Church’s (Official?) Position on Biblical Interpretation

Andrew Bible, Mormon, mormon, Mormons 35 Comments

Brother Jensen thinks the story of Jonah spending three days in a whale’s belly is not literally true, but is a beautiful metaphor of Christ’s death and resurrection. Brother Christiansen, on the other hand, insists the story is literally true, and thinks Brother Jensen is going to hell for thinking otherwise.

Brother Smith believes the Garden of Eden story teaches true spiritual principles, but is not historically accurate. Brother Young, on the other hand, insists Mormons must believe the Bible’s stories are true both historically and spiritually.

For quite some time I’ve been trying to figure out whether the Church has an “official position” on how we are to interpret the Bible (e.g., literally or not, historically accurate or not). And I’ve been completely unable to find any such statement from the Church. Until now . . .

Today, the LDS Newsroom on the Church’s website published an article entitled: “Reverence for the Bible,” which addresses the question of how Mormons view and interpret the Bible. Here is the passage that caught my attention:

“There is a broad range of approaches within the vast mosaic of biblical interpretation. For example, biblical inerrancy maintains that the Bible is without error and contradiction; biblical infallibility holds that the Bible is free from errors regarding faith and practice but not necessarily science or history; biblical literalism requires a literal interpretation of events and teachings in the Bible and generally discounts allegory and metaphor; and the “Bible as literature” educational approach extols the literary qualities of the Bible but disregards its miraculous elements.

The Church does not strictly subscribe to any of these interpretive approaches. Rather, in the words of Joseph Smith, it regards the Bible to be the word of God, ‘as far as it is translated correctly’ (8th Article of Faith).” (Italics added.)

To me, this statement is significant because it acknowledges an interpretive flexibility within Mormonism that I haven’t seen the Church publicly acknowledge before now. (Please correct me on that if you know otherwise.)   This statement about Mormonism’s flexible interpretation of the Bible also raises an interesting question: Does this same flexibility apply to our interpretation of the Book of Mormon? Or are we required to take a more literalist approach to the Book of Mormon because we don’t qualify our belief in that book of scripture with the words “as far as it is translated correctly”?

Your thoughts?

Comments

comments

Comments 35

  1. To me, this statement is significant because it debunks literalists’ argument that theirs is the Church-endorsed approach to interpreting scripture. This new statement acknowledges an interpretive flexibility within Mormonism that I haven’t seen the Church publicly acknowledge before now. (Please correct me on that if you know otherwise.)

    Excellent observation. I’m curious to see where this goes.

  2. As with most statements from the LDS church, this statement doesn’t say much definitively, merely reiterating the 8th article of faith. The most common view of scripture in LDS circles has been, in my opinion, something approaching biblical infallibility, albeit with the provision that portions of the texts may have been lost or significantly mistranslated or altered in some way that may affect the teachings as presented in the existing scripture.

    Of course, this position does nothing to address the massive problem of trying to reconcile LDS theology and belief, which is based on a reading of the Bible as a reasonably consistent and coherent text, with what he all know based on biblical scholarship and criticism, although I sometimes wonder how much this has actually filtered down to the General Authorities. I recently read and interview with Oaks in which he seemed to suggest that it was reasonable to consider Moses to be the author of the Pentateach, which struck me as rather odd given that every semi-literate 7th grader in this country is now familiar with the notion of the various J, P, E, D, etc. authors. Of course, a reading of the synoptic gospels with a minimal level of biblical understanding proves much more significant disagreements with traditional LDS beliefs. After all, it’s difficult to claim that Jesus was in some way divine when most biblical scholars agree that he himself did not advance such claims.

  3. It is easy to claim that Jesus was in some way divine when your religion regards everyone to be in some way divine. Jesus was just more divine, that’s all.

  4. I certainly agree that Mormon’s don’t believe in biblical inerrancy.

    But most do believe in the literal truth of stories like Adam and Eve or the flood, because those stories are backed up by the BOM, PofGP, and other modern revelation. That’s always been the story, and the press release (in typical fashion) doesn’t address it. See for example this entry in the LDS Bible dictionary:

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/bd/n/33

    Or this article from the Ensign:

    http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=4a5557b60090c010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1

  5. If Brigham Young’s Journal of Discourses ever became canon, what would we make of some of the things that he said, such as “negroes” not allowed to have the priesthood because of the “curse of Cain?” The reason I bring this up is because we take the account of the “curse of Cain” from Moses as fairly literal. But, as far as I know—and I’m not a Harvard Divinity School trained Bible scholar—the only close to original account that we have of the “cursing” of Cain comes from Moses. People are who they are, warts and all, biases and all, even sometimes highly racist. Could Moses have had raw feelings toward sons of Ham?

    I really appreciate that today’s church leaders are far more open to less strict definitions of the world around us, because the world around us is quite complex. The more I study the world around me, from ancient times to modern, the more I look at the words of the prophets (including Moses) and am more cautious of the definitive things they say that are outside the “small and simple” truths of the gospel.

  6. “The Church does not strictly subscribe to any of these interpretive approaches. Rather, in the words of Joseph Smith, it regards the Bible to be the word of God, ‘as far as it is translated correctly’ (8th Article of Faith).” (Italics added.)”

    “To me, this statement is significant because it debunks literalists’ argument that theirs is the Church-endorsed approach to interpreting scripture. This new statement acknowledges an interpretive flexibility within Mormonism that I haven’t seen the Church publicly acknowledge before now. (Please correct me on that if you know otherwise.)”

    Andrew – I guess we just think differently, maybe wired up differently, because I honestly can’t see this as anything new nor a new public acknowledgment because to me this is the line followed by the church since the days of Joseph Smith. And with the story of Jonah or the Garden of Eden, I always thought that it was up to us to decide if it is or is not literal, although the moral & spiritual lesson is the same in either case. But then with the Garden of Eden you also have Joseph Smiths other prophesies pointing to Missouri, near Jackson County, showing that he did indeed have a literal historic view of its existence and purpose.

    Another reason why we are different is that I can’t see it saying that the literalism viewpoint is faulty, incorrect or dead because if we can say that some bible story is ‘incorrectly translated’ then the implication is that we ignore it, as we do with the Song of Solomon. But then if it is translated correctly and the church says so as it does with the Garden of Eden (which is also referenced in the Temple ceremony) then surely the implication is that it is literal and not to be ignored?

    Having said this I still think that the importance of the Bible lies in the teachings contained therein. So, say for example, that the Nathan & King David conversation was made-up by Shakespeare, and hence not historical, does it really matter given the power of that text and its message?

    Now with the Book of Mormon things are different because the church has always called it the most accurately translated religious book. That doesn’t leave much room for the Southerton theory or even Palmer’s belief -and remember that both men were disciplined to a degree- so I really can’t see us adopting a non-literal view any time soon even if DNA casts some doubt -for now! Just my opinion though because a mormon prophet could still issue some manifesto a la polygamy and change things, even throw out the entire Book of Mormon. Our church governance allows him to do so as long as he does it in the Lords name as they did when they declared polygamy a sin after saying for years that we need to do this to enter the highest level and so on…..

  7. Dan “Could Moses have had raw feelings toward sons of Ham?”

    yea, he preferred beef!

    Sorry, sorry, bad joke, I know.. 🙂

  8. WestBerkeleyFlats-

    Respectfully, I don’t think you are seeing what the mormon church is all about.

    Its that after we read the bible we ask: what happened next? We then find some answers in the other mormon holy books.

    Also we eagerly await the translation of more holy books, as Nephi prophesied, which will really rattle some evangelicals’ feathers.

  9. The Church puts out a statement of official doctrine and the answer is… *drum roll please* “We have no official doctrine on this subject.” 🙂 I’m not suprised in the slightest. Good for them!

  10. The position, “As far as it is translated correctly” is in fact an interpretive statement. Translations are interpretations, and given the evolution of language and word usage, it would seem utterly impossible to ever know the intention of the author. As to Biblical texts, we are too far removed to understand their points of views – we may get a good idea or have a great guess, but we do not live in the context or use the same language as the writers.

    Consider the Book of Mormon – in any way that you look at it, divine or concocted, it has to be considered a 19th century text. If Joseph translated it, he translated for the 1830’s context. The language and ideas expressed in the translation process would reflect the translator. I understand this has some challenges with the idea that Joseph translated by reading the words off the stone, but it coincides with the process of translation described in the Doctrine and Covenants as studying and feeling.

    The fact that translation really means interpretation gives the Church a great deal of flexibility with both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It this way the Church can easily change the wording from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome” without any issue. It would be very simple to say that yes there is a literal translation but there is an interpretation that the Lord would have us use.

    Historically, this was one of the reasons it was considered blasphemy to read the Bible – reading the scriptures literally without ecclesiastical interpretation could result in misunderstanding. Arguably this has undoubtedly occurred given that we have multiple churches and multiple interpretations. I think the Church today uses this same strategy. We can read the scriptures but we are not entitled to a private interpretation – interpreting the scriptures has to be done through the lens of modern prophets and apostles, particularly the living ones today – only they can give an interpretation that matches our modern context.

  11. Carlos, thanks for your thoughts, and here are my thoughts in response:

    “I honestly can’t see this as anything new nor a new public acknowledgment because to me this is the line followed by the church since the days of Joseph Smith.”

    I agree this statement acknowledges what I (and apparently you) have always thought was the Church’s position, which we have perhaps inferred indirectly from various statements. What I am saying is that I have never seen the Church say so clearly and directly that we do not strictly subscribe to any one method of biblical interpretation. If you know of a clear, direct, public statement like this that was given previously, I’d love to see it.

    “But then if it is translated correctly and the church says so as it does with the Garden of Eden (which is also referenced in the Temple ceremony) then surely the implication is that it is literal and not to be ignored?” I don’t know that it is necessary to infer that such a use of the Garden of Eden story is intended to suggest it is literal; in fact, considering all the symbolism involved in that context, I draw the inference that the story is figurative.

    “But then with the Garden of Eden you also have Joseph Smiths other prophesies pointing to Missouri, near Jackson County, showing that he did indeed have a literal historic view of its existence and purpose.” I agree that Joseph Smith seemed to have a literal historic view of the Bible’s stories (as probably did almost everyone else in his day). My question is whether the fact that Joseph Smith (and many other LDS prophets) had a literal view of Bible stories is controlling on how we individual members should read the Bible today. That’s why this statement is significant to me. It says, we don’t have a strictly literalist approach (or any other).

  12. Devin, are the living LDS apostles leading the way in clear interpretation of biblical scriptures? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any ecclesiastical consensus on what is even translated correctly. I don’t think they even know.

    And since there is no official hermeneutics of the Church, why the anger toward any outsider misrepresenting how the Church interprets the Bible?

    Here is my question: Does the LDS newsroom desire for me to seriously and literally interpret anything they have to say?

    I could have a lot of fun with my hermeneutics of the LDS newsroom.

  13. Ronan,

    I’d love to know who authors these statements as well. I’ve always thought they were approved by the Church’s Public Affairs committee. In a recent GC address, Elder Ballard indicated he serves on that committee. I’ve been noticing lately that Elder Ballard’s GC addresses often identify deficiencies and urge needed improvements in Mormon culture. Elder Ballard’s GC addresses are typically “progressive” in that sense. His “Doctrine of Inclusion” address is an excellent example of that. And his “O Be Wise” address, which points out ways we often go wrong in leadership contexts, is another. More and more, Elder Ballard is to me the Apostle who says the things you’ve long thought and wished a GA would say.

    I believe Elder Oaks may be on that committee as well, but I can’t remember where I heard that.

  14. “As with most statements from the LDS church, this statement doesn’t say much definitively”

    I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately. One thing I like about it is that the church spins us back to reading the scriptures, not relying on others to read and interpret them for us, and talking to God rather than talking about God, to knowing God rather than knowing men’s theories and opinions on God. The church (especially lately) is like a college professor playing devil’s advocate who when you think you finally get what they’ve been teaching and you excitedly gush out your idea says: “Interesting. But what if you’re wrong?”

    On the flip side, it’s hard to explain our beliefs to others succinctly other than to say we believe in finding out what our beliefs are through personal experience, scripture study and prayer.

  15. Andrew A’s. (I’m a different Andrew) enthusiasm is a bit misplaced, i think. I agree that on an initial reading, the Church’s statement seems almost progressive.

    Until you read it again and realize that nothing substantive is being said. In essence, the church is saying “some people believe, x, some y, other yet z. Joseph Smith said a.” No approach is validated or invalidated. No effort to explain what the modern interpretation of the phrases, “as far as it is translated correctly” or “the word of God” is made.

    You’d think that a Church that claims to have the only authorized representatives of the Lord would have the courage to say something substantive. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

  16. Andrew,

    I’ve thought about biblical interpretation a great deal in light of what the sciences seem to be saying about the history of the world.

    I think this statement of the Church probably means that you can’t be tried for your membership for holding to any of these various approaches, but I can’t be sure.I would say that most active LDS interpret most of the Bible quite literally, except for the parts they have been trained to look at in other ways. I think here of Isaiah and Daniel, for instance. My bishop raised the question over the pulpit about whether one needed to believe the Jonah story was literal to be a good Church member. He didn’t answer the question, but by raising the question, one would guess his answer would be no.

    The main issue for most people is that Joseph Smith walked and talked with God and took historical views of the Old Testament figures like Noah, Moses, and Adam. We accept everything else he told us in terms of religious truth, so why not take the Bible literally? How do we say, “It was his assumption that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, like others of his precritical generation” when he reportedly talked with Moses? I think this is where most LDS get hung up with the whole allegorical reading of the Bible and other sacred texts. We have a founding history that literalizes it all, no matter how problematic that is for us in the 21st century.

  17. Todd,

    I was mainly trying to show that translations are interpretations and that understanding leads to a great deal of flexibility. However, I do not think anyone has anymore inspiration than me or you when it comes to a correct interpretation. Revelation and thus scripture are a subjective, contextual experience. That’s the way it was in the past, is today, and will be in the future. Our voices whether in line with leaders or not will certainly affect future revelations and interpretations.

  18. WestBerkeleyFlats, a lot of people never got over the LDS Church in the 70s supporting non-discrimination in employment on the basis of gender or orientation. I still remember dealing with the SLC District Attorney’s office and they were quite forthright about making sure everyone knew they had implemented a non-discrimination policy. I’m not sure they are still quite so public about bowing to pressure as I don’t live out that way any more, but I can appreciate that you probably still feel that was wrong.

    John Nilsson, it is interesting just how different Joseph Smith’s books of Moses are from the ones we have in the Bible. Just because there is an actual Moses and he wrote doesn’t mean that the Biblical writings necessarily are terribly connected to him. People seem to miss that, and the direct implications of the Pearl of Great Price Moses text.

  19. I believe Elder Oaks may be on that committee [Public Affairs] as well, but I can’t remember where I heard that.

    One would hope not, since he has publicly taught that LDS parents should ostracize the partners of their gay sons and daughters.

  20. AWESOME post Andrew… Thanks again. And dont worry…I thought it was so good that I wont throw a cyber molotov cocktail into your email box. 🙂

    I am going to print that press release out and stick it in my scriptures just so I can refer to it in church.I think it is progressive and unifying.

    In terms of the BoM? I look forward to when the same is issued about the BoM but my fear is that this will ostrasize the orthodox Mormon congregate and give our anti-thetical mormon friends something to baulk at.

    Fantastic post mate…very timely and good journalism.

  21. We have a church that is led by a Prophet. Why does the prophet not give us a more definitive answer on the Bible? Instead of relying on such a general statement as “We believe the Bible to be the word of God so far as it is translated correctly”… why can the Prophet not TELL us what parts are translated correctly and what parts are in error? JS took the time to RE-translate the bible and we do not even us it. We only use segments of it in our bible (perhaps it is because the church does not own it). I for one just find it odd that a church led by a Prophet and that preaches how we have authority and Latter Day revelation is so hard to pin down about what is true and correct in the bible and what is not. Why be so evasive?

    Darrell

  22. I think the nuances that are felt by this question require us to be our own prophets on the matter, not intellectually, but mystically. Do we feel that Biblical stories are literally true, or do we feel that they are symbolic. I think the Church does a great service by leaving it up to us to interpret based on thought, study, and prayer.

  23. Darrell,
    you make a really good point. I dont necessarily see it as evasive but allowing personal autonomy. I think a general shift in that direction in the church is fantastic. “Teach the principles and let them govern themselves”. This can only make the church more colourful.

    I kind of see it the way I do symobology in the temple. It can be interpreted differently depending on ones perspective. And Peter makes a good point aswell.

    But this is just my two cents and I think you do raise a good point.
    Steve

  24. Stephen,

    Thanks for the reply. Just to clarify my thoughts on this. I like the idea of leaving certain things up to personal revelation and interpretation. I believe that the scriptures are designed to communicate that way. A passage that I read today will mean one thing to me and then 20 years down the road it may mean something else. I believe God has designed the scriptures that way… they can help us in our lives baed upon the circumstances we find ourselves in.

    What I am questioning is this… As a church we make a bold claim… that the Bible has been mistranslated… that evil and conspiring men have removed plain and precious truths from the Bible and that some passages do not read the way they were designed to. Hence the claim that “The bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly”. Given the fact that we have a Prophet who receives revelation from the Lord, why can he not TELL us which passages have been changed? Why would he leave that up to personal revelation? Either a passage has been translated correctly or it hasn’t… that is not a matter for personal revelation.

    Darrell

  25. Darrell – the JST does illustrate some of the altered passages. One that came up today that I thought was interesting was the passage in Matthew 5:22 – “But I say unto you, That whosoever is aangry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” The JST omits the words “without a cause,” removing justification for anger and changing the whole tone of the verse.

    Also, the idea that mistranslation is by designing evil men is not precise – it could also be mistranslated by sheer accident through the centuries (clerical mistakes, smudged handwritten documents, words that are not easily directly translated, etc.). Most biblical scholars agree with this viewpoint.

  26. Hawkgrrrl,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes we have the JST transalation. But, (and please correct me if I am wrong on this… as my wife often points out I am wrong about a lot of things), I don’t think the church has talked a lot about it. Does it correct all of the mistranslations that exist in the bible? Is it infalible? Why do we not use the entire JST? How did the church decide which parts to use and which parts not to use? Are the parts that we DON’T use wrong in some way? Anyway, I just have a lot of questions about all of this.

    In addition, I do have to respectfully disagree with you about MOST biblical scholars agreeing that the bible has been mistranslated. Yes, there are scholars who think that. However, for every scholar you find who thinks that I can probably point out one that thinks the Bible translation we have today is suprisingly accurate… dating back to the earliest copies of bible text that we have. Evangelicals believe that God inspired the transalations of the Bible we have today… that the translators were led by the Holy Spirit and therefore, what we have today is correct. I can see their point and some scholars believe they have sufficient proof to support that claim. Just as you can find many who think they have proof to DEBUNK that claim.

    Be careful looking to closely at scholars… you can open a pandoras box for our own faith. Many of them think the BOM is a load of hogwash. Very little if any physical evidence… the Indians are not decendants of the Hebrews, etc.

    Darrell

  27. Andrew A- Interesting. I think I understand what you’re getting at.

    Personnally, although the church may have changed the way it issues these public statements, before it was the Apostles who would make these very direct statements as part of conference talks and books. People like JFSmith were very direct and clear on their ‘literal’ view of both bible and book of mormon (I believe; although I disliked his views on blacks and several other matters). He also had a literal view of the creation & was against any evolutionary principal.

    But your words are getting to me in unexpected ways. Why? what you said here
    “I don’t know that it is necessary to infer that such a use of the the Garden of Eden story is intended to suggest it is literal; in fact, considering all the symbolism involved in that context, I draw the inference that the story is figurative.”
    made me think twice this morning when I started my daily scripture study. I looked at the Nephi chapter about the ship building, and honestly asked myself “did this actually happen?”. I remember reading what you wrote here (what others say about the book of mormon) and thought “if this isn’t literal, if it didn’t happen, then there is no point in studying this”. If it didn’t happen then I don’t know why I would bother with daily study.

    Now I know that I’ve previously pointed to the moral of the story as the only thing that matters when reading the scriptures but today I kind of changed my views on this. Now I think that if the Book of Mormon isn’t literal and was only an ‘inspired’ story that Jose Smith made up, well if that’s the case then why bother.

  28. Is it infalible? Why do we not use the entire JST?

    Because it was a rough draft and Joseph Smith stated that he had been told by God not to use it until he completed it.

    After a good deal of discussion and debate, it was decided that the rough draft was useful, at least in parts.

    I will note that 2/3 of the footnotes to the LDS Bible were cut. Yes, footnotes, etc. are good. However, the Brethren decided they should not swamp the text.

  29. Is it infalible? Why do we not use the entire JST?

    Because it was a rough draft and Joseph Smith stated that he had been told by God not to use it until he completed it.

    After a good deal of discussion and debate, it was decided that the rough draft was useful, at least in parts.

    This is actually a myth. As Robert J. Matthews (probably the leading expert on the JST) said (quoted by Dallin H. Oaks):

    The major reason for failure to publish [the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible] appears to have been not what some have implied to be the “grossly unfinished” state of the manuscript, but an inadequate response from the Saints in providing temporal assistance. The basic conclusion seems to be that the work of translation was acceptable as far as the Lord required it of the Prophet at that time, but the manuscript was not fully prepared for the press.

    Basically, the document was done, but Joseph had trouble gathering the resources to publish it before he died. Emma ended up with the manuscript, and Brigham’s distrust for her led to the Utah Saints’ distrust for the version published by the RLDS.

    All this is well documented in several sources. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll follow up.

  30. Darrell,

    Just to clarify my “most biblical scholars comment,” I was referring to those whose books I have seen and those featured on the History Channel. Not very scholarly on my part, perhaps, but I’ll redeem myself a little by admitting it freely. I have yet to hear of an evangelical literalist that I would consider a “bible scholar.” Would they even use such a term or consider it a “slur” the way some people consider “Mormon apologist” a derogatory term?

    As far as “referring to the JST,” I have consistently seen this done over the years in Gospel Doctrine, and I’m not Methuselah, but I’m no spring chicken either. But, I don’t know the answers to your other questions. I don’t think the church has de-emphasized it, but that’s just my own experience. It’s incorporated into the LDS KJV in the form of footnotes. And, frankly, I don’t know which parts, if any, are not used, or whether it’s considered infallible. The way I have always used it (and heard it used) is another bit of information that clarifies or gives an alternate reading to a passage. There are a few passages I’d like JST on that we don’t have JST on – pretty much all of Paul, although some has JST clarification, but I always wondered if that was just because I wish it said something different than what it intends to say.

  31. On the Joseph Smith translation, we know that Emma’s second husband gave away a number of the pages, they were available as souvenirs to visitors.

    We do know that the manuscript as it became available to us is incomplete … though “grossly unfinished” would not be accurate, so I’d agree with Chris on that point. The fact that it was well underway is why on reflection the brethren felt free to make use of it.

    The basic conclusion seems to be that the work of translation was acceptable as far as the Lord required it of the Prophet at that time, but the manuscript was not fully prepared for the press.

    I’d agree with that too. It was as far along as was required at that point. It was not fully prepared for release.

    As many have noted, for a number of reasons, the early Church had a real trend to disregard it, but as the new edition of the scriptures was coming together, after a lot of discussion and debate, it was decided that it was valuable.

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