Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.