The Heresies of Father Brown and the Future of LDS Scriptural Studies

The Heresies of Father Brown and the Future of LDS Scriptural Studies July 12, 2013

With the new direction at the Maxwell Institute, the launch of the Mormon Interpreter, the latest about the BYU New Testament Commentary project, and the search for a new dean of Religious Education, which culminated last week, there has been some talk about the future of LDS scriptural studies, including, but hardly focused on, the Bible.

In talking about the future, we might consider the history of scriptural studies in other faith traditions, such as Catholicism. Broadly speaking, Catholics were late to the game of biblical scholarship, a game that Protestants had been playing for some time. Catholics were late to the game because they were discouraged from participating until changes in the 1940s and 60s.

One of the most prominent Catholics to engage in mainstream biblical scholarship was Raymond Brown (1928-1998), priest and professor. As a professor, he was and still is well respected for his extensive publications, representing the middle of the road, hardly fundamentalist on the one hand or radically skeptical on the other. As a priest, though, he was and still is something of a polarizing figure, either loved or hated by his fellow Catholics.

Mormons, it would seem, have been and continue to be discouraged from participating in the game of biblical scholarship, even at the level of textual criticism and translation (see e.g. this), not to mention historical criticism and, in a word, subsequent theory, or in a few more words, subsequent narrative, social scientific, and cultural criticisms—none of these kinds of criticism necessarily being mutually exclusive.

But if things were to change, and if one day in the future there were to be an LDS Raymond or Raymona Brown, how might that turn out?

There is no way to know for certain of course until we reach that point. If we reach that point. And there is no reason to expect that Mormonism’s history with biblical scholarship will mirror that of Catholicism. All the same, it does not hurt to consider their history in thinking about our future.

What would an LDS Raymond or Raymona Brown be, first off?

This would be someone who publishes widely on the Bible, who serves as president of the Mormon Biblical Association (the imaginary LDS equivalent of the Catholic Biblical Association), as well as the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas.

In other words, an LDS Raymond or Raymona Brown is generations away at the absolute soonest. For one thing, there is no Mormon equivalent of the Catholic Biblical Association. Imagine a religious scientific association of LDS biblical scholars and their colleagues, having 1500 members, a quarterly journal with a subscription of 3800, and a monograph series. (Those are the recent numbers for the CBA, not what they were when Brown was president.)

Anyhow, say the time comes, and conditions are right. Then what?

Some Mormons, even a few high ranking Mormons, might be supportive. Pope Benedict XVI, before he became pope, is purported to have said once that he “would be very happy if we had many exegetes like Father Brown.”

But other Mormons, even among those with advanced degrees, and even among those with training in biblical and related studies, are likely to be opposed to the kind of work that would result from LDS engagement with mainstream biblical scholarship. Brown was and is considered to be a dissident, heretic, and so forth, by some of his fellow Catholics who have written against him in books (at least one anyway, entitled The New Biblical Theorists, by George Kelly) and various online venues. Like here (January 2010) and here (May 2010) and here (April 2009) and here (January 2008).

One Christian apologist with a bachelor of divinity degree recently wrote the following in an online opinion piece punctuated by mocking and anti-intellectual scare quotes:

‘Father’ Raymond Brown (1928-1998) was a Roman Catholic “Bible scholar” who spent many years undermining the New Testament, something most Catholics have never forgiven him for.

This apologist cites another, Catholic apologist with a BA in religion and an MA in theology, as well as a PhD, who has this to say about Brown’s heresies:

Up until his death in 1998, Fr. Brown was upheld by many as the premier Catholic biblical scholar. Unfortunately, despite his well-recognized scholarly erudition, he has probably done more to undue [sic] much that we have held sacred in biblical studies than any one single person in Catholic history. … That a man with such a liberal background and radical ideas could actually make it to the top of his field in Catholic biblical scholarship gives a good indication of the sad state of affairs both at the Vatican and Catholic academia.

What sorts of things did Brown write in his middle-of-the-road scholarship that were so pernicious? What might an LDS scholar who engages in mainstream biblical scholarship write?

Well, for starters, Brown argued that the idea of Jesus’ preexistence in Paul and John and the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth in Matthew and Luke were originally separate, and that they were only harmonized as the orthodox doctrine of incarnation through parthenogenesis in the second century (The Birth of the Messiah, p.141-142).

What would LDS reactions to this be? What should they be? (Before turning immediately to our extra-biblical scriptures, it might be informative to try find the ideas of Jesus’ pre-existence and virgin birth together anywhere in the New Testament.)

As final food for thought, the Catholic apologist quoted above in opposition to Brown, the one who says that Brown “has probably done more to undue [sic] much that we have held sacred in biblical studies than any one single person in Catholic history,” this apologist, by the way, argued in his massive dissertation, now published in three volumes, that the earth, not the sun, is at the center of our solar, er, geo system.

Truly, Galileo was wrong.

And Father Brown was a heretic.

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