No death before the rye

The ‘Galileo affair’ is often replayed as a morality tale about irrational religion vs. enlightenment science. The truth is that it was a little more complex than that. Galileo was a firm believer in God. He was a good Catholic in fact. He believed the church was true. However, he ran afoul of the Pope in some, well, not to put too fine a point on it, ways that he should have seen coming. First, Galileo had come to the conclusion that the scriptures could not be taken literally on some things. For example, the implication, the Sun moves around the Earth, in Joshua’s big battle scene, our man Galileo felt like was an example of a doctrine he called ‘accommodation’. This was the idea that God spoke to people in a way that made sense to them during the age in which they lived. If they believed the Earth was the center of the universe, then the Lord just used that imagery and metaphor when he reveled truths about salvation to his children. Holy cow, Galileo, hought, how could the Lord explain anything about salvation if he had to catch them up on all the facts of the universe first (Ok, maybe he didn’t say ‘holy cow’)! Galileo felt that in matters of salvation the scriptures were to be interpreted literally, but in matters of fact they had to be reconciled to the findings of empirical observation. Thus, if the scriptures were out of line with the facts of the world the scripture had to be reinterpreted in that new light. Trouble was that this thinking was at the same time as the Protestants were claiming that scriptures were to be interpreted by the individual through the spirit. The Holy Roman Church, however, was defending their view that they had sole claim for interpretation of the written Word of God. Galileo was sliding a little close to the wrong side of the fence from the Church’s point of view. Then, to top it off, he wrote a book that was supposed to be a fair treatment of the Ptolemaic perspectives (Earth Centered) and the Copernican (Sun Centered) system. He had three interlocutors one from each view and a character who represented a common sense everyman. Trouble was his Ptolemaic actor was named Simplicio, and actually contained dialogue that the Pope had used in conversation with Galileo years before. Whoops. So the Pope is fighting those blasted Protestants about who gets to say what about scripture and Galileo is off saying the facts get to interpret it and then to top it off his Holiness get’s made fun of? Sheesh. Galileo was lucky to keep his head.

So the question at hand is ‘Who do we (LDS) say gets to interpret scripture?’ For example, some interpret this scripture from Alma 12:23:

23 And now behold, I say unto you that if it had been possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death, and the word would have been void, making God a liar, for he said: If thou eat thou shalt surely die.

to mean that there is “no death before the fall” literally and that all of modern biology and geology are in error.

So who gets to say what that scripture means? Are we more like the Catholics, Protestants, or Galileo? I’ve written a dialogue to unpack this a bit:

    Simplicio: I say it is the church alone.
    Naivecio: I say it is the individual.
    Virtues: I say it must be reconciled with the observations in the world and that the other two play an essential role.

For a small one-act play I think that was as fair and balanced as one can be. In any case, what is the opinion of the blog-world hoi polloi on this?

But first let me weigh in with a story: When I was in graduate school I had the most humble and wonderful bishop. He also happened to be a faculty member in a University Department of Poultry Science (and yes there are such things). We were all sitting in Sunday School and the women giving the lesson was laying out a rather strident literalist reading of the Word of Wisdom. He suddenly raised his hand (which was very rare) and said simply, “You can’t take it literally, rye is poisonous to fowl.” She was stunned (You know, because it says pretty straight up—‘rye for the fowl’). Now I suppose there are yet people out there who are going to say, “If you had faith you would feed your chickens rye and the Lord will fix it so they can digest it. It’s your lack of faith that your chickens are all scrawny little light-weights when fed on rye (Science note: When a poultry scientist says poisonous they mean ‘not good for’—what you mean by ‘poisonous’ is a matter of perspective when your goal is to get plump fryers). But the bottom line is, despite Section 89, feeding your fowls rye is a really bad idea if healthy chickens and turkeys are your goal. Here a literalist reading and empirical poultry science go head-to-head—with the literalists losing their Thanksgiving feast. I think the whole ‘death before the fall’ is another case of ‘feeding chickens rye’. There are important meanings in that scripture that get at deep spiritual truths, just like section 89 does, but they might not be the simple ones you grab in a superficial fast-pass literalist reading.

So my question again is who gets to interpret scripture? And please, don’t turn this into a long litany of examples of where the literalists get things wrong or an argument about evolution, this is strictly about who gets to interpret scripture. Bring examples up if they shed light on the question, but let’s not turn it into a comments fest just on the failings of literalist scripture readings (as abundant as those may be).


  1. Gerald Smith says:

    Excellent points and question. I would say that in LDS view, everyone interprets scripture. The prophet and General Authorities are the generalists: establishing the key/core doctrines for us to follow.
    Then, we as individuals are the specialists in determining how the scriptures and GA guidelines specifically fit into our lives.
    I think you’ll find this sentiment reflected in the Church Handbook of Instructions, Teaching No Greater Calling, etc. Often the answer given by the General Authorities to bishops and individuals is: go pray about it and see what the Spirit tells YOU.
    In the past, there have been some GAs who have attempted to canonize their personal views of the scriptures/doctrine (JFS, BRM, ETB, etc), but the general flow of the Church has always returned to personal revelation for the specifics.

  2. The best part of Alma 12:23 is that it is itself an interpretation of scripture. Authorised, perhaps, but still not inerrant.

    Good post.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:



    I think the best answer to the ‘who gets to?’ question is that it is a complicated process with a mixture of prophetic authority, a pinch of tradition, a heap of personal inspiration, a dash of scholarship, and a big lump of humility.

  4. I don’t see a lot of interpretation of scripture beyond the personal level. I do see some at the “Church” level. But even most of that is subject to reinterpretation, at the personal level. At the “Church” level the Word of Wisdom’s prohibition against “strong drinks” and “hot drinks” means alcoholic drinks and coffee and tea. But then we start to personally reinterpret what “tea” means.

  5. I don’t think that Mormonism has a problem with who gets to interpret scripture. From Joseph Smith himself the answer is you and the Spirit, with the leaders of the Church as inspired guides. I think the larger question, even starting back with Joseph Smith again, has always been what happens when interpretations conflict?

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Both Bruce R. McConkie and Dallin H. Oaks have said that personal scripture reading is important because it is the key to personal revelation. They suggest that what is important is not so much the text on the page, but what the Holy Spirit reveals to us as we read. Based on that model, it is ALL personal revelation. It also brings to mind the image of a triple combination as a seer stone.

  7. I drink my hot chocolate hot and my tea cool.

    I interpret my scriptures without Mormon Doctrine in hand.

    I wonder about hidden agendas in other’s interpretations.

    I see cultural-specific interpretations taken as commandments.

    How much of my understanding of God comes from someone else’s interpretation?

    Who would God be if I had to make my own discovery?

    I drum on the Sabbath with a djembe and friends. No interpretation of any kind should be entered into until after the drumming session.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    I am not sure that the question “who gets to” is quite answerable yet, because we are still wrestling with the notion of what interpreting scripture means in an LDS context, and this question is inexorably tied to questions of “what is doctrine,” “what is authority,” etc. that are among the slipperiest of Mormon notions.

  9. We get to interpret scripture just like we do general conference talks. There could be dangerous ground here but when an honest person in tune with the spirit interprets scripture then I feel this meets with divine approval.

    We had a stake conference a few weeks ago and Elder Malme visited us. He stated that through the duration of his talk that we may well feel the spirit. He hoped this would be the case. He went on to say that we will all feel it differently as those feelings are tailored to us as human beings gaining further understanding. Not only that but the messages will be different from person to person that need to be applied to their own lives and own levels of understanding. I found this interesting and feel it reflects the question of scripture interpretation too.

  10. This is a great question. Yes, we are supposed to read for ourselves and gain our own truth and knowledge, but at the same time, there are certain passages in scripture that are universally taught and explained in a certain way. If your perception differs from what’s universally accepted in the Church, is that okay? What if your interpretation differs from what your Church leaders think?

    Here’s a different example from the same discourse in Alma. The idea that high priests are “foreordained” and “prepared from the foundation of the world” has always rubbed me the wrong way, but the only explanation I’ve ever received for Alma 13 has been that anyone who is called to the high priests’ quorum is one of this category. However, after reading this passage over and over for the past few weeks, I’ve realized that’s bunk. I believe the _priesthood_ was foreordained and prepared from the foundation of the world, not the high priests themselves. I don’t want to threadjack with my explanation, but I can imagine the shouting that would ensue if I stood up in Gospel Doctrine class and suggested that I didn’t agree with them on this point.

    What if the Sunday School Prez and the Bishop quietly pull me aside and say, “Now, Sister, this is what it says in the scriptures, that’s what it means.” Am I under any obligation to accept their authoritative interpretation? I don’t think so. However, what do you say to all the well-meaning adults who pull you aside and attempt to explain it to you “correctly”?

    My point is, yes, we are supposed to get our own personal revelation. But at the same time, there are invisible limits, defined by general Church membership and also by our leaders, to what you can figure out on your own.

  11. What’s interesting to me is that most of the comments so far (1,4,5,6,7) seem to embrace a strong dose of personal interpretation but jettboy #5 is correct in there seems to be a lot of conflict. Everyone uses scripture to proof text their view and if I answer ‘I interpret it differently’ I’m told I’m wrong (and believe me I am called wrong a lot by literalists). We also, draw on authoritative interpretations heavily. Pick up a Sunday School manual and you’ll see it clearly. And I, like smwaters #7 see much cultural context for much of it. Mark #6, we are told that we should use scripture for personal revelation but I get the feeling they mean revelation for navigating life rather then hermeneutics. Can we use it to escape established meanings?

    I like Julie’s comment on humility. DBFRonan-I’m with you.

  12. In response to #11, we probably all agree that personal revelation should get precedence and that it’s okay to have a differing opinion. However, that’s not how it works in practice, and that bothers me.

    Can we use it to escape established meanings? Only privately. Publicly, no, probably not.

  13. …But then we start to personally reinterpret what “tea” means.

    To heck with tea, once I read the section about “mild barley drinks” I knew that I’d found my loophole! :)

  14. I think a lot of it comes down to personal interpretation. #8 I think had some good points also. There is a lot of confusion when it comes to LDS views on things. There is a lot of contradiction between LDS thought, and views. I think a lot of it comes down to personal interpretation. Which also leads to praying about doctrine to see how you feel about it.

    If you grow spiritually, mentally, or however from a scripture, I think that however you are interpreting it is good for you. It may vary between persons, but different people act and believe differently, and may need to hear different things at specific situations. (I hope that made sense). And so, they interpret differently, or feel differently about a passage then someone else.

    I think the gospel should be applied on an individual level. Of course you can learn and grow, and understand things better because of another’s opinion, but it should be applied personally.

  15. Opps #10,11 yes! That’s my experience as well. There do seem to be right and wrong ways to use our ‘revelation’. The invisible limits are what I would like to see drawn out.

  16. Cap #14: What you’re saying works for something like the word of wisdom. However, most Church members these days are tolerant of other interpretations, even if they don’t agree with them. But that’s not the sort of thing Steve is talking about.

    Let’s apply what you’re saying to my situation. So I read Alma 13 and I receive personal revelation that high priests themselves are NOT foreordained. How should I “apply it personally”? This is strictly a matter of interpretation, like Galileo’s story, that doesn’t really have much to do with my personal spiritual welfare other than the fact that I read and prayed to get my answer, which is beneficial to me in other ways. I’m not the sort of person to get on a soapbox in Sunday School and try to convince everybody openly that they’re wrong, but if they did get into a deep, extensive discussion about how cool it is that priests were foreordained to hold the priesthood, and perhaps I see a few others in the class squirming a little, then I might want to raise my hand and suggest that there are alternative interpretations. There’s no way the staunch traditionalists in the class would let that fly.

  17. Adam Greenwood says:

    What’s the non-literal meaning of giving rye to chickens? Or of no death before the fall, for that matter?

  18. I’m still trippin’ on the “rye is bad for fowl” part. How was that never pointed out to me all these years? Great post!

    As for your main question: I’ve been thinking about a related question ever since J Stapley pointed me to some posts on his blog. The problem: even when/if you decide to rely on authority, what do you do when two or more authorities disagree? Do certain modern prophets trump other modern prophets?

  19. I’ve always thought that my idea of the fall being our literal fall from our immortal first estate to this mortal second estate side stepped all of those obnoxious issues quite nicely.

    I’ve never really heard NDBF Gary argue against my version of the fall.

  20. I think a variation of that Jeff is likely correct.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    I think it’s largely individual, although we’re often faced with received understandings in the Church. So then it becomes a question of whether you’re content to understand a passage your way, or whether you want to proselytize other Saints to your point of view. If you want to do the latter, any personal revelation you feel you received is out of bounds, because it’s binding on no one but yourself. So then I think it becomes a matter of persuasion, of how well you are able to articulate your view and punch holes in the received wisdom.

    Take the widespread notion in the Church that D&C 20:1 should be a revelation of the exact date Jesus was born in mortality: 6 April 1 B.C. I’ve never read the scripture that way and think it’s a very lazy and ill-informed reading of the passage. No problem.

    But then one day when I was teaching GD class just before Christmas I expressed this view from the front of the room as a teacher. And hoo boy, did all hell break loose. People who usually are just dozing and nodding off sprang to life, and we immediately had a very lively debate, in which I was outnumbered basically the whole class to one.

    If we determine the truth by GA poker, my hand (a couple of minor, non-apostle GAs over the years) was clearly a loser (the other hand boasting some big names, including prophets). If we determine the truth by LDS scholar poker, I had a much stronger hand (based on a sort of debate of this issue that took place in the pages of BYU Studies). But putting the traditional Mormon poker aside, I just plain articulated my position as well as I was able. I think I won some converts to my point of view that day, but certainly a majority of the class was not convinced, even though to me it seems like a slam dunk.

    Which is to say in practice if you want others to accept your point of view the answer to your question isn’t so easy.

  22. Kevin,
    On the brightside, I guess you could e grateful that your class cared enough and/or was listening closely enough to want to cause all hell to break loose.

  23. My other Brother Jones says:

    Regarding invisible limits…
    I think there are limits that seem vague to us. But the point is not to run around the edge of the pasture to define where they are. If you are trying to get to the very heart of the pasture where the good stuff is (and the doctrine is more clear), then the exact nature of the limits do not matter so much.

  24. #23 What if one’s profession is to repair the fences? Evolutionary biologists are forced to confront the holes in the fences daily. Eating in the center while the cows wander off is sometimes not a good idea.

    Keven #21. Great story. First no Christmas on April 6th and you can’t feed your chickens rye. It’s been a hard day for some.

    #17, 18, 19 What’s important to me here is not so much a given interpretation as much as there are possibilities. Keeping open central tenants of faith in face of empirical accumulating evidence is really going to take openness, humility and a willingness to entertain new ideas and interpretation.

    #17 ‘What’s the non-literal meaning of giving rye to chickens?’

    It’s a metaphor for how much more the Lord likes insects than birds.

  25. Rye is poisonous to chickens? That’s like a Copernican revolution.

    I can’t seem to find evidence for it online. Anybody got a link? I have someone I want to go hit on the head with it.

  26. re:25 This is from the introduction to the paper “Influence of Enzymes on Performance and Digestive Parameters
    of Broilers Fed Rye-Based Diets” by R. La´zaro et al. 2003. Poultry Science 82:132–140. You can link to it here:$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed

    “The use of rye in poultry diets is limited because of its
    negative effects on bird performance. The reduction of productivity is related, at least in part, to the high viscosity of digesta content produced by rye feeding, which reduces the probability of endogenous enzymes meeting the substrate, impairing digestibility of dietary nutrients and increasing the incidence of sticky droppings. The increase of intestinal viscosity is due to the presence of water-soluble nonstarch polysaccharides (NSP). Scoles et
    al. (1993) and Ragaee et al. (2001b) in studies in vitro and
    Bedford et al. (1991) in studies in vivo have demonstrated
    that with rye the increase in viscosity is due to the high
    molecular weight fraction of soluble NSP.”

  27. Re: 25 Try this link.$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed

    I just tried to post the introduction but it didn’t let me. The birds can’t digest the xylan and rye makes the “intestinal viscosity” too high.

  28. Why aren’t any of my comments getting through?

  29. Except that one, it seems?

  30. Or this one

  31. Or maybe we shouldn’t be eating fat chickens.

  32. My other Brother Jones says:

    Re #24
    In a gospel sense, we should all be in the center. Try to wrest the scriptures to make them say something you want them to say, or worrying too much about details that are not central to the center of the pasture is not productive.

    My father referred to the question about whether the Pearly Gates swing or roll. Similar idea. Regardless of the answer, the things I have to do today to keep progressing are unchanged.

    …and as far as wandering cows go, they need to be brought to the center, and this is about where the metaphor falls apart.

  33. I believe strongly in the combination of private interpretation and public doctrine – and I couldn’t care less that they can collide if put on the same track. I try to minimize the crashes by making it very clear that what I am saying is only my own opinion, but when a crash does occur in an actual church meeting I almost always back out before it gets into a full-fledged debate. I just don’t think that is the time and place for debate.

    Sparring on-line with R. Gary, otoh . . .

  34. Ray, expound on what you mean by “the combination of private interpretation and public doctrine”, please (#32). I’ve been wondering about this a lot. We have a very clearly articulated line of authority in the Church that can pass down doctrinal statements, but at the same time we’re told to obtain our own personal revelation, which often conflicts. You sound like you’ve figured it out.

  35. RE link in #28

    Measuring the viscosity of digesta content in poultry has got to be a job only a grad student would do.

  36. Elder Nelson says in footnote 24 of his October 2000 conference address :

    “As any good thing can be misused, a word of warning may be appropriate. The scriptures don’t have the answers to every question. Many important truths have yet to be revealed. Preoccupation with the so-called “mysteries” should be avoided. Beware also of private interpretation. Look to the living prophets and official policies for interpretation. ”

    See also:
    Elder Spencer W. Kimball : “There are those today who seem to take pride in disagreeing with the orthodox teachings of the Church and who present their own opinions which are at variance with the revealed truth. Some may be partially innocent in the matter; others are feeding their own egotism; and some seem to be deliberate. Men may think as they please, but they have no right to impose upon others their unorthodox views. Such persons should realize that their own souls are in jeopardy” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1948, 109).


  37. #33 – I really don’t care much about the details, since I believe we all see through our individual glasses, darkly. Since I don’t care much about the details, I feel totally free to try to figure out what I personally believe about any particular question, issue, principle, “doctrine”, scriptural story, etc. – while simultaneously accepting that there might be a more appropriate conclusion for the collective body of the Church, for many reasons. As an “absolute Truth”, I don’t care if one or more is “correct”; I only care if neither one is detrimental in and of itself.

    I don’t mean by that to say that my personal belief is right and the collective presentation is wrong. I am completely open to the possibility that I might be wrong in the end 90% of the time. I don’t really care, because in that end I will have done the absolute best I could to figure it out (spiritually and intellectually) and live by my limited light. I believe that as long as I am true to both what I believe personally and what the Church teaches publicly, I will be fine – even if that means I swallow my pride occasionally and refuse to push my individual interpretation on others when they are willing to accept the collective standard/doctrine.

    If you want the more detailed version, I wrote the following post a few months ago:

    The Bright Night of My Soul

  38. Steve P in 24,

    I think you are exactly right. The primary objection to my version of the fall is that it isn’t explicitly taught by the church leaders. That’s true, but it isn’t taught against either. And the same can probably be said for any number of theories which I haven’t heard of yet. This whole train of thought seems to undermine Gary’s arguments.

  39. Since joining the high priests group the main thing I have learned is these guys are old and don’t like much of any thing. They also have a way of repeating one idea 40 different ways. I use lots of Tylenol. I would hate to think that the church is reliant my group for anything beyond our own salvation as individuals

    I do think that it is too easy to get literal with scriptures. I also like the GA poker idea. I have always heard that it is possible to prove almost any point of view with statistics the same is true with scriptures. The scriptures are a great tool but only one of many given to us to guide us.

    I am glad to see most people are leaning toward self interpretation. We are judged as individuals and we grow as individuals we should find what we need individually from scripture and other good books.

  40. Mild barley drinks have really helped my self-interpretation tonight… *burp*

  41. So my question again is who gets to interpret scripture?

    As long as I am judged for my own actions I and only I get to interpret scripture (for myself of course).

    I firmly believe that not everyone must trod the same path in the same way at the same point in life. We must open ourselves up to being lead by God (not the arm of flesh) therefore two (or more people) may read a scripture (or witness an event – perhaps conference) and be lead in different directions – and neither direction is “wrong” if both are listening to God.