“Absolutist” Revelation and Creation Accounts in Moses, Abraham, and the Temple

“Absolutist” Revelation and Creation Accounts in Moses, Abraham, and the Temple November 7, 2018

I presented a short paper at the Joseph Smith Papers conference a few weeks ago, a spin-off from my Genesis 1 manuscript.

My basic argument was this. Certain common conceptions of revelation, which I term “absolutist,” cannot account for the major textual, doctrinal, and other differences between Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple; this suggests we need to think and teach about revelation differently and in more depth.

I defined “absolutist” revelation with a few characteristics. In this view, revelation involves

  1. Absolute Consistency (i.e. paying lip service to difference with “harmony” but really minimizing differences and contradictions as “only imagined” “mistranslated” or “misunderstood”)
  2. Absolute Accuracy (i.e. a strong presumption of revelation belonging to a historical/scientific genre  and its necessary factual correctness)
  3. Absolutely Unmediated (i.e. human elements that may exist in the revelatory process, like prophets, have no practical effect on the end result)
  4. Binary/polarized rhetoric (i.e. “word of God” vs. “philosophies of men”)

These kinds of assumptions about revelation are popular among some Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and in my experience, many Mormons as well.

I presented two categories of differences between Moses and Abraham that strongly undercut these assumptions about revelation.

In Category 1, Abraham makes a change where Moses matches the KJV.

In Category 2, Moses makes a change, but Abraham matches the KJV.

From an absolutist perspective, both of these categories call the inspiration of Moses into question, just from different directions. Category 1 says it’s not inspired enough or it would have read like Abraham; Category 2 says it was mistaken to make a change in the first place. Moreover, the stark differences with the temple, as referenced publicly by Elder McConkie, seem to call both Moses AND Abraham into question. Moreover, there are similar phenomena in LDS history: where the Book of Mormon reads like the KJV, but the JST makes a change. Or the JST records a change in a passage, but then later Joseph declares the KJV “altogether correct in its translation.”

Phrased in an absolutist way, “How can revelation be incorrect? Doesn’t ‘incorrectness’ completely undermine its supposed revelatory nature?”

Thus textual issues generate theological issues, which quickly become pastoral issues. It is apparent we need to wrestle with the nature of revelation a bit more, as all too often, the result for someone asking these questions is a rejection of the inspired nature of these texts instead of a reevaluation of the inherited assumptions that rejection was based on.

I’m not going to reproduce my whole paper arguing against absolutist revelation, but I want to include a section on the nature of the Moses creation chapters.

Some have read passages in Moses (1:40-42, 4:32) to indicate that Genesis was divinely dictated by God and then, apparently, dictated again to Joseph Smith. There are at least three major problems with this reading of dictation.

First, writing in BYU Studies in 1968, [note there are some printing issues with the text of that article] James Harris echoed Joseph Fielding Smith’s absolutist rhetoric that the retention of the word “firmament” in Moses 2 means it “reflects an apostate theology.” The idea that a text literally dictated by God would retain “an apostate theology” as Harris and Smith call it, seems difficult to justify from an absolutist perspective, particularly when it’s a one-word difference.

Second, various characteristics of the JST itself and how Joseph Smith treated it argue against divine dictation. For example, Joseph translated the same passage twice with different results. Sometimes he provided a new translation, but later declared the King James language correct. These militate against divine dictation to a prophet-scribe.
Robert J. Matthews wrote that the JST

was not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-and-thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord. That it was a revelatory process (my emphasis) is evident from statements by the Prophet and others who were personally acquainted with the work.”

We have an explicit example of this “study and thought process.” Joseph Smith perceived a contradiction in the way the KJV rendered Hebrews 6:1, and simply didn’t believe it as it read, so he changed it to the way it ought to read. The explicit catalyst for that textual change was Joseph’s understanding of what the English text meant!  Joseph’s human cognition thus plays an active role in the text of the JST.

Third, let us assume anyway that Moses was dictated to Joseph Smith. It does not follow from this that such a divine dictation would necessarily be historical in nature. Taking scripture as our guide, revelation comes in parable and poetry, historical fiction and fictionalized history. Revelation is not itself a genre, but manifests itself in multiple forms and genres. In other words, accepting the inspiration of the literary narrative which presents Genesis as speaking to Moses does not dictate about its genre, any more than Jesus saying “a certain man went down to Jericho” indicates the actual existence of a mugged Israelite and a good Samaritan. This is a genre issue, which I’ve spoken about at length elsewhere and address in my book; Genre is rarely addressed at all in LDS treatments of scripture, and this both prevents us from fully appreciating scripture as God intended it, and also creates testimony issues when we assume that everything in scripture is intended as modern history.

Are the Moses creation chapters dictated by God? It seems more likely to be a literary framing, similar in function to Moses and Deuteronomy.

I concluded that the assumptions in absolutist revelation are not justified. The nature of all these changes suggests that “revelation” cannot be simplistically equated with “factual correctness.”These changes undermine a simplistic equation of “scripture” with “divinely revealed facts.” Since, at face value, a change in Moses suggests the KJV text is “wrong,” how does one account for the agreement between the KJV and the post-Moses revelation of Abraham? Rather, we should understand revelation, even canonized modern revelation, as a snapshot in the process of progression, a point along the line of approximation of an ideal.

Revelation is not static, nor even a straight line of upwards progress, but a mediated human-divine process which sometimes becomes “frozen” as scripture. The implication is that scripture is not necessarily composed of divinely revealed eternal facts, but contains human elements and understandings common to the time. LDS scholars, as well as Jewish and Christian, have argued for an understanding of revelation which is progressive and involves human input, a “participationist” model of revelation.

This can account for differences between inspired texts which, according to common assumptions, “should” be identical.

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