by Michael R. Ash
Those who have read any of my writings in the past several decades will know that I’ve been a volunteer for FAIR for more than twenty years. I’m an active Latter-day Saint who accepts prophets as the divinely called and authorized agents of Christ’s church on earth. And, like many other believing members, scholars, and LDS-scientists, I also try to think rationally and logically, and I embrace the general conclusions of secular science and “objective” history.
In the more than forty years that I’ve been reading and writing about LDS scholarly issues (including the twenty years I’ve been volunteering for FAIR), I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the intellectual reasons people leave the faith. Obviously, there are many reasons that people leave the Church, but I’ve always been interested in the historical and scientific issues that unseat some LDS testimonies.
For example, in my book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, I addressed (I believe) all of the primary “troubling” issues that most ex-members claim shattered their faith. These issues included such things as DNA and the Book of Mormon, plural marriage, the Spaulding manuscript, the First Vision, the Witnesses, the Kinderhook Plates, race issues, Joseph Smith and treasure digging, Book of Mormon anachronisms (such as the mention of horses, the wheel, swords, cement, etc.), and more.
In 2012, as I was finishing the updated 2nd edition of my book Shaken Faith Syndrome, I reflected on the factors which seem to increase the likelihood of a faith crisis. In my experience with ex-members and teetering-members, I found that a significant number of those who left the Church did so because they attached their testimonies to incorrect assumptions. Far too many Latter-day Saints, I’ve come to realize, reject good science and scholarship when those secular endeavors appear to clash with their assumptions. Yet, ironically, these same members sometimes accept bad science and scholarship when their erroneous conclusions seem to support the member’s faulty assumptions. The primary assumption which seems to be the source for many of these faith crises involves a misunderstanding of how God speaks to His prophets.
The Mistakes of Men
In my previous books, I had already pointed out that prophets are not infallible, although they are called of God. Therefore, I was pleased to hear Elder Uchtdorf state in the October 2013 General Conference:
[T]o be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes…. This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth.
Beginning in about 2012, I felt a need to explore the “mistakes of men” (Book of Mormon Title Page) as found in the scriptures. If we examined the errors in scripture, I concluded, we might better understand the context in which scriptures were written. As I began a new project based on this idea, I discovered not only how God works through fallible humans, but how all His children receive revelation through a blend of inspiration and intellect. Of course, I already knew this fact, but my ongoing studies uncovered some concrete examples in which I could see the Word of God mingled with the mind of fallible human prophets.
An Expanded Paradigm
As that project developed over the years, I made several fascinating discoveries about the “human element” in scripture. I also realized that the scriptures are made holy by each prophet in their own dispensation. It became apparent that that scripture can be errant and still serve as consecrated narratives. When we read the scriptures through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, those consecrated narratives help bind past, present, and future generations of God’s Covenant People (a topic I’ll readdress in another blog installment).
In June of 2021, the fruition of my research culminated in the publication of a new book entitled, Rethinking Revelation and the Human Element in Scripture: The Prophet’s Role as Creative Co-Author. This book, like my book Shaken Faith Syndrome, was published by FAIR (and is available in print from the FAIR bookstore, and well as in print and Kindle editions from Amazon).
My current book was written in the hopes of demonstrating how we (as believers) can embrace a harmony of inspiration and intellect and how we (sometimes) need to recalibrate our worldviews to accomplish this harmonization. Unfortunately, it’s the disharmony that presents potential stumbling blocks to our faith and sets us up for a potential faith crisis.
I’ve learned that truths come from many sources, and all truth ultimately sheds light on understanding the gospel. “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism,” said Joseph Smith, “is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” I hope to share some of my findings (as printed in my new book) in the electronic pages of this blog.
The title of my book might confuse some Latter-day Saints and cause them to wonder what I mean about the “human element” in scripture. And, perhaps more notably, some members might feel concerned about my subtitle wherein I claim that prophets are “creative co-authors” of scripture.
First, it’s important to note that I’m not arguing that Joseph Smith (or any past prophet) simply made up fictitious material to supplement or blend with divine revelation. Instead, the title refers to my argument that prophets—like all humans—intuitively recontextualized divine input according to what they already think, know, or presume.
While I didn’t realize it until after I published my book, I’m not the first to refer to the “human element” in scripture. For example, non-LDS Christian theologians Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield wrote in 1881, “We do not deny an everywhere-present human element in the Scriptures.” Likewise, non-LDS American theologian Richard Phillips explains that “the human element of Scripture incorporates the experiences, perspectives, and even feelings of the various authors.”
I’ll dig into this topic more deeply in subsequent articles, but for now, I simply want to point out that I am not the lone Christian who believes that there is a “human element” in scripture and that this element does not lessen scripture’s power as the “Word of God.”
I already knew that I wasn’t the only believer who suggested that prophets are “co-authors” of scripture, and I acknowledge the influence that LDS philosopher Blake Ostler had on my scriptural worldview. He has argued, for example, that prophets receive revelation in the process of “creative co-participation.” Moreover, the assertion that prophets are co-authors of scripture has been suggested by several other scholars, many of whom are not LDS.
According to some theologians who have written on the topic, for instance, the scriptures (and non-LDS scholars are referring to the Bible) are the product of the dual authorship of both God and man. “Scripture is not only man’s word,” wrote non-LDS theologian J. I. Packer, “…but also equally God’s word, spoken through man’s lips or written with man’s pen. In other words, Scripture has double authorship, and man is only the secondary author.” Even according to the Catholic doctrine of inspiration, it is “commonly understood” that “…God is the primary author of Scripture, and the sacred writer is the secondary author.”
We then come to the “creative” adjective in my title. In typical discourse, creative often denotes something that isn’t real. We have “creative writing,” for instance, which often refers to fictional writings. The word “creative” is often used to describe something based on imagination, or it could even denote something deceitful, such as “creative accounting.” The word “creative” is obviously derived from the word “create,” however, which primarily means to “produce” or “bring into existence.” In the context of my book, “creative” denotes a prophet’s involvement in generating the words that become scripture.
As I argue in Rethinking Revelation, a prophet’s role as a creative co-author is present when generating new scripture, recontextualizing existing scripture for a modern audience, or when translating scripture. As New Testament scholar Dr. K. K. Yeo explains, for instance, translation does not convey the original intent of one language to another with “with perfect clarity.” The interpreter should recognize, he argues, “…that reading/interpretation is always constructive: the interpreter plays a significant role in the meaning-producing process. …the creative, constructive work of the reader cannot be absent from the reading process.”
While most other churches believe that this creative co-authorship produced a necessarily inerrant (or virtually inerrant) scripture (the Bible), many Christian theologians reject the belief that God produced the scriptures through a mechanical means where “God overrides the human faculties of the inspired author, or simply dictated, audibly or mentally, the words that were to be written.”
According to what is known to biblical scholars as the “dynamic theory” of scriptural creation, “God gave the writers of Scripture the ideas and then they selected the best words to describe them.” He “‘gave the thoughts to the men chosen, and left them to record these thoughts in their own ‘dynamic inspiration.’” Some scholars refer to this as the “Inspired Concept Theory,” wherein concepts “…are inspired while the word choices are not.”
We find similarities to some of the theories about Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon. Although not all LDS scholars agree about how “tight” or “loose” Joseph translated the narratives from the Nephite plates, most LDS scholars recognize that Joseph’s own thoughts would have participated in the translation process. Even Royal Skousen, who has argued for a “tight control” theory, has more recently suggested that the Book of Mormon translation “is a creative” and “…cultural translation” that “…involves considerable intervention by the translator.” (I’ll discuss some theories about the Book of Mormon translation process in a future installment.)
When I researched and wrote Shaken Faith Syndrome, I discovered that none of these issues really had any bite to cause damage unless the believer assumed certain things about prophets and prophecy. I’m the first to acknowledge that many of these assumptions are generated by both LDS and Christian tradition and that they are fostered and perpetuated by members who really haven’t analyzed those assumptions. Bad assumptions are still bad assumptions.
In a future installment, I’ll address the topic of assumptions in greater depth, but for now, it’s essential to understand that all people make assumptions (and some of those assumptions are wrong). It doesn’t matter if you are intelligent, dumb, or average; if you are a Mormon, Catholic, or atheist; or if you are righteous or wicked. All of us frequently make incorrect assumptions. If we can recognize and acknowledge our assumptions—especially those based on, or supported by, shaky foundations—then we stand a chance at correcting any false assumptions.
From my experience, believing members of the Church typically fall into one of three general camps that embrace different worldviews and assumptions. These worldviews affect how believers understand prophets, prophecy, and scripture. They may also affect our vulnerability to a potential faith crisis when encountering challenging information. I’ve labeled these three worldviews as, Literalists, Mythicalists, and Extensibilists.
The Literalists typically believe in a young earth (roughly 6,000 years old) and that Adam and Eve were the first “humans” (they generally reject evolution). They are more likely to believe that the scriptures are nearly inerrant and that the Word of God accurately depicts ancient historical events. They also often reject scientific arguments that appear (to them) to contradict their literalist views.
From my personal experience (and my assumption is based on years of working with teetering/ex-members and not on scholarly statistics), I find that the Literalist members are often more seriously impacted by anti-LDS writings and troubling “discoveries.” They generally are very shocked, for example, if they discover aspects of early LDS history that clash with the traditional narrative. From my experience, Literalists are more likely to leave the Church after being exposed to unsettling information.
Next are the Mythicalists. These are members who (regarding our discussion) are the opposite of Literalists. They often reject the historicity of many or most scriptural narratives and argue that many (if not all) of the stories are myths or legends. Their worldview may even extend to the Book of Mormon by claiming that Joseph’s translation is “inspired fiction” and that there never really were any Nephites or Lamanites. Nevertheless, they still accept the Church as “true” because it brings people closer to God more than any other religion.
These are they who (in my experience) are the more likely—after the Literalists—to leave the faith. It’s a small step from “the scriptures are fictional,” to “Jesus was a myth,” or “prophets are divinely called, but fallible,” to “prophets are nice men who try to come up with comforting things to say.”
Lastly are the Extensibilists. The word’s root implies elasticity. This group includes members who are in-between the Literalists and Mythicalists. They accept the scriptures and most of the narratives as having real historical foundations, but they also recognize that scriptures weren’t written as history books. They accept the general scientific consensus regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of life. They also accept most biblical scholarship that explains how and when the Bible came to be. They believe that Lehi, Nephi, and Mormon were real prophets in the ancient Americas, and that Joseph Smith translated a metal record engraved by ancient American prophets. While Extensibilists fully embrace that prophets can speak for the Lord, they also recognize that prophets are humans and can make mistakes.
If we put these three worldviews in a Venn diagram, we’d find that some member’s beliefs might overlap between categories. Some members may fit into one group on a particular issue but into another group on a different issue. I fit in the Extensibilist category. As I will lay out in future installments, my writings attempt to show some elasticity in understanding scriptures, LDS narratives, early LDS history, prophets, and revelation, which is (in my view) the best way to blend inspiration and intellect in understanding the gospel. I also believe that those who embrace the Extensibilist views are the least likely to encounter a faith crisis should they discover some new and unsettling aspect of LDS history (or a scientific fact) that clashes with their personal assumptions.
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” Ensign (November 2013), 22–23.
 Joseph Smith, “History, 1838–1856, Volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-e-1-1-july-1843-30-april-1844/36 (accessed 25 December 2019).
 Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, The Presbyterian Review (April 1881), 6: 225-260, at http://www.bible-researcher.com/warfield4.html (accessed 25 July 2021).
 Richard Phillips, “Scripture as a Divine and Human Book,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/scripture-as-a-divine-and-human-book/ (accessed 25 July 2021).
 Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Spring 1987), 20:1, 109.
 J. I. Packer, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” The Origin of the Bible, eds., Philip Wesley Comfort (Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House, 1992) 31.
 “Inspiration and the Relationship of Divine and Human Authorship,” St. Paul Center of Biblical Theology, https://stpaulcenter.com/inspiration-and-the-relationship-of-divine-and-human-authorship/ (accessed 25 July 2021).
 Khiok-khng Yeo, “Culture and Intersubjectivity as Criteria for Negotiating Meanings in Cross-Cultural Interpretations,” The Meanings We Choose: Hermeneutical Ethics, Indeterminacy and Conflict of Interpretations, ed., Charles H. Cosgrove (New York: Clark International, 2004), 83, 84.
 “Inspiration and the Relationship….” Op.cit.
 Royal Skousen, “The Language of the Original Text of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly (2018), 57:3, 107.
Michael R. Ash, a member of FAIR for more than twenty years, has been featured in nearly 90 podcasts and 30 videos. In more than two decades of writing LDS-themed material, and as a former weekly columnist for Mormon Times (owned by the Deseret News), his works include over 160 on-line articles, as well as articles in periodicals such as the Ensign, Sunstone, Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.