Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

All or Nothing

Posted by Matthew on January 2, 2014

At times people approach a concern about the scriptures as if their entire testimony depends on resolving the question in a particular way. I think of this as all-or-nothing type thinking. I want to discuss here why I think all-or-nothing type thinking is wrong.

Others here on Feast may not be interested in reading this post. They’ve already helped me work through my thoughts related to this on a couple of different occasions (see for example herehere, and here). The purpose of this post is not to break new ground but rather to sum up my current thinking.

A specific event prompted me to write this post. A Mormon neighbor of mine has had a lot of questions about things that bother her in our church both in the scriptures and with things the prophets have said. In a Facebook comment I said that, like her, I don’t agree with everything the scriptures say or a prophet has ever said. She responded asking how I could do that given what our Church leaders have taught us. She quoted Elder Callister’s talk in October 2011. Here is the relevant part of that talk.

That is the genius of the Book of Mormon—there is no middle ground. It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud. This book does not merely claim to be a moral treatise or theological commentary or collection of insightful writings. It claims to be the word of God—every sentence, every verse, every page.

I promised to write a longer response in a blog format since Facebook comments aren’t the best format for a full explanation. Beverly, I apologize that it took me so long to get back with you. Here goes…

The appeal of the all-or-nothing approach is that a single spiritual experience can establish that every part of Mormon belief is true. Despite its appeal, this view is wrong. Of course, the all-or-nothing claim usually takes a more limited form than the one I stated. It might be applied to only words of the President of the Church spoken over the pulpit or just the scriptures or just the Book of Mormon. But whether limited or not, life just doesn’t conform to such tidy boxes. We have to use the Spirit to discern truth.

The are risk of not living under the shelter of an all-or-nothing view is that we reject something that we ought not. There are two ways this risk happens.

First, we may reject something as wrong because our understanding is incomplete. We ought instead to look for a better explanation of what is going on. Just as we should try to understand those around us in the best light possible we should try to interpret the actions of prophets and the words of the scriptures charitably.

Second, we may reject something incorrectly, even if we understand it properly, because we are in the wrong. If I don’t accept this possibility when I am reading the scriptures or listening to prophets then I am wasting my time reading/listening. In fact, most types of communication aren’t of much value if I don’t allow for the possibility that I am wrong. And prophets and scriptures, because of their special authority, deserve especially careful consideration on my part.

So, in a world where I could be wrong and I could be misunderstanding something, is there ever a reason to reject a part of the scriptures? Yes, in those cases where I disagree with the scriptures and I am being as honest as I can and I don’t think I am wrong and I am trying my best to understand and I don’t think I am misunderstanding.

Here’s my own example. I am troubled by those sections of the Old Testament which, reading the text as honestly as I can, endorse genocide. I could either accept the fact that in some cases God wants people to commit genocide or I can reject that part of the scriptures. The Spirit testifies to me that God does not want people to commit genocide, which, importantly, is consistent with the message we see in a lot of other scriptures.

To reject the all-or-nothing view I am showing an example of how the scriptures are true and something in them is wrong. And though I have spent time explaining something I want to reject in scripture I haven’t yet testified that the scriptures are true! That is of course the most important point and I’ll end with that. But there are two more points of lesser importance I want to hit on first.

First, I haven’t said much about Elder Callister’s talk. My guess is that though he and I don’t choose to explain how testimony works in the same way (i.e. he wouldn’t think I am using quite the right words just as I don’t think he is) that when it comes down to it we both really agree on these major points: we both both have a testimony of the Book of Mormon; we both believe Joseph Smith is a prophet; and we both think those two beliefs are tied together. My guess is that if he stumbled on this post he wouldn’t tell me that since I don’t believe God condones genocide (and since the Book of Mormon refers to but doesn’t disagree with the Old Testament on this point) that I can’t accept the Book of Mormon as true. I don’t think he would tell me that I must consider the whole thing a fraud and leave the Church. But even if he took that very unlikely position, I would simply respond that my testimony of the Book of Mormon didn’t come from him and I’m not giving up on it just because he thinks I ought to.

This last sentence (the sort of worst-case thinking it has in it) brings me to the second point I want to hit on before I close with my testimony of the Book of Mormon. When someone says “this verse is racist” or “this prophet shouldn’t have said/done that” I think sometimes we need to step back and say “maybe the person who wrote that verse was racist” and “maybe the prophet who said that was wrong.” To me that is often a better response than “let me explain why this verse isn’t racist.” Note that I think this can be the best response even when there is a very good explanation as to why the verse is not racist. Why?

Let me give an example. Imagine a friend of mine in school is very depressed about how poorly they are doing in their classes this semester. Maybe they are so depressed they feel like taking their own life. I would hope that such a person could step back from their current problems and say “Even if I fail all of my classes this semester, there is more to my life than school. I can still have a great life even if this semester doesn’t work out as I had hoped.” Maybe the truth is that they aren’t doing as badly as they think and maybe if they really apply themselves they can still get As. In some cases maybe they need to be told they still can get the grades they want. But sometimes the right thing to say is “consider the worst case, now what?” Considering the worst case scenario can help us put things in perspective.

In the same way as in the school example, it can sometimes be helpful to just imagine for a moment that what a prophet said or what is written in the scriptures is wrong (even when it turns out not to be). This gives one a chance to remember what their testimony is based on. They can consider then what the right course of action would be if they determined that the worst case scenario were true. Once properly thought through from a worst-case-scenario perspective they may or may not need to go back and decide what they think of the verse. But either way we can put the thing we don’t agree with or don’t understand in the correct perspective by remembering what we do know—by remembering our testimony.

Here’s mine:

More than from any other book, my testimony of Jesus Christ comes from the Book of Mormon. I need real repentance and true forgiveness both for myself and for those around me. I am sustained by the hope for a better world and that hope is wrapped up in my belief in the Savior. I am grateful to the Book of Mormon for helping me gain a testimony of Jesus Christ.

When I read the first chapters of Mosiah, I feel the same as I do when I read D&C 121 or the Sermon on the Mount, namely, can people really read this and not believe that at least in some sense these words come from God? Whether they can or not, I know them to be true.

I could no more deny the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon than I could deny that I ought to help others in need. The same spirit testifies of both to me.

Certain passages of scripture are particularly meaningful to me. I remember the first time I was struck by the second half of 2 Nephi chapter 4 or the beginning of Enos. I remember the many times on my mission my companion and I read 3 Nephi 11 with people who had never read anything from the Book of Mormon before. I will never deny that the Spirit of God was in those homes. We felt it. They felt it.

Beverly and Kelly, I hope you figure out how to reconcile your concerns in a way that allows you to remain part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

9 Responses to “All or Nothing”

  1. jennywebb said

    Matthew, thank you for continuing this discussion. I think that it’s one that needs to be revisited repeatedly simply because it’s such a pervasive issue. I, too, have a friend whose reading of that section of Elder Callister’s talk has been to then see things in a very black and white manner, and I want to share a few more thoughts regarding the section you quote.
    “That is the genius of the Book of Mormon—there is no middle ground. It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud. This book does not merely claim to be a moral treatise or theological commentary or collection of insightful writings. It claims to be the word of God—every sentence, every verse, every page.”
    I think one way to read this is to think about what it means for something to be “the word of God.” If we look at the scriptures as a whole as the word of God, then we have a word that is often context-specific (historically, culturally, etc.) or directed to a specific individual. What this means is that we often have conflicting instructions on items both large and small (genocide vs. well, not genocide; heads covered vs. heads bared; etc.). The word of God is not some monolithic truth in this sense—instead, it is an individually attenuated truth. What I take from the scriptures, then, is evidence and witness that God will speak to me. Granted, the overarching message will be the same (the Plan of Salvation, the Atonement, Forgiveness, Resurrection, etc.), but something may be true for me in my life in a way that is unrecognizable as truth for another.
    So, it’s quite possible to believe that the Book of Mormon is completely the word of God, but to also believe that there are ways of reading its verses that allow for multiple interpretations, contextual relevance, etc., because that’s what the word of God is: infinite.

  2. Robert C. said

    Excellent, Matthew. (And, I confess, I think I’ve come closer to your point of view regarding the genocide kinds of issues in scripture, partly thanks to continued thinking about points you made several years ago, though I don’t remember very well what I said about these issues before. Anyway, thanks.)

  3. sterflu said

    Thank you, Matthew, for sharing this. I was struck by your comment about charitable interpretation. Your examples suggest there is value in validating the concerns that others express. I have seen situations, similar to what you describe, where someone wants to debate the other person’s premise and dismiss their question. I hear you saying charitable communication requires more kindness and patience. Instead of seeking to promote our own views, we should try to grasp the perspective of others and show respect for the issues they have wrestled with. The Lord speaks to his children “according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne. 31:3). He also recognizes “imperfections” in his prophets and the wording of the scriptures and challenges us to humbly seek knowledge that goes beyond what has already been expressed (D&C 67:5-10). I appreciate these reminders and know I can do a better job of not taking offense at those who imply they possess a “perfect knowledge of the language” of the Book of Mormon (Jacob 7:4) or who criticize our mindset and tell us what we can and “cannot know” (Alma 30:15-16).

  4. Steve Warren said

    Excellent thoughts, Matthew. My testimony of the Book of Mormon is similar to yours.

    Re Elder Callister’s: “It claims to be the word of God—every sentence, every verse, every page.” That’s simply incorrect. The writers of the Book of Mormon were quite aware of their imperfections in writing and seemed to worry about it. I could point out a number of imperfections in the current Book of Mormon, but rather than do that, I’ll simply say that Elder Callister perhaps hasn’t read through the 1830 edition and compared it with the current edition. My 1830 replica edition cost just $20, as I recall.

    I also share your views on genocide in the Old Testament. The opinions of certain religious fanatics of today who say all artificial birth control and abortion are wrong certainly seems far different from the decrees of the God who, if we are to believe the Old Testament, ordered the slaughter of pregnant women in certain cities. Of course, these people insist all of the Old Testament is the word of God.

  5. Ben S. said

    Excellent post. It seems, based on the wording in the relevant article of faith, that we believe “incorrect translation” invalidates being called “the word of God.” I’m not sure E. Callister was basing his comments off that, but my knee-jerk reaction is to argue against the conception that “word of God” entails perfection or completeness, or lack of enculturation (as I’ve blogged about multiple times.)

  6. Thanks Matt, for sharing your points of view, I would have liked to have responded much sooner, but, I had been pre-occupied with some intense mind and brain pickings over the past month or so, only to come up short and still clueless on that count. Simple Simon says, I need to be a simple disciple. I’m not sure anything I have to share is meant to change your mind, but rather to share others points of view.

    Also, we could say such statements sound racist, or perhaps, they were not politically correct, looking at it from our day with hindsight, and that the person was not necessarily racist? Maybe they were working off bad or poor intelligence (intel) or because of reasons unknownst to us, they momentarily lost the spirit of prophecy and perhaps, in some cases, it wasn’t even their own fault, sin, or shortcomings for such loss of prophecy. I wonder too if one of the lessons to learn is that the Lord truly works through us imperfect mortal beings, even today. Elder Callister is scheduled next Sunday 1/12/2014 for a CES Devotional.

    I would add that if we can step back and also try to find out for ourselves through prayerful and thoughtful study, pondering, and searching out the answers for ourselves, by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, before coming to any conclusion? It may add a measure of peace and comfort, even while in the unknowingness of it all.

    Have we earnestly given it the good old college try and still coming up empty or short? Maybe we can seek answers from qualified leaders, teachers, and/or scholars on the subject matter. For me, Feastuponthewordblog has been and is a good place to seek answers. It seems as if, things have a way of coming back around and with new insight or good or better questions. If still we cannot come to terms, and do not receive what we perceive as a satisfactory answer, then it may be a personal matter, and subjective. I prefer to follow and give my leaders the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are my bishop, stake president, prophet, seers and revelators. We and they do not claim to know everything and certainly do not have all the answers. But obedience and great care ought to be exercised and maintained even and especially if we do disagree.

    Is it something that may require planting a seed and nourishing until it grows root, allowing it time to grow and become waxed strong by trying on and applying the virtue of the word of God, so as to come to know for oneself? Or it may die and wither away because it was simply false, or was not properly nourished, than that ought to be exercised as well. This works well for me with tithing & the law of consecration, the word of wisdom, being kind to others and performing service, keeping the commandments, keeping the Sabbath Day Holy, scripture study, holding my tongue, even though I would like nothing better, than to shout from the roof tops, the great things which God hath done!, etc…

    If it’s an Old Testament question you have, I would also recommend making nice with some good Jewish friends, and if you are like me and have lived in Massapequa, aka, Matza-Pizza, New York, or similar, go to a nice Jewish Kosher Bagel and Bialy deli. Get involved with their culture and eat some of the best food around. I know this to be true, but don’t just take my word for it, ask them. Many take Torah reading and dining very serious and coming to know their culture could be very beneficial, not to mention satiating. If you are in Salt Lake City you may have to settle for an Einstein type, which is good.

  7. This was meant for your first HERE link above….

    I doubt that anything I present will answer or satisfy your want or need for a good answer.
    I will off a few thoughts though. I have a few challenges with there being too many errors in the Old Testament, especially, compared to the New Testament. The Jewish scribes were a fastidious devout bunch, which held fast to rules of transcribing, that which is recorded in the Talmud, an ancient record of discussions that pertain to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history.

    They performed very exacting and cleansing rituals that did not tolerate errors.
    I will mention only two:
    • Every time the scribe wrote the Hebrew word for the name of God, they were required to wipe their pen clean and wash their entire body in reverence.
    • Once the copying was completed on scrolls it was to be examined and checked for accuracy within 30 days. If a scribe made even one mistake the entire sheet had to be destroyed and if mistakes were found on at least three separate pages the entire manuscript was condemned.

    Although what happened much later could have accounted for some mistakes in translation, I believe it to be more towards the missing of books or for reasons unknown to us are missing something. According to the Pentateuch & Haftorahs, one such is the book of Wars of the Lord of Vaheb in Suphah, and the books of Arnon, and the descent of the Brooks that turneth toward Shebeth-Arand leaneth upon the border of Moab. All these books names occur in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, and are unknown to us now (Leeser).

    According to the Book of Yehoshua (Joshua) a New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, which reminded me of Captain Moroni, read Alma 43-44? Joshua and the Captain both used spies. They both would give their enemies the chance to make oaths, and if they did accept an oath, they would be spared, otherwise death.

    Oaths –which were given, would be sworn in the name of the Lord. In the Book of Mormon, they would say “As the Lord Liveth”. The oath which the messengers in the book of Yehoshua, had taken were only required to save Rachav’s (Rahab’s) immediate family. However, since Joshua told them to rescue everything in the house, they complied and protected her extended family also (Alshich) Joshua 2:13-14,17.

    Put yourself in that time period, or rather in their place, and you wanted to live, wouldn’t you marry into that extended family? Perhaps chances were given and choices made that we do not have record of. Just a thought to consider. So, it could be, that there were opportunities to be spared for them, that wanted to be spared, or believed, and the rest, as in the Book of Mormon, when Zarahemnah refused to take an oath, had his scalp taken off and ultimately was forced through defeat, to submit to the oath or die, submitted. Also, we see, that Amalickiah wouldn’t agree to an oath covenant and ultimately he was not spared (Al. 51:34).

    We see in the book of Mormon that sometimes the righteous die. In Alma 24:21-24 This seemed to be what actually converted their enemy, when they saw their fellow brethren not lift arms against them and would rather die in the act of praising their God, it had caused them to have compassion and never want to kill again. On that day, we saw that the number that joined the people of God were greater than the number of them that died (vs.26).

    And in Alma 14:8-11 when Amulek and Alma were forced to witness wives, children, and the people that believed and were murdered by fire, Amulek was distraught and deeply pained with anguish. He wanted Alma to exercise the power of God, but Alma told Amulek that the spirit constraineth him from stretching forth and exercising this power, so that the righteous innocent will stand as witness against their enemies at the last day.

    Another example given by Malbim in the Book of Yehoshua, explains that God exacts punishment in two ways. When God punishes sinners directly, He only punishes those that have personally transgressed. He also punishes sinners indirectly by withdrawing His Divine protection, others who didn’t actually commit the misdeed may also suffer. We see God withdrew His divine protection during the battle of Ai, because of Achan’s sin. In the absence of this Divine protection thirty six Israelites fell in battle (Joshua 7:5). In that same chapter we see Achan and his family are stoned and burned by fire but not before he had ample chance to confess his sins, but did not, until Joshua received revelation and confronted Achan again, to confess his sins, so that he can leave this world and enter the next life reconciled.

    The mere fact that Joshua had to send spies into Ai, in Judaism, is proof enough that he did not have the spirit of prophecy with him at that time and hence the need for the said spies and perhaps poor choices too. And to make matters worse, fuel to the fire, the spies didn’t do exactly as instructed in their survey or assessment of the land and enemy. This resulted in too few men to take that land and the enemy.

    In Judaism the accused are given ample opportunity to confess and a number of Sanhedrin’s give trial and there are witnesses and even at the last minute if the accused confess, they can be immediately spared. It’s as if they really do not want to stone and kill people, but ultimately, if the accused are defiant and proud, justice will prevail.

    Daas Sofrim explains that God normally deals with Israel with the Attribute of prolonged patience. Even when a community commits transgressions, God delays punishment in the hope that the Jews will repent. However when God’s anger is finally kindled, this Attribute is suspended. At such times God may also punish the Jewish people for past transgressions. This reasoning explains how the sin of one individual could bring punishment to the entire community. Also, there seems to be indication that, some bad things happen as fulfillment of prophecies, or perhaps, caused by previous unrighteous fathers and now being brought upon their posterity.

    According to the Pentateuch & Haftorahs Israel is bidden to display human kindness even in wartime: thus, the betrothed is to be exempt from service; offers of peace are to be made to every city attacked; and fruit-trees are not to be destroyed during a siege. The conduct of war is to be guided by reason and mercy. Israelite kings were famed for their humanity (1 Kings 20: 31); while contemporary Assyrian monarchs delighted in inhuman savagery, and made it a rule to devastate forests and cultivated fields (Isa. 14:8).

  8. joespencer said

    Nice, Matthew. Very nice.

  9. JKC said

    Matthew, this is a great post. Thanks for writing it. I have little to add, just that I completely agree. I sometimes find when I express an opinion that certain passages in the Book of Mormon are simply wrong, that people are shocked that I would say that and claim to believe the Book of Mormon. I am surprised by these reactions, because the Book of Mormon has no omniscient narrator. It claims to be an ancient record, created by real people. So, for example, when Nephi says that the Lord caused a “skin of blackness” to come on the Lamanites because of their iniquity, strictly speaking, the “Book of Mormon” doesn’t say that God cursed people, *Nephi* says that. I can conclude that Nephi may have been describing an actual physical attribute (perhaps the result of intermarriage with a darker-skinned indigenous population), and that he attributed that to a divine curse. But the Book of Mormon does not actually claim that God spoke to Nephi and told him that. Nephi just expresses it. (And frankly, if the book were completely free of racism and tribal thinking, including attributing racist attitudes to God, it’s claim as an authentic ancient record would be even more suspect, in my opinion.) I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that I believe that it is more faithful to the Book of Mormon’s claims about itself to regard it as a collection of writings by real men, not as a dictation from God speaking himself.

    My take on Elder Callister’s statement is that what he really means is that the Book of Mormon claims to be revealed to the prophet by the power of God (what we know called “translation”). In other words, it is the word of God in the sense that God gave it to Joseph, not that God actually authored it. To take that statement into the realm of a claim of inerrancy would, in my opinion, do far more violence to Mormon doctrine. We don’t believe in biblical inerrancy, so why would we believe in Book of Mormon inerrancy? I suppose such a notion is theoretically possible, but I think that would be a misreading of the articles of faith (I think saying that we believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God is shorthand for the same statement that is applied to the Bible in the previous sentence, and I don’t think that leaving out the “as far as it is translated correctly” is significant. How could we believe in inerrancy, given that we don’t believe in infallibility? It makes no sense to say that prophets are fallible, but that their writing, once it is collected into scripture, suddenly becomes infallible. In addition, the concept of inerrancy is also closely related to the concept of the closed canon, which we also reject. Not to mention that many revisions to the Book of Mormon and to the Doctrine and Covenants that were done suring Joseph’s lifetime. He obviously didn’t see the text of the Book of Mormon or of his revelations as inerrant. So yes, we believe that it is “the word of God” in the same sense that we believe that the Bible (also a collection of ancient texts by men) is the word of God. But that doesn’t mean that we think it or any other scripture is inerrent.

    (Not to mention that “the Word of God” isn’t, I would argue, the best label for scripture. The “rod of iron” that the Book of Mormon calls “the word of God” is, I would argue, a symbol not of scripture, but of the Holy Ghost, given that you only get it after entering by path by the gate that Nephi later interprets as a symbol for baptism. My point is that the “word of God” comes through many sources, and appears in many forms. The most important form, of course, is Jesus himself. But beyond him, the primary and most important source is personal revelation from the Holy Ghost, and scripture is really only an effective conduit of the Word of God to the extent that it serves as a tool for personal revelation. But that’s probably beyond the scope of this post anyway.)

    Anyway, great post. Thanks for sharing it.

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