Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School

Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School May 15, 2016

  When it comes to frustrations with Gospel Doctrine class, one problem is that we don’t pay a lot of attention to context, and we like to casually shoe-horn modern doctrinal concepts or concerns into any old bit of verse that seems to relate. This is really only made possible by ignoring context, and not reading. For example, I wrote this in 2007.

I happened to be home once last year during a lesson on some chapters from Isaiah. The teacher did a decent job, but the comments all tended in one direction. By typical Gospel Doctrine standards, it was probably quite good. But afterwards, as I walked out, one man I know well asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything about Isaiah?”

“We didn’t talk about Isaiah.” I replied. “We selected some phrases in Isaiah that evoked familiar and current LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place. My Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern studies are irrelevant to that kind of discussion.”

I’ve recently been reading Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He argues that “biblicism,” a strong current of thought in Evangelicalism right now, which combines a highly elevated view of scripture, fundamentalist approaches, ideas of inerrancy, and other things, is unsustainable. Moreover, it’s not “truly Evangelical.” I don’t care about that so much; rather, he points out how in practice, biblicist evangelicals don’t actually follow what they claim to embrace.

For example, in a fascinating ethnographic study of actual Bible reading in an evangelical church, titled How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism, Brian Malley reveals that biblicist expectations are routinely overridden by a variety of practices that are problematic for biblicist theory. In Malley’s study, evangelical readers focused much less on interpreting the actual meaning of the biblical texts than or simply establishing a “transitivity” between the text and the readers’ already existent beliefs. In other words, the proper biblicist logic of scriptural authority that is often not employed is this: “The Bible teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what the Bible teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.” Instead, the logic that is often actually employed is more like this: “I already believe, think, or feel Y; the Bible contains an idea that seems to relate to Y; therefore my belief, thought, or feeling of Y is “”biblically” confirmed.” This routinely required no genuine theological connection to what texts actually said, but rather merely established that some connection or other could be made. General hermeneutical principles were never referenced to attempt to resolved disagreements about what scripture teaches. What often counted as the best interpretation of any biblical passage was not what the text itself teaches, but instead simply what felt “relevant” to the reader’s life. Biblical readers elaborated a variety of possible meanings of the text, and brought in many considerations from beyond the text, until they hit on one meaning that struck them as most relevant for their personal experiences, at which point they stopped reading and effectively declared their interpretation complete. Authorial intent was often displaced in devotional readings, for instance, by various meanings that happen to “speak to” different readers, depending on their particular situations. (Emphasis added)

I’ve suggested before that in spite of Mormonism’s similarities to Catholicism, we imbibe a lot of Protestant thought and worldview. That passage hit me point-blank, reminding me of my experience with Isaiah above. Now, the LDS approach to scripture and authority is not the same as the biblicist Evangelicalism described above, wherein “scripture teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what scripture teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.”  Nevertheless, Mormons have a lot of rhetoric about the primacy of scripture for establishing  and weighing doctrine.

In practice at the lay level, however, tradition seems to overrule scripture virtually every time.

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