How Mormons Read the Bible

A little more than a week ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released an update to its online edition of the Bible and other authoritative texts, with a print edition to follow later this year.  Some of these changes reflect better historical knowledge of LDS history, as well as improved study aids, and some historical contextualizing of some important LDS texts.  The new edition of the LDS Bible is incremental, offering a few minor spelling and punctuation updates to the King James Version, the official translation approved of by the Church.  The changes and the lack of changes have spurred some insightful reflection on the meaning of this new edition, including the supplemental resources it provides for study, but it is useful to consider at this junction just how exactly Mormons read the Bible.

Reading the Bible is not a self-evident endeavor, and Mormons, like other religious groups throughout history, have  modes of reading that reflect their historical circumstances and distinctive concerns.  More interesting than any particular exegesis of the Bible is the way that Mormons approach the Bible as a sacred text.  Notably, Mormons reject biblical inerrancy, self-sufficiency, and the doctrine of sola scripture, hallmarks of other conservative American church movements.  Mormonism is both a critique of these hermeneutical approaches, and even the biblical text itself in some ways.  Problems with the Bible and gaps in its narrative are really the genesis of Mormonism itself, which offers the Restoration of the Gospel as the solution to the confusions and discord over biblical meaning.

Revising sacred texts is a long Mormon tradition, dating back to the founder Joseph Smith.  Smith not only engaged in a revelatory quest to re-”translate” the Bible in his early career, but later took to learning Hebrew and other languages in his search to unlock an allusive meaning in the Bible clouded in historical accretions and the weight of traditional interpretation.  Just as Smith sought to update the Bible, he brought the same revising eye to his own texts.  He updated the revelations he received, first in the Book of Commandments, and then in the Doctrine and Covenants, in some cases drastically changing the meaning or expanding the original.  Even the Book of Mormon underwent editorial changes under Smith’s direction in 1837, not just of spelling, but to clarify a few doctrinal matters in the text.

Focusing on these changes and revelations expanding the biblical narrative alone misses the broader significance of why Smith set out to reveal these things in first place.  Early Mormonism saw itself as reliving the biblical past with the prophetic authority that inspired the biblical authors in the first place.  The present is a new age of divine inspiration in the pattern of the biblical past.  In this way, the “Restoration” brings the sacred past to the present in a creative appropriation of various elements braided together into the “fulness of time.”  Prophets, temples, and apostles are not just features of a bygone era, but represent the way that God operates among his followers in all times.  Even some of the more distinctive aspects of Mormonism, like proxy baptisms for the dead, the 19th century practice of polygamy, and early Mormon economic utopian communities are rooted in biblical precedent.  Mormon history even has its own Exodus to a desert land with a salted sea.

Additional Mormon scripture beyond the Bible represents a more fulsome biblical narrative. The Book of Abraham  and the revelations in the Book of Moses transform the beginning of Genesis from third person narratives to first-person accounts with new interpretations. The longest of these new scriptures, the Book of Mormon, begin with biblical history surrounding the Babylonian exile and the theological problem raised in the exilic and post-exilic context of God’s apparent abandonment of his covenant with Israel.  The Book of Mormon addresses this problem via the gap in biblical history of the people of the Americas.

While these broad themes continue to define Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s readerly approach to the Bible is contrasted with a much more mundane approach today.  For contemporary Mormons, Sunday School and seminary classes are primarily interested in devotional questions, where the texts are studied as guides to daily living and resources for facing the challenges of life.  At least according to one recent survey, Mormons exhibit the highest biblical literacy of any Christian group in the United States.  Despite this knowledge of the narrative, historical and dogmatic matters are relevant only as peripheral questions in LDS worship contexts. For most, scriptural reading is a matter of personal divination, what Terryl Givens has called “dialogic revelation,” where the text becomes a vehicle for insight into learning God’s will for the reader.

Even in this brief summary, it is necessary to say that there is no single way that Mormons read the Bible.  In the 20th century, Mormon biblical reading practices have begun to engage with modernist and postmodernist readings developed since the Enlightenment.  There have been a handful of LDS biblical scholars trained in graduate programs over the past six decades, and more and more are being trained today.  These scholars, trained in historical critical methods, represent the diversity of biblical studies itself, with some taking more apologetic positions, while others call into question the historicity of just about everything.  Alongside this group, a collection of LDS philosophers has recently taken to scriptural interpretation.  Both the historical critics and the philosophers will have much to offer as many of these younger scholars come of age in the next decade.

Whether these new approaches will gain significant influence in the broader church remains to be seen.  While the Church has shown signs of opening up its own history and reforming the way church instruction treats these matters, little attention has been paid to critical issues around the Bible.  There are some signs of progress in this regard at Brigham Young University, where a handful of faculty hires have some awareness of critical biblical studies.  There are even some biblical scholars taking taking academic jobs outside of BYU for the first time (like me).  Despite this small changes, for the broader church more critical approaches to the text stand far off on the horizon.  Whether this is a problem remains to be seen.  The historical critical approaches pioneered by 19th century Germans have had little influence on most church-goers in other denominations too.

If the recent changes to the Bible offered in the 2013 edition of the LDS scriptures suggest anything about the leadership’s view of things, they don’t think much change is need to what they’ve been doing for a while now.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Yup, the Church is more concerned with how individual Mormons use the scriptures to guide their daily lives, and behavior, than in whether the Mormons learn about various techniques of literary criticism applied to interpretation of scripture. Ther Church is more concerned with the fundamental affirmation of the reality of God as Creator and Redeemer, with the confirmation of resurrection and the potential for exaltation. One of the important roles of the Book of Mormon is to affirm that the basic narrative of the Bible, of Israel’s interaction with god, is rooted in the reality of miraculous events, including the Atonement and the Resurrection.

  • Ryan

    Thanks Taylor for this excellent overview. The contrast between Joseph Smith’s persistent attempts to understand and resolve the mysteries of the Bible and the modern LDS church’s relative lack of interest in such concerns is indeed striking.

    I hope more room is made in the church for people to engage in critical study of the Bible, since in my view it is not merely an academic enterprise whose purpose is to be abstruse and esoteric as possible, but is really a necessary component of any studied attempt to understand what we believe and why.

  • theoldadam

    It would be wonderful if Mormons (and anybody, really) would read the Bible through a grace scheme…and not a legal (what ‘we do’) scheme.

  • theoldadam

    This audio explains what I mean:

    Legal vs. grace, schemes, or grids of understanding.

    • Michael Peterson

      Theoldadam – I listened to your audio link and found it very interesting. However, I also found that in seeking to define how you get God’s grace you have washed out so many other principles that are so clearly taught in the Bible and have focused very narrowly on your own interpretation. You state that “Faith is no ‘do’” and “what do they do? nothing!” All we have to do is “hear the good word”. You continue and say “There are no works, grace is given for free from hearing the word, not praying or doing as was so taught in the early and Catholic church.” However, you sheepishly say that, “of course, we need to be baptized for that is how we obtain the spirit.” Already you have nullified you point. I could rest my case there as if we get the spirit through works then your whole premise doesn’t work. Jesus made it very clear that a man must be baptized (do a work) to be saved. He also clearly outlined that he will judge us on in what manner we pray, fast and treat others – all works. Lastly, he clearly states that we can’t just call upon the Lord but must do his will. What is his will? Well, for one we know it is to keep his commandments. Luther, called the book of James an “epistle of straw”. Why? because the Lord’s brother, clearly states that “faith without works is dead.” He clearly echos what Jesus taught. The LDS doctrine that I have read is much closer to what the bible teaches that what you are teaching. The LDS doctrine is that we must do what the Lord has commanded, be baptized and keep his commandments – and his greatest commandment is to repent of our daily sins. Grace gives us the strength to do what we on our own could not do daily and ultimately it is by Grace we will be saved as we will never be worthy on our own to be in God’s presence.

      • RJ

        amen, well spoken!

  • http://None Rodney Ross

    While I appreciate any effort to emphasize grace, I have to agree with Michael’s post. A few years ago, a friend who is a Lutheran minister told my wife that his congregants were so converted to the concept of grace that it was hard to get any thing done. To me, our works, always inadequate, are our thanks to God for his gifts of grace. Christ was a person of action. We should all follow that example.

  • LaVerl 09

    In the LDS Bible Dictionary it says: “Grace is a word that occurs frequently in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.
    It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an “enabling power” that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.”
    Elder David A. Bednar in a BYU Devotional on Grace Oct 23, 2001 said this: “My objective this morning is to describe and discuss both the redeeming and enabling powers of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
    I suspect that you and I are much more familiar with the nature of the redeeming power of the Atonement than we are with the enabling power of the Atonement
    Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints—for good men and women who are obedient and worthy and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully. I frankly do not think many of us “get it” concerning this “enabling and strengthening” aspect of the Atonement, and I wonder if we mistakenly believe we must make the journey from good to better and become a saint all by ourselves through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline, and with our obviously limited capacities.”
    Brother Brad Wilcox in a BYU Devotional on Grace July 12, 2011 said this: “Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.
    The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.
    I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.” I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”
    They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?” I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”
    Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place.
    Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. As my friend Brett Sanders puts it, “A life impacted by grace eventually begins to look like Christ’s life.” As my friend Omar Canals puts it, “While many Christians view Christ’s suffering as only a huge favor He did for us, Latter-day Saints also recognize it as a huge investment He made in us.” As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).”