Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School

  When it comes to frustrations with Gospel Doctrine class, one problem is that we don’t pay a lot of attention to context, and we like to casually shoe-horn modern doctrinal concepts or concerns into any old bit of verse that seems to relate. This is really only made possible by ignoring context, and not reading. For example, I wrote this in 2007.

I happened to be home once last year during a lesson on some chapters from Isaiah. The teacher did a decent job, but the comments all tended in one direction. By typical Gospel Doctrine standards, it was probably quite good. But afterwards, as I walked out, one man I know well asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything about Isaiah?”

“We didn’t talk about Isaiah.” I replied. “We selected some phrases in Isaiah that evoked familiar and current LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place. My Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern studies are irrelevant to that kind of discussion.”

I’ve recently been reading Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He argues that “biblicism,” a strong current of thought in Evangelicalism right now, which combines a highly elevated view of scripture, fundamentalist approaches, ideas of inerrancy, and other things, is unsustainable. Moreover, it’s not “truly Evangelical.” I don’t care about that so much; rather, he points out how in practice, biblicist evangelicals don’t actually follow what they claim to embrace.

For example, in a fascinating ethnographic study of actual Bible reading in an evangelical church, titled How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism, Brian Malley reveals that biblicist expectations are routinely overridden by a variety of practices that are problematic for biblicist theory. In Malley’s study, evangelical readers focused much less on interpreting the actual meaning of the biblical texts than or simply establishing a “transitivity” between the text and the readers’ already existent beliefs. In other words, the proper biblicist logic of scriptural authority that is often not employed is this: “The Bible teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what the Bible teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.” Instead, the logic that is often actually employed is more like this: “I already believe, think, or feel Y; the Bible contains an idea that seems to relate to Y; therefore my belief, thought, or feeling of Y is “”biblically” confirmed.” This routinely required no genuine theological connection to what texts actually said, but rather merely established that some connection or other could be made. General hermeneutical principles were never referenced to attempt to resolved disagreements about what scripture teaches. What often counted as the best interpretation of any biblical passage was not what the text itself teaches, but instead simply what felt “relevant” to the reader’s life. Biblical readers elaborated a variety of possible meanings of the text, and brought in many considerations from beyond the text, until they hit on one meaning that struck them as most relevant for their personal experiences, at which point they stopped reading and effectively declared their interpretation complete. Authorial intent was often displaced in devotional readings, for instance, by various meanings that happen to “speak to” different readers, depending on their particular situations. (Emphasis added)

I’ve suggested before that in spite of Mormonism’s similarities to Catholicism, we imbibe a lot of Protestant thought and worldview. That passage hit me point-blank, reminding me of my experience with Isaiah above. Now, the LDS approach to scripture and authority is not the same as the biblicist Evangelicalism described above, wherein “scripture teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what scripture teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.”  Nevertheless, Mormons have a lot of rhetoric about the primacy of scripture for establishing  and weighing doctrine.

In practice at the lay level, however, tradition seems to overrule scripture virtually every time.

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5 thoughts on “Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School

  1. Taken too far, which is what you describe, there’s no question that we have a problem. But don’t the readers of scripture IN scripture also read in something like the way you are criticizing? Nephi? Paul? Even Jesus? There isn’t a lot of interest in authorial intent in scripture, though it is also clear that none of those I’ve mentioned are merely reading the culture’s prejudices back into scripture.

    In other words, aren’t things more complicate, by far, than you intimate?


    1. If reduced to “taking things out of context,” then yes, people in the pews are doing the same things as Nephi, Paul, and Jesus. But that’s not quite what I’m suggesting. There was no real concept or standard of “contextual interpretation” from which Nephi, Jesus, and Paul casually and lazily departed. None of the Pharisees ever reply to Jesus, “you’re taking that out of context!” (I’ve written about that before.)

      Today, however, we do have such a standard, and most Gospel Doctrine discussion does not spend much thought determining that Isaiah is talking about food storage. It’s spontaneous free association. I don’t have a problem with thoughtful non-contextual exegesis, because it tends to recognize what it’s doing. “There’s a context, but I’m ignoring it.” I just don’t think that’s what is actually taking place in the pews.

      Evangelicals tend to be more aware of the contextual standard, but (as the book shows), not follow it. For Evangelicals, discovering the non-contextual interpretations of Paul and Jesus are terribly problematic, *because* that standard is so explicit. LDS are not too aware of the contextual standard.

      So yes, it is certainly more complicated, but the focus of my critique is the process of free-association, re-reading back into the verse.


      1. We don’t have a record of the Pharisees replying to Jesus, “You’re taking that out of context.” We don’t have a record of tons of things that were said and done during Jesus’ ministry. That’s a rather poor example for you to use. Plus I guess I’m too uneducated to understand what the point of this post is. You should come out to our tiny little twig, er, I mean Branch, and see what a really poor gospel doctrine lesson is like.


  2. Mormons have a strong tendency to read modern concepts back into all ancient scripture, even the Book of Mormon. For example, look at how often we read the modern LDS concept of priesthood back into the Book of Mormon, a record that really has very little to say about priesthood but is much more biblical in its views than modern LDS.


  3. I think part of the issue is that most people called to be teachers aren’t qualified to really discuss the scriptures in context.Second the class is really primarily focused on a kind of use of the scripture to discuss doctrine. That is its focus never is on close contextual readings but (as with the PH/RS manuals) using short texts as a catalyst to discussion about various beliefs.

    Honestly, while I love close readings of text and scholarship, by far the best Sunday School lessons I’ve attended were what you outline. So long as the teacher is teaching by the spirit with a spirit of calling people to repentance and injecting a lot of real world experiences I think they’re doing great.

    I just don’t think Sunday School can or should be a replacement for personal study.


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