Introduction to Textual Variants Part IV
When my father taught as a Fulbright professor at the University of Oulu, Finland in 1970-71 we took along an anthology of humor, maybe A Sub-treasury of American Humor, ed. by E. B. White, which had this piece by Robert Benchley with the very strange title “Filling that Hiatus,” about what to do when the people on either side of you at a dinner party are talking to someone else. I couldn’t figure out what a hi-uh-toose was, and for some reason didn’t think to look it up. Now that I’ve been on a taxing highertoose for about a month I figure it’s thyme to parsley write down what I’ve been thinking about.
In Part III I mentioned Joseph Smith’s discourse of Sunday October 15, 1843 which starts with a comment on his love for the Constitution and its guarantees of religious freedom, then moves on to a comment about textual corruption in the Bible, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Documentary History of the Church VI:56-57)
The quote, though not the rest of the discourse, is well-known to seminary students and missionaries, and a young missionary might mention it to a woman who asks why we need additional revelation, hardly expecting her to say, “Do you really believe Jehovah God Almighty would allow errors to get into His scriptures?”
Her tone clearly says she will not accept the yes answer the missionary accepts. Her tone gives him a glimpse of how different other religions’ assumptions are, and he drops the matter.
He’ll spend some time thinking about the different assumptions and embody them in a question, “If I refuse to believe in God, can he force me to believe? Not, would he force me to believe, but does he have the physical ability?” (“Yes,” his brother-in-law will say, “The Bible says, ‘Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord,’ and the Bible doesn’t lie.”) Adapt the question, “How would God have prevented John H. Gilbert from dropping those last two letters on page 317, line 43, so that Alma 33:14 reads ‘have ye not read the scriptures,’ instead of ‘these scriptures’? Could he have reset the page, or taken control of Gilbert’s body?”
Given God’s power over matter he or an angel probably could have reset the page, but Mormons are likely to say he could not have possessed Gilbert’s body, since he didn’t create Gilbert’s intelligence and the intelligence is what controls the spirit body that controls the physical body.
Or maybe we wouldn’t analyze it that way, maybe we would just remember that passage in “Tragedy or Destiny” where Spencer W. Kimball says, “And God will sometimes use his power over death to protect us.” He tells how Heber C. Kimball went to Joseph Smith in “great perplexity” during a sore trial and Joseph asked the Lord what to do. “Tell him to go and do as he has been commanded, and if I see that there is any danger of his apostatizing I will take him to myself” (From Orson Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, quoted without page number in Faith Precedes The Miracle, page 105).
It is reasonable to assume that if God could not control Heber C. Kimball’s mind and body he could not control the minds or bodies of scribes, whether careless or bent on changing scripture.
It is important, though, to emphasize that “the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1). Whether the Jehovah’s Witness woman would have found that soft answer satisfying, I don’t know. Nor do I know if I could have turned away her wrath by saying that God works with imperfect people, but if they misunderstand the revelation or record it incorrectly God can send a corrective revelation to someone else.
I wasn’t particularly thinking about soft answers at the time–missionaries often don’t–and I didn’t understand until years later that people sometimes need reassurance that someone is not putting forth an unusual idea as an attack on other peoples’ beliefs or culture. (I still don’t understand very well when I need to pause and offer some reassurance, just use a common trope and ask my wife.)
The idea that God can use imperfect people’s imperfect words to correct other imperfect people’s imperfect words is implicit in the idea of continuing revelation, and in my approach to textual criticism, but it’s still important to remind ourselves and others that our belief in an open canon implies no disrespect either to God or earlier prophets.
We’ll talk more about why that reminder is important in part V.