Interpreting Scripture, History, Science, and Creation: A Free Course by Me!

Red brick store in Nauvoo, where the first endowments were done on May 4, 1842.

Edit: I’ve added this syllabus to the main menu at left, and simplified the url for easy access, to http://BenSpackman.com/syllabus

May 4th holds significance in LDS history: it’s the day Joseph Smith introduced temple ordinances in the upper room of the red brick store in 1842. The temple ties together a number of questions, like:

How do we make sense of creation? Is scripture literal or figurative, and how do I tell the difference? Is that a good way of approaching scripture?  How do I weigh different sources of information, within and without the Church? What are we to make of prophets with different views, or revelation which is inconsistent — Genesis, Moses, Abraham, Temple— particularly when the latter three all come through one modern prophet, Joseph Smith? Why are there even differences, if it’s revelation and correct? Is revelation absolute and fixed? How should we understand or integrate what mainstream science has to say about origins?

These questions aren’t central to faith, but history shows they aren’t irrelevant to it either.

And so, for your entertainment and edification (and faith!) I present a course syllabus on Interpreting Scripture, History, Science, and Creation. This is all free and all my material, some of it old, some updated, and some new for today, including two hours of recently recorded fireside video. There’s certainly some overlap and repetition; some links could have gone in multiple places, but I’ve only listed each link once, assuming that people will actually work through and get them all. (There is probably 20 hours or more of reading, video, and podcasts here.)

Also, like any course, if you begin at the end, you’re likely to misunderstand. Joseph Smith taught that

if we start right it is very easy for us to go right all the time but if we start wrong it is hard to get right.

And so, if some of you may feel we are going “down the rabbit-hole,” I recommend following the Disney Mad Hatter’s advice: begin at the beginning.

We must begin by making visible our assumptions about scripture and how we understand and interpret it. This is the Achilles heel of much LDS writing about science, scripture, and creation. It’s the way many of us “start wrong.”

Once solid principles have been established there, we’ll move on to a literal, contextual reading of the early chapters of Genesis. And then, we move on to the Genesis parallels: Moses, Abraham, and (respectfully) the temple.

Part 1: Reading Scripture and Cleaning our Interpretive Glasses

As humans, we can’t help but make assumptions; it’s how we function.  What we can do is try to be as explicit as we can about the assumptions we make, and decide whether they are reasonable and well-grounded. Assumptions are like the lenses in our glasses; information passes through them. If our glasses are  smudged— or we deny we’re even wearing glasses!— it skews how we read. So taking stock of our assumptions is becoming aware that we’re wearing glasses, and cleaning our lenses. (N.T. Wright expands on this metaphor here.)

This section covers common LDS assumptions about the nature of scripture, the nature of science/history, the nature of interpretation, and where our traditional assumptions have come from.

This also the largest and most important section, in my view; once this is clear and understood, everything else follows quite neatly and many of the problems become much less problematic.

  1. What do prophets know, and how do they know it?
    1. Post, “Essay on the nature of prophetic knowledge
  2. Do prophets interpret scripture and the past purely through revelation, or do cultural and tradition play a role?
    1. Post 1 “The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Monopoly
    2. Post 2 “Stephen L. Richards on What Prophets Know
    3. Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar paper, “Mormonism as Rough Stone Rolling: Towards a Theology of Encountering the World
  3. What assumptions do we bring to reading scripture? Often, we assume our choices are between “literal” and “figurative.” But that’s a false dichotomy, because scripture is more complex than that.
    1. Podcast “Genre and Misreading the Bible” LDS Perspectives.
    2. Post on Literal vs. Figurative in Genesis 6-10.
    3. Post on “Teaching Bible Stories: History vs. Fiction
    4. Post on “Raymond Brown on teaching complexity in scripture
    5. Post “Scripture is a Collection of Different Things
  4. If it’s inspired in scripture, shouldn’t that mean it’s factual, approved, and correct? Well, not necessarily.
    1. FAIRMormon Conference talk, “Truth, Scripture, and Interpretation: Some Precursors to Reading Genesis”
      1. Text (the slides are important)
      2. Audio and video
    2. Post, “Mormon Said it, I believe it, that Settles it?
    3. Post, “Jesus, Paul and the Problem with Slavery in Philemon
  5. How did LDS come to approach and interpret scripture the way they do? How did Certain Assumptions become so Culturally Dominant?
    1. Fireside Video,1 hour “‘Science Falsely So-called’: How Latter-day Saints Came to Read Scripture as Science” (ends abruptly, recording issues.)
    2. UVU Conference Video, “The Scientific Deformation and Reformation of Genesis: How Science Messed it up but Also Fixes It” (Scroll down on this page, and click on my name to launch the video. Slides and summary are available here.)
    3. Post 1 “The 1950s: A Fundamentalist Shift
    4. Post 2 “Old Manuals and Unintended Consequences
  6. What is a Literal Reading?
    1. Post, “Reading Scripture Literally: Why We Need MORE
    2. Post, “You either Believe the Scriptures or You Don’t
  7. Plain language isn’t sufficient for us to understand what scripture meant, nor for a literal reading. Why?
    1. Language changes over time.
      1. Post on language shift in scripture and “false friends.
    2. Plain language doesn’t necessarily convey important contextual or cultural meaning, things which went “without being said.”
      1. Post, “Translation and Context: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Isaiah and Job at Ugarit
  8. How can we read in context?
    1. Sperry Symposium video, “Reading the Old Testament in Context
    2. Post, “Learning to ask the Right Questions, My own Personal Story about Scripture and Science.”
    3. Page, Resources for Studying the Bible in Context
  9. How have recent contextual discoveries changed our understanding of the Old Testament?
    1. Fireside video, “The Rediscovery of the World of the Old Testament” (This includes understandings about language, temples, covenants, etc.)
  10. What about science and history? Science and history are more complex than most people understand.
    1. Post, “Complexities of History in the Ensign
    2. Post, “Science and History as Myth and Fiction: Exploring some Common Labels
    3. Post, “Teaching Seminary with Cuneiform, Shortbread, and The Shining
    4. Further listening/reading, “Listening to History, Science, and Evolution

Part 2: A Literal Reading of the Early Chapters of Genesis

As part 1 made clear, a literal reading is not a context-free “face-value” reading; rather, a literal reading requires a deeply contextual investigation, trying to put ourselves as much as possible into the shoes sandals of the ancient authors and audiences.

  1. What’s Going On in Genesis Chapter 1?
    1. Podcast from LDS Perspectives.
  2. Can you give me more detail on that? Boy, can I! These are my lengthy combined notes from the first five days of my institute class on Genesis.
  3. What’s the deal with the “days” in Genesis 1?
    1. Post, “Priests, Babylonians, and 24-Hour Days of Creation.”
  4. What do “Adam” and “Eve” mean? Why don’t they appear in some Bible translations?
    1. Publication from the Maxwell Institute Theology seminar, “‘Adam, Where Art Thou’: Onomastics, Etymology, and Translation in Genesis 2-3“)
  5. My “campfire” translation of Genesis 2-3 from the Maxwell Institute Theology seminar.
  6. What can I read further about this?
    1. Post, “Ten Books for Getting a Handle on the Early Chapters of Genesis“)

Part 3: LDS Creation Accounts and the Temple

This gets more complicated once we introduce uniquely LDS material into it.

  1. What do differences between creation accounts (or other things, like the Gospels) teach us about revelation?
    1. FAIRMormon conference talk, “A Paradoxical Preservation of Faith: LDS Creation Accounts and the Composite Nature of Revelation.”
    2. Audio of the same. (Since this is last year’s conference, the video is not yet free, but available for sale from FAIR.)
    3. I presented an earlier version of this at the Joseph Smith Papers conference, summary here.
  2. Is the Temple intended as a scientific or historical account? A documentary or re-creation of “what really happened”?
    1. Post 1″Genre and the Temple
    2. Post 2 “Presidents McKay and Lee on Temple Genre
    3. 60 minute fireside video “Reconciling the Temple with Science, Creation, and Evolution: A Faithful Approach
      1. Correction: About 9 minutes in, I say “Psalm 119” but I mean Psalm 19!
    4. Post 3, “How Long Were Adam and Eve in the Garden?”
  3.  Should we understand the temple as pristine and unchangeable revelation, without human aspects?
    1. Post, “Everything is a Remix
  4. How can we build faith with all this stuff, whether ourselves, our children, seminary students, etc.?
    1. Post, “How to Build Resilient Faith
    2. Post, “The Most Important Question I’ve been Asked
  5. How can we prepare for the temple in light of all this
    1. Post, “Revisiting Temple Preparation

Bonus Excursis: So… what about Evolution? 

You’ve made it this far!

People often ignore everything I’ve actually said about scripture, history, and interpretation, and instead want to debate science and evolution. It’s frustrating to have everything you actually say completely ignored. Although I have some scientific training, I’m not a scientist.  Typically they’re not either, just motivated by tradition and misunderstanding of scripture and/or science, feeling that defending faith and scripture requires rejecting evolution. I’m not an evolution apologist, though I accept the overwhelming scientific data and consensus for it.

Much of my material is about how Latter-day Saints read (and interpret) scripture; the way we tend to read today involves a number of blindly inherited assumptions from the 19th and early 20th centuries (esp. the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate), and also… just aren’t justifiable.

In other words, while in the big picture I’m trying to demonstrate a better way to read scripture, I’m also trying to demonstrate that the “old” or “traditional” (which led fairly directly to young-earth and other forms of creationism) didn’t come by revelation; it isn’t a real part of orthodoxy (though many will assume it on the basis of tradition), so there’s nothing wrong with setting it aside.

The “funnel” of the 1950s and 60s distorted our common understandings of historical orthodox ways of reading scripture. So below, some of my material more directly about organic evolution.

  1. A summary of a 3-hr guest lecture at BYU Biology, on what Genesis has to say about humanity and evolution.
  2. (Several hours) Video interview with Mormon Tangents on LDS History and Evolution
  3. Post, “That Which is Demonstrated, We Accept with Joy
  4. Post, “Evolution and the Fall
  5. Post, “The Backstory to Elder Eyring’s Age of the Earth Comment and Creationism
  6. Post, “David O. McKay on Evolution and Reading Genesis
    1. Part 2 on President McKay and Evolution
  7. Post, “Joseph F. Smith on Evolution and Church Schools
  8. Post, “Joseph Fielding Smith, Evolution, and the Other Sides of His Story

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.

14 thoughts on “Interpreting Scripture, History, Science, and Creation: A Free Course by Me!

  1. I am not sure that my brain can handle five posts from you in one day! Reading your stuff takes a lot of energy!

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  2. Ben, this is fan-tastic. That had to be a lot of work! And it’s great to see the videos live. Good stuff. Any link between all this content and your book’s progress? 😀

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  3. It was Lewis Carroll’s King of Hearts who first offered the advice to “Begin at the beginning.” In Disney’s animated feature, it was the March Hare who said “Start at the beginning,” with the sentence completed by the Mad Hatter.

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  4. I’m on short term disability and was planning on creating some sort of personal gospel study course to keep me occupied. I came to your website for ideas and found you’ve created a whole course for me! Thank you! I’m looking forward to working through all of this material.

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  5. Thanks for the great work here. These Ideas have become great discussion topics around our dinner table. And the concepts help me build a better map for my own journey on how to make sense of my religious views in the context of the world we experience.

    I believe there is a good basis for a book from this article.

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  6. Would it be possible to add this post as a permanent link on the left? I anticipate coming back to it regularly over the next several months and worry about losing track of it as newer posts come out.

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    1. Excellent suggestion. It’s in the menu, and the direct link is now quite simple, benspackman.com/syllabus

      I had to copy the post html into its own page, so any comments to the post won’t show up when you click on the menu version or go directly there via the browser address bar.

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  7. Ben I discovered your blog a few months ago and you’ve completely shaped my understanding of Scripture, revelation, etc., and my faith is the strongest it has ever been. It also inspired me to start reading books like inspiration and incarnation. Thank you for this course, it was a joy to work through.

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  8. Ben, I am really enjoying all of the writings I have gotten to so far. Thanks.

    Question: I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens a year or so ago, and among the many interesting things he wrote, one was that physiologically, our species has changed little enough in recent millennia that if you took a human from 60,000 years ago and dropped his corpse off in the office of a modern medical examiner, they wouldn’t necessarily know he’d traveled through time.

    Is this your understanding also? It seems like, if true, this has interesting implications for the concepts of Adam and Eve, the garden, the Atonement, lots of things… Anyway, I wondered if you had any feedback on that notion.

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