My Contribution to the SMPT Conference at Claremont

podcastThe Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold a conference at Claremont, March 2-4. The schedule has been posted and includes several luminaries as well as night lights like me. I will present Saturday morning from 10-11, invoking Enuma Eliš, René Magritte, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith, B.H. Roberts, B.B. Warfield, Islamic abrogation, and Emily Dickinson (quoted below).

The Spirit Speaketh the Truth and Lieth Not”: The Complex Theological Intersection of Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics

LDS scripture includes several statements on the nature of revelation and truth such as Jacob 4:13, “the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not” (c.f. Num 23:19) and D&C 93:24 “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” These passages seem prima facie to posit an absolutist conception of revelation as necessarily “factually accurate,” and entailing a concordist and inerrantist hermeneutic. However, these passages are clearly in tension with demonstrably incorrect/non-scientific scripture (e.g. the cosmology of Genesis), inconsistent/contradictory scripture (Samuel/Kings vs. Chronicles), as well as scriptural teachings of progressive/relative revelation (2Ne 28:30). How, then, does “the Spirit speak truth” and in what sense?

I propose two interrelated principles or circumstances under which inspired scripture can be said to be truthful.

First, what the Spirit speaks is not complete and absolute but partial and approximate truth. God must communicate to human understanding, which means adapting both the degree and expression of knowledge (D&C 1:24). Christians and Jews have long used this idea, termed accommodation, as a statement about the nature of revelation and as interpretive method. To choose two expressions, the Talmud says that “The Torah speaks in human language,” echoed by Thomas Aquinas as “Scripture speaks according to the notions of the people.” While numerous General Authorities such as Joseph Smith have expressed this principle, Mormon scripture says that revelation is as true as God wishes to it be; “These are the words which I spake… and they are true even as I will” (Moses 4:32).

Second, I posit a hermeneutical necessity of awareness of scripture’s representational nature, that it constitutes a representation of reality, a metaphorical model of sorts. “In order to understand what a model intends to communicate, we must distinguish the aspects that are relevant to the reality… from those that are irrelevant.”[1] When reading something like the early chapters of Genesis, modern readers need to identify those aspects intended to correspond to reality (and how they correspond), the central truth claims, from those parts which constitute intrinsic but immaterial characteristics of the model. The great conceptual distance between modern readers and the language, culture, and worldview of scripture obscures or distorts the truth claims of a given text for modern readers. The central truth claims of a passage are frequently not what they seem.

My argument, then, is that revelation/scripture is indeed truthful, given these two provisions. First, that we correctly identify its central truth claims through careful contextual interpretation and second, that we understand those claims to be partial, approximate, and progressive. I close with an appeal to Emily Dickinson.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant…
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

[1] Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection- Resolving Conflicts Between Science & the Bible (IVP, 1986), 168.

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7 thoughts on “My Contribution to the SMPT Conference at Claremont

  1. Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to make it. (I thought in the fall I could) Sorry I’ll miss your paper. What do you think about my use of Hazony last summer to sketch out a theory of truth for such passages? (I’ll fully admit my relative ignorance of Hebrew – so I’m sure you can school me there)

    This gives a more Heideggarian notion of truth as unveiling keeping with Alma 32. But I think it works for D&C 93 (received only 4 years after the Book of Mormon translation). In this take truth is knowledge of things as they were, are, and are coming to pass because truth is in the thing (not the proposition) and the thing must show itself to be the thing it is – requiring the future essentially for truth.

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    1. I missed that post, although I’d considered independently the nature of ’emet as reliability. I don’t have the philosophical background to critique or defend particular views from that angle, certainly not the with necessary easy shorthand. On the positive side, my ignorance there tends to make my arguments more accessible to non-specialists.

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