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RS/MP Lesson 10: “Scriptures” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on May 5, 2010

So far as straightforward content goes, this lesson is extremely simple. That it was written for brand new converts is completely obvious, because it provides little more than basic summaries of each of the “books” in the standard works, followed by a word or two about studying scripture. For our purposes here, however, I think it would be best to take its several claims as so many opportunities to think carefully about the nature of our scriptures, to raise questions that we ought to raise much, much more often than we do.

Let me note, before jumping into things, that this lesson has been changed far less than most of the lessons in the manual. Apart from a few added or changed references and a few points of reformatting, there are really only three changes to the lesson. I’ll deal only with two of them (the third only replaces “church publications” with “the Liahona or Ensign magazine”), and I’ll deal with them when I come to them. One of them is relatively minor (a sentence is largely rewritten in order to make sure parents are reading and not only making scriptures available to their children), while the other is the addition of a full paragraph (summarizing what the Saints usually call the Joseph Smith Translation). Let me now, though, get on to the lesson itself.

The Scriptures Are Available to Us Today

The lesson opens, provocatively enough, with a paraphrase of D&C 68:4: “When the Lord’s servants speak or write under the influence of the Holy Ghost, their words become scripture.” This passage is, I think, quite a remarkable one, and it deserves far more—and far more careful—attention than it has generally received.

First, it should be noticed that this passage comes in a revelation that was given during the November 1831 conference of the Church. So what? It was at that conference that it was first decided to print as a volume of scripture the revelations that had been given to and through Joseph Smith. That is, it was at that conference that it was first determined that there might be modern scripture. Moreover, at that same conference and precisely because there was talk of publishing the revelations, there had been several criticisms made of the language employed in the revelations that had been received. The result was, as can be read in D&C 67, that the Lord challenged the complaining brethren to write scripture, a task at which they ostensibly failed. That the very next revelation, received during the same conference, tells them that they—those same brethren—can speak scripture is very interesting: they can’t write it, but they can speak under the influence of the Holy Ghost.

Given these details, it seems to me that this passage doesn’t get rid of, but rather reinforces, the distinction between the written and canonized text and the word spoken under the influence of the Spirit. And indeed, it seems to me that D&C 68:4 makes this point itself by qualifying “scripture” by saying that what the brethren speak “shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” It isn’t, apparently, that it shall be canonized or even canonizeable, but that it shall be binding on those who hear it.

All that said, it is worth noting that the text is only paraphrased here, and it is paraphrased precisely so that it can be used for other purposes: the lesson uses the text in order to set up the writing prophets (note that it doubles “speak” with “or write”). This then leads into the theology of scripture to be found in the writings of Nephi, quoted at length in the lesson in the rest of the firs tparagraph: “For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written” (2 Nephi 29:11). This passage is, I think, also quite rich in terms of thinking about the Mormon status of scripture. Without question, the most productive study of this passage (and those surrounding it) is Richard Bushman’s presidential address to the Mormon History Association from years ago, entitled “The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History” and published in his book Believing History. I think this article should be required reading for readers of the Book of Mormon. Let me quote a bit from Bushman’s article:

So we can see that records wind their way in and out of Nephite culture, not superficially but profoundly. They lay at the foundation of the Book of Mormon world as depicted by its prophets. The practice of exchanging histories suggests the Nephite assumption that every people must have its record, and that one people relates to another by presenting its testimony, that is to say its history. The exchange of records facilitates relationships from time to time in the course of ordinary events, but also at the culmination of world history when all people will come together and join in one, exchanging histories and testimonies as part of the concluding restoration.

Beyond the articulation of relationships among the nations, in the Book of Mormon world, records sustain the identity and culture of a people. Without records a people degenerate, lose their religion and their language, and forget their covenants with God. By the same token, records have the power to revive culture, to restore religion, and to reaffirm a people’s identity and remembrance of covenants. Records are the primary instrument of restoration. Hence the Book of Mormon’s mission to inform Israel of the covenant of the Lord and to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ. Within the world of the Book of Mormon, a historical record was the natural instrument to accomplish grand purposes. (p. 73)

The world, for the Nephites and by extension for the Latter-day Saints, is in some sense reducible to scripture—particularly in light of the judgment as Nephi outlines it.

Having placed these basics on the table, the lesson goes on to provide summary introductions to each of the standard works. I’ll take each in turn.

The Bible

The first paragraph, in rather traditional Mormon fashion, summarizes all production of biblical texts as the work of “prophets.” While this works in a Mormon context, it is immensely problematic from the standpoint of the Bible itself—at least, unless this claim is nuanced in a few important ways. It should be noted that, for the most part, prophets don’t show up by that name among the Nephites until the period of the monarchy (I’ll deal with exceptions in a moment), and that they disappear from the story shortly after the exile. As such, most biblical scholars recognize that “the prophets” embodied only one of the many ways in which God acted among His people. At different periods, different “representatives” worked on God’s behalf: the patriarchs, then Moses and the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood, then the judges, then the prophets, eventually various militants (the Maccabbees and Hasmoneans), the apostles, and finally a series of communal officers (bishops, elders, deacons, etc.). The “prophets,” thus, are usually recognized as having been only one of God’s tools.

There are, of course, points where the Bible itself breaks with this periodizing approach. The texts contributed to the Bible by what scholars call “the Deuteronomist” speak of both Moses and the Messiah as a prophet, but because these texts were likely created during the period of the prophets, this is not terribly surprising. More importantly for Latter-day Saints, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews summarizing the whole of Old Testament divine activity as being the era of “the prophets,” but even this is at odds in important ways with the usual Mormon understanding, since the author of the epistle is clearly claiming that that prophetic period has been brought definitively to an end with the coming of the Son.

There is, however, one way of sorting out this problem: if Mormon understand by “prophet” not so much a calling or an office as a gift of the Spirit (the “gift of prophecy”), then it is possible to gather all the various manifestations—pre- or post-Christ—as being the work of the prophets. In the end, I think this is to our advantage, though I don’t know that I want to take the space to spell it out in detail. For now let me only say that it would likely be necessary for us to employ the term “prophet” in this looser sense when speaking of the Bible because so much of the book makes no pretension to have been written by “prophets” in the stricter sense.

The lesson goes on: “The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many prophecies in the Old Testament foretell the coming of a Savior and Redeemer. The New Testament tells of the life of that Savior and Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ.” The understanding here is far more complex than it might at first appear, and it calls for some detailed remarks.

The problem of the relationship between the two testaments has become a central one in biblical theology, particularly as “supersessionism” (the belief that Christianity “superseded” Judaism) has come to be regarded not only as politically but also as historically problematic. How should Christians think about the fact that their “Old Testament” is, for Jews, the only testament—about the fact that Christians have, in effect, stolen another religion’s sacred texts and given them a meaning that remains fundamentally foreign to the people whose fathers created those texts. It is worth noting that the Book of Mormon weighs in on this question as well (the words are God’s!):

“The Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible. But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles? O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people” (2 Nephi 29:3-5).

Given even the Book of Mormon’s care with regard to the Jewish scriptures, how ought we to think about the relationship between the two testaments? Interesting, the Book of Mormon presents the problematic relationship the Gentiles sustain to the Bible as being provoked in particular because of the emergence of another testament: “And because my words [the Book of Mormon] shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible!” (2 Nephi 29:3). From this it seems that the relationship between the testaments cannot really be thought, for Mormons, except through the complex triangulation established by the emergence of the Nephites scriptures. This should make us reread and think careful about the many texts in our scriptures that claim that the Bible is only to be understood (or even known to be true!) through one’s embrace of the Book of Mormon (see, for example, 1 Nephi 13:40 or D&C 20:8-12).

So what can be said about the relationship between the two (plus one) testaments? I have my own suspicions that the best analysis of the question would have to pass through a careful examination of the status of Messianism, an examination that would then allow for a far more careful approach to the question of typology. I have, myself, been hard at work on these questions, but haven’t any definitive conclusions yet to present here. Obviously, though, I think there is much reason to do this kind of thinking.

Before turning to the Book of Mormon, the lesson takes up what the Saints usually call the Joseph Smith Translation. It should be noted that this entire paragraph was added for this edition. This isn’t difficult to explain: the Joseph Smith Translation has only come to be trusted among the Saints since the last edition of Gospel Principles was issued (in 1978). Robert Matthews published his crucial—though dated, in so many ways—study of the “New Translation” only in 1985, long after he had helped to get some of the JST materials into the footnotes and appendices of the current edition of the scriptures. It was Matthews’ study and the insertion of the JST excerpts that have finally helped to get the Church prepared to grapple with Joseph’s translation of the Bible. (The more recent publication of the JST manuscripts in full have made it possible, at last, to study what Joseph was doing in great detail. Serious, careful studies, however, remain, for the most part, to be undertaken.) All that said by way of introduction, what can be said of the paragraph in the lesson on the JST?

First, I should say that it is carefully written, though I have my doubts that it will be, generally speaking, carefully read. Note that the lesson claims that “The Lord inspired the Prophet Joseph to restore truths to the Bible text that had been lost or changed since the original words were written.” This is brilliantly framed: it is not claimed—and rightly so—that Joseph restored actual text that had been lost or changed, but truths that had been lost or changed. I think this is important: as anyone who can read Hebrew and/or Greek knows, the JST does not restore something the translators have simple skipped over or mistranslated. Rather, Joseph is restoring truths or concepts that may not necessarily have had anything to do with the “original” text, but that need to be known today. That is, Joseph is giving us a new way to make sense of the passages he alters, but not necessarily taking us back to some lost original text. Or, as the lesson puts it, “Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord has expanded our understanding of some passages in the Bible. It is a question of reorienting our thinking regarding the text, not a question of giving us the actual reading of the Bible that should have been given to us. The lesson thus goes on to call Joseph’s alterations “inspired corrections,” a nicely phrased description.

All that said, does Joseph ever, in the JST, provide us with actual texts that have been lost? Is not the approach I’m reading into the lesson here something of an apostate position? Actually, I believe that Joseph did give us some texts that were written anciently and that were lost. However, I think his having done this is far more limited than we generally recognize. This is pointed out to us, I think, in the Book of Moses (part of the larger JST project) itself: in parentheses, the Lord points out that we’re dealing not with the original version of Genesis, but with a similar but distinct document that was hidden up because later generations wouldn’t be able to handle it. In dealing with the JST, I think we need to be careful about what might be restoration of a lost document—but not of the original biblical text—and what might be “inspired correction” added in order to give us an interpretive approach to the scripture.

Obviously, there is a great deal more to say about all of this that I’m only skimming over here. I think there is a great deal to be said about the JST in order to sort out the meaning of that project, but it is only a single point in this larger lesson, so here I’d like to leave it at this. If there are questions in the comments, perhaps I can expand on this point there.

The Book of Mormon

The section on the Book of Mormon is made up of (1) a brief description of the Book of Mormon, (2) Joseph’s famous word about the book as the “keystone of our religion,” and (3) President Benson’s analysis of Joseph’s famous word. I want to pick up on just one line from this section and offer some thoughts on it.

President Benson says that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion in three ways: “in our witness of Christ”; regarding “our doctrine”; and in terms of “testimony.” So far as the first and last of these goes, I don’t know that there is much surprise. But the second of these seems to me to be a bit peculiar. As the lesson quotes President Benson, the question of doctrine can be summarized in the following way: the Book of Mormon “broadens our understandings of the doctrines of salvation. . . . The Book of Mormon . . . was written for our day. . . . In [it] we find a pattern for preparing for the Second Coming.” That is a pretty interesting approach to the question of “doctrine.” Whereas Latter-day Saints usually think of “doctrines” as being something like systematic theological propositions, President Benson seems to see doctrine here as being a question of “a pattern for preparing for the Second Coming.” That, I think, deserves attention.

What has the Book of Mormon to say about the Second Coming? It is, I think, a complicated matter. While the Book of Mormon—except in the historical books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman—does dwell often enough on the eschaton/apocalypse, it seldom says anything about that event being a question of a coming of Christ. The entirety of the small plates, for instance, overlooks the idea of a second coming, never once saying anything about Christ coming again. The eschaton seems to be for Nephi nothing more than the event of the gathering of Israel and the time of the end. In the words of Christ as these are found in Third Nephi, the same is the case: Christ never speaks of His coming again at the end of time—only of the eventual gathering at the end of things. Of course, it is crucial to note that much of Christ’s words are missing because Mormon was commanded to try the faith of the reader. As I hope I will show, there is reason to suspect that Christ’s omitted words had much to say about the question of the Second Coming. But before getting to that, it should be noted that, after Third Nephi, nothing is said about the Second Coming either: there is, after Third Nephi, very little of anything about the apocalypse.

So where does the Second Coming appear in the Book of Mormon? All references are to be found in the last couple chapters of Third Nephi, in a series of asides written by Mormon. Because Mormon puts these references together immediately after his summary of Christ’s visit, one suspects that he gets the idea of the Second Coming from Christ’s unrecorded words. But whatever his source, there is much to be said about the limitation of the Second Coming to those few chapters.

Here I want to draw on the work of Grant Hardy in his recent book Understanding the Book of Mormon. In his brilliant reading of Mormon’s character as editor, Hardy points out that Mormon never describes (or apparently even regards) himself as a “prophet” while writing the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and much of Third Nephi. He seems clearly to have been constructing a very specific theology over the course of those books, coming particularly to a climax in Helaman and the first part of Third Nephi: Mormon is constructing what he sees as definitive proof that prophecy comes true. He does this by recounting prophecies and their fulfillment, and then he begins to outline quite specifically that all this fulfillment business should be understood to confirm the absolute confidence one can have in what Christ has to say about the last days. However, on Hardy’s reading, Mormon’s approach to things quite suddenly collapses when he is commanded not to record the most crucial teachings of the Christ, and he finds himself commanded directly to take up the role of prophet rather than almost-scientific-historian. Mormon-as-prophet, then, only appears in the last chapters of Third Nephi, and it is only there that the Book of Mormon ever mentions the Second Coming.

And Mormon feels that he is hung out to dry on the question of the Second Coming, because he can only testify of its importance and truth.

If the Book of Mormon, in President Benson’s words, provides us “a pattern for preparing for the Second Coming,” it does so in a very interesting way: it does it by refusing to tell us a whole lot about that coming, in fact, by telling us so little about it that we have to do the creative work of finding the pattern ourselves. Of course, for President Benson, that pattern was to be discovered by recognizing the parallels between the experience of the Nephites leading up to the visit of Christ and our own experience leading up to His future visit to us, but all the details Hardy puts us on the trail of force a complex re-reading of that pattern. The Book of Mormon does indeed, it seems to me, get us oriented in a unique way to the Second Coming, but I think there is reason to suggest that the unicity of that orientation has been seldom explored, even in a preliminary way.

It is time, in short, to begin asking what the Book of Mormon is saying about the Second Coming. We’ve hardly begun to do so.

The Doctrine and Covenants

The summary explanation of the Doctrine and Covenants in the lesson is evidence that we, as a people, have no idea what to do with the D&C. It isn’t terribly difficult to describe the Bible as a question of two related testaments, however complex that relationship turns out to be. It isn’t terribly difficult to describe the Book of Mormon as a history of ancient people, largely written in order to orient us to the covenant in the last days. And it isn’t terribly difficult to describe the Pearl of Great Price as a historically haphazard gathering of various canonical texts. But what on earth do we do with the Doctrine and Covenants, this mess of revelations that can’t really be summarized in any way except as a collection of modern revelations?

The description in the manual makes clear that there is no obvious way to unify the D&C into a single project. And I think that ought to be a signal to us that we have done far, far too little work on this volume of scripture. Of course, most of what I’ve said in my notes here suggests that we’ve done far too little work on Mormon scripture (including the Bible!) in general, but my point here is to say that we don’t even know how to begin with the D&C. It is, in many ways, the void of the Mormon scriptural situation. And it seems to me that this is ironic. If there is anything Mormon scholars have done extensive work on, it is the early history of the Church, the history that should be able to help us make sense of the D&C. It turns out, however, that we tend to do something like history for history’s sake, instead of doing history specifically in order to clarify the revelations. And the result is that we’re left with this mess of a canonical book.

Of course, there is much, it seems to me, that can be done in a preliminary way with the D&C in an attempt to get oriented towards doing serious work. We would do well to recognize a kind of periodization in the D&C: the revelations in New York being associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon and moving toward the establishment of a basic sense of authority; the revelations in Ohio and Missouri being closely related to the New Translation of the Bible and the need to organize the priesthood systematically; the “revelations” in Illinois being so many expository teachings opening up the organization of the Church to its theological bearings and explosive doctrinal implications. And we would do well to recognize that the D&C itself is the product of a strange but traceable provenance: launched with what is now D&C 3 (the first written revelation), eventually gathered into the Book of Commandments, a book that had a very specific notion of revelation, eventually regathered into the 1835 D&C, a book that had a very distinct notion of revelation, and eventually regathered again into the 1876 D&C, a book that had a still more distinct notion of revelation, and eventually given its modern shape in 1920, in a book that has a much narrower notion of revelation. And we would do well to recognize that there are central themes in the D&C that tend to get overlooked: the law of consecration, in its various manifestations, makes up the unmentioned backbone of the revelations.

For our purposes here, however, I don’t know how much we can really do without getting distracted from the lesson.

The Pearl of Great Price

This strange book is nicely summarized, I think, in the lesson: it is a very odd assortment. Of course, the standard approach to making a unity of the book has long been that of taking it as providing quick glimpses of the seven major dispensations: Adam’s (Moses 1-5), Enoch’s (Moses 6-7), Noah’s (Moses 8), Abraham’s (Abraham 1-5), Moses (Moses 1), Christ (JS-Matthew), and Joseph Smith (JS-History). This isn’t a bad approach.

Of course, here again it is perhaps important to be familiar with other versions of the Pearl of Great Price that have existed over the years, if only in order to recognize that the book has only slowly taken shape. But whatever its history, here we have a collection of some of the most theologically “advanced” materials in scripture. It is a book we hardly dare touch.

Words of Our Living Prophets

This section—only a paragraph long—makes a quick plug for conference and the Church magazines. It is nicely grounded in the ninth article of faith. I don’t know that I want to say anything else about this paragraph.

Studying the Scriptures

The first paragraph of this last section contains the only other major change in the lesson. It’s last sentence changed from “Our standard works should be placed where our children will see them and learn to love them and use them for the truths they contain” to “We should read the standard works with our children so they will learn to love them and use them for the truths they contain.” The difference is not only interesting, but crucial: it is hardly enough simply to make the scriptures available; it is necessary to read them with our children. I could not agree with this more. I find it immensely productive to read the scriptures with my children (the two oldest have individual reading time with me every day: my six-year-old girl and my four-year-old boy). Our approach has been to read with them, pausing after every verse or half-verse in order to ask questions and get them thinking. They do wonderfully with it, and they already know a good deal about the scriptures. Of course, the remainder of the lesson is focused on us, not on our children. But let me endorse the lesson’s increased emphasis in this new edition on the need to read to and with our children.

The last two paragraphs are, I think, nicely straightforward. Much, much more can of course be said about scripture study (can I recommend Jim F.’s book on the subject?), but I like that the lesson in the manual leaves questions of how quite open.

The lesson ends with a wonderful quotation from the so-called “psalm of Nephi”: “My soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.” I hope we feel the same way.

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 10: “Scriptures” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. DCL said

    Nothing good to add, Joe, other than my thanks. Where I tend to throw up my hands in frustration at the oversimplified nature of these lessons, you do the right thing in delving for accessible levels of meaning. Fascinating read.

  2. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’m esp. interested in your working out this notion of Messianism in the Book of Mormon (and how you’ll appropriate Agamben in the process)….

  3. joespencer said

    Yes, Robert. I’ve realized that Messianism is the missing element in my book, but I don’t think I’m going to attempt this late in the game to add it to my book. Instead, I’m planning on putting together an essay on the subject over the course of the summer (and perhaps three or four other essays trying to push the analyses of my book further). I’ll keep you posted.

  4. Jay said

    I enjoyed your thoughts regarding Mormon (the BofM Prophet). In Ether 12:23-38) Mormon speaks of his weakness of writing the BofM and his fear that people will not believe in the revelations and the fulfillment of them because of his weakness in recounting the events in his record. I think this passage reinforces your comments about Mormon perhaps not seeing himself as a prophet but more as an historian.

  5. cherylem said

    Thanks for these thoughts, very well done, per usual.

    I have a question for you regarding the Pearl of Great Price. It has, for a long time, seemed to be that the”ancient” books in the POGP fit into the middle Temple period (300 BCE to 200 AD, roughly). The Book of Abraham, for all its controversy, fits right into the apocryphal books of that time period. Book of Moses, the same.

    Have you ever thought about this?

  6. joespencer said


    I haven’t spent a great deal of time on the question of exact placement (I’m more of a hermeneut than a historical critic—especially when it comes to the PoGP), but I’m aware of the basic claims and they make decent sense to me. At the same time, I think what makes both the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham so complex is that they seem to be a kind of odd mesh of (1) intertestamental literature, (2) early nineteenth-century midrash, and (3) startlingly robust theological narratives—and all that while tangling itself up with humanity’s beginnings. The historical critic has a terrible task before herself when taking on Moses or Abraham.

  7. cherylem said

    Historical critic . . . not me! However, it is interesting to me that a friend whose field of expertise is middle temple judaism has commented to me, kind of out of the blue, about this same thing. “I don’t agree with JS’s strange sense of history,” he said, “but he seemed to know an awful lot about middle temple judaism.”

    I like your three points regarding Books of Moses and Abraham . . .

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