Joseph Smith Was Right

…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.   


  1. “We read into a text as much as we read from a text.”

    This is an issue that theories of hermeneutics and of literature have been dealing with for a long time. Meaning only arises in the conjunction of particular readers on particular occasions of reading. That is, the text is not the primary authority. Some argue, with good reason, I think, that this understanding of interpretation is the fundamental mode of human existence and knowledge. It’s as you point out, a central question when making meaning out of any text. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are as many interpretations as readers, loosely speaking.

  2. The real question is, of course, in reference to the opening quote you gave: Can anything be “settled” by an appeal to Text?

  3. Right on Mark B. I never thought of the handbook as being authoritative in that sense anyway. I don’t think it was intended as a text that members would cite to each other in support of a particular principle or position. Neither were the scriptures, for that matter. The problem is that we find it impossible to just govern ourselves by the spirit and let others do the same, so we seek support for our pet positions.

  4. I’m reminded of a quote by the late Pres. Faust a number of years ago in a regional leadership meeting. He said, in effect, don’t let the handbook(s) keep you from seeking the inspiration that is due to you in your callings.

    The handbook teaches principles and policies, but is not authoritative in doctrine, in my experience. I believe you still have to go to the sources, scripture and revelation, to get your answers. I also know that in scripture study especially, I read different things into the same passage at different readings, depending on what I am looking for, or what is on my mind at the time.

  5. Kevinf: If Mark is correct, and I think he is, you can’t resolve the problem by going to the scriptures to get the answer. They are just another text.

    Nor do I think that revelation is an adequate answer, because our understanding of revelation is also suspect and is affected by our conditioning. Conflicting “revelations” are just as common as conflicting interpretations of our scriptures and other texts.

  6. RE #5 – I’ve heard from many members who claim revelation concerning their lives that is in direct conflict with revealed text (scripture). For instance, a member may receive “revelation” to quit his job and start a business that keeps him from coming to church or holding a calling.

    I personally doubt the validity of divine inspiration that would keep someone away from church on anything more than a temporary basis. What would you say if you were that man’s Bishop?

  7. jupiterschild,
    It seems to me that more mundane questions can be settled relatively clearly by reference to Text (at least, in the tax law and where the Text is the Internal Revenue Code). There are some parts of the Code that are remarkably uncontroversial and clear (tax protestors notwithstanding; to make their arguments, they have to apply tortured selective- and mis-reading).

    But where the question is more complicated or less predictable, Text may not give the full answer.

    I think scripture’s like that, too, to some extent. “Thou shalt not kill” is pretty clear (exceptions notwithstanding), as is “Thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart.” On the other hand, situations arise that aren’t mentioned by scripture, and we’re forced to reason by analogy, or use some other indirect logic. At that point, we certainly bring to bear our experiences on the text.

    But yeah, it’s pretty clear that mistranslation, etc., aren’t the only (or even the principal) muddiers of scriptural water.

  8. Gary,

    # 5, I was aware of that paradox when I made the post. I guess that I am leaning heavily on some circumstantial aspects relating to the scriptures and the handbook, and that is the stewardship of callings.

    An EQ president has stewardship for his quorum, and resorting to the scriptures and revelation in that stewardship is valid. However, that still doesn’t make it authoritative for anyone else, certainly not the whole church. Joseph Smith created this paradox of individual revelation and hierarchical authority as the church was organized and starting to take shape.

    I agree with Mark’s premise that “our authoritative texts turn out to be less authoritative than we had originally thought.” I know it drives some non-members that I’ve had this discussion with batty, but I think when you look at individual stewardships, you can get a little closer, but it still has time- and place-limited utility, to borrow a phrase.

  9. Jennifer in GA says:

    “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.”

    I’m in agreement 100%. Right now I’m a Primary teacher working with a Primary President who is -there’s no other way to put it- a slave to the handbook. If the handbook doesn’t explicitly say we *can* do something, she interprets it to mean that we absolutely cannot do it. 99% of suggestions made to her are shot down because “the handbook doesn’t allow that”. To say it’s frustrating would be an understatement.

  10. StillConfused says:

    Does it make you a bad Mormon if you don’t interpret ambiguities in the Bible the same way that Church leaders do? or is that just a reasonable difference of opinion. For instance, I don’t think that Jesus was the God of the old Testament. For whatever reason, that has just never set right with me.

  11. Aaron Brown says:


    Go see the thread on Divine Investiture Theory to sate your appetite for discussion re: Jesus as God of the OT, and afterwards, feel free to remain, er, still confused. :)

    Sam B,

    Your two examples of scripture that are “really clear” strike me as two of the most unclear lines in all of scripture.

    Mark B,

    Good post, and I agree. Except that I think you sort of change the subject in your third full paragraph. The question of (1) changing your teaching emphasis to suit the needs or demographics of your ward membership, or (2) the leeway the CHI gives leaders to exercise discretion in the application of rules in specific factual scenarios, is really a different question than (3) how we see what we want to see as we engage in interpretation of the texts we read. I see these as two, maybe three, separate topics.

    Aaron B

  12. I was in middle level management for a large finance company based out of Boston. There was a noticeable difference in new hires between those that had served missions and others who had their education. Not only did I notice it, but so did senior level management. I have an anecdotal story to illustrate my point.

    Senior management wanted to setup a mentor program for new hires, when I looked around the room of the managers that had been hand selected to become mentors, 6 out of 10 were Mormon. I thought that was very interesting considering in this particular division and location at best may be 5% were LDS.

    I have some examples to illustrate the education situation in Utah. I had two sons that started their first year of college in Utah Schools, Weber and UVSC. After their missions they finished their schooling in New Hampshire and Mass. One of them received a full scholarship to Harvard. (Just a mom bragging here).

    The leaders are inspired, I’ve seen it time and time again, the Mission does not replace an education, however it serves as a much better character builder then college alone.

  13. Two men holding priesthood office with access to inspiration and discernment can look at exactly the same sentence and come up with different answers.

    I’m not sure how much the powers of discernment and inspiration that come with a priesthood office apply to online discussion!

    #6: What about someone who receives divine inspiration to become a nurse or a police officer? Those sorts of careers are highly likely to interfere with church attendance. However, I suppose if it were something that would cause a person to miss church consistently for an extended period of time, it would be a little different…

  14. The Introduction to the CHI has one of the most clear statements on the purpose of the scriptures, the teachings of latter-day prophets, and the CHI itself:

    The Lord admonished, “Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence” (D&C 107:99).

    Church leaders should seek personal revelation to help them learn and fulfill the duties of the callings.

    Studying the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets will also help leaders learn their duties. As leaders treasure up the words of God, the Spirit will guide them in what to do and say (see D&C 84:85).

    Leaders also learn their duties by studying the instructions in Church handbooks. These instructions can facilitate revelation if they are used to provide an understanding of principles, policies, and procedures to apply when seeking the guidance of the Spirit. [emphasis mine/end of quote]

    Too bad we can be so afraid to try, and perhaps fail, in letting the Spirit be our guide (or in letting others try and fail) that policy reigns over inspiration. It’s wonderful to see exceptions to this (the Finnish music committee comes to mind), but conformity often seems more valued than attempts at personal revelation. Sadly, if we’re never encouraged or allowed to practice it in our callings, we’ll certainly never get better at it (or taste its fruits).

    CHI re-holstered.

  15. The scriptures tells us to live in such a way as to receive the Holy Ghost and when we do we have access to a perfect being. The answers we obtain are truth. However, accessing the HG is not always a matter of merely asking. Often, it takes struggling in the spirit to get an answer. If it were otherwise we would become lazy.

    Struggling in the spirit is not well understood in our day because we have many places we can go to obtain help to solve our problems, so we end up relying on the Lord only when we’re desperate. It’s when we turn to Him with a contrite heart that we start having our prayers answered.

    Hungering and thirsting after righteousness will allow us to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. But in prosperous circumstances, like we have in this generation, few church members arrive a the point where they are qualifying for the manifestions of the Spirit on the level the pioneers did. For the most part the pioneers had no other choice but to rely on the Lord and as a result they enjoyed the Holy Ghost and the gifts of the Spirit to a greater degree than we do today.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    My experience is that the vast majority of time we have two people _actually_ receiving revelation, it lends to at least a rough unity of idea and purpose. Or at least of feeling. Or else, it comes to unity after a process of mutual and continued revelation. The scripture has it ‘both are edified and rejoice together.’

    The problem we have is that somethings are nearly set in stone: thou shalt not commit adultery, for instance; while other things may be very very important but are malleable depending on individual circumstance: thou shalt get married and have children young, for instance. The perceived problem is magnified by the fact that we have people whose personal sensibilities lend them to prefer the set in stone, and to desire that everything be set in stone; and, also, we have many people whose sensibilities incline them to prefer the malleable, and to want everything to be as neas infinitely malleable as possible. But, the Iron Rod and the Liahona are metaphors representing different aspects of the same exact thing.

    Isn’t one of the primary challenges of life to resist our sensibilities and develop appreciations for what we’re not inclined to? Isn’t what the Iron Rod Mormon needs is more practice with the Liahona, and the Liahona Mormon more practice with the Iron Rod? And isn’t that a big part of the difficulty?


  17. It’s interesting and instructive to me that we have so many members who wish the CHI wasn’t so stinking restrictive and so many members who are are grateful the CHI is so amazingly non-restrictive. Yeah, Joseph was right – and “as far as it is translated correctly” starts within each of the minds of the authors, gets multiplied when recorded in confining text (BofM prophets repeating multiple times their frustration about not being able to write as they spoke) and spirals into orbit when processed by our own minds.

  18. Peter LLC says:

    If texts of any stripe were nearly as authoritative as their authors and adherents might suppose, an awful lot of white-collared, tasseled-loafered professional text-referrers would be out of a job.

    Sam B’s comment, for example, is revealing when he says that “there are some parts of the Code that are remarkably uncontroversial and clear,” which of course means [ha! as if anyone could make that claim] that others are not. I fear that “tortured selective- and mis-reading” is hardly limited to tax protesters and their ilk.

  19. It might be worthwhile at some point to try and figure out what the difference actually is between ‘interpreting’ and ‘wresting’ the scriptures (or other authoritative texts).

    I googled wresting the scriptures and one of the top links was right here at BCC:.

  20. Just a point of fact, the new edition of the CHI is in fact quite few pages thinner than the old one, which I take as being less restrictive, and more conducive to encouraging seeking revelation due in callings.

  21. My local leaders agree, having read the handbook, that it doesn’t indicate that MP holders should offer all the opening prayers in sacrament. However, having been instructed by visiting GAs that the “unwritten order” dictates following that practice, the stake president reduced this element of the “unwritten order” to writing in the form of an email to all the bishops. The bishops printed out the email, and placed a copy in their binders. They can refer to the email if questions arise. I’m still learning to read the handbook using the magical spectacles of the “unwritten order.”

  22. If the unwritten order of things is written anywhere, it is in the admonition from the CHI to seek inspiration in callings. Everything else is . . . I’ll stop there.

  23. It seems to me that more mundane questions can be settled relatively clearly by reference to Text (at least, in the tax law and where the Text is the Internal Revenue Code).

    Sam B, I would say that the mundane questions are only decided because communities of readers have dubbed them mundane. For example, the second amendment would be a mundane issue if the community of readers for whom the text was authoritative all practiced the right to bear arms in the same way, or at least similarly. When there are factions who differ in their received or accepted interpretation, the issue is far from mundane. Furthermore, there’s no way in the text to tell whether an issue will be mundane or not.

    In the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” example, there’s already a problem implied in the translation. What does “thou shalt not kill” apply to? Which contexts? The Hebrew word is ratzach, which doesn’t mean to kill (in the sense of ‘to cause to die’) but rather ‘to slay, murder’. Then the question arises, what does murder mean? Exodus 21 attempts to solve some of these issues in its articulation of conditions under which killing is permissible, or at least not requiring capital punishment.

  24. now that the gospel has answered life’s great questions we get to bicker over the details…