Over the holidays I borrowed a copy of Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001). Turns out the full book is available online at the RSC site. The book features articles by the usual cast of religion profs and scholarly apologists, plus an apostle and a philosopher. Given how central the historicity issue has become of late (as evident in the Book of Abraham essay, for example) this seems like a good topic for my occasional series on practical apologetics. At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I am going to suggest that LDS writers who address historicity take one of two approaches, which I will label "no middle ground" and "it's not so simple."
No Middle Ground
In "No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon," Louis Midgley argues that "there is no middle ground on the question of whether the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text" and that nothing in the book or Joseph's account of its discovery and translation "suggests that it should be read as anything other than historical fact." Midgley objects to secular critics who "begin with naturalistic assumptions that rule out in advance the possibility of divine revelation," assumptions which "set in place exactly the conclusion they wish to reach."
Midgley likewise rejects Latter-day Saints who try to find some middle ground that recognizes divine revelation (in some form) but also recognizes (to one degree or another) modern influences on the text. The nicest thing he has to say is this: "Whatever else one might say about such stances, they clearly compete with the traditional reading of the Book of Mormon and with the traditional understanding of the LDS past." Elsewhere he describes the position (there is actually a whole range of views) as "faithful disbelief."
Admittedly, the Book of Mormon is the best ground for those who argue an either/or approach to historicity. Other scriptural texts may present different options. Even LDS.org, in the essay at the gospel topics section addressing the Book of Abraham, suggests LDS leaders are warming to the idea that truth can be decoupled from historicity (or at least that un-historical texts can nevertheless convey truth): "The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys." Which brings us to the other view of historicity.
It's Not So Simple
In "Scripture as Incarnation," James Faulconer argues for a richer view of the historicity question by considering "what we mean by history." Some believers want to reject the straightforward view of scriptural historicity "but retain the truth of scripture: scriptures are not about historical truth, they are about religious truth, these people argue." He notes that few Christians, and even fewer Latter-day Saints, embrace this "ahistorical resolution of the problem of scriptural historicity." Can a better response be fashioned?
The point of departure for Faulconer's approach is that premoderns, who penned the scriptures we use, viewed texts differently: "[M]odern history takes narratives and the events they describe to be separable from each other, but premodern history does not." In the modern view, the meaning of a text is tied to reference, the event to which the text refers. But, he continues, "language theories cannot fully account for the success of acts in which we talk about things in the world." Context, he notes, is often invoked to bridge that gap (tying words to events), but that's a very broad concept. Faulconer notes "the speaker's intent, the particular audience she addresses, the history of the language, [and] the social relations in force at the time of the event" as relevant to context. At the very least (my summary here), the necessity of context for a model of historical reference complicates the simple view of scriptural historicity that is affirmed by both defenders and critics.
Faulconer tries to explain an alternative narrative model to us modern readers, firmly wedded as we are to a representational model of historical narrative, which we then apply to scriptural narrative: "[P]remodern thinkers take the Bible not as an accurate reference to either history or another reality (though they do not deny that we can speak of the world) but as the incarnation (or enactment) of a symbolic ordering" or "an ordering of the world in and through symbols." Later, he summarizes: "the scriptures are literal history, but their history is incarnational, not representational." Here's a longer quotation restating the point in more detail:
Those who read the Bible as an incarnation do not reduce its texts to what is “only symbolic,” for the literal/symbolic disjunction is not a disjunction for them. For premoderns, reading the story of Moses and Israel typologically, figurally, anagogically, or allegorically is not what one does instead of or in addition to reading literally. Such readings are part and parcel of a literal reading. Premodern understanding does not reduce the biblical story to a reference to or representation of something else, though it also does not deny that there may be an important representative element in scripture. Instead, premoderns believe that to understand the story of Israel is essentially to understand history — actual history, the real events of the world — as incarnation, a continuing incarnation, as types and shadows, to use the language of the Book of Mormon (for example, Mosiah 3:15). It is to understand history as having an order and the events of history as related to each other within that ordering (an ordering that does not exist independent of events, and that cannot be reduced to those events as “bare” events). It is to understand history as part of a symbolic ordering, an ordering that is given not only in scripture, but also (perhaps most importantly) in ritual, ritual objects, and ritual language, as well as in the moments of history themselves. Thus, for premoderns, the biblical narrative is literal history — the literal truth, the truth “by the letter,” that is told in the letters and words of the text as revealing and embodying the order given by God. The literal truth is the truth constituted in and through the text as incarnation, not the supposed truth supposedly only referred to by those letters and words.
If the incarnational model sketched by Faulconer is too much to swallow, he at least makes the point that the simple representational model we initially bring to scriptural narrative is too simple. Perhaps an easier way to make that point is to consider the question of genre (see my earlier post "Genesis and Genre"). You can't properly understand a block of text unless you bring to it the proper understanding of what the author is doing with the text: a parable or a poem or a genealogy is obviously something different from a historical account intended to re-present independent events from the past. In a general sense I think that the consideration of genre forms part of the context that Faulconer describes as a necessary component for properly understanding what we generally take to be representational narrative text.
[A quick disclaimer: I'm not suggesting Midgley and Faulconer are taking opposing views. Midgley was focusing on the question of Book of Mormon historicity; Faulconer was addressing a much broader question that implicitly referred to biblical narrative. For all I know, Faulconer might agree with Midgley's either/or view of Book of Mormon historicity and Midgley might agree with Faulconer's view that scriptural narrative should not be forced into the modern form of representational historical narrative. I have simply used those two essays to represent two different LDS views of historicity: the either/or view and the it's-not-so-simple view.]
Historicity: A Wedge Issue?
Elder Oaks, in his contribution to the volume, strongly affirmed the historicity of the Book of Mormon but also noted, "I am convinced that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon." So it is ultimately a matter of faith. Yet perhaps not an essential one: an affirmation of Book of Mormon historicity is not required to receive a temple recommend. Nevertheless, some LDS apologists seem intent on making historicity something of a wedge issue for driving people out of the Church (one of the reasons I don't particularly like apologists). Kent P. Jackson, in his contribution to the volume, at least rejects that tactic, while at the same time doubling down on historicity (bold font added): "If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, what possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints given the consistent assertions that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that describes ancient events? This is not an invitation for anyone to leave the Church. It is, instead, an invitation to abandon the fallacious and logically impossible argument that the Book of Mormon can be true, though not historical, while Joseph Smith, the revelations of God, and the book itself claim in clear and unmistakable terms the opposite."
So here is my practical apologetics conclusion on this topic: As Elder Oaks suggests, ultimately the historicity of LDS scriptures is a matter of faith, not secular evidence. If so, then those who quietly reject historicity, or even those who loudly dispute it, are simply weak in their faith. And we shouldn't be in the business of pushing those who are weak in faith out of the Church or creating a culture in which those who are weak in faith are led to think they don't belong in the boat. It's a big boat; let's keep them all in.
Note: Jim Faulconer's essay, with a short updated conclusion added, is reprinted in his recent book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010).
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.