The Attraction of the Familiar: Scriptural Revelation

The notion that “all the answers are found in the scriptures” is an idea I’ve heard expressed in the church on many levels and times. I think this and some variations on it are commonly stated themes in assorted Church settings.[1] We can even find this kind of anchor text belief about just the Book of Mormon alone. It’s all you need.

The idea sneaks into our hymn book in another fashion.

This sound familiar at all?

It is my belief that there has never been a system which, in all its minutiae, will so well bear the light when brought to the law and the testimony. It is only for us to adhere closely to the doctrines and principles of Mormonism, and never, I imagine, shall we find ourselves in a dilemma where we may not extricate ourselves by a reference to the Standard Works.

I think it expresses the feelings of a large fraction of the Latter-day Saints. Implicit in that is the oft stated idea regarding movements evolving from the charismatic to the institutional. It has something to do with a kind of cautious cessationism.[2] This idea is not really “Correlation” — the latter may emerge from it however. But now I have to admit my deception, and the reason for the title of this post. The quote above is actually one from Phoebe Palmer a circa 1840s Methodist of some prominence in New York City, and here is the unadulterated version:

It is my belief that there has never been a system which, in all its minutiae, will so well bear the light when brought to the law and the testimony. It is only for us to adhere closely to the doctrines and principles of Methodism, and never, I imagine, shall we find ourselves in a dilemma where we may not extricate ourselves by a reference to the Bible. [Phoebe Palmer, letter, 30 May 1850.]

We would be quick to add in the guidance of the Holy Spirit here, but we should not think that idea is unique to Mormonism. Of course Palmer is a little more rigid perhaps, claiming a kind of interpretive omniscience reminiscent of Walter Scott or the Campbells (the Bible interprets itself – in a sense, we have co-opted this wonderful circularity in our own way – you know, each book of scripture explains the others – new revelation won’t conflict with old, etc.[3]). Deviation from holy writ requires the kind of assurance that Mormons might assign to Church leaders (Elder Oaks’ recent address.).

In 1918, President Joseph F. Smith expressed considerable reticence over the issue of introducing “new doctrine,” raising a firewall around whatever Mormon doctrine might be, in regard to making any kind of formal additions (or corrections – and – perhaps a tiny bit of regret over some of the 19th century speculative ventures).[4]

Recent statements suggest an almost closed, possibly oscillating, system.[5]

Running counter to this perhaps or at least in some tension with it is the article of faith: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Beyond organizational changes (quorums of seventy) and your ward split, what could be in the pipe before the “great and dreadful day?”

According to Joseph Smith, “When any person receives a vision of Heaven, he sees things that he never thought of before.”[6]

[1] Here’s Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1981 training meeting):

The answers to nearly all important doctrinal questions are found in the standard works or in the sermons and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. If they are not found in these sources, they probably are not essential to salvation and may well be beyond our present spiritual capacity to understand. . . This is one of the reasons we call our scriptures the standard works. They are the standards of judgment and the measuring rod against which all doctrines and views are weighed, and it does not make one particle of difference whose views are involved. The scriptures always take precedence.

Brigham might have disagreed, I think.

[2] This form of “cessation,” a kind of public cessation, has been more gradual, punctuated by things like OD2, taking steps forward with the formalization of liturgy. This mild sola scriptura was present in early Mormonism and in natural tension with Mormon restorationism. [See for example JD 10:339-340 and Kirtland Council Minute Book, Aug. 19, 1834; also JSP:PR,xxxiii-xxxvi.]

[3] McConkie again: “The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of any other person. Paul and James did not have differing views on faith and works, and everything that Alma said about the Resurrection accords with section 76 in the Doctrine and Covenants. When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved. The Lord expects us to seek for harmony and agreement in the scriptures and among the Brethren rather than for seeming divergences of views. Those who have faith and understanding always seek to harmonize into one perfect whole all the statements of the scriptures and all the pronouncements of the Brethren. The unfortunate complex in some quarters to pounce upon this bit of information or that and conclude that it is at variance with what someone else has said is not of God.” This statement is surely at the extreme of “Mormon” hermeneutics. This may be more realistic.

[4] Improvement Era 21 (June 1918) pp. 571-573. Irony prevailed with the canonization of his narrative of a spiritual experience the same year. (Now D&C 138).

[5] On this whole question in the context of American Protestantism see Sam MB’s review of David Holland’s recent book.

[6] Statement appears in Willard Richard’s little record book (“pocket companion”) and was probably made sometime in July 1839.


  1. Coffinberry says:

    To go with footnote three, check out the second verse of Hymn # 22.

  2. Very good, Coffinberry. Go to the head of the class.

  3. Chris Gordon says:

    Took me a bit after reading through all your citations to remember what your actual talking point was. (What could be in the pipe?) Awesome points, by the way.

    I’d say that on a macro level there’s a lot to be revealed about events leading up to the Second Coming and the logistics surrounding that [insert comment about the Rapture or moving to Missouri here]. There are a large group of folks hoping for increased guidance from the Lord regarding gender and sexuality.

    On a personal level, the sky’s the limit for each of us. We’re entitled to knowledge of the mysteries and I think that the scriptures, if they don’t contain the literal answers to any question worth answering, they are definitely the source of that answer insofar as they are the Lord’s chosen mechanism for driving the prayer, pondering, and reflecting necessary to obtain answers through the Spirit.

  4. #4 “All books become potential sources for living your best life.” Nice point, well stated.

  5. Great post, WVS. Your editorial note on footnote 1 could imply that Mormon “originalists” are those that most expect evolution in the doctrine and organization of the church. That’s a fun twist.

  6. To an extent there are several things that can be found in the scriptures beyond the messages they contain, given they are mostly a collection of written narratives of messages given to a non-literate people.

    First they function as a projective rorschach ink blot. [a projective one is one where the source is able to transmit vs. a receptive one where the person looking sees a reflection of themselves]. That is, the Spirit can reach through them to teach us.

    Second they allow for strong projections — that is, most people who read the scriptures diligently will encounter times when they read passages or books not found found in the printed texts.

    Both of these illustrate that the scriptures are not complete, but that God can use them to make them complete for us.

  7. I had trouble finding your reference #4. Are you perhaps referring to “Status of Children in the Resurrection” in the May issue?

  8. Jared* yes that’s it. Sorry about the date error.

  9. Josh B. says:

    I find the scriptures are a lot like spaghetti code. In the computer world, writing this type of code means that one line is dependent on a completely different piece of code, and so on, and so on, until soon you have a big jumbled bowl of one line (principle) dependent on many other principles. Thus, the scriptures can be used to prove anything. As a missionary, any of you play the game where you try to relate a random idea to the scriptures? Sewer holes? Pink flamingoes? Charity, to prayer, to blessings, to missionary work, to…

    I guess the spirit will have to tell me what to get out of the scriptures. Otherwise, I can sit there and ‘translate’ it multiple times for fun into something unrelevant, relevant, and everything inbetween.

    I imagine interpretation will experience eternal change.

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