Latter-day Saints and Biblical Theology

Interpreting the scriptures is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Joseph Spencer discussed a particular approach to interpreting the Bible—Biblical Theology. In particular, he focused on recent developments in Latter-day Saint Biblical Theology. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

In the interview, Joseph Spencer worked to answer what Biblical Theology even is:

In a lot of ways, biblical theology is the oldest of disciplines in the study of the Bible. Long before modern biblical scholarship took its rise, the vast majority of readers of the Bible approached it theologically. But during the past three centuries or so, its influence has ebbed and flowed—at times disappearing almost entirely, and at times finding its way back into favor.

The basic idea behind biblical theology is simple: to read the Bible carefully while foregrounding theological questions. What this looks like in practice is a bit more complicated, of course.

He added additional information in the interview:

Christian theologians have always paid serious attention to scripture, taking it to be one of the chief authoritative sources for theological reflection. Often, though, this just means that theologians believe that their proposals and ideas shouldn’t contradict what’s said in the Bible. They’re free to speculate about all kinds of matters, taking their orientation from non-scriptural things and using methods foreign to scripture—just so long as the end result is compelling while remaining within the bounds set by the Bible.

Biblical theology, however, takes scripture as its primary object of inquiry, asking what might be said theologically beginning from the Bible and ultimately drawing conclusions about the Bible’s specific witness of God.

It tends to pay a great deal more attention to biblical studies as an academic discipline, drawing from the work of historians, and to exhibit a stronger sense for biblical authority than other approaches.

Biblical theology is an approach to discussing the meaning of the Bible.

As noted in the statements above, biblical theology can be seen as one of the earliest disciplines in studying the texts of the Bible. Joseph Spencer even notes that you can see a version of biblical theology taking place within the Bible itself:

When one passage in the Bible draws on another, resituating it and reflecting on its ongoing significance, it’s doing the kind of thing that biblical theologians like to do.

The most obvious examples of this kind of thing appear in the New Testament, which as a whole volume draws out the relevance of the Old Testament and gives it fresh meaning. But this sort of thing can be found in much simpler ways as well, such as when one Old Testament source quotes another and comments on it.

When older scripture is quoted in scripture that was written later on, there is generally a form of biblical theology taking place. One can even see this happening in the Book of Mormon: Joseph Spencer recently published a book discussing how Abinadi, Jesus, and Nephi approach interpreting Isaiah, for example.

Within our Latter-day Saint tradition, various figures have shaped our reaction to Biblical studies more generally and Biblical theology specifically. For example, B. H. Roberts set the tone of future conversations on the topic:

B. H. Roberts really was the first Latter-day Saint to try to engage seriously with the new things happening in biblical criticism in the modern context. He faced down the findings of biblical critics as these became more widely known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He alternated, really, between exhibiting real respect for biblical critics and demonstrating real antipathy toward their approaches.

In so many ways, then, he set the tone for the conversation that has prevailed among Latter-day Saint intellectuals. They tend, still today, to divide into:

(a) those who think that modern biblical criticism is unproblematic and of immense value, and;

(b) those who think that modern biblical criticism is fundamentally wrongheaded and of little or no value at all.

We generally see contributions from both camps in the comments sections here at Times and Seasons. But even for those who think it is of little value make their own contributions to theology:

Latter-day Saint scholars who focus on scripture often speak as if Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie jointly foreclosed the possibility of there being a rich scholarly engagement with the Bible among Latter-day Saints. The two certainly were shaped by their reading of extremely conservative Christian responses to biblical criticism, and they came to represent an astonishing intellectual force for the Saints by the middle of the twentieth century.

At the same time, it has to be said that no one did more than those two men to persuade everyday Latter-day Saints that they ought to give serious attention to scripture—and, in Bruce R. McConkie’s case, to the New Testament in particular.

They also had a theologian’s native sense for why it might matter to read the Bible thoughtfully and carefully while attending to the needs of believing readers (and not merely to the interests of historians). Whatever space there is in the Latter-day Saint context today for reading the Bible carefully—whether critically or theologically—it’s arguably space that they created.

Thus, even the dynamic duo of doctrinal development in the mid-twentieth century Church have led to a furthering of interest in the type of work done by biblical theologians.

For more on Latter-day Saint Biblical Theology, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview. While you’re there, check out the latest addition to their quotes pages—Joseph Smith quotes about topics like faith, death, and truth.

2 comments for “Latter-day Saints and Biblical Theology

  1. The problem with LDS biblical theology is that it’s the place where folks tend to conflate the work of biblical apologetics with the work of biblical scholarship: they are NOT the same, and failing to recognize the difference, leads to confusion and sometimes contention. Biblical scholarship aims to analyze and critique text; biblical apologetics aims to link a belief system to the text. When our expectation for “biblical theology,” blends these tasks, it is easy to dismiss scholarship for being too secular, just as it is easy to disregard apologetics for applying univocal belief systems to the text. It’s important that both LDS scholars and LDS apologists keep these domains separate. One consequence of not doing so, is that readers—our Latter-Day Saint audience—is misled, or that our expectations for biblical text are uninformed, or lack sophistication. We should do both biblical scholarship and biblical apologetics, but Latter-Day Saints would do well to discern which is which. If a Latter-Day Saint biblical scholar refutes an interpretation of a text uttered by a General Authority, we need not cast stones—rather, we ought to be able to recognize that interpretations are sometimes driven by apologetics—fixing a preset belief system to the text. If a Latter-Day Saint biblical apologist develops an interpretation from the text, which has no linguistic or contextual basis, we need not bring out the whip—rather, we should understand that the purpose is to inspire from the text, and that such things are fluid. One of the dangers I’ve noticed of conflating apologetics and scholarship is that we shun scholarship when it doesn’t fit a belief system—we shut it down, cancel the writer, and create an environment where biblical scholarship is looked upon as not-doing-the-work-of-the-Lord. This is particularly the case at Church-run institutions/universities. Some our best minds do a good job at keeping these separate—Donald Parry, Dan McClellan, John Gee, Eugene Seaich, to name a few. The vast majority, however, tend to conflate, perhaps to appease higher-ups, perhaps to appease Correlation. It’s something for us to work on.

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