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 geographically, chronologically, culturally, and linguistically removed. 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 doesn’t say anything directly about Genesis or the flood itself. I think we can feel free to accept the Book of Mormon as 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).
As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.