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by Robert L. Millet
How can the Latter-day Saints justify having additional books of scripture and adding to the Christian canon?
I remember very well sitting in a seminar on biblical studies at an eastern university many years ago. One of the things that stands out in my mind is our discussion of the canon of scripture.
For at least two hours the instructor had emphasized that the word canon-referring, of course, to the biblical books that are generally included in the Judaeo-Christian collection-was the "rule of faith," the standard against which we measure what is acceptable in belief and practice. He also stated that the canon, if the word meant anything at all, was closed, fixed, set, and established. He must have stressed those words at least ten times as he wrote them on the blackboard over and over.
I noticed in the second session on this topic that the instructor seemed a bit uneasy. I remember thinking that something must be wrong. Without warning, he stopped what he was doing, banged his fist on the table, turned to me, and said: "Mr. Millet, will you please explain to this group the Latter-day Saint concept of canon, given your people's acceptance of the Book of Mormon and other books of scripture beyond the Bible?"
I was startled. Stunned. Certainly surprised. I paused for several seconds, looked up at the blackboard, saw the now very familiar words under the word canon, and said somewhat shyly: "Well, I suppose you could say that the Latter-day Saints believe the canon of scripture is open, flexible, and expanding."
We then had a really fascinating discussion!
Joseph Smith loved the Bible. It was through pondering upon certain verses in the epistle of James that he felt directed to call upon God in prayer. Most of his sermons, writings, and letters are laced with quotations or paraphrasing summaries of biblical passages and precepts from both the Old and New Testaments. The Prophet once remarked that one can "see God's handwriting in the sacred volume; and he who reads it oftenest will like it best."
From his earliest days, however, he did not believe the Bible was complete or that religious difficulties could necessarily be handled by turning to the Old or New Testaments for help (Joseph Smith-History 1:12). Nor did he believe in either the inerrancy or the infallibility of the Bible.
"From what we can draw from the Scriptures relative to the teaching of heaven," the Prophet stated, "we are induced to think that much instruction has been given to man since the beginning which we do not possess now. . . . We have what we have, and the Bible contains what it does contain: but to say that God never said anything more to man than is there recorded, would be saying at once that we have at last received a revelation: for it must require one to advance thus far."
Occasionally we hear certain Latter-day Saint teachings described as unbiblical or of a particular doctrine being contradictory to the Bible. Let us be clear on this matter. The Bible is one of the books within our standard works, and thus our doctrines and practices are in harmony with the Bible. There are times, of course, when latter-day revelation provides clarification or enhancement of the intended meaning in the Bible. But addition to the canon is not the same as rejection of the canon.
Supplementation is not the same as contradiction. All of the prophets, including the Savior himself, were sent to bring new light and knowledge to the world; in many cases, new scripture came as a result of their ministry. That new scripture did not invalidate what went before, nor did it close the door to subsequent revelation.
We feel deep gratitude for the holy scriptures, but we do not worship scripture. Nor do we feel it appropriate to set up stakes and bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty, to tell God, essentially, "Thus far and no more."
As the Lord declared through Nephi, "Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written" (2 Nephi 29:10).
In short, we believe God has spoken through modern prophets, restored his everlasting gospel, delivered new truths, and commissioned us to make them known to the world. We feel it would be unchristian not to share what has been communicated to us.
(See The Canonical or Biblical Exclusion; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)
Delivered at the weekly BYU Devotional in the Marriott Center February 3, 1998
Copyright 1998 Robert L. Millet
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