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The Mormon View of the Canon of Scripture

The Mormon View of the Canon of Scripture

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 6
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints professes to regard the Bible as the word of God. Its eighth Article of Faith states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….” Unfortunately, this statement, which sounds fine on its face, does not express adequately just how different the Mormon view of the Bible is from the way Christians historically have viewed the Bible. 

There are two major ways in which the LDS Church’s teaching departs from the historic Christian view of the Bible. First, the LDS Church denies that the canon of Scripture is closed and views the Bible as an insufficient guide that must be supplemented by additional scriptures. Second, Mormonism teaches that the text of the Bible has been so corrupted that its authority as divine revelation is fatally compromised. We will examine here the LDS view of the canon, and in the next installment of this series consider the Mormon view of the text of the Bible

The term canon refers to the accepted, standard collection of writings that a religion regards as its scripture—the authoritative holy writings with which all its religious teachings and practices must agree. For Jews, the canon is the Jewish Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). For Christians, the canon is the whole Bible, including the Old and New Testaments. The differences in the Jewish and Christian canons reflect the fact that they really represent two different religions (even though, historically, Christianity emerged from ancient Jewish roots). 

Historic Christian View of the Canon

LDS View of the Canon

Includes only the Old and New Testaments (the Bible)

Includes the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price

The canon is effectively complete and closed

The canon is effectively incomplete and open

Any claimed revelations must agree with the Bible as it has come down to us or be rejected

New revelations can correct the Bible as it has come down to us

The Bible is sufficient for teaching us what God wants us to know and do as Christians

The Bible is not sufficient but must be supplemented by additional revelations

Similarly, the LDS Church has a significantly different canon of Scripture. The rest of the eighth Article of Faith states, “…we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God,” but the differences don’t stop there. Mormons count the Bible as one of their four “Standard Works,” alongside the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Technically, the LDS Church has not added any books to the Bible; instead, they have added three distinct collections of scripture to stand along with the Bible. So, not only does the LDS Church depart radically from the biblical, Christian doctrines concerning God, Christ, salvation, and so forth (as documented in other installments of this series), we now see it rejects the traditional view of the Christian Scriptures. This is simply further evidence that even though Mormonism historically emerged from Christianity in the nineteenth century, it is in effect a different religion. 

It is true that there is no one biblical text that announces that the canon of Scripture has been forever closed. (Revelation 22:18-19 is a warning against tampering with the text of that book and does not address the issue of the canon.) Nevertheless, the arguments for viewing the canon as closed are compelling. The Old Testament portion of the canon is closed by definition, since it was a collection of Jewish writings preceding and preparing the way for the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Once Jesus has come, therefore, it is impossible to add books to the Old Testament. The New Testament is a collection of books written by Jesus’ apostles and their associates during the first generation of the Christian movement (between roughly ad 50 and 100). Once the apostles died out, it became impossible to add new books to the New Testament. 

Mormons disagree and say that the church was supposed to continue having apostles, and they claim to have living apostles on the earth today authorized to add new scriptures. While much could be said on this issue, consider these three important points. 

(1) Since even Mormons must agree that there were no apostles producing scripture or leading the church for over 17 centuries (between about 100 and 1830), the burden of proof is on their claim that this extremely long period without functioning apostles has come to an end.

(2) The New Testament itself indicates that the office of apostle was a temporary ministry. According to Paul, the Christian apostles and prophets were the “foundation” of the church, guiding its transition from a Jewish sect to the transnational body of Christ in which Jews and Gentiles had equal standing (Eph. 2:20; 3:3-8). Once the church had completed this transition and was firmly established, the essential role of the apostles was completed. Furthermore, the later New Testament writings spoke of the apostles as passing from the scene and instructed the church to remember what the apostles had said (2 Pet. 3:2; Jude 17) – it did not say they should expect or would need new apostles. 

(3) Even granting the possibility in theory of new apostles or prophets, we have good reasons to reject Joseph Smith’s claim to be such a prophet. 

The addition of the LDS scriptures to the canon is not inconsequential. Mormons base their unorthodox views about God, Christ, salvation, and religion on these extrabiblical scriptures (especially Doctrine & Covenants). The Book of Mormon itself ridicules Christians who think the Bible is a sufficient guide to the Christian faith: 

And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible…. Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible (2 Nephi 29:3, 6).

Consistent with this rejection of the final authority of the Bible, Robert Millet, a leading Mormon theologian, says, “the Bible is not, and was never intended to be, our sole guide, our template, our standard against which we measure what we teach or believe” (Robert L. Millet, “By What (Whose) Standards Shall We Judge the Text?” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 [1994]: 1991). This Mormon view of the canon is hard to square with the facts. If it was God’s intent for the Bible to be supplemented or interpreted by other sources, where were they for the seventeen centuries prior to Joseph Smith? Since we have no good or compelling reasons to accept the LDS Church’s claim to represent a new dispensation or era in God’s dealings with humanity, there is no reason to accept its new scriptures and theology. Instead we are justified in regarding the Mormon scriptures as yet another way the LDS Church deviates from the historic Christian faith.