Book Review: The Expanded Canon, Perspectives on Mormonism and Sacred Texts
Edited by: Blair G. Van Dyke, Brian D. Birch, and Boyd J. Peterson
This is the first in a planned series of volumes, looking to expand our understanding of the LDS canon and related documents. For those familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers Project will understand, the development of modern scripture is quite complex – even in Joseph Smith’s day. We often do not know the underpinnings that create or influence the documents we hold sacred, including the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and the proclamations and official statements made by the First Presidency and Twelve over the almost 200 years of the Church’s existence. We will see that the Expanded Canon, vol 1, takes a hearty stab at expanding our understanding of events and actions that impacted our perception of sacred scripture today.
The Expanded Canon consists of the following chapters:
- The Triangle and the Sovereign: Logics, Histories and an Open Canon, by David Frank Holland
- Beyond the Canon: Authoritative Discourse in Comparative Perspective, by Brian D. Birch
- On the Literal Interpretation of Scripture, by James E. Faulconer
- Reading Women Back into the Scriptures, by Claudia L. Bushman
- The Book of Mormon as Post-Canonical Scripture, by Grant Hardy
- Reading from the Gold Plates, by Richard Lyman Bushman
- History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Gold Plates, by Ann Taves
- “The Book Which Thou Shalt Write”: The Book of Moses as Prophetic Midrash, by David Bokovoy
- The Ascendancy and Legitimation of the Pearl of Great Price, by Brian Hauglid
- Pivotal Publishing Moments for the Book of Mormon, by Paul C. Gutjahr
- Relishing the Revisions: The Doctrine & Covenants and the Revelatory Process, by Grand Underwood
- Spiritualizing Electronic Scripture in Mormonism, by Blair G. Van Dyke
- The Art of Scripture and Scripture as Art: The Proclamation on the Family and the Expanding Canon, by Boyd J. Peterson and David W. Scott
- Patriarchal Blessings in the Prophetic Development of Early Mormonism, by Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd
Among Latter-day Saints, we find that the terms “Doctrine,” “Canon,” and “Scripture” do not always stand for the same thing. Canon is scripture, but is scripture always canon? So the editors note in their well thought-out and developed Introduction:
“At present, Latter-day Saints relate to their canon in ways similar to other traditions. It is carefully regulated within the confines of ecclesiastical structures, and there is a clear line of demarcation between the Standard Works and other authoritative texts within the Church. However, canon and scripture have been neither synonymous nor co-extensive within LDS discourse.”
An example of this is the Proclamation on the Family. Yes, it is considered scripture, but is it canon (like the Standard Works)? The editors give the example of President Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” They note that President Benson noted that “the living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works.” Meanwhile, other leaders, such as Elder Bruce R. McConkie and President Joseph Fielding Smith, taught that the teachings of apostles and prophets must be viewed from the strict confines of the Standard Works. Meanwhile, George Q. Cannon and others insisted that all teachings of the leaders must be confirmed by the Holy Ghost to each individual. Which holds precedence?
Other issues are noted within the Introduction, such as Joseph Smith’s translation process. Today we find the term “translation” does not fit the activity very well. They explain that scholar Kathleen Flake suggested it being more of “an interpretive response to the text.” In many instances of Joseph Smith’s translating, he “appeared more interested in preserving the meaning of the revelation rather than the language.”
In chapter one, David Frank Holland explains the triangle of authoritative power that exists in Christian religion. Which has greater power: the scriptures, the living representative of Christ, or the Holy Ghost’s inspiration? For Protestants, who do not have a prophet or Pope to guide them, they generally claim the authority comes from the Bible.
However, for Catholics and Latter-day Saints, the issue becomes more sticky. Holland notes that for Catholics there is a continual struggle between the infallibility of the Pope on doctrinal issues, and what the scriptures say. Most often, scripture tends to win out.
For Latter-day Saints, there is a continual tension between the three elements of the Triangle. Never is there a time when one element always trumps the other two. Talks from leaders (as noted in the Introduction) speak authoritatively about gaining ones own testimony through the Holy Ghost, or always following the living prophet, or having the scriptures as the foundation for all revelation. At times it seems one wins out. Holland shows how the balance works in the Latter-day Saint Church, as even prophetic statements can only be canonized (made part of the Standard Works) by a sustaining vote of the people, who are expected to gain their own witness through the Holy Ghost.
In “Beyond the Canon,” Brian D. Birch discusses what constitutes binding scripture. He notes historically the views of other religions, especially of the Catholic faith that believes in private versus public revelation. All revelation regarding salvation has been received, but people and the Pope may receive inspiration on all other matters.
Birch notes that not all revelations in the Church are written down and canonized, that the Church is continually receiving revelations for the direction it may go day by day. Not every statement by a General Authority is doctrine, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson noted in 2012, “A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.”
We learn that even when mistakes enter into the Church, the blessing of continual revelation tends to eliminate those errors eventually. Birch gives the example of the priesthood ban. “It is clear that many leaders of the church agonized over these issues, and there is evidence of considerable disagreement within their ranks.” He notes that President McKay wanted to overturn the priesthood ban in the 1950s, but the leadership could not reach a consensus on it, leaving it for President Kimball to successfully attempt it again two decades later.
James Faulconer is one of my favorite living philosophers. In his chapter, he proclaims, “My thesis is that all scripture should be read literally, perhaps only literally.” He then goes on to explain exactly what he means by this: “we have to ask what we mean by the word ‘scripture’….it isn’t obvious what it covers and what it does not.” This does not mean we are forced to believe in an earth that was created in only 6 days. But in reading it literally, we understand better what the ancient people believed. He begins to unpack the term “scripture” and then does the same for the word, “history.” An excellent discourse that can help all readers learn how to critically examine the sacred texts.
The only chapter that disappointed was Ann Taves’ attempt to redirect historian claims regarding the Gold Plates. Taves briefly notes previous attempts by mostly non-LDS historians to explain the Gold Plates, notably Dan Vogel’s efforts to call Joseph Smith a “pious fraud.” He claimed that Joseph believed in his message so much, he was willing to commit fraudulent acts, creating the plates himself and using mass hypnosis to convince others of his claims.
In her article, Taves seeks to smooth out the claim that Joseph was a fraud. She still insists he created the plates, but for different reasons. She notes a couple statements by the witnesses of the gold plates that suggest the experience was not a literal/material experience, but only a spiritual event. In doing this, she conveniently ignores the dozens of statements that are very clear that the witnesses touched the plates, turned the pages, hefted them, and knew they were real. They saw they were made of gold, or some similar metal, not the brass that Taves suggests. Interestingly, Professor Daniel C. Peterson recently posted a very strong witness that Martin Harris shared with a friend, showing it was both material/literal and spiritual.
Taves attempts to compare Joseph’s experiences with the Catholic mass, where the bread and wine literally turn into Christ’s body:
“Smith’s logic, however, may have been less like an adept deceiving his subjects and more like a Catholic priest making Christ present in the Eucharistic wafer. In the first case, the adept knowingly misleads his viewers, albeit for their own good. In the second, a priest calls upon the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
“Comparison of the golden plates and the Eucharist allows us to consider the possibility that Smith viewed something that he made–metal plates–as a verhicle through which something sacred–the ancient golden plates–could be made (really) present.”
In such a twist of logic, she doesn’t explain how the priest manages to have Christ’s body (or a relatively good copy of it) suddenly appear in place of the wafer as the person partakes of it. She makes Joseph a sincere, but still, pious fraud.
My favorite article was by Claudia L. Bushman, “Reading Women Back into the Scriptures.” She notes the dearth of information regarding women in scripture. There’s a little on Eve, Ruth, and Sariah, but not much else. The New Testament also mentions women as missionaries and leaders of the early Church. Bushman asks,
“But where are the letters of Priscilla and Phoebe? Did they write letters of encouragement to the members in far-flung branches? Could they write? Were their letters lost? Were they not preserved as Paul’s were? Why did the Christian women not write, and if they did, where are their letters?”
Thankfully, many pioneer women did write. Bushman encourages us to look at their diaries and journals as new forms of scriptures, written by amazing women. She shares a laundry list of women writings that should be elevated to greater use and acclamation by all Church members, including the Relief Society Meeting Minutes, Eliza R. Snow’s poetry (including her hymn, O My Father, that testifies of a heavenly Mother), and Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her son, Joseph Smith.
Perhaps Bushman’s greatest notion is a challenge she makes to all modern Latter-day Saint women: create new scripture. Their lives, actions, thoughts, spiritual experiences, and beliefs should be recorded and shared with family and others, so that their words may impact generations to come. This was very welcome to me, as I recently re-read my 4g-aunt’s history of her father’s family joining the Church in Canada and joining the saints in Nauvoo, just in time to cross the Great Plains. Reading her words is like hearing an inspiring symphony, at times bringing me up to exalted heights, only to plunge me into tears at tragedy. I welcome such a challenge as we receive from Claudia Bushman.
I highly recommend the other articles, as well. They are thoughtful, discussing interesting and important things we do not normally consider, such as: how Joseph used a team of trusted members to organize, update, correct, and sometimes even rewrite portions of the revelations going into the Doctrine and Covenants, as long as the meaning of the revelations stayed intact.
You’ll learn to appreciate the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and other proclamations, as you see how the “translation” process is followed by efforts to make better the revelations that came from the Spirit, often not as words, but as pure heart felt meaning.
Future topics in the series will include, Mormonism and the environment, technology, eastern religions, etc.I have no doubt that as this series continues, it will become a classic set for families to read and discuss, helping them to better understand the gospel and how it interacts with the world and their daily lives as Latter-day Saints.
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