What’s Wrong with the Topical Guide?

Last year I suggested some changes that I would make to the LDS Scriptures, which included getting rid of the Topical Guide.  There was some resistance to this recommendation in the comments. With the recent announced changes to the LDS scriptures, I thought now would be a good time to revisit this topic.  The new edition of the LDS scriptures makes no substantive changes to the Topical Guide, only corrected reference errors, formatting changes, and a few other typos.  (The list of changes appears on page 11-12 of this document.)

The 1981 version of the Topical Guide comes with this caveat, preserved in the updated edition: “Because of space limitations, the guide is not intended to be comprehensive.  It is also recommended that the reader look up each scripture and examine it in its context, in order to gain a better understanding of it.”  These limitations are indeed real.  A comprehensive ideological analysis of the Topical Guide would no doubt reveal interesting perspectives, but I can only offer a few significant examples here.

The first limitation is the arbitrary selection of texts it chooses to reference.  The Topical Guide functions as a kind of concordance, or a list of words present in the text.  In this way, it can be a somewhat useful resource for finding the uses of certain words.  The problem is that a concordance of English can be deceptive because the use of an English word may not consistently represent the Greek or Hebrew word being translated.  The Topical Guide seeks somewhat to alleviate this problem with suggestions of similar words.  So, for instance, if you look up the first entry, “Abase” it will refer you to “see also Humble.”  Are these merely synonyms, or do the represent alternative translations of the same underlying word?

Even the references seem somewhat arbitrary.  The Topical Guide includes all of the LDS standard works, but often overlaps with the Index, which excludes the Bible.  So, let us return to the entry on “Abase.”  In the Topical Guide the reader is referred to five biblical references and one from D&C 124:114.  The same entry in the Index refers to only two verses from the D&C 101:42; 112:3.  There is no immediately evident reason for the duplicate entry in the Index and the Topical Guide, nor for why some references are in one, and other references are in the other.  Furthermore, the reference in Alma 4:13 is left out entirely, possibly because it says “abasing” rather than “abase.”  Other biblical uses of this word are similarly ignored in the Topical Guide.

Besides this concordance function, the Topical Guide also functions as a kind of reference resource on topics chosen by the editorial team.  Strictly speaking, these topics often represent collections of passages on “Gospel topics” that the scriptures themselves do not consciously address, like the entries under “Problem Solving,” for instance.

Other entries are meant to offer proof texts of particular LDS teachings, like “Apostasy of the Early Christian Church,” “Book of Mormon,” and  “Restoration of the Gospel.” Often the proliferation of subcategories reveal specific interest for working out LDS doctrines, such as the various subentries under “Man” that address LDS anthropology. Further, there are many entries under the topic of Marriage which do not represent a concordance use of specific terms, but rather selective citations of texts on such devotional topics as: “Marriage, Continuing Courtship in;” “Marriage, Temporal;” and others which essentially provide scripture chains of texts taken out of context to serve some other purpose.  Similarly, besides the various entries under “Priest,” there are 11 subcategories for “Priesthood,” with extensive use of scriptures which, properly speaking, do not explicitly reference priesthood at all.

On controversial topics, the selectiveness of the readings is even more evident.  Some entries function more as commentaries on certain topics than references to the use of specific words. The selected texts under Birth Control exhibit an anti-birth control stance, even if the topic is not directly mentioned in any of the chosen texts.  Further, the Topical Guide entries for “Interfaith Marriage” and “Interracial Marriage,” say “see Separation.” When one looks up “Separation,” the listed scriptures use the term in only about half the provided references, while others include diverse terms such as: covenant, diverse, severed, special, midst, remove, mixed, gulf, bounds, mix, out, and mingle. Suffice it to say that this is not a concordance, but represents specific ideological readings of a set of passages that some editor strung together.  The message of avoiding interfaith marriage is clear.  That these continue to be connected to the topic of interracial marriage is problematic.

The entry for “Homosexuality” is one of the few to be updated in the current edition, signaling a very minor change.  The new entry is titled “Homosexual Behavior,” presumably following the distinction now put forward by church leaders between homosexual acts and desires.  Other than that, the entry remains the same, featuring a quite short set of references.  It includes the instance of attempted gang rape in Gen 19, as well as Isa 3:9, where the sin of Israel is compared the Sodom.  The only problem is that the nature of this sin is revealed in Isa 3:14, that is “ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.”  Namely, Isaiah identifies the sin of Sodom as abuse of the poor.  Other scriptural references to Sodom in both the Old and New Testaments show that this was a common reading of this passage in antiquity, including many that are listed in this entry that make this comparison explicitly.  The updated entry still offers Deut 23:17, translated in the KJV as “there shall be no…sodomite of the sons of Israel.”  This is a mistranslation of the Hebrew term here, which references prostitution for both females and males, not homosexual behavior per se.  The other references face similar difficulties of mistranslation, often referring to prostitution or other vaguely known sexual sins.

My desire to eliminate the Topical Guide stems from its problematic editorial decisions for identifying relevant texts to answer specific questions.  A simple concordance would certainly be a valuable study tool, provided it could connect the underlying Greek and Hebrew, rather than merely the English translation.  But, in addition to this function, the Topical Guide organizes itself around a narrow set of questions, often representing now outdated LDS teachings and tendentious scripture chains.  I cannot recommend it as a study tool for Latter-day Saints in this current form without cautioning against these serious limitations.

  • L. M. Wilson

    I have a problem with all those footnote references to subjects in the Topical Guide. They quickly weary the reader, who gets tired of looking down at a footnote, only to find a reference like, “see Humility” or “see Charity.” We can figure out the general theme and if we want more scriptures on that topic, we know where to look. These kinds of footnotes take up far too much space and in the end, have the contrary effect of discouraging us from paying attention to the footnotes. Here’s one example I just found on the first page I opened to in the Doctrine & Covenants: D&C 49:20 reads “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” The word “world” is footnoted: TG World. Searching the topical guide for World, gives a list of over 150 scriptures that contain the word “world.” Any one curious about pursuing scriptures on the topic of the world, knows where to look. There is one scripture however, that is a direct New Testament echo of the phrase, “the world lieth in sin.” It is found in 1 John 5:19 and reads, “the whole world lieth in wickedness.” It’s helpful to see these kinds of similarities in scriptural language. It even builds testimony in Joseph Smith as a prophet when we see these things. But this similar verse is unlikely even to be found when confronted with a list of 150 scriptures. It’s a little like reading a book and finding a footnote by the word “wand” or “chemical” or “anything.” Then following the footnote only to find a reference that says, see Dictionary for wand. Either point us to another scripture that is actually relevant, or to categories in the Topical Guide that aren’t obvious, or assume we have the intelligence to look up common gospel words in the Topical Guide when we want a broader study. After checking footnote after footnote only to be sucker punched by a “TG Prophets” type reference, we quit looking.

  • Niklas

    We international Mormons only have the Guide to the Scriptures, which one could characterize as a combination of Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary. Not being fully either of those two, some could think of it as even more useless.

  • http://danielomcclellan.wordpress.com Dan McClellan

    Eventually, everyone will only have the Guide to the Scriptures. Perhaps someone should (if they haven’t already) publish a comprehensive guide to scriptural allusions and quotations in the LDS standard works.

  • http://snailhollow.jcobabe.net Jim Cobabe

    I seldom refer to the Topical Guide. It’s usefulness is limited. In my view, any such tools tend to constrain personal mediation and freedom of thought. I have no use for any dependency on such a “guide” when the inspiration of the Spirit and the words of the prophets of God are so freely available.

  • Kevin Barney

    I never refer to the TG. And I agree with comment 1, that the multitude of cross references to it in the footnotes are ridiculous. If the Church wants to keep it, at least take out all those useless footnotes.

  • Gabriel Ariciu

    This is truly sad. These were put in for a very specific purpose, that is to help the reader become a master of the scriptures. If there are mistakes, they are the mistakes of men and minor. The mistakes listed are not that big of a deal. The footnotes are of tremendous importance. They do make it hard to read, but on the other hand, they add significant value to studying the scriptures. I trust the Priesthood leadership who put this together. It was done by divine inspiration, by men called of God.

  • Casey

    Counterpoint, re claims of the TG adding significant value to scripture study and of the inspiration thereof: no they don’t, no they weren’t.

  • Joel Coleman

    Excellent posts on this topic. Clearly the Topical Guide is not intended to be the authoritative academic reference used by true scholars. My assumption is that it is probably meant to be more of a pseudo-academic guide to help lay English speaking members of the Church, “adapted to the weakest,” begin a journey into the basic doctrines through diligent daily study. This might even be the reason behind the ridiculous footnote entries mentioned above – merely to spur the fundamental student to topics they might want to browse via scripture chains but had not previously considered.

    No doubt it could be updated – and for all we know that task, including melding it with the index – is already under way. Or not, I certainly don’t know.

    Interestingly, I spoke once to a General Authority about 15 years ago who actually had his “traveling” set of scriptures re-bound into one slimmer volume, including only the sections and study helps he actually used regularly. The TG was one section he eliminated completely as he created his own reduced, daily-use canon.

  • http://ldsorganplayer.com Mark N.

    Years ago, my wife bought me a copy of the GospeLink software, which I have found to be invaluable. I can perform “advanced searches” where I can search for exact phrases or combinations of words within the same paragraph, and the Old and New Testaments are linked to Hebrew and Greek Concordances. Included is a large library of books written by General Authorities and non-General Authorities. I know that GospeLink exists as an online service now, and is constantly updated with new books, whereas I’m stuck with the library as it existed at the time it was published. I don’t know how the online service compares to the software package I have, but if the software was still available, I’d recommend that everyone get a copy.

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