A Bigger House

In case you’ve just stopped by, I’ve been blogging on an article by Professor Kent P. Jackson of the BYU Religious Education Faculty. The title is “Sacred Study” and it’s found in the 6 Jan 07 edition of the Church News. In this article Professor Jackson defines LDS Biblical scholarship and LDS Biblical scholars solely by their uncompromising use of secondary sources derived from modern revelation.

As I have pointed out in my two previous posts there are some issues with his proposal, at least as they are presented in this particular article. Despite these matters, I do think that we should go ahead with Professor Jackson’s plan. As you will see, the interesting thing about the Bible is its ability to “push back” against attempts to domesticate it. We might build a one-room schoolhouse for it, but it will not remain so confined indefinitely.

In Professor Jackson’s own words, “Latter-day Saint Bible scholarship embraces revealed sources and uses them at every stage in the process of understanding and interpreting the words of scripture.” Perhaps. I weigh such sources against my purposes, their usefulness in illuminating the text, and the audience to which my remarks are directed. But let’s take Professor Jackson at his word and consider just how much of the Bible is “touched” by secondary sources drawn from might be considered authoritative LDS sources.

Not all that much. Prophets, whether ancient or modern, exist in historical context. This dictates where their attention is focused. JS did not apply himself equally to all parts of the Bible and neither did his successors. For whatever reason, there are large swaths of the Bible that are quite untouched, or that have been employed for didactic rather than exegetical purposes. Since Professor Jackson’s proposal will not be needed in these passages, they are presumably open for conventional exegetical methods.

What will happen if the conventional exegesis of a passage without secondary LDS sources does not cohere with nearby passages read under Professor Jackson’s method? Ah well. When/if that occurs, you will see just how powerfully the Bible can “push back.” Perhaps it will turn out that a methodology with the potential to be applied more evenly will be more useful as a foundational approach.

Now let’s take a look at a passage that has had some attention from an authoritative LDS source. The infancy narrative in Matthew is a perennial favorite and the magi are longtime Christmas favorites. Some years ago, Elder McConkie stated that these gentlemen were Diaspora Jews (Mortal Messiah, 1:358) rather than gentiles. Whatever their real ethnic status might have been, in Matthew’s story they are gentiles because they do the things that gentiles do. They get their information about events from stars, they must seek out Jewish sources and records in order to fully understand God’s plans, and all in all you get a very Balaam-like (Num 23) feel from them.

Now there is nothing wrong with what Elder McConkie was doing. In narrative theory it’s called “gap filling.” We all do it all the time because it’s a natural part of reading. But all “gap filling” is not equally successful and unless Elder McConkie wants to make some very significant changes to the story, the magi must be read as gentiles. And “thus we see,” as Mormon would say, that the Bible can once again “push back” with significant force.

So why do I think that despite the issues I have raised we should still proceed with Professor Jackson’s plan? Not because I think it will tell us much about the Bible, except as a secondary effect from looking very closely at applicable passages. I think we should proceed because I think it will tell us a great deal about JS, about his successors, and ultimately about ourselves.

Everybody writes, talks, thinks, and leads within historical context and must be approached from within their context. No one, not even Jesus Christ, is exempt from this. I guess it’s a part of the humility of the mortal state, or whatever. In any case, what this means is that when we pursue Professor Jackson’s proposal what we will find is a godsend of information about the religious and theological context of the Restoration and the diachronic evolution of that context over time. And that will tell us a great deal about who we really are.

Finally, we can see something about ourselves just from Professor Jackson’s proposal. Take a look at these two passages decide and what they tell us about our confidence and faith in the Restoration:

Latter-day Saint scholars, like others, need to challenge unproven assumptions, question unfounded traditions, and demand evidence for historical and interpretive claims. Where the Restoration provides answers, we must rely on those answers and use them in our continuing quest for truth.

And speaking of LDS Biblical scholars who practice his method, Professor Jackson also says:

And unlike many of their peers who set the agenda for religious discourse in their denominations, Latter-day Saint Bible scholars hold allegiance to the Church as an institution and welcome the continuing guidance of those who the Lord has called to preside in it.

It looks like there’s still some fear, doesn’t it? (It would be interesting to survey the LDS grad students and see how they respond as a body.)

So…I think we ought to pursue Professor Jackson’s proposal. And I think that we ought to pursue a more conventional historical-critical approach. And I think that we ought also to take up feminist readings, social-science approaches, and so on. I don’t think this ought to be limited to BYU campuses; some institutions are better at these sorts of things than others. I see no reason to forego the advantages that accrue from interaction with our colleagues from the wider realms of religious inquiry. But mostly I think that regardless of whether we start out with a one-room schoolhouse or something more expansive, an honest, rigorous approach will eventually lead us to something far bigger than we now envision.

You can trust the Bible. It’s just that way.

fides quaerens intellectum

About mogget
  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us/ David J

    Latter-day Saint Bible scholars hold allegiance to the Church as an institution and welcome the continuing guidance of those who the Lord has called to preside in it.

    Are there any exegetes in any denomination who don’t do this to some extent?

    LDS secondary sources, as you and I have discussed in the past, are sorely lacking. I think the old-school aversion to Biblical criticism (see “Higher Criticism” in Mormon Doctrine for a humorous example of Bruce’s attitudes toward it) has not fully waned. We (“speaking collectively, not individually,” to quote JS) view them as suspect, and they us.

    But I, for one, don’t comply with Jackson’s recommendation at all. When I do exegesis, it’s denominationally opaque, and I think that’s the best kind of exegesis. “Mormon exegesis” (pardon the oxymoron) is just silly to me, and is not fair to the text of the Bible. Like you said, it speaks for itself better than Mormons can speak for it. In fact, LDS exegesis is borderline pesher exegesis, and most of the time comes in the form of apologetics (esp. when concerning Biblical topics).

  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us HP

    David, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with pesher exegesis. It is what it is. That we have engaged in it makes us, as you rightly note, like everybody else out there.

    Mogget, good stuff.

  • Mogget

    When I do exegesis, it’s denominationally opaque, and I think that’s the best kind of exegesis.

    I agree, but I expect that despite my efforts my denominational background has some affects. (We always teased the Evangelicals about their “fixation on the fourth century,” too.)

    Here’s what happens to me. It’s not that I add LDS stuff in, but that I’m more open to ideas that fit LDS doctrines and less open to ideas that don’t. The only thing I ever disagreed with Fr. Fitzmyer on was the matter of the Real Presence in 1Cor 11: 17-34. I just couldn’t go there!

    On the other hand, I just read a paper in a professional venue called “The Sovereignty of the Saints in Revelation.” As I wrote it, I found myself more open to a stronger sense of what this idea might entail and not troubled by the idea that it was “unreal” as were some of my peers.

    So you know, where you pray does affect what you say… But yeah, denominationally opaque is best unless the purpose and/or audience indicate otherwise.

  • LXXLuthor

    You can trust the Bible. It’s just that way.

    Do more than 1% of LDS people really believe this? It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen an LDS person print but I have no confidence that we as a people really believe this. Sometimes I really hate AoF 8. Forget a crutch, it’s almost a handicap the way that I see people using it.

  • Karl D.

    I’ve enjoyed the series, Mogget.

    A sidenote:

    Some years ago, Elder McConkie stated that these gentlemen were Diaspora Jews (Mortal Messiah, 1:358) rather than gentiles. Whatever their real ethnic status might have been, in Matthew’s story they are gentiles because they do the things that gentiles do.

    When I was teaching gospel doctrine last week we had a discussion about the magi and their gentile status (including the Balaam feel to the pericope); a very enjoyable discussion. However, one of the class members opined that he thought the magi were Diaspora Jews. I responded that we couldn’t rule out the possibility but that, “they are gentiles because they do the things that gentiles do.” (maybe not those exact words but reasonably close to that.) After class I wondered where the “Diaspora Jews” comment come from, and now you have solved that little mystery for me (I read that series about 15 years ago so I absolutely didn’t remember that McConkie suggested that).

  • http://davidjhomeplate.blogspot.com/ David J

    David, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with pesher exegesis.

    I bet to differ. To me, it makes a mockery of the text, is done with the aim of affirming one’s pre-conceived notions of truth, and cannot be taken seriously outside the home (ie, in the wilds of places like SBL). It’s a neat thing to study, and Mormons do it a lot, but I wouldn’t say there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

    It is what it is. That we have engaged in it makes us, as you rightly note, like everybody else out there.

    I didn’t say that everybody engages in it. I said that everybody comes to the text with some sort of influence based on previous denominational experiences.

    But whatever. You’d know more about this stuff than I would… :)

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com HP

    I disagree. What you go into the text with always plays a determinative role on what you get out. Scholarly exegetical methods are designed to produce relatively atheological readings. Whether or not one prefers them is a matter of what one wants from a reading. Most people simply aren’t interested in reading the Bible in an atheological manner; they are reading it because they want to put it into a very personal context. This doesn’t make their reading wrong, although it likely makes it one that won’t be universally accepted. If the only criterion for determining the worth of a reading was universal acceptance, we would be stuck with a very small number of worthwhile readings.

    For the lay audience, pesher exegesis refers to the habit, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the scribes and interpreters there to just grab a section of scripture, assume that it relates to their situation, and write up an interpretation of the passage with that in mind. No justification for the reading is given, aside from the interpreter’s belief that it is accurate.

    I stand by my statement. Exegesis is ultimately a very specialized form of eisegesis.

  • http://faithprorumor.wordpress.com Mogget

    HP–

    Some of what you write is too strong for me. For example, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that what we bring to the text “always plays a determinative role.” I have never, in my entire life, ended an act of exegesis in the same place I started. For me, it’s been a two-way street. That what I bring to the text has an effect on my exegesis is undeniable but it’s simply not always determinative.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com HP

    It is possible that I am being too strong. My experience is that theological approaches and exegetical approaches produce kinds of different results, and that is what I was trying to say. That said, I do think that the danger of finding what you are looking for is present in both approaches (although exegetical approaches have more safeguards against it).

    I suppose that I find David J’s assertion that exegetical approaches are somehow morally superior unhelpful.

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    Mogget, thanks for your thinking contributions in this series on the “house”.

    Part of a quote by Kent: “And unlike many of their peers who set the agenda for religious discourse in their denominations . . . ”

    No, it shouldn’t be a denominational leader’s opinion that sets the agendas on Sunday mornings or whenever. It should be the message of whichever biblical book that believers are studying. And let there be rigorous discussion every week that flows from engagement with the next verses in the book. And people have the right to flat out disagree with me on my injected interpretation nuances. The ultimate accountability is not to denominational leaders or church distinctives but to the text itself.

    Mogget writes, “You can trust the Bible. It’s just that way.”

    You got that right.

    But I would add this. Unbelieving historical-critical scholars do have assumptions. It is easy to recognize the truth of HP’s last statement of #7 in their writings. Likewise, with many Baptist preachers. So I ask where are the exegetical scholars that are humble in their approach to the Word? Where we submit our hearts to let the words of God carry us where He will?

    It is the greatest of adventures.

  • anon

    Exegesis is ultimately a very specialized form of eisegesis.

    I agree with HP–it really can’t be any other way. If so, we are truly kidding ourselves about our own biases.


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