High Priests Groups world-wide are still reeling at the Church News’ announcement that questions surrounding the accuracy and authenticity of the Book of Abraham are not as important as critics suggest because the book “is not central to the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ” despite its inclusion in the canonized LDS Standard Works. (Read Church News article here.)
“I’m stunned,” said LaVerl Jensen, High Priest Group leader for the Spanish Fork 87th ward. “If the Book of Abraham isn’t all that important, why did God go to all that effort to make sure the Egyptian papyri containing Abraham’s writings, miraculously preserved for millenia, made it all the way across the ocean and into the Prophet Joseph’s hands so he could translate them through the gift and power of God for our day?”
More progressive-minded Mormons greeted the news enthusiastically, because in establishing that the Book of Abraham falls outside what is “central” to the restored Gospel, the Church News listed six narrow essentials presented by BYU Professor John Gee:
God exists; Jesus Christ is His Son; God talked and still talks with men through the power of the Holy Ghost; Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world; the Atonement is available to those who trust Jesus, turn from sin, make and keep sacred covenants, and follow the course throughout their lives; and the Book of Mormon is true, an authentic record of God’s interactions with actual ancient people.
“Now where is the Book of Abraham in this?” Dr. Gee concluded. “It isn’t. The Book of Abraham is not central to the restored gospel of Christ.”
“I’m ecstatic about what this means,” said Rulon Jeffries, a longtime subscriber to Sunstone and Dialogue. “For years I’ve been given grief by my LDS friends and family for having ‘unorthodox” beliefs about a whole range of issues. But now I can cite this article as proof that orthodoxy in the Church has been narrowed to these six ‘central’ points.”
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Folks, for those who haven’t been able to figure out what I had thought would be obvious, the Church News article referenced above is real, but the responses are a spoof in the style of The Onion or some other satirical news source. I had hoped to raise, in a humorous way, a number of interesting issues that I think are raised by this Church News article:
1. The Book of Abraham is the key support for the LDS doctrine of the pre-existence, and the pre-existence is treated as a foundational doctrine in official Church curriculum. Indeed, the pre-existence has been and is often the starting-point when we introduce our Restored Gospel to those investigating or newly converted to our faith. It is the “first estate” of our existence as described in our familiar version of the “Plan of Salvation.” For example, in our Gospel Principles manual, elements of the pre-existence are covered in all of the first six lessons. And unsurprisingly, the Book of Abraham is cited in all six of the first six lessons of the GP manual. If the Book of Abraham is “not central” to the Restored Gospel, one wonders why its contents are found in the first six lessons of the official Church manual we use to teach investigators and converts the Restored Gospel.
2. It is interesting that the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon made it into Dr. Gee’s list of six “central” points, but that the historical authenticity of the Book of Abraham did not, and I personally wonder what the justification is for treating them differently. Both were deemed important enough by God to go to the trouble of revealing to Joseph Smith. And both books were represented by Joseph Smith to be genuine and accurate translations of ancient records accomplished by the gift and power of God.
3. Dr. Gee’s list of six “central” points is also interesting for the many core LDS beliefs that it does not include. For example, it does not even include a belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, nor does it even mention a belief in the Bible.
4. In determining the Book of Abraham is “not central,” Dr. Gee seems to overlook the close relationship between the Book of Abraham and the temple. So there is an interesting paradox in his list of six “central” points of doctrine: while he includes making and keeping covenants (and presumably temple covenants are included) on the list of six “central” doctrines, by saying the Book of Abraham is “not central to the restored gospel” it seems he downplays the significance of the book of scripture that creates the doctrinal foundation for many aspects of those temple ordinances.
5. Although we have a rich and well-established culture of belief that “the mantle is far, far greater than the intellect,” that “God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men,” and that we need to rely on the “rock of revelation” rather than leaning on the “arm of the flesh,” it seems that increasingly the statements of past prophets, seers, and revelators are being disregarded by LDS scholars. For example, despite statements by Joseph Smith and others indicating that the Lamanites and Nephites ranged all over the North American continent, LDS scholars are now telling us that all the BOM action was confined to a very small area in southern Mexico and Guatemala. This shift in LDS scholarly consensus, as well as the DNA controversy, preceded the Church’s recent decision to revise the official Introduction to the Book of Mormon (authored by an Apostle who was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator) to eliminate the claim that the Lamanites were the “principal” ancestors of the American Indian. When today’s LDS scholars are unable to develop satisfactory answers to challenges posed by critics, it seems the response is, increasingly, to downgrade the earlier revelation-based claims as being “not central”, rather than continuing in the faith that those revelations will ultimately be vindicated by scholarship. I’m not arguing over whether this is right or wrong; I’m just observing that it’s happening.
6. This recent Church News article represents an example of how this displacement of past revelation by modern scholarship is gradually occurring: by quoting LDS scholars in an official church publication like Church News or Ensign magazine. The Church News does not print everything that is said at every scholarly conference, so the fact that Dr. Gee’s statements were published in the Church News, rather than just being covered in the FAIR newsletter, suggests to Church members reading the Church News that Dr. Gee’s statements are endorsed by the Church. This process of allowing modern LDS scholarship to displace past revelation with the quasi-sanction of publishing LDS scholars’ statements in an official Church newspaper or magazine seems to ignore the long-established doctrine that the revelations of past prophets, seers, and revelators can be superseded only by the current President of the Church (but that doctrine didn’t make the list of six “central” points either).
7. Lastly, one wonders, will this evaluation of the Book of Abraham as being “not central” result in it being eventually removed from our Standard Works? Dr. Hugh Nibley once said that without the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, we would be “just another Church.” By stating the Book of Abraham is “not central to the restored gospel,” have Dr. Gee and Church News brought us one step closer to becoming just that?
* Thanks to Wade Nelson for pointing this Church News article out to me.