…for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
Joseph Smith History, verse 12
He was even more right that he imagined. The difficulty of interpreting authoritative texts has been demonstrated once again on this blog in recent weeks. On several occasions we have seen participants in discussions here resort to their copy of the church handbook and cite a certain paragraph in support of the position they have advanced. A few comments later, someone will cite the same paragraph and draw a different conclusion. Two men holding priesthood office with access to inspiration and discernment can look at exactly the same sentence and come up with different answers.
How does this happen? We commonly explain ambiguities in the Bible or other ancient texts by pointing to the various translations and the difficulty of understanding somebody from another time and place. But those explanations don’t apply to the different ways we interpret the same passage in the handbook, since it is written in the current decade, in English, and both the writers and readers share a common cultural background.
The best explanation I can offer is to say that we read into a text as much as we read from a text. We understand what we read in terms of our own background and experiences. It shouldn’t surprise us that a bishop of a ward where most of the members live in retirement homes would give a different emphasis to the principle of chastity, for instance, than the bishop of a young adult ward. I haven’t seen the handbook for years, but I remember thinking when I read it that it gives us a lot of leeway and allows for local circumstances. There were only a few instances where the law was laid down, and usually the material was presented as a general guideline, with the responsibility for interpreting and implementing the guideline left to the people in the trenches.
I am not unduly concerned when our authoritative texts turn out to be less authoritative than we had originally thought. I’m interested to know if any of you agree, or if I am out to lunch. In the meantime, brethren, let’s keep the handbooks holstered.