bible. The two are seen as separate works, but working in tandem to provide the gospel message to the world. If this is the case, if coherent truth about salvation may be found in both works, then we should expect to see many similarities between the two.
There are, however, substantial differences between the two which deserve our attention.
THE BIBLE WAS TRANSLATED WHILE THE BOOK OF MORMON WAS TRANSCRIBED
Differences begin in the very formation of the two works. In 1830, the founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith Jr., published the first edition of the Book of Mormon. After weeks of work, the book quietly stepped onto the stage of religious literature. The process of getter there, however, is quite extraordinary.
Smith claimed to have a series of visions which revealed the location of golden plates. These plates, said to be ancient accounts of Native American-Hebrew origin, were buried in a hill near to Smith's home. Having discovered them, he later began a process that many within the LDS community – to include Smith himself – describe as 'translation'.
While competing accounts of how Smith accomplished the task exist, they all stay within the same basic structure: using two seer stones, Smith watched as "reformed Egyptian" – a language yet to be discovered outside of this area – illuminated into English. Despite LDS scholars arguing for translation, this processes is more aptly described as transcription. Smith had no formal language training, but simply transcribed the miraculously illuminated English into English.
This process is substantially different from the process of Bible translation. Written in three (widely studied) ancient languages, men and women who are formally trained painstakingly convert word after word from one language into English.
The Bible has undergone many translations by thousands of translators. The Book of Mormon has, ostensibly, undergone one transcription by one transcriber.
THE BOOK OF MORMON "RESTORES" THE GOSPEL
The entire raison d'être of the Book of Mormon is the restoration of lost aspects of the gospel. From beginning to end, the work makes no sense if the gospel message of Jesus needs no reintroduction. In his recent work, Wrestling the Angel, prolific LDS author Terryl Givens points out that Joseph Smith viewed the Bible as "neither complete nor accurate. Nor was it sufficient (30)." As LDS theologian Parley Pratt analogized, the Bible enjoyed the status of a fountain throughout the ages, but was in actuality just a stream.
Something needed to rescue holy writ from its inability to fully counsel humanity on the doctrines of salvation. Enter the Book of Mormon's introduction through Smith.
In History of the Church Vol. I, after receiving a vision from two personages Smith was visited by an angelic being named Moroni. The angel informed Smith that the "fulness of the Gospel" was contained in golden plates he was soon to discover.
This should give any believer pause to reflect on what Paul meant when he warned against such angelic encounters. He cautioned in his letter to the Galatians that if “we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Gl 1:8).”
This is a striking statement. Paul warns if anyone, even himself, preaches a gospel contrary to the one preached by the first apostles, the messenger is cursed. This verse seems to take issue with post-apostolic revelation by angels, of which Smith's encounter fits the description.
Essentially, Paul states that the gospel preached by the apostles is the only gospel to ever be preached. Yet, fundamental to the Book of Mormon's existence, the work acts as a catalyst to restore the original gospel through the prophetic office of Joseph Smith and all the theological distinctives found within Mormonism but absent from the Bible (i.e., doctrine of eternal progression, baptism of the dead, eternal marriage, ect). Thus, were it not for an angel preaching a contrary gospel, the Book of Mormon would not be known.
THE BOOK OF MORMON ASKS ITS READER TO PRAY ABOUT ITS TRUTHFULNESS
If you've ever been visited by LDS missionaries, then you may have been asked to prayerfully consider whether the Book of Mormon was true. This invitation is usually drawn from the Book of Mormon itself.
"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." – Moroni 10:4–5
The Book of Mormon asks its reader to consider whether or not it is inspired. This is quite different from the Bible, which never makes such a request.
The Bible does not feel the need to invoke a religious experience in order to persuade the reader of its authority or trustworthiness. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The Bible warns that the heart is not to be trusted in such matters. Verses such as Jeremiah 17:9 caution against putting much stock in trusting the heart.
The Bible never requests its reader to consult personal religious experience to determine its trustworthiness. The Book of Mormon, for whatever reason deemed necessary by its author(s), feels an additional witness is required to build trust aside from its content.
SALVATION COMES "AFTER ALL WE CAN DO"
In Mormon thought, justification comes primarily by faith in Jesus Christ. Prophet after prophet throughout the work call their people to repentance and faith. But the additional of elements of works is seen throughout. 2 Nephi 25:23 illustrates a message that we are saved by faith and works, "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." It appears, at least superficially, that grace is applied to an individual's merits at the conclusion of their efforts.
Being save by works (and not to or for works) is a foreign concept to the New Testament writers. James notes that faith without works is dead, a sure-tell indicator of whether or not an individual has experiences salvific change in their life. Yet, the works come after salvation, not prior to or in addition to grace. Instead, Paul adamantly argues, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." – Ephesians 2:8–9
As far as justification is concerned, the Bible sees no room for the Book of Mormon's addition of after all we can do. We are saved by faith alone through grace alone – nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, it could be argued that because this verse was said to have been written around seven centuries before Jesus' time, its message naturally fits within an "Old Testament" understanding of salvation. Yet, is should be noted that even within a pre-crucifixion view of salvation, it was faith that saved Abraham (Gl 3:6). Also, 2 Nephi 25:23 finds itself within the context of its author's prediction the "gospel of Jesus Christ" (2Ne 30:5), so it is unlikely that 2 Nephi 25:23 does not have the implications of Christ's atonement in mind.
While reading the Book of Mormon it becomes apparent that the author(s) believed that an individual must strive to keep the law as best they can for their salvation, but when they fall short God's grace covers the rest. "For behold," writes Nephi, "except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish (2Ne 30:1)." Only then, according to Book of Mormon author Heleman, people "might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works (Hl 12:14)."
Again, this is a foreign concept to the New Testament writers. Good works are the product of salvation in an individual's life, not the other way around. The only works that are attributed to an individual's salvation are Christ's.
WHY THESE DIFFERENCES MATTER
From a strictly theological perspective, the differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible are significant. The two neither compliment nor complete one another since they do not cohere to a unified message, especially with the doctrine of salvation.
For this reason, I believe the Book of Mormon should find itself outside the realm of divinely inspired writings in the conventional sense. It is an extremely valuable (even indispensable) tool in assessing 19th century Christianity. Its pages are full of interesting tales and wonderful narrative. If one considers it a work of fiction, there are many lessons to be gleamed. Yet, it falls short of being a volume to complete the faith that was once delivered to the saints.
Kyle Beshears (@kylebeshears) is a pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama and blogs at Dear Ephesus on church issues and apologetics. He is the author of Robot Jesus and Three Other Jesuses You Never Knew.
Editorial note: In the original post, readers may have been mislead into believing the transcription process took many years. The actual transcription of the golden plates occurred in a matter of weeks, whereas the entire process, from discovery of the plates in 1827 to publication of the work in 1830, took years. Thank you to Landon Burgener and DavidWBowen for kindly bringing this to my attention.