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Bible Scholarship

by Stephen E. Robinson

Latter-day Saints recognize Bible scholarship and intellectual study of the biblical text. Joseph Smith and his associates studied Greek and Hebrew and taught that religious knowledge is to be obtained by study as well as by faith (D&C 88:118). However, Latter-day Saints prefer to use Bible scholarship rather than be driven or controlled by it.

The Prophet Joseph Smith suggested certain broad parameters for any LDS critical study of the Bible: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God" (A of F 8). Because Latter-day Saints prefer prophets to scholars as spiritual guides, and the inspiration of scripture and the Holy Ghost to the reasoning of secondary texts, Bible scholarship plays a smaller role in LDS spirituality than it does in some denominations.

A fundamental operating principle of "revealed" religions is that all truth cannot be completely discovered through human reason alone. Without God's aid, no one can obtain the vital data, proper perspectives, and interpretive keys for knowing him (see Reason and Revelation). Because Latter-day Saints believe that their religion is revealed through living prophets of God, they subordinate human reason to revealed truth.

In this latter connection, Latter-day Saints show some affinities with contemporary conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical Bible scholarship. They accept and use most objective results of Bible scholarship, such as linguistics, history, and archaeology, while rejecting many of the discipline's naturalistic assumptions and its more subjective methods and theories. In those instances where Bible scholarship and revealed religion conflict, Latter-day Saints hold to interpretations of the Bible that appear in the other LDS scriptures and in the teachings of latter-day prophets.

These observations suggest three basic operating principles for Bible scholarship among Latter-day Saints:

1. Approaches to the Bible must accept divine inspiration and revelation in the original biblical text: it presents the word of God and is not a merely human production. Therefore, any critical methodology that implicitly or explicitly ignores or denies the significant involvement of God in the biblical text is rejected. With minor exceptions, such as the Song of Solomon, which Joseph Smith judged not to be inspired (cf. IE 18 [Mar. 1915]:389), the text is not to be treated in an ultimately naturalistic manner. God's participation is seen to be significant both in the events themselves and in the process of their being recorded. His activity is thus one of the effects to be reckoned with in interpreting the events and in understanding the texts that record them.

2. Despite divine inspiration, the biblical text is not uninfluenced by human language and not immune to negative influences from its human environment, and there is no guarantee that the revelations given to ancient prophets have been perfectly preserved (cf. 1 Ne. 13:20-27). Thus, critical study of the Bible is warranted to help allow for, and suggest corrections of, human errors of formulation, transmission, translation, and interpretation of the ancient records.

3. Such critical scholarship, in addition to recognizing the divine origins of the Bible, must in its conclusions take account of the teachings of the Book of Mormon and the other revelations to modern prophets included in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, since for Latter-day Saints such sources not only have priority over revelations recorded in antiquity (cf. D&C 5:10) but also aid in interpreting the biblical text.

Latter-day Saints insist on objective hermeneutics, that is, they maintain that the biblical text has a specific, objective meaning and that the intent of the original author is both important and largely recoverable. For this reason, LDS scholars, like other conservatives, have tended toward the more objective tools of Bible scholarship, such as linguistics, history, and archaeology—recognizing that these tools themselves have to be evaluated critically—and have generally avoided the more subjective methods of literary criticism.

The most influential LDS Bible commentators include James E. Talmage, Bruce R. McConkie, Sidney B. Sperry, and Hugh W. Nibley, though Talmage's work was completed prior to many important discoveries, and McConkie's work is concerned less with critical exegesis than with understanding the New Testament within the overall body of LDS doctrine.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page; The Holy Bible home page)

Bibliography

Anderson, Richard L. Understanding Paul. Salt Lake City, 1983.

McConkie, Bruce R. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. Salt Lake City, 1965-1973.

Nibley, Hugh W. Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Salt Lake City, 1986-.

Sperry, Sidney B. Paul's Life and Letters. Salt Lake City, 1955.

Sperry, Sidney B. The Voice of Israel's Prophets. Salt Lake City, 1961.

Sperry, Sidney B. The Spirit of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City, 1970.

Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Salt Lake City, 1915.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Bible Scholarship

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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