Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Personal Revelation and the Scriptures

Posted by Matthew on January 11, 2009

It is fairly widely argued that, as a people, we should spend more time studying the scriptures. That’s a big part of the motivation behind this blog and it’s sister wiki. We all know of the condemnation spoken of in D&C 84:58 and made famous by President Benson.

Naturally, much of what goes on here on the blog, at the wiki, and in Sunday School classes, is–on a good day:)–to look closely at what the scriptures say and listen to what authorities say about them. That’s wonderful but study alone, without personal revelation, doesn’t amount to much.

Consider Nephi’s reaction to hearing his father’s vision…was it to carefully parse his father’s words, ask questions about them and debate with others the meaning? No. We know that’s much more similar to his elder brother’s reaction. (See 1 Ne 15:1-11.) Nephi’s reaction was to seek revelation (1 Ne 11:1). Which he then received.

What I’d like to do in this post is to lay out what role personal revelation should have in scriptures study, and especially what role that personal revelation should have in discussions about the scriptures with others. I dont think I’ll get that far. But I will attempt to make a start of it. I’d love your help and comments in figuring this out.

The word revelation seems a bit heavy in most contexts. It is infrequent one hears in a Sunday School class a member cite personal revelation in answering any question. Is it because personal revelation is meant to stay personal? It seems Nephi didn’t think so. He is willing to answer his brother’s questions (even if he does rebuke them first for not seeking their own answers directly). Nephi is even willing to draw upon his own personal revelation to explain where his father hadn’t understood the revelation he received. See 1 Ne 15:26-27: “And they [Laman and Lemuel] said unto me [Nephi]: What meaneth the river of water which our father saw? 27 And I [Nephi] said unto them [Laman and Lemuel] that the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.”

Nevertheless, we do see people in our Church cite personal revelation related to the scriptures, even if they don’t always use the heavy revelation word. I think I see personal revelation cited mainly when revelation is (1) about application of scripture, or (2) affirming scripture.

An example of (1) would be if someone read the parable of the prodigal son, received revelation that their own actions toward another person mirrors that of the jealous older brother, repented and shared their experience with others.

An example of (2) is when someone affirms specific events testified to by the scriptures, or principles of the gospel spoken of by the scriptures. Surely no one would raise an eye brow if someone stood up in fast and testimony meeting and said that while reading the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection they had felt a renewed testimony from the spirit that Christ was literally resurrected and that we will be too.

(1) & (2) are both wonderful, but should we be seeking for something more? Though I don’t know if I can put my finger on it exactly, I feel like there is a significant difference though between these two types of personal revelation and Nephi’s.

As a group are we suffering from a lack of Nephi-like personal revelation? When we ask a question, should more of us receive the Nephi-rebuke…”Have you inquired of the Lord?…How is it that ye will perish because of the hardness of your hearts? Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.” (1 Ne 15:8-11)

19 Responses to “Personal Revelation and the Scriptures”

  1. BrianJ said

    “Is it because personal revelation is meant to stay personal?”

    I think you nailed it. I’m reading Rough Stone Rolling and just read about Brigham Young joining the church. Bushman mentions (just in passing) that while Brigham investigated for a relatively long time, it was his attendance at a meeting where members exhibited signs of the Holy Ghost (speaking in tongues, etc.) that convinced him. I paused reading, wondering whether how Brigham would respond to our meetings today.

    But that doesn’t really answer your question. I know in my own case that I’m a bit frightened to have a Nephi-like scripture study: what if I’m wrong? what if I misunderstand my “revelation”? It’s soooo much easier to seek for confirmation than for revelation.

  2. Matthew said

    So Brian (sorry to pick on you for commenting) do you think that it really is meant to stay personal (i.e. Nephi was wrong to share his personal revelation or maybe Nephi is a special case) or are you just saying that you think that because people believe personal revelation is meant to stay personal that we don’t hear more sharing of it.

    As to your last comment…I agree. I see the same in myself. But I’m not sure this is a good thing. Not that I think we should seek to have a Nephi-like experience. To seek to have such an experience or to seek to avoid such an experience…both seem wrong. But we should seek to know the answers to questions that arise by asking God and accept His response in whatever form He gives it.

  3. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I think these are great questions. I’m afraid I don’t have any profound answers. I will say, however, that I’ve been thinking a fair bit about testimony and I think there is an importance difference between experiences that one has and, say, “mere opinions.” That is, I read Nephi as testifying to the meaning of the river as he understood it in his vision, not just an interpretive “guess” as to the meaning of the river. Now, I don’t think Nephi’s statement necessarily precludes other interpretations, only that Nephi experienced the meaning of the river as filthiness, and his response seems to be a testimony to that effect.

    So, perhaps what I’m getting at is that we should focus more on having experiences in our study of scripture, rather than just going through intellectual, interpretive exercises, if that makes any sense….

  4. NathanG said

    Matthew thanks for posting this. You said:

    “Not that I think we should seek to have a Nephi-like experience. To seek to have such an experience or to seek to avoid such an experience…both seem wrong.”

    The end of D&C 76 seems to me an invitation to seek such an experience of knowing by the Spirit as well as “seeing” for myself. Nephi also seems to justify seeking for the knowledge in 1 Nephi 10:19. I think the cautionary note is that we need to be sure our motives in seeking this are with an eye single to the glory of God and not so we can consume it upon our lusts.

    Nephi seems to explain why he gives his “personal” revelation in 1 Nephi 10:22 when he says “the Holgy Ghost giveth authority that I should speak these things…”

    I think personally I’m in teh same boatas Brian and you in Brian’s second passage. The scriptures in many instances seem to encourage us to seek personal revelation such as Nephi received.

  5. joespencer said

    It seems to me that the difficulty we run up against in thinking about this question concerns truth: Nephi’s implicit (or perhaps explicit) claim that we ought to see revelation in study assumes (1) that there is truth and (2) that the truth is accessible. Contemporary thinking, however, generally disagrees with the second of these two ideas, and often enough disagrees even with the first.

    The problem, of course, is that the very idea of democracy has become a bit overinflated, such that we have a hard time thinking of any model of equality that is not fundamentally democratic. The result of this difficulty is, I think, that we too often regard the Church, because of its overt insistence of equality, as a kind of democratic institution. But, a moment’s candid reflection makes clear, the Church is not democratic.

    Perhaps the root question here, then, is a question about how the horizontals and verticals really function in the Church, and about how we misunderstand the workings of those horizontals and verticals such that we feel uncomfortable doing what Nephi enjoins us to do.

    Maybe…. :)

  6. BrianJ said

    Matthew: I’m certain that there is pressure to keep personal revelation personal; I’m not sure whether that’s right or wrong.

    Something strikes me about Nephi’s experience: he didn’t exactly go out thinking he was living his life for all us in the future. He had a question, asked it, and then wrote it down years later when he was told to. When he asked his question, he wasn’t thinking of “our day” at all.

    The same can be said of Joseph Smith: he wasn’t looking for revelation for you and I; it just so happens that God answered his question and told Joseph to tell others (eventually). If I were to boil down Mormonism into one simple statement I would base it on this one foundational story: you can go to God directly. And doesn’t every other major doctrine in our religion scream the same message!

    I think Nathan made some excellent points but have nothing to add.

  7. Ben H said

    Matthew, while you’re right that Nephi didn’t keep his revelation to himself, there are two important factors to note. (i) He was talking with his brothers. That is different from sharing personal revelation with people you don’t know, or even with fellow ward members in a church meeting. The only people around were his family, so it is hard to say what he would have done with someone he was less close to. (ii) He was essentially confirming, and to some extent expanding on, a vision that his father had already shared with the family. Thus what he was doing was not that different from testifying that I know the Book of Mormon is true, or affirming a certain scriptural teaching, based on personal experience.

    While Nephi does share portions of his vision with his brothers, there are also things he had revealed to him which he does not write.

    All of this is in keeping with Alma 12:9, which says one should reveal only what God has designated for general consumption.

  8. Matthew said

    Thanks all for the comments.

    There is lots I’d like to respond to:
    a) whether/when personal revelation should stay personal (BrianJ & Ben H)
    b) whether we should seek nephi-like experiences (BrianJ & Nathan G)
    c) testimony vs opinion (Robert C)
    d) whether/ in what cases different people’s personal revelation can both be true and contradict (or seem to contradict) each other (Robert C)
    e) what to make of Joe’s response (Sorry Joe to single you out here but I’d like to understand it but have to admit I don’t).

    For tonight I’m going to attempt only a & e and hope to get back to b,c,& d (all of which I find quite interesting) soon.

    a) Ben, I see Alma 12:9 as relevant much more to a temple-like experience than a Nephi-like vision experience. Or to put it another way, if someone receives a revelation but is not “laid under a strict command that they shall not impart…” does that suggest the type of experience they had isn’t the type Alma is talking about in this verse?

    Maybe my question is taking us in the wrong direction. Despite my qualms about how we get there, I like the answer that we should reveal personal revelation only when it is essentially what God has already designated for general consumption. The nice thing about that is it is very safe. And I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. The gospel & the organization of the Church should protect people from false revelation. By limiting the ordinary members to revealing publicly something as revelation only when it is what is already widely agreed on, it protects the members from false revelation.

    Still, I want to think about this one more. It feels like it gets us to a place where personal revelation is a bit too caged up.

    On a related note, I do think that as a missionary church we don’t do ourselves a lot of favors by seeming too crazy. A culture where people have and share fantastic experiences seems crazy to people. I presume this is a good reason not to have a culture of sharing fantastic personal revelations.

    e) Joe, I think I understand your first paragraph but not sure. If I do understand it my first reaction is just to say that if contemporary thinking has fundamentally different assumptions than Nephi had then I would think it unlikely to help us understand Nephi. Not sure what to make of paragraph 2. As for the third paragraph, I think I may understand what you are getting at. Let me know if I’m close. In any lesson on revelation we are careful to point out that people can only receive revelation for something like their scope of responsibility. Somehow we misunderstand or mis-apply this teaching such that we feel uncomfortable with the concept that we could have a nephi-like experience. Is that what you are saying?

  9. Matthew, you contrast Nephi’s actions with those of Laman and Lemuel. Laman and Lemuel are thinking about their father’s revelation and puzzling about what it means. Nephi, by contrast, turns to God for the interpretation — and then berates L&L for not doing so: “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” (1 Nephi 15:8).

    Interestingly, the contrast you paint suggests that had L&L had the Doctrine and Covenants they might have been tempted to reply: Nephi, look at D&C 9:7-8! God tells us that we shouldn’t just ask him, we should study it out in our minds. That’s just what we’re doing!”

    Naturally, Nephi could then say, “you’ve studied enough, it is time to ask!” Study and asking need to go together. So, we shouldn’t hesitate to study, but we mustn’t forget to ask. As to what we should expect when we ask–well, if we are able to ask “doubting nothing” (Mormon 9: 21, 25) then we can expect to have all his words confirmed. Often, I believe, we can expect to have them explained. Of course, most of us aren’t exactly Nephi (or Mormon) in the “doubting nothing” category, but still, the scriptures are pretty clear on what knocker and asker types should expect. But as with all these things, the Lord’s timetable applies?

  10. Re: Ben #7 and Matthew #8,

    It seems obvious to me that we should share personal revelation whenever we are led to do so by the Spirit. It is prudent before sharing personal revelation to pause and ask, should I share this? Is the Spirit leading me to share this? There are clues as to when it isn’t the Spirit that is prompting us to share something:

    1) Sharing this insight will (mainly?) have the result of self-aggrandizement.
    and/or
    2) This insight conflicts with what my leaders have taught.
    and/or
    3) This is information that others can not or do not need to act on right now.
    and/or
    4) Have I been commanded not to share this?

    etcetera

  11. joespencer said

    Matthew,

    As I try to explain what I said, I find that I’ve got to think through it more carefully. I do think that it is our way of thinking about the verticals and horizontals that make up the Church that is at the root of the problem, but I’m not entirely sure how to articulate it for now. More soon…

  12. Matthew said

    re: my a-e items in #8

    b) NathanG, you convinced me. Nice scriptural references. Agreed, we should seek such experiences but only for the right reasons
    c) Robert, I agree. What I think I’d like to think more about is whether and how testimony is also up for discussion. I say “also” because we know opinions are up for discussion and debate, but what about testimony? I think so, if not in quite the same way. But still religious experience/revelation requires interpretation. It is often not understood immediately. But if it requires interpretation than it seems to make sense for it to be something which the larger community, not just the individual, can help with. Which brings me back to the topic of the post, because someone cannot help another interpret revelation correctly unless the person who receives it shares it.
    d) Robert, it makes sense to me that Nephi’s revelation on the meaning of the river may not preclue other interpretations. But do we find any examples of this kind of thing in the scriptures? I can’t think of any.

    Pmom #9, I like how you have recast this from either/or study vs revelation to both. And it certainly seems natural and reasonable that studying out what Lehi’s revelation meant would include talking with your siblings about it. This only goes to make me wonder what to make of Nephi chiding his brothers.. On #10, agreed. Thanks for the comments.

    Joe, #11. I’m waiting anxiously!

  13. NathanG said

    I was thinking a little more about seeking these personal revelations. I have thought that would be a nice thing in the future when I’m “ready”. Wouldn’t want to get knowledge that could lead to a greater condemnation. On the other hand we have Nephi rebuking Laman and Lemuel for not seeking the knowledge. He knew them and their problems, but he thought it was a good idea for them to seek that information. Hopefully I’m a bit better than Laman and Lemuel, but then again, maybe I’m too similar. Maybe there isn’t a “ready” for revelation, but a willingness to seek revelation now.

  14. Ben H said

    Matthew,

    We had an interesting conversation about this today in Sunday School, in connection with Joseph’s First Vision.

    I read Alma 12:9 as itself delivering a commandment not to share anything beyond what has already been revealed for general consumption. In today’s terms, I guess I figure we realize that revealing new doctrine for the church (general consumption) is the prophet/president’s job. That doesn’t mean we can’t share insights we have received through revelation, but we shouldn’t share them *as* revelation. We shouldn’t claim revelatory authority for ideas that haven’t already been delivered, more or less, through scripture or modern prophetic teaching. In some cases, inspiration regarding particular *decisions* may come through someone in a position of ecclesiastical authority, and then apply to others with related callings or whatever, and these people aren’t the prophet/president, but they aren’t revealing doctrines, either.

    I suspect, though, that it is appropriate for parents to share doctrine they have had revealed to them with their children and for close friends and family members to share as directed by the Spirit.

  15. Matthew said

    Well, we disagree on Alma 12:9. I’m going to spend some time this evening writing up our two different view on that page of the wiki. Feel free to correct me if I get your view wrong.

    Still, as I note above though I don’t think this verse supports that position, I do think that position is pretty good. I can think of scriptural counter-examples though–so it can’t be much of a hard and fast rule. If I have more time I’ll come back and write that up.

  16. Matthew said

    ok. I wrote something up there. I admit I’m not a good advocate for your position. As noted before, feel free to edit.

    Here are my 2 things that to me don’t square with your intepretation.
    a) It seems odd to expect that Alma might provide a rule here for when to share personal revelation. This wasn’t exactly the problem that he needed to contend with Zeezrom over.
    b) For me to get your interpretation to work (admittely you probably have a better way) I had to add something like an “already” to produce something like “they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he hath already granted unto the children of men.” Something like this already is needed because we need Alma to be talking about essentially two sets of revelation: the new one vs what has already been given. This way the new personal revelation can be compared to what is already given and filtered by it so that people end up sharing only that which is already established–nothing new.

    Without this though, I think the verse is much more straightforward and it simply says that many people have received the mysteries of God; but they are only to share them with others when God wants them to and when he wants them to is only as much as they are diligently heading God.

  17. BrianJ said

    I don’t see how Alma 12:9 could possibly restrict me from sharing revelation I receive if God tells me I should share it. If I don’t believe it’s God telling me to reveal it, why should I believe it was God who actually revealed it in the first place? Do we not have enough examples in the scriptures of people “defying” other scriptures because God commanded them to? I agree that this hypothetical seems unlikely to ever occur, but since we’re speaking in hypotheticals….

  18. Jon said

    This veers off into thoughts concerning all revelation as opposed to solely personal revelation, but its what your question started me thinking about.

    Personal revelation provides access to spiritual truth unavailable through mere rational analysis. Reasoning is bound by basic logic and traceable causation. As Elder Oak has explained, belief is a worldly process dependent on finding materialistic reasons to justify particular beliefs. Faith, on the other hand, provides the only access to spiritual truths, through a process of revelation, and it both transcends and defies mere reason.
    There is a tension between faith and belief. Ignoring that tension is to avoid the necessity of continually wrestling with, and struggling to achieve faith. The moment we allow ourselves to sit comfortably within our belief system is the moment our belief in the divine, or any of its manifestations devolves into the worship of a false idol created from our own imagination and limited rational capacities.
    In order to maintain intellectual integrity and other aspects of worldly integrity such as ethical consistency, which depend in part on intellectual integrity, the recognition that the more than rational nature of revelation must be viewed as consistent with the pursuit of objective truth within the framework that establishes and maintains the viability of those worldly truth seeking endeavors. This seems to pose a problem when revelatory direction appears to contradict worldly evidence and what might seem to be conclusions dictated by that evidence.
    Science and related disciplines pursue truths that are objective in the worldly realm, but which are subjective in terms of ultimate reality, in which our particular worldly perspective and the order of the world is mutable, a temporary construct orchestrated by God. Spiritual truth is objective and immutable, but communicable in the worldly realm only through subjective and flawed worldly expression. The further spiritual truth is taken from the moment of revelation and applied to worldly directives, the further it drifts into inconsistency.
    Abraham provides us with one of the most important examples of problematic revelation. He received the revelation that he should sacrifice his son, in violation of common sense, the evolution away from child-sacrificing polytheistic traditions and an important promise. The revelation dictated an irrational, and clearly immoral course of action. Abraham did not endorse the revelation or allow himself to fool himself about the propriety of the commandment through false righteousness. When they reached the spot, he only told the servants that he and Isaac were going off to worship. He only told Isaac that God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. He methodically followed through, but without submission of reason or prostration to the irrational. To minimize his struggle into a mere test is to miss the point. We are not called upon to set aside reason and logic when revelation contradicts them. Rather, we are called upon to continually wrestle with a world where the divine and the worldly are often incongruent. Consider Job.
    How do we follow personal revelation or the revelations of prophets in worldly matters when the mandates of those revelations seem to contradict the conclusions to which objective evidence seems to lead? Previously I thought God had to be the author of all existence and therefore, he could not be subject to the limited, rational and worldly question of whether or not he existed. I thought that any image or idea of God as existing would be mere idolatry, an attempt to deduce something as to his essential nature from an image I had created. I thought I had identified in this end of what could be meaningfully thought, a definitive departure point for faith. However, Smith gives us the idea of God as eternal, without beginning or end, co-existing with all the other eternal spirits. In this revelation, existence is a necessary aspect of God and the less intelligent spirits. Existence without beginning or end, without the possibility of non-existence implies that the category of being must be something I essentially do not understand, but in a different way from that in which it cannot be applied to God as author of existence. The idea of God as the author of existence and therefore beyond categorization in that manner was a false attempt to locate and identify a situation point or event where faith becomes more than an abstraction in our relationship to God. Smith’s semi-logical revelation helps move me further towards the realization that not only is faith, as opposed to mere belief required for the relationship with god, but to the acknowledgment that my attempts to localize any sort of departure point for faith are necessarily misguided. I can’t get closer to God or the identification of a delineated departure point for faith through my own good works or any careful reasoning process. Alain Baidu talks a little bit about the necessary relationship between the concepts of being and the void in Meditation Four of Being and Event. He goes on in the subsequent Meditations to focus on the concept of the empty set and from there into the concept of the infinite. Some of the reasoning is similar, but working backwards, one can see how they differ. The infinite is something we cannot coherently grasp, but to which logic necessarily points. We understand it in a way that allows us to work with it mathematically, but we can’t meaningfully imagine it. God, on the other hand, is not anything to which logic can effectively point, and in no way can we manage the divine as working concept. We must only apply the limited concept of the infinite to God as a form of defining categorization with the understanding that it serves only as a failed image, an idol of our creation. Revelation, in so far as it manifests in anything concrete, however ultimately problematic or false in terms of worldly policy, may be similarly flawed, but it comes from the other direction than our idolatry, and thus serves to vitalize faith in a manner we cannot manage by ourselves. My previous ideas had amounted to a hubris concerning my ability to recognize and differentiate the spark of the divine within revelation, which therefore allowed me to ignore or disregard its problematic worldly manifestations.
    Similarly, where we think personal revelation or the revelations of prophets leads us to worldly conclusions that contradict worldly evidence, we have mistaken our grasp of the spiritual truth as somehow definite in a worldly or mathematical sense while simultaneously mistaking the authority derived from the revelation as it applies to worldly matters as somehow definitive in a worldly sense, which it can never be, despite the fact that it is something we can allow to guide us both in worldly matters and in our pursuit of spiritual truth and faith. The mistake, again, is conflating the different areas of truth in a manner that seems to allow them to exercise authority in each others’ spheres.
    We rationally fear the risk that revelatory guidance in worldly matters will incorporate those negative prejudices with which we are comfortable, but which we might be able exclude if we limited ourselves to an analytical reasoning process. The dis ingenuousness and hypocrisy inherent in that fear is the false belief that any analytical reasoning endeavor will ever allow us to identify and isolate our most problematic negative prejudices. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
    Satan prefers people who follow the rules, but do so without agency to those who repeatedly break the rules and struggle but fail, with the exercise of agency, to follow them. We recognize this as our struggle to maintain both revelatory and rational pursuits of spiritual and worldly truth, which is to avoid ever allowing the rules of reason to determine how we should act in the absence of personal revelation, even though each step towards a worldly conclusion may seem inevitable, and may be the place we eventually end up. Agency is not mere free rational choice, but rather free rational choice in the pursuit of spiritual truth, aware of the necessary flaws in reason’s attempts to isolate and convey spiritual truth. The idea that knowledge is objective, while truth, as individual pursuit, subjective, does not release us from our continual obligation to maintain fidelity to objective truth pursuits. It is not an excuse for self righteous ignorance.
    Revelation must be manifest in some sort of worldly directive or impulse. That the worldly directive is often misguided does not mean that we can just ignore it or assume it is supposed to be inspirational but non-binding. It wouldn’t serve to point us in the direction of spiritual truth if we denied it any coherent meaning structure, or pretended we could, strip away the worldly structure and maintain contact with, or inspiration towards, the spiritual truth at it’s root.
    Some people accuse Latter Day Saints of blindly following their leaders in terms of their revelatory directions in worldly matters, abusing the practice of personal revelation as a way of allowing the confirmation of directives that are consistent with one’s own prejudices, rather than using rational analysis to scrutinize and reject inappropriate directives. This is a valid criticism in those instances when LDS follow revelation without complete analysis of the worldly issues at hand. Sometimes flawed directives can be identified when they incorporate a disproportionate amount of residual negative prejudice. They can nonetheless be followed, but not blindly. They can be followed with awareness of their irrationality, the fears they embody or their inconsistency with worldly ethics as viewed through the lens of objective knowledge pursuits such as science, history or translation. They can be followed with faith that they can point us in the direction of spiritual truths even though they may be wrong in the limited worldly sense. At the same time, however, one who follows such a directive has to vocally object to worldly error and seek to open their own and other’s minds to further personal revelation that may address and correct worldly directives which may be divinely inspired, but which err in their materialistic ramifications.

  19. Matthew said

    Jon, several interesting things in your comment with many things that could be connected to the subject of this post and the subsequent discussion. But, if you did actually make that connection, I missed it. Had you intended to connect what you wrote with the questions that I ask in the last paragraph of my post?

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