[By David Larsen, cross posted with slight alterations from Heavenly Ascents.]
I recently saw a blog post by Dr. William Hamblin that responded to a Round-Table panel on the topic: “Is Scripture Relevant.” I had not initially seen this discussion, so I am grateful to the two bloggers referenced for posting their thoughts. I have since gone back and watched the panel discussion and came away with sentiments similar to Dr. Hamblin’s. I didn’t feel that the panelists really addressed or answered that question. As I have strong feelings on this topic, I thought I would share a few comments.
As Dr. Hamblin also suggested, some of the ideas presented in the discussion can be boiled down to, at least in part, the differences between a liberal versus a conservative understanding of what scripture is and how it functions in a community.
The LDS understanding of scripture can appear, for those on the outside looking in, to be very complex. Most Mormons could legitimately be described as having both a liberal and a conservative view of scripture. For many of my protestant/evangelical friends and colleagues, our dismissal of the idea of sola scriptura (i.e., the Bible is the inspired word of God and as such is of higher authority than tradition or ecclesiastical authority), or of scriptural inerrancy is a very liberal position. For some, like Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, our position, in this regard, is perhaps not so radical (although our acceptance of additional scripture beyond the Bible is).
As I went through my graduate degrees in theology and Biblical Studies, I had many discussions with troubled evangelical students whose world seemed to be crashing down around them because in class after class they were presented with evidence that the process of the scriptural canon coming together was a rather messy one and that there are many conflicting manuscripts, apparent contradictions, and human errors that entered into that process. Some expressed to me that they had lost their faith or were in the process of losing it, because of these revelations (if you pardon the pun). They wondered how I was able to get through my studies without feeling so shaken. I would tell that my Mormon faith taught and prepared me to accept a view of scripture that allowed for errancy — the fallible hand of human beings in the transmission of the inerrant word of God. It is one of our articles of faith that “we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as far as it is translated [or ‘transmitted’] correctly.” But for many of my Christian friends, this is an unacceptably liberal position.
As I listened to some of the comments made at this recent panel discussion, including in the Q&A period, I found some ideas expressed that, in my opinion, would be “unacceptably liberal” in the minds of most Latter-day Saints. In the interest of brevity, I will focus on a few specific responses to a question that concerned the difference between scripture and literature in a more general sense. I realize that in doing this, I am taking these responses out of their full context, but I hope that I am not misrepresenting the speakers’ intended meaning. I don’t mention the presenters’ names because my purpose is not to criticize them personally nor their research in general, but simply to discuss these particular ideas.
One of the presenters responded by saying: “What is the difference between a prophet and a poet? I’m not sure.”
Another stated: “I don’t think there is a rigid distinction between literature and scripture. Scripture is precisely that — anything has the potential to be scripture if it helps you deepen your relationship to the divine world.” He went on to explain (this is my summary) that basically any literature that helps a community bond together and access deity as they understand it should be considered scripture.
Now this is a liberal view of scripture in a different sense than what I explained above. In this regard, most Latter-day Saints’ view of scripture would be comparatively conservative. For most Mormons, including myself, this is a much more broad definition of scripture than we would be willing to accept or use. As Bill Hamblin explains in his post, this view defines as scripture whatever a community accepts or believes scripture to be. He goes on to define how he sees scripture, a view with which I think most Latter-day Saints would agree:
This perspective ignores that scripture is scripture because of something in its nature and essence, not in our response to it. It is and remains scripture even if no one believes in it. Scripture is a manifestation of God to humans that humans can accept or reject. But human rejection of scripture does not change its scriptural nature; that comes from God. Scripture is scripture whether we believe it or not.
Hamblin’s response speaks to the difference between what we could call a liberal, sociological, or secular view of what scripture is and what most believers understand scripture to be. The former seems to side-step the question of the objective reality of God — a real Being who speaks to mankind — and the question of whether God can actually speak to mankind. Instead, it sees scripture as something subjective that becomes “the word of God” only to the extent that a particular community imagines it to be such. Although this view makes understanding the diversity of religious beliefs and the proliferation of sacred texts throughout the world and throughout history easier, this perspective is not sufficient (in my view), to explain what many Latter-day Saints have experienced with the Word of God.
Again, speaking for “most Latter-day Saints,” we view the Word of God as directly inspired by Deity. Although we acknowledge that this Word is filtered by the inspired man/woman of God through his/her mortal mind and human language, and that these factors must always be taken into account, the idea that there is an essential core of direct divine communication cannot be denied or dismissed.
Our belief in and loyalty to the Word of God that has been revealed to us is ultimately based on our testimony that those who delivered that message were indeed called, elected, and inspired by God and entrusted with his divine communication. If we do not believe this about an individual, then we are not obligated to accept their word as divinely inspired. However, as Dr. Hamblin argued, this does not change the fact that either God did speak to them or He did not.
Based on this distinction, there may be elements in the books that we generally acknowledge as Scripture that may not, in fact, be divinely inspired by God. As the belief states, we accept, for example, the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly.” This exception provides for some ambiguity as to what exactly we should accept to be the actual word of God and what is erroneously transmitted as such. However, this obstacle is largely alleviated by the LDS belief in modern revelation. Unlike the Protestant reliance on sola scriptura, which, as I discussed above, can be frustrated by the realization that the process of the transmission of scripture is indeed imperfect, Latter-day Saints have another, more immediate source of authoritative communication with God — the living oracle.
In the first section of our modern scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants, we are informed, in no uncertain terms, that the word of the Lord is the same whether it comes from His own mouth or by the voice of his living servants (D&C 1:38).
Furthermore, in D&C 18:34–36, the Saints are specifically instructed to not consider his revealed word as the words “of men nor of man.” Another way of saying this is that the words of a prophet are most emphatically not the same as the words of a poet. Scripture is not the same as literature in general. Not simply “anything” has the potential to be scripture, in a true sense. As Jesus Christ himself states through his prophet:
34 These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man;
35 For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power you could not have them;
36 Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words.
These divine pronouncements do not accord with the liberal definition of scripture that I have discussed here. So, in this sense, most believing Latter-day Saints have a conservative view regarding what scripture is. When we begin to argue that the Scriptures are not what they claim to be or that they are something other than what they claim to be, we begin to tread on unstable ground.
A case in point is a discussion that I had not long ago with a colleague from the Community of Christ church (formerly known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The Community of Christ is largely recognized as a more liberal branch of the Restorationist movement — one that has aligned itself much more closely with “mainstream” Protestantism than has the LDS Church. As a side note, I have found that some Latter-day Saints that describe themselves as liberal tend to idealize or sympathize with the Community of Christ church to varying degrees and for various reasons (see this blog post). As I was saying, in this conversation I had with the colleague of mine from the Community of Christ, he was explaining to me the liberal position that many in their church now take towards the status of the Book of Mormon as scripture — or what it means to accept the book as “scripture.” Although their church officially accepts the Book of Mormon as part of their scriptural canon, the definition of what that actually means varies.
Starting from the highest levels of their ecclesiastical hierarchy, it has become popular to see the book from a more subjective understanding of scripture than the conservative position I have described. Many (but not all) have called into question the historicity of the Book of Mormon and this seems to correlate with a diminishing of its estimation as the Word of God when compared to the Bible. My colleague informed me that belief in the Book of Mormon is now seen as optional among many members and that in many new Community of Christ congregations that are being opened up in areas such as Africa, ministers are not even mentioning the book as part of their scriptural canon.
I am not trying to make a direct correlation with the type of thoughts expressed by the panelists in this Round-Table discussion and the direction the Community of Christ has taken with their understanding of the scriptures of the Restoration. I again acknowledge that I have merely taken a few statements from a longer discussion and that these statements likely do not represent the presenters’ full perspective regarding scripture. However, I do feel that it is very important to privilege what we know to be the Word of God over other types of literature — including what other civilizations have understood or considered to be scripture. Again, this distinction comes from the authority we afford to the persons that we consider today to be prophets, seers, and revelators, from the time of Joseph Smith to the present day. If we consider them to be called and inspired by God, then what they say (when inspired by the Holy Ghost) is scripture and what they designate as scripture is such.
I will close with another passage from modern scripture:
D&C 68:4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.