Mormon Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It?

My image.

My image.

Occasionally, one hears Mormons (usually laypeople) critiquing Protestants for slavish and uncritical interpretation of the Bible, for “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of bibliolatry. Certainly, some Protestants merit this critique. The intellectual crisis and problems among Protestants, and their effects on American culture and politics have been written about extensively by Mark Noll (e.g. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), Randall Balmer, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Kenton Sparks, and others. These scholars are themselves largely Evangelical, so it’s an internal critique.

No, my problem when this critique is made by Mormons is that oft-times Mormons are making it hypocritically. We casually write off or discard ancient aspects of the Bible that seem weird or uncomfortable, but then we approach our own uniquely Mormon scriptures just as those Protestants approach their Bibles, as if culture-free, dictated more-or-less by God, and repositories of purely divine scientific/historical knowledge.

The roots of this problem in Mormonism, I think, are twofold.

First, Mormons are not taught any kind of method for reading, interpreting, or interrogating scripture. Yes, Mormons tend to read scripture more often and know it better than others.  (Barna, Pew). But knowing scriptural content is not the same as understanding it. Church materials rarely model any kind of depth when approaching scripture (though this is changing very slowly), and parents, local leaders, and teachers rarely do so (a function of innocent ignorance and following the Church model, I think). Consequently, Mormons minimize the relevance of things like context, language, authorship, and history in understanding scripture, instead substituting “face value” surface readings and personal application; heck, we sometimes jump to application before even reading the passage out loud!

Now, this is not an indictment of personal application.  The transformative power of scripture is diminished when we do not apply it to ourselves in our time.  This is an issue with scripture in every time.

“Part of the interpreter’s task [in early Judaism] was thus to make the past relevant to the present —to find some practical lesson in ancient history, or to reinterpret an ancient law in such a way as to have it apply to present situations”-Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, “Biblical Interpretation.”

Rather, I am saying that gaining a better understanding of scripture’s contexts and even ancient weirdness can enhance our personal application and also clear away other problems. We just shouldn’t jump to application so fast. As Peter Enns (another Evangelical) says

I am all for applying the Bible. Don’t get me wrong.  But a better understanding of the Bible will lead us in another direction.  The first question we should ask about what we are reading is not “How does this apply to me?” Rather, it is “What is this passage saying in the context of the book I am reading, and how would it have been heard in the ancient world?”-  Parent’s Guide to  Teaching the Bible

Conservative Evangelicals produced The NIV Application Commentary series, with Application right in the title. But they don’t jump immediately to application, because that’s not the best way to do it. Each section is structured with “Original Meaning” (the ancient stuff), Bridging Contexts (making sense of ancient stuff), and Contemporary Significance (or, you know, application). I like the two Old Testament volumes I’ve used, Genesis by Walton and Exodus by Enns.  I might find it too conservative at times or even often, but it’s a good model that pulls together both application and responsible interpretation.

To paraphrase Jesus, “personal application ye ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” We need deeper instruction and more visible models in how to read and approach scripture that go beyond “face value” readings and take scripture seriously, because currently, we don’t know how to read and that causes problems (below.)

The second reason for this problem in Mormonism is due to some unexamined assumptions about the nature of scripture. Mormonism in general, Mormons, and Mormon scholars have not actively wrestled with the nature of scripture sufficiently, which means we tend to unconsciously adopt a kind of Protestant “biblicism” with our own scriptures. Consequently, Mormon rhetoric has often drawn a too-stark dichotomy between “the theories of men” and “the word of God” (scripture), or between “the philosophies of men” and scripture.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it is quite apparent that scripture is not purely divine, but also has many human aspects and entanglements that are not incidental to it. Revelation and scripture are in human language, adapted to human capacities, and often make use of (or at least do not correct) what we would consider lesser or incorrect scientific (e.g. the cosmology of Genesis 1, see esp. my Institute reports), cultural (e.g. animal sacrifice), or moral traditions (e.g. biblical slavery, which Jesus and Paul seem just fine with). Recognizing these human aspects should not undermine the divine aspects of scripture, but certainly complicate its nature and interpretation. And we don’t like complicated, we like simple.

Let me provide a few more complex understandings and perspectives from LDS history, and three potential applications of them. These approaches complicate things in the short term, but their application avoids serious problems in the long term.

First, President J. Reuben Clark raised the issue of revelation vs. human understanding.

Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said –where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.” –My emphasis, source.

Second, Elder John Widtsoe raised the similar question of tradition and inspired writers (ie scriptural authors) sources of knowledge. “When inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.” Elder John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, (1960): 127. So even scriptural authors and canonized scripture can simply be repeating tradition. Tradition is insidious.

Third, Elder Oaks once quoted a lawyer story, to make the point that we should read carefully and not overreach.

 I remember the reported observation of an old lawyer. As they traveled through a pastoral setting with cows grazing on green meadows, an acquaintance said, “Look at those spotted cows.” The cautious lawyer observed carefully and conceded, “Yes, those cows are spotted, at least on this side.”

Fourth, per D&C 1:24, other LDS scripture, and a lot of strong LDS, Christian, and Jewish tradition, we have the idea that God adapts his revelation to our capacities, language, and understanding.  God condescends to our level, and uses things we’re familiar with to communicate. I’ve got a chapter on this in my book, but see my presentation here for a discussion of this concept in connection with Corinthians.

In the three examples below, I try to follow Oaks’ counsel. I’m not arguing X is wrong, but that in light of the caveats and guidelines above, scripture Y doesn’t constitute sufficient support for X.

Does Alma 10:22 necessitate reading the Genesis flood as historical? 

I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction; yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword.

Alma appears to have no more information about Genesis than we do. Arguably less, in fact; Alma has a tradition with something like our Old Testament text, from which he is at a significant geographic, chronological, cultural, and linguistic remove. Does Alma appear to claim revelation for this statement about the flood? Or is he simply referrring to and interpreting the tradition he’s inherited? This passage may be a witness for the presence of a flood tradition in the Book of Mormon but it doesn’t say anything directly about Genesis or the flood itself. Alma is certainly not an eyewitness to a global flood, only a witness to the Israelite tradition in 600bc, as passed down through Nephite cultural lines for 200 years. I’, confident we can accept the Book of Mormon as historical and inspired and still read Genesis 6-9 differently.

Does Lehi necessitate a Historical Adam?
For Joseph Fielding Smith, 2 Nephi 2:22-25 was the linchpin against evolution and an old earth. He drew a very stark dichotomy about this; either you accept God’s revelation with a historical Adam and reject any kind of death before the fall, or you’re a scoffer who rejects prophets, God, and revelation and in danger of hell. My potential issue, however, is this passage seems to be exactly the kind of thing Widtsoe and Clark were talking about. Lehi is interpreting Genesis through his 6th century B.C. lens, and then we start interpreting his interpretation.

Is Lehi claiming revelation? Is Lehi “right” simply because his view is canonized? Again, Smith thought so. Speaking specifically of this passage, he wrote that “it must have been approved by the Lord or it would not be in the Book of Mormon” But is that how scripture works? Is that what scripture is? Are we ready to take all the views in all the standard works and say “God must have approved it, and it must be accurate and right, or it wouldn’t be in there.”

I disagree with that view, and so did President Clark, a bunch of other Apostles, and some recent Church magazine articles. Now, to be clear, the Church has pretty consistently taught a Historical Adam, although never really pinned down what that means or how to reconcile it with other things, e.g. Elder Holland’s 2015 talk which gets quoted in the New Era’s articles on Evolution and Dinosaurs.

Does God live near a star named Kolob?
Upfront, let’s agree the Book of Abraham is complicated. Abr. 3:3-4 apparently describes a star (not planet) named Kolob. And so Mormons have often assumed that the category of “scripture” simply equates to “fact,” ie. “this is scripture, so obviously God must really have a physical presence near a real star named Kolob.” (Some people have gone way way overboard with this.) Given the four complications above about scripture, is this justifiable? If Abraham is in some sense ancient scripture, shouldn’t we expect it to reflect ancient cosmology and cultural ideas, just like Genesis does? We are not getting divine hyperadvanced mathematics and astronomy from God today, so why should we expect that of ancient prophets? On what grounds do we reject the flat earth and solid dome of Genesis 1 (cosmology largely repeated in Moses and Abraham), but then decide the book’s statements about Kolob constitute modern factual astronomy? Why does God suddenly become an astronomical pedant? I don’t think accepting Abraham as inspired entails believing in the existence of Kolob, as much as believing in Abraham’s belief in Kolob and understanding what God was trying to teach him with it.

In other words, presence in the canon doesn’t render a statement moral, factual, or accurate, whether the Bible or uniquely LDS scripture.

What’s my takeaway here? Scripture is rich, complex, multi-vocal, and both divinely inspired and humanly human. To read it simplistically, to blindly accept whatever the canon does or appears to say, does violence to the text and offends my academic standards. Far more importantly, however, when we limit ourselves to “face value” interpretations, our personal application is not as transformative as it could be, and we create and impose problems that can undermine or even destroy faith. If you’re looking for some places to begin, I recommend this, these (particularly Welch), and this (print, online).

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31 thoughts on “Mormon Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It?

  1. Ben, thanks for this. It is excellent, though I must take issue with the assertion that: the “transformative power of scripture is dimished when we do not apply it to ourselves in our time, ….”

    I do not need to apply scripture to my day and age or to my personal circumstances in order to derive value from it. Indeed, our efforts to do so often end up perverting the meaning of scripture.

    For example, one of the Sunday School manuals used by the church (I can’t remember which one), after discussing God’s admonition to the Israelites during the Battle of Jericho to kill all the women, children and animals of their adversaries, sought to apply it to our circumstances by suggesting that we should always do what the Lord commands, even when it is difficult. This is not just a grossly de-contextualized reading of this passage; it is pernicious.

    God didn’t command the Israelites to do kill women and children; rather, as a tribal culture, the Israelites were simply using God, after the fact, to justify their actions. In this, they personified the mindset of the people of their time: “If we win, it’s because wanted us to do; if we are defeated, it was because we were being punished by God.” Enns powerfully illustrates this point in his book “The Bible Tells Me So.”

    In response, you could say that we can apply this story to our circumstances as an example of how not to rationalize our misdeeds by shrouding them in the rubric of divine authorization (e.g., the priesthood ban), but this is contrary to the scriptural literalism that the church has embraced from its inception and which, as you note in your second reason, shows little sign of changing.


    1. I don’t think application entails uncritical acceptance. I do think scripture’s power is *diminished* when we don’t allow it to have any relevance to us, or write it off as simply old and weird, or don’t make any attempt to wrestle with it.


      1. One year the Gospel Doctrine lesson on Joshua entering into Canaan came up during the war in Bosnia. I commented that this sure sounds like ethnic cleansing. The Gospel Doctrine teacher assured me that the Lord had commanded the slaughters recorded in Joshua and I and II Samuel. Lots of people wrestle with the implications of the conquest of Canaan. I remember a comment from a Jewish source which argued that the command to destroy everything means we have to keep ourselves pure from the surrounding worldly culture. No matter how enticing and inviting it is, we must eradicate it from our lives. This was an excerpt from something longer. I don’t know if the whole piece saw the story of conquest as a parable about keeping ourselves unspotted, as a historical account, or something else.

        While I was wrestling with these episodes it occurred to me that we can look to The Book of Mormon and D&C for checks. Is there anywhere in The Book of Mormon where the Lord commands the wholesale slaughter of a population? I can’t find any.

        What does the D&C say about claiming our inheritance?

        29 Wherefore, the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood, otherwise there is none inheritance for you.
        30 And if by purchase, behold you are blessed;
        31 And if by blood, as you are forbidden to shed blood, lo, your enemies are upon you, and ye shall be scourged from city to city, and from synagogue to synagogue, and but few shall stand to receive an inheritance.
        D&C 63:29-31

        There may also be a literary convention at work, the convention we see in phrases like “the Lord hardened pharaoh’s heart.”
        James E. Faulconer says in Romans 1: Notes and Reflections:

        “They knew that the Lord had not forced Pharaoh to have a hard heart, but to show the subservience of every power—including the Pharaoh—to God, they ascribed all significant actions to the Lord. Perhaps they also did this to help prevent idolaters from using the scriptures to show the power of their idols.” (p. 91)

        I see Jesus acting out this literary convention in John 19:11, where he tells Pilate, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” (See my post here for ‎comment on this convention.) I wonder if the camp of Israel was taking this convention of “ascrib[ing] all significant actions to the Lord” as a commandment rather than a literary trope?


      1. David, if by “rejecting some [scripture] as falsehood,” you mean that I reject a literal reading of Joshua, i.e., that I do not believe that God actually told the Israelites to slaughter women, children, and animals, then I stand guilty as charged.

        I also don’t believe that Jonah was swallowed by a “big fish” or that Moses authored the first five books of the Old Testament—two other positions that put me at odds with CES’s slavish adherence to scriptural literalism. In my opinion, treating scripture as always containing factually accurate descriptions of the events described, which is the fundamentalist approach historically embraced by the church, perverts its meaning in many instances and stands in the way of acquiring a deeper understanding of the text’s meaning. Stated differently, it leads to “falsehood”—an inaccurate understanding of the author’s intent and keeps us from drawing closer to the scripture’s true meaning.

        Admittedly, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what someone, 2,500 years ago, meant precisely when they authored a particular text. But this does not mean we cannot read his text in context, consider the culture of the people at the time, and look at other writings of that era, which often favor fables and myths over actual historical events when teaching moral principles, to arrive at a better understanding of, and an informed opinion regarding, the author’s message.

        But I respect your right, and the church’s, to embrace the simplistic beauty of taking everything in scripture literally. It sure saves a lot time and effort when it comes to scripture study. But, for what it’s worth, you might want to consider Brigham Young’s approach to the scriptures: “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households.” Sadly, many of Brother Brigham’s successors chose to reject his counsel.


      2. It’s not just a “literal” reading of Joshua: you accept above that it’s authorial intent is to make the claim that God made such commands. The difference is you believe that claim is false and the authors were wrong to make that claim. Hence the inconsistency in this particular example: you condemn the Sunday school manual for “perverting” scripture, but your actual difficulty with them is that they do understand and accept that particular authorial claim, when you would have them reject said authorial intent (and implicitly, any claim that God played a role in inspiring the *text* of Joshua, making it more than simply a text of the period).

        I’ve certainly had the opportunity to contemplate Brigham Young’s statement a number of times over the past few years. It does not strike me that he is advocating for an approach in which scripture is subordinate to modern pieties or seen as, at best, a set of ingredients to be conformed to one’s own views.


      3. David, you are wrong in several of your assumptions.

        First, I do not think the assertion in Joshua that God commanded the slaughter of innocents was “false;” rather, I believe it is factually inaccurate. In other words, I do not believe author’s intent was to deceive. Rather, he was simply accounting for a military outcome the same way virtually all ancient cultures did: “On this day, my god beat up your god which means everything I did on the battlefield must have been directed by my guy.” Indeed, this mindset was quite prevalent throughout the world until the Seventeenth Century.

        Second, and this should be plain to you by now, my difficulty with the Sunday school manual is that it, in reality, doesn’t understand the author’s intent and makes no effort whatsoever to do so, beyond taking the text literally. It fails to do so because it never considers the context in which it was written and ignores the fact that the inspiration the Lord gave to this writer was “given unto [him] in [his] weakness, after the manner of [his] language….” D&C 1:24

        Third, I believe you have done precisely what you claim Brigham Young counseled against: you have employed a 21st Century literalistic approach to a sacred text—an approach that was quite foreign to the world of ancient authors. To quote the title of a book you should read, you are Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. You are trying to make scripture conform to your views, reading it through a Mormon prism, which is grounded in modern literalism and premised on the notion that the ancients wrote history and accounted for events by employing the same principles of historiography that we do. Nothing could further from the truth.

        What you and others fail to realize is that the simplistic literalism you readily embrace reduces religion to a caricature, providing ammunition to atheists, among others, who mock the ostensibly divinely-ordained cruelties described in the Bible. A more complex and subtle reading of the text is, I believe, the most effective means of rebutting those assertions and provides a more accurate account of the origins and content of sacred texts.

        I realize that this must seem heretical to you, given that it wasn’t until very recently that the Mormon Church grudgingly admitted that perhaps, just maybe, the first two chapters of Genesis are not an accurate factual description of how the Earth was created. And, sadly, we still have church leaders today who nonsensically dismiss scientific hypotheses such as the Big Bang Theory by saying that such an explanation of the universe’s origins would be the equivalent of an explosion in a printing shop producing a dictionary. But trust me: once you throw off the shackles of scriptural literalism, the scriptures become far richer, revealing truths and insights you will never find in a church manual.


      4. You seem to be making some assumptions yourself.

        Since I am not employing any dichotomy between “false” and “factually incorrect” (certainly not in this example), your distinction is meaningless. It certainly doesn’t require any intent to deceive for something to be false (that is, not true). Once again, my point remains: the Sunday school manual is hardly “perverting” meaning when its viewpoint is actually closer to that which you yourself are arguing is the author’s. Within the narrative of Joshua (whether it happened or not, although it doesn’t require modern principles of historiography to write about actual events), there are two possibilities: a) God did give the Israelites those commandments b) He didn’t. Both the manual and the author(s) would go with a). You go with b), but accuse the manual of perverting the author’s intended meaning.

        You might accept b) for all manner of reasons, although your generalisations about “mindsets”, comments about “simplistic literalism”, concerns about supplying ammunition to atheists, and mention of “cruelties” suggest some application of modern lenses themselves. But you can’t then argue that this is in closer harmony with the author’s intent, when the author intended a).

        Nor is it entirely clear what room you have left for inspiration in the book of Joshua, once you feel free to reject the very intentions of the author(s), and treat it as any other ancient document. You also miss out the last clause of D&C 1:24 (as it often seems to be in these discussions), which makes the point that the Lord spoke to his servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they may come to understanding” (although properly speaking – avoiding the overreaching mentioned in the blog above – this is stipulated for the revelations making up the D&C itself). Apparently the weakness of the author(s) at hand was so great, one can only come to an understanding by essentially rejecting their intention as flawed and imposing a wholly new message. Strangely, the weakness spoken of in verse 24 never seems to be applied by modern would-be critical arbiters to themselves.

        I certainly believe, and know from experience, that the scriptures are far richer than any Church manuals (and I have my own complaints about the current Sunday school manuals). But for all the many boasts I’ve seen of would-be LDS Bultmanns of “richer” readings, they hardly seem to produce any. Instead many of them seem intent on demythologizing that would seek to deny me of experiences I’ve actually had. Many of them also, frankly, seem like pale caricatures of the readings one finds in academic biblical studies, which I get to experience close up on a regular basis and which themselves often seem like overly elaborate ways of missing the point.


      5. David, I fear that you suffer, as does CES, from a failure of imagination. You make no allowance for the possibility that while the author meant precisely what he said—“God commanded me to go forth and slaughter women, children and their animals”—he was mistaken in that belief. That the reason he made this statement is because this is how the Israelites typically explained and justified their actions after a battle with their enemies. For them, there were only two possible explanations: “The actions that led to our victory must have been directed by God since he obviously wanted us to win/We lost because we were being punished for not having followed God’s commands.”

        You, like our manuals, seem to believe that God would have some how stepped in and altered Joshua’s cultural perspective and belief system so as to prevent him from writing something factually inaccurate. But I don’t believe God would compromise Joshua’s agency in such a fashion. The Lord does His best to get His message across but frequently something is lost in translation because of the mortal limitations of his scribe.

        I believe there are only two realistic ways to interpret this scripture and many others like it. Either God expressly told Joshua to slaughter innocents or else Joshua subsequently explained his actions and his army’s victory in a purely reductionist, after-the-fact manner, just like so many of his predecessors had done.

        For me, the second explanation is the most credible for two reasons. First, as previously noted, the Israelites and other ancient tribal cultures attributed virtually all extraordinary and traumatic events in their lives to divine intervention; empirical explanations for good or bad outcomes were completely foreign to them. Second, I do not believe in a God who commands the murder of women and children any more than I believe that God would order a modern-day prophet to coerce and threaten married women to join him in a polyandrous union.

        As I said before, the allure of scriptural literalism is tempting, and swallowing the blue bill proffered by the church manuals does obviate the need to do much thinking. And you do have the added solace of knowing that the folks at church headquarters approve of your approach over mine. But scriptural inerrancy does stand in our way of considering alternative explanations for the meaning of sacred texts and thereby coming closer to the truth. Simply stated, it is a sandy foundation on which to build a testimony.


      6. Mr “DivineWind”, before speculating about my imagination or lack of it, it might be wise to actually read what I have written. If you have read it, you have not understood it. My initial criticism, and my major point, does not rest upon whether the author(s) of Joshua were right or not. The point is that you a) accept that the author was claiming divine warrant for the actions of the Israelites; b) reject the author’s claim; c) yet somehow claim the Sunday school manual is “perverting” the message of the author and “doesn’t understand the author’s intent” precisely because it accepts the author’s claims; d) somehow believe that you are in greater harmony with the author’s intended meaning despite the fact you reject it as wrong – and indeed would use the story to try and teach the opposite of what the author intended.

        Or, to condense how I put it above:

        You might accept b) [That God did not issue commands re: the Conquest of Canaan] for all manner of reasons… But you can’t then argue that this is in closer harmony with the author’s intent, when the author intended a) [That God did issue commands]

        The rest are really side issues to that initial criticism, although there are a number of issues. Once again it appears there is little scope in your system for the book of Joshua to be considered any more inspired than any other ancient document, and you likewise appear to consider God powerless to communicate clearly over the noise of cultural bias (except where interpreted by modern biblical scholars, presumably), precisely the opposite point of D&C 1:24. You seem to be under the misapprehension that Joshua is claimed to be the author of Joshua (the book makes no such claim, and it certainly seems unlikely considering Joshua 24:29-33 narrates his death and burial), or of the nature of the claims within it, such as Joshua *meeting* the “captain of the Lord’s host”, which is rather more specific than a post-hoc rationalisation (for that matter while Joshua includes divine commands about the conquest, the ones you seem to be thinking of are in Deuteronomy).

        In fact all you seem to be doing is reproducing what you’ve read of Peter Enns, which explains the rather loose generalisations of how “ancient tribal cultures” thought (although I doubt he goes so far as to claim all such enormously varied peoples were incapable of perceiving cause and effect; how on earth do you think they practiced agriculture?). This also rather undermines your attempted pose as the representative of critical thinking and nuanced scholarship against some strawman “CES” perspective that apparently requires little thinking (not that it’s important, but I suspect I may have had more relevant academic training in the area than you). Indeed you seem intent on seeing everything through the prism of your opposition to “CES”. While I’m sure you find it flattering to consider yourself intellectually superior, it seems this prism hinders you from actually understanding what I have written, and leads you to make mistakes such as conflating literalism with inerrancy (these are distinct concepts, especially for LDS: the Book of Mormon, for instance is selectively literal, but explicitly disavows inerrancy although emphasising reliability). But again, these are all side issues to the fact that its inconsistent and hypocritical to condemn others as “perverting” the meaning of scripture and being ignorant of authorial intentions, when your real problem is that they agree with the author’s intended message and you reject it. Pick one or the other.

        A final, but illuminating, side issue are your comments re: section 132. As other posts of your indicate, you reject Section 132 as scripture. This is a fundamental divide. You’re not reading Section 132 in a more nuanced way, nor is your approach leading to your claimed but invisible “richer” readings. You simply flat out reject it. For all your talk of sandy foundations for testimonies, in that area you simply don’t have one. Far from leading you to richer readings of scripture, your approach leads you to reject some.


      7. How do you handle Numbers 31 where they are commanded to kill everyone except the women “who had not known a man” Sex slaves or concubines?


      8. If you read Israel Finkelstein, Israeli archaeological in The Bible Unearthed argues that the evidence shows the exodus and conquest did not happen.. William Dever has an excellent youtube video on the issue. Peter Enns in The Bible Tells Me So tries to deal with this issue writing “Biblical Archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen:no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded” p,58.Finkelstein “Thus for much of the twentieth century, archaeology seemed to confirm the Bible’s account. Unfortanetley the scholarly consensus would eventualy dissolve” (p.81 Finkelstein).


      9. How do you feel about those who have conscientiously chosen to believe in a God who does command the murder of women and children?


      10. Reading the Bible in “context” is a good idea, but if I chose to read so many of the incidents in the Bible as “exagerations that could not have possibly happened, or could not possibly be explained”, then the only use the Bible would have for me would be as historical fiction.


    2. Is it possible to believe that maybe the Israelites felt that if they spared the women and children (with their inner beliefs and ideologies) that they would have to face them as enemies again later on, as those children matured?


  2. “Again, Smith thought so. Speaking specifically of this passage, he wrote that “it must have been approved by the Lord or it would not be in the Book of Mormon” But is that how scripture works?”

    3 Nephi 23:7-13 strongly suggests something along these lines for at least some of scripture.3 Nephi 26:11-12 is similarly suggestive. Certainly the Book of Mormon, while acknowledging the human activity involved in composing and transmitting scripture, also continually emphasises the divinity involved in it.

    I think we should certainly be careful in “overreaching”. At the same time I think one should avoid projecting onto the Book of Mormon ideas on the nature of scripture that are alien to it (and which all to often seem to simply reflect those commonly found in academic Theology departments).


    1. You have a good point. I’ve read many “scholarly” papers and research where I’ve found myself thinking that there was too much “overreaching”.


  3. I was reading through this and got to the section on Kolob and thought, “I wonder if he will mention ‘The Kolob Theorem'”? And sure enough you did. Well indirectly. My review of the book is by far my most popular post. And I originally didn’t want to write it.

    Just a question for Ben, are you familiar with the Perry Scheme? It relates to how students transition from a binary way of thinking (everything is right/wrong, correct/incorrect, true/false) to a much more nuanced point of view.


    1. Mentioning Abraham’s understanding of the universe, I think it was way above other people of his day, because of the way he was taught, and because of who taught him, because of his righteousness. And why wouldn’t we believe that God our Father doesn’t live in such a place, because we’re taught that we all have the potential to live on this planet after it is celestialized?


  4. I appreciate the perspective described here, that we ought to take into account the historical context of the writer or recorder of scripture. Additionally, I am very hesitant to dismiss anciently described events merely because they conflict with our current understanding of the natural world as derived from geology, biology, chemistry, physics, etc. After all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His continuing existence as an Eternal Being defies my current understanding of physics, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in my opinion.
    For me, if I can accept as true an event like the Resurrection that fundamentally conflicts with my understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, it’s not that big of a leap to accept as true a global flood (fundamentally conflicts with my understanding of geology), the absence of death before the Fall (much the same conflicts as the Resurrection), and the young earth interpretation of Genesis (fundamental conflicts with my understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and geology, and maybe some other things, too).
    That said, I won’t dismiss or demean anyone who has come to different conclusions.


    1. I too, don’t understand how the resurrection occured, but I believe it happened (just like I hope that it will happen to me at some future time.


  5. Ben, this is a valuable contribution and an important discussion we need to have. I worry though that we’ll get so nuanced that we convince ourselves that we are wise enough to interpret away embarrassing things in the scriptures. I mean, if there’s an interpretation that allows us to get rid of the flood, then we’ll take that interpretation so long as it allows us less discomfort when explaining our beliefs with our non-religious colleagues. Then, we may even start mocking the binary thinking fools who insist that there was a flood. And when the Savior comes again and reveals (maybe) that there was indeed a flood and an Ark and Noah, then we will be ashamed at ourselves for having mocked the simple believers.


    1. brotheroflogan, I believe you err in assuming that the reason Ben and others in church (including me) pursue biblical scholarship is for the purpose of “interpreting away embarrassing things in the scriptures.” I don’t pretend to speak for Ben but I believe the reason that many of us are committed to serious Biblical scholarship is to arrive at a better understanding of the text and the message the author was trying to convey.

      I for, one, do not believe in a universal flood, but I do not think the story of Noah is embarrassing nor do I mock its inclusion in the scriptures. There are several ancient flood stories that pre-date the one found in the Old Testament, suggesting that these myths had deep religious significance in ancient civilizations. While I may reject, as a historical and geologic proposition, that there was a universal flood, I do not believe the Old Testament writers sought to deceive by including this story. Rather, I think they were conveying important spiritual truths about societal decay that often attends unrighteous conduct.

      And I can assure you that if it turns out there really was a universal flood, I will feel no shame in having believed otherwise. This is because, unlike so many in the church, I never subscribe to the notion that “If ‘X’ isn’t true, the whole church collapses, e.g., if Adam and Eve didn’t actually exist, everything that follows in the Old Testament is a lie. Rather, when I doubt the historicity of a particular event in scripture, I nevertheless strive to find meaning and inspiration in the author’s words, along with lessons that help me be a better person.


    2. I believe that at some point, we will be given the real answers to our questions (as part of the restoration of all things).


  6. Ben, I like a lot of things you post on this blog, but this post seems too far for me. What’s to stop you from re-interpreting any claim made in scripture, or early church history, or modern church history as just being the mis-informed opinion of the speaker? What does canonization even mean? Where do you draw the line in the sand and say ‘this claim is true and I will not give it up’? I think that in your desire to relieve cognitive dissonance you give up too much.
    This is my humble opinion and I acknowledge your freedom to maintain yours.


    1. Typically the answer is that the spirit is always necessary to read. I think Ben’s point isn’t to pick some particular reading as correct or false but just to note such matters aren’t clear merely from reading. That is we can’t just assume our quick exegesis is somehow correct. That is Mormons in practice despite rejecting Biblical inerrancy or sola scripture are nearly as apt to use a similar way of reading scripture with similar views of its authority. In a way the prophets are an important check on this but they don’t always comment on things. Further often many of their comments are just their own opinions. (They’ve become rather good of late at making that explicit)


      1. I know I’ll probably be criticized for saying this, but when I read some the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, Brigham Young, and others, I personally treat some of them as opinion.
        I also realize that people like Alma and others had the brass plates to refer to, rather than just the contemporary teachings of their fathers.


      2. I find this sort of fascinating, really. We are talking in context of Alma being a real person. If he is a real person, certainly he is prone to the fallacies of being human. He is entitled to his opinion, even in a ecclesiastical position, and he is entitled to be wrong at least occasionally.

        Well… duh!

        For the record, I disagree with Mosiah Jr.’s comments on politics regarding Kings. He’s wrong! A monarchy is not a superior system of government, even with a righteous king. I would love to sit down and debate this point with him.

        If we really take this bull by the horns and wrestle with it, we should walk away with a profound new testimony of the BOM when we recognize its splendid humanity.


  7. The lectures of Brant Gardner have been fundamental in helping me wrap my head around the concept that Mormon was a man and that the history he articulated is itself deeply flawed. Royal Skousen has been great in pointing out how the translation process was prone to errors as well. Oliver was wonderful in his transcription of the text, but he was far from perfect.

    In the end, this has only greatly enhanced my respect for the Book of Mormon. It is so much more interesting this way. I enjoy it more now than ever.


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