Anyone who owns a pendulum powered clock—such as many grandfather or wall hanging clocks—knows that the regulation of the pendulum needs to be tweaked in order for the clock to keep accurate time. On the bottom of the pendulum is an adjusting nut that raises and lowers the “bob” (the disc-shaped weight that makes the pendulum swing from side to side).
If the bob is raised too high, the swing-angle of the pendulum will be too narrow and the clock will run too fast. If the bob is lowered too far, the swing-angle will be too wide and the clock will run too slowly. With a bit of experience, some tweaking, and another timepiece for comparison, the adjusting nut can correctly set the swing to ensure reasonably accurate time.
Our approach to the scriptures should also find a balance between how literally we accept what was recorded by past generations and how modern scholarship understands those past generation in light of history and science. Without balance, our spiritual growth may be stifled or our testimonies could even be put at potential risk.
Rejecting the Secular
As noted in a previous installment, Latter-day Saints should not take an inerrantist view to the scriptures. We know that prophets are fallible men with divine callings and that scriptures contain mistakes. If we take a literalist view on everything that we read in the scriptures we set ourselves up for potential testimony damage if we come to realize that the best scholarship—both inside and outside of the Church—argues that a strictly literal reading is untenable.
Revealed religion has almost nothing to say about the physics of the world, and little about its history either. As Galileo said, quoting one of the pope’s cardinals, the scriptures “teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.”[i]
Science can tell us little or nothing about the meaning of life but speaks volumes about the physics and history of this planet and people. While we may assume that the scriptures speak on scientific issues this assumption is typically not warranted (with a few exceptions).
Most of our scriptures were written in pre-scientific times and incorporate not only the pre-critical assumptions of those who recorded the scriptures but sometimes include fanciful narratives to convey divine principals. Joseph Fielding Smith once wrote:
“Even the most devout and sincere believers in the Bible realize that it is, like most any other book, filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense. …
“The Lord has not taken from those who believe in his word the power of reason. He expects every man who takes his “yoke” upon him to have common sense enough to accept a figure of speech in its proper setting, and to understand that the holy scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech. …”[ii]
“Despite divine inspiration,” notes LDS scholar Stephen Robinson, “the biblical text is not uninfluenced by human language and not immune to negative influences from its human environment, and there is no guarantee that the revelations given to ancient prophets have been perfectly preserved…. Thus, critical study of the Bible is warranted to help allow for, and suggest corrections of, human errors of formulation, transmission, translation, and interpretation of the ancient records.”[iii]
In my opinion, one of the most revealing scriptures for helping us understand how God communicates with His children is found in D&C 1:24:
“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”
I’ll discuss this point in greater depth later in this series, and will return to it repeatedly because of its importance. Whether Heavenly Father speaks to you or me, or to prophets, or to those who recorded or transmitted scripture, all humans are only able to understand those communications from within their own worldviews (our “language”) which would include vocabulary, culture, and even preconceived (perhaps even erroneous) ideas about science, the universe, physics, other people, and so on.
By applying the tools of scholarship and science to our scripture studies, we can better recognize how ancient peoples would have understood revelations in the context of their own particular worldviews.
Since the days of Joseph Smith, many leaders have suggested that our scripture study include not only prayer and personal reflection, but scholarly tools as well. Joseph, for instance, studied Hebrew and organized the School of the Prophets so he, and other Church leaders, could utilize the scholarship in his day to learn more about the ancient prophets.
LDS Apostle, Elder John A. Widtsoe likewise wrote:
“In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the Bible has played an important part. The careful examination of the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form, has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary reader of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth… To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study—a search for truth….”[iv]
Rejecting the Literal
Relying solely on secular interpretations of scriptural events presents its own set of problems. A strictly secular approach would deny the Resurrection, miracles, and divine communication from on high. Science currently tells us that such things don’t happen. Claims of the miraculous—including healings, raising the dead, and the visitation from angels or long-deceased prophets, must be taken on faith.
Approaching the scriptures from a strictly secular perspective also takes a superficial approach to the purpose of scriptures. While scholarship can more accurately tell us about the people who wrote the scriptures and how their stories would have been understood in ancient contexts, it cannot reveal the deeper meaning of those records—those verses that speak to our souls and impel us to change our hearts and desires to align with God.
“With minor exceptions,” notes Robinson, the Bible is “…not to be treated in an ultimately naturalistic manner. God’s participation is seen to be significant both in the events themselves and in the process of their being recorded. His activity is thus one of the effects to be reckoned with in interpreting the events and in understanding the texts that record them.”[v]
God had a purpose when He inspired biblical authors to record scripture and impelled dedicated followers to preserve the scriptures for future generations. Despite the fact that divinely revealed doctrine can be draped in a mantel of fallible human narrative and imperfect worldviews, the spiritual messages can nevertheless touch the souls of those who study the scriptures with the companionship of the Holy Ghost.
The scriptures not only act as a witness to God’s dealings with mankind, but they also testify to the divinity of the Savior and the reality of the Atonement. Elder David A. Bednar suggests three reasons why we should study the scriptures: Because of our covenants, because of our need for direction, and as a prerequisite for personal revelation.[vi]
Per the sacramental prayers, when we renew our covenants, we are asked to “always remember” Christ. We can facilitate this remembrance by studying the scriptures.
Elder Bednar notes that in Alma 37 we are taught that “personal prayer and scripture study provide direction in our lives just as the Liahona provided guidance to Lehi and his family in the wilderness.”
Lastly, and most importantly, scripture has the power to transform our hearts and minds so we can receive personal revelation. If we invite the Holy Ghost into our lives as we pray and study the scriptures, immersing ourselves in the scriptures helps open that conduit for personal communication with our Heavenly Father.
My personal approach to the scriptures is to find a balance between the secular approach and the faith-approach. A secular approach attempts to harmonize what scriptural records claim and what we know about history, physics, and the ancient world. It can not only shed light on our scripture study, but it can make sense of some scriptural references that do not accord with science, archaeology, or the historical record.
A faith-based approach to scriptures that accepts some literal interpretations of specific events (such as the Resurrection) brings meaning to my life, helps guide me, helps open the door to personal revelation and teaches me that some things must be taken on faith in spite of current scientific knowledge.
This balancing point will undoubtedly vary with each individual and may shift from time to time based on moments of secular or spiritual insight. Some readers may find my balancing point to be too liberal; perhaps for others, too conservative. In subsequent articles I will try to show how I arrive at my current position and how I find balance and enlightenment by harmonizing the two.
* This article also appeared in Meridian Magazine.
[ii] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 (SLC: Bookcraft, 1956): 188-190.
[iii] Stephen E. Robinson, “Bible Scholarship,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism
[iv] John A. Widtsoe, In Search of Truth: Comments on the Gospel and Modern Thought (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1930), 81-82,.
[v] Robinson, “Bible Scholarship.”
[vi] David A. Bednar, “Understanding the Importance of Scripture Study,”.