Do you know any Bible Dictionary literalists? Folks who take the BD as the gospel truth?
When the topic of prayer comes up I expect someone to dutifully turn to our BD, which makes a very interesting (and sometimes even useful) claim about prayer, essentially that the purpose of prayer is to align ourselves with God’s will, rather than to convince God to do something we want. I call it “sometimes” useful because I think there’s much more that can be said about prayer from an LDS standpoint, and to the extent the BD ties a person to such a narrow position I don’t find it useful at all. In the words of Phillip Barlow: “many [BD] entries are not purely attempts to convey the biblical meaning of a concept but conscious expressions of modern Mormon theology” (Mormons and the Bible [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 210).
I’m anti-literalist especially when it comes to the BD, (and the other add-on scripture study apparatuses like chapter headings, footnotes, etc. collectively called “Study Helps“). Since I’m just a regular dude it’s nice to have a little authoritative back-up when necessary. So here are a few quotes you can print up on little scraps of paper and glue into your already-bulging quads which direct us away from strict BD literalism.
From the BD itself:
“[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth. Many of the items have been drawn from the best available scholarship of the world and are subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation. The topics have been carefully selected and are treated briefly. If an elaborate discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.”
—LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, “Introduction,” 599.
Robert J. Matthews, the late BYU professor of Ancient Scripture, who directed the creation of the BD (see Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Church Publishes First LDS Edition of the Bible”, Ensign, Oct. 1979, 9). His 1982 Ensign article introducing the new BD basically repeats the BD intro:
The new Bible dictionary is not intended as a revealed treatment or official version of doctrinal, historical, cultural, chronological, and other matters found in the Bible. Much of the information has been drawn from nonscriptural scholarly sources and will be subject to reevaluation as new discoveries or additional revelation may require. The topics are treated briefly and in an introductory rather than a definitive way, so that the dictionary could be used by the average reader as well as the more serious student or teacher. If an in-depth discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.
—Robert J. Matthews, “Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition,” Ensign (June 1982), 47.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another member of the Scriptures Publications Committee, explicitly declares the fallibility of the BD and other scriptural helps:
“[Regarding the] Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazeteer, and the maps. None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only.”
—Bruce R. McConkie, cited in Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 289–290.
Of course, these quotes don’t specifically address the additional and sticky issue of “official doctrine.” The Study Helps are part of the printed Standard Works. Interestingly, the “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” statement doesn’t include the Study Helps in its parenthetical description of what constitutes our “Standard Works.” If people insist on including them anyway, we still have the above quotes which accord well with our oft-understated view of the fallibility of scripture.
A few fun things to say to fellow members while discussing these quotes:
- Did you know the Bible Dictionary was patterned after a Cambridge University Bible dictionary?
- Have you heard about the time Elder McConkie said the Study Helps aren’t “official doctrine”?
- Have you ever consulted a more exhaustive Bible dictionary, like the BD’s preface suggests?
William J. Mortimer, “LDS Publication of the Bible,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
BYUtv, “That Promised Day: The Coming Forth of the LDS Scriptures” —Documentary describing the work of the Scriptures Publications Committee.
Nitsav, “OTFTW 1: Out of the best books,” faithpromotingrumor.org, November 25, 2009. —One of many FPR discussions about great scripture study resources you probably won’t find at Deseret Book.