Scripture Study

Latter-day Saints are admonished to spend some portion of time every day in scripture study, with the family if there are children at home, but also in private. The practice is an ideal. If my own experience and the things I hear from younger people in my congregation is an accurate guide to actual Mormon practice, then this remains an ideal, especially in families with young children or children to be ferried to schools. We strive to meet that ideal, though many of us find it difficult to do so consistently.

But why this admonition? Mormon understanding of scripture is different than that of other Christians. We believe that anything given by a priesthood authority speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost is scripture (D&C 68:4). Presumably the same thing could be said about other things spoken or written under the influence of the Holy Ghost, whether by a priesthood leader or not. But not all inspired writing is canonized scripture.

Canonized scripture is that which the Church has received as inspired and that it has agreed is a source of guidance and inspiration for human beings in general. What we have received and recognized as canonical through both communal wisdom and ecclesiastical authority is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). The LDS scriptural canon consists of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

But things could have been different. Some of the books that many call the Apocrypha could have been included in the Bible. The Wisdom of Solomon comes to mind. Other books could have been omitted, perhaps Philemon.

The same thing is true of the other Mormon scriptures. The Book of Mormon could have included the 116 manuscript pages that were lost. Or its original editors, Mormon and Moroni, might have chosen a somewhat different selection from the inspired works available to them. The Doctrine and Covenants has been revised a number of times, including or excluding particular modern revelations. In fact, as Mormons understand scripture, it remains likely that additional revelations will be added to the Doctrine and Covenants at some point. Presumably the Pearl of Great Price could also include more or less than it does.

We are not wedded to these and only these canonized books as the word of God. So why are we admonished to read canonized scriptures daily? Why not read any inspired writings, canonized or not?  

Because, we trust the tradition that began shortly after Jesus' ascension, when Christians began to collect and share with one another those texts in which they agreed one could find the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Because we trust the tradition that began with Joseph Smith and that has been overseen both by him and by successive LDS prophets. Those traditions tell us that thousands, even millions of readers before us have found spiritual profit in these books. We have their witness that one can encounter the Holy Spirit through them.

Those who read scripture need not be scriptural scholars to profit from them. As Karl Barth argued, those who read the scriptures attend to the divine message in them and, more important, to the revelation of God that can come through that reading. For that they need not know the history of the text in question or the language from which it has been translated.

The tools of history and language can give a reader additional insight, but to say that a text is scriptural is to say that it points us to something that can be seen and experienced without those tools.

Reading scripture, though, is not what we sometimes assume. It is not like reading a manual of instruction or a history. In those cases, I come to the text with a question for it to answer: What should I do if I wish to . . . ? What are the details of that event? Reading scripture, I come to the text to be questioned, to be brought up short.

I may hear Samuel's "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12:7) and find myself convicted. Or perhaps Jesus' admonition to the rich young man will strike my heart, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor" (Mt. 19:21), and I will wonder about the state of my soul. Moroni's admonition to ask the Father about the truth of the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4-5) may strike a non-Mormon seeker, bringing her to her knees in prayer—or it may make a lifelong Mormon wonder whether her witness is what she has always thought it was. In any such case, openness to such possibilities is openness to the Spirit. It is openness to being taught.

If I come to scripture open to the possibility of such experiences, of being surprised by the Holy Ghost and its demands, I will learn from them, though I cannot know in advance what I will learn. My life is shaped by scripture when that happens. Presumably that shaping is the point of the admonition to daily scripture study.

12/2/2022 9:09:22 PM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.