Mormons, Scripture, and Authority of God

Reading Scriptures with family and personal study has been emphasized by the LDS Church leadership for generations. The founding of Mormonism started with Joseph Smith reading from the family Bible and getting inspiration to pray for spiritual guidance. He perhaps got more than he expected with the First Vision and then Book of Mormon translation. Those who study his life and sermons seriously have to be blind to not notice his intense Bibliophile tendencies, regardless of disagreement with his conclusions. This same high regard for Scripture reading, even if extending to “extra-Biblical” revelatory texts, has continued among members of the LDS Church since his time. Studies, flawed though they might be, consistently show that the readings have paid off in knowledge of the Bible and even general Christianity; outpacing some who pride themselves in such things.

Because the Scriptures are so important to the Mormon religious life, a book by one of my favorite “Historical Jesus” writers caught my attention. Former bishop of Durham of the Church of England, N.T. Wright informs and critique the modern movement of Jesus studies as the most faithful scholar to tackle the subject without outright dismissal. He wrote Scripture and the Authority of God with the hope of giving Bible readers a better model for understanding the definitive Christian catalog of writings. I shared that hope, even while worried that his approach as a non-Mormon would end in disagreement.

No matter how much I like him as a scholar, sadly the book about Scripture wasn’t very helpful. My fears had been realized. He either proposed ideas that I feel Mormons are taught from an early age to accept, or his theological approach was antithetical to Mormon concepts of Bible, Revelation, and most importantly the Restoration. He might have intended it to be a deep exploration of understanding the Biblical text, and it came highly endorsed on the back by respected non-Mormon theologians, but the most interesting parts were the sketch history of Biblical exegesis. It works better as an introduction to Bible study than a new approach.

His first advice for understanding the Bible is to reject proof-texting as a short hand for study. Using textual snippets creates bad theology open for ridicule by those who aren’t familiar with the nuances of Christian faith. It is only by reading the whole thing both Old and New Testament as part of a sometimes ill fitting puzzle that the true intentions are revealed. He claims that there is a play with different acts that runs through all of the writings, where we are living the final scene. The most important acts consist of the Fall, the story of God’s relationship with Israel, the life and Atonement of Jesus as the great eclipse and reason for the play, and the current role that the Church plays before the glorious fulfillment of Divine purposes. There is nothing in what he says that Mormons who are familiar with their own faith don’t already recognize as central to understanding the Scriptures. He insists, however, that he is not talking about dispensationalism, even though it would be hard not to come to that conclusion. probably the one suggestion we can take more seriously is getting rid of the proof text version of learning.

The end goal that N.T. Wright sees for the play is rather familiar to Mormons, even if put in different words like Zion. All of the writers recognize they are writing Scripture, and not just random history and letters. They might have biases and the reader does as well, but that should not take away from the message. The “Authority” that he says the Bible contains is centered on the power of Jesus, through word and action, to create the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom will be a new creation that transcends anything known by mortals. His dislike of allegorical interpretations when none were intended means this New Creation will be literal. His belief that the true “literal” understanding of the Bible has to do with what the original intentions of the authors were seems to match Joseph Smith’s opinion that he believed the Bible from the mouth of the original authors. It is no wonder he used Mormons as an example (not in this book) of a group that understood the Earth would be literally transformed.

He then breaks down ways that the reader can understand the Bible better. It is at this point that I think Mormons most part company. I think Mormons can agree with N.T. Wright that we must contextually read the Scriptures where each verse is understood in relation to other verses and then to chapters, and chapters to books, and books to cultural, historical, and canonical setting. There is not much wrong with reasoning out, in faith and not post-modern cynicism, the context and meaning along with other readers. Private and Liturgical study is continually preached in Mormonism as a necessity. What would be most troubling for a Mormon is the idea that Tradition and Accredited Leaders should be used as a main source of study, at least as he defines them. Obviously Mormons reject his belief that a continual line from Jesus to the Christian churches of today existed. Even secular scholarly learning is seen as better for understanding Scripture by Mormons than these last two guides. That said, what passes as theological “accredited leaders” of CES has a lot to be desired compared to some misguided non-Mormon clergy.

Probably the biggest concern is his insistence that the study of Scripture by using experience must be rejected as illegitimate. Sure, he says true experience comes as a natural part of Bible reading when the Holy Spirit enters the conversation. Other than that, he never really defines “experience” other than in what he sees as its negative qualities of post-modernism, pluralism, and the self-delusion of self-discovery. His warning is reasonable, but it is taken to an extreme. This seems in direct conflict with the Mormon emphasis of likening the Scriptures unto ourselves and seeking out the same experiences as the writers, in hopes we can all become prophets. Joseph Smith insisted that it was only through experience with the divine, within proper channels, that we can truly understand God.

Finally, and a full discussion of the book would take more room than intended, his ideas don’t reach the full logical conclusions. Perhaps his flat rejection of “experience” is an attempt not to go all the way forward as he worries about theological anarchy. He claims the Bible is authoritative, but that the authority comes from Jesus Christ. He never mentions the word “revelation” even while skirting the issue. Divine dialogic communication is at the tip of his tongue and he refuses to acknowledge the implication. His inclusion of Tradition and Accredited Leaders never once broaches the subject of why they should be of any authority, only assumed. The very thought that the Bible has any authority to give is questioned by Joseph Smith who said, “There is no salvation between the two lids of the Bible without a legal administrator. Jesus was then the legal administrator, and ordained His Apostles.” At first glance N.T. Wright is saying the same thing by having Jesus the authority of the Bible, but that would be superficially related. Joseph Smith means in the Person where Wright does in the Spiritual Witness. A Mormon would say the witness doesn’t give authority, it only enlightens the individual. This book can be enjoyed by a Mormon interested in Bible study, but there are still wide divides.

8 thoughts on “Mormons, Scripture, and Authority of God

  1. Interesting review. From my interactions with Evangelicals, I am not surprised that Wright downplays personal experience.

    I might quibble with one paragraph of your post though: “His first advice for understanding the Bible is to reject proof-texting as a short hand for study…. There is nothing in what he says that Mormons who are familiar with their own faith don’t already recognize as central to understanding the Scriptures.” I think proof-texting is alive and thriving among Mormons; one need only glance at a Gospel Doctrine manual to see it officially laid out in black-and-white. (Excellent case in point: the way we hop around the 4 Gospels in the NT rather than read them on their own.)

    Of course, I see that you included the qualifier “who are familiar with their own faith,” so it’s possible that you define familiarity as “knowing not to proof-text.” I didn’t think that’s what you meant, since that would be entirely tautological. Thus, I think it’s fair to say that a Mormon who actively attends Sunday School and studies the lesson every week is frequently exposed to and engaged in proof-texting.

  2. Actually, defining familiarity as “knowing not to proof-text” is exactly what I mean. Take my statements about proof-texting in context of my whole review. I even state, “probably the one suggestion we can take more seriously is getting rid of the proof text version of learning.” You might be surprised that I am among those who think that our Sunday School classes are boring and at times less than productive. On the other hand, his suggestion of breaking the Scriptures down into “acts of a play” with a very definite goal in mind and Jesus as the belonging to what we would call “The Meridian of Time” is very familiar to Mormon approaches to Scriptures, even if the way we teach them piece meal doesn’t reflect that.

  3. “Proof-texting” (which means taking individual scriptures out of context to support whatever claim you want to make) seems to me to be a standard Mormon practice. The example that comes to mind is Paul’s statement that you shouldn’t partake of the sacrament unworthily (which in Paul’s context meant irreverently and inappropriately, but which means in the LDS context, being guilty of serious sins.)

    I’m not a Biblical originalist (as if there were always truly a perfect original intent that could be discerned.) The great thing about the scriptures is that they can be made to support whatever you happen to believe, and thus the need for direction from latter-day prophets, and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.

    Jesus certainly quoted Old Testament scriptures out of context, and often completely transformed their meaning as well. That, I believe is not just prophetic prerogative, but something we can all try to do under the influence of the spirit.

    The Bible is The Word, not just some inspired historical narrative. It invites the reader to enter into a prophetic mindset, using the words as keys to open the windows of heaven and reveal truths which transcend mere facts and original intent.

  4. As an artist, I was pleased to find this scripture in 1st Timothy 6:12″…art also called…a good profession”

    (If you have to see the full verse, here it is: 1st Timothy 6:12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.

  5. Thank you for your post. I read this book right after reading the Jewish perspective from James Kugel – How to Read the Bible. Kugel’s book addressed the problem created for the faithful by Bible scholars. As an Orthodox Jew who taught the OT for years at Harvard, he asks “Is there a way that the texts can be authoritative to our religious life despite the advances of scripture. I was hoping that NTW would do the same for the NT, but it did’t work out that way. However, I found enlightening Kugel’s four assumptions that have informed the way Orthodox Jews read the Bible, and I have come to see that LDS have a set of assumptions also. I would like to engage with you on this somewhat later. I hope it won’t be too late.

    Sadly, it will take me some time to put this together, but I would enjoy revisiting it with you sometime.

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