What Is Scripture?
Obviously, however, not everything ever said by the Spirit can be collected, published, and used as authoritative scripture. So we distinguish between the broader sense of scripture in that quotation and the scriptures we recognize as authoritative and binding: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We sometimes refer to those books collectively as "the standard works," in other words the works that set a standard for our practices and beliefs.
One can easily ask, "Why those books and not some other collection?" or "If the LDS canon can be added to, what would qualify something to be an addition?" We recognize that God may inspire many things and not all inspired things are scripture. So the question of how something comes to be included in the canon is a good one.
The Protestant philosopher, Paul Ricoeur identifies five characteristics of Christian scripture that help answer that question (in "Manifestation and Proclamation and "Philosophy and Religious Language," both in Figuring the Sacred):
- Scripture has a religious dimension.
- Broadly, it tends toward the ethical rather than the aesthetic, teaching us how to live more than offering openings for mystical experience.
- Scriptures have an historical vector, even if that history is not understood as moderns understand it.
- They make specific truth claims about the world.
- They are revelatory: "above and beyond emotions, disposition, belief, or nonbelief, is the proposition of a world that in the biblical language is called a new world, a new covenant, the kingdom of God, a new birth" ("Philosophy & Religious Language" 44).
Ricoeur's points tell us what things are available for canonization, but not necessarily what has, in fact, been canonized nor why. This list might describe some texts that lie outside of the canon, such as Dante's Divine Comedy.
The process of canonization, Ricouer argues, includes four things ("The Canon Between the Text and the Community," in Philosophical Hermeneutics and Biblical Exegesis 7-26, cf. 14-15):
- An informed, thoughtful collecting of texts that meet the previous five criteria.
- The establishment of reading traditions (e.g., the schools of the rabbis and medieval cathedral schools).
- The assertion of the superiority of the collected texts for instruction and education (a crucial element).
- That an historical community has taken charge of the process of interpretation and the resolution of conflicts in interpretation.
Ricouer's thinking about what constitutes scriptural texts and how they come to be canonized describes not only how the Bible came to be in its present form, but also how the LDS standard works came to be canon.
As the on-going publication of Joseph Smith's papers makes clear, Ricoeur's four points describe well how the Doctrine and Covenants came about (though perhaps the second point wasn't an obvious part of the process). His points also help explain how additions to the LDS canon occur, as has happened to two official declarations by the LDS Church's First Presidency. It is a combination of communal wisdom and ecclesiastical authority.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.