Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Scripture as Script

Posted by Jim F. on April 19, 2007

I’ve been doing some reading on what scripture is and how we understand it: Adam, Fowel, Vanhoozer, and Watson, Reading Scripture in the Church, and Brown, Scripture as Communication. The question has been on my mind for a long time. I first wrote something on it, “Scripture as Incarnation,” in 2001. Now my recent reading makes me think that there may be another and perhaps better way of talking about reading scripture. Here are some notes on what I am thinking. I hope it will be the seed of another essay, so I am interested in your responses.


We have received and continue to receive much revelation. From what we have received we have chosen or recognized some as scripture, as “Standard Works.” This choice has not always been an explicit choice. Sometimes it has occurred through history and tradition as well as by common consent. Presumably we have made these choices under the influence of the Holy Ghost working in the Church as a body.

The Book of Mormon challenges any merely philological hermeneutic because there is no original text for us to examine, no way to reconstruct the cultural or linguistic framework within which the events made sense. The Book of Mormon requires that we go beyond thinking about understanding scripture in terms merely of original meaning, both by the kind of text that it is and by its demand that we liken scripture to ourselves.

What we have made a standard work is like a dramatic script that must be enacted to have meaning. Without that enactment, it has only potential meaning, or better, it has a multiplicity of potential meanings that become particular meanings only when they are enacted. There is no one true performance of the script, but—just as in the enactment of Shakespeare’s work or any other dramatic piece—it is also true that not just anything can count as a performance of the “script.” The text itself, including but not limited to its history and its original setting (to the degree we can know those), is important to its reading or performance, its enactment. Reading scripture is, therefore, a kind of dramaturgy: As we read, we encounter a question to which we must respond existentially; scripture gives us roles to enact in our own lives or to avoid enacting. (Cf. Reading Scripture 33.) Responding / reading is meaning-making.

The questions that scripture raises and the roles it makes possible for us to enact are to help us more fully live the two great commandments.

Reading Scripture 48: The multiplicity of literal meanings allows us to engage other prior, faithful readers. This is like Nate Oman’s understanding of doctrine as comparable to common law.

Scripture isn’t “just like any other book” because (1) it is chosen by revelation and (2) it points toward Christ.

What are the criteria for an enactment of scripture:

(1) The claims of the enactment are true or at least do not conflict with the rest of scripture.

(2) The enactment comes from the text and not merely from the reader’s response to it.



Since these are just notes, a lot remains to be explained. In addition, there are places that hide some difficult intellectual notes, like the second of the criteria for the enactment of scripture. But I think your responses will help me think about what I need to explain (including what I have not yet thought needs explanation) as well as how to explain it. So have at it.

23 Responses to “Scripture as Script”

  1. cherylem said

    Jim F,
    Thanks for opening this subject.

    I have wanted to engage you regarding your paper Scripture as Incarnation since I read it. Maybe there will be room for some of that here.

  2. Jim F. said

    Cherylem, I’d be happy to talk about any questions or comments you have on the other paper. It would help me think about this one.

  3. Jim,

    I’ve made comments about taking the scripture as a script both on this blog (I don’t remember which thread that was on!) and on LDS-Phil. It is a topic that greatly interests me. In a sense, it is precisely what guides my interest in much of continental thought.

    More directly, however, it is basically this subject I take up in the first chapter of the book I’m writing on the Book of Mormon. It is a greatly expanded version of my Alma 36 paper from so long ago. If you’d like to read it (in a relatively rough draft… in the end, it will be the whole thrust of the book, so I’m going to reedit it carefully only once I’ve finished the whole thing), I’d be happy to e-mail you a copy (it runs to some 70 pages or so). In the meanwhile, I’ll post some comments in response to your above as I have a chance.

  4. Robert C. said

    Jim, as I think you know, I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to reader-response criticism, so I’m quite intrigued by your second criterion for enactment:

    The enactment comes from the text and not merely from the reader’s response to it.

    Your use of merely here seems to allow for the reader’s response to play a role in the process of enactment (and so, I assume, interpretation also). I will be greatly interested to see how you flesh out this interplay between text and reader.

    I think it was robf who recently talked about ‘breathing consonants’ in reading ancient Hebrew texts, something that I think this script analogy captures well: different inflections will likely lead to different meanings, and it is not like there only one ‘correct’ inflection to give to the text. But you seem to be getting at more than just how we read scripture in your discussion of enactment. I like this idea, but I’m not quite sure how to make sense of this: what remains when we take away reading from your term enactment? How is enactment of scripture different than “applying scripture to our daily lives”? To what extent does enactment occur in Sunday school as we talk about the text? Should we think about praying as more of an enactment of extant scripture, an enactment of new scripture, a response to extant scripture, or is prayer not something we should apply this enactment analogy to?

    Lots for me to think about here….

  5. Before Jim can weigh in and say the opposite, I’ll throw my two cents in just briefly. Robert, I think this idea of enactment is precisely the opposite of application (as I’ve tried to discuss it, at any rate. Really, what I’ve tried to do in my posts/comments on application is to set up a strict distinction between enactment and application. But I’ll have to say more on this later (I’ve got to get over to the seminary building!).

  6. Sterling said

    “The Book of Mormon challenges any merely philological hermeneutic because there is no original text for us to examine, no way to reconstruct the cultural or linguistic framework within which the events made sense. The Book of Mormon requires that we go beyond thinking about understanding scripture in terms merely of original meaning, both by the kind of text that it is and by its demand that we liken scripture to ourselves.”

    I think there are plausible ways to reconstruct the cultural frameworks of the Book of Mormon. Brant Gardner’s Multi-dimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon seems to me the best attempt to date for doing just that. Brant’s commentary, in my estimation, also complicates the notion of “original meaning.” To be sure, Brant does provide educated guesses about the intentions of the Book of Mormon authors. He goes beyond that, though, when he talks about the ways in which ancient American audiences likely received the texts created by Book of Mormon authors. This seems to me like a more emphathic analysis, since it explores intended and received meanings at multiple levels.

    Nephi may have been one of the first prophets to assert that oral tradition was an insufficient script. He realized, when told to obtain the brass plates, that his people “could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law” (1 Ne. 4:15). So I think there is a strong tradition in Mormonism of viewing the scriptures as the repository of commandments and that much of our behavior should be based on those commandments.

    Nephi was also the first Book of Mormon prophet to about the necessity of likening of scriptures to ourselves. I think there is a nuance to what he was saying that has been missed. I have not found any instances where Nephi talked about likening the scritpures in an individualistic sense. Instead, he was likening the scriptures to his family, lineage, and people. Perhaps part of the reason why the scriptures are a script is so that communities of believers will be bound togther by their righteousness living.

  7. Jim F. said

    Joe (#3): Yes, I’d like to see your chapter. Please send it to me.

    Robert C (#4): I’m also interested in seeing how I flesh out the interplay between text and reader. I’m unwilling to go to a full reader-response theory, but it is difficult to see how to avoid doing. Once the nose of that camel gets under the tent, it’s difficult to keep the rest of him out.

    How is enactment different than application? Not at all if one understands application properly, but I don’t think that we usually understand it the way we should. We usually think of applying scripture as finding universal principles in scripture that we can then use as guides for living. Enactment, however, doesn’t require recourse to universal principles. Rather, it requires that scripture show me a different way of being in the world, a way that I can take up—enact.

    Sterling (#6): I am unfamiliar with Gardner’s work. Where can I find it?

    Thank you for the point about Nephi being perhaps the first to enunciate the need for a text as opposed to an oral tradition. I’ve not noticed that, and I think it is important

    As I pointed out in an earlier thread, I agree with you about “likening” probably not having an individualistic meaning. This is something I’d like to explore more. I think it is directly related to the idea that the covenant we make is not only individual, but communal: we covenant with Christ as a his people, not just as individuals.

  8. Robert C. said

    You can find Gardner’s BOM commentary here. It seems Kofford is planning to publish this, so there’s always the possibility that he’ll take his work off the web when it comes out as a book (if it hasn’t already, I thought maybe it has…).

  9. Jim, I might want to send you my second chapter when I’m done, too, since it takes up the question of 1 Nephi 19:23 and what Nephi means by likening at some length. I’ll send my first along for now.

    Sterling, I think (and argue in my second chapter) that Nephi is deriving this focus on writing from First Isaiah (I’m focusing here on von Rad’s reading of Isaiah 6-8 found in Old Testament Theology volume II). But I think you are right to point out the importance of Nephi’s explicit statement to that effect (I hadn’t caught onto the sheer specificity of that verse… I’d like to use it in my chapter, with your permission… and your full name so that I can attribute it to you correctly), as well as the importance that explicit statement has had for Mormonism broadly. Fascinating.

    Are there passages anyone would particularly suggest reading up on in Gardner’s commentary? It is so sprawling that I do not ever just go read it, but when I go to see what he has to say on this or that verse, though I’ve been impressed with how much more he is doing than what has been done, I’m never overwhelmed at what he has to say. Are there any passages for which he really recasts the setting radically?

  10. Sterling said

    Jim, I am glad I could help. Thanks for pointing me to the earlier post that I missed. For the sake of clarity, I did not mean to say that scriptural likening cannot be individualistic. I just think the communal aspect that Nephi emphasized often gets overlooked.

    Last I heard, Lavina Fielding Anderson was editing Gardner’s commentary. Gardner tried to publish the commentary the last time the Book of Mormon was being studied in Gospel Doctrine. However, the “sprawling” nature of the commentary, as Joe put it, has meant that extra time was needed for editing.

    I think reader-response theory offers some potential for understanding how people interpret scripture and find meaning and applicability in its verses. I wonder, though, how this theory would accomodate the mediating role played by the Spirit. I mean, does the Spirit reveal new applications to us that we would have never imagined otherwise or does it merely bring application possibilities to our remembrance? In other words, do we discover ways to liken the scriptures as we fit them into patterns that already reside in our minds, or does scripture study reveal new patterns of likening that transcend what we already know?

    I think I share your doubts about “universal principles.” Don’t get me wrong, I think there are plenty of “universal principles” that people can find and apply in the scriptures. However, our scriptures seem to be Western oriented in several places. I mean, the worldview that prevails through the scriptures often seems more Western than non-Western. For me, this calls into the question of how universal the principles always can be. However, the Spirit often seems to be able to transcend these differences in culture and worldview.

    Joe, you are welcome to use what I said. My last name is Fluharty. I don’t have any passages from Gardner’s commentary that I can suggest at the moment. I too have only read portions. Is there something specific you were wondering or looking for in his commentary?

  11. Matthew said

    On the first criteria for an enactment…not contradicting other scripture seems like a high bar. Maybe I am misunderstanding your point but I think there is at least some scope for accepting multiple conflicting (even contradictory) interpretations.

  12. Robert C. said

    Interesting comment, Matthew. Another way to cast this question might be in terms of theology. Take Blake Ostler’s work—I think it would be reasonably accurate to describe his work as trying to tell a story of Mormon belief that is coherent and consistent (depending on how broadly you understand the term ‘coherent’, he may be doing more than that—that is, he is trying to tell a compelling story, one that is intuitively appealling, and consistent with broader, non-scriptural considerations). On this (mis?-)interpretation of Jim’s statement, this is a high bar indeed!

    But I think this might be ignoring the distance between “not contradicting” and “being coherent and consistent.” That is, I suspect Jim says the former rather than the latter as a way to keep this a rather modest claim, something perhaps more like “there shouldn’t be any blatant contradiction.” On the other hand, I worry this would make the condition too weak.

    On the one hand, these issues make me think that the project of interpretation becomes an incredible balancing act (balancing all the different passages on the topic). On the other hand, I think the better and more scriptural image is that we must approach God through His Word with fear and trembling, with our whole heart, might, mind and strenght….

  13. I think I would add:

    (3) The enactment is a response, is responsive, is responsible.

    (4) The enactment is not a work on our part, but a function of the grace of God.

    Obviously these require some further articulation, but I haven’t the time at the moment.

  14. Jim F. said

    Matthew, you’re right. I have perhaps set the bar too high in the first criterion. Robert’s thinking about how to lower the bar a bit is helpful.

    Joe Spencer, Isn’t “the enactment is a response” tautologous? That is a genuine question. The connection between “response” and “responsible” may make it non-tautologous, but I’m not sure.

    Also, aren’t these two additional criteria, which I agree with, criteria in a different sense than the first two? The first two are, in some sense, measurable. We could discuss whether an interpretation meets them and provide intersubjective evidence in a way that we could not do with the two criteria you have pointed to.

  15. Robert C. said

    Jim #14 (or Joe, when you respond), are you suggesting grace and enactment are the same thing b/c grace enables all acting on our part, or that in talking about “enacting scripture” we are already assuming that the enactment is in response to scripture, or something else entirely?

  16. nhilton said

    Scripture as script is a mnemonic device for remembering God’s interaction with his children (Old Testament), covenants, fulfillment of prophecy, and teachings (New Testament), etc. Each story serves a purpose within itself to teach a principle but when the script is allowed to flow, from one pericope to another not constrained by segmenting, the underlying messages swell giving us added, greater meaning and understanding.

  17. cherylem said

    Could you talk about enactment a little more? Could you give an example or two?

    I have been thinking about Raymond Schwager’s books: Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, and Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. But I am not sure these books are examples of what you are talking about.

    The language of the philosopher is difficult, even counterintuitive, for me. Thinking philosophy often feels like my brain has to work against itself, against its own intuitive nature, in order to understand what is being said. So I may be asking for definitions and examples that are very very basic as this conversation continues.

    I ordered the two books you mentioned in the original post when you mentioned them – I should have them soon, and thus be able to engage this subject more fully.

    But please explain a little more about what you mean by enactment.

  18. Jim F. said

    cherylem: I don’t know Schwager’s work, so I don’t know whether they are examples. The theologian who I think of in this regard is Brueggemann.

    I am thinking of the scriptures on a fairly close analogy to a dramatic script: we have been born into a new world as Christians, but it is not obvious how one ought to live in that world. The scriptures provide us roles that we can enact in our lives. The difference from the dramatic script is that not all scriptures are narrative. Nevertheless, they provide possible worlds for us to bring to pass.

    Another way to think about it is in terms of types and antitypes. The scriptures provide us types of the divine antitypes. We imitate those types in our lives and, thereby, enact the antitypes in them.

    Does that help or make what I’m trying to say even muddier?

  19. Interesting. I just began working through Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament on Friday (unfortunately rather slowly, for how little time I have for it right now). His introduction was interesting enough that I began glancing today through Texts Under Negotiation, and I think I’d like to read that one quite carefully as well. I do have a third book by him (it was sent to me on accident when I ordered a different book, but I went ahead and paid for it too) that I’ve not yet looked at.

    He seems, from my very limited experience with him so far, to be quite close, methodologically, to Ricoeur. Any response to that Jim?

    I’ll get back to the main discussion here hopefully tomorrow. Been a bit too busy!

  20. Ben McGuire said

    Something I was working with the last two days that is related to this topic (although not in the way that has been discussed so far) is the notion of scripture as script in a very literal sense in the Old Testament poetic prophets.

    When I taught Micah (as a substitute) last year, I discussed how the text of Micah is a play, in three acts with two scenes in each act. There is a cast of characters, who speak at different times, and often the shift in voices is not readily apparent (particularly in translation where gender doesn’t come through as cleanly). And without recognizing which of the participants is which, interpretation of the text can vary wildly. This came up when I was reviewing a position paper given by David Bokovoy on who is being spoken to in Amos 3:9,13 (his position is that it is the divine assembly).

    An excerpt from my comments to David:

    … we have some interesting voices – and like Micah, perhaps we could say, at some point, that there was a historical re-writing of the text (which you allude to) which changes this from a drama to a historical type work. Yet, the poetics of the book are certainly an argument in favor of a drama I would think. In any case, such a reading does interesting things to the text of Amos. We have a narrator voice (1:1) who introduces Amos, who then speaks (1:2) – and interestingly enough, this speech seems to me foreshadow his own defence of why he prophecies later in the book. But then it is no longer Amos speaking, but the Lord. And the Lord goes through several speeches (not one) – and this suggests to me that we have standing on the stage persons representing the personification of the cities (just as we do in Micah), and to each of these the Lord speaks – and so we get this pattern – “this is what the Lord says … says the Lord”. And in the end, the culmination is in Israel. As a drama, this is an interesting cresendo. After all, you can see the audience getting caught up in this (a northern audience) – agreeing with these condemnations of Israel’s neighbors. And then the shocking moment when what they have been agreeing to is applied to themselves …. and as we can see, it becomes a detailed list of the faults of Israel. This kind of rhetorical device seems to be used several times in the poetic works of the prophets.

    Act 1 ends at the end of Chapter 2.

    Act 2 starts with the court scene – the Lord has made his claim – he has filed his suit, and is now going to present his evidence. And most of Chapter 3 is directed towards the audience. Your Divine Assembly is present on the stage – but silent. They are there not to argue the case, but to stand as witnesses and perhaps as co-judges. And the language is clearly that of this assembly. This is the nation which YHWH chose – whom he found wandering in the desert. And it is not the Lord speaking in Chapter 3 to start, (for the most part, he speaks in verse 2) but Amos – now coming in to define his role as the prophet (perhaps better as the chief prosecutor). In verse 9 it shifts back to the Lord.

    And so on. You get the idea. And given this, the phrases that you talk about in Chapter 3 in verses 9 and 13 can be seen as instructions directed to this assembly represented on the stage.

    I also think that there is a clear connection suggested in 3:1-2 to Deuteronomy 4:

    (NIV – which is lousy when working with these texts but convenient at the moment) “But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.”

    The tie is also there to Deuteronomy 32, where we get the basis perhaps for the trial – the original statement of what would happen in this covenant that Israel makes with YHWH should they abandon him.

    So I really like all of the material that you bring to the table – because it deals with this issue of the roles we perceive in the drama in a way that makes the text come alive to us (as opposed to, say, the NIV, where placing these comments in verse 9 and 13 in the mouth of the narrator leaves us wondering what is happening). …

    So, my point in providing this is that parts of our gospel experience are dramas. The entire temple ceremony is a drama (with a script). These kinds of texts are scripts in a much more literal sense. They are productions meant as much to be experienced visually as they are texts to be read. And perhaps some of this comes to us from the idea of revelation – not as words (although we see this from time to time as Lehi, who reads a book), but as visions in which we see a tree of life, and a great and spacious building, and people moving along a path, clutching to an iron rod, and so on. This translates well to a performance in which the lesson is taught through the people on the stage – just as we experience in, say, an endowment session. Of course, in this situation we are expected to place ourselves in these roles. We become Adam and Eve as we are caught up into the drama that involves us as an audience of participants.

  21. Ben: Your reading of Micah reminds me of Nibley’s (very late) reading of the Book of Abraham (in “Abraham’s Temple Drama”). It is worth reading!


    Jim: Regarding (at last!) my third and fourth criteria.

    I think what I was trying to curb in bring up my criterion (3) (“enactment is response, is responsive, is responsible”) is the tendency towards some kind of uebermenschlich (“authentic”?) seizure of the text (I’m not sure whether I’m thinking of Tillich/Bultmann here or something more like the occasional “I know the text doesn’t say this, but I’m going to read it this way for my own purposes” that we hear in the Church). In other words, I think my concern is that “enactment” can too easily be taken as fundamentally “active.”

    Hence my criterion (4) (“enactment is a function of grace”): I’m trying to capture there the tension between our quite obvious activity in enactment and our more subtle but just as (if not more) essential passivity in enactment.

    Are my two criteria then unmeasurable precisely because they are caught up within this tension (and how is a tension in play to be measured)? Or could we put it this way: criteria (3) and (4) establish the possibility (the tension as Spielraum) of the measurable criteria (1) and (2)? Or this way: the spirit is immeasurable, but the flesh is only measurable inasmuch as it embodies the spirit?

    Something like this anyway.

  22. Jim F. said

    Joe Spencer: Of course you are right to resist “I know the text doesn’t say this, but . . . .” However, built into the notion of play–scripture as a play–is the notion of give and take. It seems to me that a play, an enactment, by its very nature cannot be fundamentally active. It is necessarily both active and passive: even ignoring the role of the Holy Ghost in reading and understanding scripture, there is an element of grace in that the texts give one something that can be enacted and they entice one to enact it.

    That means that any supposed enactment that is merely the activity of the reader is already not an enactment. It violates criterion 2.

    Nevertheless, I am certainly not rejecting your additional criteria. Indeed, I think I am arguing that the two sets of criteria turn out to be enmeshed in one another.

  23. Jim F. said

    Ben Macquire: Very interesting. Thanks for that. It provides an excellent specific example of the scriptures as drama.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: