Obviously, the scriptures are:
- The inviolate unchanging word of God, replacing him for us at this time.
- Any inspired writing or sermon that is useful or interesting.
- A Rorschach inkblot.
- A collected miscellany of myths and historical documents.
- A Urim and Thummim
Or something like that. Or are they?
1. The first view of scripture, called Biblidolatry by those who are critical of it, treats the scriptures as the inerrant word. Which scriptures, which translation, which conflicts count, all of those issues are swept aside with the claim that God spoke, it is written, and the scriptures are all we need. Versions of this approach have lead to the claim that the heavens are closed — all we need we have and it is all we will get until Christ comes again.
One of the foundations of our faith is the rejection of this view and a rejection of a closed canon.
2. The alternative to number one is Paul’s 2 Timothy 3:15 “And that from a child thou has known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The word Paul used means inspirational or religious writings. Early Christian libraries, in reliance on Paul, included Plato and other writings (remember that all the early “Bibles” are/were the collections of sacred writings that Christian Communities had, typical archeology will find Plato, Shepard of Hermes, The Pearl and other texts as the mainstays of early Christian “Bibles”).
In many ways our theology embraces the “every word that proceedeth” approach. D&C 68:4 “whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture …” summarizes this nicely — and it is talking about missionaries. Every sacrament talk, every missionary lesson, every family prayer has the potential to be scripture of this type.
3. At the same time, scripture often reflects the reader (especially when being ignored or reinterpreted). I remember being assigned to read On Walden Pond. The book struck me as mostly froth. As we discussed it, one guy began an impassioned defense of the philosophy of the book. As I listened I realized that what he was defending was (a) not in the text and (b) his personal philosophy. The book had been an ink blot for him. Scripture can be the same, and often is.
4. Our scriptures are filled with myths and histories. Reading Kings and Chronicles caused me to realize that the histories are not necessarily accurate histories (the two disagree on many details).
Now myths can be true myths (e.g. The Battle of Bunker Hill really did happen, as did The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere — just because they are foundational myth stories doesn’t mean they didn’t happen). They can also be figurative accounts, sometimes purely figurative — or even just myths and stories.
The other end of the spectrum from “the inerrant word of God” is “miscellaneous accretions of myth and history we have by random chance.” A sort of cultural artifact vs. a divine expression.
Our theology acknowledges that our scriptures may contain accretions, but that they are not only accretions. While scripture is a written collection of oral narratives, each specific to a specific time and need, instance and occurrence, we believe that the scriptures are more as well.
5. Which leaves us with the last view of scripture. Scripture is a body of communications from God that can work for us as a key to revelation. A Urim and Thummin by which we can tune ourselves and then find the word of God that he has for us. Which is why the scriptures, rather than being a textbook of expository instruction, are as they are.
It also means that we can ignore them, find in the whatever it is we already think, or patiently learn from them that which we do not know or suppose. It is up to us what we find in the scriptures and what they become for us.
Another nice, reflective post. Your On Walden Pond comparison is apt.
I know some people who will pray about an issue troubling them and then open the scriptures at random, hoping their eyes will alight on a passage with meaning for them. Where would you assign this devotional practice in the above categories,perhaps a #5?
A nice post, thanks. A little more light than heat for me is long overdue.
I think your comments about scriptures as a Urim and Thummin are a valuable way to validate a progressive interpretation to scripture and a way to validate the ‘translation’ of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.
There is a complimentary section to your post in the UK Quaker Book of Faith and Practice. I will dig it out when I get home.
#2 Gerry Spence
I have not heard the term “progressive interpretation” before and I was wondering if you or anyone else would help me understand that phrase. Thanks.
Very interesting post. I found it informative and thought provoking. I have a couple of questions that I was hoping you would answer.
When you used the term “myth” in reference to scriptural accounts are you using it to describe events that were inflated in importance and/or magnitude? The reason for my confusion is that you used the example of Bunker Hill as an example of a myth even though you acknowledged that it happened. Since Bunker Hill had a major influence on all of the battles in the War of Independence fought after it took place, Bunker Hill is seen by some historians as pivotal in the War of Independence. Bunker Hill shaped British tactics and prolonged the war which was essential for facilitating the eventual loss of the British. Because Bunker Hill was extremely bloody it also had a major impact on the psyche of Patriots as well as the Loyalists throughout the war and after. I don’t want to get too far afield but I may be too late. 🙂
The reason I bring this up is that differences of details that you note in your post in scriptural accounts doesn’t necessarily invalidate the accounts in the Bible or relegate them to the status of myth in my view. Myth seems to carry a powerful connotation that could be said to render the scriptural accounts no more valid than the stories told by the Greeks. It would be wrong if I appeared to imply that I thought you were doing that because clearly you weren’t. I am just curious about using the term “myth” in association with the scriptures. Has this been done by any General Authorities that you know of? Just curious. Thanks.
Yes. Items 1 through 5 are the correct answer, including “something like that.”
James, supra at #3:
Progressive interpretation for me means two things – progressive in the sense that interpretation is open and subject to change and new interpretation. Progressive, for me also means interpretation that aligns with the sense of morality I feel that corresponds to progressive political and social ideas.
I don’t see the word “myth” as delegitimatizing a story — instead, a “myth” is an event that is important or focal to a narrative and takes on an important point. Your discussion of Bunker Hill illustrates why it properly has status as a mythic narration.
I’m not sure if the term is used very often in its appropriate technical meaning.
But Babe Ruth is a mythic character, for example, as is Abraham Lincoln, each because of the importance they take in narrations about their eras and milieus.
So “are you using it to describe events that were inflated in importance and/or magnitude?”
No, I’m using it to describe events that are so important or of such magnitude that they take on a greater importance to the narrative and define a narrative of their own.
Sorry that wasn’t clearer.
Thank you for replying to my posts and answering my questions. I have not used myth as you describe it so that just put a new wrinkle in my brain (that brings me up to a total of six). Thanks again.
Excellent post, Stephen.
Number 5 is one of the reasons I have a hard time getting riled up about how others interpret scripture. I might personally disagree with them, but at different times in my life I have gotten different insights and even “meaning” from the exact same verse – based almost entirely on what I needed to be taught at the time.
For anyone who is interested, there is a very interesting post over on Times and Seasons about Psalms 137 that addresses this topic. I highly recommend it.
I have often heard the term ‘word of God’ used to cover everything from scripture to the latest conference talk. The iron rod in Lehi’s dream symbolized the word of God. So… what is the word of God? I went back through the scriptures to try to better understand the meaning of the word “word.” (Sorry, I had to do that)
If you go back to the triple combination index, you find that the first reference to ‘word of God/word of the Lord’ is to 1 Nephi chapter 2 verse 3:
“And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him.”
The information defined here as the ‘word of the Lord’ is a dream received by Lehi warning him to flee into the desert. In other words, personal revelation received through a ‘vision of the night.’
Why do I bring this up? Well, later in the same chapter, another similar term is used. Verse 13 states:
“Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father.”
Here the reference is to ‘words of the prophets’ regarding the content of what could be considered the inspired writings of Lehi’s day.
So we have ‘word of the Lord’ and ‘words of the prophets.’ It seems to me that this is a somewhat subtle suggestion that these two sources should be considered as different classes of the knowledge we receive from God. The ‘word of God’ being direct and personal or coming directly from the person who received it while the ‘words of the prophets’ being delivered through another person and are written down for benefit of others. I found that I could fairly consistently apply this idea to the use of the word ‘word’
Alma taught that there are two means that we can receive truth. In Alma 5:45-47 we find:
“And this is not all. Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?
Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.
And moreover, I say unto you that it has thus been revealed unto me, that the words which have been spoken by our fathers are true, even so according to the spirit of prophecy which is in me, which is also by the manifestation of the Spirit of God.”
Alma speaks here of the ‘spirit of revelation’ and the ‘spirit of prophecy.’ The former is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a personal witness of the truth. The latter is a witness that the scriptures are true. In other words, by the spirit of revelation we gain a personal testimony of the truth of the things of God. By the spirit of prophecy, we gain a testimony of the truth of that which was written by others.
So what is my definition of ‘scripture?’ The words of inspired men that requires the spirit of prophecy to gain a testimony of the truthfulness therein. If one seeks for the spirit of prophecy, they are promised to receive a validation of the truth found in the words of those that have gone before us. It is a supplement to the word of God delivered directly to us through the spirit of revelation.
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