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Terryl Givens: How can scripture be the inspired word of God if it contains errors?

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To consider scripture more authoritative than the Spirit that prompted it is to get things exactly backwards.

A visitor to a Latter-day Saint Sunday School class would often likely conclude that the Saints are biblical “inerrantists,” believing every word to be inspired, accurate, and true. As early as 1881, Apostle George Q. Cannon warned Saints against the error of thinking of the Bible “as infallible,” as Catholics thought the Pope.1 Many biblical inconsistencies and contradictions are patently impossible to reconcile. God is not a man that He should “change his mind,” we read in Numbers 23:19 (NRSV). But a few books later, Jeremiah insists that if the people repent, “the Lord will change his mind” (Jeremiah 26:13, NRSV). Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign according to one chronicler, but eight years old according to another.2 Jesus hosts the Last Supper the first day of Passover, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The day after, according to John. Judas hangs himself in Matthew, but he falls headlong and dies in Acts. And so on.

Many biblical inconsistencies and contradictions are patently impossible to reconcile.

Joseph Smith taught as an article of faith that the source of inspiration is perfect, but the scriptural product is not always translated—or transmitted—correctly (Articles of Faith 1:8). Many Christians subscribe to the “Chicago Statement in Biblical Inerrancy,” which leaves absolutely no room for the human factor: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching … in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God.” Furthermore, “the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.”3 That last phrase seems particularly problematic, since we don’t even have the original words—what we have are copies of copies of copies of accounts of original words, letters, chronicles, and writings. The oldest manuscript of the Old Testament comes from almost two thousand years after Isaiah lived, and the oldest complete New Testament manuscript is dated to hundreds of years after Christ. And countless thousands of variations can be found in the myriad manuscripts in the biblical past. Even one supposedly standard translation, the King James Version, went through five different editions before Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and more since.

The Codex Sinaiticus is the earliest-known complete copy of the New Testament, dating to the 4th century AD.
Wikimedia Commons

Even if the stream of historical transmission were unadulterated and accurate, not every event or prophecy or revelation transmitted through human agents was a perfect expression of God’s intent. Speaking as one of those prophet, seers, and revelators, George Q. Cannon wanted Church members to know that “the revelation we may get [is] imperfect at times because of our fallen condition and because of our failure to comprehend the nature of it. … Why? Because of our imperfection.”4 One author of scripture readily admitted the possibility of error in the New World canon of scripture. “If there are faults,” Moroni wrote on the title page of the Book of Mormon, “they are the mistakes of men.”

One photograph says more about the imperfect process of scriptural reception and formation espoused by Latter-day Saints than any number of sermons. The image below is a transcript from one of the manuscript books into which Joseph Smith’s scribes recorded his revelations. In introducing a volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, a Church website explains that these “revelation books” “preserve the earliest known copies of most of Smith’s early revelations, and they are the key sources available for understanding the process of publishing the early revelations. The transcripts in this volume reproduce the original manuscripts of those books with great care, preserving corrections and revisions of any kind. Since several scribes penned revisions in the manuscripts, the handwriting of each scribe is rendered in a different color to facilitate analysis.”5

JSP transcript.jpg
Pages from The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, Facsimile Edition, showing edits from four colleagues (see Doctrine and Covenants 133). Courtesy Church History Library.

This is an astonishing revelation of itself; Joseph, an oracle of God, prophet, seer, and revelator, enlisted the assistance of “several scribes” who “penned revisions” to his revelations. That they were openly invited to do so, and that the Church publishes the actual insertions and edits and changes they made, annihilates any mythology of all revelation as a matter of God dictating His words verbatim while a listening prophet recorded them perfectly, letter by letter, syllable by syllable. As Joseph elsewhere described revelation, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation.” And then the description ties Joseph Smith’s process to that of biblical prophets who preceded him: “Behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground” (Doctrine and Covenants 8:3).

This is an astonishing revelation of itself; Joseph, an oracle of God, prophet, seer, and revelator, enlisted the assistance of ‘several scribes’ who ‘penned revisions’ to his revelations.

This Latter-day Saint conception of scripture is a far cry from the position of other Christians—and of some Latter-day Saints unfamiliar with these backgrounds—who wish to force scripture and prophets into a marbled perfection with no place for human limitations. Our faith—our mental and spiritual lives—would be easier if we had such a golden calf of infallibility to adore, but we do not. The reality makes our mortality an inescapable risk; we are compelled to be free, with an ever-present burden of responsibility.

Another scriptural challenge is that for many moderns, and Latter-day Saints in particular, scriptural language of judgment, anger, and retribution can seem overly harsh and inconsistent with the Jesus of the New Testament and the weeping God of Moses 7. For many of the rising generation (and older!), threats and terror are not only ineffective but also more prone to repel than invite. It is useful in such cases to keep a few considerations in mind. First, consider the virtual impossibility of employing a fluid language that is resonant with all peoples, in all societies and contexts, across a spectrum of moral development and centuries of cultural evolution. We all tend to suffer from “presentism,” the tendency to make judgments and evaluations through the lens of our own particular moment in history.

For many moderns, and Latter-day Saints in particular, scriptural language of judgment, anger, and retribution can seem overly harsh and inconsistent with the Jesus of the New Testament and the weeping God of Moses 7.

We condemn—rightly—the evils of the past, judging according to the light of our own day and our own conscience. However, we may miss two points that presentism often ignores: (1) We may ourselves have done no better if subjected to the same historical and individual disadvantages of those we judge in past eras. (2) More pertinent to our own situation, we may forget that not all societal developments are healthy ones (such as many fruits of the sexual revolution: abortion, single parenthood, and the commodification of sexual intimacy generally); but on the whole, it is clear that as a people, humans have made enormous progress. As a rule, we recognize the evils of slavery, racism, child labor, imperialism and wars of conquest, cruelty to animals, and the enforced subservience of women. We don’t execute for stealing a handkerchief, and we don’t torture suspected heretics (although, undoubtedly, our descendants will blanch at some of our own moral blind spots).

But here is the lesson from those examples: such practices were commonplace from biblical times to as late as the nineteenth century (and beyond). Brutality, indifference to human suffering and dignity, violence, and oppression have been dominant features of our civilizations and most others. Is it not apparent that language appropriate to such hardness of heart was fittingly employed to break through human imperviousness to the light of Christ? The Lord indicates as much, when He explains that the specter of an “eternal” punishment is not to be taken literally but is employed “that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:7). That statement—in the voice of God—should be sufficient to answer the perennial question, Why does the language of scripture, including the Book of Mormon, seem at times so out of harmony with a tender, loving, long-suffering God?

Why does the language of scripture, including the Book of Mormon, seem at times so out of harmony with a tender, loving, long-suffering God?

The point is reinforced in the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants when we are told that the Lord speaks to us “in [our] weakness, after the manner of [our] language” (1:24). Brigham Young took this to mean that the Bible and Book of Mormon alike, if rewritten by an angel in the nineteenth century (let alone the twenty-first) “would in many places be very different from what it now is.”6 It is a simple fact that in Latter-day Saint understanding, scriptural language is influenced by the needs and sensibility of the immediate audience on the one hand, and by the intellectual and cultural prism of those composing it on the other. We should not expect, for example, that language directed to ancient peoples who practiced the human sacrifice of children (as alluded to in Deuteronomy), augmented by cannibalism (in the Book of Mormon), should in every instance sound pleasing and conformable to the sensibilities of average Saints dwelling in twenty-first-century American suburbia or modern Chile or Mongolia, struggling their best to live gospel standards.

How can we treat the Bible as the inspired word of God if it is, as the Church affirms on its website, not “without error”?7 The difficulty is beautifully addressed in a Jewish analogy:

How can you distinguish the word of God from other, ordinary, human words in Scripture? I do not know of any litmus test that can be used. I suppose I have my suspicions about this verse or that one, but I really do not believe it is my business to try to second-guess the text’s divine inspiration. And so, I like to think about Scripture in the same terms I think about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. That little flat-topped, squared-off hill (a short walk from my house) was once the site of Solomon’s temple, and then, after that temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, it soon became the site of the second temple, until it too was put to the torch, this time by the Romans. It lay in ruins for several centuries, until the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, when the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque were built on it. … Custom and, eventually rabbinical decree forbade pious Jews from ascending that hill and walking about, lest by accident their foot defile the place where once the Holy of Holies stood, the place of God’s presence on earth. … This prohibition is in force to this day. So every day, pious Muslims and Christian pilgrims and Japanese tourists climb up the steps and walk all around the Temple Mount, but religious Jews do not. … I have my own ideas about where the Holy of Holies once stood. … So couldn’t I just walk very carefully around on the outer perimeter and stand there, safe in the knowledge that I am not violating the space once occupied by God’s presence? But of course, I don’t. I like to think of Scripture as a similar sort of space. I certainly could not pinpoint Scripture’s Holy of Holies, the very center from which the divine presence radiated outward. … It is all one sacred precinct; indeed, the divine presence suffuses every part of it.”8

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem.

Latter-day Saints have additional aids in reading scripture both faithfully and intelligently. The Book of Mormon and modern revelation affirm the uninspired changes that have entered into the biblical record (“plain and precious things” lost and “interpolations by the hands of men” [1 Nephi 13; Doctrine and Covenants 91:2]); Joseph produced an inspired revision to the Bible, and Parley Pratt drew an insightful analogy that prophets have affirmed. In Pratt’s example, “Scriptures resulted from a revelatory process and are thus the product of revealed truth, not the other way around. … People would do well to look to a stream for nourishing water, but do better to secure the fountain.”9 In other words, to believe in God is to believe in a living, speaking God. To consider scripture more authoritative than the Spirit that prompted it is to get things exactly backwards. That was Joseph’s point: “Some will say, the scriptures say so & so,” he told a large congregation with some impatience. But “I have the oldest Book in the world [the Bible] & the Holy Ghost I thank God for the old Book but more for the Holy Ghost.”10 “The Holy Ghost is the infallible testimony to the Believer,” affirmed Wilford Woodruff.11 Pratt’s point has been reaffirmed by two living Apostles. “What makes us different from most other Christians,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, “in the way we read and use the Bible and other scriptures, is our belief in continuing revelation. For us, the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge. … The ultimate knowledge comes by revelation.”12 And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland echoed: “The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God. The communication of those gifts comes from God as living, vibrant, divine revelation.”13

The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source.

Searching requires both effort and discernment. It may truthfully be said of Christ that He was “of no apparent beauty,”14 for the realities of the invisible world are not for the casual observer. But Christ’s beauty was abundantly manifest to those with discerning hearts and eyes. So may we all discern His voice in the scriptures if we seek to hear it. Through the Spirit we may find the sometimes-hidden God, the one who knows us by name, who weeps with us in our pain, and who has graven us on the palms of His hands.

You may also like: Terryl Givens explores—How can God be real if atrocities like Auschwitz happen?

Let’s Talk about Faith and Intellect

In Let’s Talk about Faith and Intellect, Terryl Givens examines the sometimes-tense relationship between these seeming opposites, arguing that intellect and faith work hand-in-hand to draw us closer to Christ and His gospel.

A thoughtful, reflective faith considers the findings of science, the lessons of history, the insights of philosophy, and the best reasonings of our intellect.


  1. George Q. Cannon, “The Abundant Testimonies to the Work of God,” Journal of Discourses, 22:354.
  2. See also 1 Chronicles 21:15; Jonah 3:10, NRSV; Matthew 27:5; Acts 1:18; 22 Kings 24:8; 22 Chronicles 36:9.
  3. “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Themalios 4, no. 3 (April 1979),
  4. George Q. Cannon, “Spiritual Gifts Attainable,” in Journal of Discourses, 21:76.
  5. “Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books (Facsimile Edition),” The Joseph Smith Papers,; emphasis added.
  6. The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City: Smith-Petit Foundation, 2009), 4:2033–34.
  7. “Bible, Inerrancy of,” Gospel Topics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
  8. James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 1989), 688–89.
  9. Parley P. Pratt, “The Fountain of Knowledge,” in An Appeal to the Inhabitants of the State of New York (Nauvoo, IL: John Taylor, 1844), 17.
  10. The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 345.
  11. Wilford Woodruff, in Conference Report, 1873.
  12. Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading, Revelation, and Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible,” in Plain and Precious Truths Restored: The Doctrinal and Historical Significance of the Joseph Smith Translation, ed. Robert L. Millet and Robert J. Matthews (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 2.
  13. Jeffrey R. Holland, “My Words … Never Cease,” general conference, April 2008,
  14. Hymns, no. 175; see Isaiah 53:2.
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