Book Notes and Thoughts on Tradition and “Doctrine Creep”

Book Notes and Thoughts on Tradition and “Doctrine Creep” January 31, 2016

Two of my most-read posts have dealt with the flood in Genesis 6-9. This one looks at the Flood in terms of genre, and tries to steer Mormons away from the false interpretive dichotomoy of “literal/figurative” into a more productive and accurate way of looking at scripture, while also giving some ancient Near Eastern background. The second one responds to an older Ensign article on the flood by a BYU professor.

A new book out (Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Millet) in honor of BYU’s Robert L. Millet, edited by Spencer Fluhman, includes important research by Paul Hoskisson (recently retired from BYU) and Steven Smoot (recent BYU grad), “Was Noah’s Flood the Baptism of the Earth?” (The full table of contents is given at the Maxwell Institute page, Amazon link here.) They trace the LDS evolution of an inherited tradition about the flood into a quasi-doctrine about the baptism of the earth. This quasi-doctrine was then used to argue that there must have been a world-wide flood, which is a circular argument.

As it turns out, doctrinal inheritance leading to strong tradition is not uncommon in the LDS Church.

A close study of the Latter-day Saint beliefs early in the history of the Church uncovers a doctrinal migration from beliefs held by other denominations in the early nineteenth century. Combine the integration of people from different religious backgrounds with a lack of a professional clergy and no established creed; the result is a slow acclimation to new doctrine. There were no seminaries or missionary training centers to train and indoctrinate those that would fill the leadership positions in the Church. Beliefs and practices from previous religious backgrounds continued with the convert after baptism until they were addressed and corrected.- Link

What other traditions did we inherit? This is certainly not an exhaustive list.

  • The curse of Cain being black skin and/or slavery is a long tradition, per the LDS Gospel Topics essay and whole lot of scholarship like this and this and this.
  • Some of our religious vocabulary and structure was inherited from Protestantism. See this article by Fluhman, and this one by Kevin Barney for some examples.
  • The idea that the Roman Catholic church is the “great and abominable church” of both Revelation and 1 Nephi 13-14.  This was common Protestant polemic going back to Luther, and it was repeated by e.g. Orson Pratt, and Bruce R. McConkie in the first edition of Mormon Doctrine, who called it “the church of the devil.” (On the latter, see p.50-53 and 122 in the McKay biography.)

Our church is now coming of age where it is mature enough, stable enough, and has the historical tools to begin interrogating some of these traditions inherited from outside.

I think the the baptism of the earth, for example, constitutes a case of  “mission creep,” “feature creep,” or “scope creep.”  In essence, this describes an original plan, mission, or feature that at inception had defined and  limited scope, but is then expanded far beyond its original scope or purpose as time goes on. It takes on more than it was originally intended for, is put to uses that weren’t in the original design. With “doctrine creep,” a passage is pressed into use it wasn’t designed for, then that interpretation is expanded and solidified.

We might want to emphasize a particular thing, and so we look for a verse to emphasize it. Again, let’s consider the baptism of the earth. In a heavily Protestant context which downplays ritual and ordinances, early LDS wanted to make clear the absolute necessity of baptism. What was at hand? The Flood! Even the earth was fully immersed! It was baptized too! …. which then leads to the concept of the earth as a living being, the flood as a formal ordinance, and therefore not only a historical but a worldwide and literal flood with all the problems that entails. (Again, see my two posts linked above.)

Another example is chastity-related. We really want to emphasize (and rightly so) with our youth the seriousness of sex and steer them away from sexual activity outside of marriage. Alma 39 has been pressed into use to emphasize this, with the line “second only unto murder” even though the original passage is not so narrow.

Although not addressing any of the topics above, Elder McConkie once said to educators, “Certain things which are commonly said and commonly taught in the Church either are not true, or, are in the realm of pure speculation.”- Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life and Teachings, somewhere between 326-35. (The author sent me this in an email, and I have not seen the original nor confirmed the quotation, which is from an unpublished transcript.)

A new book is out from the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book, Planted: Belief and Longing in an Age of Doubt by Patrick Mason, the Howard Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont. This book is one of the MI’s Living Faith series, and addresses, among other things, how to live with faith and doubt, how to reconcile and make sense of things. It’s not an answer book, though, as much as a guide to thinking and approaches. The table of contents as well as links to reviews and interviews is here. The reviews are uniformly full of praise and lengthy useful quotations. Highly recommended.

The third book isn’t LDS, but Islamic. The Quran is at the center of many discussions and polemics about Islam, but few Americans have read it and even fewer understood it. The newly published Study Quran (HarperOne) aims to change that. Following the model of Study Bibles, with their interpretive notes and essays, the Study Quran provides background, context, and an interpretive guide. It’s been getting positive reviews from Muslims, scholars, Muslim scholars, non-Muslim scholars, and LDS as well. See Michael Austin’s review here.

I fully expect to see this become a required book in Islam 101 courses across the country. It has its own homepage, complete with sample from Surah 1.

I’m a long-time user of Logos, an electronic library and Bible study program available for PC and MAC. The engine itself is FREE, as are the mobile apps (ios and Android), though you can buy packages with more advanced search capabilities and other tools.  It’s far more powerful than something like a Kindle ebook or scanned PDF, which is why I’ve invested a lot in Logos over the last 13 years, most of it at steep discount from sales and deals like these.

There’s a free book and associated discounted book each month. For January, it’s Nahum Sarna’s Exodus volume in the JPS Torah Commentary series for free (free!) and the Jonah volume for $1.99, here. These are fantastic volumes from a scholarly Jewish perspective, 278 and 96 pages respectively, and typically about $60 each in print. Highly recommended. UPDATE: A friend pointed out that although it’s not February yet, they’ve changed the books already on that landing page. However, if you navigate to the individual book pages, they’re still free and $1.99, so here are the links to Sarna on Exodus and the Jonah volume. The current $1.99 volume is the technical version of a monograph by John Walton on Genesis 1. I reviewed the popular version, called The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, for the Interpreter here. It’s a good read on Genesis, creation, and the temple. I do recommend the technical version (again, $1.99 at Logos throughout February), but it might make more sense if you read the less technical one first.

Also, through Sunday night, most Anchor Bible commentary volumes are $20 instead of their normal $50-$80. (The exceptions are brand-new volumes.) Again, this is a great series, very scholarly, and I have never seen them on sale at all in electronic format.

Also, through Sunday night, the Library of New Testament Studies volumes are all $9.99 instead of 2-4x that amount. These seem fairly technical, but someone might be interested.

These are all disappearing on February 1, so take advantage while you can.

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