Four Approaches to Scripture: Clearing the Way for Theological Interpretation
Posted by joespencer on October 21, 2011
In a (less and less) recent comment in response to a post by NathanG, I outlined some of what I want to say here. I want now to say it in a bit more detail, and alongside an explanation of how these “four ways of reading scripture” relate to each other. To get started, though, let me simply provide relatively independent, quasi-phenomenological accounts of each of the four ways. After that, I’ll have something to say about their entanglement together. I fear this post can only ultimately come across as so much arrogance, but I offer it up nonetheless in the hopes that it can at least spur some conversation.
As a devotional reader of the scriptures, I take the purpose of reading scripture to be to commune with God personally—to deepen my relationship to Him as an individual and to strengthen my commitment to genuine discipleship. In reading, I seek the Spirit, and I seek to liken scripture to myself by finding passages that inspire me to be better, that help me to have the strength to do what I (already) know is right. I find the sermons in scripture to be so much sage advice; the narratives in scripture to be so many inspiring stories and righteous (or not-so-righteous) examples; the poetry in scripture to be so much uplifting praise for God. (I learn much from Alma’s missionary talks, find the stories of Jesus deeply inspiring, am moved profoundly by the psalms.) At the same time, I tend to ignore (or just to be frustrated with) scripture that doesn’t lend itself easily to one of these purposes. (I find Isaiah and Revelation bizarre, Paul confusing, the war chapters depressing, the Song of Songs offensive, the Prophets foreign, etc.) The intensity and frequency of my scripture reading wax and wane: waxing when I feel particularly inspired or am working on a goal or am struggling and looking for help; waning when I get busy or just don’t feel it or everything seems to be going well. If pressed, I confess that I regard scripture as, not unimportant, but more supplemental to living the gospel than other things. I find scripturally informative talks or lessons very exciting and interesting, but I’m happier to trust the information provided me than to seek it out on my own.
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—to come to know better or more fully the many truths that have been revealed to the prophets. I pray intently to have the Spirit while I study so that I can interpret scripture correctly, and I work very hard to determine the universal principles taught there. Whether I have articulated this point to myself or not, I believe 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 single, coherent whole, and then to find ways to apply them, wherever possible, to my own circumstances. (In the end, I produce two categories of doctrines—truths that apply to me simply in that I must know or believe them, and truths that apply to me in that I must strive to embody them in my everyday life. An example of the first category: God has a body of flesh and bones, but not of blood; an example of the second category: if I am fully honest in my dealings with others, I will reap eternal blessings.) I find myself particularly interested in the sermonic in scripture, and I tend to dismiss texts that seem less interested than I am in doctrine. My study of the scriptures begins as a voracious pursuit, but it eventually begins to slacken when I feel 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.
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 results of God intervening in history. I hope that the Spirit attends my work (and I may even pray for it), but I find myself deeply interested by secular scholarship as well. I see my task in working on scripture as 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 (though I do find myself interested in the overlooked, the less-commented-on, the esoteric), 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 early history of the Church. 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 basics. I assume that there are doctrinal truths, but I’m fully convinced that they can only be grasped after the infinite task of historical research has (impossibly) been completed. I also 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. (In fact, if I pass unsuccessfully through a crisis in faith and find myself outside the Church, I’m most likely to continue to study Mormonism—and even Mormon scripture—from the outside.)
As a theological interpreter of scripture, I assume that the purpose of interpreting scripture is to make it possible for me to help 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—as well as enabled to see the texts in ways that will open up those questions and issues in a novel fashion. In interpreting a specific text, I consult (or produce, if necessary) the best historical research, but I believe that there is good reason to go beyond historical research as well. I assume also 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. (In a word, I abandon the idea that doctrinal truths are propositional, straightforwardly stated, easily communicated.) I assume, further, that scripture is the source of inspiration, but I assume that such inspiration comes only with or on the heels of 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. I find it hard to take up the task of interpreting scripture when all seems to be well in Zion, or when I feel that my work on the text will not help to make sense of larger concerns. I find it easiest to devote myself to the scriptures when I see clearly that there are issues to be sorted out in our collective experience in the Church, or when I can read the scriptures along with others.
A Brief Manifesto
In the title of this post, I call these the “four ways of reading scripture,” but I hope that the titles I have given to each “way” makes clear that there’s something wrong with that title. Each “way” is identified not only by an adjective that qualifies it (“devotional,” “doctrinal,” “historical,” “theological”), but also by a noun that differentiates its basic character (“reading,” “study,” “research,” “interpretation”). What I think we have here, then, are four ways of approaching scripture, or perhaps four ways scripture approaches us—four ways, at any rate, that we as Latter-day Saints relate to scripture.
But how do the four ways relate to each other? Does a given individual wander from one way to another over the course of her life, sometimes reading devotionally, sometimes researching historically, etc.? Is one inclined by one’s natural disposition to one way, some being born to do doctrinal study, other being born to interpret theologically, etc.? Is any one of these approaches to be preferred above the others, or is there perhaps a kind of hierarchy among them? Can one decide to do a bit of each, taking up devotional reading when appropriate, doctrinal study on specified occasions, historical research in more academic settings, and theological interpretation when necessary?
I want to suggest—and I draw this conclusion in part because it has been my own experience—that the four ways are four stages in a progression of sorts; one stage succeeds another in a kind of unfolding history. But let me not be misunderstood. I don’t mean to suggest either that earlier stages are necessarily “worse” in some sense than later stages or that those who find themselves at an earlier stage are somehow less righteous or less worthy than those who find themselves at a later stage. With the exception of the final transition to theological interpretation—which I do want to privilege as being preferred to the other three stages; more on that in a moment—I think there are crucial losses as well as important gains whenever one moves between stages. As one “progresses” from devotional reading to doctrinal study, and again from doctrinal study to historical research, one moves in many ways further and further from the Spirit, from the immediacy of one’s relationship with God through scripture—something that is, I think, only restored in the final transition to theological interpretation. There is, to put this another way, a developing kind of secularism about “progression” from the first to the second to the third stage, a secularism that is only overcome in the shift to the fourth stage. But all of this will have to become clearer as I discuss things in more detail.
So let me begin by saying something about what might be called the naivete of devotional reading—a naivete unmistakably associated with a beautiful but tragic hope. It is, I think, hard to deny that the devotional reader is animated by a lively hope that reading scripture will genuinely inspire one to be better, to become more like Jesus Christ. The very devotion of the devotional reader grounds and enlivens this hope. And it is a beautiful hope. But it is also a tragic hope, tragic because it fails to see its own essential blindness. In hoping it hopes for betterment, for progress, but all it finds in scripture is what it already knows. The devotional reader already knows what she is “supposed to do”—namely, keep a more or less definite set of commandments, many of which are not really dealt with in scripture—and so scripture inspires her only through a kind of vague encouragement to “keep going” or to “do better.” For example, the Book of Mormon teaches her nothing about why or how to be more diligent about doing genealogy, but Nephi’s exemplary obedience encourages her nonetheless to be stricter with herself about that and everything else she is supposed to do. The problem here—the “tragedy”—is that she is more likely to be dis– than encouraged by inspiring stories. “Sure, Nephi could do it; but he was the kind of person who was chosen to start an entire civilization for God—I’m nothing like that!” Contributing to the tragedy is the fact that the devotional reader who looks only for inspiration in scripture can’t learn anything from scripture by definition, and without learning anything, one doesn’t actually change. If genuine change is necessary to become better, the scriptures don’t do anything to help the devotional reader become better. The hope that characterizes devotional reading, then, turns out to be a kind of veiled despair, a desperate effort to wring motivation from something from which one can’t learn. Hope without hope, then—or hope without faith and charity, as I will argue later.
Now, all of this can only sound horribly harsh: despair masquerading as hope; stubbornness masquerading as devotion; blindness masquerading as insight. Harsh, yes, but unfortunately accurate, I believe. Devotional reading is in part the result of one’s recognizing that commitment to Mormonism includes scripture reading (it’s always being talked about, anyway), coupled with bafflement about why these ancient, largely irrelevant books are supposedly so important. This baffled commitment suggests that one should speak not only of devotional naivete, then, but also of a kind of fundamentalism—in part a question of the stubbornness of baffled commitment, and in part a question of private or personal devotion in general, of relating to things religious in an almost mystical way (direct contact with God, constant spiritual manifestations, the reality of miracles, etc.). Now, the word “fundamentalism” has a pejorative ring to it today, but I don’t mean to use it in that sense. (Indeed, I will argue later that there is similarly an element of fundamentalism in theological interpretation.) Fundamentalist devotion, it seems to me, only becomes fundamentalism in the dangerous sense if it is not kept private or personal, if it ceases to be devotion and becomes a source for public justification of one’s hope. Then, I think, the desperation at the core of devotional reading becomes essentially violent. But it seems to me that most devotional readers among the Latter-day Saints (and remember that I assume that every Latter-day Saint spends at least some time as a devotional reader) do a fair job of keeping devotional a personal or even private affair.
This still must seem harsh, so let me say something briefly about how the tragic hope of devotion is nonetheless something quite beautiful. It is hard to deny, I think, that there is something inspiring about the devotional reader—about the person who, despite the fact that she can’t see why the scriptures should be so heavily emphasized, nonetheless forces a kind of relevance on them. There is in devotional reading a kind of radicalized obedience, an almost Abrahamic sacrifice. Though it is without real hope (and so, I believe, falls short of the Abrahamic standard), it desperately moves forward. Devotional reading is thus beautiful in the sense that the image of Mormon leading his people into the most desperate battle—undertaken, he says, “without hope” (Mormon 5:2)—is beautiful. There is something unmistakably exemplary about the devotee, the willingness to press forward blindly into the darkness of the unknown, trusting one is “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [one] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). Despite all that is misguided or mistaken in the basic assumptions of the devotional reader, there is something clearly right about her commitment. And one can only hope and pray that such commitment holds out long enough to deliver her from devotional reading to what I take to be the next stage: doctrinal study.
Of course, doctrinal study has its own naivete, grounded in turn on a beautiful but tragic faith. Largely abandoning the hope that characterizes the devotional reader (no longer even seeking personal inspiration or encouragement), the doctrinal student replaces it with a powerful trust in scripture, a faith that scriptural texts are genuine repositories of universal truth, a fidelity to the canon that cannot be easily turned aside. It is, naturally, the doctrinal focus of the doctrinal student—her will to discover the genuinely authoritative and to defend the authority of the authoritative—that solidifies this faith. But this faith is tragic, and its tragedy is not unlike the tragedy of devotional reading: the doctrinal student’s faith is essentially blind. Doctrinal study grounds its faith in the authority of the canon—in the unchanging fountain of unchanging truths—but it turns out that the authority to which it ultimately appeals is extra-scriptural. Consciously or not, the doctrinal student faces the textuality of scripture: the inevitable instability of the sense of a text, the infinite proliferation of possible interpretations, the tensions or outright contradictions between different passages, the problematic historical provenance of scripture that undercuts the “plain” meaning of its final form. Faced with the precarious nature of the text, the doctrinal student seeking stable truths cannot trust alone in the authoritativeness of the scriptures themselves, but must also inevitably—thought perhaps implicitly—trust the authority of a particular interpreter or set of interpreters of scripture. Doctrinal study declares fidelity to scripture, then, but with a gesture of infidelity. The doctrinal student is, as it were, cheating on the scriptures. She is seeing another man: James E. Talmage or Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie (in extreme cases even Duane Crowther or Cleon Skousen). Faith without faith, then—or faith without hope and charity, as I will argue later.
Here again what I’m saying can only sound terribly harsh, but again I think what I’ve presented is accurate. Doctrinal study largely follows from recognition that there is something unfaithful about the baffled commitment of devotional reading, but the doctrinal student replaces baffled commitment with baffled commitment, albeit now to a supposedly authoritative interpretation of scripture. This new form of baffled commitment suggests that one should speak not only of doctrinal naivete, but also of a kind of institutionalism—in part a question again of baffled commitment, but also in part a question of trusting that there is a set of impersonal, unchanging, and authoritative doctrines. Of course, not unlike the word “fundamentalism,” the word “institutionalism” has a negative sound to it, but here again I am using the word in a non-pejorative way. (As with fundamentalism, I will argue later that there is a kind of institutionalism about theological interpretation.) Institutionalist doctrinality only becomes dogmatic (or, frankly, embarrassing) when presented to outsiders, that is, when it ceases to be doctrine internal to the institution in order to become a kind of universal justification for the Mormon faith. Only then, I think, does the otherwise relatively benign infidelity at the core of doctrinal study become essentially dogmatic. Unfortunately, though, while most devotional readers among the Latter-day Saints are content to keep within the bounds of devotion, it is more common—though still anything but universal—for doctrinal students of Mormon scripture to transform doctrine into dogma.
But let me say, as before, a word about the beauty and not just the tragedy of this second stage. There is something unquestionably right, it seems to me, about the doctrinal student’s deep conviction that there are universal truths, and that they have something to do with scripture, and the doctrinal student puts an exemplary amount of work into retrieving those truths through careful work on the scriptures. And the beauty of doctrinal study is only enhanced if the doctrinal student retains from devotional reading a taste for the inspirational, an at least implicit belief that all this doctrine—fully understood and fully embraced—will give one the courage to do what the Lord desires. Thus although I have argued that infidelity lurks at the heart of the faith of doctrinal study, even that infidelity is undertaken more often than not in good faith: the average doctrinal student turns to extra-scriptural authority only in an attempt to keep scripture honest, not with the intent of betrayal. If the doctrinal student thus generally slides from fidelity to fideism (from doctrine to dogmatism), she nonetheless exemplifies a crucial stubbornness, one that—again—one can only hope she holds to long enough to see her way to a transition from doctrinal study to historical research.
In the move from doctrinal study to historical research, naivete is again displaced rather than dispensed with, coming now to be grounded in—it shouldn’t be hard to see where this is going—a beautiful but tragic charity. Historical research, it seems to me, begins from the essential recognition that Mormon doctrine means little outside of Mormonism. If devotional reading limits the import of scripture to the individual, doctrinal study broadens its scope to the whole Church, but one comes to see at some point that its force should be broadened to apply to the whole world. The historical researcher is the one who assumes the task of universalization, and it is in this sense that it is rooted in charity. But the charity that drives historical research is nonetheless a tragic charity, and its tragic nature is due yet again to an essential blindness. While the historical researcher unmistakably erases the boundary between Mormon and non-Mormon, thus allowing the gospel to speak within and without the crowd of the already-believing, she draws a new boundary between the academic and the non-academic, both developing a conviction that most people are uninformed or trapped in ideology and setting herself up as one of the authorities who have to instruct the ignorant. Consequently, the gesture of universalization made by the historical researcher is undercut by a parallel gesture of restriction and partisanship: one limiting boundary is taken to be the necessary tool for obliterating another. In taking up the work of historical research, one inevitably moves into a position of power, and what at first appears as charity becomes instead a manifestation of condescending pity. It is important to recognize that the historical researcher begins, in many ways, with a kind of critique of power, driven by a worry that the institutionalism of doctrinal study is too given to centralized authority, or that the dogmatism of doctrinal study is a symptom of real (though likely mild) oppression. But while the historical researcher works orthogonally with respect to institutionalism and dogmatism, she nonetheless reconstructs relations of power, stepping into a position of authority herself, however much that authority may not be centralized. Charity without charity, then—or charity without faith and hope, as I will argue later.
Once more I’m sounding harsh, but once more I believe what I’m outlining is accurate. Historical research emerges from a recognition that there is something uncharitable about the baffled commitment of doctrinal study, but the historical researcher replaces baffled commitment (which in turn replaced baffled commitment) with baffled commitment, though now baffled commitment to the tenuous difference between the apparently informed and undogmatic academic and the apparently ignorant and ideologically driven layman. This newest form of baffled commitment suggests that one should speak not only of historical naivete, but also of a kind of politicism—in part a question yet again of baffled commitment, but also in part a question of assigning everything one encounters (past, present, future) to the politically charged play of history, as well as of believing that only those who so assign things have escaped the grasp of political ideology. Here again, as with the words “fundamentalism” and “institutionalism,” the word “politicism” has a negative ring, but once more I will insist that I’m using the word non-pejoratively. (And I will also be arguing later that there is a kind of politicism about theological interpretation.) Politicist historical work only becomes scandalous when it is distracted from its originally charitable gesture of attempting to speak to non-Mormons in a language they can understand, taking up instead the task of criticizing Mormons for not speaking in such a non-Mormon language—when, in a word, politicism becomes the source for internal justification for what can only appear to “average” Mormons as secularism. Only then, it seems to me, does otherwise genuinely productive work on the historical base of scripture become essentially oppressive. Now, while devotional readers tend to keep within the boundaries of devotion, and while doctrinal students tend to transform doctrine into dogma—speaking generally, but not universally—historical researchers are much more evenly divided, a goodly number remaining within proper boundaries, and a goodly number slipping into an oppressive politicism.
As before, let me add a word about beauty as well as tragedy. There is something unquestionably right, one must recognize, about the historical researcher’s profound commitment to opening the gospel up beyond the boundaries of a defensive dogmatism, and the historical researcher puts an exemplary amount of work into formulating a language that can speak as much to those outside of Mormonism as to those inside. And the beauty of historical research is tripled if the historical researcher retains both from devotional reading a taste for the inspirational and from doctrinal study a conviction that there are truths—that all this historical research can get somewhere, can serve something greater than merely adding to the proliferation of academic knowledge. Thus, though I have argued that uncharity (in the form of pity) lies at the core of the charity of the historical researcher, even that uncharity is at least rooted in a genuinely charitable inclination: the average historical researcher finds her way into academic discourse in an attempt to discover a universal language with which to announce Mormonism to as wide an audience as possible. If the historical researcher can unfortunately fall into the trap of obsessive internal critique, she nonetheless exemplifies a crucial stubbornness, one that—yet again—one can only hope she holds to long enough to discover theological interpretation.
Before coming to what I take to be the fourth stage—theological interpretation—I want to say a few words about the pathway just traveled. Each stage, I have suggested, is characterized by the exclusive privileging of one of the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope, and charity), a privileging that at once makes clear what is right about that stage, but which is characterized by an exclusivity that soon makes clear what is wrong about that stage. Thus what I take to be the first stage in the development of one’s relation to scripture privileges hope (recognizing in scripture a source for betterment), but to the (relative) exclusion of faith (recognizing scripture as the repository of truth) and charity (recognizing the universal import of scripture); the second stage privileges faith, but to the (relative) exclusion of hope and charity; and the third stage privileges charity, but to the (relative) exclusion of faith and hope. The presence at each stage of one of the theological virtues marks its beauty, but the exclusion that occurs at each stage marks the tragic quality of that beauty: each stage’s exclusion has the unfortunate effect, I have tried to make clear, of poisoning the privileged virtue, turning hope into a kind of despair, faith into a kind of infidelity, and charity into a kind of pity.
That said, it is necessary to highlight the word “relative” in “(relative) exclusion.” Each of the first three stages is characterized by a relative, rather than an absolute, exclusion. The devotional reader—at least at her best—does not reject faith or charity, but instead seems simply to be a bit naive. Similarly, the doctrinal student and the historical researcher—again, at their best—do not reject, respectively, hope and charity, and faith and hope. There are, of course, at each stage those who do consciously reject the virtues privileged by other approaches to scripture. There is the devotional reader who responds to doctrinal study or historical research with a kind of vehement disgust—vindicating herself by regarding every other approach to scripture as so much over-intellectualization or even as so much liberal schtick. This is what I before referred to as fundamentalism. And there is the doctrinal student who both looks down her nose at devotional reading as the approach of the unfaithful, and criticizes historical research as either a mere academicism or a dangerous politicization of doctrine . This is what I before referred to as institutionalism. And then there is the historical researcher who gently mocks the clueless naivete of the devotional reader and not-so-gently heaps scorn on the ideological drive of the doctrinal student. This is what I before referred to as politicism. At each stage, then, there is the very real temptation to refuse to see virtue in other approaches to scripture, but there is also the very real impetus to embrace the goodness of the other approaches—and this impetus, if it overpowers the associated temptation, is what is most likely to drive one through the several stages toward theological interpretation.
Thus it seems best to see in the three stages leading up to theological interpretation six, rather than just three, approaches to scripture. At the first stage one finds two kinds of devotional reader: (1a) the obediently devoted reader and (1b) the fundamentalist devotee. At the second stage: (2a) the product of CES and (2b) the dogmatic “scriptorian.” At the third stage: (3a) the careful apologist and (3b) the arrogant historian. The first of each of these pairs (the obediently devoted reader, the product of CES, and the careful apologist) is most likely, in my opinion, to find her way to theological interpretation, since she sees reason to bring a kind of devotion into her doctrinal study, or she sees the sense in emphasizing both a basic devotionality and a doctrinal base in her historical work as a careful apologist. She, it seems to me, is well situated to seek a way to bring faith, hope, and charity together in the appropriate, balanced weave. The second of each of these pairs (the fundamentalist devotee, the dogmatic “scriptorian,” and the arrogant historian), on the other hand, is most likely to remain exactly where she is, largely because she found her way to her present position by rejecting every other approach as at best clueless and at worst dangerous. The question, then, is—at last: What do things look like when one comes, finally, to theological interpretation?
(Let me add a brief parenthetical aside about the difference between the careful apologist and the arrogant historian, lest I be taken to be defending apologetics in the old FARMS or current FAIR style, and/or attacking historians in either the older new Mormon history or the current Mormon studies style. Many figures—some of them quite prominent—in Mormon apologetics would, in my typology, fall on the side of “the arrogant historian” rather than “the careful apologist,” and many figures—again, some of them quite prominent—in Mormon historiography would fall on the side of “the careful apologist” rather than “the arrogant historian.” I don’t want to name names, especially because it would distract from the much more important aims of this post, but I hope it is clear that well-done history—like some of what was done in the new Mormon history, and much of what is being done in the current field of Mormon studies—is a kind of careful apologetics, and not a form of arrogant historiography. And I hope it is clear that poorly-done apologetics—like some of what has been done and some of what is still being done in Mormon apologetics—is a kind of arrogant historiography, and not a form of careful apologetics. Enough said, I hope.)
So let us come, at long last, to theological interpretation.
From everything I’ve said up to this point, it should already be clear that I want to suggest that theological interpretation brings together in the right way all three “theological virtues.” The theological interpreter reconciles the hope of the devotional reader, the faith of the doctrinal student, and the charity of the historical researcher—and in a way that none of these is poisoned any longer. The theological interpreter hopes that scripture opens up the possibility of a better world, and she does so without despair because the world she hopes to see improve is no longer her world, but the world. No longer desperately trying to squeeze from scripture a bit of personalized inspiration, but instead carefully attuned to how scripture provides real vistas into possible worlds ignored by the world as such, the theological interpreter finds herself uniquely positioned to call for—and to help introduce—real change. Similarly, the theological interpreter believes scripture fully, taking it to be the repository of truth, and she does so without infidelity because she recognizes the essential instability of textual interpretation and trusts that even that—especially that—is part of how scripture opens up possibilities. No longer unfaithfully betraying the scriptural text itself by rooting its meaning in a semi-arbitrarily chosen extra-scriptural source of authority, but instead carefully attuned to how the indeterminacy of textual meaning(s) allows the interpreter the freedom necessary to allow scripture to speak to whatever situation she encounters, the theological interpreter finds herself uniquely positioned to place unshaken faith in scripture, unmitigated faith in the truth of scripture. Finally, the theological interpreter has genuine charity and so works to open up the uncompromised universality of the scriptural message, and she does so without pity because she sees scripture as radically calling every possible subgroup of humanity to repentance, her own included. No longer pityingly presupposing that only those with her intellectual gifts can see the real import of scripture, but instead carefully attuned to how scripture criticizes every self-important presumption, the theological interpreter finds herself uniquely positioned to break down barriers between people without constructing new ones. In a word, the theological interpreter is exercised by faith, hope, and charity, balancing them in a way that allows all to come out fully and none to self-implode.
But what does theological interpretation look like? Have I not simply outlined a mere ideal, something no one really accomplishes? Or am I not simply heaping praise on what can only appear to be a merely academic pursuit? Am I not just pretending that my approach to scripture is laudable when it is actually too far removed from reality to mean anything? Let me see if I can put some flesh on the skeleton I’ve just presented. These bones shall live.
Let me first make clear that theological interpretation is not in itself an academic pursuit—though it can be (and should be!) done in academic settings as much as in any other setting. What I’m describing is rigorous and thoughtful, and it attempts in my experience to be as informed as possible, but there is nothing inherently academic about it. Indeed, I can’t help but be convinced that it is too easily compromised when it is introduced into an academic setting. There it finds that it has to draw too-defined conclusions, has to spend too much time worrying about comprehensive footnotes, has to convince its readers that it’s not trying to sneak devotion in the back door of the academic establishment, etc. When I speak of theological interpretation here, then, I emphatically do not have reference to professional work, but to the work—as I have already explained—of faith, hope, and charity, work that can be undertaken in any setting. For my own part, it was the pursuit of theological interpretation that led me to academia and not academia that led me to theological interpretation, and I find myself with the constant task of problematizing and even contesting the academic establishment through faithful, hopeful, charitable theological interpretation. In other words, though my own pathway has led me to academia, I have not found there the perfect place to do theological interpretation, but rather yet another venue where theological interpretation has the task of upsetting the way things are because of its faith, hope, and charity. At any rate, I hope it is clear that I do not at all mean to suggest by this post that everyone should become an academic. Far from it. My point is rather that everyone—academics included—should (eventually) become a theological interpreter.
That caveat aside, it is necessary to say something more concrete about the faith, the hope, and the charity of the theological interpreter. These are, I want to suggest, only woven together when they are understood in a very specific way. Let me see if I can make that way clear, while simultaneously illustrating theological interpretation.
The theological interpreter recognizes rather than runs away from the indeterminacy of textual meaning. She finds it fascinating rather than frightening, productive rather than problematic, that she can’t nail down an only meaning for a passage. She sees, of course, that there seems to be something dangerous about infinitely proliferating meaning, and so that some kind of limit or boundary has to be imposed on scripture if it is to have any real force. But rather than securing the meaning of scripture by appealing to some extra-scriptural interpretive guide (an authority), she takes the current situation—not the situation of her own “trials” or troubles, but the situation of charity, the situation in which it is her task to announce the truth of the gospel—to be what places interpretive bounds on the text. Texts, in the infinite proliferation of possible meanings, might seem to be spinning in a void, but when they come into contact with a real situation in which charity makes its incorrigible demands, proliferation or apparently pointless spinning comes to an end. And it is the theological interpreter who stages the confrontation between scripture and the situation of charity. She is thus at once faithful to the text’s many possible meanings, mining the text for the truths at work in it, and charitable in her work of announcing that truth, bringing the text to bear on the situation of charity and the situation of charity to bear on the text. And as the text, introduced into the situation of charity, brings about genuinely new and unforeseen possibilities—at the same moment that the situation harnesses the potential or potency of the text—genuine hope for a better world drives the theological interpreter, pressing or even pressuring her to pursue her work as far as it can go. Her faith in the truth of the text and her charity in the situation that calls her to the work do not fail because the hope they jointly inspire makes an anchor for her, letting her abound in good works.
Here again I need to make a caveat, lest I be taken to be saying that one can invent whatever meaning one wants for scripture in order to make everyone feel comfortable. Two distinct points need to be clarified here. First, while there is unquestionably a powerfully creative aspect to theological interpretation, it is anything but sheer invention. Texts do not have singular determinate meanings, but there are things they simply cannot mean. Texts do, in other words, impose certain interpretive boundaries on themselves. I don’t at all mean to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, the possible meanings of any given text are many, potentially infinite, even if they can’t mean just anything at all. The task of the theological interpreter is thus not to wrest scripture, but to be faithfully attuned to its contours and nuances—indeed, so faithfully attuned to these that she can see how the situation brings out one of the text’s meanings in a startlingly new way. Second, the task of the theological interpreter is emphatically not to make people feel comfortable. Indeed, it is probably best to put it in exactly the opposite way: the task of the theological interpreter is precisely to make people feel uncomfortable. To claim that scripture is true—this is the element of faith here—is to say that it calls the person confronted with it radically into question, calls that person to repentance. The theological interpreter does not have the task of finding a way to make a given passage of scripture less offensive. Rather, she has the task of replacing interpretations that reinforce mediocrity, obfuscate grace, and ground idolatry with interpretations that give the preached-to to see that things need to change. The theological interpreter has the thankless and excruciatingly difficult task of making sure that the text doesn’t lose its force, doesn’t lose the existential force that—as true—it is meant to bear on the world.
Finally, then, a concrete example: 2 Nephi 25:23. Here is the text: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” This text is well-known. And it seems to bear an obvious meaning, an incontrovertible singular meaning: human beings must do their absolute best, and if they do, then grace makes up for the rest for them. This common (almost universal) interpretation comes in two forms: (1) the more traditional form, in which “one’s absolute best” is understood to be a very long laundry list of works, stretching from paying tithing to doing one’s genealogy and from making meals for a sick person in the neighborhood to saying one’s prayers, and in which “the rest” made up by grace is something like the cherry on top of all these works; (2) the semi-progressive form of more recent years (promulgated in particular by Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet), in which “one’s absolute best” is a miniscule set of works such as repenting in humility, being baptized, and striving not to be a terrible person, and in which “the rest” made up by grace is the infinite rest brought about by the merciful atonement of Christ. Such is the standard interpretation. But anyone carefully attuned to the contours and nuances of this text will quickly realize that things are much more complex than either version of this standard interpretation suggests.
It isn’t terribly difficult to start multiplying possible meanings of the text. Let me just start complicating things a bit. How should the “we” be understood in this passage? One tends to move too quickly to the end of the verse in order to justify the understanding described above, and there one automatically takes “we” to refer to “we humans,” but it seems in the first part of the verse that “we” refers not to humans in general but to Nephi and Jacob and other authoritative Nephites: “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children,” etc. Is the “all we can do” later in the verse referring to this “we labor diligently” business? Is Nephi trying to explain the motivation for his own work in writing scripture? But let me set that question aside and ask instead why is there an emphasis on writing here, and how that emphasis redirects the meaning of the whole passage. Is one too quick to divorce Nephi’s “doctrine” here from the context in which he sets it forth? One might well ask also about Nephi’s apparent double audience: his “children” and his “brethren.” Is what he’s saying supposed to be applied only to Nephites (children) and Lamanites (brethren)? But all these first questions are perhaps a bit pedantic. With a desire to “liken” scripture, one certainly has the right to abstract a bit from the immediate context, no? So the first part of the verse could be ignored, such that it reads only: “We should believe in Christ, and be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Now the text takes a determinate meaning, right?
But here different sorts of complicating questions begin to arise. What exactly does it mean to “believe in Christ”? Does it have certain concrete implications? Is it an emotion? A subjective disposition? A way of being in the world? A certain cognitive assent? A certain set of actions? And why does Nephi say “Christ” rather than “Jesus” or “the Lord” or “God” or any other such thing? Is it significant that the very name “Christ” has only just been introduced in his record, the subject of an apparently unique revelation to Jacob? Still more complicated is this talk being “reconciled to God.” What does that mean? What is reconciliation? Should this passage be connected with 2 Nephi 10:24, where Jacob asks his audience to “reconcile [them]selves to the will of God” and to “remember, after [they] are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that [they] are saved”? But how should the various elements of that passage be interpreted, and how does each one bear on the present text? Or leaving Jacob behind, should one be looking at the crucial doctrine of reconciliation offered up in the writings of Saint Paul, especially in Second Corinthians? And what is the relationship between Nephi and Paul, after all, the relationship between the New World, pre-Christian Book of Mormon and the Old World, clearly Christian New Testament? Does this sort of question force one to begin asking about what Joseph was doing in translating the book? Is the Pauline language here an element of Joseph’s cultural heritage, or does it reflect the actual words of Nephi?
But moving along to the most famous part of this famous passage, isn’t at least this part straightforward: “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”? Again it would be necessary to ask about 2 Nephi 10:24, where Jacob seems to suggest that “all we can do” is “be reconciled to God.” And it is also worth noting a possible connection with Alma 24:11, where the Anti-Nephi-Lehies say that it was “all [they] could do” simply to repent. Is that what is meant by “all we can do”? But ignoring intertextual complications, what do the several terms in this passage mean? What does “grace” mean, after all? And the word “saved”? And what of “do”? Even supposing we have working definitions of these terms, what of the grammar here? How important is this “we know” business? One might suggest that the grammatical structure here echoes Exodus 31:13, where one knows only after obeying that one’s obedience was not one’s own, but the Lord working in one. If that is relevant, then the grammar of this supposedly straightforward passage might imply that after we do everything we can, we will discover that everything we have done was not done by us, but was exercised only through the grace of God. (King Benjamin seems to teach something very like this, note.) But dismissing even grammar, it is still necessary to ask just what is meant by “after”! Does “after” necessarily mean “subsequent to, in a temporal fashion”? Or might it have other meanings (some have been suggested by some commentators, note)? And at any rate, what is the relationship between grace and works here (or elsewhere in scripture, for that matter)? Is there any straightforward way to read this without reducing the complexities of the text?
I could go on. For days. But I hope that the point is clear: even such an apparently straightforward text as this one—concerning which everyone in the Church knows the plain meaning—is far more difficult to nail down than it first appears. And here one might be tempted to rely on an extra-scriptural authority (“Elder McConkie said that…”), but that would be to betray the text. What does it say? So there’s no limit to the possible approaches one might take to the text? That’s right. Unless. Unless, that is, one comes up against a situation in which charity makes demands. So let me introduce a possible concrete situation in which the theological interpreter might have to do something with this text.
It isn’t hard to come up with one. Here’s an actual situation from my own past experience. I was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting on sabbath observance. In the study I dedicated to the topic in the weeks I had for preparation, I came to see the sabbath in a remarkable new light. I had always had, to be a bit frank, three concerns about the sabbath as it had always been presented to me: (1) There was something that bothered me about the arbitrariness of the sabbath. What made such-and-such day of the week somehow more special than any other day? Why should one day be a day of holy things and others not; and why should certain kinds of consecrated things (that might involve spending money and the like) be avoided on holy days? (2) Sabbath days feel very little like days of rest, since most members of the Church displace to the sabbath everything associated with the Church if at all possible. The consequence is that my Sundays are usually the busiest days of my week, and I’m lucky even to have time to do some serious reading of scripture or some serious meditation or some serious gospel discussion with my wife. (3) Finally, it deeply concerned me that sabbath observance is always regarded as something that has to be done in order to be saved—that its observance is taken to be among the works one must do in order to be justified before God. Rather than enjoying it or rejoicing in it—as a day of rest—one is, it seems, supposed to stress about whether it is being done right.
Having all these concerns, I was quite happy to bury myself in close study of scripture on the question, as well as of a kind of history of sabbath observance in the modern Church. Notice that the first “situation of charity” here was one in which the one needing charity was myself. The possible meanings of the scriptural (and historical) texts would be brought to bear on my own concerns and doubts. I was, in this situation, my own mediator, saddled with the task of preaching the gospel to myself. And what I learned came to me with quite a shock. I was profoundly called to repentance—not in that I found that I was simply not to raise questions like the three outlined above, but in that I came to see exactly why those concerns should be concerns, but also why I should also be concerned about my own reactionary response to those concerns.
What I learned was that sabbath observance is a concrete practice in which we pare away all that holds grace or God’s love at a distance. The sabbath day is not merely about somehow separating ourselves out from worldly practices for a day (while leaving us plenty of time the rest of the week to engage in worldly pursuits). Rather it is about taking time to stop working for ourselves, to stop work for our salvation. The sabbath is a time specifically ordained to distract us from our obsession with working for determinate ends, a time in which, stepping back from such work, we can come to see (this is the account provided in Exodus 31) that everything we do that is good is not our own work, but the work the Lord does through us. The sabbath is an “institution” that is meant to help us see that all our work is fueled by grace, and that we claim it as our own only in selfishness and arrogance. Suddenly I saw that the sabbath should really be a day of rest, a time in which I don’t have to worry about the concerns of the rest of the week, since my only task that day is to celebrate grace. My concerns slipped away, and I found that I could observe the sabbath with a remarkable serenity.
First instance of charity: my own concerns and doubts and worries gave the texts in question to speak to me a very determinate way, and I was called to repentance. My arrogant relationship to the sabbath was called profoundly into question, and I had to give up the comfort I had long taken in complaining—even if mostly silently or behind closed doors—about the way members of the Church mistreat the sabbath. Charity had been given to me. And for the first time in my life, the sabbath was a source of hope. Faithful to the scriptures, charitable toward myself in the task of announcing the scripture’s truth to myself, I was given the hope that the sabbath could be something more than the absurd thing it had always seemed to me to be.
But then I had to deliver my talk, and there was the second situation of charity—one in which it was my task to preach to the whole congregation. Here the task was somewhat different. I couldn’t know how many in the congregation shared the concerns I had be worried by before. From my own observations, it seemed to me that what demanded charity in this situation was quite different. Comments in Sunday School and similar settings gave me to believe that it was just the very idea of grace that needed preaching, that needed clarifying. The sabbath, I had come to see, provided a forceful way of illustrating what Paul for example seems to be talking about when he says that we should be distracted from our works to recognize that it is by grace that we are saved. But in preaching grace so forcefully, I had to know that one objection—one lingering doubt—that most in the congregation would share would go something like this: “But Nephi says….” And so I found in my preparations that I had to determine how that passage from 2 Nephi 25 could be read in the way the situation of charity demanded. And it was in my preparations for the talk that I saw the connection mentioned above between 2 Nephi 25 and Exodus 31. I saw the grammatical structure of the passage from Nephi in a new light. The “we know that” of the passage could be read not simply as meaning “the following statement is true,” but as an integral part of the communication: “we come to know, after all we do, that grace has driven everything, that it is by grace that we are saved.” I saw that the passage can be read as focusing less on the means or structure of salvation than on the existential knowledge one comes to in the course of obedience (a knowledge that in turn deals with grace). And that’s what I stood up and preached.
And the result was, it seems, an increased sense of hope. At least, several in the congregation expressed something along those lines to me. More faithful to the scriptural text, and having had charity shown them, some saw the possibility of escaping the awful self-centeredness of worrying about whether they were doing everything they were supposed to do. Instead, they began to see the possibility of letting grace simply drive them toward good works. And they found that the atonement—for once!—inspired hope.
So much for my concrete example. I hope it helps to clarify things.
Now, just a word in closing, since this post has grown much, much longer than I anticipated. It is this sort of thing—illustrated in the concrete example—that I think theological interpretation comes to. I’m not trying to promote academic study of scripture. I’m trying to point out that in faith, hope, and charity, all balanced as they are meant to be, one leaves off a self-centered desperation (masquerading as hope), an unfaithful betrayal of the remarkably malleable scriptures (masquerading as faith), and a condescending pity for most members of the Church (masquerading as charity). One’s preaching—in a sacrament meeting talk, say—ceases to be either “I think I was asked to give this talk for me, and not for all of you,” or “I’m going to give you the unquestionable truth of this topic as it has been laid out by the Brethren, and it will be your task to believe it or be damned,” or “I will show you how ignorant you all are of the topic at hand in order to demonstrate my own intellectual commitment or superiority.” In the place of these, one comes humbly to the task of announcing the truth of the scriptures adapted to the vital needs of those preached to, and one thus inspires real, forceful hope.
Such, at any rate, is what I want to suggest.
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