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Mormon apologists have found their new chiasmus: Early Modern English. What do I mean by that? I mean that apologists miss that sly feeling of being able to say, “Well, actually...” They miss being able to respond to someone complaining about the text being modern with a Dwight Schrute “False!”. They used to have that in chiasmus until people started looking too closely and asking too many pesky questions. And so, in their weakness, they turned to an apologetic they didn't entirely understand, much like the story of chiasmus.

Image of Dwight saying "False!"

The 1980s and 1990s were huge decades for Mormon apologetics. For much of the 20th Century before then, the scientific defense of the faith was usually isolated to one or two intelligent individuals at a time who made educated rebuttals to existing arguments and promoted arguments of their own: B. H. Roberts, James Talmage, John Whidtsoe, Sydney Sperry, Hugh Nibley. But in the 1980s BYU finally saw the organization of FARMS and the rise of the organized apologetic response. Even today we still have FAIR, the Mormon Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute (though the aims of the Maxwell Institute are now oriented towards respectable scholastics instead of apologetic arguments). The typical critics of the LDS Church were caught completely off guard by this new movement and saw an energetic collection of parallel-finding, plausibility-stretching scholars who were more than willing to use their advanced degrees in defense of the faith. For a while, FARMS claimed victory over the old critics through their inability to keep up with and answer new apologetic arguments; these critics were still usually making their critique from an orthodox Christian standpoint and using their interpretations of the Bible as their main source.

FARMS people in power poses

The general LDS populace quickly learned of these new apologetic arguments through various firesides, Know Your Religion presentations, and books and audio sold at Deseret Book. One argument, in particular, captured the attention of most amateur Church apologists: chiasmus. Chiasmus is a poetic form where a sequence of ideas or themes are presented within a text and are then presented again in reverse order. It helps to highlight the central point where the sequence is reversed. Chiasmus can be found throughout the ancient world, including both in ancient Israel and the texts they produce (such as the Hebrew Bible) and Mesoamerican literature. At the same time the apologists made the claim that Joseph Smith could not possibly be aware of this poetic art form as he never made mention of it and did not have access to any materials that discussed it (some apologists would even go so far as to claim that the entire Western world had forgotten about chiasmus before the late 19th Century). Its presence in the text as evidence of ancient antiquity with no other solution than that the book was what its translator claimed it to be: a translation of actual artifacts from a Precolumbian civilization.

The power of chiasmus to allay the doubts of most Mormons is appreciable. It is still often brought up in defense of personal faith in the Book of Mormon. And the Christian critics didn't have much of an answer at the time. But since the turn of the millennium, the critics have increasingly themselves adopted a science-based critique and a few chinks discovered have led to the apologetic organizations having to revisit the issue.

Decayed Armor

It turned out that knowledge of chiasmus had not been lost before and during the 1820s (a claim never made by most of the professional apologists), but was often a bit of idle trivia reserved to those trained for Christian ministry. It was discussed in a number of Biblical commentaries, and while there's no evidence that Joseph read these commentaries they were easily available to him and were discussed by Christian leaders in the area on occasion. [Edit: Turns out BYU researchers have found evidence that Joseph Smith read and used these commentaries early in his career after the Book of Mormon project, so it's likely he was also familiar with these sources during or even before the timeframe of the translation! Thanks for the callout, Jonathan Ellis!]

Another chink was the discovery of small chiastic structures in items known or believed by most Mormons to be modern, such as sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, letters dictated by Joseph Smith, works of scripture produced by other charismatic leaders in the Latter Day Saint movement who didn't follow Brigham Young's leadership, and even in history books written in New England that purposefully mimicked the style of the King James Bible.

Green Eggs and Ham

Now the apologists had to defend much more difficult arguments. They had to try to prove that Joseph Smith never made use of the materials available to him (and as any LDS apologist will tell you when discussing other arguments it's very hard to prove a negative). They created computational algorithms to try to distinguish subconsciously-produced chiastic structures from purposeful constructions, thus creating the new problems of having to argue about the fine details of their algorithms and how well they accomplish their purpose. It used to be much more fun to simply discuss what chiasmus was, present some examples from the Book of Mormon, and present the simple argument about how they proved historicity. Now the job has become less about a bulletproof claim and more about finding out how to reject the new problems constantly presented.


Apologists have yearned to go back to those days of the simple claim. In their desperation, they've jumped upon a new argument, one that I am comparing to the story of the rise of chiasmus. It's basically the “new chiasmus”. But while this new argument is producing the same excitement and exhilaration as the early decades of chiasmus it is a very different argument and in some ways is much more confusing.

New Coke Same as the Old Coke

The argument is that the English text of the Book of Mormon is not, as most people claim, an imitation of Jacobean English from the early 17th Century (the King James Bible was published in 1611), but is in fact a text that shows signs of being a much older form of English, possibly as old as the 15th Century (the English spoken around when Columbus set sail). English was always evolving and transforming, but much of what we would recognize arose during the 1500s, so this is roughly when linguists assign the beginnings of “Modern English”. Before this time they classify the language as “Middle English” and it sounded much more like French with an Irish accent to our ears (Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales” were written in Middle English). However, the transition was, apart from a drastic cultural change in how vowels were pronounced that occurred in a short period of time for still-unknown reasons (called, simply enough, the Great Vowel Shift), a smooth one for those who lived in these centuries.

The argument for the English of the Book of Mormon being Early Modern English arises from studies of what survives of the original handwritten manuscript of the Book of Mormon, as well as the hand-copied duplicate created to give to the Printer's office for publication. Even when first published, the text had been modified to remove what most current historians have accepted as folk grammar in Joseph Smith's 19th Century Northern Appalachian vernacular. The Early Modern English hypothesis, however, makes the claim that there are no “folkisms” in the text but that these rough phrases are instead relics of much older English than even the King James Bible or the works of William Shakespeare!

Very dramatic Shakespeare scene: "If my days could have been in them days!"

The argument is actually remarkably similar in form to that of chiasmus in the early days: Elements of EM English can be found in the book's text, Joseph Smith could not have produced those elements, and therefore the text cannot be Joseph Smith's creation.

Hillybilly wondering where his English done come from

It's been an intriguing idea for apologists since it was first proposed by Royal Skousen following his extensive study of the original manuscripts. Stanford Carmack, a Standford-educated linguist from Massachusetts who specializes in Middle and Early Modern English (hey, what are the chances?), is one of the few other apologists who has both the expertise to evaluate oddities from the Book of Mormon as EM English and who also accepts the core assumption of the EM English hypothesis: that it is more likely that these language features arise in the text independently of Joseph Smith's context as a Rural American English speaker in the early 19th Century. There are many apologists who accept Skousen and Carmack's argument without the expertise necessary to fully evaluate or even disprove it, and there are a few faithful LDS linguists who (privately) don't see it as impossible for these features to enter the text through Joseph Smith's linguistic context.

Union Venn Diagram

Note that the argument as I've presented it doesn't have a point as to why the text would be written in EM English. We'll discuss what eventually developed as the current explanation in a bit, but for a few years, the pure mystery of the hypothesis carried enough passion to firmly embed it in the apologetic community. Various famous figures in FARMS, FAIR, and the Mormon Interpreter, a journal made by apologists ousted from BYU's Maxwell Institute who reformed themselves into a journal that coincidentally carried the same acronym as their previous org, loved to bring up the hypothesis for two reasons: the mystery of purpose was intoxicating and sensational (WHY would the Book of Mormon text be even older than the Bible it usually associated with?) as well as it had ability for them to laughingly rebut the claims of critics that Joseph Smith was simply, and badly, imitating the King James Bible. How could he be imitating the Bible when the words and grammar he was using are older than that Bible? Checkmate, critics!

Nerd Fight

That mystery of why the text would be older than expected continued to swirl through the apologetic community. A few individuals made their own guesses and positions, often based on Mormon doctrine of angels or of inspiration given to humans during the Great Apostasy. Perhaps the Book of Mormon had already been translated centuries before Joseph and he was just receiving the words? If so, who did this translation? Various individuals were posited, including the spiritualist of Queen Elizabeth's court, John Dee, a man who mirrored the folk magical story of Joseph Smith in many ways but was decidedly non-Mormon in others. Other apologists continued with the idea, but guessed that the individual or individuals may have done the work posthumously, and famous individuals such as Tyndale or Wycliffe were advanced as people who had translated scripture into English and been forebearers of light that would eventually lead to Joseph Smith's ushering in of the Restoration of Christian truths. Even the Three Nephites, a group of quasi-immortal individuals who survived the destruction of the Nephites at the end of the Book of Mormon and have lived among humankind ever since, have been brought up as the possible translators of the Book of Mormon, presumably doing so in their free time while chilling in the English countryside circa 1500 or so.

Three Knights on a Curelom

Understandably, while all of this exploration was immense fun within the apologetic community, it really bothered them when the critics themselves encountered these explanations and began mocking them. Joseph Smith wasn't a translator, he was channeling a text translated by ghosts! While apologists enjoyed the mystery, they began to realize that mystery is not an apologetic argument at all, and the mocking began to really annoy them as it focused on that weakness.

Angry Apologist

They cast about for an explanation that didn't involve ghosts or Renaissance wizards and found one. Maybe, posited those apologists with training in recognizing language elements from EM English, the text was given to Joseph through the seer stone with elements of EM English as a sort of divine signature embedded in the text that would be readily apparent in the 21st Century to individuals with training in recognizing language elements from EM English! It was so simple; it was almost as if the Book of Mormon was a mirror and the closer they looked in the text the more they saw their own training within it! This is the current explanation in vogue for why the text has EM English grammar: it means that the language by definition cannot be an imitation of the King James Bible, but rather shares more in common with the English that led to the KJV's eventual creation. God purposefully inspired Joseph to write the text in more the English of Wycliffe and Tyndale, and its very antiquity in comparison to the King James version means that if the text somehow fell back in time even individuals in King James's England would still recognize the text as old. The Book of Mormon is not meant to imitate existing scriptures, but to live alongside them as an equal and so it was given a text that establishes its pedigree as equal to that of the oldest Modern English translations.

One of these things is not like the other

Of course, this explanation itself is still reeking with mysteriousness and lack of purpose. It's as though God purposefully colored Joseph's translation with this grammar as a sort of signature that would hide in plain sight for nearly two centuries. It's almost like a genetic marker, much as we would have expected to find among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to show evidence of the Lehite and Mulekite immigrations. Except that in this case when experts turned to look the evidence actually emerged! Much digital ink has been spilled by both Skousen and Carmack that they never initially expected to find EM English in the Book of Mormon. It must be truly miraculous, then, that this marker was lucky enough to be discovered by two faithful experts. In many ways, it's how researchers like Dr. Simon Southerton expected things to go, but this time they were lucky enough to not find evidence against their faith.

Sad Simon Southerton

All right, enough attempting (and failing) at being coy. I have tried to represent the argument accurately, even it if may not be nice. What is wrong with the hypothesis?

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

First, there is the issue I've already discussed somewhat. It becomes more than a little concerning when people approach the text of the Book of Mormon looking for evidence to prove a theory instead of trying to disprove said theory. Whether the initial hypothesis was arrived at unexpectedly is a rather useless point now. Even if Skousen was struck by a particular turn of phrase as he examined the original text, the multiple subsequent articles published, supposedly after having been “peer reviewed”, in the Mormon Interpreter are all about accumulating more evidence. So the majority of effort made by apologists about this theory has been to return time and again either to the text to find another archaic form of grammar or to return to the corpus of written EM English to find examples of odd BoM grammar. The lists may be long but that doesn't establish an argument; it simply shows how much free time you have to make an analysis of a large body of English texts. And the lack of debate among faithful LDS apologists is not evidence in favor of the theory. The truthfulness of the Book of Mormon does not rise or fall on the accuracy of the Early Modern English hypothesis. We should expect to find the same objections raised by myself and others within the apologetic community. Frankly, we should have been expecting such debate for years now, even when it came to the early claims of chiasmus. But it seems that if there are those who doubt the hypothesis among the faithful scholars they find themselves hindered from voicing their objection.

I want to object but can't

However, it's not like we haven't seen apologists critique other apologetic arguments already. At the present time there has been a wide attempt by LDS anthropologists, geneticists, and other scholars to point out the flaws in the “Heartland Model” of Book of Mormon geography, which places the events of the Book of Mormon in the Appalachian and Midwestern states of America and presents the Hopewell Cultures as the evidence of Lehite settlement and architecture. The theory also claims genetic evidence, and all of it has been very thoroughly analyzed, critiqued, and rejected by the largest apologetic groups of FAIR and the Mormon Interpreter. But we have yet to hear about the flaws of the Early Modern English hypothesis from anyone besides critics of the LDS faith.

Napoleon Dynamite in front of a map of America

The largest flaw that we should be expecting to hear from faithful critics is the assumption that Early Modern English constructions couldn't have entered the text through Joseph Smith's own linguistic context. Joseph's personal English is presented as being far removed from Early Modern English as spoken in Britain, but the truth is that Joseph's English did have a closer association than one might at first assume. Also, this issue in defining Joseph's English in opposition to Early Mormon English often treats EM English as a much simpler context than one might at first assume.

English is a language, not a solid collection of facts, words, and dates. It is alive, changing, and extremely variable across both time and distance. We often forget just how huge the world is when you don't have anything faster than a horse or a ship for travel. The island of Britain is immense and during the time periods of Middle and Modern English we see huge variety across the island in grammar and vocabulary. At that time, it was as easy to identify where someone was from within Britain by what words they used and how they used them as it is for us to identify whether someone is from England or America merely by the words they use and how they use them (I mean beyond accent; you could probably still do it if presented with a written transcript). Which makes the large lists of examples we see from Carmack about EM English a little disconcerting: they arise from all over England and Scotland, and if the examples are centered in any particular areas more than others it's because they represent that those areas have simply given us more texts. If we can identify the text to within a century, it should not be unreasonable to also expect a similar identification with a rough geographic area as well. Is the text of the Book of Mormon more of a Northern dialect, or is it something more akin to English spoken in Cornwall? Does it show more of an influence along the Channel?

Soccer Rivalry: Some Say There's Still Big Differences

Also, while English has always been in flux, it never moved at the same rate across all areas. Linguists have known for a long time that cities, with their higher population density, evolve their language faster than rural areas. Languages can preserve extremely old words and grammatical forms in the countryside, sometimes for centuries. Scots, the English dialect/language forced upon Medieval Scotland, is a vast repository of Old, Middle, and Early Modern English words and grammar that the more-densely populated England, to the south, long ago left behind. And the same story holds true for America. English immigration to America often came from rural farmers seeking a better life, and the original English colonies became very attractive places for entire communities to transfer themselves to, and in so doing American English has preserved many older English words and phrases. That's why we usually use the word “Fall” instead of how the British usually use “Autumn,” and is even why Yanks usually pronounce our letter “r”s while Brits tend not to. And the difference in speed between the cities and the rural countryside also held true in America, meaning that what we perceive as “hillbilly” English is often a time capsule of older forms of English carried over from England centuries ago and preserved here, or bent by the same forces of linguistics back into a form mirroring the past.

I should take a brief tangent to say that there is an active effort by American nationalists to push this idea to the extreme: that white Appalachian Americans are the true inheritors of the language, ideas, and gravitas of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth. This is carrying the idea much further than the evidence suggests; Appalachian English is still a descendant of Early Modern English much as “proper” American English is, though it is much more conservative in how much it has changed over time since.

Shakespeare was a Hillbilly: No He Really Wasn't

Part of why the white nationalists are eager to claim Shakespeare as one of their own is that Americans continue to foster a negative cultural association with Appalachian culture and speech patterns. Terms like “hick” (itself a term from Early Modern English!) are derogatives applied to people in the rural outskirts of Atlantic states, many of whom are seen as often poor, poorly educated, itinerant workers. Basically, people just like Joseph Smith and his family! On the other hand, this stereotype is just as classist and privileged as when people mock urban black dialects. It's not fair to paint an entire group of people with a broad brush, and it's also not fair to apply that brush merely because of how someone speaks.

And there's evidence that Joseph Smith himself had something of a “twang” in his voice, which can be recovered from the original Book of Mormon manuscript! Since the project involved the transcription of the audibly spoken text, no matter how “tight” of a translation process the apologists want to hold to they still have to account for the fact that Oliver Cowdery wrote down the words he heard Joseph saying out loud. In those cases where he scribbles out one incorrect word for another that sounds similar we can see a clear pattern of Oliver hearing one word through Joseph's accent and figuring out that another word was meant by the context of what followed. One example is that Joseph's “where” was very close to his “were” (Cowdery fixed just such a mistake in 1 Nephi 3:14); the vowel in these two words are very similar in rural New England dialects and apparently was also similar for Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith sounded like a “hick.”

Joseph Smiths: We ain't hicks, is we Pa? Sure we are, but does it really matter son?

This is why we should be seeing even faithful apologists questioning the Early Modern English hypothesis. The argument says that Joseph Smith was too separated from EM English to reproduce them in his text. It's true that similar works like “The Late War” have been shown to not hold as many Early Modern English variants as the Book of Mormon, but not enough work has been done on the English of rural, Appalachian New York versus urban New York to see if that could reasonably account for the difference.

In fact, it is this lack of work that is currently the main thing keeping the Early Modern English hypothesis buoyed up. If the Mormon Interpreter wants to be seen as doing true scholarship they should be encouraging apologists to examine the evidence and see if they can disprove the theory. They should be demanding reasonable and testable extrapolations of the theory as I have already done by asking if the theory can point to a geographic area of Early Modern English for the text's language (and then showing that the emigrants from this area didn't wind up in New England). We should be looking at whether these lists are false positives because they show up in other areas we wouldn't expect to see them, such as in the writings of Joseph's mother, or the writings of religious leaders of the area. Much has been written on the influence of Milton on early Mormon thought: does Paradise Lost show similar elements of EM English in some of its more “scriptural” sections? If the purpose of providing a divine signature is accurate, do we see this “scriptural signature” in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in the revelations of Brigham Young, or Joseph F. Smith? And do we not see it in the revelations delivered in the voice of God by the leaders of various modern Latter Day Saint communities like the FLDS Church?

Warren Jeffs: A Fan of Dual-Object "Cause" Syntax

Also, the idea of the “scriptural signature” is difficult to place against the claims of Joseph's other scriptures (D&C 1:24 “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding”) and Apostle George A. Smith said that when “the Lord reveals anything to men He reveals it in language that accords with their own. If any of you were to converse with an angel, and you used strictly grammatical language he would do the same. But if you used two negatives in a sentence the heavenly messenger would use language to correspond with your understanding, and this very objection to the Book of Mormon is an evidence in its favor.” (Journal of Discourses 12:335) Should the LDS Church be trying to emulate the presence of old language in their translations? Was it wrong for Joseph Smith to publish versions of the Book of Mormon that erased his “Early Modern English” grammar?

Confusing Bible Meme Picture

The conservative-leaning faction of apologists have always disliked the idea that Joseph Smith was partially responsible for the English text of the Book of Mormon (“loose translation theory”) instead preferring the idea that God gave the text directly to Joseph with every word chosen by divine power and approval (“tight translation theory”), but the poor grammar of Joseph's early revelations (which tended to match his early letters) combined with how the errors lessened over time coinciding with more education seemed to point to Joseph Smith is an active participant. This is what has convinced most faithful historians of Joseph Smith's life that he was closely involved, and has led over time to a constant back and forth between apologists about loose versus tight translations (or both, as was pointed out as an option by Blake Ostler, the translation may have flowed at times between tight and loose such that the parts that look tight were tight and the parts that look loose were loose).

Trekkies vs Star Wars: Loose vs Tight Translation Adherents

The Early Modern English Hypothesis has become the main argument of the “tight translation” faction. In fact, when Carmack writes he no longer uses any hedging language of “might”, “maybe”, or describes the argument as a hypothesis. In his recent articles, the idea is always presented as previously established fact beyond discussion, and his articles increasingly only look to establish how yet another case of “bad grammar” is merely an example confirming that the text solidly is Early Modern English. And his explanation increasingly centers on the idea of a self-fulfilling evidence apparent most readily to experts like himself. (I can't wait until the first jack-ass apologist promotes the idea, à la Blake Ostler, that the English of the Book of Mormon is both Early Modern English and Appalachian English; I imagine the web servers of the Mormon Interpreter will implode in frustration!)

I'm a Mac, I'm a PC, and I'm Linux

The mystery has held sway for a long time, but it's time for testing to see if Early Modern English is as strong of an apologetic as chiasmus seemed in its early days, or if it's merely a linguistic illusion as chiasmus has turned out to occasionally be. I'm human, so I've got an opinion and I fully expect that Upstate New York, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible are together more than enough to account for the evidence, but I also want to be humble enough to say that I was wrong, so I look forward to what emerges from scholarly critique. I'm just not holding my breath for any of that critique to come from the faithful apologists: they've got the simple claim that befuddles the critics when they present it to them, and that's some heady stuff.

Final Dwight Image

#Mormon #Counterapologetics #EarlyModernEnglish


The Mormon Church has claims since its earliest days to be a restoration of an “original” Christian religion. The 9th Article of Faith states, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.”

However, the era of modern biblical studies arose a few decades before the Mormon Church began, and it's rapid pace of study and learning has continue ever since. The ability to read the Christian New Testament as a unified work has grown extremely tenuous. The formation of Christian orthodoxy and its various hierarchies is now seen as a very organic process that took decades and centuries.

As such, past arguments to “prove” Mormonism as “primitive” Christianity have become increasingly brittle as changes become ever-more obvious.

I have to take my hat off to Tad Callister. He has provided this argument with enough flexibility that I'd bet we'll still be seeing it made for a few more decades before Mormonism succumbs to the inevitable position of acknowledging itself as a modern religion.

As [our] home was being constructed, we occasionally submitted to the builder a “change order” that revised the blueprint. When the home was finally completed, it was in exact conformity with our blueprint as revised from time to time...In a similar way, Christ built a Church to best accommodate the spiritual needs of His children. The spiritual blueprint for this Church can be found in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Occasionally the Savior made a “change order” to the blueprint. Such a spiritual change order came in the form of a revelation.

This is how Callister is able to explain what previously have been large problems with the “Mormon Church is a Restoration” approach in the past. The Primitive Church had “evangelists” which the Mormons turn into “Patriarchs” (seriously, it's still a moronic change that is meaningless). The original apostles were missionaries, but the modern LDS apostles are corporate board members. Jesus sent his people into “all of the world” but until 1978 the LDS Church didn't really know what to do with their black members.

The “change order” however, has a wonderful flexibility. Did you find a difference between ancient Christianity and modern Mormonism? Change order! The two blueprints are still the same, but the Mormon Church has been divinely altered to better serve the needs of the modern world.

However, the “change order” is also a double-edged sword that threatens Callister's argument as well, because part of the need for a restoration is the idea of the ancient Christian Church disappearing. Callister is going to spend many pages discussing the process that he believes led to the need for a restoration. But first he has to deal with the “change order” idea he came up with.

Bishops are now going to be in charge of the Church? Was there a change order? Perhaps there was. The Catholic Church is a church of bishops. The Orthodox Church is a church of bishops. The Mormon Church is not a Church of bishops. If an ancient change order caused the ancient Church to move to an episcopal hierarchy, then the Mormon Church needs to also have that same change order, but it obviously has not.

So now Callister has to retreat to a position that will cause his argument problems throughout his book. He needs to uphold the idea that there was an ancient Christian Church lying behind all of Christianity (no small task as most scholars today distinguish between the religion Jesus taught and the religion his followers taught about him). He needs to uphold the New Testament as a source of truth and he needs to downplay early Christianity as found outside of the New Testament either in writings by early Christians or scholarship. He needs to show how ancient Christianity fell, but he needs to do so without drawing any disturbing parallels to modern Mormonism. Ancient Christianity fell, but modern Mormonism won't. Why not? That's actually a very difficult thing for Callister to explain.

So he needs to qualify what constitutes a real change order. But here he runs into a problem: he can define a change order narrowly enough that it supports differences between orthodox Christianity and Mormons, but wide enough that he doesn't highlight differences in Mormonism between 1830 and the present day because his thesis is that change without a change order is what constitutes apostasy and the ancient Church fell into the Great Apostacy through the cumulative little differences that arose. At the same time, his argument about the Mormon Church needs to support its truth claims from 1830 to 2015, which is a much larger feat that I believe Callister is aware of.

As an example, let's look at his first assertion of a matching blueprint:

Apostle and Prophets as the Foundation

...The Apostles understood the imperative need to keep the quorum of twelve Apostles intact. This was demonstrated when one Apostle, Judas, died and a portion of the foundation was “chipped away.” The other eleven Apostles gathered together and by revelation chose a successor so the foundation would be whole again (see Acts 1:22–26).

This pattern evidenced the importance of maintaining a quorum of twelve Apostles. In other words, the selection of the initial twelve Apostles was not a single, isolated event in the establishment of Christ’s Church... Suffice it to say, the Apostles were critical to keeping the doctrine pure.

The blueprint clearly reveals that at the foundation of Christ’s Church are apostles and prophets. Do you know of any change order in the New Testament, any revelation that revised the blueprint and stated that Apostles were no longer needed? I do not. If that is the case, then Christ's true Church today should have apostles and prophets at its foundation. Such is the case with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Grand words (I get the feeling I'll be saying this a lot over the coming weeks), but problematic. Only one chapter later, Callister says:

At first, upon the death of one Apostle, the surviving Apostles would gather and choose a successor. This pattern was established after the death of Judas. Since part of the foundation had been “chipped away” with Judas's death, the other eleven Apostles gathered together to make it whole again. The scriptures tell us: “Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection... that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell,... and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:22, 25–26).

I'm surprised Callister even chose to quote the qualifications that Luke gives for what constitutes an Apostle: a man who had been involved with the movement from the Baptism by John but who also witnesses Jesus ascend into heaven. Where is the change order that these requirements went away? Callister instead chooses to view this as proof that the Apostles all died before they could replenish their number. In Acts 1 it is stated quite clearly that the rewards appointed to Judas needed to be taken up so that there would be 12 Apostles. But there is no change order in this chapter stating that an unfallen apostle must be replaced upon death but only that Judas was replaced.

Another missing change order is that the Apostles were commissioned to go out into the world in Matthew and Luke. In Luke's sequel, Acts, we see the Apostles appointing seven men to take on the chore of handling the economics of the fledgling organization (Acts 6:2-4) so that they could be specifically freed to preach as missionaries (those same seven would also be compelled by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries themselves, a common theme in Luke-Acts of the irresistible Spirit, leaving the question of who actually handled the finances of the commune unanswered). Where is the modern change order for the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the physical organization? It doesn't exist, at least not to be studied.

(In all of this I am still struck by how Callister approaches books like Luke-Acts as though they were history books. This is going to come up to bite him in the ass later on when he talks about an “open canon” as Callister rejects books many early Christians viewed as authoritative, choosing to quote from them only when it suits his purposes.)

This is getting pretty long as is, so I'm going to stop for now. Next time we'll go into more detail on Callister's absurd claims about the name of the Church and the “loss” of early “teachings” of the ancient Mormon Church.

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #Counterapologetics


I've just finished a very quick read-through of Tad Callister's “The Blueprint of Christ's Church” and figured it might be nice to do a sort of mini-review of my impressions of the book as a whole before beginning to discuss pieces of the book. The verdict? About what would be expected, though with some unexpected highlights.

I was surprised to find that I was not nearly as aggravated by errors and smugness as I thought I would be (damning by faint praise, I suppose, right?). Let's be honest: everything I was expecting to find was there. The book presents a false picture of the unassailable strength of Callister's position (I'd say the position of the LDS Church, but he was very clear in his foreword that the book is his own). There is a constant use of the weakest opposing arguments combined with the best supporting arguments. Often a list of supporting arguments ends abruptly and gives the reader the impression that the author could have continued to give examples supporting their position, but my impression knowing what I do is that the list is actually complete without betraying itself as such. Similarly, lists of opposing arguments end before the author runs out of the poorest arguments to dissect.

But the book surprised me, too, by it's careful approach to ecumenicalism in some areas. Chapter 7, which contains an extremely brief overview of the Nicaean Council and Creed did not actually run into blatantly false areas as other LDS authors and speakers do on the subject. Callister is careful to include language indicating that Trinitarianism as a theological idea might have existed before the Council convened and never comes right out to claim that Trinitarianism was invented by political expediency, which I've found to be the somewhat usual approach to a LDS interpreting the Council and Creed. It is unfortunate that Callister never read much of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” discussion of the debates of the Council, otherwise I'd imagine that his book would contain more of the scripture-based arguments of the Arianist position.

From this omission and several others I'm led to believe that while Callister may indeed own a copy of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” library, he's never actually sat down to read them through but instead has picked them up and perused them when he had spare moments. Or it may be that he does not want to associate himself with the other “heretical” early Christianities who agree with him in some aspects but who also hold other positions that Callister would find disturbing. So when discussing baptisms for the dead we hear no mention of Tertullian's mockery of the Marcionite version of the practice, or when discussing the word ὁμοούσιος we don't get into the use of the word by Valentinian Gnostics or it's uncomfortable close association to Sabellianism among early Trinitarianists. I'm guessing that Callister doesn't want to present a picture of a fractured early Christianity. Perhaps he didn't want to draw too close an association between a Christian movement that fractured and a Latter Day Saint movement that has also fractured along doctrinal, political, and geographic lines (and continues to fracture).

Which brings me to what I think is the main problem of the book: the audience. Callister claims that he is writing to an audience composed of both Mormons and even non-Mormons. He thanks a handful of non-Mormons for their helpful critiques of his early drafts (what I wouldn't give to see what those critiques actually were!) and is careful to address at time orthodox Christian readers, Mormon Readers, doubting Mormons, former Mormons, and even secular humanists (though not by such an accommodating name, preferring to just use the word “secularists). It's quite the presumed audience, but in the end I found myself increasingly creating a mental cast of characters and wondering how each of them would be responding to Callister's words. I admit, I was getting a little bored so I had more fun with this than I should have.

Callister's audience is supposed to be a wide variety of people, but in the end I think the only real audience he is seeking to satisfy is an audience of one. And I can't really blame him too much for that. The process of writing is often solitary. But the process of editing and rewriting does not have to be. I wonder how Callister's book would have emerged had he given it to my mental cast of characters for their thoughts on it before publication:

  • Astrid, the young single mother living in Norway raising her son. She is Lutheran as most Norwegians are, but also extremely secular as most Norwegians also are (they make it work, don't ask me how).

  • John, a historian and member of the Community of Christ, which formed around a large group of original followers of Joseph Smith living in the Midwest who were opposed to Brigham Young and polygamy. (Yeah, this guy isn't made up, I know. He's too cool to not leap to mind when thinking of modern RLDS people!)

  • Matthew, the Catholic father from Central America who isn't just Catholic because his father was Catholic, but has spent many years of his adult life reading Catholic books and listening to Catholic sermons very similar to your average Mormon father in Utah

  • Kumiko, the Japanese atheist who knows more about Shinto and the Buddha than Jesus

  • Michael, the retired professor of Meso-American history from Yale (again, this guy is real because it's too cool to have it otherwise)

  • Danielle, the follower of Denver Snuffer (who has no followers, I know, I've heard it, but let's be honest here, people follow him even if he doesn't want them to)

  • Raul, the black Baptist pastor from Georgia

  • Tammy, the female Anglican paster from California

Let's be honest: if even one of these mostly-hypothetical people (or a similar real-world counterpart) had been asked to provide input and that input was responded to we would have a very different book on our hands. I'll probably be referring to this cast list as I continue in my more focus critiques over the coming weeks. Each of these people would have a lot to find fault with or at least to question.

Another surprise was just how little of the book covered the same bases as Callister's 2014 CES fireside. Instead, this book is a consolidation of everything he's previously had published both in book form and in the Ensign. Even my (least) favorite graphical analogy of the line defined by two points being the line of truth between the Bible and the Book of Mormon makes an appearance! Large chunks of the book have been moved, occasionally just cut and pasted, from previous books and talks. If you've ever looked at the shelves of Deseret Book under Callister's name and wondered which book to buy (haven't we all been there?) now you don't have to: this book seems to be the end result of Callister's church writings over the past decade or so. Those familiar with his Ininite Atonement or Inevitable Apostacy are going to be feeling a lot of de ja vu reading this book.

The only notable absence or revision would be his discussion of modesty, which pretty much ends up a nothing more than a long paragraph that seems to avoid gendered distinctions of any kind. This leads me to think that Callister was very much aware of the frustration his BYU-I sermon had caused and it seems to be that it bothered him a lot. If so, I feel a little bad for him as I know he didn't mean anything hurtful by his comments and I imagine it would be a painful shock to be made to realize just how dangerous his words (and perspective) were. It really does feel to me that he retreated from those words and their absence in what seems to be the magnum opus of his life's written LDS work indicates that he'd rather not be remembered for those comments. Which I can respect: people always continue to change over time and it's a sign of a healthy mind that can re-evaluate things on the basis of new evidence.

But, in the end, my final overall impressions were what I was expecting. He quotes the infamously unsubstantiated Catholic priest who claimed, “You Mormons don't know the strength of your position.” Similarly, I would state, Tad Callister you also don't know the strength of your position, or, to be more accurate, the lack of strength. His wording is often bold, overbearing, and even sometimes demeaning in his assumptions that all sources of knowledge point to what he himself believes. He seems to be unfamiliar with the real arguments against his positions, which is odd as he presents himself as very well-read among many authors who would present challenges (being the only GA I know of who quotes Dr. Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, for instance). His position is not unassailable, and indeed his arguments often are unknowingly attacking themselves. All of this I'm sure will come up as I start to respond to this book.

Tad Callister has been gunning for one of the top seats for a while. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it one of these days with the top 15 being as old and sick, physically and mentally, as they are due to their age. If that happens, this book will probably gain even more popularity which would be fortunate or unfortunate depending on your point of view. Testimonies founded on this book and its arguments are going to be founded on a deceivingly weak foundation of ice that will melt and shatter under any close examination and fail to uphold anything with the strength they claim to have.

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #BookReview #Counterapologetics


Let me state before going any further: I don't bear Tad Callister any ill will personally. I'm sure he is a great guy, and you don't get to earn a higher degree in law and still be a dodo. You've got to read a lot of books to get there!

I've heard some bad stories about the personal behavior of some of the General Authorities when they're in private situations like visiting a friend's home or working at the Church Office Building. I find it notable that despite being a rather well-known GA, Elder Callister always comes off as a thoughtful, intelligent, and kind man when talking to anyone who has met or worked with him personally!

Which is part of why it bothers me when it seems he always sticks his foot in his mouth when speaking publicly in his office as a General Authority.

A few years ago he chose a childishly silly analogy for why LDS doctrine depended on the combined authority of the Christian* Bible and the Book of Mormon. I'll have to write a short post someday on how that one fails miserably.

And then he gave his infamous talk at BYU-Idaho (a location where it seems the high level of strident Mormons in the local culture causes some of the mental cautions to fall for many people) where he unknowingly gave voice to what is pretty much the epitome of rape culture when he cautioned young women to dress modestly because of how they affected men. His comments at the time caused some stir, and the controversy only grew when a year later the Ensign reproduced the talk in its entirety for English-speaking Mormons generally living in America and Canada (interestingly enough, the talk was not translated or reproduced in the Liahona, the international magazine of the LDS Church which includes an English version that English-speakers around the world can subscribe to).

Finally, nearly a year and a half ago Tad gave nearly an hour-long overview of why Mormonism was true and confined himself to using the Bible to do so. The talk was merely the latest in a particular LDS argument that has been made far longer than I or even Elder Callister have been around. I led a panel discussion that sought to critique some of the more egregious errors and oversights of the this talk. If you do happen to give it a listen you should know that I am an anxious person by nature and it was my first major podcast that thousands of people listened to. I've been told that it's actually quite fun, but I haven't yet worked up the nerve to listen to myself. You can cover a lot more ground speaking out loud than through text, but you also can't review and revise what was said before releasing it. There's a few mistakes and mistatements I myself made in that episode and what is said is said and can't be easily fixed with audio.

For a while since recording, I have found myself thinking back to Elder Callister's presentation of January 2014 with the same thoughts. It's entirely possible that Tad made some mistakes, and that if given the chance to do it again he might have delivered things differently. I know that no matter how well I would have prepared, in the same situation there's no way that I could be completely satisfied with whatever I presented. Perhaps he has similar misgivings afterwards, too.

Which is why I am planning to take another look at Elder Callister's arguments over the new few weeks. He recently published a full book on the same subject, and while we could spent a lot of time discussing the possibly-immoral practice of spiritual leaders who publish materials for profit meant to benefit their fellow humans spiritually I think I'll have more than enough to talk about Tad Callister's arguments when he has the time and patience to slowly explore them in textual form. I hope that things will have improved in the interim, but I suspect that on the whole it will be as problematic as the fireside (please prove me wrong, sir!).

Why am I wasting my time critiquing something meant to help people? Why am I (conceivably) “tearing down” instead of “building up”? I covered my objections to the use of this particular argument style on the podcast episode, but to reiterate them here: because just as Tad discusses in his fireside, the strength of a position rests upon the foundational parts of it, ultimately running to the strength of the very blueprints of the position itself. The attempts to build up the position of the LDS Church by tearing down, misunderstanding, and omitting the beliefs of other Christians does not benefit anyone. It doesn't benefit other faiths who approach the Christian New Testament as an authoritative book, it doesn't benefit Mormons who build their testimony on faulty information and assumptions, and it doesn't even benefit the presenter when he presents faulty arguments unknowingly (or even knowingly as Elder Holland has sometimes done, though Callister doesn't seem to dance the same careful dance about the boundaries of information detrimental to his argument that betrays his knowledge of such information).

The hardcover has been out for a few weeks now, but like many people my age I tend to read a lot of my books digitally, so the release of the book on Kindle this upcoming Wednesday will be the first time I've taken a look at it. I'm looking forward to it because even if I plan on tearing down the bad arguments (and hopefully highlighting the goos ones) the end result is increased knowledge. I can reasonably predict that Elder Callister has read a lot on the subject of the rise of early Christian orthodoxy and I have too, but I doubt that our knowledge overlaps exactly. This will mean study and research of my own as I try to unwrap the original sources and current research behind Tad's arguments. I think everybody benefits from this sort of approach, because between the both of us I'd predict that most people who will be reading my critiques will walk away knowing more than they did about the subjects.

I hope you enjoy the series as much as I do. (And I hope I can actually keep moving forward with it, unlike the Nicea project I have thousands of notes and many aborted posts written for but just can't seem to find the oomph to keep moving forward on it.)

* I only use the term "Christian" here to distinguish from the Hebrew Bible, which many Christians would know as the "Old Testament". However, the idea that the scriptural authority of an entire religion and people can be relegated under the single term of "old" in comparison to "new" is rather offensive to Judaism in general, so I tend to use the terms Christian New Testament and Hebrew Bible, or Christian Bible if I need to refer to the combined scriptures that most Christians use. This isn't a statement of whether or not Mormonism is Christian. When compared to the wide range of Christianities in the history of Christian thought they most certainly belong to the same group, just as there were Arian Christians, Donatist Christians, Anabaptists, Pelagian Christians (in fact, the overlap with the Pelagians hopefully would pop up in Callister's book as there's a lot of meat for interesting discussion in comparing and contrasting there), and a plethora of various Gnostic Christians with widely divergent beliefs. They're certainly not orthodox or traditional, but they are Christian: a style of Christianity firmly in the camp of orthodox heresy, but Christian nonetheless.

† Seriously, what would the harm be of selling them only for the cost of materials and publishing, or even, in this age of the Internet, releasing the text for free digitally, especially if the material in question is meant to help people grow in testimony and spirituality?

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #Counterapologetics