Defending the Faith: Does the Book of Mormon contain the 'fulness' of the gospel?

Published: Thursday, May 15 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

A common line of criticism against the Book of Mormon argues that it fails to teach a number of distinctive doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, even though the Doctrine and Covenants declares it to contain the “fulness” of the gospel (Doctrine and Covenants 20:9; 27:5; 42:12; 135:3; compare 18:4). This, the argument runs, suggests that Mormonism cannot be true if the Book of Mormon is true, and that, if Mormonism is true, the Book of Mormon must be (paradoxically) false.

And it’s entirely correct that the Book of Mormon contains no explicit discussion of the plurality of gods, eternal progression, eternal marriage, baptism for the dead, the corporeality or embodiment of God, the denial of creation from nothing, and the three degrees of glory.

Of course, it’s one thing to demonstrate that a given principle isn’t taught in a particular passage or book, and quite another to prove that that principle has been directly contradicted.

What, then, do we mean when we say that the Book of Mormon contains “the fulness of the gospel”? Does the Doctrine and Covenants intend to say that the Book of Mormon contains the totality of the doctrines taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today? Does it include all of the theological propositions, ritual observances, administrative patterns and practices, and cultural distinctives that, taken together, compose Mormonism? If that’s what “fulness” means, the Book of Mormon clearly falls short.

But let’s take the doctrine of eternal progression as a test case: The command to be “perfect” — surely an essential component of the concept — occurs not only in the Bible’s Matthew 5:48 but also in 3 Nephi 12:48. And the doctrine seems to be pretty clearly implied in 3 Nephi 28:10:

“And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one.”

In reading this verse, one may think immediately of what mathematicians call “the transitive property of equality”: If “a” equals “b,” and “b” equals “c,” then “a” equals “c.” Thus, if the disciples will be like Jesus Christ, and if Christ is like the Father, the disciples will be like the Father. They’ll sit down in his kingdom with a fulness of joy, and, like the Son, they’ll be one with him. It’s difficult to see what this doctrine would be if it’s not a doctrine of human deification.

Moreover, just a few verses later, at 3 Nephi 28:13-16, we find what can easily be read as an analogy to Latter-day Saint temple ritual, which takes the form of an ascension rite and which likewise involves the communication of matters that shouldn’t be publicly taught or discussed.

But here’s another way of looking at the question of how, or whether, the Book of Mormon contains the “fulness” of the gospel:

In several carefully reasoned articles, Noel B. Reynolds (who is currently serving as a mission president) has shown that the word “gospel,” as the term is used in the Book of Mormon, refers to the means by which a person comes unto Christ and is saved. In its most basic Book of Mormon sense, the word doesn’t refer to all of the ordinances and all of the specific doctrines held by the Latter-day Saints, but, rather, represents a six-point formula including repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, faith, enduring to the end and eternal life. These teachings are clearly — one might well say “fully” — laid out in the Book of Mormon.

Furthermore, there’s no need for the Book of Mormon to enumerate each uniquely Latter-day Saint doctrine because the Nephite record itself repeatedly teaches that, after the believer has come to Jesus Christ and received the Holy Ghost, important further revelations will follow. The Book of Mormon consistently points beyond itself to things that weren’t “lawful” for its authors to write or to utter, thus teaching us that there are other doctrines not contained within its pages but implicitly embraced within a life lived according to the gospel.

If all of the detailed doctrines and practices of the Restoration had already come neatly shrink-wrapped in 1830 within the Book of Mormon, there would have been no need for Joseph Smith, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price or the prophets who have come since 1844.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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