"You could say that I was born Mormon and will likely die Mormon. Why then am I always interrogating my own faith? I am always asking why I believe. What do my beliefs mean? How can they be explained and justified? I have sympathy for questioners because I am a questioner too. Settled as faith is in my own life, I understand why people doubt. I see in questioning something deeply religious as well as deeply human..." --Richard Bushman, Mormon Scholars Testify
In that same spirit of asking/interrogation, I'd like to throw out a question and open it up to evaluation. What is the essence of "fulness" in the oft heard phrase "Fulness of the Gospel"?
The (non-canonical) Introduction to the Book of Mormon states that the book "contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel." If both the Bible and Book of Mormon have it, doesn't that sound a little like saying "You are special. Just like everybody else"? I'm not going to make an argument either way, but does the Book of Mormon have it exclusively? Does the Bible have it independently? By "it" I of course mean "the fulness" of the gospel.
First, let's define our terms. My understanding of "the gospel" is "the good news of Jesus Christ". In fact, in 3 Nephi 27:13-19, Jesus defines "the gospel" himself.
Robert Millet takes a stab at the Bible question: "While Latter-day Saints do not believe that one can derive divine authority to perform the saving ordinances from the scriptures, we do say that the Bible contains the fulness of the gospel in the sense that (1) it teaches of groups of people in the past who enjoyed the full blessings of the everlasting gospel; and (2) it teaches (especially the New Testament) the good news or glad tidings of redemption in Christ through the Atonement (3 Nephi 27:13-21; D&C 76:40-42)."
Naturally the primary message of the gospel--the "good news" of Jesus Christ--is that he has atoned for our sins and makes way for the salvation of all mankind. This is the message of Christianity in general. So what is the "fulness" that's so unique to the Latter-day Saints? Is it solely the exclusive authority claim?
I know a lot of people would jump at the chance to say that the "fulness" entails temple ordinances. Problem is that the Book of Mormon would have already contained the "fulness" before Joseph Smith instituted a temple building program. That all came later. When Moroni first told Joseph about a book hidden in a hill, he said that the "fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (Joseph Smith History 1-34).
So what exactly constitutes the "fulness of the gospel" which had to be restored? Or does a fulness speak more to the quality of our gospel centered life--and not necessarily a "restoration"? More than just getting stuck on semantics, it's a question that ought to have some compelling answers. Even though some LDS sometimes use these interchangeably, the "fulness of the gospel" is not the same as the "restored gospel".
One attempt is problematic:
"The fullness of the gospel, then, means that God’s prophets are on the earth, allowing us to sort truth from the teachings of men, and helping us to prepare for the triumphant return of the Savior, and for our own return to God’s presence."
Unfortunately, the last time I checked, having a prophet wasn't a panacea for sorting out the truth (ex: Brigham Young and "Adam God").
Perhaps the Book of Mormon introduction is just wrong? Regardless, one can use the book itself to argue that the intro should be changed. After all, "when [the Bible] proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the Twelve apostles bear record...[but over time] many parts which are plain and most precious [were taken out]; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away," which seems to suggest that the fulness of the gospel was lost (1 Ne. 13:24-29). If so, why maintain in the intro that it's still there?
President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: "The Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 20:9). That does not mean it contains every teaching, every doctrine ever revealed. Rather, it means that in the Book of Mormon we will find the fulness of those doctrines required for our salvation. And they are taught plainly and simply so that even children can learn the ways of salvation and exaltation".
Yet, what part of the essential gospel does the Book of Mormon have that the Bible doesn't have? If one only expresses that it contains a more lucid description of the gospel, then one is making a subjective statement but admitting that the content (while expressed differently) remains essentially the same. (I'm not talking about the separate issue of "gospel" versus "gospel doctrines". In other words, the question of whether the Book of Mormon contains the 'fulness of the gospel' when it doesn't contain a number of unique LDS doctrines is not the point and is irrelevant.)
Dictionaries tell us that "fulness"= (1) "the state of being filled to capacity", (2) "the state of being complete or whole", (3) "richness or intensity of flavor, sound, or color". I must admit that if we Mormons ever had this third definition then perhaps we've now lost it in favor of blandness.
Any talk of being full or complete just seems wrong anyway. Can we be complete if we don't have all the answers, and if we expect more [institutional] revelation in the future--even if only a trickle every generation? And can we be "complete" or "filled to capacity" when we clearly do not possess all truth?
Before Mormon.org had its facelift, it contained the following explanation: [My commentary in brackets] "Although many good people believed in Christ and tried to understand and teach His gospel, they did not have the fulness of truth [nor do we] or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances at that time [while we claim priesthood, I'm not a fan of the "saving ordinances" language simply because ordinances don't save; the Savior saves] . They had inherited a state of apostasy, as each generation was influenced by what the previous one passed on, including changes in the doctrines and in ordinances, such as baptism". [This last statement is the most problematic in my opinion, as we too have had plenty of doctrinal changes, we're also influenced by what our LDS predecessors have passed on to us, and we've even changed ordinances (ex: temple).]
I'm beginning to wonder if a foolproof explanation (at least from the LDS viewpoint) of "fulness of the gospel" even exists. Of course ultimately that completeness/wholeness comes only in and through Jesus Christ--by being "in Christ" or "perfect in Christ". Thus, I have to say that I like how President Stephen M. Veazey of the Community of Christ puts it: "In the most fundamental sense, Jesus Christ is the fullness of the gospel!"