The Word of God

When Joseph Smith was explaining our faith’s beliefs to John Wentworth, he wanted to point out that we believe in the Bible, but that he felt it had errors.  After all, he was working on a new translation of it.  He said:

8 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Literal and historical

But what does this mean exactly?  Given that Mormonism teaches that Christianity has essentially been the same from the dawn of time including before Christ (although under the Law of Moses), there is an inherent historical literalness implied, a belief that the events of ancient Israel are essentially like modern Israel (Mormonism).  The loophole provided in the 8th Article of Faith is explicitly around translation errors.  It also doesn’t include the Book of Mormon, as if the possibility of translation errors (or abridgment errors) wasn’t considered.

God didn’t write it

There are only two stories of God actually authoring something directly:  the ten commandments and the writing on the temple wall.  When it comes to scripture, there is always a human author holding the pen, whether translating, interpreting, abridging, narrating, or authoring.  Where does the word of God begin and the interpretation of the human end?

Jesus as “The Word”

In the late-addition poem at the beginning of the book of John, it says [1]:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. 

So when we use the shorthanded phrase “The Word of God” to refer to scripture, perhaps we should bear in mind that scripture is just the finger pointing to the moon (Jesus), not the moon itself. Perhaps we should simply be following Jesus and looking to Him as our example of how to bring light into the world. In the poem, Jesus is literally the Word of God.

The Word as Power

Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, talks about the power of one’s “word,” as the way we interact with the world, the way we affect the lives of others for better or for worse.

Be Impeccable With Your Word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Ruiz explains that when people misuse the Word, it is usually because they incorrectly understand reality, not seeing people, themselves or situations for who or what they really are. If so, God’s Word is His way of interacting with humankind, and His understanding of humanity is correct and complete, unlike ours. We see through a glass darkly, but He sees us face to face. If Jesus is the Word, Jesus is also God’s way of interacting with humankind, the place where divine and human meet, and where God’s intentions toward us are made manifest. Jesus embodies God’s power and his intentions.

Is the word of God ineffable?

Language is always imprecise because language is used to describe language.  It is circular and self-referential.  It is an implicit agreement between a set of signifiers, each of which is only defined by other signifiers.  It is inherently imprecise and fluid.

Derrida quotes Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.”

If language is problematic enough for human discourse, what are the human limits to express the divine?  We are taught that some of the words that Jesus prayed could not be recorded.  In 3 Nephi 19 we read:

32 And tongue cannot speak the words which he prayed, neither can be written by man the words which he prayed.  33 And the multitude did hear and do bear record; and their hearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed.  34 Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man.

Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth discusses with Bill Moyer the impossibility of expressing the divine:

CAMPBELL:  We want to think about God.  God is a thought.  God is a name.  God is an idea.  But its reference is to something that transcends all thinking.  The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought.  As Kant said, the thing in itself is no thing.  It transcends thingness.  It goes past anything that could be thought.  The best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about.  The third best are what we talk about.  And myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.

MOYERS:  What can’t be known or named except in our feeble attempt to clothe it in language.

CAMPBELL:  The ultimate word in our English language for that which is transcendent is God.  But then you have a concept, don’t you see?  You think of God as the father.  Now in religions where the god or creator is the mother, the whole world is her body.  There is nowhere else.  The male god is usually somewhere else. . .

MOYERS:  But isn’t the only way a human being can try to grope with this immense idea is to assign it a language that he or she understands?  God, he, God, she —

People of the Book

The Q’uran refers to Jews, Christians and Sabians as People of the Book, a term that is embraced by some Jewish leaders and several Christian sects. The phrase refers to the community of people centered in a monotheistic book of scripture, using it as their spiritual guide and touch stone. The book is revered and holds the community together through the inflection point of the words and stories in the book that are shared, discussed, and interpreted by the community. In this sense, the “Word of God” is the book of scripture itself, and the ongoing conversation it spawns in a community of people who take it seriously and who seek to benefit from it.

This doesn’t imply a single interpretation of the book–on the contrary, it’s the discussion that’s important. It’s the grappling and taking it seriously that creates a community, that elevates its participants through dialogue with one another. A community with only a single acceptable interpretation or a single source for information about the book is not really creating a “People of the Book” community. The inflection point in those sects would be the source of the interpretation, perhaps a leader or preferred commentary.

Are Mormons People of the Book in this sense? Or do we lock down the conversation too much to create a dialogue and the elasticity that this implies? Will moving scripture study to the home rather than Gospel Doctrine class make us more or less a People of the Book?

Revelation vs. Scripture

Mormons in particular are interested in the concept of revelation, not just a static book that was once revealed and now must be rehashed through discussion. We believe in all that God has revealed and that he will yet reveal many important things, both to the Church as a whole and to us individually. Revelation refers to God making things known that were previously unknown–it implies that the new information is being actively revealed by God to humans, not merely discovered or newly understood through human effort, but something that God initiates to enlighten the human mind.

We have the right to seek revelation, but only God can reveal. We are encouraged to seek personal revelation as we study scripture (to aid in correct understanding and personal application), and we are also encouraged to seek personal revelation when presented with instructions from church leaders. So while we often refer to things like scriptures and General Conference talks as containing the Word of God, without the step of personal revelation, at least according to our beliefs, we can’t obtain a correct interpretation that burns away the human taint from these communications. In this sense, personal revelation is a more accurate Word of God than anything written or spoken.

Of course, as with all revelation, communication requires both a transmitter and a receiver.

Conclusion

  • What do you think qualifies as the Word of God?
  • Is there a hierarchy at play here, such as scripture < current counsel < personal revelation < Jesus?
  • Are the words we say an extension of the Word of God, if our intentions align with God’s intentions?
  • When we say “light the world,” is this also a form of the “Word,” our power to act for the benefit of humankind?

Discuss.

[1] This quotation is from the Revised Standard Version.

 

**This is an expansion on a post I published at Wheat & Tares in 2013.

Comments

  1. Literalism is the hermeneutic of belief.

  2. Another Roy says:

    I believe that the “word of God” as applied to the bible is borrowed direct from biblical inerrancy Protestantism. In an interview explaining the evangelical position of Biblical inerrancy in 2014 Norman Geisler said, “Simply put, God cannot err. The Bible is the Word of God. Therefore, the Bible cannot err.”

  3. God is love, I increasingly think that is the only standard for his word, it comes down to how we succor and treat each other. Commandments are for the purpose of helping us down the path of love, the path of learning to be each other. Prophecy, priesthood, keys, ministrations- angelic or mortal- are all but imperfections compared to the ultimate imperatives of love manifest perfectly in Christ’s experiential empathy and grace. Several directives through the years have not met the standard bearing one another’s burdens or strengthening feeble knees, and therefore do not meet the standard of being the word of God, even though they were given by those who held divinely bestowed keys of prophecy and priesthood. The race based restrictions on priesthood seems a more than obvious example. The directives for fidelity and chastity within marriage and for parents to love and care for the children seem to me to be a directive that spreads the power of love and thus the Word of God further and is a primal basic positive example. The LDS Church/culture attitudes and directives on LGBTQ people also seem to me to be divisive to Zion, and seems not based on any cosmology of love that I can recognize and in many ways seems counter to strengthening families within the fold. Just because this may not impact the majority of happy hetero cis Mormons does not mean that the basically excluded gender/sexual minorities do not suffer under the burden of a proclamation being touted as scripture. My family is suffering and likely unwinding under the burden of me living a cisgender lie for decades in an effort to be faithful and live the Mormon Dream (which is amazing by the way, but unfortunately the truth always prevails and the reality of being transgender catching up with me was unavoidable). Given my initial self-ignorance and lack of context, I would not change what I did, I have an amazing family- but the puzzle of trying to stay alive when something as basic as your gender identity is being denied has led to spouse, children, self all suffering. In unavoidably coming out to my parents soon, they are going to suffer too. How much better it would be if current transgender youth could be loved, supported, contextualized, and allowed to thrive in the kingdom and covenants within the gender held within their brain, spirit, heart. Which part of anatomy does the word of God correlate with eternal gender – the genitals or the hypothalamus? I don’t think we have any explication of this in anything available for exegetical pursuits. So I am left with using the word of God as expressed by what is loving, (pure religion and undefined) and sensing God’s love supporting me. Sorry for the long response Hawkgirl, but you did ask the question. Thank you for the OP, I hope you find my response relevant. Lona.

  4. Sarah Hatfield says:

    Lona,
    Well said! We need to take Jesus seriously when he said that the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. These two commandments should be the lens we view God’s word through. Love is and always should be first.

    As you said, this is particularly important when it comes to LGBTQ issues. There is little definitive doctrine/scripture/revelation on the subject. There is so much we don’t understand. Eternal gender and being transgender don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Would it really be so crazy to say that some people are born in the wrong body? We as people are too quick to assume there is an answer. It’s uncomfortable to realize that we don’t have all the answers, and God hasn’t told us everything. We’re too quick to put people in boxes, and let social norms and dogma get in the way of pure religion.

    As has happened multiple times in the Church, leaders have made mistakes, which have been corrected over time. Lifting the priesthood/temple ban for black members is a prime example. Excuses were made, the scriptures were manipulated to justify that decision. But it was still wrong. I just wish our leaders were quicker to recognize their fallibility, and apologize when they (or past leaders) get it wrong.

    In the meantime, I hope we as Latter-day Saints can say “I don’t know”, “I’m sorry”, and “I love you” more often. The Church is still being restored. Just as it was in early times, it can be a chaotic, confusing journey. But I believe that love and trusting in God is always the right choice. I believe (or at least hope) all will be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I trust that this includes healing for people who have been wrongly excluded from the fold. I hope you find peace and love in your journey, and continue to feel God’s love.

  5. Thank you Sarah! Your response is loving, humble, and inclusive. It means so much to me actually. I do feel God’s love, that has been the power that gives me hope and patience. Sometimes I read something that mirrors my own heart exactly, this is rare and precious. Wish we were in the same ward. 🙂