Balancing tradition with faith and scholarship: a Mormon application of Peter Enns

Balancing tradition with faith and scholarship: a Mormon application of Peter Enns October 29, 2010

In my own struggles to balance faith and tradition with scholarship, I find it useful to see how others have done so, particularly when I see close structural parallels between the two traditions. Peter Enns speaks from a Protestant perspective but Protestants aren’t the sole source of useful insight. I’ve enjoyed Jewish perspectives more, explored in fictional narratives like The Chosen and The Promise. The tensions between traditional views and scholarship  that Enns highlights among Protestants (and Evangelicals in particular) are also found in Mormonism, and I highly recommend his book. The topics that bring these tensions to the surface appear mostly in the Old Testament: the age of the earth, creation, the genre or nature of the creation stories, historicity of Job and Jonah, etc. Further down the rabbit hole, one must deal with source criticism (or, Did Moses Write Genesis-Deuteronomy?), multiple authors of Isaiah, and other issues.

In the last year, I’ve become a big fan of Enns, a Harvard-trained Evangelical Old Testament scholar who has generated some controversy. Enns writes for laypeople, has his own blog, and participates at the fascinating Biologos site. Enns recently participated in a panel asking, can the Bible be read critically and religiously? (His very readable paper is available from that that link.) The three participants were Enns, Marc Brettler (Judaism; also a big fan) and Dan Harrington (Catholicism; I’m unfamiliar with him.) Noting that he can only speak for a certain type of Protestant, Enns

“focus[es] on the reasons why Protestants have the particular problem they do with higher criticism, and then offer[s] some brief suggestions about how to move beyond the impasse. I attribute the Protestant dis-ease to three factors: (1) the Reformation concept of sola Scriptura, (2)Protestant identity coming out of the 19th century, and (3) the very nature of the Christian Bible.”

Let me summarize each of his points and the LDS parallel.

  1. Sola scriptura– For Protestants, God’s earthly authority is vested in the Bible. For Mormons, God’s earthly authority is vested in the living prophets and Apostles, not in the books they have produced in history.  “To function authoritatively, [the Bible] has to be clear and consistent—higher criticism introduces ambiguity and diversity in the Bible. It has to be somehow truthful, trustworthy, functionally without at least major blunders—higher criticism points out errors and contradictions….Higher-criticism…is seen to undermine that authority.” Mormonism formally rejects the inerrancy of  scripture (an important aspect of sola scriptura), although in practice many individual Mormons seem to embrace a kind of prophetic inerrancy. What higher criticism undermines for Mormonism is not the Bible, but the authority of modern Apostles and prophets who have given interpretations that run counter to higher criticism. What does it do for our popular conception of prophets if prophets can be wrong?
  2. Protestant identity– Briefly put, tradition carries weight in both Mormonism and Protestantism. Current attitudes towards academic understandings of scripture are the result of statements and policies set in motion long ago. What would it mean to reverse a tradition decades or even centuries old now? Mormonism can certainly make great reversals (see: Priesthood ban, polygamy), though they tend to be rare and somewhat divisive, even culturally cataclysmic. Reversals of policy tend to be more visible than reversals of specific teachings, which are often allowed to simply fade away and be replaced. Because Mormonism is centralized and Protestantism, well, not centralized, reversals tend to occur at different levels. A Protestant who changes his mind simply finds a congregation and Pastor that match his beliefs because, says Jack Meyers, “In Protestantism, it’s more trouble to reform your own denomination than it is to simply move on to one that suits you better.” Enns concludes this section of his paper by saying, “Until a new social narrative is written—which is happening and which is why there is some volatility in these circles—conflict will continue.” That’s certainly the case in LDS circles, whether on the lay level (as seen in the conflict on various LDS blogs) or at higher levels.
  3. Role of Scripture– Enns (quoting Jon Levenson) contrasts Jewish and Christian relationships to scripture.

    “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved; for Christians it is a message to be proclaimed.” This is an important distinction that helps explain why Protestants have an uneasy relationship with higher criticism. Not to oversimplify, but the history of Jewish interpretation of the Bible is notoriously comfortable with problems in the Bible. The Jewish Bible is not flat but complex, containing many peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes. Jewish interpretation understands this and works with it. That is because connecting with God through scripture is a journey, a conversation, an argument, a struggle. Hence, higher criticism—although still a challenge—is less of a problem, at least insofar as it , too, points out the peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes of the Bible.

    For Protestants—and I should broaden this to all Christians—the Bible is not there to set us on an exegetical adventure where we discover God in the problems. It is there to proclaim what God has done in Christ. The Bible is a grand narrative that as a whole tells ultimately ONE story with a climax: the crucified and risen Son of God. The NT authors model this on virtually every page: they go to great lengths to explain how Jesus of Nazareth completes Israel’s story and gives it coherence. Taken as a whole, the Christian Bible has a point—a message to be proclaimed….Higher criticism does not unify the Bible but breaks it down into its various and conflicting messages.

    For Mormons as well, our extra-Biblical scripture serves primarily as a pointer, a message, not a puzzle to be wrestled with. Mormons turn to their scriptures for answers, not questions, and many are uncomfortable with a wrestling-with-messy-scripture approach, one that includes ambiguity and conflicting views. Moreover, common LDS rhetoric tends to reinforce a view of scripture as the harmonius fountain of all knowledge, with the unified answers to every question. One example that acknowledges the commonality of that view while nuancing it somewhat was made by Elder Oaks:

    “We often hear it said that the scriptures have the answers to all of our questions. Why is this so? It is not that the scriptures contain a specific answer to every question—even to every doctrinal question. We have continuing revelation in our Church because the scriptures do not have a specific answer to every possible question. We say that the scriptures contain the answers to every question because the scriptures can lead us to every answer.”

LDS have one other contributing factor in opposing some of these academic explorations, namely, our other scriptures. Casual readings of the Book of Mormon, Moses, and Abraham seem to confirm, for example, Mosaic authorship of Genesis. My own views (which I’ve presented in public, but not online) are that these readings overreach considerably in their claims, while simultaneously not taking account of several key assumptions.

What of the future for LDS? I think any kind of declaration or general conference talk unlikely to address these issues. More likely is that as time goes on, more nuanced views of the genre and history of the Bible (and other LDS scripture) will find their way into sources that trickle down into common LDS thought- BYU publications, CES manuals, local Gospel Doctrine and Institute teachers. They’re already all over the internet on LDS blogs and discussion boards. That said, I can’t imagine  these topics causing any crisis in the Church that would create heavy discussion at the highest levels the way other topics have, but as change comes on the grass-roots level and local leaders slowly become area leaders, views at the top may change. Many of those views expressed in the past did not come by revelation but by tradition, and the passage of time will create a new one.

(I have a follow-up post to appear in a few days.)

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