Reading Scripture: What's the Point?

Like others, in the last several years Mormons with academic and theological interests have begun to be interested in scriptural theology. In a Mormon context, that tends to mean close readings of LDS scriptural texts, with discussions of their implications. Books such as Joseph Spencer's An Other Testament: On Typology represent this movement well.

Thinking about scriptural theology, however, requires that we first think about what it means to read scripture at all. Here are what I take to be some of the elements that go into careful scripture reading.

First, the Bible and the Book of Mormon, as well as two lesser known works of LDS scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, are equally canonical. But because for believers the Book of Mormon comes to us with a much less difficult history of transmission and translation than the Bible (though not without questions of translation and transmission internal to it), it is what Joseph Smith called it, "the most correct book of any book." Obviously that is an audacious claim.

I understand the claim to mean that no book teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ better. In virtue of that, I take it that the Book of Mormon provides a standard for understanding the Bible, though each book reinforces the teachings of the other. However, though the Book of Mormon may sometimes provide teachings to which we can compare what we find in the Bible, it is not fundamentally a guide to correct beliefs. (Nor, for that matter, is the Bible.)

Instead, all scripture brings us to remember (remember rather than merely recall) the gospel that we are trying to read in all scripture. Scripture serves as a memorial of our relation to God, and as such it can give an order to our world that relates us to God and the rest of the world. The most obvious way it does so is by calling us to repent and to remember the gospel in living our lives more than (not "rather than") by teaching us doctrine.

The Book of Mormon defines the gospel as Jesus coming into the world as the Messiah to be crucified for our sins, which requires that we repent and are baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end (3 Nephi 27:13-16, 20). That is both easier and more difficult than proclaiming correct doctrine.

Second, given their deuterocanonical status, with most other Mormons I assume that the teachings of the LDS prophets and other leaders, particularly those who speak in our semi-annual general conferences, also serve to help us understand scripture. Rarely, however, are those teachings about the exegesis or even the hermeneutic of a particular passage. Like the Book of Mormon they most often serve to bring the gospel that scripture preaches into our lives.

Third, reading scripture is about achieving self-understanding and coming to repentance (which are ultimately indistinguishable). It is only tangentially about recovering lost meaning from ancient texts. The latter is scholarship and has its place, but it isn't scripture reading.

Fourth, self-understanding comes more in responding to questions than in learning new facts about some state of affairs in which one finds oneself. Questions are more important than answers, but not more important than responses. Self-understanding comes in responding to the questions that scripture asks me.

Fifth, self-understanding is unavoidably an ongoing project. It has no final point, at least not for mortals.

Sixth, I assume that repentance comes about when a person or a church is genuinely engaged in self-understanding. In that it continually helps us repent, scripture study is an important part of continuing revelation.

Seventh, the questions that bring self-understanding are rarely those with which I begin because I seldom know already what I need to learn about myself. Rather, I begin with questions that come to me from the text.

Most often, these questions arise when I focus on the details of the text rather than on the big questions that I am always tempted to ask at first. Questions like "What principle or doctrine do these verses teach?" are last in my scripture study because (1) those questions too often tempt me to revert to repeating "what everyone knows" about the passage I am studying; because (2) beginning with the principles I find in scripture moves me too quickly to the general when what I need are things directed at me in particular; and because (3) by paying attention to the details of the text (particularly its "story line," even when it isn't narrative), I will often be asked questions that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise.