Toward Becoming a Gospel Scholar
Gospel scholars also have enough perspective and have read widely enough to recognize faddish, passing, and momentary influences in our thinking. Misguided directions can thus be detected and avoided in such things as the excesses of pop psychology, modern positivism, selfish egoism, and other fads. A gospel scholar adopts gospel scholar goals. In asking a research question, a gospel scholar can at least imagine some way in which knowing the answer to the question would be beneficial for some gospel purpose. Sometimes such answers would help people to understand and live the gospel better. Other times, the answers might help to respond to challenges or difficult problems.
Gospel scholars, like all scholars, realize that convenient answers may not always be immediately forthcoming. We would like to know many things about Moses' Hebrew or about life in other galaxies, but answers are not always presently available. Scholars humbly recognize that some problems must be put on a shelf, not forgetting them, but waiting for further information to be found.
Twenty-five years ago, in a graduate seminar, I asked an esteemed New Testament scholar if anyone knew anything about the Jewish background of Caiaphas's argument that "one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (John 11:50). I wanted to know the background of that rubric, because we encounter the same principle six hundred years earlier in 1 Nephi 4 with Nephi's slaying of Laban. The New Testament scholar said that he was not aware of anywhere else that this policy or rationale could be found. Concurring with Raymond Brown, he considered it merely a commonsense maxim. I put the question on a shelf for twenty years, but did not forget it. Five years ago, I ran across a recently published study by Roger D. Aus, tracing in great detail the legal history of this principle back into Jewish and biblical sources to an amazing degree (Scholars Press, 1992).
How little people had known about the subject only a few years earlier! Now it is clear that during Nephi's own lifetime, this legal concept was invoked in justifying high political decisions.
Finally, let me say that good scholars have many goals on their radar screen at one time. By keeping many good questions in mind, and by reading and listening widely, answers can show up in the most unexpected places. In scholarship, serendipity is far less accidental than most people think. In a gospel scholarly setting, one may readily agree, with Elder Neal A. Maxwell, that "there are no coincidences." There is purpose and order in the way God works with our minds as well as our spirits. If people go to a sacrament meeting, conference, or Sunday School class looking for nothing, that is usually all they will find.
Good questions are hard to come by. But without them, our study is largely aimless.
Reading the Scriptures
Nothing is more important in becoming a gospel scholar than reading the scriptures. Gospel scholarship is thoroughly grounded in the four standard works. While the words of the living prophets are our source of modern-day direction, the scriptures are essential for gospel scholarship. Knowing what the scriptures say, why they say what they say, and knowing what the original meaning of any passage of scripture was is the point of departure for understanding how modern revelation has utilized, adapted, and sometimes superseded specific scriptural provisions that were applicable in earlier days. Most of the messages of the living prophets, including General Conference addresses, begin with a knowledge of the scripture