Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

What is the role of personal revelation in interpreting the scriptures?

Posted by Matthew on March 9, 2007

To understand how to make sense of interpreting the scriptures through personal revelation, consider first what personal revelation means and what role it plays in testifying. When we testify of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or that the Church of Jesus Christ is truly Jesus Christ’s church or, most importantly, that Jesus Christ is our savior, we cite personal revelation.

One reason we call personal revelation personal revelation is to place bounds around it. Revelation is hierarchical. As a parent I can receive revelation for a child, but not for my brother. As a bishop, one can receive revelation for someone in his own ward, but not someone whose bishop he is not, nor can he receive revelation for the stake. (This hierarchy principle in revelation has been established clearly through modern day revelation. Citation anyone?)

But, we cannot place such strong bounds around the applicability of personal revelation to others that personal revelation then means nothing to anyone except the receiver (and those related through some hierarchical relationship). Else, why hear the testimonies of our fellow Saints at all (vs just listening to the Bishop’s and Stake President’s testimony)? Testimony meetings teach us that the personal revelations others receive are, in some sense, for me. (See also Numbers 11:29.) This principle is clear in D&C 46:13-14. Here one person receives revelation that ends up being used by another person (without any “within hierarchy” qualification.)

So now to the question of this post. How do we think about personal revelation in relation to interpreting scripture? Do we believe in personal revelation there? And if so, is it something rare? Or is it more common, like revelation about the truthfulness of the scriptures? Further, if received, is revelation something that can be shared, like we are encouraged to do with our testimonies? Or should it be kept private, or even guarded, as in Alma 12:9? Or are we to share the insights, but not the source?

Help anyone?

(The links above are to the wiki. Here is the link to the scriptures at lds.org.)

35 Responses to “What is the role of personal revelation in interpreting the scriptures?”

  1. Jim F. said

    Isn’t reading / interpreting scripture, at its best, a kind of personal revelation, a kind of testimony? It seems to me that it is or at least ought to be. If so, then I think the description you give of how testimony is to be shared applies equally to scriptural interpretation.

  2. nhilton said

    We could rephrase your question as: “What is the role of the Holy Ghost in interpreting the scriptures?” In so doing, the answer appears to be: EVERYTHING.

    It’s apparent how far wrong we can go w/o the Holy Ghost acting as our personal guide as we pursue religion using scripture by simply looking at all the different “answers.”

    Personal revelation must be defined as revelation from the Holy Ghost, otherwise any self-help book on the shelf could pass for “personal revelation,” as could any church on the block. It is this very Holy Ghost, or the Gift of the Holy Ghost (an important difference) that sets LDS apart. I think the REAL question is how do we access this gift as we seek to interpret the scriptures.

    [As a parent I can receive revelation for a child, but not for my brother.] This statement isn’t exactly true, depending on your definition of “brother.” I just listened to a testimony of a stake patriarch telling of an instance when a dear cousin he hadn’t seen in over 10 years had a dream about him that was “revelation.” She wrote him of this dream and her advice in the letter changed his life in dramatic ways. Clearly this cousin had revelation for her “brother.” Additionally, we are in some sense our “brother’s keeper.” And to know HOW to appropriately interact, teach, direct our brother it requires personal revelation. In this way we require and desire revelation FOR our brother.

    All the questions posed at the end of the post can be answered: YES. Revelation is not a static thing. It is like the wind (John 3:8), strong sometimes and barely a whisper at others, blowing as it will. I think this is why Jesus’ command over the elements, especially wind, is an example (object lesson) in how we should strive for this same control, thru faith in the Savior. If we can reach the place where the Holy Ghost can teach us, as He did Joseph Smith, WHENEVER we endeavor to learn, then we have really gotten somewhere!

  3. Rob Osborn said

    Good post there my friend,

    I personally believe that we are supposed to read and pray about the scriptures for their actual meanings. If we do this in faith God will reveal the truth concerning his doctrine as found in the scriptures. Sometimes the interpretation we receive goes contrary to what is commonly believed from others interpretations. This is where potential hazzards lie because we do not want to argue over personal testimony and revelation and whos right and whos not!

    Lately I have found and interpretated some scripture that I believe is personal revelation but that it seems to go contrary to what the general consensus is on those particular verses. So here I must ask myself if the spirit of revelation within me is true or false. Very hard stuff!

  4. Wonderful post, Matthew.

    It’s got me thinking, and I’ve written and then deleted a response about four times. I’ve got to collect up my thoughts, and then I’ll have something coherent to say.

  5. Robert C. said

    I like how Jim F. (#1) framed this, perhaps b/c I tend to think that all of our (spiritual) relationships should be mediated by God (and hence God’s word). So I’d be inclined to recast Matthew’s question in terms of how this mediation occurs, which leads to questions of Priesthood and hierarchy. Actually, I think hierarchy (and patriarchy) must be considered in this light in order to make these concepts in the church spiritually coherent. (Actually, I think this is very much related to how election of grace occurs, esp. as discussed by Paul and in the D&C. I don’t really have time to articulate my thought very carefully, but I’m basically trying to point out an analogy between the question of why some are called in position of authority over others and the question of why God initially chose Israel but not the Gentiles until later.)

  6. Matthew said

    Dad #1 (and sort of Robert C #5), yes, I agree. A key to revelation is that it does not come from us. But since it doesn’t come from us it, we may not (and often don’t) understand the reasons behind the revelation. In other words, I know the Book of Mormon is true because of revelation. Someone in my position may or may not be able to give a lot of reasons for belief in the Book of Mormon, but ultimately their belief rests not on those reasons, but rather the revelation. In my case, I cannot defend the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon well apart from my personal revelation.

    So let me refine my question, is there personal revelation for interpreting scripture in this way? And if so, how can it/should it be used? In other words, when if ever is it appropriate to say “this is what the scripture means–I can’t explain why it means this, but I know it does because of personal revelation.” You don’t often hear that in Sunday School.

    (Lest anyone get worried… I’m not trying to build up to any fantastic claims about personal revelation I have received. But for me this topic is wrapped up in several other posts–a lot of them. For example, Robf’s reading of violence in the Book of Mormon. Also, our discussion of the JST. I think I could understand the JST better if I better understood what it means to interpret scripture without justifying that. The post on how to preparing for teaching (re: D&C 100:6). Finally, this question is for me, all wrapped up in understanding who the Holy Ghost is and what it means to have him as a constant companion.)

    Thanks for the other comments. I plan on responding more tomorrow.

  7. brianj said

    Matthew, #6: “A key to revelation is that it does not come from us. But since it doesn’t come from us it, we may not (and often don’t) understand the reasons behind the revelation.”

    I have nothing to add, but that is a great thought!

  8. Jim F. said

    Isn’t it possible for “This is what it means to me,” which we often hear, to mean “This is what it means; I can’t explain why it does, but I know it by personal revelation”?

    I wonder whether it makes sense to think of the scriptures like a very sophisticated seer stone. They are a medium for receiving revelation from the Holy Ghost. Yet, because they are a text, they also provide ways for us to compare our revelations and to check them one against another. Given the inherent openness of texts, the scriptures can never be reduced to one possible meaning, leaving room for a variety of interpretations without leaving room for just anything whatsoever. Does that make sense?

  9. Cheryl said

    What of the difficulty of reading scripture with current cultural connotations: i.e., justifying slavery (when it was read to do that), justifying violence (which we’ve talked about elsewhere)? We could come up with a very long list of wrongs done in the name of scripture/in the name of God. I get uncomfortable with some of this discussion for these reasons. I truly do believe that Spirit accompanies scripture, but to me there is danger when adding “personal revelation:” There be dragons.

  10. Cherylem said

    And to clarify, I am both Cheryl and Cherylem. For consistency I’m trying to eliminate the Cheryl posts, but that one (#9) slipped by.

  11. robf said

    Cherylem, there be dragons with or without “personal revelation”. In fact, in reference to the examples you give, I would consider “personal revelation” to be absolutely essential to help us avoid mistaken interpretations based on our cultural conditioning.

    I like Jim’s view of the scriptures as seer stone. Along those lines, anything I’ve shared here or on the wiki can be seen as jus that, my sharing of things I’ve thought or felt while reading the scriptures. They are all open for consideration and alteration if they are not found to be out of harmony with the word and The Word. I may state them confidently and defend them passionately, but if I can be shown that I am wrong, I am willing to alter my views. I’m altering them all the time based on my continuing studies, personal revelations, experiences, and conversations such as those here.

    Several times on the wiki I’ve written things that later didn’t sit right with me. Sometimes I’ve gone back and changed them, other times I’ve let them stand if others have presented better ideas.

    Where I do continue to struggle sometimes is how much to share of my ideas that are based on my own thoughts and feelings. Fefore sharing I try to determine if the ideas square with the scriptures and teachings of the living prophets. I appreciate it when my ideas are considered and even questioned by others, as they give another take on my thoughts. In sharing, I hope I don’t go beyond the bounds of propriety or offend the Spirit. When I do, I hope to quickly repent.

  12. nhilton said

    I prefer to liken the scriptures to the Liahona rather than seer stones because the Liahona had specific WORDS written on them giving Lehi+ direction. It didn’t work unless they were living righteously…there’s more to it that you know & I won’t go into. But I really liked Jim’s seer stone analogy because it FELT so personal, the way I feel about my own set of scriptures.

  13. m&m said

    Or is it more common, like revelation about the truthfulness of the scriptures? Further, if received, is revelation something that can be shared, like we are encouraged to do with our testimonies? Or should it be kept private, or even guarded, as in Alma 12:9? Or are we to share the insights, but not the source?

    I have a few thoughts on this.
    Personal revelation on the scriptures can be common, and it can also be more uncommon – in content. I think only the Spirit can let us know when it’s appropriate to share something we have learned. Sometimes, inspiration and insight can be generally applicable and might be appropriate to share (as directed by the Spirit). On the other hand, I have seen people try to elevate personal revelation into the scriptures to a general level in an inappropriate way. (An example: Someone might read the WoW and feel inspired to make a specific change, like eliminating all white sugar from the diet. They then try to share that as “part of the WoW” or a “higher law” or “better way” to live it. This, I think, is going beyond the realms of what PERSONAL revelation is designed for. We shouldn’t use personal revelation to get ahead of the prophets or to tell others how to live their lives.

    This is part of the reason why I like to look to the prophets as well. If I receive an insight that I feel is inspired, and I find that it has been taught by someone authorized to interpret scripture for the whole church, then I feel much more comfortable sharing. I have had experiences where I have learned something from the scriptures, but have seen that what leaders have taught about those things has been limited, and so I keep what I share limited as well. I feel safe looking to them, given what Alma 12:9 has meant to me. If the leaders have spoken about something, to me that falls under the “portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men.” I tend to think that is a good yardstick for beginning to consider what is appropriate to share and what might not be.

    Part of what I keep in my mind, too, is this from Joseph Smith: “The reason we do not have the secrets of the Lord revealed unto us, is because we do not keep them but reveal them; we do not keep our own secrets, but reveal our difficulties to the world, even to our enemies, then how would we keep the secrets of the Lord? I can keep a secret till Doomsday.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Four 1839–42, p.194)

    And also this from Brigham Young: “Now I want to tell you that which, perhaps, many of you do not know. Should you receive a vision of revelation from the Almighty, one that the Lord gave you concerning yourselves, or this people, but which you are not to reveal on account of your not being the proper person, or because it ought not to be known by the people at present, you should shut it up and seal it as close, and lock it as tight as heaven is to you, and make it as secret as the grave. The Lord has no confidence in those who reveal secrets, for He cannot safely reveal Himself to such persons. It is as much as He can do to get a particle of sense into some of the best and most influential men in the Church, in regard to real confidence in themselves. They cannot keep things within their own bosoms.

    “If a person understands God and godliness, the principles of heaven, the principle of integrity, and the Lord reveals anything to that individual, no matter what, unless He gives permission to disclose it, it is locked up in eternal silence. And when persons have proven to their messengers that their bosoms are like the lock-ups of eternity, then the Lord says, I can reveal anything to them, because they never will disclose it until I tell them to. Take persons of any other character, and they sap the foundation of the confidence they ought to have in themselves and in their God….

    “If we are His friends, we will keep the secrets of the Almighty. We will lock them up, when he reveals them to us, so that no man on earth can have them, and no being from heaven, unless he brings the keys wherewith to get them legally. No person can get the things the Lord has given to men, unless by legal authority; then I have a right to reveal them, but not without. When we can keep our own secrets, when we can keep the secrets of the Almighty strictly, honestly, truly in our own bosoms, the Lord will have confidence in us. Will He before? No.”

    This still doesn’t necessarily always answer the question in my mind about what qualifies as a secret that should not be revealed. I think there is great benefit in sharing some things with each other…what a scripture has come to mean, for example, in an appropriate way. I love hearing other people’s insights as well as “personal application” of scriptures, because the Spirit has often taught me things as people share what is meaningful and applicable for them. But those “pure intelligence” moments? How many of those types of things should we really share? Beyond looking to the prophets, I think only the Spirit can really help us know where to draw the line.

  14. Matthew said

    nhilton #2. Thanks for calling me on the hierarchy statement. You are right that the truth about receiving revelation for another person is not as straightforward as I put it. With some time thinking about how to say it right, I think I could get at least closer. But I’ll leave that topic for another day. (Though I’m interested in reading anyone else who takes a crack at it.)

    Rob Osborn. #3 and Robf (#11). A question that this brings up is, how fallible are personal revelations? I agree that we should look to others and especially our leaders as an indication of whether we are maybe on the wrong path. I also think that ultimately the only real yardstick for the truthfulness of revelation is a question something like “Is the spirit that teaches me this the same spirit that teaches me to do good?” Interestingly, several scriptures indicate that judging in this way is easy. (In the same vein, we are also told that Christ’s yoke is easy, but I’m not sure how to talk about that with someone who feels like they are following Christ and they are barely keeping their heads above water.)

    In terms of the fallibility of personal revelation, there is a game I like to play with all my beliefs. I like playing this especially when something doesn’t sit quite right with me. I say to myself, what would I think if I died and went to live with God and he told me that X wasn’t true and instead Y was true. There are some things that I would think “ok-great.” Other things I would think “wow. that’s surprising.” Other things I would think “boy, I must have really missed the boat somewhere. That was pretty foundational.” And then there are some things (not that many but some really important things) where I can’t really imagine what I would say or think, because even as a thought experiment it seems impossible. For me this game is incredibly liberating. I realize that whatever box I feel trapped in is not nearly as constricting as it seems.

    For me the main reason personal revelation is fallible is that we misinterpret it. The revelation is telling us one thing, but we take that to imply something it doesn’t.

    There are still more comments I want to reply to, but that will have to wait for another time. Thanks all for the comments.

  15. Enjoying this conversation… but I’m still not sure how to articulate my point of view. I’ll keep reading for now.

  16. Matthew said

    Dad (#8). Thanks, that is helpful.

    One reason I wanted to start this post is because I want to think through the relationship between personal revelation and hierarchical revelation (for lack of a better word). In terms of how they are dealt with for discussion they might seem like opposites (i.e. we might think the correct rule is: do not discuss personal revelation; discuss hierarchical revelation applicable to that community). So I wanted to explore to what degree this is natural and correct and to what degree it is appropriate and correct to have community discussion of personal revelation. The idea from my dad in #8 is helpful here because it suggests that already people do discuss personal revelation more than we might suppose in interpretting scripture when they use words like “this is what it means to me.”

    But what do we make of citing personal revelation as way to end discussion? Say someone asks, how should I interpret, or apply such and such a scripture? Or what should I do in such and such a case? And the answer is–“you need to seek personal revelation”–end of discussion.

    Are there subjects which each person needs to interpret for themselves–without the advice or help of others? Think of paying tithing as an example. Each of us at the end of the day must make the final decision about what it means to pay 10% (in contrast some more specific guidelines have been given about what it means to obey the word of wisdom), but does this suggest that we shouldn’t seek advice from others or discuss guidelines as a group?

    Or, another example. Suppose we agree that sometimes it is good to prepare an outline ahead of teaching and other times it is not good and that whether we should do what depends on the individual circumstances and thus personal revelation. Does this end the conversation? Or, is there a place still for discussing general guidelines–which personal revelation might at any time trump?

    As is obvious from my leading questions, I lean toward the idea that an appeal to personal revelation should not be seen as an end to discussion. (I do think, however, that there are some discussions that are inappropriate for some contexts–e.g. if you are the stake president, I get why it is unwise to suggest guidelines for how to pay tithing–people may interpret what you say as binding on those in the stake–they may then skip the important step of taking responsibility for their own decision about how to pay tithing.)

    In short, I think 1 Ne 15 shows the correct relation for interpreting scripture according to personal revelation. 1) we should seek personal revelation (unlike Laman and Lemuel) 2) the fact that we should seek personal revelation doesn’t mean we can’t also discuss the issue (Nephi does discuss the answer to their question) 3) it isn’t inappropriate to share personal revelation with others (as Nephi does)–though, of course, it is inappropriate in some cases.

  17. Ben McGuire said

    I hope this isn’t too long. This is a topic on which I have some fairly strong feelings. I am currently writing an essay titled “Nephi: A Post-Modern Reader” (lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am a post-modernist, and if you disagree with this position, you may well disagree with my comments). And the double entendre in the title is intentional. I read Nephi as a post-modernist, and as I do, I see elements of post-modernism in his thought.

    One of the better examples occurs during the narrative discussing the vision of the Tree of Life shared by Lehi and Nephi. Lehi has a visison. Nephi wants to know about the vision, and so he asks God to receive the vision. And he does receive it. Nephi’s brothers ask Nephi what the vision meant. Nephi asks them why they didn’t ask God, and they tell him that God doesn’t reveal things to them. So Nephi explains the vision to them. But then we learn something very profound (in my opinion). Nephi’s vision is different from his father’s. Not because the content is different, but because the vision is experiential, and Nephi and Lehi, being two different people, experience the vision differently. As Nephi says to his brothers:

    “And I said unto them that the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water. (1 Nephi 15:27”

    Presumably (although Nephi doesn’t explore this at all), Nephi missed things that his father noted as his mind was “swallowed up” by the things he was paying attention to (the filthy river, for example). In any case, I gather two major ideas from this narrative. The first is that revelation at times is experiential. That is, we can get accounts of it, the oracle can tell us of the revelation. But an appeal to the oracle isn’t a suitable replacement for experiencing the revelation ourselves. So, every four years we hit this chapter in Sunday School, and there is a sense of irony in the manual, which provides some commentary on the text, which can then be discussed in class – the commentary is an interpretation, and it interprets an interpretation (the translation of the Gold Plates into English) which is an interpretation (Nephi’s much later recollections of the events he experienced) which is an interpretation (Nephi’s actual experience of the revelation). Actually I could put a few more layers in if I wanted to. But, the point is simple – we are being Lamans and Lemuels. We are asking for interpretation when we should be asking for revelation.

    The original blog talked about hierarchies of value in terms of revelation. A better way (in my opinion) is to talk abotu hierarchies of intended audiences. Revelation which is intended for an audience of one (the person receiving it) can be far more specific and meaningful, than can a revelation aimed at an audience of twelve, or seventy, or millions, or the entire earth. Once we get away from personal revelation, and we get revelation geared toward everyone, the oracle (i.e. the prophet) no longer has any special access to its meaning (except as the one receiving it – if he has to convert it to language, then he has already provided an interpretation for us – which isn’t necessarily the case when we get a statement like “Thus sayeth God: ….”. He is a member of the audience just like the rest of us. He can go and ask God for personal revelation as to its meaning, and as to God’s intention by that revelation, but for all practical purposes, until he does that, his reading is no more special or significant than the rest of ours.

    And once he does receive personal revelation as to the meaning of a scriptural text or a more general revelation, it is just that – a personal experience – and doesn’t carry with it the same meaning to anyone else. Yes, he can, like Nephi, explain it to the Lamans and Lemuels, but this is not a real replacement for their experiencing it themselves.

    Nephi constantly suggests (particularly when talking about the Old Testament from his Brass Plates) that they liken the scriptures unto themselves (exactly what I do when I read Nephi as a postmodernist).

    Finally, every act of reading is interpretation. And we place the values of different readings, of different interpretations in a hierarchy of values. But we have to distinguish carefully between God as author and the prophets as authors. The Book of Mormon (unlike most of our canon) continuously depricates itself as flawed and error prone. I think most scripture is the same way. If what we are interested in is God’s intention, then the scriptures serve more as catalysts than as an actual vehicle for the intention of God. That intent can only be received through a personal encounter with the divine. And like Nephi and Lehi, we should not be surprised when our encounter leaves us with meaning that is different from others (even from General Authorities of the church). And in terms of a hierarchy of values, while we may rate GA interpretations very high, the apex must be the revelation which we receive for ourselves directly from deity such that we are exactly the audience which God intends to speak to.

    To answer the question – if we are interested in talking about what the scriptures say, then personal revelation has no real value. Scholarship, knowledge of the language, competency in reading the text, will all tell us what it says. If we want to know what it means, what God (or its original writers) intended by it, then personal revelation is our only real avenue. We might ask the oracle (as do Laman and Lemuel) and hold a place of value on our hierachy which places these readings and these interpretations very high up, but they should never be set at the top, which ought to be reserved for personal revelation.

  18. robf said

    Ben, amen. I like this a lot. As others have pointed out, the First Vision shows us this as well–only the revelation from heaven was sufficient to answer Joseph’s questions. So perhaps we have a hierarchy of something like:

    –Direct revelation of/from God
    –Ordinances leading to revelations (“the temple”)
    –Scriptural accounts of revelations (“The Word”)
    –Other scritpures (“scriptural stories”)
    –Prophetic interpretations of revelations (“new scripture”)
    –Prophetic interpretations of scriptures (“conference talks”)
    –Other interpretations or teachings about revelations or scriptures (“Deseret Book”)
    –Interpretations of prophetic interpretations (“the manual”)

    Each level points to those above it–and should ultimately lead to direct knowledge of/from God.

  19. Robert C. said

    Ben #17: I like these thoughts and generally agree. But it makes me wondering what role community and Church should play in this process. It seems what you are describing involves only individuals and God. Why are we commanded to meet together oft? What role do (or should) church and family play in this process of coming to know God for ourselves?

  20. Joe Spencer said

    Ben, as one with strong post-modern leanings, I am quite sympathetic to your point of view here. But also, as one with strong post-modern leanings, I wonder if it doesn’t stress too strongly the distinction between self and community. In other words, I’m not sure what it means to say that God would intend a revelatory experience only to come to one person… or at least after the revelation of the Trinity in God (I’m using very traditionalist language when I say that, but I should hope I’m understood). In other words, if the Godhead is a community, and God reveals Himself to/in me (the whole mirror reflecting God thing in 2 Cor 3, or the whole image in our countenance thing in Alma 5), must I not receive such revelation as a transcended self, that is, in community? I think the typological thrust of much of what Paul is saying (through which I interpret similar statements in the Book of Mormon), that we must become, through/in the Son, sons of the Father, sealed up to Him by the Spirit (hence, involved in the play of the Trinity… again the traditionalist language), suggests that we can only “receive” revelation (personal or otherwise) in community. (Cf. Mosiah 18, where Helam is baptized with an interesting exchange of terms: “I baptize thee as a witness that ye have entered into a covenant.” The self is transcended in the typological/revelatory event of baptism.)

    Does all of that make sense? In short, I think you are onto something here, but I wonder if speaking of the “intention” of God too easily collapses the Godhead into a kind of metaphysical singularity, something that has a single, self-oriented will. I’m not sure how to make sense of that in terms of the communal God of the Book of Mormon, etc.

    That said, I would love to read your paper on Nephi. I’m currently working on a book on the Book of Mormon, and I’m presently working through a chapter on Nephi specifically. It is, unfortunately, hard to find really helpful and especially thoughtful resources on the Book of Mormon… so I’d like to read yours, because it sounds like it will be more carefully thought through than much of what’s out there. Anyway….

    So I finally stepped into this discussion, but I haven’t really got my thoughts out yet.

  21. m&m said

    As others have pointed out, the First Vision shows us this as well–only the revelation from heaven was sufficient to answer Joseph’s questions.

    Hmmmm….I’m not sure I agree with this hook, line and sinker, as Joseph was approaching God during a time of apostasy, when there was no authority and no authoritative source for revelation. I would tend to put the role of prophets higher in the hierarchy of revelation for that reason.

    I also believe that several prophets have put modern revelation via prophets ahead of canonized scripture. This is something I want to mull over a bit more.

  22. robf said

    m&m, maybe my hierarchy doesn’t fully work. But I was thinking that even if a prophet has a revelation–perhaps that revelation is only valid for you when you get a personal revelation confirming it. Until then, you only have a report of a revelation, that is pointing you towards getting a (confirmatory) revelation for yourself. Maybe its just semantic, but I’m open to thinking about this more myself.

  23. m&m said

    Rob, I may be taking this beyond what you are thinking, but I’m going to share some of my concerns with this line of thinking about personal revelation and where it falls into the spectrum of things…not necessarily in response to you directly, but with the issue in general…something I have been thinking about for some time. I am still mulling over it all, and am open to any thoughts. This is a sort of sorting it out out loud, if you will.

    This is a tough question to grapple with, because personal revelation has a key role in our doctrine. But to say that prophetic revelation is only “valid” if you get a confirmation is something I’m not sure about. What does “valid” mean? Does that mean we aren’t held responsible for revelation we don’t get a confirmation for? That seems potentially problematic. Why wouldn’t one receive a confirmation? In rare situations, one might be an exception, or a prophet could be wrong (I don’t know that I have heard any counsel in my lifetime that has been consistent and clear that I have felt to be wrong, so I’m very hesitant to even consider this as an option because I think it’s all too easy to not like prophetic counsel and say, “Well, he could be wrong.”) Consider some of the more likely reasons, though, that a confirmation may not be received:

    – We don’t really ask for it
    – If we ask, we don’t ask “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ.”
    – We are “blinded by the craftiness of men” or by our own blinders of pride, fear, lack of faith, etc.
    – We think we aren’t getting an answer because we don’t want to get an answer. (Real intent, again, perhaps.)
    – We haven’t tested their words in faith by following first and seeking a confirmation after action has been taken. (“If any man will DO his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God….” John 7:17)

    I also always have this in the back of my head (this whole talk is one of my all-time favorites)

    “Every time in my life when I have chosen to delay following inspired counsel or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harm’s way. Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer [there is that recognition that personal revelation is important], and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety. Along the path, I have found that the way had been prepared for me and the rough places made smooth. God led me to safety along a path which was prepared with loving care, sometimes prepared long before….

    “The Lord added a warning that is applicable to any who follow a living prophet: “Exalt not yourselves; rebel not against my servant Joseph; for verily I say unto you, I am with him, and my hand shall be over him; and the keys which I have given unto him, and also to youward, shall not be taken from him till I come” (D&C 112:15).

    Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel, but hold it close. [But there is the flip side and the recognition that sometimes we won’t necessarily receive confirmation right off the bat, and that doesn’t mean the counsel isn’t valid.] If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear and I have been grateful.
    Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 24

    This has absolutely been my experience. Elder Eyring also talks about the law of witnesses as being an indicator when prophetic counsel really is from God. I guess I’m not sure that Elder Eyring would necessarily say, then, that counsel isn’t valid simply because we haven’t yet received confirmation. Maybe it’s a test of faith, where action in faith will bring a confirmation in time, rather than invalidity of the counsel that causes us to reject that which could bring the confirmation we seek.

    It’s not that I don’t think exceptions can’t happen, because I know they can. But I sometimes fear giving too much space for “personal revelation” when I think more often than we want to admit, it’s not actually revelation that keeps the prophet’s counsel from being valid to us, but succumbing to deception of sorts. But, I suppose this whole struggle is part of the journey of agency, isn’t it? :) …Finding out by our own experience what’s good and right and what’s not.

  24. robf said

    m&m, I don’t disagree with anything that you said here. I didn’t mean my hierarchy to be so rigid, and I think we are probably much closer in our thoughts than at least my clumsy words have expressed. I have had spiritual manifestations that I still don’t fully understand twenty years later, and have followed the counsel of leaders (and been blessed) even when I felt they were misguided. All of these sources of experience and truth are in constant interplay–I think part of the role of the Spirit is to make the connections between them moment by moment as we try to work things out in relationship to God and each other. Thanks for the extra thoughts.

  25. Ben McGuire said

    Robert C #19 –

    A couple of thoughts – first, community (and Church – which is also a community) have already played a role in shaping us: our experiences, our language, even our politics, our economics, and so on. In terms of interpreting scripture, part of what we need to do is be aware of how these things affect our interpretations and our ability to interpret.

    I think that we are commanded to meet together often, to work towards salvation as a community, because (among other things) as a community we we define the basis for what is rational and reasonable, and even moral. Within a community of believers, a belief in God, a recognition of God speaking to us, and morality as a basis for judgement is not only normal, but rational. There isn’t a need to constantly justify that belief or question it. So, we bear each others burdens, we enlighten one another, and those whom God does speak to can interpret for those to whom God does not speak (yet). And so on.

    I am not sure that the community or church should play a role in the process of coming to know God for ourselves beyond providing us with examples and a history of specific epistemological claims. That is, what kind of knowledge and encounter we should look for. I don’t think that we can vicariously encounter God through either community or Church (even if we think we can).

  26. Ben McGuire said

    Joe Spencer #20 (Long)

    Let me respond a little bit by using something from speech act theory. When a speech act occurs, there are a series of roles in its production. These can be generated by one or more individuals. In revelatory acts, we tend to see these more clearly than in most speech acts (although there are great corollaries which can be examined too in non-religious settings). Erving Goffman described three major roles in the production of a speech act (which are useful to me in this regard): 1) Animator – the individual who actually speaks, or who holds the pen, 2) Author – the person who selects what is expressed and chooses the words to express them, and 3) the Principal – the person whose beliefs have been shared, the person on whose authority declarations have been made, and so on. Usually, these roles are all the same. Sometimes they are different. In some instances, in fact, we may have all three roles being played by a single person. In some cases, this is implied to be God (think of the Ten Commandments being written on stone tablets by God himself) or in personal communication with the divine. In other cases, the author and the principal are God (when God supplies the exact language which the prophet/oracle – the animator – uses). In other cases, we might have the prophet being the animator and the author (suggested in Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life), while the principal remains God. Each of these situations is different.

    A quick note here. If God is a community (the godhead) yet we still speak of them as being of one mind and one will, and so whether or not I accurately reflect the nature of community by discussing a singular God, yet I think that our understanding of God reflects a singular principal. And I am not intending to dismiss what you said here (more below).

    For every speech act there is an intended audience. The principal does not determine the intended audience, nor does the animator, but the author does. The one who selects the words, the vocabulary, the syntax and so on, aims it to be understood by an idealized audience. Usually we are pretty good at determining how an audience will respond to what we are going to say (and so we generally have no problems communicating with each other). However, the idealized audience (which most often closely resembles ourselves) isn’t a real audience. And the degree to which the real audience differs from the idealized audience determines the likelihood that the real audience will guess correctly at the intentions of the principal. Some kinds of gaps between ideal and real audiences effectively prohibit useful communication. Language is one such barrier. A Japanese speaker speaking to a man who only knows Arabic will have very little success in conveying the intentions of the principal. Likewise other cultural, linguistic barriers can exist. Social barries can contribute, as well as time (particularly as it affects intertextual relations). So the further a real audience stands from the idealized audience, the greater the gap that exists in the real intentions of the principal and the intentions of the principal as perceived by the audience.

    We presume that God can anticipate the response of an audience. But, since every real audience member is different in myriad ways, this means that absolutely perfect communication can only occur to an audience of one – and not just an audience of one but more specifically to an audience of one at a particular point in time. Thus, God can communicate as both principal and author perfectly to an idealized audience that exactly corresponds to a real audience. Since an audience larger than one cannot correspond exactly to an idealized audience, revelation with a definite meaning aimed at more than one person is not possible – not because God is incapable of communicating his intentions effectively to us as individuals but because in any group, any particular communication will create multiple meanings and multiple views of the intentions of the principal in the different members of the audience. This, by the way, makes it useful to understand what a text says by learning the language of the text, the culture in which it was produced, the intertext that it shares with other speech acts, and so on. A 1828 Webster’s dictionary is quite useful when reading the Book of Mormon. And just as when we read Akenside’s “he rais’d his plastic arm,” we might understand something totally different if we thought we were reading a contemporary text as opposed to a poem written in the 16th century. Within a text, the ability of the reader to even understand the rhetoric of the author is sometimes referred to as competency. A text which alludes to another text loses something if the reader has no familiarty with the other text. The reader may be aware of something else going on, but has no ability to recover it. And it may well be that the author makes mistakes as well (assuming, of coruse that it isn’t God) – grammatical, lexical, whatever – and thus moves a text or speech act beyond the audience’s ability to recover the principal’s intention.

    It is when the prophet is only the animator that he plays no real role in determining content (and so is only a part of the audience himself). When a prophet is the author (when the revelation doesn’t come in a finished format) then we also have to expect that what he gives us is as much interpretation as anything else. And as interpretation, even if divinely inspired, we have to allow for the fact that his language, his society, his experience have all come into play in shaping the intentions of the principal.

    So we are left with this problem. Either the texts accurately convey the intentions of the principal or they don’t – but the deciding factor is the audience far more often than the author (although the author can create problems). So when I approach this topic, I think there is a fundamental difference between God communicating with a real audience of one individual that exactly resembles God’s idealized audience, and when God communicates with a community, for which there is no exact idealized audience.

    So to summarize this part, I don’t think that we can encounter revelation – personal revelation strictly from within a community. Nor do I think that our community (or our chruch) has reached a point where it can simply provide us with the knoweldge of God – this has to be discovered on our own. One of our problems here is that the scripture that we have has already transcended community – most of them are not products of our own community. If we all receive personal revelation on the nature of God, then we all have a very personalized understanding. And we aren’t particularly perfect, our perceptions having already been influenced by culture, by language, and so on, and so as a community we all add to this awareness of God – it is cumulative (community can also determine what is fringe or far enough outside the norm as well). Now as communities we still hold to the same kinds of problems, but, we can relate within that community to one another. And if we as a community become more like God together, and develop a shared understanding, then perhaps the traditional barriers to understanding God begin to break down. Not because we have lost individuality (although in a sense perhaps this is the case), but because we also form a more closely shared basis for understanding the intention of God together. And this may be what you are referring to. And, despite the communal nature of religion and God (as you discussed), we don’t usually read scripture as being the product of a community – because although God may represent a community with a single will, our own real world experience doesn’t have something we can relate this to (although perhaps this is what we are working towards as a church). Certainly this seems to be what happened with the City of Enoch:

    And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.

  27. Ben McGuire said

    Joe #20 –

    (I had to edit this way down for length so hopefully I didn’t lose too much). I like Goffman’s breakdown of speech acts into three general roles – animator (the person who says or writes a thing), author (the person who composes the speech act – who selects the words), and the principal (the person whose thoughts are being conveyed and whose authority is the basis for the speech act). Usually all three are the same.

    If God speaks to us directly, then God plays the role of all three. (And by using the term God here I am not tying to diminish the fact that God is a community – merely that we describe them as being of one mind and will, and thus a single principal as far as my comments go). If God gives his prophet an actual speech and then has the prophet deliver it, the prophet is the animator with God the author and principal (it fascinates me that Lehi reads a book …). If God gives the prophet a vision and the prophet is left to describe this, then God is the principal but the prophet is the author and animator, and authorship becomes an act of interpretation. Each case is different.

    Each speech act is authored with an idealized audience in mind. The degree to which the real audience is different from the idealized audience affects how likely we are to guess or even come close to the intentions of the principal (language, society, etc., all become barriers). You can have an exact match between idealized and real audiences only for an audience of one at a particular point in time. Thus God cannot speak as effectively to communities as he can to individuals. While God can reveal things to individuals and know beforehand what they will understand, with communities, there is no guarantee, and their interpretation only becomes particularly relevant as they liken the scriptures unto themselves.

    So I do not see personal revelation as arising from within the community but as supporting it. As we within these communities move closer to God, traditional barriers to understanding God fall. And we become more like the City of Enoch:

    And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.

    If you want copies of some of my nephi stuff, just e-mail me. cromis@cromis.com

  28. Ben, thanks for the counter-comments (and expect an e-mail, by the way). I’d like to think about this more, but here are some thoughts in the meanwhile.

    I suppose that what I’m trying to think about here is the very notion of an “individual.” More and more I think it is quite significant that the individual is the absolute consequence of the dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and that post-modern thought begins with concerns about that very absolute individuality. In the end, it is precisely the absolution of selfhood that the three “masters of suspicion” taught us to be concerned about (in closely related ways, of course): Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. It is for this reason that I’m not sure how to think about the implications of the comments you made in the first place, and for the same reason that I’m not sure how to think about the implications of the comments you have just made in response to my own response.

    In fact, let me recast the problem in terms of the book Lehi reads. Some kind of heavenly figure brings it down from heaven, where it was apparently written. The apocalyptic flavor of the narrative connects the story up with, especially, Revelation, where John sees an almost identical scene at work in heaven: a throne, numberless concourses of angels, a song, and a book. (In fact, 1 and 2 Nephi are both shot through with allusions to Revelation, and one explicit mention of it.) What of the book, then? I’m not convinced that Lehi is being given a text that was written specifically for him, but that he is being given the opportunity to read a tiny bit of the heavenly book, the one described in D&C 77:6. Reading that book, Lehi is reading something that was written not by an author, but by a community, and not only because God was a part of it: the book was written up by the council, if one follows the Book of Abraham, etc. So many angels and gods together produced this book, a seven-fold liturgical text that is meant to order and organize the temporal (something like Genesis 1:1-2:3?). In fact, if we decide that the book was written by the single figure of the Father, then we have to follow the Apocalypse, I think, and suggest that it was addressed only to the Son/Lamb: only He could break the seals and read it. And that it is given to Lehi to read is suggestive in a number of ways: is He not being made a son, in fact, the Son, taking upon him the name of Christ/Lamb, as it were? That is, is he not, in the very act of reading, having his very individuality transgressed in the typological play he becomes a part of? By becoming the Son/Lamb (in the very act of reading), he transgresses himself as individual, being at once Lehi and Lamb (Alma will later quote verse 8, making himself at once Lehi and Alma, and then he will give a book to his son Helaman, thereby making him at once Lehi and Helaman, and himself Alma and the angel/Lord figure). But even with all of this, can we escape the fact that it is the whole council of the gods that write the book? “Whom shall we send? And who will go for us?”

    That got a bit long. My point is that the revelation is given to a community from a community, and that there is a communing at work in the revelatory moment: the heavenly throng above matches the earthly throng below (see Mosiah 2:28), as we experience in the sacrament itself, which Rafael depicts wonderfully in his Disputatio (which faces, quite fascinatingly, the collectivity of philosophical discourse, the famous School of Athens).

    But the City of Enoch…. I’ve got to do some thinking.

  29. Robert C. said

    (Matthew, sorry this has turned into a bit of a thread-jack, but not sorry enough to actually start a new thread and quit fuelling this….)

    Ben and Joe, thanks for these thoughts. Your comments together make me think more in terms of two communities, a heavenly community/council, and an earthly one (or perhaps two if we want to think in Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial terms, perhaps something like: non-baptized, baptized, and sanctified), and yet the gateway/veil between them is typically taken up individually, excepting when Zion is achieved, a state we are constantly working toward. So I think we must think about the individual, not just a community, but in terms that are the individual-for-the-community. Yes, I definitely need to think about this more.

  30. Ben McGuire said

    Joe S. – you wrote #27 #28:

    “I’m not convinced that Lehi is being given a text that was written specifically for him, but that he is being given the opportunity to read a tiny bit of the heavenly book …”

    I agree with you completely, this is what makes it so interesting. Because in this notion of revelation the prophet – the oracle – is forced to interpret that text just as he would any other text – revelation as an act of reading …. if we were to read the same book, odds are pretty good that we wouldn’t arrive at the same meaning (at least not everywhere) as Lehi did.

    The issue though with the authorship of that book is partly concealed by our not having access to it. If it has a community authorship, does it express this? And if it doesn’t, should Lehi anticipate that it does, or would he presume that it has a single author, and a single meaning, and that what he reads is presumably what it was supposed to mean as intended by its presumed author?

    This goes back to the core of what personal revelation is and what it is meant to do. I am not going to argue with you about how scripture relates to community – your comments are quite interesting and deserve some contemplation (and are likely right on). But the issue here is about interpretation. And what role does personal revelation have when we approach intepretation. Is the community always right? Is it sometimes right? Can we tell how right it is?

    I think that when we are talking about the Divine will – it is personal revelation which guides us to the intentions of the principal (be it God or the heavenly community as a whole), which may be quite different from the interpretation which we get while reading or which we may form while being author or speaker. So I think we are looking at two aspects of this entirely – and they do not oppose each other.

  31. Ben McGuire said

    Joe S. –

    I think what you have to say abount community is fascinating and deserves some contemplation and was worth saying.

    I think too that Lehi’s book was not written specifically for Lehi. And this is why it is fascinating to me. Revelation as reading – particularly when I reject the notion that texts have definite meanings. Lehi must interpret what he reads just as he would any other text. He is only a reader in this process, and as such, it seems that (apart from his perhaps having greater knowledge of the nature of God), he is no better off understanding the contents of that book than you or I would be.

    And this is all about the role of personal revelation in interpretation. If scripture is aimed at communities of faith (and I assume like you that it is – because of its nature), then do we decide that the community is always right in its interpretation? Do we decide that it is sometimes right? What do we do when we can observe the interpretation of a community shifting over time as it continues to like it unto themselves. I think personal revelation is our only real mechanism for evaluating the community, as it takes us a step closer to the intentions of the principal (be it God the Father, or the Godhead, or the entire divine assembly).

  32. Okay, I’m following you better now, Ben. Let me do some thinking and I’ll get back to this thread later on (today, hopefully).

  33. m&m said

    I also realized that I may have gotten off track with my comments. I was speaking more about following prophetic counsel in general. I think there is the possibility to get insights while reading/interpreting scripture in ways that haven’t necessarily been taught directly or specifically by prophets. That said, though, I have found in my personal experience that usually there is some sort of tie to what they have said, and that helps me feel that what I’ve experienced really is revelation and not my own brain making things up. :)

    Sorry that I got a bit carried away…just a reflection of things I have been thinking about lately in a broader mode.

  34. Matthew said

    Ben #17, Though I share some of the same caveats/concerns others have already mentioned, and though I am always skeptical of any reading which requires an academic label, I like in general what you wrote.

    But about this claim (which I disagree with):

    But, the point is simple – we are being Lamans and Lemuels. We are asking for interpretation when we should be asking for revelation.

    Are you maybe overstating your case? What makes you think that those in Sunday School haven’t inquired of the Lord (1 Ne 15:8-9)? My experience is that a lot of members of the church often start scripture study sincerely looking for guidance. My feeling is that a great answer Laman and Lemuel could have given (if it were true) would be: “We have asked the Lord and are still puzzled. We are now asking you hoping that the Lord has given you more insight that you can now share with us.”

    My guess is that you don’t actually expect each person to have a Lehi/Nephi experience of the vision of the tree of life so I think we probably agree. I may just be stating the obvious.

  35. Bob said

    This leaves me with many questions and few answers.

    Is there an actual meaning to scripture? (#3) Isn’t the beauty of the scripture that the Lord has created it so that it has many meanings and speaks to the need of the individual reader individually and on different occasions differently?

    The Doctrine and Covenants admonishes that we should teach each other. (D&C 52: 22; 88:77) I take that as an underlying lesson of the recent world wide training. If we are teaching each other by the spirit are we not then sharing with those being taught what the scripture has revealed to us and allowing others who are being taught by the spirit to partake of the personal revelation which comes to and through us?

    Is there a substantive difference between the revelation which is given and received in a teaching moment which enhances another’s testimony and so ministers to that person and that revelation which the bishop or stake president receives in administering the organizational aspects of the Church?

    Do we not hope that when we attend a Sunday School class, a priesthood, or a relief society lesson that we will share in personal revelation from a properly prepared teacher yet none of these teachers are in the hierarchy to share revelation authoritatively like a bishop?

    We have heard the story of the general authority whose relative sought to return to assure him nothing was amiss in the death of the relative but could not because the intended recipient was so over burdened with the load of his calling he could not listen to the spirit. Another then received the message and conveyed it to the general authority. Was that receiving revelation for someone else outside the line of authority?

    At what point do we leave personal revelation and cross over into pride when we attempt to instruct others on common points of doctrine on which we believe we have received personal revelation such as the true meaning of the Word of Wisdom, the proper use of the Sabbath, or the correct interpretation of tithing? (#16)

    Is there really a hierarchy of revelation as suggested in #18. If I ponder the Spencer W. Kimball manual and the spirit works on me and tells me I need to repent of something amiss in my life is that not at least as important as anything on the list other than direct revelation from God?

    Re: #20; isn’t the reason the post ascension Nephites lived as they did for so long because the distinction between self and community blurred or vanished?

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