Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

Devotional Reading

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.

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—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.

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 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.)

Theological Interpretation

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 thatespecially 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.

34 Responses to “Four Approaches to Scripture: Clearing the Way for Theological Interpretation”

  1. Adam Miller said

    Beautiful, Joe. Fantastic.

    My question: What do you take to be the limits of reading scripture (theologically) as a practice? Or, what about silence?

  2. [...] by giving it away to scripture. I always agree, by way of critique, with everything Joe says. Ecce theologus. 0 people like this [...]

  3. JBL said

    Having read this entire document it is apparent that we have traveled similar routes. Still as I compose a response, I must plead the same concerns that this may sound like only so much arrogance or a perspective of preference based on a view captured by Elder Packer where he states: “Perhaps too many of us are strong advocates of our own specialized work or are such strong protectors of our own turf that we face the wrong way — maybe just sideways.”(Packer, Boyd K., Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council)
    Nonetheless, it is not my intent to appear to disagree as much as to contribute a perspective that enhances your observations according to what I gleaned from your explanation of a growing sense of levels of understanding in scripture study. I cannot try to explain in detail as time only permits encouragement to discover for ourselves through personal efforts.
    My efforts were initiated via 2 Nephi 25:5 “I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.”
    Note carefully there is none that understand the things spoken (Scripture) unless they are taught after the manner of the Jews. Bruce R. McConkie references this concept, amongst many, in two talks – “The Bible a Sealed Book” and “Ten Keys to understanding Isaiah”. Having spent over 12 years attempting to comprehend and utilize these tools as Elder McConkie defines them I have legitimately discovered that it is the manner of prophecy of the Jews that has broadened understanding the greatest. To be brief and only to recommend an approach as opposed to attempt to explain it, I find a couple of things to be mentioned.
    The House of Israel / Jews think different than those of westernized indoctrination. I firmly believe that God also thinks differently and in his effort to bring the Children of Israel into his presence he educated them as to how to think as he does to the best of mortal man’s ability. Recognizing that the westernized approach to scriptural exegesis will limit correct understanding adversely has been a by-product of approaching learning after the manner of the Jews. That said, the spirit rewards the diligent efforts of those who truly seek understanding but I am convinced that correct methods of thinking will eventually become a significant issue to those who truly seek. That is not to say that the spirit may not lead an individual to utilize correct methods of reasoning independent of knowing the process as defined within knowing the manner of Prophecy of the Jews. Nonetheless, when such a one begins to come at study from the directions of Jewish understanding he realizes that now he has a “name” for the method which the spirit has been teaching them to understand. Interestingly, it is a Jewish concept that the process of giving something a name is symbolic of being granted dominion. Note who names Adam and then note who and what Adam names in the creation narrative and this concepts unfolds beautifully.
    The second thing to reference is a starting point for comparison and that is the Jewish concept of PRDS. This is a Jewish perspective on the four levels of scriptural understanding. There are general comparisons to your four methods that are defined in this post but PRDS is far more concise in the explanation of nature of each level of understanding- though that may not make it any easier to understand. PRDS more clearly defines layers of understanding such as one might expect from a process of line upon line precept upon precept forms of revelation as is defined within LDS doctrinal understandings. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that this concept is based on an entirely different method of thinking than is embraced by westernized methods. It most likely will seem difficult to grasp and many may claim that it seems simplistic as it lacks the intellectual spin western thinker’s favor. In fact it may be noted that it defines scriptural understanding in the same fashion as scripture is perceived. Some see a story and some disconnected concepts and thoughts, while others build from there into increasingly clear perspectives of eternity where all truth is circumscribed into one great whole. It requires work, much work and while I think your post is a masterful effort at approaching scriptural understanding, it could be benefited by circumscribing it into an understanding of scriptural study that brings it in line with 2 Nephi and with Elder McConkie’s emphasis of Nephi’s approach to truly understand scripture.
    A final thought…after all of these years it has become clear to me that while there is a manner of understanding of the Jews, only a devoted temple attending member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a hope of ferreting out the incorrect tangents that have woven their way into things Jewish as a result of looking beyond the mark and the withdrawal of the Priesthood’s keys of knowledge from the Jewish people. As well, I have noted that in the past 5 years suddenly many Christian tangents have begun to take Jewish concepts, such as PRDS, and adulterate them further from their own misunderstandings. Just as an illustration the final level is SOD which is interpreted to a Rabbi as pure knowledge and understanding gained from standing in the presence of the Shekinah – the spirit of God in the form of a pillar of light. (ie Lehi’s vision) Nonetheless to an LDS perspective this is the identical concept that is embraced by the Brother of Jared in Ether 3 and what we would consider having one’s calling and election made sure. The recent Christian alterations to the concept have diluted it down to simply a higher level of personal understanding using greater knowledge of the tools of research based on mans philosophy of understanding. It reflects the Christian misunderstandings concerning the true levels of revelation – from the Holy Ghost, to the voice of the Lord, to the presence of the Lord. Having denied for the most part, ongoing revelation from God, the Christian world cannot conceive of a process that mandates greater revelatory experience before one can understand the fullness of truth. So to come to the understanding through diligent study, one must be cautious to find good sources dealing with the ancient interpretations which are becoming fewer in number.
    As a point of reference from a Jewish perspective on learning after the manner of the Jews I can recommend this document from this link: http://www.betemunah.org/remez.html
    It is not perfect but with an LDS understanding it comes into clarity. As well, as I review it, I realize how confusing the terminology to Jewish principles will be as they draw from an entirely different vocabulary than our own. Some will shut down simply from the attitude that to engage here is to begin as a little child and learn again from the simple levels to the more advanced.
    However, once the vocabulary comes into perspective so do many of the common perspectives that the LDS have with Jewish understandings. I do not suspect that many will pursue this endeavor as it has been a great challenge over the years. However, if one truly wanted to understand the four perspectives of scriptural understanding and interpretation I believe that following the encouragements of the scriptures is a positive place to start. So much more to be said but enough for now…

  4. Roberta said


    What I understand you to be saying (maybe) is that the most correct approach to the scriptures is the one that produces the ultimate outcome of “other service” rather than “self-service.” That the virtues of faith, hope and charity can only be truly experienced in their real form as they are used to coalesce the kingdom into One. It seems the first three categories you provide serve only the individual in some form or fashion (either through self reflection or through pride or power) and that serves only to create division rather than unity with others, which is counter to the call and work of the Kingdom. It seems that the Theological Interpreter’s perspective can’t help but be “other” oriented while at the same time it acknowledges that there is no one correct answer but many correct answers…and it is not threatened by that awareness but rather welcomes it? Is this what you said or did I mangle it?

    But I’m a little lost on the “concrete” example you gave concerning your talk of Sabbath observance and “celebrating grace.” Could you elaborate? Are you saying that by removing the boundaries you had always recognized or thought existed for typical Sabbath observance (rigid ritual) then you increased in chariability? And if so, are you saying that the role of the Theological Interpreter should be to more fully examine established boundaries or confines (sort of) and see if an alternate perspective exists in order to remove walls and increase unity? I’m not sure this makes any sense, but I’m just curious. Forgive me if I’m totally off the mark on your thoughts…

  5. I think this post is a triumph. I see some parallels to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic/ethical/religious stages. In fact I think this is sort of Kierkegaard like, and I mean that as a compliment. Very well done.

  6. Robert C. said

    Joe, very nice outpouring, effectively synthesizing so much of what we’ve discussed here (and elsewhere) over the years.

    If you ever get a chance to address one of the questions JBL is raising above, about the approach you suggest vs. the PRDS fourfold in rabbinic thought, I’d be curious. My own hunch is that rabbinic approaches often falter on the SOD (esoteric) part of this, “mistaking” a kind of private, fundamentalist experience for an evental calling to proclaim repentance and build the kingdom (not that alternate ways of understanding SOD aren’t possible…). Also, perhaps this gives us a way to rethink the significance of the Brother of Jared’s experience so that it is not just an experience to be envied, as I think it is essentially taken as most of the time.

  7. NathanG said

    Nice post. A comment and a question.

    These approaches to the scriptures subsequently find their way into styles of teaching the gospel, as well as styles of participating or not participating in class. Perhaps as a participant it takes the theological interpreter to come out of a class taught by any of the other styles to be edified. I say this somewhat as a critique of myself as I have had disgruntled thoughts about lessons that gloss over some rich scriptural passages, spend too much time quoting general authorities without much time spent in the scriptures themselves, or even spend too much time asking for personal experiences. If only I had a better combination of faith, hope, and charity…

    How does the theological interpreter deal with a sense in the church that personal revelation should be kept personal. I’ve shared a number things about the scriptures with family and friends to be met with a response such as, “Well that sounds nice, but have the brethren taught that?” Or, “I think you’re right, but you shouldn’t ever teach it.” Or, “Who did you learn that from?” To be clear, I don’t think I have any heretical thoughts and a number of my thoughts I learned from my own study have subsequently been validated by General Authorities (which is encouraging). I also think these people are not trying to be mean, it’s just a well intended caution. My take is that we have allowed our interpretation of passages such as D&C 28 to drift to where verses 2 and 3 are the only of any importance and verses 4 and 5 get lost along the wayside. On top of this, the scriptures themselves are so vast and rich in detail we can’t possibly hope to wait for a general authority to touch on every scripture in sufficient way to clear the way for us to discuss the scriptures in detail in our gospel classes. The key then is to speak as moved upon by the Spirit, but do you have any other thoughts on the matter?

    • JBL said

      I remember this precise situation and still from time to time fail and must learn it again. I think you already have the answer in your heart because you reference the prcise solution “when guided by the spirit”. I have come to realize that God’s method of instruction is perfectly geared to the individual as they develop their relationship with the Holy Ghost. I am not the Holy Ghost and cannot hope to achieve the same results or effect of teaching truth outside of the process. The challenge is learning when we are edifying one another and when we are exceeding the spiritual preparations of our audience. If it is edification, the spirit is present and a trusted exchange is taking place. If there is “well intended caution” then we are betraying the spirit with our effort to teach something the audience is not prepared for. The burden is upon us who teach to be true to the spirit in these types of situations more than upon them who listen and are “guarded” and rightly so. They are being taught by someone who claims spiritual guidance who is not responding to spiritual guidance to not teach. I believe this to be one of the tests of moving to higher levels of spiritual understanding. When a teacher has been blessed to have insight beyond his or her peers, can he remain sensitive to the spirit when it requires that teacher to be still? It is not only speaking under the direction of the spirit but not speaking under the absence of the spirit or even more subtly sensed, the presence of the spirit guiding the teacher to restraint. If one can learn to be true to this principle a new vista opens up, if not they suffer the frustration of not feeling the connection with others and find the fault as with the audience when it really resides in themselves.

  8. joespencer said

    Some first responses:

    Adam #1 – I’m working on this, so I’ll have to get back to you later.

    JBL #3 (and RobertC #6) – This is all interesting, but at enough of a distance from what I’m working on that I don’t know what to say in response.

    Roberta #4 – On other- vs. self-orientation: I think that’s more or less right, though I’ll point out at least the following. One of the dangers of that distinction is that the historical researcher fully believes that she has come down on the side of other-orientation. It is thus almost as if one has to lose one’s other-orientation (in historical research) in order to find it (in theological interpretation). So I think you’ve put it nicely when you say that the theological interpreter can’t help but be charitable: it isn’t the focus of her efforts (her focus is building the kingdom), but it is what nonetheless characterizes them.

    Still Roberta #4 – Coming now to the point of clarification on my “concrete” example: I’m not at all saying (if I’m understanding you correctly) that the task of the theological interpreter is to question the boundaries of ritual or practice, etc. My sabbaths are all the more sabbath-like now, not less. I think what I came to see in the course of my study on the topic was that the usual way of making sense of the sabbath actually makes sabbath observance impossible, even in the terms presented by the usual way of talking about it. But I don’t know that I’m being clear at all here. I’ll have to think about how to communicate this point more clearly….

    Eric Nielson #5 – Thanks. And I entirely agree that there is a Kierkegaardian strain at work in this. I’m constantly arguing with Kierkegaard about the details, but I think he is crucial and right.

    NathanG #7 – First, very nice point about participation in lessons, etc. I have a whole other post up my sleeve about such things. :) But coming to your question: I have had many such experiences, though I have them less and less, interestingly. I suspect that the decreasing frequency of such “objections” should tell me that I’m figuring out how to communicate such things in the right way. Of course, I’m only thinking explicitly about this for the first time right now, so I don’t know that I’ve got much to say about how I do communicate such things. I need to think about that more (and will do so this afternoon with some sabbath meditation time!).

    • JBL said

      Joe – would you be up for a bit of analysis and comparison in an effort to close the “distance”? I am asking because I do not want to overlay my analysis of your approach with my observations if your only purpose was simply to chronicle your own efforts. This you have done very well and I do not want to take away from that unless you really are soliciting for some objective perspectives that may or may not be of some benefit to the process of growing in spiritual / scriptural insight. The perspective I have already revealed. It is simply the counsel of scripture to comprehend the manner of those to whom scripture was written and use their methods to understand meaning and process. The end result is that your steps 1-3 could be avoided or certainly mitigated and you could have reached what is in a way only the beginning point of actually understanding scripture much sooner and with a greater sense of fulfillment. I have been lurking here for a couple of months and may not have a feel for this forums unspoken rules. I do not generally participate but your post has struck a chord of significance. I don’t want to be intrusive but hope for some in depth thought provoking dialogue.

      • joespencer said

        You’re not being intrusive at all, JBL. Let me see what I can in response, and I’ll warn you that I’ll be a bit blunt….

        I’ve spent a fair bit of time with the texts in 2 Nephi 25 that you mention in your first comment. And you’ve affirmed their importance. But I’m not sure you’ve yet said anything about them I (and others?) can use. Regardless of the way Jews read scripture, what does Nephi mean when he talks about “the things of the Jews”? That’s the question that, it seems to me, needs to be answered first in tackling that passage. So, a few comments: (1) I’m anything but convinced that Nephi is telling us how to read scripture in general, since he refers specifically to “the prophets.” I think that is important. I’m a bit nervous about taking Nephi to be giving us a general hermeneutical key, because it seems to me that he’s trying to say something about how to read the prophets specifically, and by that he seems to mean the prophets he had in the brass plates, few of whom we seem to have (Isaiah being the only sure one). (2) The phrase “the things of the Jews” is wildly indeterminate. Is Nephi referring to Jewish history? Jewish apocalypticism? Jewish interpretive strategies? Jewish scholasticism? Jewish syncretism? Or what? A leap from “the things of the Jews” to relatively esoteric systematic interpretive strategies laid out by relatively recent subgroups of Judaism seems like an odd move to me. (3) It is necessary to ask exactly what Nephi means by “the Jews.” Is it clear at all that he’s referring the same thing we understand by “the Jews”? That isn’t clear to me. He hails from a Jerusalem and associated people we almost can’t retrieve because of how much changed in the course of the Exile. And in order to have that clear a historical sense of what Nephi means by “the Jews,” we need to know what he said in his original Hebrew and/or Egyptian, how Joseph Smith played a role in the translation (is this what Joseph meant by “the Jews,” or did he faithfully reproduce an original here?), and so on. (4) Finally, and this is the most important one for me, it is crucial to set that single verse in its much larger context. 2 Nephi 25 is more than a single verse, and Nephi has a great deal more to say there about what he’s saying. It seems clear to me from the larger context that verse 5 is not a single clue about reading scripture, but a statement that Nephi goes on to leave to one side as he provides us with a rather different key to the interpretation of the prophets—of Isaiah specifically. I have a hard time seeing how what you’ve given us is not a kind of prooftext.

        But let me set interpretive differences aside and look just at how what you’ve said maps onto the fourfold development I’ve traced. Do most “average” members of the Church read the scripture in such a way that they could even see that “it is simply the counsel of scripture to comprehend the manner of those to whom scripture was written,” etc.? It seems to me that anyone beginning in devotional reading—and I’m convinced we all begin there quite naturally—would be entirely oblivious to the very possibility that scripture tells them how to read scripture. Even to raise that possibility, one would have already to have moved beyond devotional reading to another stage. Second, it seems to me that the prooftexting sort of way your recommendations understand 2 Nephi 25 suggest that it had its origins, very clearly, in doctrinal study (the reference to Elder McConkie make this all the clearer, I think!), and so I find it difficult not to assume that your discoveries here came after you had already transitioned from what I call the first to what I call the second stage. Third, the idea that one has to study the history of Jewish scriptural interpretation in order to make good sense of the text, etc., seems to me to be a perfect embodiment of what I’m calling the third stage, such that it seems to me that all you’re advocating, really, is historical research. Or, rather, if you’re advocating something like what I’m calling stage four, you’re suggesting that one can come to it by doing serious historical research first, somewhere in the midst of which one will see how to do theological interpretation. In sum, then, it doesn’t seem to me that you’ve leaped over the three stages so much as reproduced the progression I’m laying out: (1) one grows up with devotional reading, but at some point begins to do doctrinal study; (2) in doctrinal study, one prooftextingly interprets 2 Nephi 25 to suggest that one should be doing serious historical research; (3) in historical research one discovers that scripture has been read in a theologically interpretive way, and one decides to follow suit.

        All this is what I mean when I say that your approach is at a distance from what I’m talking about. Either it reproduces what I’m saying while suggesting that there is another way to approach all this, or it only recommends a Jewish set of sources as spelling out the basics of theological interpretation. And all that one the grounds of an interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:5 that leaves me a bit (well, actually: a lot) concerned.

        I hope it’s clearer where I’m coming from?

    • Robert C. said

      To keep intruding on this discussion, I noticed (b/c of a book review at BCC) that N. T. Wright criticizes the fourfold schema of interpretation of early Christianity, which I think has very close affinities (historically and conceptually) to the Jewish fourfold, in his book Scripture and the Authority of God. The Christian fourfold is literal, allegorical, analogical, and moral, and Wright’s discussion can be found by searching the Amazon online version of the book for “four senses.”

      Now, I know Joe is at least somewhat familiar with this history, and very familiar with the philosophical issues at stake. I mention the discussion in the book, however, b/c: (1) I think the book might be a very good introduction to scriptural hermeneutics for Mormons; (2) Wright is a very engaging, bright, and accessible author who is therefore a useful author to engage with; (3) I’d be very curious to learn more about Wright’s approach (his last 3 chapters of the book look like they might be effectively a critique of the early Christian and Enlightenment approaches to scripture) and see how it squares with what Joe is suggesting; (4) Wright’s historical approach might thus give Joe a very nice way to effectively bridge the distance between Nephi’s Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of Jewish mysticism, and various versions of what I’ll light-heartedly call the Athens of apostate Christianity (light-hearted esp. b/c I think this is the tradition that all modern Mormons inherit and thus start from. Basically, I’m hoping Joe (or JBL, or someone else!) will continue with these fascinating ideas and write a good paper on Mormon scriptural hermeneutics for BYU Studies, or something….

      • JBL said

        Joe, I am reponding in Robert’s message as there does not seem to be a reply link to fourth level communications. Educate me if there is a better way. As well I welcome Roberts insight and commentary. We may get to the PRDS level discussion he seeks but we have to work our way through the shallows before we can tread the deep waters…

        Joe ended with:

        You’re not being intrusive at all, JBL. Let me see what I can in response, and I’ll warn you that I’ll be a bit blunt….

        JBL response: Excellent! The challenge for the moment is whether to simply stay with your original text and get to the point of what I see there or to address the questions you have responded with here. Candor is a must and I heartily sustain your intentions.

        At this point, I will acknowledge that we will have to work through some very early principles before we can even get to in-depth consideration of the manner of the learning of the Jews. As I was looking over your original post, a pattern, which I sensed earlier, clarified and actually became a significant element of concern. I used the front part of this Packer quote earlier but only generally and without the second part of the statement…I didn’t realize then how absolutely perfect the second part was for where we need to go:

        Perhaps too many of us are strong advocates of our own specialized work or are such strong protectors of our own turf that we face the wrong way — maybe just sideways. Simplification and reduction must come. Simplification and reduction will come! If we cannot do it on our own — and we seem to be in that circumstance — the future will see us doing, in anxious haste, that which we might have done with deliberate care had we followed the vision which has been given to us.

        I mentioned earlier that to genuinely understand using the concepts of Judaism there has to be a genuine shift in the manner in which we think. The essence of my point is that our current western methodology as indoctrinated into us by our educational system is predicated upon gentile patterns of evaluations. One of the challenges we will have is distinguishing the nuances of emphasis when two concepts appear to be similar at the surface level but upon careful consideration it is a point of emphasis of a principle contained in each that defines why one is superior to the other.

        As an example, your document relies mostly on a process of hierarchal evaluation. One step progressing to the next and the next being generally stated in terms that define its position above or below the other with a general tone of the comparison designed to communicate that focal essence of superiority.

        This is a gentile / westernized mentality sustained by academic expectations that unconsciously permeates all levels of what we do. In its way, it is 2 dimensional and is inadequate and damns the process of truly grasping scriptural implications and the things of God. One has to move to a multidimensional perspective that genuinely sees more than higher and lower but also grasps side to side, front and back. Again, sometimes we do a bit of this and so there is a tendency to claim greater competency than will sustain genuine benefit.

        PRDS does not emphasize this hierarchal standard. The very earliest level is revered and respected as the foundation of all future understanding and indeed all further understanding must protect the integrity of the early foundation. This is what line upon line precept upon precept actually mandates. Yours casts off the earliest level as inferior. You do make some passing reference to: “I don’t mean to suggest either that earlier stages are necessarily “worse” in some sense than later stages” but objectively speaking the tone clearly reflects that your levels follow an ascending principle. Again now we are on points of emphasis being very significant beyond just the phraseology that might excuse considering the points of emphasis.

        All that said, I think the approach for now will be to get to the fundamental challenge with the course of growth that you outline in your document. We can’t get to the Jewish mentality until we expose the gentile mentality that circumscribes your personal efforts and as you so ably point out so many efforts of others that follow a similar pattern. When we get to the Jewish material please feel free to resubmit any of your material from your today’s response if I forget to keep track of it all. We simply cannot get there until we go through the foundational issues. However, I am going to try to do so along the lines that President Packer mandates – through simplification. The question then is why do we see your pattern as the common pattern? And are there four divisions or only two?

        Please bear with me but I am going to go for simplification in the form of a parable.

        There once was a man who smoked, was about 40 pounds overweight and had a busy work schedule. He knows there has to be a better way and so to get himself into shape he sets a goal to run a four minute mile. He starts his training. Naturally, he sees some improvements after he gets over the ups and downs of making the adjustments to his exercise efforts but eventually after some while of ignoring the obvious he says to himself, “You know this smoking is killing me”. I’m never going to hit a four minute mile until I get rid of this problem. He stops running because the Chantix the doctor prescribes makes him tired and sick but finally he overcomes the smoking problem.

        He starts again training for the four minute mile. He’s energized from his recent success and he returns to his original schedule and starts running. As before he sees improvements and exceeds his former successes but he realizes that on top of his original 40 pounds of access weight he picked up 10 more when he quit smoking. With his new output up but his energy levels not, he finds he’s eating all of the time and sometimes not in a very healthy way and he is really not making as much headway as he had hoped and he realizes, “You know this extra weight is killing me”. I’m never going to hit a four minute mile if I don’t get rid of this problem. So he joins Weight Watchers, and they teach him moderation and proper balance but with the weigh ins and measuring of food portions and cooking his own meals he finds that it has cut into his running time and so he cuts back to get his weight under control but finally he overcomes the weight problem.

        He starts again training for the four minute mile. Smoking is behind him and now he’s reached an acceptable weight. Just like before he draws closer to his goal having benefited from the changes he’s made but he can’t seem to break a six minute barrier and it is painfully obvious that he is not as close to the four minute mile as he thought he was going to get based on the changes he had made. In fact he has been at this plateau for some time. Once again he evaluates what is between him and his goal. While he is considering, he seems to dip in his efforts; he’s not running as hard or as long and it just isn’t compelling him into his work out like it used to. Finally, he admits that what has been painfully obvious the whole time must be remedied if he ever hopes to run a 4 minute mile. His work schedule only permits him to run on Monday and Wednesday and Friday evenings. That just won’t do.

        He refocuses again and rearranges his schedule and starts running everyday in the early morning and truly begins to pay the price demanded of a four minute miler. His times are dropping and he is seeing remarkable gains and improvements – he feels strongly that finally after his previous 3 false starts he is actually well on his way to his goal. (But is he?)

        1, 2, 3, 4 – each a comparison to your four levels. However, the first three can each be subsumed into one simple category – overcoming the natural man. It is not until the final level that there is even a hope of reaching a four minute mile. In a way, I wonder if you don’t already sense this when you state, “With the exception of the final transition to theological interpretation—which I do want to privilege as being preferred to the other three stages;” I think the parable illustrates what you may be sensing.While the 4 minute mile man (4MMM) has made major changes in each of his phases, and that provides a false sense of delineation, he has yet failed to enter the gate that backs up his aspirations with the commitment necessary to achieve them. In essence he contemplates a partial repentance for weak commitment as he moves towards his goal. It is this one simple point that defines the length, and the nature of the ebbs and flows of the process that one goes through in coming to the level of true understandings – the theologian (for the time being)if you will. Now please before you try to point out all of the simplistic failings of my parable please first try to see it for the point it makes.

        The 4MMM wasn’t even really ready to start until number four. The first three are simply 3 levels of the same conditions. The aspiring students of scripture who partake along the same venue of thinking will treat your four levels like a daily theological horoscope and find some aspect that describes themselves and triumphantly declare “this is so right on”. You are making comparisons in a carnal sphere of lessoning degrees of carnal behaviors until maybe you have crossed over and perceive that the theologian sphere is a new sphere. And it is no surprise that far too many people can identify with that. Still, you may be as I suspect at a point somewhere distant from having “ the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages REVEALED unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of. (JST History 1:24-25)

        We had to get to this point before we could move into the Jewish things because no process Jewish or Gentile / Intellectual succeeds until the proper starting conditions are met. It simply cannot. Nonetheless, an intellectual approach will tolerate an awful lot of slack in non related areas and gives the semblance and feelings of satisfaction of moving forward. However, spiritual matters have an order to them before the fullness of achievement can be realized. I’m going to provide two quotes that illustrate the principle.

        “Receiving the Holy Ghost is the baptism by fire which truly begins the process of becoming like Jesus.” (Bruce C. Hafen, BYUI, Feb 2008)

        “All members of the Church are enjoined at their confirmation to “receive the Holy Ghost.” Those who receive Him become Saints; those who do not are halted in their progression toward the kingdom of God. “We have a great many members of this Church who have never received a manifestation through the Holy Ghost. Why? Because they have not made their lives conform to the truth.” (Joseph Fielding smith, “we Are Here to Be Tried, Tested, proved,” BYU Speeches, October 1961, as quoted in “Doctrines of the Gospel” student manual, p44)

        Can you pause for just a minute and consider what Joseph Fielding Smith is positing. By inference there are a lot of people spinning in circles thinking they are advancing when really they haven’t even entered the gate, “which truly begins the process of becoming like Jesus.”

        This is what I am positing concerning your process. What you are describing is what Alvin R. Dyer ( The Meaning of Truth- Caution to Those of Gentile Lineage.) explains is the gentile mentality that grouped us in the preexistence and subsequently in this life. Paraphrased for now, as I do not have it with me, he characterizes the Gentile mentality as one that can’t quite devote whole heartedly to correct principles – we like to pick and choose and self determine what path and how we will follow. You are only discussing phase one – overcoming the natural man and maybe just the very beginnings of phase two – maybe still the latter end of phase one.

        I realize the scope of your thoughts is simply the process that has appeared to be the case for you. I am boldly positing that you may not be properly critiquing the process of your own path. That is evidenced in your response to Mike B’s question of “Do you think one must progress in the order you outlined here?” Your response was, “I’m inclined to say yes, but I don’t know that it has to be exactly that way. This traces the trajectory of my own pathway, but I suspect there are good reasons to think it is relatively universal. I have no evidence in the meanwhile though.”

        I agree that what you have written can be a common process but I strongly feel it is not the result of proper application of gospel processes and it should not be the standard that anyone seeks to pattern their own growth by. Preferred is a process such as produces these types of results:

        Joseph Smith History 1:73-74

        73 Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.

        74 Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of. In the meantime we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.

        Consider that this represents the state of becoming a theologian, as it does for Nephi, Amulek, Alma Joseph, Oliver, Brigham and a host of others in scripture. They get to this point exclusively upon the foundational conditions of having been pronounced clean and receiving the Holy Ghost. (Something that is not near as prevalent as we might like to think) However, your statement on the Theological Interpretation level achieves enlightenment “only with or on the heels of the most intense interpretive work.” Perhaps you can marry these differing perspectives up but I am unable to do so.

        My question is whether we should examine a different pathway (PRDS) was based on a condition of having been converted and already committed to the foundational principles of never, ever missing our scripture study; a condition of never ever skipping your prayers etc. In short a condition that manifests the basics of having been converted, not a condition of becoming converted. It is contingent before we examine PRDS that we accept it is the effort of the spiritually converted that makes it work and that it is of limited benefit to the intellectually converted. I feel we first have to get beyond this point and we can see if the next level of discussion will be profitable to us both. As well, if we have to have the proof text discussion because it is your perception that you can circumscribe all of this into that venue then let me know with your specific observations and we will see if we can beat down that wall. It is somewhat apparent that you face in the direction of academic requisites and measure spiritual matters by how they conform to the rigors of intellectual evaluation. I do not think that spiritual matters can ever be bound by such a standard and invite free and open exchange of spiritual significance. IF so we may have to come to some sort of understanding – we’ll see. Still we cannot get to an examination of other methods until we realize that they have intrinsic in them expectations that your process admits have not been met. We’ll cover that next if you are willing.

  9. NathanG said

    You like to end your posts here with something like “Or so it seems to me.” I think the very acknowledgment that you are providing A way to look at a passage instead of THE only true and living way to interpret a passage goes a long way in your communication. I assume you do something similar in person. Curious, though to hear any other thoughts you have on it.

  10. Robert C. said

    Nathan, I think a good approach is to always try and tie insights back to scripture. If I can’t, then I am more inclined to consider my insight as merely personal. If I can, but there are various ways of interpreting the scripture, then I ask who I’m talking to for their interpretation. This sharing of interpretations seems to me to be exactly what we are supposed to be doing as a canon-based community. Oftentimes, the person I’m talking with won’t agree, but will be inspired to scripturally defend their own position. I love it when that happens, since both of us then have a chance to learn something and to be edified (not that this always happens, but I think the possibility is always there, esp. when we are willing to give over our own pet beliefs to the authority of God’s word…).

  11. kirkcaudle said

    Trying to find some time to read/think about this post. I would post some thoughts (as well as read the others) when I do.

  12. Mike B said

    Almost thou persuadest me to be a theologian.

  13. girlie10 said

    Thanks for the clarification! If I could twist your arm somehow, I would really like you to write a lengthy piece about Sabbath Day observance dedicated to celebrating grace and what it looks like from a Theological Interpreter’s point of view. I know of at least one other person who is similarly hopeful that I could twist your arm successfully…

    • girlie10 said

      “girl10″ I’m not sure where that name comes from, but the post is from Roberta. haha

      • joespencer said


        I’d like to do that, but it will be a week or two before I could get to work on it. I’m in the middle of writing up the fireside I just gave on anxiety, and that will occupy me for a while yet. But then I could do something on the sabbath….

  14. Mike B said

    Do you think one must progress in the order you outline here?

    • joespencer said


      I’m inclined to say yes, but I don’t know that it has to be exactly that way. This traces the trajectory of my own pathway, but I suspect there are good reasons to think it is relatively universal. I have no evidence in the meanwhile, though.

  15. Roberta said


    Just one more question: it seems the Historical Researcher stage is “other” service oriented only in that she sets herself up as the authority among others, or as the one “who knows,” which, as you point out, isn’t charity at all, but is pride and ultimately self-service. I guess I’m trying to define “other” oriented service as that service that builds the Kingdom and not an individual. Is this how you would define it?

    • joespencer said

      I think I’m fine with that, but I’m a bit nervous about how easy it is for the term to be trapped in historical research. And that’s especially concerning for me because other-orientation can only be found by losing it….

  16. joespencer said

    Nathan, I’m finally getting back to your question (apologies!).

    First, you’re right that part of what I think I’ve figured out is that hedging ever so slightly does a lot for Latter-day Saints. When I raise my hand to make a comment in Sunday School or priesthood, I tend to begin with “I wonder whether…” or “Is it possible that…?” Mormons are quite open to other possibilities if they’re raised as possibilities.

    Second, I think I’ve figured out along the way that a brief acknowledgement of what everyone already believes or is “supposed to believe” does a lot as well. “So, Elder Nelson said in the last General Conference that this passages mean such and such, but I think the words can be read in another way as well”; “I know we as Latter-day Saints often say that things work in such and such a way, but I have a hard time seeing how to square that with this text”; “There is unquestionably something brilliant about Elder McConkie’s approach to such and such, but there may be other, equally important ways to make sense of it.” For some reason, if Latter-day Saints know you know what you’re supposed to say (and so that you’re not simply ignorant or deluded), then they’re willing to listen to other possibilities as well. I haven’t any idea why that works, but my experience is that it does.

    Third, I’ve found that it’s helpful to find general authorities and other similarly trusted sources who can back you up, but they do have to be used with caution and always in the right way. Sometimes it’s best to begin with them: “Looking at this passage and thinking of Elder Holland’s talk from last General Conference, I’m struck by the possibility of reading this passage in such and such a way.” More often, though, I find that it’s best to come to such sources: “[After expositing grace for a while, and in direct opposition to what most Latter-day Saints think they are supposed to believe:] This, I think, is what the Bible Dictionary is getting at when it refers to grace as an ‘enabling power’: grace is what comes before, unearned, and sets our works in motion, not what comes after and in response to what we do”; “[After making an impassioned plea for consecration as it ought to be taught:] This is something Brigham Young taught over and over and over again in his sermons, and it’s hard not to hear the same idea in the carefully phrased words of the endowment.” I guess the difference between these two approaches is that in some cases it is necessary to disarm the “audience” from the beginning so that they can brook the possibility of other approaches at all, while in other cases it is best to let the “audience” worry for a while that you’re not considering all the sources and then let them know (with a bit of a shock) that you’re actually considered more sources than they are.

    Fourth, and perhaps a bit more generally, I find that it is necessary to build trust carefully. My wife and I have been in a large handful of different wards over the past years, and I’ve learned that there is a way to ease yourself into a ward. At first, it is best only to make comments that build up a lesson and give others to feel that you’re there only to help. As trust grows, you learn that you can say a bit more and speak a bit more freely. Then opportunities arise to teach or to give talks, and you find that you can develop an idea at length with the trust you’ve earned. And then with trust more or less solidified, you find that you can even call what’s being taught sharply into question and folks listen, though even then it’s necessary to be very careful with how you say what you say.

    At any rate, this is what has occurred to me over the past couple of days as I’ve been reflecting on it. I find it interesting that I’ve come to do all this without explicitly reflecting on it….

    • Robert C. said

      Joe, I think your point about trust here has deep theological import. Trust is akin to faith, which Alma says grows like a seed (I know the word is a seed, but growth of the seed he says increases faith). Though I often still wonder what “line upon line” really means, I think you’ve captured something of its import in this comment….

  17. joespencer said


    I’m willing but skeptical.

    First, because I think you’ve misunderstood what I’ve laid out in my original post. Everything you say characterizes the spirit of my original post I would also critique, and along the same lines you have critiqued it. I don’t see a hierarchy here, as I try to make clear. Indeed, I specifically criticize those who move from one “stage” to the next by rejecting the previous stage, and I suggest that the only genuinely progressing individual is the one who embraces the goodness and importance of the earlier stage. Similarly, I don’t see the first three stages as the stages one passes through after entering the gate, as you put it, but as, precisely like your parable suggests, three approaches all at the problematic level of preparations. It is only with theological interpretation, I want to say, that one actually begins to encounter scripture. It seems to me that you isolate what you call Gentile ideas, read them into my post, and then criticize my post for having Gentile ideas. I wonder how you might see the original post were you to read it with the presupposition that it isn’t misguided in these ways….

    Second, because you seem to want to turn what I’ve laid out into an academic or intellectual affair. I don’t know how you are using these words, so I can’t definitively that I disagree, but if you’re using the words the way I use the words, then I entirely disagree. The academic approach is located, on my interpretation, at the third stage, the level of historical research, and I’m suggesting precisely that that is only a bit of the prologue to real scripture study. At the same time, I am recognizing—and I think this is crucial—that the best of the work of the historical researcher is something a good reader of scripture will draw on. At any rate, exegesis is, it seems to me, a necessary element (but only an element) of theological interpretation. There are various reasons one might reject it, I recognize, but I’m nervous about every one of those possible motivations….

    Third, because your discussion tends against what I take to be the radical egalitarianism of the gospel. It’s hard not to hear in what you say a self-congratulation much deeper and more dangerous than what I hoped I wasn’t doing in my original post. Whereas what I lay out worries that readers might be offended because they see themselves reflected at a supposedly “lower stage,” what you lay out sounds like you associate yourself with about twenty people in the history of the Church, the rest of the masses being dismissed as the unfaithful and the ignorant. If PRDS is what is obliquely hinted at in 2 Nephi 25:5, how on earth are most people to figure that out? All I’ve already said about that passage in its larger context militates against anyone coming to that conclusion. How are you not suggesting that God has simply chosen you (and perhaps a few others) to be privileged to know some wildly inaccessible secret? Nephi, it seems, is far too plain to leave so crucial a detail to happenstance….

    Fourth, because your interest in PRDS, despite its emphasis on community in reading, betrays a kind of self-focused notion of salvation, one that works against—as I understand it—everything about Mormonism. The mystical has a place in Mormonism (I’ve argued that in print!), but it has a silent place, and I don’t know that the mystical is anything that can be communicated. At any rate, everything you’re saying refuses to communicate anything with any actual content. Is it possible for you to lay out, as I did in the original post, an example of your equivalent of theological interpretation? If not, what is your approach worth? How does PRDS accomplish the work of the kingdom? Or is it something I’m supposed to do just to save myself? In a word, what motivates all you’re saying apart from your conviction that it’s right? For my part, I have a hard time being convinced that there’s much value in rightness or correctness, and much more in faith, hope, and charity—all of which demand that I be much more than correct….

    So, in short, I’m willing to take the discussion farther, but I’m not sure I see it as possible unless some of the above things are fixed. That is, if you insist on reading my post against its own grain, if you insist either on turning what I’m saying into an apology for intellectualism or on rejecting any ultimate importance in exegesis in one form or another, if you insist on an approach that leaves the majority of the Church to wallow in ignorance and infidelity, and/or if you insist that scripture-reading is first and foremost a question of doing-it-right, then I don’t see how a further step can be taken. I don’t know whether you do or would insist on any of these, but I have a hard time seeing, given what you’ve said, how you can avoid any of them.

    • JBL said

      Thank you very much for your time and your patience. I am genuinely grateful having gleaned many valuable points from our exchange.

  18. joespencer said


    I wasn’t aware of this book, and I’m eager to take a look at it. Many thanks.

  19. Greg said

    Maybe there is a new world out there related to looking at the scriptures from a different lens of historical research and theological interpretation that I am missing but I would categorize myself as stuck in your #2, Doctrinal Study of the scriptures lens with no desire to ever leave.

    For me the doctrines of the Gospel are everything. I want to understand each one, better tomorrow than I do today. When I ask questions of the scriptures it is so I can understand their doctrine and so when I get revelation from God it most often about His doctrines (that is the questions I’m asking). When I’m in the temple I’m asking what everything means how it ties to the gospel and the scriptures, the revelation I receive in the temple then is also doctrinal. Seeking to understand the symbolism in the temple has deepened my understanding of the scriptures and visa versa, but expressly in a doctrinal way.

    I have been blessed to be able to understand many of the doctrines of the gospel in very simple ways and as a result have some success in teaching them, seeing people change their lives because a doctrine of the gospel touches their souls is unbelievably fulfilling for me. If I journey out to touch lightly on Hebrew or Greek or search into early church or Jewish history its to try and get at the doctrine from a different perspective to teach it even better and clearer, I’m turning the lens I’m looking through but I think its still the same lens of doctrine.

    I love to study doctrinal subjects. My process of studying the doctrine of the scriptures is somewhat unique to me probably because I’m a finance guy at work. Right now I am working on what is for me the “Holy Grail” of all doctrinal questions: what really is the atonement, how does it transfer my suffering and guilt to Christ, why did blood need to be shed, how exactly does blood pay the price of justice, who is the price being paid to and a hundred other questions tied to that. My process is to go through every passage of scripture about the atonement and put it in a category in an excel spreadsheet (remember finance guy) It is a very long process for many verses talk about parts of the atonement but has also been very illuminating. Many questions remain and new ones surface so I walk on slowly through the scriptures searching to understand the doctrine. The other day reading a chapter I had the distinct impression that there was a doctrinal truth I was missing. I read it three or four more times. I turned to commentaries, I cross referenced every scripture I could find. I did word searches then re-read the chapter once again. Finally the simple and beautiful truth was revealed. I was shocked that it was so simple and that I had missed it for so long. Since it was so simple I knew it was true yet I still had to check it out. I went to the words of the prophets and apostles and found them teaching the doctrine I had found and their teachings reaffirmed and deepened the truth I had learned and have enabled me to teach it clearly and concisely to others to increase their understanding and faith. I love those experiences.

    Maybe for me understanding the doctrine is really about uncovering the “mysteries of my kingdom, [so they will be in me] a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life” D&C 63:23. Again for me the doctrine is it and where I think I want to stay.

    • joespencer said

      Thanks, Greg. It isn’t clear to me whether you’re describing doctrinal study or theological interpretation (and calling it doctrinal study). That said, I don’t mean to disparage any of the approaches to scripture (as I hope I make clear in my post); indeed, I think theological interpretation is something one comes to only if one clings in a way to each of the three other approaches. And at any rate, I entirely agree that you shouldn’t be looking to do something else beside what you’re doing!

  20. BHodges said

    Well I had this post saved on a doc on my desktop this entire time. I blame Joe for this, as he wrote a book instead of a blog post. I often worry that my book reviews are too long for anyone to read. You’re a brave man, Joe!

    Anyway, I thought this was a really interesting post that, in many ways, describes my own transition of reading, and I feel there are also ways I slip back and forth between them still. I need to become a more devoted student of the standard works in general again, though, especially since I have learned new ways to read and new questions to ask of the text, or new ways to find questions the text might be asking of me.

    Also, I’d be interested to read your reaction to the N.T. Wright book which was reviewed in the link above.

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