Literal vs. Figurative Revisited…

Question: How should a faithful Latter-Day Saint view the conflict between literal and figurative readings and interpretations of scriptures? How far can one carry ‘figurative’ views of scripture before it becomes difficult to maintain a testimony of the gospel?

There was an interesting survey back in 2004 on the subject of Bible literalism. People were surveyed as to whether they believed the Biblical stories of the Creation, the parting of the Red Sea, and Noah’s Ark could be taken literally or not. What’s interesting about the results is not the exact percentages of those who answered literal vs. figurative, but the fact that the literal/figurative split was virtually the same for all three stories. This constant ratio of answers seems to suggest that most everyone who participated in the survey had the same answer to all three questions. Basically, if you believed one story in the Bible to be literally true, you believed them ALL to be literally true, and vice versa. There seemed to be very few people, indeed, who believed that some stories in the Bible might be more or less figurative than others–it was either all or nothing.

Questions of literal or figurative interpretations for specific stories has created many a debate among religious scholars (and religious bloggers)—including at M* as recently as last week with Clark’s thread on Job. How much leeway does a believing Latter-Day Saint have in departing from strict, literal interpretations of religious stories? In many ways, it depends on which story we’re talking about…

When identifying the most likely stories from the Bible or the Book of Mormon to be viewed through the ‘figurative’ lens, most people point to Job or Jonah, followed by perhaps Noah and the world-wide flood. Certainly, the ‘bet’ between God and Satan in regards to Job does seem to be something out of a George Burns movie, and not a doctrinally accurate portrait of how God influences our lives. It seems reasonable that perhaps the (true) story of a righteous man called Job who suffered through many trials patiently, told through later generations, may have had a few ‘additions’ grafted on to give it more of a doctrinal context, without regard to any actual prophetic teachings. (As a commenter in the earlier thread notes, the Book of Job has been found in the ‘writings’ section of the Hebrew Bible, not the ‘prophets’ section…)

It is interesting that (and the poll results seem to bear this out) as far as miraculous Bible stories go, the parting of the Red Sea seems to be more ‘acceptable’ to believers as compared to, say, Jonah. Many Church members are quick to assign Jonah to ‘figurative’ status–Jonah didn’t ACTUALLY live in a whale for three days because that’s, you know, impossible–whereas the reality of the parting of the Red Sea before the Israelites remains relatively unmolested…despite (according to my understanding of physics) being just as ‘impossible’ an occurance. Thus, the question: which ‘impossible’ stories can we disregard as (probably) figurative and which ones do we have to accept at face value as literal happenings?

In a discussion last year, I argued that it is reasonable to believe Noah’s flood was local to his area only (and the Book of Mormon has some indirect evidence for this interpretation). Not that it couldn’t have been a world wide flood, but it didn’t have to have been for the foundation of our religion to remain intact. Likewise, the extent of the literal truthfulness of Job and Jonah are not fundamental to the foundation of the gospel, either. I think you can (or should be able to) be a faithful, active Latter-Day Saint and share a sense of skepticism towards certain stories in scripture.

What about stories you can’t? Say, for example, Jesus Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection on the third day…

If the resurrection (and the Atonement) are ‘figurative’ in the same sense that Jonah wasn’t REALLY in the whale for three days, then where are we? Because that’s a very fundamental part of the gospel. Without the literal reality of the resurrection, our church (and Christianity in general) basically has nothing to stand on. In this case, you can legitimately question whether a Latter-Day Saint (or any Christian) can say “I don’t believe in a literal resurrection three days after being crucified (and stabbed in the side with a spear) because that’s, you know, impossible” and still be ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’, because that’s fundamentally a part of everything that being ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’ means. We seem more or less forced to accept the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as literal, even if other stories from the scriptures give us more leeway in applying a figurative filter without irreparably compromising doctrine.

Philosophically, however, this creates a problem… After all, it’s not as if a man walking around talking to people three days after being crucified is any less ‘scientifically impossible’ than living in a whale for three days, or water parting on command. There’s no rational reason to place more faith on the resurrection being ‘truer’ than on any other wild and unbelievable Bible story, except for the thorny issue of without it, everything else around us collapses. What does that say if our criteria for skepticism towards literal interpretations is based not on believability, but on expediency: we doubt some things because they are ‘safer’, and maintain as literal other things simply because we need them to be literally true.

Thus, the question: where’s the line between ‘safe’ skepticism and ‘dangerous’ skepticism? Can one cast an eye of doubt on scripture story X without eventually casting the same eye on stories Y and Z which are just as miraculous and “impossible”? If we accept through faith that Y and Z could be true even though they’re not ‘reasonable’, couldn’t X also be true by the same token?

Compare this to a spiritual game of Jenga, where the skeptic removes one by one the ‘safe’ blocks from the sides that don’t cause the structure (the testimony of the gospel) to fall. Eventually, though, an important block will be removed through disbelief and everything else collapses. Since all the blocks look exactly the same, how to tell which ones are safe to doubt and which ones will cause a genuine collapse of gospel belief?

This is not an argument that Job, Jonah, Noah, or any scripture story must be taken literally in every respect, only that using ‘reason’ in deciding which stories to accept and which to reject has limited utility. Belief in a ‘God of miracles’ requires that many things that are true will lie outside of reason…

50 thoughts on “Literal vs. Figurative Revisited…

  1. People will usually only firmly believe in that which is neccesary for salvation no matter how ilogical it might appear in a scientific way. People used to believe in a global flood up until the halls of science stormed the castle and overthrew the prophets and kicked God out in the street forbidding him to have an influence on their studies. I have a geolgy book by Plummer & McGeary, here is what they say on the matter-

    …..”In early Christendom, geologic events were placed within a biblical chronology, and catastrophich happenings were believed to account for features of the landscape….the explaination was that a worldwide innundation had simply drowned all the earths mountains in a matter of days. Because no known physical laws could account for such events, processes of divine intervention were invoked……..In short, the principle of uniformatarianism provides assurance that physical and chemical laws were operative in the past as well as the present, and that, moreover, we need not invoke “magical” processes to explain geologic features.”

    So you can see how this storming of the castle takes place- calling it unreal and magical. They can’t even get right how people believed the earth was flooded such as the waters didn’t have to cover our mountains we have today because they were created after the flood as a barrier to the flood waters thus fulfilling the promise made to Enoch that God would stay the flood waters after the flood and no more cover the entire earth.

    The key to that is if the flood was indeed a localized event, then God does not keep promises very well as he has flooded many parts of the earth since. So if we conclude that it truly was global, then evolution and it’s claim falls flat on it’s face as the geologic column is used as the main support for both evolutionists and global flood believers.

    It all comes down to believing in God and letting him back in the castle, but hey, we all know that won’t be happening anytime soon!

  2. Rob: (#1) People will usually only firmly believe in that which is neccesary for salvation no matter how ilogical it might appear in a scientific way

    I’m not sure that’s true. I think people tend to believe based on the assumption that the author of the text they are reading is their neighbor and writing to them as if it were a regular conversation from their culture and knowledge-base. If what you said was true we wouldn’t expect the massive belief in historical claims disproven by science.

    My own view is that there will always be a degree of uncertainty about OT history just due to the way it was compiled. (i.e. multiple authors with the canon largely the merging of many accounts by uninspired scribes after the Babylonian exile) I have far more faith in the NT and BoM.

    Even given that though I think we ought given the presumption of historicity to the scriptures unless we can demonstrate there are obvious problems, such as with the notion of a global flood of the sort most believe. But I don’t have problem with the parting of the Red Sea, as I don’t see any impossibilities. That’s not to say it happened the way Cecile B. DeMille portrayed it (and which is how most imagine it). But I’d not reject it.

  3. I think Kevin makes an extremely profound point when he says that many, many Bible and BoM stories require a suspension of disbelief and we simply don’t know which ones are true and which one are not. I think the default position for me is that they are all true until somebody with authority tells me they are false. The BoM implies that the Bro of Jared literally moved mountains. The whole Joseph Smith story involves believing in angels and metal plates that have disappeared. How far do you want to take reason and science?

    Look, I am willing to believe that the Job story may have been simply a parable of some kind. But until somebody with authority tells me that, I will continue to believe that he was a real person. Same with Jonah. And if the prophet, for example, were to say in Oct. general conference that, “by the way, the Job story is a parable and Job never existed,” I would add it to my long list of things that I now know a little more about. Until then, this is just one of those issues that require faith.

  4. The question of literal truth doesn’t just apply to apparent miracles in the texts. Take The Book of Mormon, for example. Even if one has absolute faith that it was written by men who lived on the American continent between 600 BC and 400 AD, there is still a question as to the literal truth of some specific claims. The early parts of the text, in particular, have every appearance of an agenda to legitimize Nephite ascendancy over the Lamanites. That doesn’t mean Nephi lied. It just means that along with his spiritual motives, Nephi also wanted to convince readers that he and his descendants held ruling authority by divine right. One comes away with a rather one-dimensional portrait of “Nephi the 100% Good” vs. “Laman & Lemuel the 100% Evil,” when we all know that human beings are neither. In this sense, the writings of Nephi could be seen on one level as political propaganda. Does this mean Nephi’s writings should be rejected? Of course not. It does, however, mean that some of Nephi’s family descriptions need to be taken with just a tiny grain of salt.

  5. As for Job, the Doctrine & Covenants makes reference to him as if he were a literal figure, i.e. “thou [Joseph] art not yet like Job.” On the other hand, one of my very favorite general authority statements came from Elder Bruce R. McConkie on this subject. Just a few months before his death, Elder McConkie spoke to a BYU symposium on the Joseph Smith Translation. He went through the various books of the Old Testament, commenting on their significance and usefullness. Referring to Joseph Smith’s comment that the Song of Solomon was uninspired, he declared that book “biblical trash.” When he came to the Book of Job, however, he said:

    “Job…(long, long pause)….is for people who like Job.”

    Never being a big fan of the Book of Job, I had a good chuckle over that one!

  6. Nick (#4), I think that’s a good point. Further we have the point Nibley brought up, we have writings by primitive peoples from their perspective. We read it in light of what kinds of phenomena we’re used to and then assume the ancients were moderns. It’s just not the way they are.

    Regarding D&C & Job, I’m not sure that entails a claim of historicity. Further even if there were a real Job (and for the record I’m very open to it – I tend to find the large middle poetic section as an addition to the outer prose sections) that doesn’t mean it is completely accurate. We have to keep clear the difference between accuracy and historicity.

  7. I agree with what Clark said in #6. Accuracy and historicity are different issues.

  8. Here is my list of things that are literally true (probably not complete). You can take away most anything else but not these.

    1. God lives and reigns over heaven and earth, His creation
    2. Jesus Christ is His Son and he atoned for our sins and was literally resurrected
    3. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who received the keys of the restoration including all the ordinances of the gospel
    4. The Book of Mormon is what it says it is
    5. The priesthood succession continues through the Apostles and the senior apostle , now Gordon B. Hinckley, holds the keys committed to Joseph Smith
    6 The Holy Ghost provide us with personal revelation to guide our lives if we live worthily.

    I don’t dismiss everything else but I tie it back to my beliefs above and ask myself whether it is crucial to my beliefs or not. I don’t need the same level of certainty about many other things as I feel about these.

  9. I think that one factor is the way the stories are told in the original text.

    The narrator in Exodus describes the parting of the red sea as a remarkable event, a miracle and a great demonstration of Jehovah’s power. On the other hand, the story of Jonah living in the belly of the whale is told more matter-of-factly, as if the narrator believed that living inside a whale’s belly would of course be possible.

    This relates to Kevin’s view…it’s more palatable to believe that the writers of the OT misunderstood whale digestive systems than to believe they misunderstood or misrepresented God’s role in the formation of Israel.

  10. Kevin,

    I get from your post (tell me if I am wrong) that you think people who conclude that a story isn’t literal think along the following lines:

    “This couldn’t have really happened, therefore the story should not be interpreted literally.”

    While I am sure that some people do think this way, I think that their thinking is wrongheaded. But there is another way to look at a story and conclude that it shouldn’t be taken literally: to carefully study the text for indications that the author did not intend for the text to be taken literally. For example, Revelation will frequently include things such as:

    And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth. (Rev 17:18)

    In other words, it was clearly not John’s intention that we think that the woman was a literal, flesh-and-blood woman. She is a symbol for the great city. Now, admittedly, other authors are not always so clear in signposting their intentions, but if someone can make the case that, say, they find a 1/2 dozen clues in the Book of Jonah that the author intended for the story to be a satire or a parable (Ed Snow with a little help from Ronan just did this at BCC), then that would (and does) persuade me to read the story that way. But if someone were to say to me, “Jonah could not be literal because no one could survive in a whale for three days” I would not be persuaded. The God I believe in is certainly powerful enough to keep someone alive in those circumstances.

    To sum: For me, the issue is never whether something could or could not have happened. I believe God could have pulled off every single thing described in scriptures. The question is whether the author intended for the text to be read literally. And, on just a few occassions, the most likely answer is ‘no.’

  11. You’re correct–this post is aimed at the first group, not the second. There are other reasons than mere implausibility to view Job and Jonah with a non-literal eye which since I’m not a scholar of ancient literature I couldn’t comment on. This is more relevant to the ‘that couldn’t have really happened’ view as noted…

  12. The ark’s massive size- was that literal or figurative? Landing in the mountains of Arrarat- was that literal or figurative? Hum…gets one to thinking!

  13. Even the literal stuff is meant to be figurative.

    Come on – there are four levels to scripture
    1. Historical
    2. Metaphorical
    3. Anagogical
    4. Moral

    I thought we all knew that!

    Where has modern education gone wrong, that we aren’t all well versed in medieval biblical hermenutics? ;-)

  14. I would say that most scriptural figures are literal types and shadows for realities even more literal (sign-ificant) than they are. The emblems that have the greatest meaning are those that correspond to greater and more solid realities, not less. The proper mode of symbolic interpretation is to read reality into the scriptures, not out of it.

  15. If the resurrection (and the Atonement) are ‘figurative’ in the same sense that Jonah wasn’t REALLY in the whale for three days, then where are we? Because that’s a very fundamental part of the gospel. Without the literal reality of the resurrection, our church (and Christianity in general) basically has nothing to stand on.

    I disagree (all the while not knowing how much, if any, of scripture is historically accurate or historically inaccurate).

    I find tremendous value in scripture — particularly the NT and D&C — in orienting my life, today, whatever may be true of my potential (non?)existence the day after I’m dead. To the extent that scripture does not teach me things I can understand and apply in this life, I get very skeptical of my ability to understand it, as I have, even positing the accuracy of all the stories about post-mortal existence, no real understanding of what it means to be alive and dead at the same time, nor what it means to exist without a body. Without that basic understanding, I’m inclined to suppose that any description of such dead-living/bodiless life is per force highly figurative and analogical, rather than literal — since taken literally, it makes no sense to an embodied being.

    In this case, you can legitimately question whether a Latter-Day Saint (or any Christian) can say “I don’t believe in a literal resurrection three days after being crucified (and stabbed in the side with a spear) because that’s, you know, impossible” and still be ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’, because that’s fundamentally a part of everything that being ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’ means.

    My version of “faithful” and “believing” is “living true to the light and knowledge I have received.” Even if that light and knowledge does not tell me what happens the day after I’m dead. I know little-to-nothing about post-mortal life, yet I know that loving my neighbor is better than not loving my neighbor, that forgiveness is better than revenge, that mourning with those who mourn is better than distancing myself from them, and that caring for the injured by the side of the road is better than walking to the other side.

    We seem more or less forced to accept the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as literal, even if other stories from the scriptures give us more leeway in applying a figurative filter without irreparably compromising doctrine.

    I don’t think we’re forced to do so.

  16. Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?

    But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

    Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.

    For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
    (1 Cor 15:12-17)

    So we might say, that surely morality is of some benefit here in this life either way, but if there be no resurrection from the dead, then it does not matter whether there be a Christ or whether there be not.

  17. greenfrog,

    I think Kevin is right with regard to the Savior’s death and resurrection. All of scripture seems to turn on those events. There are scriptural accounts of witnesses “proving” the literal resurrection of the Savior.

    Now I suppose those accounts could neither be here nor there with regard to historicity except that our theology seems to be built more on events than ideas–though there are some ideas that are important such as God being loving and truthful. But even so, those ideas don’t hold a lot of water unless they are substantiated by events. Ideas are shifty. But events, though our ideas about them may change and adapt as we become more informed, stand as a tether (of sorts) limiting how far our ideas may be flung without flying of a solid theological foundation–unless, of course, we cut loose from the tether. i.e., we believe that multiple accounts of witnesses feeling the wounds in the Savior’s resurrected body are mere fabrications, etc. Then we’re playing a whole different game.

    This isn’t to say that some qualification isn’t in order with regard to what the events mean. This is where, for example, the “idea” that God is truthful becomes very important. For if we believe the witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection but espouse a view of those events that suggests that God is doing something different from what He says we are doing, then we have serious theological problems again.

  18. “…what He says *He* is doing…” –in my last paragraph.

    Why do my comments always feel “out of order” at M*? ;>)

  19. Greenfrog, even figurative or ahistorical narratives can guide our life. The question becomes what grounds them? So for instance while one could act the same way if the NT was fiction one could well ask whether it would be rational to act the same way.

    What I think tends to happen with a lot, if not most, OT narratives is that we read them through the prism of the NT, BoM and restoration events. We then pick and choose based upon these other texts. But I don’t think most people give precedence to the OT the way they do other scripture. Which isn’t to say they discount them. Just that I think everyone to one degree or an other treats the OT differently. It’s just a matter of degree.

  20. I think there should at least be a distinction between things that seem impossible but are unavailable for investigation, and things that are doubtful because of investigation.

  21. Having been a participant and recipient of a few outright undeniable miracles (and even more that I believe to be miracles, but which many LDS would tend to explain away) I believe the scriptures are more literal than what most people, even most LDS, think.

    Having “been there, got the T-shirt”, the scriptural passages that describe such events take on meanings very different than what those in the figurative camp (both LDS and non-LDS) say they mean. Even the non-cannonical writings of Joseph Smith, those in “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, compiled by his grand-nephew Joseph Fielding Smith, explain things in a way that convey to me that Joseph Smith experienced all the things I experienced, and much more. Joseph Smith explained things that happened to me that absolutely nobody, outside of scripture, came even close to explaining. And because Joseph Smith has been the only one outside of the scriptures to explain what happened to me, I tend to trust him on the other things he said, too.

    The literal-versus-figurative question is best resolved by reading the scriptures with the Spirit. As Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote, having the Spirit opens up many meanings in the scriptures.

    I like Julie’s lines: “The God I believe in is certainly powerful enough to …” and “I believe God could have pulled off every single thing described in scriptures.”

  22. Bookslinger while the spirit helps I don’t think it tends to be focused on these sorts of questions. i.e. I’m not convinced you’ll get much of an answer regarding questions of scholarly interest. A few people might, of course. I had one investigator with some remarkable experiences while praying about the Book of Mormon which for him entailed it as an actual history. But I think that rare. Typically the spirit is more worried about changing us.

  23. The question is whether the author intended for the text to be read literally. And, on just a few occassions, the most likely answer is ‘no.’

    I suspect that most scriptural stories, even if they have literal meaning, also have symbolic meaning. More specically, “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of [Christ].”
    (2 Ne. 11:4)

  24. Clark,

    RE comment #25–I have a suspicion that one of the functions of the spirit of prophecy is to testify of events–past, present, and future.

  25. p.s.
    Ditto to this:
    I like Julie’s lines: “The God I believe in is certainly powerful enough to …” and “I believe God could have pulled off every single thing described in scriptures.”

  26. Jack, I know it can the question is whether it does for most people as a practical matter.

    Most people, even those seeking it, don’t get clear revelations into the minutiae of scriptural historicity.

  27. To me, some scripture is most likely figurative, particularly some things in the Old Testament. I have no idea how figurative.

  28. I don’t think everything written is literal, nor do I understand why people (sometimes almost angrily like #7)feel like it has to be. Does the story of the flood mean the same thing whether it actually happened or not? Can we get the same message reading about the Garden of Eden or Jonah if they are not literal? I know I can. The temple is no less a spiritual experience because I don’t believe a caucasian man and woman were put in a perfect garden somewhere in the United States only to be cast out and eventually ending up on the other side of the world.

  29. I really must echo what Julie said above.

    While I am sure that some people do think this way, I think that their thinking is wrongheaded. But there is another way to look at a story and conclude that it shouldn’t be taken literally: to carefully study the text for indications that the author did not intend for the text to be taken literally.

    It’s far from clear, contrary to modern assumptions, that the authors/editors of the Bible intended everything to be read in the genre of history. Jonah, for example, has many characteristics that, to a native Israelite, would have indicated it was a satirical parable. In translation, and without being immersed in the cultural indicators of genre, we miss those completely and read the text very differently than it would have been during its own time.

  30. in response to #32

    I do not believe everything is literal. The story of the flood can be taken from three different views, they are-
    1.The flood was a global catastrophe that literally destroyed the entire earth’s topography.
    2.The flood was only a localized event that only effected a small portion of the earth.
    3.The flood is an allegory or myth to try to teach the world a lesson.

    The logic is plain and clear that if you believe in 2 & 3 then a lot of the reference scriptures to the flood make no sense whatsoever and creates bigger problems that it cannot solve. The same can be said for evolution/ creation. The scriptures are not designed to be interpreted from an atheistic view. Atheism is so much a part of the science of man that if anything creeps in that hints towards the bible being true, you can guarentee that there will be an organization formed to try to destroy the truth.

    When was the last time you went to biology and they mentioned God in a good light when discussing the chapter on origins? Or when was the last time that you took geology and they gave any credit to the Noahician flood? It absolutley does not happen in conventional science and if you go against the principles of man to believe and push your ideas, you will fail those classes.

  31. We’ve had this same conversation in every thread the Flood comes up in. We aren’t going to convince each other of anything, so I’ll try to remember not to respond to any of your posts next time.

  32. Rob,

    Luke speaks of “all the world” being taxed at the time of the Savior’s birth. Surely he didn’t mean to imply that Greenland was part of the Roman Empire. Mormon uses the same rhetoric when decribing the demographics of his own civilization: the “whole earth” and what-not.

    Clearly, the scriptures must be understood in their own terms but that doesn’t mean that science can, in no way, help to inform us with regard to those terms.

    Is heaven literally “up?” C’mon, man.

    On the other hand, I share your concern with regard to how theology may be watered down by always giving science the last word. I think one of the most difficult points of reconciliation between science and mormon theology is where scientific claims tend to nullify God’s promises. This, for me (aside from Joseph Smith’s literalist claims), is what continues to plant my feet firmly in Book of Mormon historicity. The BoM coming forth as promised by God to fictitious characters reeks havoc (imo) on our basic theology.

  33. Let’s not turn every discussion into a discussion of the flood. There are plenty of other places I have questions about. Plus those arguing for a local flood are adopting a very literal reading.

  34. No one seemed to jump on my earlier post, which had a semi-serious point.

    Why does it seem the implicit, underlying assumption here that if a scriptural story is primarily intended to be allegorical/symbolic it can’t also be historical/literal?

    To me, that might explain a lot of the missing or slightly odd details in many scriptural stories that make it hard to pin down their historical standing.

  35. “What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads.” (Joseph Smith,TPJS p.276)

  36. Thought you might be interested in seeing a statement from the Community of Christ (RLDS) on scripture:

    http://cofchrist.org/theology/scripture.asp

    Fascinating how Affirmation 9 reverses the traditional understanding that the BoM is superior to the Bible. Certainly I’ve never heard the Bible being referred to as “foundational” by any other faith community born of the Restoration experience.

  37. Sorry for the silence — I didn’t see the responses to my comment until just now, as I was re-reviewing the entire thread. I guess the system posted them out of order.

    Clark Goble wrote:

    …even figurative or ahistorical narratives can guide our life. The question becomes what grounds them? So for instance while one could act the same way if the NT was fiction one could well ask whether it would be rational to act the same way.

    I agree, but I think the promise of John 7:17 about experience with doctrine being the basis on which we should decide its merit frees us from preoccupations about historicity, poor translation, or downright deceptions. Moreover, I think that the burden associated with relying on our own experiences and perceptions of those experiences are unavoidable, even if we prefer to scrutinize texts for historicity clues. In the end, we must either accept or reject our own experience and perceptions of right and wrong.

    Mark Butler wrote:

    Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?

    But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

    Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.

    For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
    (1 Cor 15:12-17)

    Paul was creating a nicely rhetorical false dichotomy. The fundamentally deceptive nature of such a style of argumentation isn’t relieved by repetition.

    So we might say, that surely morality is of some benefit here in this life either way, but if there be no resurrection from the dead, then it does not matter whether there be a Christ or whether there be not.

    If belief in Christ improves my life today, I can, most assuredly, conclude that my belief in Christ does matter. If my belief in Christ does not improve my life today, I’m hard pressed to figure out why I should reject my experience today in preference for a promised benefit in a (definitionally) incomprehensible post-death life.

    Jack wrote:

    I think Kevin is right with regard to the Savior’s death and resurrection. All of scripture seems to turn on those events. There are scriptural accounts of witnesses “proving” the literal resurrection of the Savior.

    Now I suppose those accounts could neither be here nor there with regard to historicity except that our theology seems to be built more on events than ideas–though there are some ideas that are important such as God being loving and truthful. But even so, those ideas don’t hold a lot of water unless they are substantiated by events.

    I think the “how should I live?” answers of our theology are largely independent of the historicity or ahistoricity of the events described in the New Testament.

    Ideas are shifty.

    Very good line, that.

    But events, though our ideas about them may change and adapt as we become more informed, stand as a tether (of sorts) limiting how far our ideas may be flung without flying of a solid theological foundation–unless, of course, we cut loose from the tether. i.e., we believe that multiple accounts of witnesses feeling the wounds in the Savior’s resurrected body are mere fabrications, etc. Then we’re playing a whole different game.

    Are the accounts accurate? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I wasn’t there, largely the authors of the New Testament accounts describe events that they weren’t there for, either. But even as to those events, I can’t question them. By and large, I can’t corroborate the tricky parts of them from other contemporaneous texts. All I have is the story, the teachings, and my experiences today.

    This isn’t to say that some qualification isn’t in order with regard to what the events mean. This is where, for example, the “idea” that God is truthful becomes very important. For if we believe the witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection but espouse a view of those events that suggests that God is doing something different from what He says we are doing, then we have serious theological problems again.

    This seems like good thinking to me, but I also think that the situation it poses is unavoidable. I’ve met many, many eyewitnesses in my career who were 100% truthful with respect to their reports — they fully and truly believed that their account of events was accurate. And yet it wasn’t hard to find concrete, objective evidence that showed that their 100% truthful accounts were wrong, nonetheless. For better or worse, I view scriptural texts as no more reliable than 100% truthful witnesses’ accounts. Is God truthful? Definitionally, of course. But saying that says nothing about how I interpret my own experiences with God, nor how I interpret another person’s report of her experience with God. Nor, further, how I view a text of another person’s report of her experience with God.

  38. greenfrog,

    Thanks for the detailed response. With regard to Mark’s quotation of Paul, I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy–that is, if there’s an underlying (other worldly) assumption that there is in fact a resurrection. It’s one of those funny things about the gospel. i.e., it’s truthfulness (imo) cannot be completely grounded by mortal experience alone. Who of us has risen from the dead recently?

  39. Jack,

    Paul’s false dichotomy is here:

    And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

    The reward of faith is not dependent on a physical resurrection.

    Mind you, it would be marvelous. But it’s not necessary to tip the pro/con scales in favor of faith.

  40. greenfrong -

    it isn’t a false dilemma if there really are only two choices. Paul’s dilemma is most patently not a false dilemma – it’s one of the main cruxes of Christianity’s truth claims.

    Just saying over and over that it’s a false dilemma doesn’t work either. Paul wasn’t being deceptive – he was laying it out how it was and is.

    As a student of rhetoric, it gets rather annoying whenever someone cries out “false dilemma” when two choices are offered. Sometimes, there really are only two choices.

  41. Ivan,

    I don’t think greenfrog is *completely* off base with his claim. Certainly if the context in which Paul was delivering his message were changed so that he found himself preaching to a congregation that was completely ignorant of the doctrine (I’m talking in extremes here) then the “false dichotomy” would be quite apparent. It would have come across as a good bit of rhetorical blackmail or what-have-you.

  42. Ivan,

    I’ve already stated above that I find great value in what I have gained from the preaching of Christ. Those values are independent of whether Christ was (or I will be) resurrected. Hence, Paul’s assertion that “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” is false. Do you mean to assert that I’m wrong about the value I have found in the words of Christ?

  43. greenfrog -

    Well, the Gospel isn’t really about whether it fits with our own personal, subjective fulfillment. Your stance, while consistent, admirable and reasonable, also renders the teachings of Christ “just another thing” that could be abandoned as soon as Hinduism, for example, start to provide more personal fulfillment.

    Also, Paul was preaching eternal salvation: making it to heaven. If Christ did not rise from the dead: sure, you can live a somewhat happy, fulfilled life. But if Christ did not rise from the dead, you probably aren’t going to be saved in the Celestial Kingdom, since the Celestial Kingdom wouldn’t exist.

    Paul is only using a false dichotomy if you take his words out of context.

  44. Of course, this falls on the divide covered by Rodney Stark in his book “The Churching of America” – churches that are focused on eternal salvation tend to do well, whereas churches that focus more on personal, in this life, secular fulfillment tend not to do well.

    That doesn’t speak to which type of church is right, but the world views don’t cross over much. But Paul’s words really are more about being saved in the Kingdom of God than they are about whether we are happy in the here and now (though, hopefully that happens as well, after serious repentance).

  45. How many one eyed (or completely blind) Latter Day Saints would there be if we interpreted the “if your eye offend the pluck it out” literally? How many married Mormons would there be if we interpreted Spencer W. Kimballs admonition to refrain from tongue kissing etc in THE MIRACLE OF FORGIVENESS?

    While many things can lead us to believe in a God (the orderliness of the universe etc) and a universal intelligence, nothing in our everyday life leads us to believe in a virgin birth or resurrection. Nobody living has experienced anything that can lead a rational person to believe anybody comes back from the dead or that there is anyway for a baby to be concieved imacculately. So to be a Mormon entails believing the unbelievable literally – not figuratively. We have to believe walking on water, etc even though nobody living has experienced anything to give us KNOWLEDGE such things occur – yet me must believe them with as little evidence as Santa.

    But believing makes us stronger. While the world may point to the recorded fact that a man named Lemuel owned the property that Joseph Smith grew up on, and his parents rented the farm from – we believe that there was a native American named Lemuel for real. This belief leads us to never believe in fact or evidence – but to believe in gut feelings burning in our bosom. This belief will lead us to abandon property and walk across 2000 miles of country to establish a home in the Rocky mountains – this is the heritage of the Latter Day Saints.

    As Ivan points out – we don’t need to be happy in the here and now. We will sacrifice everything – money, property, our life and the lives of our loved ones – based on the belief of the Book of Mormon. While those around us may have faith in money, or planning logically – we believe do or die in the old time religion of or Mormon forefathers. And as such we will continue to pack dried wheat under our beds until it is exploding from the rafters, because we know The Savior is coming again in just a matter of time, and our dried wheat and our faith will save us while the gentiles around us perish.

    If we have a choice of paying rent or paying for our sons mission, we will choose the mission. If we must choose virtue or death we will choose virtue. We will always turn the other cheek when smitten, and we will always pray for our enemies – Bin Ladin included. Because we are Mormon, and we believe the scriptures literally. Jesus went to build us mansions in heaven, and only those that believe literally will dwell in them. I believe literally and look forward to deciding what wallpaper to put up in my celestial bedroom when I have the fortune of passing beyond the veil.

  46. Ivan Wolfe wrote:

    Well, the Gospel isn’t really about whether it fits with our own personal, subjective fulfillment.

    I think the more you think about this, the less true it is. Don’t we teach each investigator to pray for her or his own personal, subjective experience with respect to the Gospel? If my testimony of the Church is not based on my own personal, subjectively fulfilling experience, upon what should — indeed, upon what could — it be based?

    Your stance, while consistent, admirable and reasonable, also renders the teachings of Christ “just another thing” that could be abandoned as soon as Hinduism, for example, start to provide more personal fulfillment.

    If Hinduism drew me closer to God and closer to becoming like Christ, should I suppose that Heavenly Father would oppose my affiliation with Hinduism? Would Christ oppose it? For me, the most important question isn’t to what institution I am most loyal — it’s what actions will make me most like God.

    Also, Paul was preaching eternal salvation: making it to heaven. If Christ did not rise from the dead: sure, you can live a somewhat happy, fulfilled life. But if Christ did not rise from the dead, you probably aren’t going to be saved in the Celestial Kingdom, since the Celestial Kingdom wouldn’t exist.

    It seems to me that the Celestial Kingdom is available to me — indeed, to anyone — in this very instant, if we choose to live in accordance with Celestial Law. Hence, Paul’s “the only thing that matters is what happens after death” is simply wrong.

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