“Trailing clouds of hermeneutical glory”

While we believe we come “trailing clouds of glory” from a pre-mortal past, our scripture reading comes trailing clouds of interpretation from pre-Mormon centuries of hermeneutics. Our spirits weren’t created ex nihilo, nor are our assumptions while reading. This might raise a few eyebrows, but it seems to me that we members of the Church mingle the philosophies of men with scripture on a fairly regular basis. Not so much by incorporating particular ideas into our canon (though we do that too),1 but in the very way we approach scripture to begin with. The ways we read scripture mingle the words on the page with our implicit assumptions.

I realize this sounds like an indictment. But keep in mind that, according to Mormons, not everything the serpent says (“ye shall be as gods…“) is necessarily 100% false. A revelation to Joseph Smith states that God speaks to his servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language.” A certain amount of mingling seems inevitable, so in my view the question isn’t really about whether it happens, but what we do about it.

One thing we can do is become more aware of our assumptions. Like any good Mormon might, we can start by learning our hermeneutical genealogy. That’s an exercise far outside the scope of a blog post and explorations are already underway elsewhere.2 I want to call attention here to one particular way the Enlightenment still affects our scripture reading today: in our view of biblical scholarship.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright views the rise of historical biblical scholarship during the Enlightenment as being “two-edged” (85).3 On one hand, such scholarship “issued a necessary and salutary challenge” to Christians. Close attention to historical context uncovers aspects of the text which have been clouded by centuries of biblical interpretation. Such analysis can help readers better appreciate why Jesus received such negative reactions to some of his declarations, for instance. On the other hand, Wright argues, “from the eighteenth century onward, several historians working from within the Enlightenment project made deliberate attempts to demonstrate that such readings would in fact undermine central Christian claims” (85). Attacks on the grounds of history, science, and morality “continue to the present day” and, Wright observes, can make Christians (including Mormons) wary of academic approaches to scripture generally.

In other words, scholarship has been largely “poised between the necessary and exciting task of historical investigation and the polemical use of rationalistic historiography as a deliberate weapon” (86). Interestingly, Wright believes these two approaches have claimed continuity with the aims of Protestant Reformers, which has left some Christians unable to distinguish between the benefits of the former and the drawbacks of the latter. The part corrupted the whole, so let’s just ignore it altogether and just “rely on what the church has always said scripture meant” (86).4

Latter-day Saints add our own rationale: the great apostasy occurred because authority was rejected and the philosophies of man messed everything up. We, like other Christians, miss the benefits of biblical scholarship by focusing on the attacks. In our approach to scripture we mingle this “philosophy of man” (that biblical scholarship is necessarily dangerous to faith) with our approach to scripture. We end up saying: “An interpretation! An interpretation! We have an interpretation and there cannot be any more interpretation!”5

This will certainly resonate with the few LDS academics out there specializing in biblical scholarship who are reluctant to raise their hands in Sunday School to offer an alternative way of understanding some particular scripture, least of all because it wouldn’t be found “in the manual.” But if what I’ve outline above is in any way accurate, our fellow members’ suspicions aren’t without some justification. But I agree with Wright that you shouldn’t always hide your light under a bushel basket. Your work can be “a great gift of God to the church, aiding it in its task of going ever deeper into the meaning of scripture and so being refreshed and energized for the tasks to which we are called in and for the world” (134-5). He offers a few pointers to that end which can be used to help fellow Mormons recognize the utility of biblical scholarship. These aren’t near exhaustive, but they are useful. (They apply to more than biblical scholars, too. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, etc.)

1. Recognize your own situatedness. If modern biblical scholarship has reached consensus on anything, it might be this: “the one thing it is no longer possible to do is to claim that [our studies] have come to the kind of fixed and unalterable conclusions that used to be taught in colleges and seminaries” (90-1). Scholars should be aware that “they and their debating partners write from within contexts with which they and their scholarship are in constant interaction” (91). A dose of humility, and a hesitation, is required.

2. Resistance may be overcome by reminding people that we already rely on a good deal of extra-canonical interpretations. Various scholars have provided translations of scripture, Wright reminds Christians (91). Directing this to a Mormon audience we recall that non-Mormons have had a hand in this translation thing, and we do well to remember that the Book of Mormon itself carries hallmarks of the King James Version! Even some Church leaders have done some mingling (sometimes to our great disadvantage, in my view. Joseph Fielding Smith’s reliance on Seventh Day Adventist George McReady Price comes to mind6).

3. Scholarship can be devotional. This might be the most important one. LDS academics have wondered how to make their work more relevant to or visible within the LDS market. Wright suggests that good scholarship through close historical readings of scripture “almost always results in fresh pastoral and homiletic insights” (92). I’ve referred to some causes of the lingering suspicion of scholarship in LDS circles. Wright reminds us that scholarship, “if it is to serve the church and not merely thumb its nose at cherished points of view, needs to be constrained by loyalty” to the community (135). This isn’t to say that one’s scholarship must be beholden to whatever the church manuals say about our scripture or history. To the contrary, some of the best scholarly contributions can even challenge long-held assumptions.7 It is to suggest that scholars might “sense an obligation to explain to the wider community the ways in which the fresh insight builds up, rather than threatens, the mission and life of the church” (135). Such explanations aren’t always necessary, they may not even always be useful. New media provides a few new avenues by which scholars can discuss such less-academically-focused concerns in podcasts, interviews and blog posts.

These suggestions won’t solve all the problems we face in utilizing scholarship in our church lives, and your mileage may vary. Still, I think Wright makes an important point by identifying the need to “re-establish a hermeneutic of trust (itself a sign of the gospel!) in place of the hermeneutics of suspicion which the church has so disastrously [if understandingly and sometimes beneficially] borrowed from the postmodern world” (137). If we’re going to mingle anyway we might as well try to mingle with awareness, in a way that improves the church, increases the faith, or provides fresh insights to old scriptures.

 

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Footnotes:

1. Attempts to situate United States politics in the pages of the Book of Mormon are one type of example, despite Richard Bushman’s great article “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution.” Also, forgive the gendered phraseology!

2. One particular examination is Phillip Barlow’s excellent book, Mormons and the Bible. Ignore the hefty price tag, I’m told an updated edition is forthcoming. Barlow briefly talks about Mormons and the Bible in the twenty-first century here as well.

3. Page citations are from N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). I reviewed Wright’s book here.

4. Wright sees a similar trend in the way some Christians react to today’s postmodern, or deconstructive approaches to scripture. As with Enlightenment approaches, Wright sees postmodernism as “two-edged.” He finds much good in these new ways of reading, but also highlights ways they tend to rob the scripture of authority as he understands it (98-100). I doubt many Latter-day Saints are even aware of this situation, I don’t believe our ways of reading scripture have been impacted much by such changes, so this post sticks with Enlightenment influences.

5. We also have other considerations to keep in mind, such as the role of priesthood authority and interpretation, but that’s a sticky wicket I’m going to avoid in this post.

6. Richard Sherlock, “We Can See No Advantage to a Continuation of the Discussion: The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 63-78. See also Steven Peck’s interesting recent article here.

7. Lester E. Bush’s 1973 Dialogue article “Mormonisms’ Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” is one example. A lesser-know, much less impactful but no less insightful article is Michael R. Ash’s “The ‘Sin Next to Murder’: An Alternative Interpretation.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Blair, re: 1 what are the limits on our ability to correctly see our own ‘situatedness’?

  2. I guess the biggest limit is that there isn’t an archimedean point from which we can completely examine our own situatedness. So a “correct view” itself is situated in its own way, maybe we’re looking for ever more correct views. We can’t fully stand outside ourselves or our situations and view things. That doesn’t mean we can’t trace influences on our readings, test assumptions, acknowledge differences of opinion, etc. though, which is mainly what I hope to accomplish by looking at my own situatedness. It also keeps the door open to further light and knowledge (though not that iffy messageboard kind).

  3. In case I didn’t make it clear in the post, I think these general ideas aren’t limited to our views of biblical scholarship, but to scholarship generally.

  4. Excellent post.
    “Scholarship can be devotional.”
    I think one of the issues as this plays out among LDS is that most of us don’t know what scholarship looks like. Most “scholarship” that gets published for an LDS audience is already hugely devotional, with little in the way of challenging thought or preconceived ideas. I suspect, for example, this is why books like Blake Ostler’s get little traction in the masses. Mike Heiser has taken aim at this in the Evangelical realm recently-
    http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2011/09/tools-for-biblical-research-part-1-toward-the-end-of-bible-study-as-most-think-of-it/

    His two posts after that get into it as well, but these comments (substitute in things like “Mormon” “Deseret Book” and “John Bytheway” or something) are worth reprinting.

    Q: Have you given much thought as to the best way to bridge the gap between the scholastic and the non-scholastic Christian worlds?

    “I think about it all the time. Then when I stop crying I go back to work. The hard reality (and I’ve been dragged to this kicking and screaming) is that most Christians don’t care. The folks who read blogs like mine and enjoy them are the minority. The majority can be broken down into the following sub-groups: those that don’t care because of apathy; those whose exposure to the text in any sort of depth has been boring or impractical (no one shows them a pay-off for the effort), and those who literally cannot imagine why anyone would bother anyway and for whom even Bible reading is an effort, in terms of time or intellectual capacity. What I mean here is that, for many people, it’s easy to see no need for something they’ve never used, or with which they’ve never been involved. And the thought is scary given the effort they’d expect to have to expend when they are genuinely busy. I’d also say that I’d only look at those in the first sub-group (apathy) as in need of a good spiritual cage-rattling. I actually get more upset with Christian media (esp. radio). Christian radio thinks depth means John MacArthur and Charles Stanley. I’ll grant that these preachers are beyond what many people experience in their own churches, and their popularity shows there is hunger for Scripture. And so they are a good thing, regardless of the fact that what they give people isn’t really meat — it’s moving people from milk (mere Bible reading) to the Gerber’s study Bible, but at least it’s a move. What bugs me is that there is no effort in Christian media to really hit at depth. The Bible Answer Man lacks depth (anyone sitting in front of a microphone with a laptop can look things up quickly; there is usually no analysis, and what is there is formulaic). Other than Ravi Zacharias, I can’t say I’ve heard anything of intellectual depth on mainstream Christian radio. But he’s not really about the biblical text; his focus is apologetics and philosophy. Very important, but too abstract for many believers.”

  5. Ben, thanks for the link. FWIW I had some of your own blog posts in mind as exemplary of what I’m arguing. (Stuff at feasting on the word blog, some stuff at fpr, some stuff at bcc, a lot of stuff could be pointed to!)

    Another recommended link with only minor reservations is Richard Livingston’s contribution to the patheos series on the future of Mormonism:

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Mormon-Studies-Catching-the-New-Wave.html

  6. StillConfused says:

    It is interesting to compare LDS scripture study with Jewish scripture study. In LDS scripture study, having an “alternative” viewpoint is looked at with wide disdain. People who do not answer the pat questions with the pat answers are looked at differently. In Jewish study however, you are expected to question. It is common for a student and the rabbi to be in heated debates. That is not considered disrespectful but considered essentially an obligation.

  7. I actually think that in the church (I’m thinking of SS classes here), our method of talking about the scriptures is almost like a move of trying to avoid hermeneutics altogether. By constantly talking about personal application or treating the scriptures as a launching point for rehashing gospel principles, do we really do much scriptural interpretation? I guess it depends on your class, but sometimes, I’d take a fervent interpretation–even if I felt it was entirely wrong–than a sort of bland recital of talking points.

    BHodges, I’d love to hear more on “Scholarship can be Devotional” in future posts.

  8. DLew, you’ve described the situation well, I think, and it isn’t just SS classes. Sometimes Mormon books do the same thing. You reminded me of one of the most classic Lou Midgley reviews, the BoM commentary by JF McConkie:

    “The flaws in Doctrinal Commentary are ones common to much of Mormon scholarship. The tendency is to divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know.”

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=1&num=1&id=12

    Wright actually identifies this same issue as being a challenge to the authority of scripture, a robbing of the authority. He’s talking here about the potential problem of “allegorical” exegesis, but the point extends to the point you’re underlining:

    “At what point in this process are we forced to conclude that what is really ‘authoritative’ within such an operation is the system of theology or devotion already believed or embraced on other grounds, which is then ‘discovered’ in the text by the interpretative method being used?” (67).

    “[Scripture] is no longer ‘authoritative’ in any strict sense; that is, it may be cited as though in ‘proof’ of some point or other, but it is not leading the way…The question must always be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve an existing theology or vice versa” (71).

  9. I haven’t read Wright’s book, but his description of historical scholarship as falling into two potential camps (either devotional or polemical) seems to miss the point that most scholarly conclusions about the Bible that pose serious challenges to traditional faith simply have arisen in the course of close reading of the text, not because of any ideological agenda.

    I agree that biblical scholarship can be devotional to an extent, and really, it is difficult for me to understand in the LDS tradition how someone could not see deeper, careful, and, indeed, critical study of the scriptures as an integral part of real discipleship. But I find it very difficult at times to know how to use those “fresh insights” derived from scholarship to “build up” rather than “threaten” the church, as you say.

    This is because many of the most important insights that can be derived from scholarship do not lend themselves easily to devotional types of interpretation. These would include issues of historicity, genre, and authorship, which are hard to bypass as they determine the overall interpretation. I could envision a world where such issues could broached for devotional purposes, but it would require significant maturation and intellectual and spiritual development of our community before that would happen.

  10. Stillconfused — one of my favoritely titled blogs is “Three Jews, Four Opinions” … very much appreciating the concept of multiple ways to look at things, applying the scriptures to themselves.

    “One thing we can do is become more aware of our assumptions” — which for me, often happens as I read the text for what it says.

  11. RT: keep trying. Use that intellect of yours to find ways to build up.

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