Your Sunday Brunch Special: How Might Mormons Reconcile Scriptural Scholarship with Inspiration?

It says Sunday, but obviously, Sunday is conference. And anyway, this, for whatever it may be worth, is best contemplated before that. Happy Conference!

The question of how faith and the scholarship of scripture interface is an old one, but it has a somewhat different meaning for Latter-day Saints. Partly this relates to the canon. For Mormons the canon is at least technically not closed. The rulebook may change. But another even more sensitive matter is the notion of consistency between revelations. It’s one thing to consider biblical inerrancy in the face of historic issues about text and theology. But since Joseph Smith’s publication of the Book of Mormon and his subsequent Bible revision work (1830-33), it has been apparent that Mormons are at least as sensitive to the charge of internal inconsistency as other Christians. They have even more at stake, and they are doubly vulnerable. Since Joseph Smith, Mormons have considered Christian liturgy and theology to be hidden within Old Testament times since Adam and Eve. Adam was baptized! The gospel has been the same for all time, and at least the elites of the Old Testament (Moses, Abraham) were actually Christians (not a unique position among Christians –1,600 years ago it was a way to marginalize Jews).

The issue of course, is a lack of evidence beyond nineteenth-century revelation. And where do we draw the line between Joseph Smith’s acquired views of the Bible (2nd Peter was authored by Peter?) and his revelations about the Bible (say, the book of Revelation). Does biblical scholarship, become irrelevant? It’s not that Mormons were ignorant of the problems. Mormon reticence about German text science has been in evidence for more than a century, and suspicion of Bible scholarship is heavily reflected in a continuing misguided loyalty to the King James Bible.

I don’t have a recipe for success. But, I will offer some thoughts. First, I think it may be helpful to begin with the Bible. A lot has been done with biblical texts since the “scientific” study of scripture by German schools in the nineteenth century. We might start there, to consider some models. But through the centuries most Christians have read (heard) the Bible not as an example(s) of literature but because they felt God inspired it, or it contained divine messages. Does, can, should, that belief change or judge a hermeneutic? And how does the view that scripture is a uniquely important element and embodies divine revelation affect interpretation?

Views of the malleability, permanence, infallibility, and rank of scripture in terms of guiding religious life have varied within and outside of Mormonism over centuries. By the twentieth century, Mormons began to settle into the position that new revelation was still possible, but if one did encounter it, it’s value and use had to be judged on the basis of what by then were called the “Standard Works” of the church. I think this prima scriptura idea is still a standard in Mormonism, probably championed most effectively by Joseph F. Smith and his son Joseph Fielding Smith, and it registers the overriding concern of consistency, a concern that allows scripture texts to be interrogated using creative assumptions that have no other purpose than the justification of effective inerrancy.[1]

So, where does inspiration enter the discussion of historical critique and what exactly does inspiration mean? Mormons haven’t thought too much about inspiration as dogma, but Protestants and Catholics have.[2] I’m going to follow the late Father Raymond Brown a bit now, and in number (4) below, I’ll quote him directly, since I think it’s an important formulation. Within the complex of questions about inspiration, revelation, and scripture lies the concept of what scripture is, itself. Protestant language about revelation and inspiration is sometimes very different from the freewheeling usage in Mormonism. Many Protestants see revelation as the salvific information contained in the Bible, not able to be discovered in any other way. Inspiration refers to the way in which that revelation was given: it was perfectly communicated without error. Revelation is the content, inspiration, the method. For Latter-day Saints, revelation and inspiration often refer simply to any divine communication itself, not just a subset of scripture, but that which may come by the Holy Spirit in daily life. And it is often seen as alloyed, possibly carrying a human component. That is only one view however, and it is sometimes more theoretical than actual. Many Mormons believe in the virtual surety of their “new” scripture, while the Bible may be corrupt or incomplete, particularly where it fails to cohere or subsume that new scripture. The field of belief is broad and the terminology can be confusing.

In any case, a summary might go like this:

(1) Most LDS won’t find themselves with this first one, but I intend to lay out some kind of spectrum of thought. There is the idea that inspiration in the scriptures is a merely a theological belief that has no validity. Much of the New Testament criticism that emerged in Germany at the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century was a reaction to traditional Christian theology (in particular to Lutheran theology). This reactionary view is still present and it appears in some scholarship that tends to counteract biblical literalism by debunking any special religious status for the New Testament. Christianity should be judged as a minor religious movement in the early Roman Empire. Naturally, things like the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith’s other revelations and preaching would be seen in essentially the same way, and connected to the New Testament and Hebrew Bible in terms of literary tradition rather than some divine continuation of revelation.

(2) Reference to inspiration of scripture may be seen as inappropriate in any scholarly study of the Scriptures. The fact that the Bible was produced by believers for believers and was preserved by believers to encourage belief is not a factor that should enter into its interpretation, except in social/literary senses perhaps. When passages that have theological import present difficulties, no appeal can be made to inspiration or any other religious factor (pronouncements of church leaders or traditional ideas, say) in interpreting them. Does inspiration become irrelevant here? Maybe.

It seems that theological difficulties may be opportunities to understand historical movements or cultural interactions, but can also require pastoral reckoning. Think of the current spate of essays being published by the LDS church. For those who have religious interest, it would probably not be met by (1) or (2).

(3) The literalist end of the spectrum of interpreters make divine inspiration so dominant that the limitations of the human writers of scripture become irrelevant, along with any scholarly interpretive schemes and historical contextualization. God knows all things and God communicates through the scriptures (and prophets). Therefore the scriptures respond to problems of all times, even those that the human authors never thought of—-by the Spirit. This stress on inspiration is often effectively connected with an understated idea of inerrancy whereby scriptural data relevant to scientific, historical, and religious issues is deemed infallible and unquestionable. For example, this might mean that all biblical literature, Genesis 1-2, the Flood, Jonah, Job, and so forth, is looked on as historical. Moreover any apparent contradictions, such as those between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, must be harmonized, and any questioning of such things whether in the Bible or other LDS scripture amounts to seeds of apostasy. This certainly approaches Joseph F. Smith’s view in part at least, though he was less precise about the Bible, which, as noted, has sometimes served as whipping boy for LDS commentators. This outlook on inspiration and inerrancy largely vitiates hermeneutical investigations comparable to those employed with other literature and seems to put an end to open inquiry.

(4) An intermediate position. Accept inspiration, both institutional and personal, seeing it as important for the interpretation of scripture, without removing the idea of human limitations in scriptural formation, but allowing God’s role as an author within those limitations.

Brown: “God who providentially provided for Israel a record of salvific history involving Moses and the prophets also provided for Christians a basic record of the salvific role and message of Jesus. Yet those who wrote down the Christian record were time-conditioned people of the 1st and early 2d century, addressing audiences of their era in the worldview of that period. They did not know the distant future. Although what they wrote is relevant to future Christian existence, their writing does not necessarily provide readymade answers for unforeseeable theological and moral issues that would arise in subsequent centuries. God chose to deal with such subsequent problems not by overriding all the human limitations of the biblical writers but by supplying a Spirit that is a living aid in ongoing interpretation.”[3] I don’t think it takes much to fit this into a Mormon worldview, but let’s go on.

Any kind of formal declaration about what scripture means or does will always run up against the question of how that meaning is to be identified or determined. How are we to separate the human from the divine within holy writ? That may be unanswerable, even if (or because!) we allow for prophetic intervention.

Since the Reformation, and for Latter-day Saints almost since the dawn of the Restoration, two competing guides have existed. One is that the Spirit or conscience guides the individual reader of scripture into truth, the “private interpretation” of scripture. The other is that the Spirit supplies guidance through the institution. Each has difficulties. Private interpretation seems to face the inevitable disagreement between interpreters, and not every spirit is from God (see Joseph Smith’s almost obsessive quest to give Mormons ways to distinguish between them) but how does one know which spirit is from God? For denominations that have emerged over time, traditions of various kinds have been adopted to control, curb, or guide the effect and value of private interpretation. Creeds, Confessions of Faith, Articles and Covenants, have had a role in regulating or even repudiating private interpretation. It is easier for the institution to simply outlaw the declaration of private inspiration that impacts the institution, while admitting such inspiration that lies within the boundary of institutional teaching, interpretation, praxis, even though such may change over time. Thus, the institution is allowed to evolve, and the boundaries of private interpretation must evolve with it.

Given that most Latter-day Saints see scripture as deeply effecting their lives and their immediate and ultimate destinies, position (4) may have the greatest following among those interested in the religious implications of scripture while allowing for the impact of scholarship. The role of logic and the practice of proof-texting—-collapsing the meaning of one passage onto another is one thing at issue. A much more nuanced outlook is suggested by (4), interpretation is not to be wholly determined by public or private tradition. The gate must be open to allow new as well as old scripture to be subject to context, and in that context, see space for different meanings in different texts (and that may free Mormons from slavish devotion to the KJV?). That context must be religious, cultural, scientific, and political at least. The difficulty this brings for Mormons is the place of institutional positioning. Scholarship could never (except perhaps indirectly) dictate the prophetic voice, but the institution should have some fairly broad flexibility in its apprehension and use of that scholarship. Charity on all sides must be the guide, I think.

[1] The ground is covered well in Phillip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (revised ed.) (New York: Oxford UP, 2013).

[2] A short summary with clear explanations from the Protestant viewpoint is Kern Robert Trembath, Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration: A Review and Proposal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[3] Raymond Edward Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament Anchor Bible Reference Library. See chapter 2b.


  1. Excellent post.
    “I don’t think it takes much to fit this into a Mormon worldview, but let’s go on.”
    I dunno, I’ve been wrestling in the comments over at Times&Seasons .

    That comment by Brown is a winner.

  2. I suppose this was optimistic. My own opinion is that a wide range of interpretation is possible, but I’m not sure what the boundaries would be there. What lines must be drawn for what?