The Book of Mormon, A Gift
God has also given us this world and its universe, and the wonders of nature that surround us; a history in which we continue to see the gradual though often interrupted growth of freedom in the world; the beauty of literature, painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, and worship; for most of those who read this column, opportunities to learn and grow so that our lives might be more rich and we might find more and more ways to improve the quality of our lives and those of others; and families and loved ones, people on whom most of us can rely for comfort, learning, support, edification, and opportunities to serve. We have many gifts.
I count the Book of Mormon as among these and other wonderful gifts. But in my experience it isn't immediately obvious that it is a gift from God nor why it is. If we set the Book of Mormon up against our standards for literature, in most people's eyes it falls short. Nephi does not even choose the most beautiful passages from Isaiah. If we examine the Book of Mormon as philosophy, most will probably find it less interesting than some other scriptures and less interesting than many philosophical works. By cultural and intellectual standards, the Book of Mormon seems at first glance not to be much of a gift. It is a wonder, to be sure. Accounting for its existence is more and more of a problem for honest non-Latter-day Saints, especially as thoughtful Mormons examine the book carefully and show the complexity of the culture and history depicted in it. But being inexplicable or amazing or intricate does not make a thing a good gift.
For Mormons, the Book of Mormon isn't one of the most important gifts in the history of world because it compares to the great literature or philosophy of the world or because it has objective historical worth. It is one of the most important gifts because it is how God has chosen in our day to testify that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior.
As the frontispiece of the Book of Mormon shows, the Book of Mormon understands itself as part of the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham (cf. Abraham 2:9-11). (According to Mormon belief, all who come to Christ are of the house of Israel, whatever their genetic origins. They are heirs of Abraham's covenant.) Indeed, one of Joseph Smith's revelations tells us that the Book of Mormon is itself a covenant (D&C 84:57).
We sometimes speak of covenants as a species of contract or as the same as contract, but I think that's a mistake. Contracts are between persons who, in virtue of their contract, have a kind of equality. Contract is a kind of mutual promising. In contrast, a covenant with God is a relation of obligation to someone whose superiority over me is infinite.
Perhaps the best model for us to use to understand covenant is one often used in the Bible, the faithfulness of marriage. The marriage covenant is not like an ordinary promise. In ordinary cases, if I promise something, I have the right to know what I've promised. In fact, if it later turns out that I could not reasonably have known what I was promising, then I am justified in not keeping my promise. If I promise to buy a car from someone next week and, in the meantime, he or she wrecks it, I can justly refuse to honor my promise. In marriage, however, the promise is specifically a promise to do what one does not know. It is a promise that requires my loyalty to the promise, though I do not know and cannot know what that loyalty will require. Marital partners do not and cannot know what to expect, yet they promise to remain faithful. Religious covenants are like that: we agree to do what we do not yet know, but we agree because we trust our Father. That trust is faith.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.