On Biblical Scripture

On Biblical Scripture September 9, 2011

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine.

Of course, this model is unsatisfying for a variety of reasons.  For example, this model seems to disregard completely God’s interest in human free will.  If God takes control of the mind of the prophet figure, then that figure is not really responsible for the text, but rather God would seem to take primary responsibility.  This conclusion is not only ethically and theologically problematic, but also does not adequately account for the many scientific and historical inaccuracies in the text, as well as Scripture’s many internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Modern critical Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that many of the Biblical texts are the result of long processes of development and textual growth; that is, large parts of Biblical Scripture originally were not necessarily written down at all, but in many cases derive largely from oral traditions which were shaped and reshaped as they were passed down orally in response to changes in the socio-historical contexts of the reciters/hearers of these traditions – and when, finally, they were written down, this did not stop the textual development of the tradition(s).  For many Biblical books it took a long time for the text to reach its present canonical form. Additional problems with Biblical Scripture, if one adheres to the Prophetic-Inspiration Model, include the fact that a number of the Biblical texts in our sacred Scriptures are not authored by the prophetic figures whose names have been assigned traditionally to the texts (see point 5 in this link).  All of the Gospels are anonymous.  Several of the epistles ascribed to Paul are not actually authored by him but are products of later anonymous Pauline disciples.  Similar things can be said for a number of the General Epistles in the NT.  Moreover, there are questions about when, where, and by whom the biblical texts were collected to form a Canon. And we do not possess any autographs of any of the biblical texts – indeed, as the prior discussion indicates, for many of the Biblical books there is no such thing as “the original” text.  Finally, there are important theological problems as well as ethically repulsive features in the Bible, including certain portrayals of the divine and his commands.  For example, the Bible nowhere condemns slavery, and the Old Testament portrays the Israelites as committing genocide at God’s command, etc.

In sum, if God is directly responsible for the Biblical texts, then why are there so many problems with them, including ones ethical in nature?  And if the Biblical texts that form our Sacred Scriptures have such problems, why are we using these ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian texts and not others (or perhaps none)?

My Reflections

1) The Biblical books that form a part of our Sacred Scripture are religiously authoritative in part because the present religious community – our living community of faith – has recognized and has affirmed collectively that they belong to our Scriptural Canon. This element of Scriptural authority is designated by the term Canon(ization).

2) They are particularly important because they also form a meaningful part of our religious heritage. Indeed, these texts lay at the heart of the Joseph Smith’s personal interaction with the divine that lead him to form the LDS Church and to receive a number of revelations thereafter.

3) Similarly, they connect us with the broader Jewish-Christian tradition which also highly values these texts.  Thus they are a crucial bridge in fostering ecumenical dialogue.

4) As personal experience, both collectively and individually, has shown many of us, these texts can be very relevant and inspiration for our religious lives and spiritual formation despite their many weaknesses.

5) The fundamental claims of Mormonism (and Christianity more broadly) center on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The Old Testament texts are hugely important for contextualizing Jesus and the New Testament.  The New Testament, in turn, provides us with (currently) our best sources for the life of the historical Jesus and the emergence of the Christian movement.  See also point (2).

6) Finally, we as a religious community usually do not seem to read the text for its scientific or historical import; rather, we seek spiritual guidance and connection with the divine, that is for our place in the divine plan.  Sometimes such a connection has very little to do with the intentions of the original authors or the specific words of the biblical texts. As I have said elsewhere, following Sandra Schneiders, Scripture in general functions salvifically within the believing community through its interpretation.  All texts require interpretation, and the Bible is no different.  “[I]nterpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). This means, following modern linguistic theory, that 1) “a text does not have one right meaning,” 2) “meaning is not ‘in’ the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader,” and 3) “meaning is not finally under the control of the author” (47-48).  The process of interpretation, then, is a matter of interacting with a text, an interaction that affects both reader and text.  This suggests the possibility that “the biblical text . . . might be susceptible of a liberating interpretation, even of its” very problematic parts (48). Indeed, the biblical texts themselves allow us at times to “call into question some of the material content of the Bible itself” (49). “Interpretation is the process of discerning what the text means in relation to the issues that exercise the contemporary community by interacting – from within the contemporary context – with what the text says in its own compositional context.  This means the community might experience a particular text as an object lesson in and warning against evil, rather than as a formulation of the divine will” (49-50). In this way the Bible may still serve as a revelatory and religiously authoritative text for modern LDS Christians (and other Christians).  It should also be noted that point (6) does not undermine our learning about the historical contexts, etc. of the Biblical texts, but rather prompts us to make that dimension of Scripture study a part of our dialogic interaction with the text.

Theological Implications

Thus there are many reasons why the Biblical texts are particularly relevant for Mormonism regardless of their many problems. Important theological conclusions from my reflections above include: Scriptural texts are not inerrant, always scientifically or historically accurate, and at times are ethically problematic.  Indeed, sometimes they are good examples of what not to do.  Moreover, the Inspiration of Biblical Scripture (meaning that we can recognize God’s involvement at points in its history, composition, and preservation, and its ongoing interpretation in the life of the Church) can still be affirmed, although this is done so in a more qualified way. Additionally, Revelation cannot be equated specifically with the words of the Biblical texts.  Indeed, Revelation may be found in many other places, including nature, culture, or personal experiences; but all of them necessarily require human interpretation which is subject to human weaknesses and limitations (see the Sandra Schneiders link for further details on what is Revelation).  Further, Biblical Scripture is not necessarily materially normative for our religious praxis; rather, it provides an important component for our religious, spiritual, and theological reflection on important subjects as we (both individually and collectively) utilize the text in contemporary concrete situations along with other interpretive mechanisms (e.g., ethical analysis, concerns for the poor or the environment, etc.).  Finally, by recognizing the limitations of Biblical Scripture (and Scripture more generally), we are encouraged to interact with God in many ways, not only through Scripture.  It forces us to come face to face with the divine ourselves, in many ways placing the responsibility to do so in upon us.

*This post draws on a previous post I wrote concerning Scriptural hermeneutics based on the work of Sandra Schneiders: “The Bible and Feminism” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 31-57.

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