The Philosophy of a Future State
CES Letter Core Question
Did Joseph Smith steal ideas found in Abraham chapter 3 from a novel by Thomas Dick?
The Latter-day Saint scientist and author Erich Robert Paul offered an important discussion on Joseph Smith's cosmology in comparison with other 19th century cosmologies, and specifically discussed the Book of Abraham and Thomas Dick, in his 1992 book published by University of Illinois Press.
Although [Fawn Brodie] implies that Joseph Smith derived his notion of Kolob from Dick's idea of the throne of God, Dick views God as omnipresent, universal, and ethereal, which would preclude Joseph Smith's idea of a universal center upon which God, as being, dwells. Joseph Smith, and many others, shared Dick's and the eighteenth-century philosophes' view of the perfectibility of man. But Joseph Smith argued for the ultimate divine perfectibility of humans, a concept Dick rejected. On such crucial doctrines of eternal progression, creation ex nihilo, and the eternal nature of matter, there is also wide divergence of belief. Moreover, Dick espoused a dualistic metaphysics, while Joseph Smith became a strict monist.
Theologically, Dick claimed that humans are utterly contingent upon God, while Joseph Smith eventually argued that humans are necessary. On the nature of evil, sin, and the fall, the two also held polar views. After an exhaustive analysis of the external evidence and doctrinal issues dealing with God, man, salvation, and other theological and metaphysical views, at least one contemporary writer, Edward T. Jones, concluded there are so few similarities in their thinking that Brodie's assertion must be rejected.
Paul concludes that it is "unlikely that Joseph Smith benefited significantly from Dick's ideas," and that the Prophet otherwise "likely did not use available literary materials" such as Dick "as primary sources for his own version of pluralism." Paul concludes:
The idea that Joseph Smith may have borrowed from cultural sources cannot, of course, be totally discounted–––or confirmed. Yet asserting indigenous sources requires at the very least an explanation for both his deviations from the available sources and his integration of his pluralistic ideas with his scriptural writings. In the pluralist concept Joseph Smith seems to have deviated significantly from the mainstream of those writing on the subject, whether evangelical or deistic.
The author of The CES Letter fails to do just this, and as such his conclusions should only be accepted with great skepticism. As Paul explains:
The mere availability of pluralist views is in itself not an adequate argument for Joseph Smith's coherent system of beliefs. Ideas by themselves do not form an integrated and consistent system without the dimensions of a broader conceptual structure.
If Joseph Smith was slavishly cribbing from Dick, as the author of The CES Letter asserts, then he must explain the Prophet's departure from Dick. He must also account for the entirety of the cosmological vision in the Book of Abraham, and not merely cherry-pick the parts thereof that seem to support his argument.
The CES Letter improperly represents the Joseph Smith Translation in order create the appearance of a contradiction.
The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is more of an inspired commentary to expand the text and enlighten the readers.
The Joseph Smith Translation does not purport to be a restoration to the original texts. The CES Letter creates a straw man argument by embracing an unjustified expectation. It expects the text to be restorative and then demonstrates that it is not.
The reasons for similarity between several chapters in the Book of Mormon and the Bible are unknown, but could simply be because the material on the gold plates was similar or because God (through the seer stone) interjected that material into the translation.
No witnesses reported Joseph using a Bible in translating the Book of Mormon, but that he might have implemented similar texts would not be surprising.
It appears that The CES Letter’s expectations are unduly narrow and reflect a misunderstanding of the Joseph Smith Translation text and history.