Modern scripture: exploring our relationships to holy works

Although I believe that the single most powerful concept in the LDS faith is the principle of continuing revelation, I have lately begun to wonder why we have ceased to be a scripture creating people. Certainly, I have heard the argument that we should treat the apostles’ words as scripture, but these words do not appear to me to be granted the same weight within our church as our canonical texts – The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price.

Yet I feel that before we can explore this question in depth, we need to develop a much richer historical understanding of how Mormons (and other religious groups) have understood their relationships to their holy works. To ask a question about why we do not write scripture now means to first understand both what type of documents the scriptures are and how people have historically written and read them. In other words, we need to ask under what conditions people write and have written scripture in order to better understand whether it is possible to write scripture today.

It appears to me that it would be extremely fruitful to begin an exploration of how the early saints understood their relationship to the evolving canon of scripture and, consequently their own positions in history and to God. Not only did these saints live in a time of immense volumes of revelation, but, because of their historical situation, they also faced the tasks of refining and defining the systems and mechanisms that would authorize some texts and other bits of revelation as truth. Hopefully, if we were to understand the systems through which texts became evidence of truth (rather than taking the text’s content as our starting point), we would understand more clearly what beliefs and principles motivate our faith and govern its daily practices.

Of course, this question presumes a stance that sees our relationship to texts and to scripture as historically evolving and multifaceted. This assumption leads me to wonder if we are not, in fact, writing scriptures in new form today. Although we no longer appear to make canonical books of scriptures, are our own scribbling in our journals, blogs, and magazines that distinct from the histories found in our older scriptures, even if most of those who write are not prophets?

Perhaps there is so much writing today as compared to the church’s origins that it would be impossible and limiting to include all writing within a single volume of scripture – much like it was impossible to include all work within The Bible. Then again, perhaps the point of canonical scriptures is to regulate the sheer volume of writing in order to create uniform and authoritative teachings that give the church a common foundation. Be that as it may, as a blogger, I find the idea that we are writing new scripture today quite appealing. But even if we are not writing scripture, I would appeal to my fellow bloggers to help me identify sources that discuss how Mormons relate to the scriptures so that I can shape this question into a larger project.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    An interesting set of issues, Natalie. We like to make a big show of having an open canon, and in principle it is indeed open. But in practice it is mostly closed. The kinds of documents we see today that arguably are semi-canonical, like the Proclamation and the Testimony of Christ documents, are grounded in the canonical scriptures rather than the types of documents that were originally canonized in their own right.

    I think it may be unrealistic to expect the kind of volume of scriptural creation that occurred in the first generation of the Church. We sustain the brethren as prophets, seers and revelators, but we also consider translator as added to that list in the case of JS. BY never considered himself Joseph’s equal in that type of revelatory production, and quite frankly none of his successors really comes close.

    The Prophet Joseph was really sui generis in terms of the creation of modern scripture.

  2. Natalie,

    Have you read Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible? If so, what areas does he leave out that you would pursue further? If not, it would be a good springboard for thinking through some of these ideas.

    Your point about revelation and mass media is interesting. I’ve often heard the benefits of mass media extolled from pulpit and lectern, but it’s interesting to think about its having a role in curtailing the production of (new) scripture.

  3. How can we have more scripture when my kids can barely lug their scriptures to church as it is? If we get more, scripture totes at Deseret Book will need to come with wheels.

  4. As I read the historical perspective, I believe the expansion of the canon was seen by the early saints as necessary to correct apostate creeds and record the Lord’s instructions to His people. I see that as the primary purpose of General Conference – prophetic pronouncements and insight specifically addressed to new or escalating conditions and apostate beliefs. In this context, how do we add to the existing canon without simply expanding the definition of revelatory scripture to include the inspired words of the prophets – which we already do?

    Also, we have an interesting dilemma: We want an expanding canon, but we don’t want apostles and prophets to speculate like they used to – creating temporary doctrines that are overturned by later interpretations. How do we balance these opposing desires?

    I am fine with a fluid canon, to which things can be added and from which things can be removed – but that requires re-defining “scripture” and “canon” in a very powerful way. In essence, “as far as it is translated correctly” addresses that issue, but we would have to be willing to apply that principle to things like General Conference talks, as well. I think we already do this for those pronouncements of earlier leaders we no longer accept, so I have no problem thinking of the “canon” as a fluid and ever-evolving thing. Frankly, modern technology and the internet allow us to create just such fluidity – since we can alter content on lds.org, mormon.org and any other official site in any way we choose – creating “a new canon” at any moment.

    Finally, one of the reasons I keep a journal is to pass on to my progeny my own personal scriptural canon. It is much more like Nephi’s recording of his feelings and beliefs than Mormon’s historical abridgment, and I hope those who might read it some day allow for mistakes and mis-perceptions and stupid assumptions and the type of fluidity I describe here.

  5. Forgot: purpose of expansion also was to add the testimonies of other ancient peoples / civilizations (BofM). In that sense, General Conference can be seen as an extension of the D&C – fulfilling that purpose for the people of our day.

  6. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    The process of defining “scripture” is different for every generation, it seems. The way that scribes and Rabbis returning from (or living in) Babylon selected their scriptures would, I’d suspect, be entirely different from how early Christians decided between the letters and Gospels that they had. In our day, the Church is different still in how it defines canon scripture.

    I’d be cautious about how we approach historical books like Kings and Chronicles in comparison to ourselves; I’m not sure how similar they are to our own historical writings and musings–and even if they are, is this how the process works today? Beyond John Taylor’s only addition to the canon do we have modern histories in the scriptures?

    I would add my own way of looking at being a “scripture-creating people”. I see two kinds of “scripture”, both of very different weights, obviously, but both scripture to me. There is expanding doctrine and expounding doctrine. Expanding doctrine is the stuff God gives us that we’d be hard pressed to come up with on our own (the really notable doctrine, like most of the Restoration doctrines in the D&C). Expounding doctrine is stuff we do on our own with a little help from the HG (like “The Proclamation to the World: The Family”, which doesn’t really contain much that is new, but contains a lot of existing doctrines put together). Most of the stuff the early Church got was expanding doctrine. Most of the stuff we get today is expounding. Both are scripture, in my own way of looking at scripture. However, I don’t see histories as being part of this process.

    Sorry for the long post. Any errors are my own. :-)

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    I wish we would be more precise as to what we mean by “scripture” when we use the term. Does anyone really believe that the “Apostles’ words are scripture” or that General Conference talks are “scripture” on par with the standard works? I know we sometimes say we do, but we really don’t. To believe otherwise would render the process of canonization superfluous. If we had and used a more precise terminology that better reflected the varying level of authoritativeness of different sorts of church writings, half the stupid arguments we have as Church members about the import, timelessness or normativity of this or that statement by a Church leader wouldn’t take place.

    Aaron B

  8. Ugly Mahana says:

    While I recognize that canonized scripture has a more binding effect on the Church at large over time, I do believe that the words of the prophets are scripture. I have carefully studied the Conference addresses in the same way that I have studied the scriptures. And my understanding has been enlightened while studying conference addresses just as much as it has while studying the scriptures. I think one distinction between the inspired words of prophets that are formally included in scripture and inspired words that are not formally included, is that those exhortations not included are more primarily ‘for time’, while canonized revelation is not only for us, but also for times beyond ours, and has no such primary distinction.

  9. I don’t think we’re going to get any amazing new stuff anytime soon. We don’t utilize what we do have enough.

  10. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    If we had and used a more precise terminology that better reflected the varying level of authoritativeness of different sorts of church writings

    Perhaps, given enough time, one might fall together. Certainly, others have tried to figure it out.

    We don’t utilize what we do have enough.

    I said this many times on my mission when people would ask what revelations President Gordon B. Hinckley had received and were dissatisfied with the Proclamation, but nowadays I’m not so certain that this is the full answer. While I consider the Proclamation to be very important, there’s really not much in there that isn’t already present in our scriptures anyway; it just puts a whole bunch of family-related doctrines together in one place. (I still have one framed on the wall, though.) :)

    Who was it who first advanced this notion of “not using the scriptures enough”? Even when the Church was under condemnation for not using the scriptures enough (1832), it still continued to receive expanding doctrines (1918) even when–I would argue–such knowledge was not necessary for the Restoration (does it really matter for us to know the details of Christ’s Spirit World ministry? We’d been doing work for the dead long before 1918, or even 1974 when the Church decided to canonize it.) When did this asterisk appear on the 9th Article of Faith?

    In the Church today we tend to receive doctrine that expounds upon previous doctrines, and very little doctrine that expands what we as a people believe beyond where it was before. I don’t think I have a reason for this change.

    Sorry for the long post. My wife says she’d love to tote more scriptures around, even with wheels, but she agrees that we don’t utilize what we have enough.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    The Community of Christ (the Church’s closest spiritual cousins) not long ago canonized a new section into their edition of the D & C. Verse 7a-d records how the Lord would have them understand the purpose of scripture.

    You can read Section 163 here

  12. MikeInWeHo says:

    Oops, that didn’t work.

    You can read Section 163 here:

    http://www.cofchrist.org/D&C163/section163.asp

  13. I recently had a discussion with some evangelicals. They were quite insistent in the opinion that a religion where the prophets are being “overruled” and contradicted by later practice and revelation wasn’t a religion they could have much confidence in.

    They pointed out that, while you may see an evolution in the doctrines taught by biblical prophets, the evolution never directly contradicts or throws out previously dear and core doctrines. The central message is always preserved throughout the bible and never contradicted.

    I mean, what are we supposed to make of comments by Orson Hyde that Christ most certainly had multiple wives, or George Q. Cannon’s assertion that polygamy was essential for attaining the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom? Or that business about the Mark of Cain? Or how we’re currently backing away from Joseph Smith’s pronouncements on the origin of God the Father?

    Thoughts?

  14. Perhaps the solution is not in seeing the modern prophets’ words as scripture, but in revisioning our understanding of the scriptures in a way that is more akin to the way we understand modern prophets – giving the ancient prophets the luxury of fallibility, bias, and opinion that we give the modern prophets.

  15. I’m sure some would find that somewhat convenient.

  16. Seth: first off, the notion that the biblical prophets don’t have different views is simply misinformed. Second Isaiah’s incipient monotheism (as read by evangelicals) is clearly at odds with the plurality of gods expressed in Deut. 32 and Psalm 82 for instance. What would be a greater contradiction than the insistence that it is no longer necessary to live the Law of Moses and the insistence that the Law of Moses is eternal? The same could be said for the prophecies of the house of David.

    Further, we should take statements by GAs as statements of opinion for consideration — nothing more — unless and until accepted by the body of Saints. Their statements are not binding.

  17. Just to echo the point others have made: Many of us still suffer from the Catholic and Protestant insistence on the infallibility of canonized scripture. IMO, scripture is the best attempt of the prophets to communicate their understanding of our relationship to God and His will toward us, inspired by the HG. We don’t teach infallibility for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, James, John, Paul, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Gordon B. Hinckley, Nephi, Alma, Mormon, etc. ALL prophets are subject to the limits of their own insight when it comes to individual statements; we canonize those we accept as valid and binding for all.

    There is a clear and steady evolution of “doctrine” throughout the Bible. Prophets regularly added to and changed what previous prophets taught. That’s their job – to read the CURRENT signs of the times based on the CURRENT knowledge of their OWN culture and express to their OWN people how they should envision God and His will for them. Paul taught an acceptance of slavery; Joseph Smith did not; almost all Protestants now agree with JS and not with Paul.

    This applies to cultural practices, as well. Early Mormon prophets wore beards; current ones do not. Some cultures wear white shirts and ties; some do not.

    As Blake said, the only difference in my mind with the canon and other “scripture” is that the canon has been accepted by the body of the Church as binding. In that regard, I’m not sad that the canon has not been expanded, since I really think we have enough that is binding.

  18. I’m sure the following model does not work in every single case, but here’s what I think.

    How did the Bible and the Book of Mormon come to be? A person (e.g., Mormon) or people (e.g., early church fathers?) made judgments on sometimes-conflicting documents that were written by others many years earlier. They decided what to keep and how to add commentary, and they often preserved the tensions between the documents. Canonization and accompanying commentary happened after a healthy passage of time, which can help the compilers/prophets discern which teachings are worth passing on and putting their own spin on. I like this slow pace. I am glad to wait 75 years before finding out whether David B. Haight’s NDE might beat out Heber J. Grant’s WoW sermons. It’s a bit risky to canonize as you go. But then, you can always de-canonize, I guess. That’s the prerogative of the compiler/prophet too. (BTW, I just learned that the poetry in hymn #272 used to be scripture — in the POGP.)

    Also, I throw around the word “scripture” as though it simply has the meaning of “authoritative.” In fact, I must remember the first six letters: script. All of the following media are authoritative in Mormonism:
    1) script (e.g., standard works)
    2) living voice (e.g., president’s GC sermon)
    3) theatre (e.g., temple)
    4) other media?
    If the written word trumps everything else, we have sola scriptura (no thanks, Protestants). If we have to rely only on the priest’s voice, we have Catholicism. I think what we have in Mormonism is some kind of mystery stew, but I find it rich and tasty.

  19. Sorry, my #15 should have read “we canonize those we accept as valid and binding for all if they change something in the existing canon.”

  20. Blake, I’m not seeing anything on topic in Deuteronomy 32. Did you get the right chapter? What verses are you referring to?

  21. (#18) I believe Blake is referring to verse 8 of Duet. 32; the KJV has passed on the reading “…sons of Israel”. See a different translation such as the ESV (where “…sons of Israel” reads “…sons of God” or NRSV (where it reads simply “…the gods”).

  22. Those outside Mormondom who recognize the apparent conflict between monotheism and the polytheism of the early OT – beginning in Gen. 1 & 2, implied in the 10 Commandments, expressed in Psalms, etc. – tend to view it as a move from an “incorrect” polytheistic belief to the realization that the god of the Israelites really is the only God. These people somehow don’t see the connection between that view and our belief in continuing revelation adding to or changing previous revelation; they don’t see fluidity of doctrine within an established canon.

    Due to this view, there also is a tendency to read all references to “gods” and translate it “idols” – or imaginary (“false”) gods. That certainly is true in many instances, but it’s hard to make that case in relation to Gen. 1-2 and Psalms 82. In order for strict monotheists to reconcile those passages, they must resort to an interpretation of “god” vs. “God” that changes “god” to something more like “servant of God” – and even that is tenuous at best in Genesis.

    In this regard, I find Romans 8 fascinating. Verses 16-17 get quoted often, but 14-32 are amazing. They echo the Intercessory Prayer so closely, and those chapters in John rarely get analyzed in the mono-polytheism debate. IMHO, that is a shame.

  23. It’s a shame, because it’s much harder to dismiss the debate when you can cite NT passages and not just OT passages.

  24. the only difference in my mind with the canon and other “scripture” is that the canon has been accepted by the body of the Church as binding.

    What does it mean of a scripture is canonized? Does that mean that the scripture is ‘true’ or just that the majority won the vote? What does it mean for a scripture to be binding? Can we ever disagree with anything in the canon? Can scriptures be decanonized?

  25. IMO only: Officially classified as communally accepted scripture – True, if that means true to what the authoring prophet believed; not necessarily true, if that means eternally correct – Can’t disregard individually if commands are involved – Definitely, if we’re Mormon ( :-) ) – I would have no problem with that, but it would be tough to do as a church. (We take enough heat for adding to the canon; can you imagine the firestorm if we only dropped Song of Solomon and some of Paul’s admonitions from the KJV we use?)

    Loyd, your questions hit at the heart of why I view “the canon” very loosely. The Manifesto decanonized parts of the D&C in a very real way (those that dealt with the earthly practice), and our “translated correctly” opens up the Bible to practical decanonization, as well. As I said in #4, I would have no problem at all with a fluid canon, but I like the fact that creating such fluidity generally is left now up to us as individual members. It’s a bit scary for members and the organization as a whole, but it’s how it works in practical terms right now.

    If it didn’t work that way, a forum like this would be MUCH less interesting and stimulating.

  26. VelikyeKniaz says:

    No one has yet mentioned that we L.D.S. have been promised the translation of the last two-thirds of the plates of the Book of Mormon before the Saviour’s Second Coming. If I remember correctly these are said to contain prophesies germane to the very last of the last days and doctrines which were meant for those worthy to see the Saviour’s Return. This may be personal speculation on the part of the missionaries that taught and baptized me, but I have always accepted it as true. Theoretically, if the first third of the plates, (approximately 2 inches in depth), gave us the 600 or so pages of the Book of Mormon, then the remainder would give us approximately 1,200 pages more. Now that would be a substantial addition to the canon of Scripture and a wheeled Scripture case might well be offered by Deseret Book shortly after it’s appearance. Among my L.D.S. friends there is a great deal of skepticism that they will ever make their appearance, however. Their view being essentially, “look how we either ignore or mangled what we have now, surely the Lord would not seal eternal damnation on us by giving us more!” While my anti-Mormon relatives opine, “Your leaders aren’t so stupid as to try to produce a second fraudulent volume and pass it off as ancient Scripture! Don’t hold your breath, you’ll never see it! This should be proof enough to you that you church is a fraud.” Have any of the rest of the contributors heard anything about this possibility of a substantial volume of Scripture to come forth within a short period (decades?) before the Saviour’s Return? Also I believe that the ten Lost Tribes will also be bringing their Scriptures at the onset of the Millennial Reign. Am I in error about this? Please take a few moments and enlighten me if that is indeed the case.

  27. Missed those examples completely. DUH!

    I should add, just for discussion sake, that we have no idea what parts of the non-Christian foundation texts were inspired revelation for those who wrote them – at least “as far as they are translated correctly”. I know that concept would REALLY torque most mainstream Christians, but I think we have to consider it.

  28. Natalie says:

    I really appreciate these thoughtful responses to my post. I’m especially struck by the point that maybe we need to consider scripture as something that is not just “authority,” but rather as something that serves a mix of functions. If it is something beyond law and authority, a product of God, men, and historical need, then I find it really hard to buy the argrument that we don’t get more revelation, because we abuse what we have. Perhaps rather than abusing what we have, we aren’t actively seeking more revelation and willing to participate in the scripture making process. I’m also especially struck by the reminder that God has promised us that more of the Book of Mormon will emerge. I wonder if members of the church would welcome these new pages if they were to come to light and feel they were legitimate? Or would we resist new knowledge?

  29. Natalie says:

    I really appreciate these thoughtful responses to my post. I’m especially struck by the point that we need to decouple the terms “scripture” and authority, recognizing that while the scriptures do carry authority they are also documents that chart complex social histories of peoples as well as God. And, if we understand the scriptures to contain more than simply authority, then it seems hard to argue that we do not have more scripture because we abuse what we have – a stance that seems to assume that the scriptures just contain clear doctrine. Rather, maybe we have ceased to participate in creating new canons and believing in revelation. I wonder if we would believe our prophet if he produced the remaining portions of The Book of Mormon.

    Also, while reading these comments it also struck me that another key aspect of the scriptures is to record family history. I wonder if we have separated the functions of writing family history and writing doctrine, and, if so, does that change the conditions under which we can write scripture?

  30. My take on it is that there is a very simple explanation: Nobody since Joseph Smith has had the guts to create scripture the way he did.

    There’s a significant element of challenge in Mormon scripture. We’re not just going to give our unique interpretations of biblical text, we’re going to come up with our own equally authoritative text, and its either going to be 1) even older than your text, or 2) straight outta heaven. For whatever reason, the church has lacked either the guts or the need to make those kinds of challenges. After the early period of challenge, we seem to have had a period of isolation (we don’t give a thought to the rest of the religious world) and more recently a period of accomodation or “reaching out”. With isolation, challenge is unnecesary, and in accomodation, it is counterproductive.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,437 other followers