3 Nephi 26:6-12
6 And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people;
7 But behold the plates of Nephi do contain the more part of the things which he taught the people.
8 And these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, from the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken.
9 And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them.
10 And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation.
11 Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.
12 Therefore I, Mormon, do write the things which have been commanded me of the Lord. And now I, Mormon, make an end of my sayings, and proceed to write the things which have been commanded me.
My experience, both personal and through watching other people, is that a testimony is like a three legged stool. That is, there are three kinds of testimonies and each is necessary in order to keep the other two upright and stable. (1) There is a spiritual testimony that is taught by the Holy Ghost, (2) an academic testimony that comes from a careful study non-doctrinal subjects presented by the scriptures, (3) and an academic testimony that comes from a careful study of the doctrines taught in the scriptures.
The Book of Mormon provides examples of all three.
(1) A spiritual testimony is rather simple but very real: the Holy Ghost testifies that the book contains pure truth. That I know, and there are millions of other people who know it as well.
There is an interesting statement in Moroni’s introduction, published on the title page of the Book of Mormon. The concluding sentence reads:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
He does not say whether the men in question are the authors or the readers. However, the way I read that statement is:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men [that is, the failure of the readers to understand the intent of the authors]; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
A simple example is the “absurd” statement in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites built with cement. Joseph Smith’s critics said that was impossible because, as everyone knew, cement was invented by the Romans. That argument seemed to work well until archaeologists found cement buildings in central America. Then that “mistake” by the author of the Book of Mormon was not a mistake any more. It is my belief that when we find a mistake in the Book of Mormon we should look to ourselves, not to the authors of the book as the source of the problem.
(2) A study of the non-doctrinal content of the scriptures. The thousand year history in the Book of Mormon is a very complex weaving of geography, historical sequences, and language differences. A careful study of these elements in the book shows that the Book of Mormon is internally consistent throughout. And the more closely those details are examined, the more convincing is that evidence is.
The language of the Book of Mormon is an excellent example. Stephen Ricks and some of his colleagues are doing a study of proper names in the Book of Mormon. This is important because our “original” text of the book is in English and the only access we have to the real original languages is in the names. Stephen and his friends can trace the roots of the Nephite personal and geographic names back to their Hebrew—or sometimes Egyptian or other Near Eastern language—origins. This shows that the Nephite language had both Hebrew and Egyptian elements, just as the book says it does. However, after Mosiah I goes to Zarahemla (but not before that) there is a new kind of name introduced that does not have recognizable ancient Near Eastern roots, but they do have similarities with each other. These are probably Jaredite names. (Stephen and I are working on a commentary of First Nephi and he will include an analysis of some of the names in that commentary.)
(3) Doctrinal consistencies are even more remarkable. For example, the Book of Mormon seems to quote the Sermon on the Mount, but it makes many not-so-subtle changes that turns the Savior’s sermon into a temple text. That temple text is consistent with other temple texts in the Book of Mormon. The frequency and accuracy of temple texts in the book would have been an amazing accomplishment if Joseph had written it because when Joseph translated the Book of Mormon there was no scholar in the world who knew that there was any kind of ancient Israelite temple drama other than the system of sacrifices described in the Old Testament.
There are so many of these internally consistent intricacies that are so perfect that I, for one, must conclude that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that was translated by a master scholar who had access to many then unknown texts from the ancient Israelite world—or else translated by an 18 year old boy who had a great deal of supernatural help. Since the first is demonstrably impossible, that leaves the only option to be that the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith “by the gift and power of God.”
The point is that not only the spiritual, but also both kinds academic testimonies are necessary and valid. However, neither is complete without the other two because each, on its own, invites potential problems.
(1) A spiritual testimony without academic support can easily be counterfeited by enthusiasm or emotion. Then, when the emotion cools or the enthusiasm fades, the “testimony” cannot be sustained.
(2) Similarly, an in-depth academic study of the historicity and geographical setting of the scriptures can be great fun but without the moderating influence of the Holy Ghost it can lead the scholar, or the scholar wannabe, to all sorts of strange and conflicting conclusions.
(3) An academic testimony based on an in-depth study of the doctrines taught in the scriptures gives a very important kind of stability. However, it also brings potential difficulties. Without the Holy Ghost, an academic study of the “doctrines” can lead one into some really weird places.
I believe that all three kinds of testimony are mutually important and that the stabilizing power that keeps all three alive and real within us is for one to know what he really knows, and to also know what he does not know.
All right, that last bit sounds confusing so let me try again:
It is vital for Latter-day Saints to be able to identify with clarity the things one actually knows to be true. However, it is no less vital that one be able to identify with equal clarity the things that one does not know to be true. That is because one’s belief that unsubstantiated “doctrines” are true can undermine one’s belief in true doctrine. And quite frankly, sometimes it takes a more careful study of the scriptures to identify the reasons why some of the “Sunday School answers” are not true than it takes to identify the ones that are true.
In that same category is the ability to recognize the difference between gospel doctrine and church policy. Sometimes church policy is so well established that it is accepted as doctrine. Then when the policy is changed some get upset because they see it as a change in doctrine. A prime example was whether all worthy men should have the priesthood. Another more recent example is whether chaste “out” gay boys can belong to in LDS-sponsored scout troops.
Church policy changes to fit the times. It is significant that Mormon tells us almost nothing about the Nephite church organization or its policies. Before 3 Nephi we are told Alma organized a church with priests and teachers. In 3 Nephi we learn that the Savior organized a church with twelve disciples. That’s it! Mormon does not impose upon us and our culture the church organization and policies that worked in his time and for his culture.
The “church” never exists in a cultural vacuum and the “true church” must be true in its own time and place. For example, in LDS Church history, the organization, practices, and policies were different in Nauvoo, early Utah, and in the present. But it is always “true” within its situation.
An amazing example is the Seventy. The organization that Joseph established by revelation included quorums of Seventy, but the Church did not know what to do with them until it grew so large that it needed “area general authorities” who could work under the direction of the Apostles. In other words, the organization of the Church described in the revelation to the Prophet Joseph could not be fully realized until it became a “world wide church.” However, the church was true back in the years when there was no First Quorum of Seventy, but only stake seventies quorums. It is still true today when there is a First Quorum of Seventy but no stake seventies quorums.
My testimony is this: Jesus is the Christ, the gospel is truth, the priesthood is real, and the Church is as correct as its cultural environment will allow. Because that is so, I follow the prophet.