Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The End Of All Scripture Study

Posted by NathanG on September 12, 2011

The other night I struggled through a portion of Paul’s writings and was feeling a bit smug that I had successfully made sense of what he was trying to say.  Later, as I was mentally patting myself on my back, I thought, “Now how does this actually help me?”

For quite some time, for me to consider my scripture study of any worth it would need to either strengthen my faith in Christ or bring self-awareness about my imperfections, which has brought about many important insites.  (Notice I’m not using the word “apply” which has been discussed many times on this blog.)

There are plenty of times, however, where my scripture study seems to have other ends.  Time has been spent trying to work through what the scriptures are really saying, comparing word origins, different translations, commentary, etc. While this in and of itself isn’t wrong, I have been left from time to time wondering “Now just how does this knowledge help me?”

Why do we study the way we study?  What is the end we are striving for? Below are some of my experiences

It’s the end of the day and I’m supposed to read something from the scriptures.  I admit, this happens.  It’s not totally bad, as it has had the effect of a quick reality check on my day.

Goal directed reading. I’m going to read through entire standard works four times this year!!  I’m going to read the Book of Mormon in a week!!  No time to stop and smell the roses with this approach, but this has been helpful to understand the overlying story within the scriptures, as well as important themes within the scriptures.

Church/group directed reading.  Keeping up with the lessons to be taught in church, or in preparation for lessons I may give.  There is something neat about a group united in discussion about the scriptures, sharing their collective understanding and experience. It helps me participate when I have actually read ahead of time.

Question directed reading. When the question is so motivating that I can’t stop studying the scriptures, this is my favorite study.  Unfortunately every question is not equally useful, however interesting it may be.

In spite reading the scriptures quite regularly for years, I know I fall short from some standards the scriptures set.

Alma 17:2-3 “Yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently…they had the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.”  Maybe I over exalt their teaching, maybe I’m too modest about my experience as a missionary (or elsewhere), but when do I ever read with the intent of gaining power like the sons of Mosiah had?

1 Nephi 10:17  “And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father…I…was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him”.

D&C 76:114-117 “But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom…which he commanded us we should not write…neither is man capable of making them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; to whom he grants this privilege of
seeing and knowing for themselves.”

While I love these promises, and I enjoy pointing them out to others, when I have my scriptures in my hands, I have no expectations of divine manifestations of the scriptures. Should I?

But maybe I’m really most worried that this message is to me.

D&C 84:54-57  “And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received…and this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.  And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon…not only to say, but to do according to that
which I have written”.  When this condemnation ends will I “exercise faith…even as the brother of Jared” then will all the revelations be unfolded unto me? (Ether 4:7).

I fear that perhaps my approach to studying the scriptures has been full of the superstition and logic of Nephi and crew’s first attempts to obtain the plates of brass.  I fear that I may need to let go of my own understanding and allow myself to be “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.”  Sounds good, but perhaps this will require me to do things that my soul would shrink from. When I am through trusting in my own understanding and ready to trust God, maybe I will no longer finish studying the scriptures just to wonder “how does this actually help me?”

11 Responses to “The End Of All Scripture Study”

  1. dallske said

    I think scripture reading plateau’s often enough and we have to work through it, figure out how to not let it plateau, or just not worry about it as long as you are getting something out of reading, if even it is textual criticism. Just the fact that I read everyday is enough. It is the act, not the content that draws me closer to God. I know that isn’t always what we should strive for, but if I am questioning what I am reading and how I should apply it, I know right then that the act of reading was what I needed and I will go back if need be and figure out how to apply it if I was that worried about it.

    Yet that is my take. Everyone is different and people should realize this first and foremost. I just think that the act of opening scripture and drinking in a few verses is more pleasing (sometimes?) than worrying about how specific verses fit into personal lives, even though we should be able to like ‘most’ scripture unto ourselves, it doesn’t always work out by way of timing, circumstance, etc.

  2. Robert C. said

    Nathan, I think you raise some fascinating questions. Below are some of my own rambling thoughts.

    One thought that I’ve had is to think about studying scripture as a particularly interesting and valuable kind of game or practice. It’s kind of like basketball or chess, in that the more you do it, esp. with attention toward becoming better, the better you become, the more you come to enjoy doing it, and the more your doing it attentively cultivates within you certain virtues.

    The difference is that the virtues that chess and basketball cultivate are shallow when compared to scripture study. That is, chess cultivates careful and attentive thinking and basketball cultivates teamwork and physical discipline. Scripture study, however, cultivates spiritual virtues as well as intellectual virtues. Intellectual virtues could be cultivated by studying any challenging, historical text, although there is particular value in studying texts that have been studied by other thoughtful and virtuous folks (i.e., our recent and ancient forbears, including Nephites and Lamanites).

    But the spiritual virtues cultivated by studying scripture are where the truly unique value of scripture study comes in. The scriptures tell about God’s nature and his dealings with previous generations of culture and prophets. Studying these texts, rather than studying other texts, and rather than engaging in other games or practices (even work is a game or practice, in the sense I’m suggesting here), has the particular virtue of helping us to understand the very purpose and meaning of creation and the plan of salvation, which can’t help but affect the way that we live in the world, and the way that we understand ourselves, our lives, our values, and our surroundings.

    Now, I suspect I am like others in that sometimes I can go days, weeks, months and even years without directly seeing or understanding these benefits to scripture study. But that’s why I think it is a practice that is so deeply rooted in faith—faith that doing so will yield delicious fruit. (I also take it that when I don’t notice, see or enjoy these fruits, the problem may very well be with my own approach, that I’m not really studying in the right way, or with the right intention or attitude. But then coming to this recognition, or arriving at a proper state of contrition to be open to this possibility, is itself its own version of such fruit, in my experience….)

  3. joespencer said

    Well now I’m embarrassed that I haven’t yet written up a post I’ve been meaning to get to since about Thursday. Here’s the short version:

    It seems to me that there are four ways we study, and that they tend to succeed each other as stages over the course of our lives rather than to exist side by side (though they do that to some extent as well). Here they are, for what they’re worth:

    Devotional Reading

    As a devotional reader of the scriptures, I assume that the purpose of reading scripture is to commune with God personally. In reading, I seek the Spirit, and I seek to liken the scriptures to myself by finding passages that inspire me to be better, that help me to have the strength to do what I know is right. I find the sermons in scripture to be so much sage advice; I find the narratives in scripture to be so many inspiring stories and righteous (or not-so-righteous) examples; I find the poetry in scripture to be so much uplifting praise. I tend to ignore (or just be frustrated with) scripture that doesn’t lend itself easily to one of these purposes. (I find Isaiah and Revelation bizarre, Paul too confusing, the war chapters depressing, the Song of Songs offensive, the Prophets foreign, etc.) My reading of the scriptures waxes and wanes, waxing when I feel particularly inspired or when I’m working on a goal or when I’m struggling and looking for help, waning when I get busy or when I just don’t feel it or when everything seems to be going well.

    Doctrinal Study

    As a doctrinal student of the scriptures, I assume that the purpose of studying scripture is to come to identify and to understand true doctrine. I pray to have the Spirit while studying so that I can interpret the text as God wants it interpreted, and I work hard to determine what universal principles are taught in scripture. I believe implicitly (perhaps explicitly) that the gospel consists of a set of universally true propositions that the scriptures occasionally state outright but that they more often embed or embody in narratives and other texts. In study, I have the task of riddling those doctrines out of the variety of texts and genres in order to assemble them—systematically or not—into a coherent whole, and then to apply them, where possible, to my own circumstances. I find myself particularly enamored with the sermonic in scripture, and I tend to dismiss texts that seem less interested than I am in doctrinal truths. My study of the scriptures begins as a voracious pursuit, but it eventually begins to slacken when I feel that I’ve done most of the work of determining true doctrines—at which point I’m likely to begin reading books by general authorities or BYU religion professors to help interest me anew in scripture or to provide me with other sources of doctrine.

    Historical Research

    As a historical researcher of the scriptures, I assume that the purpose of researching scripture is to sort out the immense complexity of scriptural texts, all of which are historical productions—the consequence of God intervening in history. I hope that the Spirit attends my work, but I find myself deeply interested by secular scholarship as well. I see my task in working on scripture as being principally oriented to understanding, with the aim just of being able to say something not irresponsible about the texts. I find all scripture equally interesting, equally worthy of study, and I dabble in everything from learning a bit of Hebrew to reading about Mesoamerican religion, from experimenting with literary criticism to fleshing out the historical background of the Doctrine and Covenants. In coming to the scriptures, I consistently feel as if there is too much to know, too much to learn, too much to address, and I find myself almost obsessed with just getting a decent handle on the texts. I implicitly (perhaps explicitly) assume that there are doctrinal truths, but I believe that they can only be grasped after the infinite task of historical research has impossibly been completed. I also implicitly (perhaps explicitly) assume that the scriptures have something to do with me personally, but I worry that any conclusions I might draw will be too hasty, too uninformed, and so I tend to separate out from my work on scripture my life in the Church.

    Theological Interpretation

    As a theological interpreter of the scriptures, I assume that the purpose of interpreting scripture is to make it possible for me to build the kingdom of God. In interpreting, I pray for the Spirit’s guidance so that I can be attuned to the most important questions and issues—those questions and issues that most universally bear on the concerns of God’s children. In interpreting a specific text, I consult (or produce) the best historical research, but I believe that there is good reason to go beyond historical research as well. I assume that scripture is the source of doctrinal truth, but I assume that the truth it offers is woven into the way it orders or organizes the world it presents, not that the truth is overtly stated or simply modeled in easily interpreted narratives. I assume also that scripture is the source of inspiration, but I assume that comes only with the most intense interpretive work. My work on the scriptures is, in effect, guided by concerns that outstrip my own immediate interests and concerns, always being attuned to what is needed. Interpretation of scripture is something I do with intensity and consistency, because the work of the kingdom is always pressing. And everything I do in scripture is immediately relevant to that work.

    That, for the moment, is my take on scripture study. What’s it worth?

    • Robert C. said

      Joe, how strongly would you object to calling your devotional and historical Kierkegaard’s aesthetic (a mere game in my Thomistic-MacIntyrean parlance), your doctrinal K.’s ethical (cardinal virtues), and your theological K.’s religious (theological virtues)? In a Badiouian vein, I’m thinking this might map somewhat onto the gamma diagram (event–>subject–>truth–>”the good”, in the order you present), but not the four discourses (what’s mystical here?)….

      • joespencer said

        I think I’d need more detail to map this onto Kierkegaard. But I have already been thinking about how this fourfold maps onto the four discourses or Mormonism (or Badiou): devotional/fundamentalist, doctrinal/institutional, historical/ecumenical, theological/faithful….

  4. emrajr69 said

    As just a simple reader of the scriptures, I find that I derive the greatest benefit when I choose a theme before reading one of our standard works, especially the Book of Mormon. With each new reading of the Book of Mormon I have started, I have asked in prayer what “theme” I should search for as I read. With the Spirit’s help, I have found this method of study to have brought me the greatest benefit, spiritually and in just understanding more about what Heavenly Father’s will is for me while I am here.

  5. BrianJ said

    I just happened across this relevant verse last night:

    …as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a achange of heart unto them (Helaman 15:7)

    Notice the effect the scriptures had on the Lamanite converts.

  6. Roberta said

    I don’t have (and never have had) a “system” that I follow to study the scriptures. I guess I have a rather simplistic approach, but it has been exciting and rewarding nonetheless. For me, I pray beforehand and then just simply read. When a word jumps off the page, or a concept is whispered into my ears, then I feel somewhat electrified and I’ll spend quite a bit of time re-reading what I’ve already read to see how the new understanding fits there since I had missed it in the first go-around. I don’t concern myself too much with the “works” aspect of studying. I don’t worry if I’ve missed a day or two or three. Regular and lengthy scripture study to me is my way of life and I enjoy it immensely, so I don’t worry or feel “badly” that I don’t follow a strict, regimented daily schedule. There are times when my husband and daughters are gone and I’m home alone for several hours and I eagerly spend it studying (and strangely sometimes it feels like not enough time.) (Don’t say it. I know. GEEK!) And there are times that I don’t. I think it’s not the check mark on the daily calendar that matters as much as the expansion of the overall spiritual view. But these are just my rambling thoughts…

  7. NathanG said

    Some great insite and experiences shared in these responses. Thanks.

    Joespencer: I really like your descriptions. Do you see these are progressing one from another, or just four approaches that may have some overlap in our lives? I could (I humbly admit) claim the devotional and doctrinal readers’ words as my own. While I don’t see those approaches as inherently bad, there is a common scary conclusion in the waxing and waning interest in the scriptures. Makes me nervous The historical and theological approach seem to be coupled with an obsession driving a more constant study (for history or for the work of the kingdom) (perhaps by those who live or are approaching a consecrated life?). If obsession is too negative a word, substitute another word.

    What is your take on the many promises or hints from the scriptures and from the prophets (inculding the last section of your post on the JS manual lesson 45 that resurfaced in the comments the last couple days) that there is a lot more knowledge God would like to give us beyond what is in the scriptures. D&C 76 or sealed portion of Book of Mormon as examples. Is this to come with scripture study (theologic reader?), or do you think these experiences are separate from scripture study?

    BrianJ: Nice verse. I think that is a clearer statement of what my end point is that I mentioned briefly in the second paragraph. I want to either have an increased faith in Christ, or I should recognize my need for repentance, and I want to find that in all my scripture study.

    Robert C: Your last paragraph is perhaps the best descriptor of my moment that prompted the original post. Is my approach wrong, or do I need to just press forward with faith? I take moments of realization like that seriously, so I wonder more about my approach, but your comment about faith may be just what I need to know.

    Dallske, Emrajr69, and Roberta: Your experiences are probably the closest to what my studying has been over the years. I don’t know how you view things, but I am often humbled (or intimidated) with the company we keep on this blog and wish I could aspire to the depth of study and understanding that seems to come from some of the other contributors. Your response suggests you are more normal, and it’s encouraging that you are happy with your experience with the scriptures. I’m glad you shared your comments.

  8. joespencer said

    Nathan,

    I see these as successive stages, but largely because that’s what they’ve been for me. I began devotionally, became doctrinal, turned historical, and discovered theology. I do feel as if the theological approach brings together the best of the other three approaches in a single approach: it captures the devotional reader’s conviction that the scriptures are the source of inspiration and guidance, the doctrinal student’s conviction that scripture shelters universal truths, and the historical researcher’s conviction that scripture study must be fully informed. I hope none of this is simply self-justificatory, but I believe I’ve come to study the scriptures as I have for good reasons….

    As for “more knowledge,” I think it’s clear from the very fact that the promises concerning more knowledge are themselves to be found in scripture that we have to begin with scripture if we’re interested in receiving more. The sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, importantly, is explicitly tied to our relationship to what we have received of the Book of Mormon. D&C 84 suggests that a great deal of what has been promised to us more generally (not only knowledge, but Zion, etc.) is connected to our reading of the Book of Mormon. And it has to be significant that what Joseph and Sidney saw in the vision that became D&C 76—what we hope also to receive—came as they were working on the translation of the Bible….

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