“Behold, I give it as my opinion,” on canonized speculation

Please tell us, Mr. Ropp!!!1 ANSWER THE QUESTION!!11

We are fond of quoting an Article of Faith to the effect that we believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly. It provides a nice escape hatch in the event someone brings up a scripture that seems to contradict a cherished Mormon doctrine. I wonder how many Mormons can actually point to a specific place where the Bible hasn’t been translated correctly? While we have the opportunity to take a very nuanced approach to scripture it seems we more often operate unreflectively as “selective literalists.”[1]

So what do we do with Alma 40:20-21, which raises an interesting question about the way we Mormons view scripture:

“Now, my son, I do not say that their resurrection cometh at the resurrection of Christ; but behold, I give it as my opinion, that the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven. But whether it be at his resurrection or after, I do not say; but this much I say, that there is a space between death and the resurrection of the body, and a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time which is appointed of God that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works.”

Here we have explicit canonized opinion. Paul does a bit of this explicit opinion stuff in the New Testament, too. And we have Nephi saying he filled his small plates with the things he thought were sacred (1 Nephi 19:6). It seems there are at least three ways to reckon with this phenomenon.

1. The opinion was included in the Book of Mormon precisely because it is true. Otherwise it would not have made it through the selection and editing process. Its canonization verifies its accuracy.

2. The opinion is a singular instance; all other scriptures do not contain such opinion else they would carry the same disclaimer.

3. The opinion could be true, or false, or incomplete, based on the principle that the book contains the “mistakes of men” which we are asked to overlook on the book’s title page.

If (3), what are the implications for scriptural exegesis considering the possibility of canonized speculation? Of course, all such responses will be understood as constituting the author’s own opinion.

Footnotes:

[1] The phrase appears in a really cool book slated to be republished very soon: Phillip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 32.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Something that annoys me is that we take the lack of a correlative qualifier for the BoM to mean that it is perfectly transmitted, while the Bible is only imperfectly so. I personally qualify all scripture with that “translated correctly” qualifier.

  2. The scriptures contain stories and teachings written by good and holy men in an effort to help their fellow pilgrims. These stories and teachings always carry the perspective of the writers. With the help of the Holy Ghost, I can discern truth that is sufficient for me, and precious to me. Some of my understandings change as time passes and I discern more.

    Scripture is best used by any person to help strengthen his or her own faith, and as important parts of the stories and teachings he or she shares in efforts to help others. It is mis-used when used as a club to beat against one’s neighbor.

    So to me, it isn’t so important that I accept or reject parts or pieces of the scriptures as truth. I accept the scriptures as a whole as a beautiful gift, At different seasons in my life, or for different purposes, I may lean more heavily on some passages than on others — and there might be some that I never get around to fully embracing. That’s fine with me. It saddens me to see people arguing about such a beautiful gift.

    But yes, it is important that people appreciate that the scriptures (the canonized standard works as well as the spoken words in our conferences and other meetings) always carry the perspectives of the writers or speakers. Even so. We only receive the Lord Jesus Christ by receiving the servants he has sent forth, imperfect as they may be.

  3. The ones following the exclamation points are what really make this.

  4. Shawn Holyoak says:

    All scripture, canonized or not, is speculation until confirmed as truth to the reader by the Holy Spirit.

  5. Maybe it’s there to show us that it’s okay to speculate (and therefore okay to be wrong). I would say that the point of such opinions is to show us that prophets are not always certain about everything, to teach us the larger point that being “right” or “wrong” about particular points of doctrine is not what saves us, and is far far less important than the weightier matter of faith and repentance, and charity.

  6. Shawn, we may say that, but I think most members operate by always giving the benefit of the doubt to scriptures (as filtered through their own LDS understanding).

  7. ji: I don’t like rancorous scripture arguments either. At the same time, I think one thing that stunts LDS approaches to scripture is an unwillingness to disagree about interpretation, and to work through in careful ways conflicting viewpoints. Especially in church settings we have come to think of “reverence” as a quiet, measured, agreeable tone, which makes disagreements feel discordant rather than fruitful opportunities to grow in understanding.

  8. BHodges (no. 7) — One should never (or only rarely) want to introduce discordance into our relationships. If one person wants to interpret a scripture passage one way, more power to him or her — but he or she should not insist that his or her benighted neighbors hear and adopt his or her interpretation. Romans chapter 14 is helpful in this regard. If others are peaceful and happy in their interpretations, isn’t that okay?

    Maybe it’s not unwillingness, and maybe there is no stunting.

  9. I always appreciated that selection from Alma 40 as showing that we are all learning step by step, precept by precept. The prophets in the OT and Book of Mormon (and any prophets) didn’t have the whole truth as one certifiable Whole dropped on them at once and then propound that forever after. This selection shows pretty clearly, at least, that certain principles about the Spirit World, the Resurrection, and the Final Judgment hadn’t yet been revealed to Alma.

    This gives substance to the maxim that we believe that many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God are yet to be revealed. From this maxim we must necessarily infer that there are things that we don’t know yet — that we don’t have the whole Truth yet, even in our dispensation. We are continually learning.

    If anything, a realization of this should catapult us as Mormons back to the notion of “Mormonism as a seeker of truth rather than the sole provider of it”, as BCC’s own Jacob Baker has astutely observed. My sense is that this posture is closer to the way that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and more or less the entire body of early Latter-day Saints viewed themselves in relation to Truth, whether religious, scientific, cultural, aesthetic, historical, etc. They were seeking for the Truth, wherever it may be found, and attempting to gather it in and incorporate it into one great Whole (a Whole that, I believe many of them understood, would not necessarily be harmonious for its completeness). Why have we moved away from that understanding of ourselves and what has caused it? Is Correlation that cause?

  10. I’m very much in favor of option 3, but the implications are that there’s a whole lot less certainty in “the truth” as presented in scripture than we might like. I’m mostly okay with that, because it makes it easier to reconcile the fact that modern Mormonism is not 100% doctrinally compatible with Book of Mormon Christianity, and both are different beasts from New Testament Christianity. Don’t even get me started on Old Testament Judaism (Yahweh? No way!). If it’s the philosophies of men all the way down, then at least it absolves God from having taught wildly contradictory things throughout history. The downside for me is that it can make God seem more opaque and even distant–even the Holy Ghost is moderated through my own perceptions and biases, and is not an infallible witness (Of course, for those who feel differently I can’t argue with how you’ve perceived things; I only know about me!). It requires giving up a lot of certainty, perhaps even the idea that there can be certainty. In a religious tradition steeped in rhetoric of certainty and knowledge, that’s a big deal.

  11. I believe #3 is what the book itself says.

    Casey, I’m fine with uncertainty (the whole sight through a dark glass concept), but I agree it’s a big thing in a culture that now stresses knowledge and, in a real way, devalues faith. I see the top leadership moving away from the extreme position of a couple of decades ago (especially Pres. Uchtdorf and a couple of other apostles), and I’m grateful for that, but it absolutely is deeply ingrained in our culture.

  12. ji, #8, in a way, you’re insisting that people hear and adopt your own approach to interpretation, one which tends to discourage critical analysis and close reading of the text. My point is that the church’s current climate discourages careful scripture study to the extent that we all try to assume a unified posture. Disagreement itself is construed as rancor, it can appear threatening despite whatever efforts are made to ensure an increase of love.

    Casey and Ray, very well stated.

    John f., I don’t know the cause, but that penchant for seeking truth has developed alongside the idea that we have the truth to give the world. Our missionary impulse comes into contact with out seeking further light and knowledge impulse, I think, with various strains of that tension dominating for different members and at different time periods.

  13. What a great model for how to speak to our children (and one another). I love how he talks in verse 3 as well. “Now, I unfold unto you a mystery; nevertheless, there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself.”

  14. First, I’d echo what Kevin Barney said. It has long been clear to me that the “translated correctly” applies to the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible. I’m happy to see someone else make the same point.

    I’d also point out that “translate” had a broader meaning in Joseph Smith’s time than it does today. I think that the current meaning of “interpreted” would be closer to what Smith meant; I’d also point out that the dictionaries in his day gave “to explain” as one definition of translation. So the Bible and other scripture aren’t declared to be the word of God as far as they are translated correctly in the modern understanding of the word, but as they are interpreted, explained or understood correctly. Big difference, but I’m convinced that’s the intended meaning at the time the Wentworth letter was written.

    As to the original question, I’d go with option 3. If a prophet says something is his opinion, who am I to give it more weight than that?

  15. BHodges (no 12) — No, I am not “insisting that people hear and adopt [my] own approach to interpretation, one which tends to discourage critical analysis and close reading of the text” — no reasonable reading of what I wrote here in no. 2 and no. 8 could possibly result in that assessment, but yet here it is in your no. 12. Maybe this proves that the written word (and even the scripture) can be interpreted (or misinterpreted?) depending on the reader’s circumstances and disposition at the time?

    You wrote, “My point is that the church’s current climate discourages careful scripture study to the extent that we all try to assume a unified posture.” I understand. My point is that we really don’t need a unified posture on every matter — like Paul in Romans chapter 14, I am happy to let others have differing thoughts on various matters.

    More than anyone else I know, I enjoy careful, close, and prayerful reading of the text of the scriptures.

    Casey (no. 10) — You wrote a concern that maybe “even the Holy Ghost is moderated through my own perceptions and biases, and is not an infallible witness” — there is some truth there — after all, we have to learn to understand the Holy Ghost; we have to learn to discern the Holy Ghost; we have to learn to trust the Holy Ghost. And our own perceptions and biases will affect our ability (or willingness) to correctly understand, discern, and trust. But for those who are honestly trying to learn, discern, and trust, yes, the Holy Ghost is an infallible witness. Even so, a person might get some small witness here and a little more witness there — not all at one time — but even the incomplete small witness is still truth, to which more truth can be added later.

  16. It’s funny you would use this example, since if you read the chapter, you find that (some of) Alma’s opinion isn’t in line with what’s been taught earlier in the book of Mormon, or what we believe about the resurrection today. (I won’t point out where, but you should be able to find it pretty quickly).
    4-Shawn, Amen to that.

  17. Door # 3, please. I’ve long wondered about the translation process of the Book of Mormon, knowing that there were at least three, and perhaps four different languages involved in that. The various original authors, the reformed Egyptian of the writing process, English, and the native language of the intermediary who revealed it to Joseph Smith, which we can assume correctly, was none of the above. Then after reading Brant Gardner’s The Gift and the Power I got a new perspective on the translation process that I did not have before. Therefore, count me in as one who also thinks the Book of Mormon is correct, as far as it is translated correctly, while at the same time recognizing it to be more correctly translated than the Bible.

  18. If our goal is to justify the use of isolated bits of prooftexting in the Book of Mormon, because we assume it is always correct, then clearly #1 or #2 must apply. But Alma in particular has given more than one of his own opinions (so labelled). Further, he has said that men should not say all that has been revealed to them personally in all instances. Therefore #3 makes more sense.

    That said, the broad themes of the Book of Mormon (as a testament for Jesus Christ), like the broad themes of the New Testament, are likely less contentious. Repeated themes and truths are probably more likely to be important than those mentioned only once or mentioned obscurely.

    That said, I don’t believe we should cast the entire book into the realm of speculative discussion on the part of its authors; these were prophets and inspired teachers who did their best (with — admitted by them — sometimes limited ability) to communicate certain themes. If we take those teachings out of context then we’re likely to distort that meaning. But if we see those teachings in the context in which they were delivered, we’re more likely to find the most important truths. If, on the other hand, all we want to do is to support a preconceived political or social point of view, then prooftexting should be just fine for us, and this discussion is moot.

  19. Eric (14), thank you for the clarification of “translate.” This sheds a lot of light where I was beginning to lose faith in translation and thinking maybe all of it needs to be read with slightly fuzzy focus instead of word-for-word examination.

  20. I agree with Eric, in that I have believed for a long time that “translate” is better understood now as something like “transmit”.

    The point about Alma’s teaching in some areas, as well as other instances in the Book of Mormon, not being what we currently teach is an important one. I’m glad we’re not bound to the understanding of the past, even when that understanding was held by people we accept as prophets. On-going revelation and our own modern history ought to make us cautious of accepting anything in the scriptures as immutable Truth.

    I see the scriptures as a wonderful exposition of the evolution of faith – as the best expressions of people’s beliefs in their own times and circumstances. I can honor that as deep, profound, instructive, enlightening and cautionary – and the last one is as important as the others.

  21. If it is #3, why do we have to be so dodgy about it? GAs even dance about the issue of what exactly is doctrine outside a tiny portion of the ideas they and their predecessors have preached about. To be fair, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut in professional contexts when I may not know completely what I’m talking about – it helps me learn to actively interact with the field. I suppose that for novices in my field listening to me at those times could be confusing and frustrating. I get that. But it wouldn’t give those same novices sufficient reason to narrowly and rigidly attach themselves to every idiot thing that came out of my mouth, would it? Perhaps that inner yearning for positivist certainty is evidence we come from a place less muddled than the here and now.

  22. At the risk of getting a little off subject, I woild like to point out a specific instance. I was teaching the Gospel Priniples class a few years ago on the subject of the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount as stated in 3 Nephi 12. Getting to verse 32 where it says ” . . . and whoso shall marry her who is divorced committeth adultery.” I ran into a jam. In the class was my good friend, the wife of a former Bishop, a lifelong member, and one who had been divorced early in life. She wasn’t looking at me but I noticed a change in her expression. I didn’t have to explain that passage. Nobody had a question about it. Nobody was looking at her as hardly anybody there knew her. There was a divorced lady there investigating the Church. So I decided to try and clarify a bit. I said that now in the Church people who have been divorced can remarry without such stigma etc. I didn’t give much of an explaination otherwise.

    Thing is, this repeated the New Testament version which implies that it was translated correctly. By implication then, the Book of Mormon must also be right on that matter, yet we practice something different. Whatever the explaination, my friend had a decided look of relief on her face.

  23. What you say, and than claim as an opinion in the following… “We are fond of quoting an Article of Faith to the effect that we believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly. It provides a nice escape hatch in the event someone brings up a scripture that seems to contradict a cherished Mormon doctrine.” …I believe incorrect as far as what that article really says.
    This article of faith wasn’t designed as an “escape hatch” for LDS as you state it for scripture seeming to contradict their cherished Mormon doctrine.
    It’s a statement that I think will come to be proven in future time as modern Christianity adapts to “new age” Christian thinking. Modern Christianity is aghast to even consider God had ever been against homosexuality or cursing someone and their lineage with black/dark skin or that he taught segregation a few times and endorsed polygamy. These things according to modern Christianity are vile and God has no part in them in our present era.
    I believe this article of faith will be well explained as the words in the scriptures are changed to reflect modern Christianity’s way of comprehending the scriptures and, in some Bible versions these changes have already made.

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