Among laypeople, one sometimes finds a distrust of scholarship as it applies to the Bible, particularly if that scholarship runs against a traditional interpretation, or if tells you an obvious face-value reading you favor doesn’t really mean what you think it does.
LDS have competing traditions towards serious scripture study. On the one hand, we are not a Bible-based (or even Book of Mormon-based) religion, where doctrine comes primarily through exegesis and interpretation. No sir, we’ve got prophets! We make an end run around all that stuff. We don’t believe you must attend college and be trained for the ministry to preach the orthodox religion! If you’ve read the Ensign and served a mission, or you grew up in Utah, most weeks you don’t need to bother preparing anything at all to participate fully in our Sunday lessons. A great pity, indeed.
So there can certainly be an anti-intellectual strain, the expression of which varies greatly by ward and geography.
In tension with that, LDS have “the glory of God is intelligence”, “study out of the best books” “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, and laws of God and man.” “Thy mind, O Man… must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse.” Joseph Smith thought it worth the cost and trouble to import a Hebrew teacher to Nauvoo, and studied German and a little Greek besides. His soul delighted, he said, in reading the word of the Lord in the original. He read Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews while in Carthage jail. He went back to scripture again and again, thinking, praying, and revising (which means we get some multivocality in uniquely LDS scripture).
Sometimes, out of anti-intellectualism, defensiveness, or just innocent puzzlement, people ask, why should we need scholars to understand what scriptures mean? Or, put another way, does God prefer PhDs? Why does he make scripture so hard for us to understand? Shouldn’t the obvious face-value meaning be the right meaning? Why would he bury the REAL meaning, and only make it accessible to specialists?
I think there are several valid responses to that, but let me focus on the assumptions behind the question.
1) God wants to communicate and be understood. 2) God communicates via scripture. 3) Scripture was written for us.
#1 is, I think, very true, and leads to a central principle I’ll come to in a minute. #2 needs serious unpacking. Scripture is not revelation itself (with rare exceptions) as much as a record, an account, an echoing reverberation of revelation. Scripture is revelation’s secondary mode. Practically speaking, it couldn’t be primary for the Israelites, because a) few of them could read b)even if they could, cheap scripture couldn’t be bought, because there was no printing press and c) because “scripture” as such didn’t really exist yet as a canonized collection. For us today, who have inherited that ancient, now-canonized now-collected, ta biblia (“the books”), the anthology known as the Bible (and other LDS scripture), certainly God can speak through it to us. But that is an accident of history, not what it was “designed” for. Which brings us to #3
“scripture was written for us.” Except, it wasn’t. We can liken it to ourselves, but that’s taking it out of context. Mormons in particular get spillage of this idea from the Book of Mormon, which, as President Benson said so often, was “written for our day.”
I’d like to attenuate that a bit. Mormon and Moroni edited it for our day. At least, our general modern period of say, 1820-2013 and who knows how many decades/centuries beyond. But the most read parts of the Book of Mormon, 1st Nephi and the Small Plates, were explicitly not written for us. Nephi et. al wrote those “for the instruction of [his] people” (1Ne 19:3). Whatever other mysteries plans God had for them, he didn’t know. The point is, Nephi didn’t see the modern day, or have Joseph Smith in mind, he was writing for his contemporary audience with very definite purpose. He was concerned about the problems besetting his people, then, at that time. His revelations were of contemporary importance. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be of historical importance later on as well, but he was focused on their immediate socio-religious/political/cultural issues, not the vague and distant future.
And this is what we find the Old Testament as well. Prophets were concerned with their current issues, and that is what they sought revelation on. When God chose to speak to them (this is the central principle I mentioned before), he had to do it in a way they understood. That meant, largely, condescending to speak to them in their own language, using their own cultural conventions, and their own contemporary people and places. It’s D&C 1:24 “I am God… 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.” Yeah, God has to condescend a bit to do this. He accommodates revelation to our weakness so we can understand. That’s not to say he doesn’t challenge or teach, but if an angel appears to me, she’s going to speak midwestern-accented English, not Aramaic or Adamic. And this is the case in the Old Testament, recognized by many LDS and non-LDS authorities.
Although we might disagree with the doctrinal points on which they felt this principle evident or necessary, John Wesley, Augustine, and others made arguments supporting this principle of accommodation Calvin, for example, described this accommodation as God “lisping.”
For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness
Gallileo thought that “[such] propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned.”
Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, and others referred many times to the necessity of God descending, accommodating, holding back fulness and perfection, speaking to us as children.
Ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. (D&C 50:40) Ye cannot bear all things now; (D&C 78:18) “The Lord deals with this people as a tender parent with a child, communicating light and intelligence and the knowledge of his ways as they can bear it.” “It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us; but that we should have a little at a time; then we can comprehend it.” “ When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities.” “ If [the Savior] comes to a little child, he will adapt himself to the language and capacity of a little child” “ He who gives the law is perfect, and reduces it to the capacity of finite beings in order that they may understand it and then receive more: thus the infinite being gives line upon line, reveals principle after principle, as the mind of the finite being expands…. When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law.” “ I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many that God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principles so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak unto us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities”
George Q. Cannon also made some good statements to this effect.
The revelation we may get, imperfect at times because of our fallen condition and because of our failure to comprehend the nature of it, comes from God…. Man is but the medium, but the instrument, is but the conduit through which it flows… This is the position occupied by the Latter-day Saints. We believe in revelation. It may come dim; it may come indistinct, it may come sometimes with a degree of vagueness which we do not like. Why? Because of our imperfection; because we are not prepared to receive it as it comes in its purity; in its fulness from God. He is not to blame for this.
So, when God speaks to the Israelite prophets, he’s going to be addressing their concerns, in their linguistic and cultural idiom. When we read scripture, then, we are eavesdropping on revelation directed to someone else, not us. Of course, we can benefit from it, we can receive inspiration from reading it, but we were not the primary recipient. And since the audience of that revelation, in the case of the Old Testament, lived thousands of years ago, in a very different culture, languages, and worldview, we are essentially in need of a tour guide, someone who knows those languages and culture and can explain it to us. Sure, you can visit on your own, but you’re likely to misunderstand many things, miss others completely, commit a few faux pas, and generally not get as much out of the trip as if you had a guide. And who will tell you where the best noodles are?
Even Elder McConkie, who famously did not like commentaries, grudgingly admitted “It is true that we oftentimes need an inspired interpreter to help us understand what Apostles and prophets have written for us in the standard works….I am not rejecting proper scriptural commentaries; I know and appreciate their value and have written volumes of them myself.”
Acts 8:30 records the story of the confused eunuch.
“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.”How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Of interest is that this is exactly how scribes came to be, needing someone to explain. Once Hebrew was no longer the native language of the Jews, they could no longer understand their own scriptures. I don’t mean “they didn’t make sense” or “they couldn’t figure them out.” They literally did not understand them, because the writings they had were in Hebrew, but the native language was now largely Aramaic. This was a problem. One of our earliest mentions of scribes is Nehemiah 8:8, recording a public reading of scripture (which is the way scripture was read), and the new role of scribes, like Ezra.
[the scribes] read from the scroll, from the Torah of God, making it clear [translating?] and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
I’ve been solicited to write a weekly Old Testament column this year at Patheos. In spite of time constraints, I’ve decided to do it, for a few reasons. First, I have strong pastoral instincts. As I’m not teaching Institute or Gospel Doctrine, or at BYU, this is my opportunity to teach and reach people. Second, this is probably my strongest year of the Gospel Doctrine cycle. If not now, when? Third, much less nobly, money is tight. I’ve been a student virtually my whole life, and I have another 4-5 years to go. If my skills can be helpful to people this year AND put some bread on the table, so much the better.
The column will be called Benjamin the Scribe, wherein I will try to “make [the Old Testament] clear and giv[e] the meaning so that the people understood what [is] being read.” Once we’ve finished the design, I’ll post and cross link from Times&Seasons so people are aware of it. I can’t promise that it will always be lengthy and brilliant and the best thing since sliced bread, but I hope you’ll accept “regularly published” and “generally not bad” instead.