A Word on a “Liberal” Vs a “Conservative” Understanding of Scripture

I recently saw a blog post by Dr. William Hamblin that responded to a Round-Table panel on the topic: “Is Scripture Relevant.”  I have since gone back and watched the panel discussion and came away with sentiments similar to Dr. Hamblin’s.  As Dr. Hamblin suggested, some of the ideas presented in the discussion can be boiled down to, at least in part, the differences between a liberal versus a conservative understanding of what scripture is and how it functions in a community.

The LDS understanding of scripture can appear, for those on the outside looking in, to be very complex.  Most Mormons could legitimately be described as having both a liberal and a conservative view of scripture.  For many of my protestant/evangelical friends and colleagues, our dismissal of the idea of sola scriptura (i.e., the Bible is the inspired word of God and as such is of higher authority than tradition or ecclesiastical authority),  or of scriptural inerrancy is a very liberal position.  For some, like Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, our position, in this regard, is perhaps not so radical (although our acceptance of additional scripture beyond the Bible is).

As I went through my graduate degrees in theology and Biblical Studies, I had many discussions with troubled evangelical students whose world seemed to be crashing down around them because in class after class they were presented with evidence that the process of the scriptural canon coming together was a rather messy one and that there are many conflicting manuscripts, apparent contradictions, and human errors that entered into that process.  Some expressed to me that they had lost their faith or were in the process of losing it, because of these revelations (if you pardon the pun).  They wondered how I was able to get through my studies without feeling so shaken.  I would tell that my Mormon faith taught and prepared me to accept a view of scripture that allowed for errancy — the fallible hand of human beings in the transmission of the inerrant word of God.  It is one of our articles of faith that “we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as far as it is translated (or ‘transmitted’) correctly.”  But for many of my Christian friends, this is an unacceptably liberal position.

As I listened to some of the comments made at this recent panel discussion, including in the Q&A period, I found some ideas expressed that, in my opinion, would be “unacceptably liberal” in the minds of most Latter-day Saints.  In the interest of brevity, I will focus on a few specific responses to a question that concerned the difference between scripture and literature in a more general sense.  I realize that in doing this, I am taking these responses out of their full context, but I hope that I am not misrepresenting the speakers’ intended meaning.  I don’t mention the presenters’ names because my purpose is not to criticize them personally nor their research in general, but simply to discuss these particular ideas.

One of the presenters responded by saying: “What is the difference between a prophet and a poet? I’m not sure.”

Another stated:  “I don’t think there is a rigid distinction between literature and scripture.  Scripture is precisely that — anything has the potential to be scripture if it helps you deepen your relationship to the divine world.”  He went on to explain (this is my summary) that basically any literature that helps a community bond together and access deity as they understand it should be considered scripture.

Now this is a liberal view of scripture in a different sense than what I explained above.  In this regard, most Latter-day Saints’ view of scripture would be comparatively conservative.  For most Mormons, including myself, this is a much more broad definition of scripture than we would be willing to accept or use.  As Bill Hamblin explains in his post, this view defines as scripture whatever a community accepts or believes scripture to be.  He goes on to define how he sees scripture, a view with which I think most Latter-day Saints would agree:

This perspective ignores that scripture is scripture because of something in its nature and essence, not in our response to it. It is and remains scripture even if no one believes in it. Scripture is a manifestation of God to humans that humans can accept or reject. But human rejection of scripture does not change its scriptural nature; that comes from God. Scripture is scripture whether we believe it or not.

Hamblin’s response speaks to the difference between what we could call a liberal, sociological, or secular view of what scripture is and what most believers understand scripture to be.  The former seems to side-step the question of the objective reality of God — a real Being who speaks to mankind — and the question of whether God can actually speak to mankind.  Instead, it sees scripture as something subjective that becomes “the word of God” only to the extent that a particular community imagines it to be such.  Although this view makes understanding the diversity of religious beliefs and the proliferation of sacred texts throughout the world and throughout history easier, this perspective is not sufficient (in my view), to explain what many Latter-day Saints have experienced with the Word of God.

Again, speaking for “most Latter-day Saints,” we view the Word of God as directly inspired by Deity.  Although we acknowledge that this Word is filtered by the inspired man/woman of God through his/her mortal mind and human language, and that these factors must always be taken into account, the idea that there is an essential core of direct divine communication cannot be denied or dismissed.

Our belief in and loyalty to the Word of God that has been revealed to us is ultimately based on our testimony that those who delivered that message were indeed called, elected, and inspired by God and entrusted with his divine communication.  If we do not believe this about an individual, then we are not obligated to accept their word as divinely inspired.  However, as Dr. Hamblin argued, this does not change the fact that either God did speak to them or He did not.

Based on this distinction, there may be elements in the books that we generally acknowledge as Scripture that may not, in fact, be divinely inspired by God.  As the belief states, we accept, for example, the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly.” This exception provides for some ambiguity as to what exactly we should accept to be the actual word of God and what is erroneously transmitted as such.  However, this obstacle is largely alleviated by the LDS belief in modern revelation.  Unlike the protestant reliance on sola scriptura, which, as I discussed above, can be frustrated by the realization that the process of the transmission of scripture is indeed imperfect, Latter-day Saints have another, more immediate source of authoritative communication with God — the living oracle.

In the first section of our modern scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants, we are informed, in no uncertain terms, that the word of the Lord is the same whether it comes from His own mouth or by the voice of his living servants (D&C 1:38).

Furthermore, in D&C 18:34–36, the Saints are specifically instructed to not consider his revealed word as the words “of men nor of man.”  Another way of saying this is that the words of a prophet are most emphatically not the same as the words of a poet.  Scripture is not the same as literature in general.  Not simply “anything” has the potential to be scripture, in a true sense. As Jesus Christ himself states through his prophet:

34 These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man;

35 For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power you could not have them;

36 Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words.

These divine pronouncements do not accord with the liberal definition of scripture that I have discussed here.  So, in this sense, most believing Latter-day Saints have a conservative view regarding what scripture is.  When we begin to argue that the Scriptures are not what they claim to be or that they are something other than what they claim to be, we begin to tread on unstable ground.

A case in point is a discussion that I had not long ago with a colleague from the Community of Christ church (formerly known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).  The CofC Church is largely recognized as a more liberal branch of the Restorationist movement — one that has aligned itself much more closely with “mainstream” Protestantism than has the LDS Church.  As a side note, I have found that some Latter-day Saints that describe themselves as liberal tend to idealize or sympathize with the Community of Christ church to varying degrees and for various reasons (see this blog post).  As I was saying, in this conversation I had with the colleague of mine from the CofC, he was explaining to me the liberal position that many in their church now take towards the status of the Book of Mormon as scripture — or what it means to accept the book as “scripture.”  Although their church officially accepts the Book of Mormon as part of their scriptural canon, the definition of what that actually means varies.  Starting from the highest levels of their ecclesiastical hierarchy, it has become popular to see the book from a more subjective understanding of scripture than the conservative position I have described.  Many (but not all) have called into question the historicity of the Book of Mormon and this seems to correlate with a diminishing of its estimation as the Word of God when compared to the Bible.  My colleague informed me that belief in the Book of Mormon is now seen as optional among many members and that in many new CofC congregations that are being opened up in areas such as Africa, ministers are not even mentioning the book as part of their scriptural canon.

I am not trying to make a direct correlation with the type of thoughts expressed by the panelists in this Round-Table discussion and the direction the Community of Christ has taken with their understanding of the scriptures of the Restoration.  I again acknowledge that I have merely taken a few statements from a longer discussion and that these statements likely do not represent the presenters’ full perspective regarding scripture.  However, I do feel that it is very important to privilege what we know to be the Word of God over other types of literature — including what other civilizations have understood or considered to be scripture.  Again, this distinction comes from the authority we afford to the persons that we consider today to be prophets, seers, and revelators, from the time of Joseph Smith to the present day.  If we consider them to be called and inspired by God, then what they say (when inspired by the Holy Ghost) is scripture and what they designate as scripture is such.

I will close with another passage from modern scripture:

D&C 68:4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

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28 Comments

  1. Posted July 11, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting thoughts and well worth the read. My particular model of scripture has a strong grounding in priesthood authority. Scripture is roughly those writings that those who are in authority to do so declare by inspiration to be binding upon the entire world. The difference between the poet and the prophet is the priesthood authority.

  2. Carl C
    Posted July 12, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    David, I agree largely with your assessment. I think the few minutes they spent answering that question were unfortunate. I especially think that it is unfortunate in that, later on, there was a good and robust discussion of prophetic authority, in which I don’t recall disagreeing with anything they said.

    I wonder what you might make of this thought: You say, above, “Our belief in and loyalty to the Word of God that has been revealed to us is ultimately based on our testimony that those who delivered that message were indeed called, elected, and inspired by God and entrusted with his divine communication.”

    Indeed, then, not only is canonizing scripture a way of us, as a community, accepting an particular message, but also of accepting a particular messenger. It should also be noted that not every prophet leaves behind a written record, so we’re also talking about very specific kinds of divine messages-namely ones that can be written down and transmitted over time and that can be accepted as scripture by the community.

    Also, I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are on canonized scripture vs. non-canonized scripture (which presumably would be things spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost as you note from D&C 68:4, but not voted on by the body of the church).

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Hi Carl,
      Please forgive the delayed response. I, like you, did not disagree with everything that was said in the panel discussion. I took issue with those few statements, however, and wanted to comment on them because I feel that they stem from a wider sentiment that surfaces from time to time. It’s a largely secular, academic view of scripture or religion in general that I don’t agree with.
      I agree with what you’ve said here regarding what we accept as scripture — the message and the messenger. Our view of what can be considered scripture for us is a bit more nuanced than what I have explained here, but I was merely attempting to create a distinction between the idea that scripture is whatever a community declares it to be and the notion that scripture consists of the words that God speaks to human beings. That is the definition of scripture that I am working with here.
      Following this basic line of thought, “non-canonized” scripture would still be scripture if it was indeed spoken by God, but does not become part of the canon until it is presented to and accepted by the body of the church.

  3. SmallAxe
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    You raise some interesting questions, however I wish you didn’t raise them in the context of the “conservative” vs. “liberal” divide. Let me suggest that those terms do more than they say. In other words, they are not simply about separating things for the sake of analysis, but they perform a social function by serving to sift the bad from the good without the need for deep analysis. I think your point would be better served by going into more depth about the position that claims that scripture is not defined by God. You might see, for instance, that such a position is not actually ruling God out of the picture, and therefore your worries are not wholly justified.

    As far as your specific argument is concerned, let me raise at least one point of criticism. You say that your problem with the so-called liberal position is that it makes scripture a matter of subjective opinion. You endorse a more objective view similar to Hamblin, who states: “Scripture is scripture whether we believe it or not.”

    I’m not so sure you can fully endorse this objective view. If we look at the question “What makes something scripture for LDSs?” we might come up with the answer “Because God said it is.” However, in looking at the issue closer, it really becomes a matter of the community assenting to the notion that God said it is. I, as a LDS, might state that the Lord of the Rings is scripture. However, the rest of the LDS community will likely not accept it. So is LotR scripture or not? I don’t see how we can answer that question without recourse to the larger community. You gesture in this direction when you state, “Our belief in and loyalty to the Word of God that has been revealed to us is ultimately based on our testimony that those who delivered that message were indeed called, elected, and inspired by God and entrusted with his divine communication. If we do not believe this about an individual, then we are not obligated to accept their word as divinely inspired.”

    In other words, the way in which scripture is defined in the LDS community is by recourse to experiences and beliefs about those in authority within the community. My sense is that your disagreement with the roundtable isn’t about the subjective/objective distinction, but about a perceived challenge to the authorities within the LDS community to define scripture. You hear them saying, “Anyone can define scripture,” when you think they should be saying, “Our prophets have the right to define scripture.”

    Let me know where you think I’ve gone wrong.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 14, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      SmallAxe,
      Thank you for your comments. I understand that “liberal” and “conservative” are loaded terms that carry a lot of baggage. I was alerted to the panel discussion, as I noted, by Bill Hamblin’s blog post. These are the terms that he used and I found them to be an appropriate starting point for my discussion. This is not a political debate and I did not intend to create a division between social liberals and conservatives — I hoped readers would understand that I was referring only to the ways in which we read and define scripture. As I noted, Latter-day Saints can easily be classified as both liberal and conservative in the way they approach scripture.

      I can’t accept your LoTR example because you are not (as far as I know) considered by anyone to be a prophet. You are (I’m quite sure) not the president of the LDS church. You have no authority to be making such declarations for the Church. Furthermore, the author of LoTR never claimed to be a prophet, nor did he claim that the words of that book came directly from God. Your assertion would be totally baseless and there would be no reason for anyone to accept it. However, as I indicated, Joseph Smith declaring that the Book of Mormon is the word of God is a completely different story. Brigham Young declaring that some of Joseph Smith’s revelations are scripture is, likewise, a different matter.

      You said, “My sense is that your disagreement with the roundtable isn’t about the subjective/objective distinction, but about a perceived challenge to the authorities within the LDS community to define scripture.”

      I don’t think you have understood me fully. Although I may be seeing this as a challenge to authorities within the LDS Church (not necessarily), I still argue for a subjective/objective distinction. No matter how much LoTR fans want Tolkien’s books to be scripture or claim that they are or even vote as a group that they should be considered scripture, that does not mean that the words in those books were ever uttered by God. However, I do believe that, for example, D&C 68 was given by Jesus Christ to the prophet Joseph Smith. I see this as an objective reality. It doesn’t matter whether the LDS community, or any other community, believes that Jesus said those words or not. Either he did or he did not — this reality is not altered by whether anyone believes it or not.

      As a group, we must decide whether or not to believe that the message was from God and whether we accept it as “canon” or not, or accept that our leaders consider it to be canon, but that is a separate issue. Maybe I’m just working with a different definition of scripture than the panelists were, but I am thinking along the lines of D&C 68 — what the Lord says through his servants is scripture. Whether or not God actually communicated the message is an objective reality and not subjective. If we accept this definition of scripture (God’s communication with man = scripture), then to say that persons/communities can decide that whatever literature they want is scripture is to essentially deny that God exists or that he can actually speak to mankind. By this definition, a community could say “to us, this book is scripture,” but that would not necessarily mean that it is, in reality, scripture. Do you understand where I’m coming from?

  4. SmallAxe
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I understand where you are coming from. Your position is that scripture is a matter of fact, and fact does not change because of interpretation. My point is that fact, at least for human beings, cannot exist independent of interpretation. Further, since an individual comes to know something is scripture by a subjective process (i.e., revelation), there is no objective means of verifying something as scripture. Scripture, as such, is defined by the community through an act of faith that their subjective experiences are in fact shared and represent reality. In LDS culture this is currently done through a structure of authority where prophets and apostles negotiate scripture for the entire community.

    Let me try to make this more clear. If Bro. X believed a book he authored to be scripture, how are we to know it isn’t? If we’ve prayed about it, and believe that we’ve received an answer that it isn’t scripture, how do we adjudicate that with Bro. X’s experience of praying about it and receiving the answer that it is? How are we to discover who has access to “reality”? The inability to answer this question without appealing to an LDS form of communal consent is why I say that you really aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) interested in the objective/subjective distinction.

    Let me also try to explain it this way. Are the Lectures on Faith scripture? Certainly one way to respond to this question is to talk about differing degrees of scripture, but even if we do this, it’s still the case that previous to 1921 the LoF were a part of the highest canon of scripture. If scripture is an objective fact that does not change, we are still left in a situation where we (LDSs) do not fully grasp that fact, or we are left to interpret that fact according to our times/understanding.

    So I think you go way too far when you remark, “[T]o say that persons/communities can decide that whatever literature they want is scripture is to essentially deny that God exists or that he can actually speak to mankind.” To say that communities decide what constitutes scripture is say each community makes subjective judgments about the word of God. Mormons take one approach of adjudicating this issue; and to be considered Mormon one might have to accept certain aspects of this process. My hunch, as such, is what makes you uncomfortable about the panel is your perception that it challenges this process adjudication.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Sorry to take so long to see and respond to your comments SmallAxe. It’s just that I was holding out for the possibility that BigAxe might make a comment so that we could have a real discussion. :) Just a little joke.

      You make some good points and I can certainly understand where you are coming from. I think we are still talking past each other, though. We are using two different perspectives on what constitutes scripture. I would say that mine is a celestial point of view, while yours is terrestrial (or telestial?). ;)

      You said: “If scripture is an objective fact that does not change, we are still left in a situation where we (LDSs) do not fully grasp that fact, or we are left to interpret that fact according to our times/understanding.”

      According to the way I am defining scripture (God’s words given to mankind), there is a difference between scripture and canon or what we include in our “standard works.” You are using a description of scripture which entails what the community/church decides should be a part of their canon.

      If we look at the LoF from the definition I am using, I don’t believe that we can call them scripture. As far as I am aware, the lectures were never considered to be revelation. They were eventually removed from the D&C for that very reason — “they were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons” (from the official explanation given in post-1921 editions). I don’t see the LoF as a good example of LDSs not fully grasping what scripture is. I’m not sure who decided to include it in the D&C or why, but it doesn’t appear that the lectures were ever considered to be scripture in the objective sense that I am using. There was never any confusion over whether or not they were actually the revealed word of God.

      Your other example regarding Bro. X also makes little sense according to the definition I am using. You used a similarly ineffective example in your first comment. If we understand scripture as words spoken by God himself, then Bro. X’s subjective experience does not affect whether something is scripture or not. And for that matter, the Church’s communal consent does not affect whether it is scripture or not either — it only determines what the members of the Church will accept as such.

      An example along these lines would be the acceptance by the Church of Joseph F. Smith’s revelation concerning salvation for the dead (D&C 138). If the Church had not accepted this vision into the canon of scripture, does that mean that God never gave any such revelation to President Smith? No, it doesn’t. And the fact that it is revelation from God given to the prophet, according to my definition, means that it is scripture. According to your definition, the fact that the community accepted it makes it scripture. This is where our definitions clash. But according to D&C 68, my understanding is legitimate (not saying that yours is not as well).

      I stand by my remark that you criticize at the end of your comments. According to my legitimate definition of scripture as an objective reality — words/ideas that have come from God himself through the Holy Ghost — a community cannot decide what to classify as scripture. The community can decide what they will accept and use in their scriptural canon (as we saw in your LoF example), but this does not have direct bearing on whether or not those texts were actually spoken/given by God.

      You say that you think that I perceive that the panel “challenges this process [of] adjudication.” I never said that. I have no issue with the panel. I just found a couple of isolated comments objectionable. I do believe that there is a big difference between a prophet and a random poet. I believe that there is a rigid distinction between scripture (God’s word spoken to man) and literature (human produced), and that scripture is not merely stories that a community decides will bring them closer to the divine. Now, I do acknowledge that there can be different definitions of what scripture is (or perhaps, as you mentioned, different “degrees” of scripture) and that you and the panelists are using a definition of scripture that describes it from the point of view of human beings — what humans designate as their “sacred writings” is scripture, whether it actually comes from God or not. And you are saying that because we are human, we cannot know whether a text is scripture or not except through subjective experience and established processes of adjudication. However, in my view, to restrict ourselves to this perspective is essentially to deny the testimony given by the Holy Ghost — to relegate it to the “subjective.” It’s like “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (JS-H 1; 2 Tim 3:5). I see the witness of the Holy Ghost as an objective reality as well — something that is external to the self. I would agree that the feelings of the Spirit require a degree of interpretation, but when the Spirit is truly present it creates peace, clarity of mind and understanding, not division and contention. It answers questions instead of complicating, creating doubt and more questions.

      To say that the Enuma Elish, the Iliad, or the Star Wars trilogies should be considered to be on par with the Standard Works — that any of these could or should be considered scripture in the same way — is just irresponsible.

      • SmallAxe
        Posted July 19, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Hi David,

        Thanks again for continuing the conversation. There’s no hurry responding; I’m sure we’re both busy with other things (although I would appreciate you publishing my comment sooner rather than later). I actually don’t think we’re talking that much past each other. For the sake of the discussion we’re in agreement on the following points: We’re speaking as/about insiders here (how LDSs ought to conceptualize scripture); scripture is the word of God; human beings can mistake things for scripture. I think, rather, that you are not fully understanding my position (and admittedly this may be my fault in not explaining it clearly). Allow me a chance to clarify.

        And the fact that it is revelation from God given to the prophet, according to my definition, means that it is scripture. According to your definition, the fact that the community accepted it makes it scripture.

        To say that the Enuma Elish, the Iliad, or the Star Wars trilogies should be considered to be on par with the Standard Works — that any of these could or should be considered scripture in the same way — is just irresponsible.

        To be clear, I am not saying that _anything_ is scripture. I’m saying that calling something scripture is an act of faith arrived by means of interpretation. We have an experience and we choose to believe that this experience is revelation. Further, even if the degree of interpretation is so small that we _knew_ it was from God, such an experience is still an individual experience and we are left to communal means when proving something is scripture to someone else.

        While this may seem subjective, it is still the case that there are better and worse interpretations. And because we can communicate with other people, it is possible to have some kind of shared understanding of experience.

        This does mean, though, that we are capable of error in interpretation and communication; and therefore we should exercise some degree of epistemic humility in our assertions of scripture (as the LoF example demonstrates below).

        I believe that there is a rigid distinction between scripture (God’s word spoken to man) and literature (human produced),

        If this is the case, then you would need to argue for a means by which we can recognize such a rigid distinction, and then argue for the means by which we can demonstrate to others such a distinction. As the LoF example shows, such a distinction is not clear at least when it comes to sharing an understanding of the distinction.

        And you are saying that because we are human, we cannot know whether a text is scripture or not except through subjective experience and established processes of adjudication. However, in my view, to restrict ourselves to this perspective is essentially to deny the testimony given by the Holy Ghost — to relegate it to the “subjective.” It’s like “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (JS-H 1; 2 Tim 3:5). I see the witness of the Holy Ghost as an objective reality as well — something that is external to the self. I would agree that the feelings of the Spirit require a degree of interpretation, but when the Spirit is truly present it creates peace, clarity of mind and understanding, not division and contention. It answers questions instead of complicating, creating doubt and more questions.

        This is the closest you come to understanding my position. However, given that someone could have the same feelings when reading something LDSs would not count as scripture, it is insufficient for defining the means by which the individual would come to such knowledge. I’m curious to see you prove such an ability without appeal to a communal understanding (i.e., “the prophet said it is” would be appealing to a communal understanding).

        I’m not sure who decided to include [the LoF] in the D&C or why, but it doesn’t appear that the lectures were ever considered to be scripture in the objective sense that I am using. There was never any confusion over whether or not they were actually the revealed word of God.

        Let me make two points here:

        1) The full title of the 1835 D&C where the LoF were included was _Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God_.

        2) Here’s Bruce R. McConkie on the LoF:

        “In my judgment, it is the most comprehensive, inspired utterance that now exists in the English language – that exists in one place defining, interpreting, expounding, announcing, and testifying what kind of being God is. It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true.” (“The Lord God of Joseph Smith,” discourse delivered January 4, 1972, in Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1972), 4.)

        So, is the LoF scripture or not?

        My point in demonstrating this ambiguity is, again, not to pull the rug out from under you in saying that “anything goes” when it comes to defining scripture. Rather, my point is that the kinds of distinctions you are interested in (i.e., objective/subjective) are not the pertinent ones to pursue; especially when it comes to critiquing the MI panel. Your reactions are, in some sense, overreactions; and, truth be told, you really shouldn’t follow Hamblin when it comes to a theoretical analysis of religion.

        • David Larsen
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          SmallAxe,

          Thank you for your further discussion of this subject here. I am enjoying your responses and I appreciate your sincerity and fairness. You said a lot that makes sense to me and with which I don’t necessarily disagree.

          I’m saying that calling something scripture is an act of faith arrived by means of interpretation. We have an experience and we choose to believe that this experience is revelation. Further, even if the degree of interpretation is so small that we _knew_ it was from God, such an experience is still an individual experience and we are left to communal means when proving something is scripture to someone else.

          I get what you’re saying. I do. I just don’t really understand what your point is. This is how people, as a community, decide what they will accept as scripture. But this does not change the objective reality of whether God spoke it or not. And I realize that I am not using the same broad definition of “scripture” that the MI panelists were, but that was the point of this blog post. The panelists were defining scripture in a manner that would be foreign to most in the LDS community. If we define scripture as “the word of God,” then the Enuma Elish cannot be scripture.

          To be clear, I am not saying that _anything_ is scripture. I’m saying that calling something scripture is an act of faith arrived by means of interpretation. We have an experience and we choose to believe that this experience is revelation. Further, even if the degree of interpretation is so small that we _knew_ it was from God, such an experience is still an individual experience and we are left to communal means when proving something is scripture to someone else.

          This is why we generally don’t attempt to “prove” that the Book of Mormon is scripture to people who are interested in the Church. Missionaries are instructed to invite them to pray about the book with the objective of receiving their own revelation regarding its truthfulness. That’s how God works. The aim is to have a church full of members who have had their own witness directly from God that the LDS scriptures are, indeed, the word of God. The way you are speaking here appears to belittle this process.

          If this is the case, then you would need to argue for a means by which we can recognize such a rigid distinction, and then argue for the means by which we can demonstrate to others such a distinction.

          The means is what I have just outlined above, which the church actively encourages and teaches.

          This is the closest you come to understanding my position. However, given that someone could have the same feelings when reading something LDSs would not count as scripture, it is insufficient for defining the means by which the individual would come to such knowledge. I’m curious to see you prove such an ability without appeal to a communal understanding (i.e., “the prophet said it is” would be appealing to a communal understanding).

          Again, your argument does not do justice to the power of the witness of the Holy Ghost. Because of the way in which the Spirit operates, I do not believe that others could “have the same feelings” regarding their sacred writings that one would have when asking for a witness of LDS scripture. Of course I cannot speak for others, nor do I know what kind of feelings they have, nor do I doubt that they can have very strong feelings regarding their sacred texts. However, that does not mean that I believe that their experience is the same as the witness of the Spirit that is promised when one prays about, for example, the Book of Mormon. When this type of witness is taken into consideration, there is no need to “appeal to a communal understanding.” This is an individual experience and individual knowledge. This type of individual testimony is the strength of the LDS church. Helping others to feel and recognize the Spirit is what has traditionally driven missionary success in convert baptisms. The way you speak about this topic makes it seem as if you were not LDS or raised LDS but are a simply a scholar analyzing the merits and faults of a foreign faith.

          In response to your two points at the end:

          1) Just because the title of the 1835 D&C indicated that the texts of the book were chosen from revelations of God does not mean that all of the texts therein were considered to be revelations. It seems logical to me to consider that to be a general, overarching statement. I would like to see someone at that time or afterword who directly stated that the LoF were revelations. As I previously cited, post-1921 editions clearly stated that they were nothing more than theological lectures.

          2) Just because Bruce R. McConkie said that they were “in effect, eternal scripture” does not mean that they are the revealed word of God. I don’t think you would want to accept every opinion that Elder McConkie gave as absolute truth. He is obviously giving his opinion here on the LoF (which are pretty awesome), and provides a number of caveats (“in my judgment,” “in effect,” etc.). He does not say anything about having followed the process outlined above regarding praying to the Lord to know that it is scripture or any other method of receiving revelation regarding this matter. This is an isolated quote — an opinion that I believe the majority would not share and that Elder McConkie himself may not stand by if pressed on another occasion.

          I am not trying to say that there is absolutely no ambiguity in what LDS consider to be scripture or, more specifically, to be a part of their scriptural canon. What I am saying is that there is a big difference between what we consider to be scripture, defined as the Word of God, and what some peoples have considered to be sacred texts. Some are actually given by God and some are simply human-produced literature. And as Latter-day Saints, we should champion that difference. This should not be seen as a subjective designation — as if we believe our scriptures to be true but that does not carry any more weight than anyone else who likewise believes theirs to be true. I guess that type of discussion is fitting for academic circles, but I do not feel that such discussions are of much benefit to the LDS community. Furthermore, along these lines, I believe that the LDS community needs scholars who will boost their understanding of their own beliefs in a, yes, faith-promoting manner. There seem to be less and less willing to fulfill that role.

          This brings me to your comment on William Hamblin. I have long been a fan of Hamblin for that very reason — he is willing to stand up and defend the LDS faith. He has produced a large amount of highly informed, interesting and exciting research on topics of interest to LDSs over the last decades and I have nothing but admiration for his work. I consider him to be a defender of the faith and am shocked and appalled at the amount of criticism that has been leveled at him by those who think they know better. The work that Bill Hamblin has done and the instruction he has given has been a great blessing to the LDS community. I count myself as a fortunate beneficiary of some of that work.

          SmallAxe, I thank you again for your comments.

          • SmallAxe
            Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

            Hi David,

            If you think I am belittling the process of recognizing scripture or speaking from an outsider’s perspective on this issue, I think you are still not fully grasping what I am saying.

            In short my point is that if BRM could be wrong about scripture so could you or I. The process of recognizing scripture is not as self-evident as you seem to think it is; and sharing our personal understanding of what constitutes scripture is a process fraught with ambiguities. If you think there is a process for clearly recognizing scripture as objectively the word of God then please explain it. If you think me pressing you on this question belittles such a process please explain why.

            My reason for continuing this line of discussion is because your liberal/conservative divide hangs on this objective/subjective distinction. If there really isn’t such a distinction (and I don’t believe there is unless we’re creating straw men arguments), then you need to rethink your objections to the panel; and perhaps rethink your objections to the “fewer and fewer” scholars willing to engage in faith-promoting work.

            Some are actually given by God and some are simply human-produced literature. And as Latter-day Saints, we should champion that difference. This should not be seen as a subjective designation — as if we believe our scriptures to be true but that does not carry any more weight than anyone else who likewise believes theirs to be true.

            You seem to think that the only alternative to objectivity is total subjectivity (i.e., relativism). I don’t see why that’s the case. I’ve said that even if we cannot access objectivity in its pure state, there are still better and worse interpretations of it. This is more than sufficient for LDSs to make claims about our scriptures in relation to other faith traditions.

            Finally, with regard to Hamblin, the reason he garners so much criticism is because all too often he’s engaged in more of a culture war than a respectful defense of the faith (hence his labels of liberal and conservative; for instance, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2014/07/21/does-god-know-the-past/). Further, when challenged he refuses to actually engage criticism; refraining from publishing comments or responding to thoughtful responses. There are many other apologists (such as David Paulsen) that do not attract the disdain that Hamblin does, and it might be worthwhile considering why this is the case.

          • David Larsen
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            Dear SmallAxe,

            I think you have ignored half of what I wrote.

            I said that I don’t think BRM was wrong about scripture — I think he was saying that the LoF are so awesome that they are practically scripture. He was not declaring them to be revelations from God and it’s pretty clear to me that he was expressing his opinion.

            I already explained the process of recognizing scripture as the word of God through the witness of the Holy Spirit — for me, the experience could not have been clearer and I believe that a large number of church members have had similar experiences. The reason I say that you are belittling this process is because this is the process that is taught and encouraged by the Church and it is a very powerful and successful method that results in many convert baptisms and the foundation of many testimonies of the Gospel. To me, you seem to be belittling this approach by saying that it is not a very reliable way for someone to come to recognize a text as scripture. I said all of this in my last reply — which is one of the reasons why I say that you seem to be ignoring half of what I write.

            I don’t understand what you don’t get about the objective/subjective distinction. My problem with the panel is that they seemed to put all scripture on the same level playing-field. I am saying that not all scripture, or sacred writ, is the same. Some is actually spoken by God whereas others are not. I understand that a community has to go through a subjective process to decide whether a particular text will be part of their canon of accepted scripture, but what I am saying is that does not change the objective reality of whether God actually provided that message or not. You then say, essentially, that it doesn’t matter if God spoke those words or not, because for the individuals in the community, their acceptance of the words is always a subjective experience. My response to that is that I do not see it as such a subjective experience — I think that we can have such a strong and clear experience with the testimony of the Holy Ghost that we know, objectively, that a scripture has come from God independent of the community or even the prophet who received that divine communication. Again, this is the process that the Church promotes and upon which the strength of the Church is founded.

            What do you mean by “better and worse interpretations” of objectivity? This reminds me of the recent Noah movie in which Noah misinterprets God’s intentions and believes that he is supposed to help end mankind instead of saving it. The film affords Noah the opportunity to make such a poor interpretation of God’s plans because in the movie, God never speaks to Noah directly. Maybe this is how the writers of the film choose to understand the human predicament and relationship with God — all we have is “better and worse interpretations” of God’s words or will. However, this is not how the Bible depicts the situation — in the biblical account, God speaks to Noah plainly and tells him exactly what God’s plans are and what Noah has to do. Maybe this seems unrealistic to some, like a fantasy or fairy tale, but to me that is essentially an agnostic position. I believe God spoke directly to Noah just as He spoke directly to Joseph Smith. I agree that we are all, 99% of the time, subject to living by our own interpretation of reality — but I also believe that there are a few precious moments when we can be 100% sure of what God has communicated to us. Do I believe that Joseph Smith was guided by God in 100% of what he did and said on a daily basis? Of course not. But I believe that there were many times when he was 100% sure of what God told him or wanted from him.

            A parting word on what you said about Hamblin — and this also applies to Daniel Peterson and others — one of the possible reasons, as far as I see it, for the alleged behavior you attribute to him is the fact that he has to deal with so many critics who just come out of the woodwork, so to speak, and appear so willing to attack a fellow Latter-day Saint who presents mainstream, faithful perspectives. What makes it worse is that so many of them seem to be hiding behind an online pseudonym so that they can throw whatever criticism they feel like out there with no fear of social consequences. So they feel free to criticize and tear down and make personal jabs without anyone in their ward or in their workplace seeing them as mean-spirited, radical, or “apostate.” If they were not afraid that their online behavior could, and most likely would, have such repercussions, then why use the pseudonym? On the other side of the coin, those who are being challenged and criticized by these online personalities often do not know to whom they are speaking, and therefore find it easier to forego niceties and fire back. Not knowing the identity of your detractors also makes it easier to ignore them, delete their comments, or refuse to engage with them as you would with a colleague that you know. For me, personally, I find it easier to engage in a polite manner with Joe Spencer, when he leaves a comment, than with you, because although I do not know him well, I know that he is a real person and if I met him at a gathering some day, I would want to have a civil and respectful conversation with him. For these reasons and others, I see the use of nicknames as detrimental to online discussions. Sometimes even the best of us let ourselves get drawn into saying things that we otherwise wouldn’t because the courtesy of interpersonal communication is foregone due to the unrestricted expression that anonymity encourages.

  5. noel
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    There are plenty of scholars over on the evangelical section of Patheos who indicate mistakes in the Bible and still maintain faith (eg Peter Enns). I think the greatest challenge to Mormon thought comes from neuroscience. See Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? by Nancy Murphy who argues when we die we lie in the grave until the resurection. There is no “spirit” in our body. So all the Temple work is useless as those people for who LDS are doing the work do not exist in a state of being possible to accept or reject the Gospel “preached” to them and the rites in Mormon temples are also useless.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Noel,
      I have not read Nancy Murphy’s book, but I’ve read a ton about near-death experiences, in which the person goes in spirit to the afterlife. Why would I believe Murphy’s book over these? Although I have not read this either, maybe you should consider checking out Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven, which tells about how he, a neurosurgeon who did not believe in an afterlife or spirit world, had a near-death experience that went against all that he thought he knew as a scientist.
      I have no doubts about there being a spirit in our bodies which is immortal and which will be perfectly conscious after we die.

      • noel
        Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        Some neuresciencetists have been able to explain away NDEs.I have seen some and will reference than later. However when we look at the OT we see a different picture. Murphy writes “If current scholars are correct in their claim that the original Hebraic conception of the person comes closer to the physicalist accounts than to the body-dualism ,how could Christians have been wrong about this for so many centuries? Part of the anser involves translation. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, probably dating from arund 250bce. The text translate Hebrew into Greek ….The clearest instance of this is the Hebrew word nephesh which was translated into Englis as “soul” eg Ps 16:10…. It is widely agreed now that the Hebrew word translated “soul’ in all these cases -nephesh-does not meanwhat later Christians have meant by soul. In most of these cases, it is simply a way of referring to the whole living person..”Man is an animated body rather than an incarnated soul” pp 17-19.

        • David Larsen
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Noel,
          What you have quoted here represents some scholars’ interpretation of the significance of a term in the Old Testament, a limited collection of texts that provide us with only a limited perspective of what ancient Israelites/Jews believed. The word nephesh can have a number of meanings, including the idea of the life-essence that animates humans — the spirit. Although it is not often elaborated on in the OT, I believe that they had the concept of the spirit that endured after death. This parallels similar beliefs at that time in Egypt and other surrounding regions. When the body died, the spirit/soul would go on in the afterlife.

          Israelites offered sacrifices on behalf of dead relatives (in order to benefit their spirit in Sheol) (Deut. 26:14).
          Rachel’s nephesh departed as she died (nephesh not the same as the body) (Gen. 35:18).
          Elijah prays for a dead boy’s nephesh to return to him so that he could live again (1 Kgs 17:21).
          Saul asks someone to kill him because he is suffering and wants to die, but his nephesh is still lingering in him (2 Sam 1:9).
          Jonah asks the Lord to take away his nephesh because he would prefer to die (Jonah 4:3).

          Although these passages do not necessarily prove a belief in a spirit separate from the body, they do demonstrate that the nephesh is not necessarily the body, either. In many passages, the nephesh seems to be the force that is animating the body.

          However, we also see that there was a belief that departed spirits were conscious and could be communicated with (1 Sam 28:13–20; Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Isa 19:3; Jer 31:15). The departed spirits are sometimes referred to as rephaim or elohim.

          As I said in the beginning, the Old Testament is a collection of the records of many people over many generations. The theology of these various authors was not always the same and in some cases clashed. I think that we see different views of what constitutes a “living soul” and what goes on in the afterlife within the Old Testament itself. I also believe that the New Testament preserves a more correct understanding of the afterlife — not simply a mistranslation of the complex term “nephesh.”

  6. Joe Spencer
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to clutter up the comments with something so long, but I posted the following on a facebook thread, and the consensus was that I should insert it here….

    Even if I remain within an entirely religious perspective—which I, at least, meant to do during the panel—I can’t quite make sense of either this or Professor Hamblin’s response to the discussion. A few comments in response, then:

    1. I don’t see how it’s possible to conflate the category of the “subjective” with the category of the “communal.” Decisions that are made by communities are by definition subtracted from the purely subjective. Indeed, one of the reasons scripture is a function of community is *precisely* so that it isn’t a subjective decision, so that there’s a complicated process of adjudication that disallows mere subjective preference.

    2. I don’t understand the apparent conflation of “the word of God” and “scripture.” That might be defended with reference to D&C 68, but then it’s just clear that one’s using the word “scripture” in a way that we on the panel clearly weren’t. It’s entirely fine to use the word “scripture” to mean something else, but it makes little sense to criticize a presentation because those speaking were using a different and more obviously standard meaning of the word: “scripture,” meaning “text taken to be authoritative by a particular religious community.” Defend a theological innovation in the Doctrine and Covenants, yes, but be wary of suggesting that someone else who doesn’t make the same move is secularizing.

    3. The borders of the Latter-day Saint canon are beautifully complicated. Is the Song of Songs scripture? According to the notes in the “New Translation” manuscripts, it isn’t inspired—presumably meaning that it isn’t the word of God. And yet it doesn’t make much sense to say it isn’t scripture—hence Elder McConkie’s reference to it as “scriptural trash” or some such: at once scripture and uninspired. (I’m not making a judgement on the Song one way or another here; just trying to illustrate a point of difficulty.) And what of something like the Lectures on Faith: scripture or not? (This last example, I see, has already come up in the discussion.) Section 134 in the D&C, which isn’t presented even in the canonical text as revealed word of God? JST footnotes? Alternative manuscript readings, for instance in Skousen’s work or in the original manuscripts for the Book of Moses chapters of the New Translation?

    4. It was I who said he wasn’t sure about the difference between a poet and a prophet. I should be clear, however, that I’m *quite* sure about the difference between poetry and prophecy, or between poetry and scripture. I meant there to say something about the structure of certain forms of utterance. *Of course* the difference is the ultimate source, but the parallels between the two sorts of figure are remarkable and they deserve to be considered. That’s not a secularizing gesture at all, but an attempt to get clearer about the nature of prophecy, and I’m willing to follow prophecy—but not mere poetry—to the end of the world.

    5. I’d appreciate some actual defense of how the panelists didn’t answer the question of scripture’s relevance. I won’t speak for Adam or David, but I gave a direct answer to that question in my own presentation, and I argued that scripture is emphatically relevant, and that we ignore it to our peril. I attempted to explain exactly the nature of that relevance, something I feel needs explaining often, given the general sentiment in *both* conservative *and* liberal Mormonism that scripture is a kind of distraction. (On this, see my _Dialogue_ piece on scripture in LDS film, for instance.) Scripture is *crucially* relevant, and that point needs defending constantly. Indeed, I stated in my presentation that I think it’s *only* in scripture that God breathes—i.e., *speaks*—freely.

    6. As has already been noted by others and, I think, conceded, the “conservative” and “liberal” labels here do nothing to further the discussion. I don’t in any way regard myself as a liberal reader of scripture. Indeed, I find what’s gone under the name of “liberal” scriptural interpretation both boring and unhelpful. At the same time, I don’t in any way regard myself as a conservative reader of scripture. Again, I find what’s gone under the name of “conservative” scriptural interpretation both boring and unhelpful. It’d be far, far more helpful to me to see those worried about anything I said on the panel directly engage my work on scripture and show me where I’ve dismissed the divine word, repeated classically “liberal” moves, or promoted the idea that scripture is irrelevant. Without such careful critique, it’s hard for me not to see these criticisms as opportunistic rather than genuinely motivated.

    In a word: Would that *all* God’s people read scripture more committedly, more faithfully, more engagedly. Would that *all* God’s people left every “liberalizing” or “secularizing” interpretation of scripture behind (though it has to be recognized, at some point, that to leave such things behind, it’ll be equally necessary to leave off every “conservative” interpretation as well). Would that *all* God’s people saw and felt and lived the relevance of scripture.

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your comments here, Joe. Please excuse my delayed response. I want you to know that I do appreciate your perspective and the fact that you took the time to post your response here. It is very helpful. I also want you to know that this blog post was not meant to be a personal jab at you or any of the other presenters. I very much enjoyed your prepared comments and found very little that I disagreed with.

      The main purpose of this blog post was to point out views of scripture with which I disagree and which I feel are becoming too prevalent in discussions I see young Mormon scholars engaging in. I included a quote from a response you gave, but I do realize that I was taking it out of context and that it likely does not represent a full picture of your views, as you have explained them in your comments here. I apologize if you felt misrepresented. Again, I was not trying to pick on any individual — which is why I did not include names — but wanted to bring up specific ideas.

      In response to your comments here, I don’t think I’ll try to answer point by point, but hopefully respond to most of what you said as I go along.

      I want to point out that I think it’s safe to say that you were speaking as a Latter-day Saint to an LDS audience, correct? I would argue that for most LDSs, scripture = word of God. I do not understand why you do not understand that “conflation.” I am, of course, aware of examples like those you cite (Song of Songs, LoF, etc.). I believe that Mormons are willing to be flexible and accepting of texts that are included in the “canon” for one reason or another but that are not necessarily revelations from God — especially where the Bible is concerned. If Joseph Smith or one of his successors thought it appropriate to redefine the biblical canon, maybe Song of Songs or other “uninspired” texts would be removed. But we have retained the Bible as it is. We’re flexible like that.

      I would reiterate my point that Mormons generally understand scripture as the Word of God, and more specifically as it is described in D&C 68. I’m sure you realize this. Although you were using a dictionary or academic definition of “scripture” (which is what I meant by “secular” — not that you are “secularizing” scripture), I would note that the LDS “Guide to the Scriptures” defines scripture as “Words, both written and spoken, by holy men of God when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” When a Latter-day Saint (such as myself), is listening to a group of LDS panelists speak, this is most likely going to be the definition of scripture they have in mind. I do realize that you were using the word in a more broad sense, but when you say that “scripture” is the product of a community, it does not sound right. It sounds like you are missing a very important ingredient of what scripture is.

      You describe the definition of scripture in D&C 68 as a “theological innovation.” I could be wrong, but I simply cannot accept that as correct. Throughout the canon, including the New Testament, the “scriptures” are generally seen as synonymous with the “word of God” and understood as words/texts that are inspired by God. This is not an innovation in D&C 68, as you claim. See, for example:

      All scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:15).

      Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Pet 1:20–21).

      See also similarly-themed passages such as Deut. 8:3; 1 Ne 11:25; 2 Ne 31:20; Alma 17:2.

      My issue with what you and others said in the panel discussion is that the effect of your words was to leave the impression that you did not see a difference between the Word of God that we, as LDS, accept as scripture and the epic or religious literature of other cultures and peoples. While that is a common academic perspective, I do not, as a believing Latter-day Saint, find it to be acceptable.

      I want to state here that I do not doubt your sincerity (or your testimony) and, again, I appreciate your further explanation of what you meant here. I do not want to sound like I am accusing you of “secularizing” the scriptures. However, I am concerned in a general way about the direction in which some young LDS scholars are trying to move the discussion of scripture. I have a PhD in biblical studies and I have seen what the academic study of religious texts has done to some people’s testimonies and understanding of the Gospel. I have also seen, as I mentioned in my post, what a shifting understanding of scripture has done to groups like the Community of Christ — and also what having ministers trained in theological schools has done to their Restoration theology.

      I seriously feel that the following scripture is applicable to what I see happening with some (again, I’m not talking about you, personally) in the LDS community (I’m not exempting myself):

      … O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. …
      29 But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Ne 9:28–29)

      • Joe Spencer
        Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, David, for this response. It’s helpful, at the very least for the reason that it helps me see where my words misled. I think it’s helpful for many reasons in addition to that one, but that one’s perhaps particularly important for me.

        I get it, but I’m skeptical—regarding, that is, what most Latter-day Saints understand by “scripture.” The very question addressed to the panel—”Is scripture relevant?”—presupposes that “scripture” means “texts canonized through a complex process,” it seems to me, because if the question meant “Is the unmistakably inspired word of God relevant?” the conversation could have been a good deal shorter! At any rate, what seems theologically innovative about D&C 68 to me isn’t that it regards scripture as containing the divine word; rather, it’s that it regards the divine word as scripture. That’s a rather different sentiment from what’s found in the New Testament passages you cite, which affirm that the scriptures (i.e., the canonical texts) contain God’s word. Joseph’s revelation expands “scripture” so that it refers even to the inspired words I or you speak. That’s a clear innovation, I think, and one average Latter-day Saints don’t have in mind when they usually or casually refer to scripture. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, the average use of the word “scripture” by Latter-day Saints aims at referring simply to “those books we all take to contain God’s word,” not to “every word of God spoken or conveyed in whatever context.”

        Now, I hope it’s clear that I’m in no way here denying that average Latter-day Saints understand “scripture” to mean “those books that contain God’s word.” I’ve never meant to deny that, neither in my previous comment nor in my remarks at the panel. I take it for granted that “scripture” means “set of texts regarded by a particular community as canonical because they contain God’s word.” That’s presupposed, I think, even in the “secular” definition. The question for the “secular” investigator here is how such a community goes about deciding whether a certain text does contain God’s word. My point then was and now is that that question is interesting and important—even religiously important. And I think it’s particularly interesting and important for Latter-day Saints to think about why certain inspired words (which might be “scripture” according to the conception laid out in D&C 68) don’t become canonical (“scripture” according to the usual meaning of the word).

        Now, all that said, let me get to the more substantial issue here, which seems to me to be your larger worry about the panel—that we suggested that there aren’t strong lines to be drawn between our canonical texts and other texts. First, I think the way I at least meant to talk presupposes that such lines are drawn. The reason the question is difficult isn’t because there isn’t a line, but precisely because there is a line and it’s hard to describe philosophically. Second, I deeply regret if anything I said suggested that I think there aren’t boundaries between our canon and other writings. For me personally, both religiously and academically, there are incredibly important boundaries. I read other scriptural traditions, but always—at least for my own purposes—with an eye to how the differences between such texts and our own can help me to understand what I’ve given my life to. I find it a fascinating puzzle that there are boundaries, but it’s a puzzle just because those boundaries are essential for me.

        At any rate, and in short, I bristled only because all of my work begins from exactly the worry you lay out at the end of your comment. I see most Latter-day Saints—average active members as much as secularizing young scholars—leaving our canonical texts to one side, even and perhaps especially when they do read them. Everything I try to do in Mormon studies is meant to serve as a call to get seriously and finally to work on our scriptures, and to do so in the richest and most faithful way possible. I’m glad you’ve made clear that you didn’t mean to call me out specifically. But like my own words gave a misleading impression, yours did as well, even with the hedges. I couldn’t be more committed to defending the crucial claim that scripture is infinitely relevant, and specifically the scripture that makes up our canon. Everything else is only practice, in my view, for getting to those texts seriously. That “everything else” includes the work of thinking philosophically or phenomenologically about the subjective experience of producing texts prophetically or poetically, which I’ll maintain is a difficult task. I don’t know how to think about those questions in the most helpful way yet (I’ve not dedicated serious work to them), but they’re worthy of attention only to the extent that they’ll help us come back to our canonical texts with greater readerly abilities.

        In the meanwhile, my thanks for this stimulating conversation. I’d hope that this too would only help us to read our own scriptures better. If I’ve expressed any worries along the way, they’ve mostly been motivated by my worry that certain criticisms here might actually hinder rather than help good reading of our canon. It’s a real worry on my part, and I’m glad to see that you share similar worries. Very glad.

        • David Larsen
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          Joe,
          Thank you again for your very thoughtful words. And I apologize if anything that I have said has felt to you like a personal attack or that I have intentionally misrepresented your perspective. Although I do not know you and, unfortunately, have not had the chance to read much of your research (I have heard all kinds of good things about your work), I can see that you approach these topics with care, respect, and in a faithful manner. If I have misunderstood your perspective, it is because I am simply not familiar with it. That is why I have tried to make clear that I was reacting to those few lines I picked out, perceiving them as analogous to larger thought patterns I find problematic, and not picking on specific individuals.
          I must admit that I am not much of a philosopher, nor a theologian — I had a hard time in the systematic theology classes I was required to take in school. My focus was always on ancient texts — and not even biblical texts, but rather pseudepigraphal works. However, as I’m sure you can tell, I do have strong feelings regarding the Scriptures and also misgivings regarding how biblical and religious studies programs seem to mold individuals’ views regarding them.
          I do understand what you are saying regarding D&C 68. Your previous comments in its regard now make better sense to me in light of what you have explained here. I don’t disagree with your explanation. My concern was that in a panel of LDS scholars speaking to an LDS audience, I was not hearing anyone put forward the idea that, yeah, scripture is different from other literature because scripture is (or, at least, contains) the word of God. And, for Latter-Day Saints, it’s not just what we subjectively accept as the word of God, as Hindus accept the Bhagavad Gita, but that it actually is the word of God. Maybe I should have just taken it as given that the panelists and audience shared this understanding and that it therefore didn’t need to be stated, but when I heard the question and then none of the three panelists even mention what I felt should be part of the response, I felt that I needed to address that omission. And perhaps that reaction is partially a product of my being especially vigilant about what I perceive as a trend among some to over-analyze with their academic training something that is meant to be understood by the Spirit.
          I thank you again for your respectful and helpful comments and hope that we can have an opportunity to discuss these issues at some point in the future.

        • David Larsen
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          I would like to just ask you a few more questions, however, regarding your interpretation of 2 Tim 3:15 (“ALL scripture is given by inspiration from God”). Does this not essentially mean the same as what I meant when I quoted D&C 68? I do not take Timothy to mean that everything in the scriptural canon is inspired by God, but that everything that we should consider to be scripture is inspired by God. Is this a faulty interpretation? I don’t see him as saying, as you suggest, that the scriptures merely “contain” God’s word. Maybe that’s what he meant, but he appears to me to be equating scripture with the inspired word of God. Either that or that only that which is given by inspiration from God is scripture (= D&C 68).
          Also, is D&C 68:4 the Lord’s definition of scripture or is it Joseph’s “expansion”? And does this verse suggest that anything that anyone says under the influence of the Spirit is scripture, or did it have elders or apostles or missionaries/preachers specifically in mind? To us, if it had all our modern missionaries or priesthood holders in mind, it would seem rather absurd for LDSs to consider what all of these individuals say when under the influence of the Spirit to be binding on the whole, but what if the original intent was meant to be much more limited in scope?
          I think the answers to these questions have important bearing on this discussion.

  7. Dean
    Posted July 20, 2014 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    David, excellent post. This was one of two uncomfortable parts of the round table discussion for me. The other was the question and answer about man’s philosophy mixed with scripture. I thought that unfortunate, dismissive, and an opportunity lost.

    As to your discussion, I would suggest an example of D&C 137 & 138. I had the privilege on Saturday April 3, 1976 to raise my hand and vote to sustain the First Presidency in adding these two revelations to the standard works. I believe they were scripture before the vote. Serious students knew, studied and loved them before, but after the vote they became doctrinally binding on members. And were appropriately followed by an increase in temple building and family history research. Hence I would distinguish between scripture and canon. They were always scripture, after the vote they became part of the canon.

    I would disagree with Joe’s point #2 above. It obviously was not clear to the audience how the panel defined scripture (hence all the discussion). If the discussion was to Religious Studies grad students, I might agree with Joe’s language that the LDS definition of scripture in D&C 68 is a theological innovation from the more obviously standard meaning of the word. But this is obvious to whom? to the grad students? a typical Mormon? the Lord?

    This was precisely my point of discomfort. I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the audience was not just a specialized group of scholars. And that the Lord’s definition of scripture to LDS would be a helpful addition in this discussion to this audience.

    Frankly, I find the definition of scripture you have given (especially D&C 1, 18, and 68) much more interesting than the tautology commonly accepted in religious studies (scripture is what the group calls scripture). Its not that they are wrong, its just not very helpful.

    I thought your post was a helpful addition to something the panel discussion didn’t address, an opportunity they missed. I was surprised some felt attacked or offended by it.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Dean,
      Thank you for your helpful comments. I’m glad to find someone else who felt the same way.
      I agree with your points here — I made some similar remarks in my response to Joe Spencer here.
      As I told him, it was not my intent to pick on anyone in particular. I just felt that the panel’s handling of those topics did not represent an LDS perspective very well.

  8. Kurt
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    If I write something inspired addressed to my posterity, they may consider it scripture to them. The LDS have a very liberal view of scripture.

    Also we have the concept of “canonized” scripture — that which we accept as an LDS community to be common amongst us. Our canon changes from time to time (e.g., Lectures on Faith).

    The concept of canonized scripture is so strong that when a BYU professor (e.g., Ann Madsen) quotes from the RKJV at Education Week to make a point, some members of the audience are thinking heresy. :-)

    I totally agree that the “conservative” and “liberal” labels here do nothing to further the discussion. These words are too loaded with meanings irrelevant to understanding what we mean by scripture.

    It reminds me of the old joke about the definition of a “liberal” Mormon:
    Drinks coke, reads Dialogue, and begins all the Articles of Faith with “Would you believe.” All this kind of talk gets us quickly nowhere.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Kurt, for your remarks here.
      I understand your perspective — I would just reiterate what I said in previous comments that my intent in using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” here was not to invoke all the baggage that comes with how those terms are used in politics or social discussions, but to specifically describe how believers view the scriptures. If you notice, I pointed out how most Mormons can legitimately be seen as having both liberal and conservative views on scripture. I believe that the way in which I used these terms is absolutely relevant to understanding how we look at the scriptures.

  9. SmallAxe
    Posted July 23, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I think we’ve reached the maximum for nested comments in the software, and that’s probably a good sign that we’re reaching an end of this particular conversation. I’ll try to make this comment my last unless you’d like to carry on the discussion.

    I see what you’re saying regarding anonymity. I use anonymity because I believe that social consequences are not always fair (among other reasons). I’ve been blogging under this pseudonym for nearly a decade and I try to write in a way that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if others knew me. I would like to think that I stand as evidence that anonymity does not necessarily lead to meanness or statements of apostasy. But I do believe you are right that it is easier to dismiss or treat an anonymous entity politely.

    Regarding the larger issue, let’s try to take a step back and get a big picture look at things. Let’s say that you and I meet J. Smith, a man that claims to have received God’s word. We ask him how we are to know that it is God’s word. He tells us that he cannot prove it, but there is a process by which we can discover it for ourselves–we can pray and ask God whether or not it is his word and God will tell us himself. We accept this process. We each pray about it, and you experience feelings of peace and assurance; I, however, experience further doubt and skepticism.

    Now, according to the logic of our previous conversation, J’s text is either scripture or it is not, so either you or I am wrong. So we set out to see who is right and who is wrong. You share your experience about praying and I share my experience about praying. Neither one of us convinces the other. Assuming that we are both reasonable people, why couldn’t we persuade each other? Largely because this process of discovering it for ourselves by means of prayer is not objective in the sense of being open to public reason. It is not as if we disagreed over who won the last World Cup, and could thereby look into each other’s train of thought to see who was right and who was wrong. So the idea of scripture is not objective in the sense of being obviously shareable among people. This is why I’ve been saying that there is no communal means to establish objectivity; and I believe we’re on the same page about this.

    I believe our largest point of disagreement is whether or not the personal process of seeking to know scripture by means of prayer, experiencing the Holy Ghost, etc. gives us access to objectivity (where objectivity means something like a state of being that is independent of observation/interpretation). First, I do think it is possible to come to an understanding of objectivity that is not sharable with others. “I had a dream last night about zombies,” for instance, is not something that I can trot out and prove to others, but for me it is a fact. FWIW, this is why I say that our community is founded on faith in shared experience. We cannot shared each other’s experience in a full sense, but we can hope, trust, and empathize with each other; and I believe this still allows us to create the kinds of boundaries between scripture and literature that you are trying to maintain.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that something like “J’s text is scripture” is knowable in a purely objective sense for the following reasons: 1) What does it mean for something to be scripture? Does it have to report every fact accurately (what if J’s text actually says that it may contain errors), or does it only have to report doctrine accurately (and if so, to what degree)? 2) Is J’s text not influenced by his times or his perspective? Is J perfect? 3) How do I take an experience and have it mean something? Is a feeling of peace sufficient to establish the category of scripture? Do I need something more? An unlocking of the intellect, a visual perception of transcendent being? Physical contact with a transcendent being (e.g., shaking his hand)? Auditory contact with a transcendent being? Etc.

    You raise the issue of the movie Noah in your last comment. That is an interesting example because I think for most people this is how acting with God works. The movie may not be an accurate portrayal of the Biblical story, and prophets might speak directly with God, but unless you are claiming such an experience, most of us are left, like Noah in the movie, with our sacred experiences that we then interpret. Coincidentally, Noah gets a lot of things right. He knows that God is going to punish the world, and that he should build a boat and take his family with him. I’m not sure I would have gotten this far. As a matter of fact, I think the only thing he gets wrong is that they are not to save humanity (which is of course quite significant). So I see someone exercising great faith, but not always interpreting things correctly.

    Interestingly you also cast this process in terms of percentages. Given the fact that we are human beings, limited by our perspectives and interpretations, I do not think it is possible to have a 100% surety of objectivity. An experience where I see an angel face to face, he shakes my hand, I feel peace, etc. is going to increase my certainty. But there is always an element of faith involved where I leap beyond what I can be sure of. You seem to think that the only alternative to 100% objectivity is 0% objectivity, or relativism. I don’t see why that’s the case. I can be confident that something is much closer to the word of God than something else. At the same time, the fact that we’re not dealing with absolute certainties should foster some sense of epistemic humility. I think we’re both fine with saying that BRMcConkie could be wrong at times. I am not fine, however, with your interpretation of the quotation I provided. If “It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true” can mean “the LoF are so awesome that they are practically scripture. [I am] not declaring them to be revelations from God,” then truly anything can mean anything; and ironically we’ve reached the point of relativism. Those texts we call scripture are modified, redacted, updated, and interpreted. If the word of God does not change, your holding to 100% objectivity leaves no room for explaining the history of scripture.

    I think you need to give up thinking in such stark binaries–liberal/conservative, objective/subjective, 100% certainty/agnosticism, etc. Mormonism can survive, and even flourish, without them. If you’re thinking, “I don’t think in binaries,” then I suggest you incorporate those things that complicate binaries into an actual theory of scripture, because as it stands, you give nods to complexity but with language like “rigid distinction,” “100% sure,” etc. you definitely rely on binaries to make your case.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 24, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      With these latest comments, I think there is plenty that I can agree with you on, or at least accept as reasonable. :)

      On the anonymity issue, I hope you understand that I was speaking broadly and not insinuating that you were being “mean” or making statements of apostasy. And I do understand the reasons for it — sometimes I wish that I had started blogging anonymously. Sometimes you say things that you wish you had thought through better but it’s hard to take it back after it’s gone out on the world wide web.

      I understand what you mean when you say: “the idea of scripture is not objective in the sense of being obviously shareable among people.” I think the process of praying to receive a witness of the Spirit is, in some ways, a shareable process. Before I went on my mission, I prayed to know if the Book of Mormon is true. I received an answer through the Holy Ghost. On my mission, I invited others to take those same steps and many felt that they received an answer as well. If I am understanding correctly what you mean by “shareable process,” I believe that this is possible. It is, of course, impossible to verify if they did, indeed, have a similar experience or if they had any real experience at all. There are also people that said that they prayed but had no spiritual experience.

      And I understand what you mean by this not being a process open to public reason. It is not something that you can find by searching on Google or the library or whatever. I suppose that what I have been trying to get at is akin to what you say about shared experience. And perhaps I pushed the limits of the range of possible human experience too far when I argued for 100% objectivity. My point was that, ideally, the witness of the Spirit can be so strong that the individual is as sure about this answer from God as they are about anything else they have experienced. For me, Alma 32 describes this beautifully:

      17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

      18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

      21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

      28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

      29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.


      33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

      34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

      So my point in quoting this is to show that Alma believed that all those in his audience — anyone — could come to a perfect knowledge of spiritual things (the word of God specifically here) by following a process. Perhaps the results of that process are not directly shareable with others, but the group can come to the same conclusions by following the process.

      Again, I realize that not everyone receives that same positive outcome when they follow the process. But Alma gives reasons for this — there was some form of neglect, lack of sincerity or desire, failure to follow the process correctly, etc. It’s not that the same outcome was not available to all.

      Maybe it’s that you have a more dizzyingly complex intellect than I do, but I think you are just making this too complicated. To me, the three reasons you give do not seem incredibly relevant. I am defining scripture as the word of God — a divine communication to a human being. If saying “J’s text is scripture” causes so many issues to arise in your mind, then why don’t we consider the idea “J’s text is the word of God.” This is what I am concerned with. We can then be flexible regarding whatever problems arise due to the fact that the word of God is filtered through the medium of the human mind and human circumstances (errors, revisions, various types of imperfections). What we have is J’s claim that his text comes from God and a process or processes given in the text for how an individual can know for themselves, independent of J’s claims, that it is, indeed, the word of God. The text says that you can ask God and He will let you know. Or there are ways in which you can experiment on the word and come to a “pure knowledge” that it is true. We have texts like Moroni 10, Alma 32, D&C 6, D&C 8, James 1, and many others that give a process and assure us that we will get an answer. What is the purpose of all these guarantees if there can be no real expectation that we can ever come to a sure knowledge? That is what I meant by 100% surety. It’s being sure that God has given you an answer to the question that you asked. I’m not saying that there are not times when you are not sure if you received an answer or not or that there is not the possibility that you could be misinterpreting an answer, but I am saying that sometimes (quite rarely, in fact) I believe that we can be absolutely sure that we have received an answer to a specific question. You asked: “Is a feeling of peace sufficient to establish the category of scripture? Do I need something more?” The Scriptures provide some answers. D&C 6:22–24 seems to be answering those exact questions. But we are asking specifically if J’s text is the word of God. If we ask a specific question in prayer and receive a recognizable response, then do we not have a sure knowledge? One may argue that the scriptural and other descriptions that we use to describe the response are not abundantly clear — peace, love, warmth, burning in bosom, etc. — but I believe that however you end up describing it in mortal words, there is a response from the Spirit that is so clear and “other-wordly” as to be readily recognizable as an answer from God. And the Scriptures say that this is enough — no angelic visitations, handshakes, or visions necessary.

      SmallAxe, you can define and analyze “objectivity” as precisely as you want. Perhaps it is not the best term for expressing what I am trying to say. The bottom line is that my purpose has been to emphasize the definition of scripture as something that is spoken or inspired by God as opposed to being simply literature that helps bring us closer to God. And I have tried to argue that Latter-day Saints can know, with “pure knowledge” as Alma puts it, that their Scripture is, in fact, the word of God (considering its original source and not its subsequent treatment by human minds/hands) and not solely the product of human minds. This is the explanation that I felt was missing from the panel discussion. What is the difference between scripture and other literature? For believers, we know that scripture is (or at least contains) the word of God. And although I love extra-biblical Jewish literature and enjoy the Qu’ran and many other religious texts from around the world, they are not scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon and D&C are scripture. And I don’t see that as simply my opinion, but as a fact that is verifiable by processes described in Scripture.

      Finally, regarding “binaries” — simply put, you’re wrong. I realize that I often come across as a black-or-white kind of guy and it’s not that I do not recognize shades of gray, but that I choose to take a position and defend it. I see no conflict in saying that someone can be 100% sure while at the same time acknowledging that the large majority will feel varying degrees of uncertainty. And just because you have “pure knowledge” in one area does not mean that you will not have to live by faith in 100 others. This is Alma’s claim, not my own. I never claimed that if you weren’t 100% certain, you were agnostic. This is a dichotomy that you are projecting onto me. Why does it have to be 100% objectivity or 0% objectivity? I never said that. Would you accuse Captain Moroni as similarly restricting himself to thinking in binaries? He was a good-guy versus bad-guy type of character, right? In reality, Moroni knew what was right amongst the possibilities and stood up for it. Is 2 Nephi 2 not one massive example of binary thinking? Was Joseph Smith using binary thinking when he said that it is necessary for salvation to possess a “correct idea” regarding the nature of God? Does Jesus think in binaries because it says he will separate the wheat from the tares, the righteous from the wicked? What about the kind-of-righteous and not-so-wicked? Where do they go? Ephesians 4 says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. But what about all the others? What about 1 Tim 1:3–4, where Paul tells Timothy to not let people teach strange doctrines? Is he denying them their right to freely express themselves in church? What about church discipline? Is that the unfortunate result of binary thinking? We know that all of these issues are fraught with complexities, but limits must be set and positions defended. If there is no way that humans can ever establish what is true and correct, then how can we navigate this life? The Church says that it is the one true and living church on the face of the earth. That means the others can’t be “true and living” in the same sense. If these are all examples of binary thinking, then I guess I am just as guilty of it as Jesus, Joseph Smith, and the prophets. At least I’m in good company.

  10. SmallAxe
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this conversation, David.

    • David Larsen
      Posted July 31, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      My pleasure, SmallAxe. Thank you!

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