When it comes to theories regarding the Book of Mormon translation, apologists find themselves basing their arguments on one of two different theories.
The first theory is best described as a “Tight” Theory of Translation, where it is believed that the text of the Book of Mormon was given to Joseph Smith through divine means, and he had very little ability to change or modify it. Spelling, grammar, word choice etc. were all dictated to him. He was a conduit.
The second theory is described as a “Loose” Theory of Translation. In this method, Joseph Smith was given ideas and feelings, maybe images. Based on these, he chose the words and grammar to describe it. Thus, the words and phrases would be Joseph’s, and the text would be limited by Joseph’s knowledge and ability to describe and convey the ancient text. Joseph becomes a very real limit placed on the process.
So which one was it? Frankly, it would be a relief if apologists could take some time out from their next conference and vote on which theory they’ll support, and stick to it. Because as it is, I’m getting whiplash from watching them ping-pong back and forth.
Here’s the problem: both theories are needed to explain all the stuff in the Book of Mormon, neither is adequate by itself.
On the one hand, the theory of “loose” translation is necessary to explain 19th century cultural influences or instances where there is a limitation based on Joseph’s understanding.
But then, we must have theory of “tight” translation if there is going to be a reliance on Hebraisms and other evidences closely related to specific word patterns.
The idea that both were used at different times is a little odd as well. How would this even work? Sometimes, the exact wording appears for a tight translation, but other times Joseph gets to improvise? Why would some portions of the Book of Mormon warrant a tight translation, while others only merit general direction? And let’s not forget the third method of translation: the “Copy from the KJ Bible” method, which seemed to become extremely popular towards the end of the process.
Truly, God works in mysterious ways. Unfortunately, crackpots, frauds, and misguided gurus often work in mysterious ways as well, so “mysterious ways” are hardly a convincing argument for divine origin. It simply becomes a faith promoting cliche for “we have no idea how he did it, and we’d like you to believe it was God”.