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.
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.
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.“