On Biblical Scripture

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine.

Of course, this model is unsatisfying for a variety of reasons.  For example, this model seems to disregard completely God’s interest in human free will.  If God takes control of the mind of the prophet figure, then that figure is not really responsible for the text, but rather God would seem to take primary responsibility.  This conclusion is not only ethically and theologically problematic, but also does not adequately account for the many scientific and historical inaccuracies in the text, as well as Scripture’s many internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Modern critical Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that many of the Biblical texts are the result of long processes of development and textual growth; that is, large parts of Biblical Scripture originally were not necessarily written down at all, but in many cases derive largely from oral traditions which were shaped and reshaped as they were passed down orally in response to changes in the socio-historical contexts of the reciters/hearers of these traditions – and when, finally, they were written down, this did not stop the textual development of the tradition(s).  For many Biblical books it took a long time for the text to reach its present canonical form. Additional problems with Biblical Scripture, if one adheres to the Prophetic-Inspiration Model, include the fact that a number of the Biblical texts in our sacred Scriptures are not authored by the prophetic figures whose names have been assigned traditionally to the texts (see point 5 in this link).  All of the Gospels are anonymous.  Several of the epistles ascribed to Paul are not actually authored by him but are products of later anonymous Pauline disciples.  Similar things can be said for a number of the General Epistles in the NT.  Moreover, there are questions about when, where, and by whom the biblical texts were collected to form a Canon. And we do not possess any autographs of any of the biblical texts – indeed, as the prior discussion indicates, for many of the Biblical books there is no such thing as “the original” text.  Finally, there are important theological problems as well as ethically repulsive features in the Bible, including certain portrayals of the divine and his commands.  For example, the Bible nowhere condemns slavery, and the Old Testament portrays the Israelites as committing genocide at God’s command, etc.

In sum, if God is directly responsible for the Biblical texts, then why are there so many problems with them, including ones ethical in nature?  And if the Biblical texts that form our Sacred Scriptures have such problems, why are we using these ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian texts and not others (or perhaps none)?

My Reflections

1) The Biblical books that form a part of our Sacred Scripture are religiously authoritative in part because the present religious community – our living community of faith – has recognized and has affirmed collectively that they belong to our Scriptural Canon. This element of Scriptural authority is designated by the term Canon(ization).

2) They are particularly important because they also form a meaningful part of our religious heritage. Indeed, these texts lay at the heart of the Joseph Smith’s personal interaction with the divine that lead him to form the LDS Church and to receive a number of revelations thereafter.

3) Similarly, they connect us with the broader Jewish-Christian tradition which also highly values these texts.  Thus they are a crucial bridge in fostering ecumenical dialogue.

4) As personal experience, both collectively and individually, has shown many of us, these texts can be very relevant and inspiration for our religious lives and spiritual formation despite their many weaknesses.

5) The fundamental claims of Mormonism (and Christianity more broadly) center on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The Old Testament texts are hugely important for contextualizing Jesus and the New Testament.  The New Testament, in turn, provides us with (currently) our best sources for the life of the historical Jesus and the emergence of the Christian movement.  See also point (2).

6) Finally, we as a religious community usually do not seem to read the text for its scientific or historical import; rather, we seek spiritual guidance and connection with the divine, that is for our place in the divine plan.  Sometimes such a connection has very little to do with the intentions of the original authors or the specific words of the biblical texts. As I have said elsewhere, following Sandra Schneiders, Scripture in general functions salvifically within the believing community through its interpretation.  All texts require interpretation, and the Bible is no different.  “[I]nterpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). This means, following modern linguistic theory, that 1) “a text does not have one right meaning,” 2) “meaning is not ‘in’ the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader,” and 3) “meaning is not finally under the control of the author” (47-48).  The process of interpretation, then, is a matter of interacting with a text, an interaction that affects both reader and text.  This suggests the possibility that “the biblical text . . . might be susceptible of a liberating interpretation, even of its” very problematic parts (48). Indeed, the biblical texts themselves allow us at times to “call into question some of the material content of the Bible itself” (49). “Interpretation is the process of discerning what the text means in relation to the issues that exercise the contemporary community by interacting – from within the contemporary context – with what the text says in its own compositional context.  This means the community might experience a particular text as an object lesson in and warning against evil, rather than as a formulation of the divine will” (49-50). In this way the Bible may still serve as a revelatory and religiously authoritative text for modern LDS Christians (and other Christians).  It should also be noted that point (6) does not undermine our learning about the historical contexts, etc. of the Biblical texts, but rather prompts us to make that dimension of Scripture study a part of our dialogic interaction with the text.

Theological Implications

Thus there are many reasons why the Biblical texts are particularly relevant for Mormonism regardless of their many problems. Important theological conclusions from my reflections above include: Scriptural texts are not inerrant, always scientifically or historically accurate, and at times are ethically problematic.  Indeed, sometimes they are good examples of what not to do.  Moreover, the Inspiration of Biblical Scripture (meaning that we can recognize God’s involvement at points in its history, composition, and preservation, and its ongoing interpretation in the life of the Church) can still be affirmed, although this is done so in a more qualified way. Additionally, Revelation cannot be equated specifically with the words of the Biblical texts.  Indeed, Revelation may be found in many other places, including nature, culture, or personal experiences; but all of them necessarily require human interpretation which is subject to human weaknesses and limitations (see the Sandra Schneiders link for further details on what is Revelation).  Further, Biblical Scripture is not necessarily materially normative for our religious praxis; rather, it provides an important component for our religious, spiritual, and theological reflection on important subjects as we (both individually and collectively) utilize the text in contemporary concrete situations along with other interpretive mechanisms (e.g., ethical analysis, concerns for the poor or the environment, etc.).  Finally, by recognizing the limitations of Biblical Scripture (and Scripture more generally), we are encouraged to interact with God in many ways, not only through Scripture.  It forces us to come face to face with the divine ourselves, in many ways placing the responsibility to do so in upon us.

*This post draws on a previous post I wrote concerning Scriptural hermeneutics based on the work of Sandra Schneiders: “The Bible and Feminism” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 31-57.

  • Arius

    Great post, TYD. You’ve touched on some tough issues for me.

    Point (1) seems to beg the question. That is, *why* have we recognized them as part of our scriptural canon, or *why* do we have a canon at all?

    I would agree with point (2), and go further by saying that Joseph Smith’s miraculous scriptural feats lend credence to the Bible by association.

    Point (3) seems a nice bonus for embracing biblical scripture, but not a particularly good reason for making it authoritative for our community.

    Yes on point (4), though many Biblical ideas have less impact on my spiritual life now that I’m aware of the weaknesses. For example, I have a harder time taking the atonement seriously since I realized that the author of Luke systematically excised Mark’s atonement references from his manuscript.

    Point (5) is great. I love Jesus.

    I still struggle with Point (6). You link to the example of Matthew 1:23, but it’s difficult for me to see how the historical-critical take on that verse wouldn’t undermine our view of the virgin birth. And once we start demythologizing Jesus (e.g., he’s no longer sinless, etc.), then where goes our atonement theology?

    Hope this isn’t too off the mark. I’m just a dilettant struggling to reconcile a little dangerous knowledge with my faith. If you guys could point me to some books or essays that would help me see how faithful scholars approach historical criticism and belief, that would be great.

  • Tim

    It seems to me that some scriptures can be prophetic-inspiration (direct from God) without making the claim that all scripture is so. I know from (very limited) personal experience that God can speak to us with words; I think that’s probably one of the ways scriptures are written (God speaks to prophets and they write down those exact words). Such incidents may be limited, but I believe they are at least a small part of our scriptures.

  • http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com/ Dave

    That’s quite a mouthful, TYD. I would agree that scriptural texts are not self-interpreting, which leads to the question of how texts should be interpreted or, equivalently, what interpretive perspective or approach or hermeneutic one should employ. That question seems to resituate the locus of relevant inspiration from the writer to the reader/interpreter.

    Oddly, that view sort of corresponds to what Joseph and/or God said in D&C 91. Given the modern view that there is no essential difference between apocryphal texts and canonized ones (except for the fact of later canonization), some might argue that the approach of D&C 91 should be applied to all biblical scripture.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Arius,

    I think you are right that reflection number (1) is question begging from a certain perspective, but I think that it has to be seriously noted because this post is not primarily trying to prove to a believer (or non-believer) why these texts should be religiously authoritative in their lives as opposed to others; rather, it is an exploration from within a believing Mormon framework about how Scripture functions in the living community of believers and how one can both believe in the religious authority of Biblical Scripture in some sense while also acknowledging the weaknesses of the texts.

    I will send you an email later about your interest in some critical Mormon scholarship on some of the issues you raised.

    Tim,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective. I will try to get back to you more later.

    Dave,

    Thanks for commenting. I definitely realize it’s a lot to chew on. I think you are absolutely right about point (6) and its implications. It is something I think about a lot. I would recommend that you check out TT’s posts on ethics as an interpretive lens for Scripture (as well as his other posts on Scriptural hermeneutics). I think he’s on to something! :)

    I think D&C 91 definitely applies to Scripture and is in fact how most Latter-day Saints probably think about and treat the Bible. The main difference (although there are certainly others), however, between the Apocrypha and Scripture for our community is that one is canonized and the other is not (point [1]).

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • RT

    This is a very thoughtful post. Would that we had more LDS reflecting on the meaning of scripture. I especially like your last point that an understanding of the limitations of scripture places more responsibility on us to encounter the divine afresh. This is spot on.

    My question always comes back to the role of historical study in developing LDS theology. You correctly note that most people do not read the scriptures with historical or scientific considerations in mind. Most people simply want to make practical sense of their lives and find existential meaning and value.

    But the fact is, historical considerations do matter to people. Consider the rise of the fundamentalist controversy, or the negative reactions of LDS family or friends to more historically-informed approaches to scriptural interpretation. As these examples show, history matters because it is about what is real and true.

    In my view, historically informed approaches to the interpretation of the Bible and LDS scripture pose an almost insurmountable challenge to the notion of canon. Once we realize that all theological and moral reflection is mediated by the human and therefore should be regarded as cultural construction, the walls/boundaries surrounding the scriptural canon almost melt away. Other cultural constructions outside of the canon become potentially just as meaningful.

    Using my historical knowledge, I can think of reasons why certain cultural constructions in biblical or LDS canonical literature are special or particularly meaningful, that is, that they have the potential of bringing us closer to the divine and to greater moral sensitivity. But I cannot think of reasons to privilege them in an ultimate sense, that is to say, to think of them as fundamentally different from other cultural constructions.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TYD

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments RT. I appreciate your participation here!

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Brokenbyclouds

    Joseph Smith’s work in translating both the Book of Mormon and more importantly, his work on what we call the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible are excellent models for how scripture is created. Like we understand personal revelation, its a process that is worked at, practiced at continually.

    However there are all kinds of cases where scripture is created when various documents that are considered important but not Scripture(tm) bleed into canon over time. Such is the case with the word of wisdom which actually never was ratified by the general body of the church.


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