Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Does It Matter if the Scriptures are True?

Posted by kirkcaudle on January 6, 2010

In Jim’s post, “Why Reading the OT is Sometimes so Difficult,” he deals with the issue of “truth.” Jim says, most people already think they understand the term, “but when we talk about history, the meaning of the word ‘true’ becomes important.” For the sake of this post, I will define “truth” as historically accurate.

With this definition of truth in mind, how important is it to your faith that the scriptures are true? Or in other words, historically accurate? Or maybe how important (if at all) should it be?

I am currently reading the book “The Bible: A Biography,” by Karen Armstrong (a wonderful scholar for anyone who has not read her). Like many secular religious scholars, she doubts the historic nature of many of the Biblical narratives. In regards to the Exodus, she says there is “nothing to indicate a large-scale change of population,” and thus, “The scholarly consensus is that the story of the Exodus is not historical” (pg. 15). Now I am not meaning to discuss whether or not she is correct. Because of faith, I believe the Exodus did take place. However, what if I am wrong? Or what if the Israelites did not really wonder in the desert 40 years? Should it bother me if historical facts I was brought up believing turn out to be false?

I think we as member of the Church have an easier time dealing with historical inaccuracies in the Bible, than we do in the Book of Mormon. Mormons tend to be much more defensive of attacks on the Book of Mormon than they are on the same sort of attacks on the Bible. For example, what if we found out that the prophets did have an agenda when they wrote their history? What if Mormon exaggerated the number of deaths in a war? Or purposely slandered certain characters? Or maybe a certain city mentioned did not even exist? I think most members would believe the Exodus did not really happen as recorded, before they would believe Lehi’s journey did not happen as recorded.

I know I am not the first person to bring up these questions, but as I have been reading lately I have been pondering how they influence us in the church. And more importantly, how they influence me as a teacher/student.

So let me set forth these questions for discussion:

1. Does history matter in scripture? Are history and faith related?
2. Do historical debates have any place in Sunday School?
3. Does history dictate how we read the text?
4. Do you agree or disagree with the statement, “when we talk about history, the meaning of the word ‘true’ becomes important.”

47 Responses to “Does It Matter if the Scriptures are True?”

  1. RuthS said

    1. Yes it matters. How much it matters is open to question. Many people I have dealt with believe that it only matters if it teaches some moral principle. I think that there is an intrinsic meaning in scripture that is important to understand. Hence we need to understand the historical context. There are many things we accept as truth that cannot be proven. What kind of evidences would there need to be to establish truths from so many thousands of years ago? The lack of evidence does not negate truth.

    I am thinking in particular of the contrast between the two books of Kings and the two books of Chronicles. They cover the same time period, but the point of view of the two sets is decidedly different. Does that change the history, no. What it does is give us a fuller picture from more than one side so that we can better understand what might be considered historically accurate. I have often wondered why it is we don’t talk about Chronicles when we put so much emphasis on Kings. I suspect is because we see more stories that support core concepts we wish to teach. If that is true I think it is unfortunate because it gives the impression that historical accuracy does not matter.

    2. Historical instruction might have a place in Sunday School. Debates don’t simply because there are not enough people with enough information for an enlightened debate to take place. Debates in Sunday School are usually not worth what ever light they generate.

    3. Sometimes history dictates how we read a text. In my view it doesn’t do it often enough.

    4. History isn’t about truth, so no, it’s meaning doesn’t become important. Lies made up to look like history are not what they claim to be; they are propaganda, and truth has no place in such tracts. Real history is about honesty and an unbiased examination and interpretation of documents. It is extremely rare. But honest history requires an examination of as much original material on any subject as is available on every side of the question.

    I must conclude that honesty in this case is more important that truth.

  2. Michael said

    In honoring Stephen Colbert, I would argue that a better term than “truth” is “truthiness”. Do the scriptures have “truthiness” to them?

  3. Robert C. said

    I would say that historical notions of truth should have very little place in Sunday school and our study of the scriptures.

    I mentioned Brant Gardner’s new FARMS article on Mormon’s editorial work in the Book of Mormon. Joe responded with lackluster enthusiasm for the piece, and that caused me to recognize a kind of (presumably unintentional irony) in the piece. Gardner talks about how Mormon was putting together a didactic book, more concerned about eternal truths than mere historical truths. But then Gardner goes on to try to reconstruct what the historical truth probably was, instead of studying the words and themes that Mormon actually wrote. This is the danger: to not be completely miss the truths of the Book of Mormon, as Mormon intended them, because of an interest in historical truth….

    • BHodges said

      Gardner’s article is a very small portion of his overall work, which on the whole is meant to underscore how the BoM ultimately testifies of Christ. His 6-volume commentary is full of discussion, not only of a historical nature, but of didactic nature. Further, history (stories) help us better understand more abstract principles. So I disagree that Gardner’s article misses the truths of the BoM because of an over-interest in historical truth. Gardner is arguing in this article, and I think he makes a good case, that the very compilation of the book witnesses to a Messiah, and it does it deliberately. I don’t think there is a necessary difference in value between a more historical/analytical or didactic/homiletic approach.

      Yes, we can end up overlooking the weightier matters by focusing only on history (looking past the mark, or looking up to the mark but not at it?). At the same time, history, stories, are so often used to teach the truth or show us the mark that I don’t know if we can declare either way for all time in all cases that one is better than the other, or that one can be without the other.

  4. Jacob B. said

    I think this question is at the heart of a lot of contemporary Book of Mormon discourse. The Book of Mormon and its origins are tied directly to Joseph Smith’s prophethood. Any severing of its historical accuracy (both in translation and as a record of actual events) in turn calls into question Joseph’s claims concerning the book. I think this is why FARMS, for example, has exerted so much energy in demonstrating the plausibility of its ancient origins.

    I think there is a place for this approach, but it has assumed a much too large position in Mormonism. I don’t think this approach to scriptures is terribly important for purposes of faith, especially where theological appropriation is concerned, by which I mean applying the scriptures productively to our own lives and situations. In an important sense, focusing almost exclusively on showing origins has distracted so many from a personal engagement with the text itself (which is why things like the Mormon Theology Seminar are so important). It’s almost as if confidence that the scriptures are true (historically accurate) and therefore has or can supplant serious engagement with them.

    If the scriptures were shown to be demonstrably historically inaccurate or false, I suppose this could affect one’s faith in them, and their connections to salvation and practice, in theory. However, I think their historicity is ambiguous (not demonstrably, incorrigibly true or false), and it seems as if this is how it should be. Ambiguity should, in my mind, remove the necessity or urge to see them as only historical productions and thereby allow one to liken them to oneself in any age. This makes them far more fruitful and useful to us.

    • BHodges said

      It also depends on the story, I think. Or the expectations we have about what an ancient history would discuss. If you discovered that Jesus really wasn’t resurrected historically do you think this would have an impact n your religious outlook? The historicity of this event seems more important, than say, the Exodus. It seems there is a scale of some sort, in other words, btu it is likely weighted differently depending on the individual.

  5. J. Madson said

    I personally think history matters and that we should discuss it. But we are dealing with religious history which goes beyond facts. In what sense? I am less concerned for example over whether the exodus and entrance into Palestine happened and more concerned over whether what was alleged about it (such as God commanding the genocide of men, women, and children is historical). Did God actually command that? Did someone believe God commanded it, albeit erroneously? Or was it made up later to cover up Israel’s crimes or on the other hand to make Israel seem greater historically?

    Look at what Genesis reports about the priesthood. Apparently it was killing one of your own kin or neighbors in cold blood that qualified you for becoming a priest. In this instance I can accept the historical truth (assuming its true) that these murders actually did occur and they were considered essential to the priesthood. Where the truthiness of all this come to a forefront to me is how it relates to God. Again, I am more concerned about the truth of what man, even prophets, allege or claim about God, his nature, and desires, etc than I am their historical narrative per se.

  6. Zac said

    Its interesting to think of what “true” means in different lights, because there really is only one definition. “Truthiness” gets a lot closer to what we are talking about I think, but the fact is that we know very little about what actually happened that long ago (or for that matter I think, what actually happens today). The science that we use to broaden our understanding of the past is flawed and can’t be used to verify or disprove most of what happened in the Bible. Both the paths of religious belief and scientific require faith to be believed, and both leave gaps in our understanding. I think that accepting the record as God has given it to us as true is the only sure bet between the two options. And as surely as “no man can serve two masters” we must also decide what we believe by choosing who we put our trust in: God or man. In the oft quoted words in Titus 1:2 “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began;”.
    God cannot lie, we must trust His words “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38)

    I believe that most of the questions posed about the “historicity” of the events in scripture only distract us from learning the eternal truths they hold.

    • J. Madson said

      Zac

      The scriptures themselves are not consistent and even contradictory. Much work has been done showing that the OT itself is a text in travail. It does not have one coherent vision of truth but competing ideals and narratives which in my view made Jesus coming all the more necessary. You have heard it said but….

      Let me add, and maybe its a pet peeve of mine, that in my view D&C 1:38 does not indicate that anything a servant says is God’s words. The text seems to argue that God’s words, promises, covenants, etc, will be fulfilled whether he does it by his own hand or whether he uses third parties to do it. It says, “my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

      I agree that the historicity of events may not be as relevant but the historicity or facticity of certain events being attributed to God does matter, no? I think if we are intent on knowing God then we have to be diligent in trying to figure out what he is really like. Much has been attributed to God in making him in our own image.

      • Zac said

        The scriptures may or may not be contradictory or consistent. Our limited view and understanding of what truth is makes many things seem to be conflicting that in fact are not. One example of this is the descriptions of the Godhead being one. It is not until further revelation and understanding that we understand how the different passages do not conflict even though they seem to at first.

        I agree that a servant’s words are not always God’s words. But His prophets acting in His name, performing the duties He has given them is certainly a time when they would be.
        “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” President Wilford Woodruf (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)
        It is not God’s pattern to allow His prophets to lead His people astray, a lesson I believe the OT teaches very well. If He would not allow it then either the scriptures were not written by His prophets for His people, or they are true.

        Yes, whether certain events are attributed to God does matter. Was the parting of the Red Sea a miracle wrought by God or a “natural” occurrence such as the parting of the Reed Sea (as happens all the time from wind) as some have suggested? Was the exodus real or not? I believe that understanding God’s role in our lives, from miracles like manna from heaven to answers to everyday prayers, is essential to our understanding Him enough to be like Him. Pursuing lines of questioning that postulate God or His servants as being liars cannot bring us closer to this knowledge of our Creator or His purposes for us. These approaches to questions do as you stated, “making him in our own image” rather than the other way around.

        Perhaps a better way to approach a study of the historic facts in the Bible would be to assume that the Bible is true and that our methods for uncovering the physical evidence of it can be questioned. When you know what the answer is, it is much easier to find how to get there. 2 + X = 4 is much easier to solve than 2 + X = Y. Assuming that the records that God has provided us with are true (and it was God that provided us with them), then we can start to see what pieces we are missing in our historical database.

        As for the questions posed by the OP,

        1. History does matter. History and faith are not always related, but can be.
        2. I like how RuthS put it.
        3. Our understanding of history may help us to understand the text better, but the Spirit should be our guide as the “history” we understand may or may not be accurate.
        4. I believe the meaning of the word “true” is always important, and never changes. Making a truth less than true (though not untrue) for the sake of logical discussion, while a common method for examining philosophy, does not work when what may be called “absolute truth” is involved. Any truth from God should be considered “absolute truth”.

  7. J. Madson said

    Zac

    there is also the very real possibility that along with

    Our limited view and understanding of what truth is makes many things seem to be conflicting that in fact are not.

    that those writing the scriptures limited view and understanding of what truth is, is part of the confusion. All of us, including prophets, write through the lens of our own worldviews, paradigms, etc. These naturally affect how we understand God, truth, etc.

    I dont want to get into a quote general authorities back and forth but it is pretty clear that statements made from the pulpit, even conference, that were once considered true, are now no longer considered true. I completely agree that our limited perceptions etc can obfuscate our understanding, I just dont accept the idea that a prophet can never teach anything false.

  8. NathanG said

    In medicine we are constantly talking about a patient’s history or the history of the present illness. Learning how to take and accurate and complete history is a major part of medical school. During my psychiatry rotation I was reporting a patient’s history to my attending physician, and upon completing my history, he stopped me and lectured me on how to do it correctly.

    My approach was to gather “facts” as reported by the patient or nurses together and let them speak for themselves. My attending, however, thought the purpose of the history is to tell a story, but to put the facts together in such a way as to justify the conclusion that I was making, in fact, to do it in such a way that they knew precisely which conclusion I was attempting to support with my history. Fact gathering he named “chronicling” and said that’s what nurses do (no offence to any nurses who might read this). They report which medications the patient received, what the patient’s vital signs were, what the patient ate, what came out of the patient, etc. This is not history, although the facts were true.

    As I have come along in my training, and I spend a lot of time reading other physicians reports, at times I find myself saying “they don’t really believe THAT’s what is going on do they?” because they are sharing a history trying lead the reader to the same conclusion they have made. At times I agree, at times I am doubtful. There is the limitation of man.

    Where should history fit? Should it be a chronicle of facts? If it’s a chornicle of facts, we should ask often why certain facts are included and certain facts are not included because many stories in the scriptures are lacking in detail. Should the scriptures be a history in the sense I have described above? In making the story does the author cheat on deatail because the goal is to convey something in a way to lead the reader to a certain conclusion? Some of the best story tellers I know cheat on detail to make the story more compelling, whereas I kill the story by trying to make sure that I have all the facts correct. In the end the story tellers are more memorable.

  9. Eunice Robertson said

    This is what I get from the scriptures, and I’m sorry if it sounds simplistic -we know that they are inspired by Heavenly Father, or our Saviour, and given to his servants to record for mankind, and that they contain God’s will for us. We know that according to these writings this history took place and where it took place. I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie last night and something that was said in the movie stuck in my mind – the Sherlock character said that we’re always trying to fit the facts to our theories, and not the theories to our facts. Isn’t this what we’re continously trying to do as mankind? We’re not content to take Heavenly Father at his word, but have to wrangle about this fact or that discovery. Our testimonies of the Gospel are supposed to show our trust in our Father’s word. It’s nice to have timelines so that we can compare events occurring in our different books of scripture, but what is the real point of reading the scriptures? I read my scriptures to find out what Heavenly Father’s will is for me personally, and He is certainly not going to make me write an exam on the historicity of our scriptures in order to get into the celestial kingdom.

  10. KirkC said

    Thanks for the responses. Here are a few thoughts:

    As we learn the history of the text, we tend to read the text in a different light. I prefer the term different, in lieu the term better, because I am always hesitant to say that how I read a passage of scripture is the “correct” way. Learning of the history of the text can often add a depth of understanding that was previously absent.

    For example, if someone was to give me a verse of scripture and ask what it meant, I could probably tell him or her. However, if I was the read the verse in the context of the chapter, I might give a different answer. If I knew the customs of the people to who the verse spoke, I might give a different answer still. History adds to the depth of the text, and thus gives us diverse interpretations.

    As far as Sunday School goes, I think history should be kept to minimum, and be used only when it further the doctrine presented. Sunday School is not meant to be a history course.

  11. KirkC said

    Quite a variety of responses and viewpoints here. I will try and respond to most.

    #1, Ruth, “I think that there is an intrinsic meaning in scripture that is important to understand. Hence we need to understand the historical context.” I really like this statement, and it sums up nicely what I was trying to say in my previous post.

    #3-4, Rob/Jacob, I think you are both onto something with FARMS and other LDS scholarly organizations (although I myself am a big fan of FARMS, so I in no way mean to disrespect them). Doctrine does appear to take a backseat to history in many articles/publications. While the history is important, it is not important within itself. It needs to bring us closer to a theological understanding of some aspect of the gospel. So in other words, the work does not go far enough (I think Joe made a point similar to this somewhere). And yes, the MTS is an outstanding example of theological research. I really think it does follow-up the work done by FARMS in many ways in connecting the historical with the theological.

    #5, Madson, are you saying that God’s dealings with mankind historically influence the way you understand him eternally? Or maybe if a certain event did not happen (like the killings in Josh.) it would force you to rethink how you view him?

    #6, Zac, “I believe that most of the questions posed about the “historicity” of the events in scripture only distract us from learning the eternal truths they hold.” So are you asserting here that it really does not matter if all the stories in the scriptures are historically true as long as we can gain the necessary doctrinal value from them?

    #8, Nathan, the differences you give between the methods of nurses of doctors is a fascinating example in the context of this discussion! “In making the story does the author cheat on detail because the goal is to convey something in a way to lead the reader to a certain conclusion?” I don’t think the writers “cheat” as in lie or deserve, but I think they all write for a specific purpose, and only include events that are essential. However, I think they may “cheat” in that conversations are not word for word, but the main ideas are present and presented in the order which will be most beneficial to the reader. I think this might be the case for the prophet/anti-christ encounters in the BOM.

    #9, Eunice, I agree we should not speak to scripture, but let scripture speak to us. I would also agree that God will not require an exam to get into heaven.

    I would also like to add, “it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that [we] must build [our] foundation” (Hel. 5:12). This might sound basic, but it is essential. I would hope that none of us would have our tender testimonies dashed by a false (or negative) historical account, although I know this happens. I have seen it. I am not looking for a discussion on how history (true or not) in scripture undermines your testimony, but rather how it effects the way you approach/read the text. I am not sure if that was clear in my OP or not.

  12. Zac said

    Kirk, I am not asserting that it does not matter whether or not the stories are true, simply that we should accept them as true so that our efforts to understand may be put to use understanding the doctrine being put forth, as this is the primary reason the scriptures were written. I love what Eunice said, and I feel the same way. My testimony shows my faith and trust in God and the things He has told me (in the scriptures).

    I agree that an understanding of the history, culture and other factors can help broaden our understanding of the text. But when the “history” and the text seem to be at odds our faith should be placed in God’s word. Placing or trust in man’s view of history leads to what you mentioned: “I would hope that none of us would have our tender testimonies dashed by a false (or negative) historical account, although I know this happens.” On the other hand, placing our trust in what God has told us can only lead to a stronger testimony and a better understanding of our Heavenly Father.

  13. J. Madson said

    KirkC

    are you saying that God’s dealings with mankind historically influence the way you understand him eternally? Or maybe if a certain event did not happen (like the killings in Josh.) it would force you to rethink how you view him?

    Yes I am saying that how God interacts with humanity historically and currently influence how I understand God. Im not sure how it could be any other way. Either God is the type of God that commands genocide or he is not. This matters. Either God is a God that demands child sacrifice, killing of enemies, etc or he doesnt. We could certainly take the approach that God can command and do whatever he wants at any time but that does not tell me why God is good and why I should worship him. If God is just the strongest, biggest bully on the block than should I really worship him. Mind you I dont believe that and believe God is good, infinitely good.

    I love that you cited the scripture that Jesus is our foundation. I have argued persistently in the past that Jesus has to be the prism from which we understand God and all of the other scriptures. It is for this reason that I am highly skeptical of many of the claims made about God at other times in the scriptures. This forces us to face the very real problem that there is a conflict between the Bible’s portrayal of a violent God on one hand and a non violent God on the other hand. To cite another author,

    “The Christian BIble forces us to witness the struggle of these two transcendental visions within its own pages and to ask ourselves as Christians how we decide between them. My answer is that we are bound to whichever of these visions was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus…The person, not the book, and the life, not the text, are decisive and constitutive for us.”

    For me, Jesus taught what God is truly like and then lived as God would have lived. He is the gospel incarnate. This is why I think we have to have at least some hermeneutics of suspicion when we approach the OT and other scriptures. For all the inspiration they do contain and all of the wonderful truths and revelations, etc, they are still written by men and because of this there will always be history told from a certain slant.

  14. J. Madson said

    Eunice, you wrote

    We know that according to these writings this history took place and where it took place. I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie last night and something that was said in the movie stuck in my mind – the Sherlock character said that we’re always trying to fit the facts to our theories, and not the theories to our facts. Isn’t this what we’re continously trying to do as mankind?

    I think one of the problems with this discussion is our modern tendency to conflate factuality with truth. As I believe Jim F. mentioned elsewhere, history in the ancient world was very different than our modern idea of history. When we make assumptions on the other hand that everything in the BIble was meant to be historical in our modern usage of the word we are just as much in danger of fitting the “facts” to our theory. I agree that we read the scriptures to know God’s will but whether or not the nature and will of God was correctly transmitted by ancient prophets, scribes, redactors, etc does matter. While I will give them a fair amount of leniency, Im not going to blindly have some literalist view of scripture which contradicts reason in many instances and frankly ignores the the manner in which the ancient world approached history.

    Take the parables of Jesus. Are they historical? factual? I believe there is truth in his parables even if they were made up. Truth is not necessarily the same thing as factual.

  15. J. Madson said

    Zac

    When the “history” and the text seem to be at odds our faith should be placed in God’s word. Placing or trust in man’s view of history leads to what you mentioned: “I would hope that none of us would have our tender testimonies dashed by a false (or negative) historical account, although I know this happens.”

    Im going to play the devils advocate here and say I would hope that tender testimonies are dashed if they are testimonies based upon falsehoods. Now if someone’s testimony of the existence of God was dashed or a testimony of Christ then I would have concern. But if all we are talking about is a testimony that God actually did x, y, or z in the OT then is it really such a tragedy? What if that testimony was that God demands genocide at times? Is that worth preserving if we discover that he in fact is not like that at all and that that God’s name was in fact taken in vain by those wanting to cover their sins.

    I think our primary allegiance has to be to the truth wherever it leads us. We may find that it will set us free of certain erroneous ideas as well

    • Zac said

      I think that all of our testimonies are tender, and fragile. And even if someones testimony is based on one story from the OT and nothing else yet, it is special and should be nurtured and would be a tragedy to lose.

      • Jim F. said

        YES!

      • J. Madson said

        Zac, I think we are having a problem of semantics. I agree if we define testimony as something akin to I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ etc. I am using the term broadly here in that people can have testimonies of things that are false. If I had a testimony for example that blacks were fence sitters then maybe its not a tragedy if that specific testimony is lost.

  16. Zac said

    Even Jesus taught “from a certain slant”. Add to that the fact that two people can experience the same thing and have two very different “slants” on the experience and you compound the difficulty of our understanding things correctly. You say that we must study Jesus’ life (as recorded in the new testament of course) and discount what the old testament has to say, when they are essentially on equal ground as to historicity. You seem to be saying that we can pick and choose what we want to believe, and if it doesn’t fit our view of how things “should be” than we can discount it entirely. This is as was stated previously trying to fit God’s doing into our own view of how things “should be”.

    You raise the issue of whether certain events in the Bible really were the will of God or not, and yet you probably don’t question Nephi’s killing of Laban. In that instance we have an explanation from the Lord as to why it was needed, does that make it more valid? Can there not be a righteous reason for some of the “bad” things that happen in this world? Was God’s anger against Sodom and Gomorrah not something a loving God would do? I believe that our loving God has reasons for doing the things He does that often escape our understanding, at times seeming to us to be contrary to His nature. I do not understand His reasons for many of the actions in the old testament, nor for that matter in my own life. Yet I trust that He loves me and that “all things are done in the wisdom of Him who knoweth all things.” (2 Nephi 2:24)

    I believe that everybody must face questions as to the truth of the scriptures, and that the finding of answers in such a case often requires us to question the truth of things we had been taking as truth before. But I believe there is a line that gets crossed where our testimony is not furthered, but hindered. That line is when we put man’s word as more true than God’s word. Discounting the scriptures as man’s (uninspired) words is along the same lines. The arguments used to discount the validity and accuracy of scripture are very familiar, they are the same arguments that many anti-Christs have used, pushing us towards a trust in man’s understanding over the faith we must have in the Lord’s plan.

    Also, having a “slant” is not always a bad thing. Surely the Lord would like us to see things His way? And the prophets would surely use every persuasive device they could to help us see things the way the Lord wants us to as well? There is no such thing as an objective look for us, as without all knowledge and understanding we only see part of the picture. God, having all knowledge and understanding, can see clearly what consequences His actions have and as such may make decisions that we do not understand (or agree with for that matter). Who are we to question His actions?

    • J. Madson said

      Zac

      maybe Ill explain myself clearer. You asked and wrote

      You seem to be saying that we can pick and choose what we want to believe, and if it doesn’t fit our view of how things “should be” than we can discount it entirely. This is as was stated previously trying to fit God’s doing into our own view of how things “should be”.

      yes we all pick and choose what we want to believe. Where I think you are missing my argument is that I am not saying we should discount things simply because it doesnt fit our view, although in reality this is what all people do even those who claim orthodoxy, but claiming that the view I am using for my paradigm is that of Jesus Christ. I readily admit that my view is perhaps just as arbitrary as those who choose to adopt a more fundamentalist approach, but I am willing to defend that view since I view Jesus as the rock and foundation. He is as I put it the gospel incarnate. I am not trying to interpret the OT from my own arbitrary lens but trying to see it through the lens of what Jesus of Nazareth reveals about God.

      You ask about Laban and actually I do question it. I think it would be strange not to question it regardless of where you come down on the issue. There are many persuasive reasons in my view to view Nephi’s recounting of the Laban incident with suspicion. This does not necessarily mean that he made up his assertion that God commanded him but there is certainly reason to question it. Nephi’s language, fixation on the sword, mental scapegoating of all the reasons Laban deserves death, and a nearly verbatim quote of the same language used to justify the torture and murder of Jesus do give me pause.

      I understand that you view the scriptures differently but I reject the idea that somehow it is wrong of us to question the scriptures and question whether they accurately represent God. You ask who are we to question his actions and I am reminded of Abraham, Enoch, and all of the other great men in our scriptural tradition that reasoned with God, questioned his judgment, and even persuaded him as the scriptures represent it. You said that we shouldnt put man’s words above God’s words and I agree. Where I disagree is that I dont assume everything in the scriptures is God’s word. Some of it is, some not. Its messy and it requires lost of patience, study, and the spirit.

  17. joespencer said

    Sorry to be coming so late to this discussion. I’ve been busier than usual the past day or two. But this topic is one at the center of much of my work.

    In the end, I think that the question posed here can’t really be answered without a bit of clarification. The reason is that scripture, at least inasmuch as it is scripture, does not define “truth” as “historical factuality.” The question here being asked thus seems to ask something like: Is it valid or worthwhile to de-scripturalize scripture by adopting non-scriptural notions of truth in our assessment of what scripture aims to accomplish?

    If the question is posed this way, I think it is possible to answer “Yes. It is valid or worthwhile. But the person who regards scripture through the narrow lens of modern historiographical methodology (or, really, of the historiographical methodology of about sixty years ago) must recognize that s/he is no longer dealing with scripture when s/he does so. And it is important to recognize also that there is no reason anyone must regard scripture through a strictly historical lens.”

    Hence, very productive work can be done through strictly historical work on scripture. But much, often more productive, work can be done by approaching scripture in other-than-historical ways. Still more interesting, from a philosophical perspective, is the work of asking scripture to say something about what it understands “history” to be. Incidentally, one thinker who has produced a remarkable theory along the lines of this last approach is Rene Girard (and it isn’t difficult to see this behind J. Madsen’s comments above). Another thinker who has produced a very different model by asking the same question is Paul Ricoeur. And I think a good deal of work still remains to be done. (An example: what might “history” mean in D&C 78, a revelation that was received as a rather straightforward revelation about a few temporal details that needed to be taken care of, that was subsequently revised, for its inclusion in the 1835 D&C, in such a way that straightforward modern names were systematically replaced with names from the Enoch story in the Book of Moses, and whole verses were added setting the entire revelation within the Adam-to-Enoch theological universe? Or another example: what might “history” mean in the Book of Jonah, the only prophetic book that is written as a narrative from start to finish, but only can be so written because of the prophet’s essential rebelliousness, which allows for a prolongation of the prophetic call narrative into a book-length study of what it means to be summoned by God—and what especially given the fact that the book seems quite straightforwardly to have been deliberately written as a fictional satire? It is anything but easy to decide what “history” means in scripture!)

    • J. Madson said

      Joe,

      I was alluding to Girard’s work in showing the Bible is a text in travail as well as Ricoeur whom I believe came up with the term hermeneutics of suspicion.

    • BHodges said

      “But the person who regards scripture through the narrow lens of modern historiographical methodology (or, really, of the historiographical methodology of about sixty years ago) must recognize that s/he is no longer dealing with scripture when s/he does so. And it is important to recognize also that there is no reason anyone must regard scripture through a strictly historical lens.”

      Well put!

  18. Robert C. said

    Joe, can you elaborate on your claim that “very productive work can be done through strictly historical work on scripture”? (I added the emphasis to point to what I am a bit skeptical of….)

  19. Rameumptom said

    I had a friend ask me the other day why there are differences in the Creation story as we find it in Genesis, Book of Moses and in the Temple (I would also add Abraham). I explained to her that history was not a concept of importance to ancients, but the concepts behind the story. The fact that there was a Creation that God performed is the historical part to focus upon, not the little varying details.

    The same would go with Exodus. Were there millions or even hundreds of thousands of Israelites? Or was Israel a smaller group that absorbed other groups along the way? Some would be bothered by such a question, but it shouldn’t. The Book of Mormon frequently shows people being adopted into the Nephite or Lamanite families. One Nephite apostate became a Lamanite king, suggesting how well such cultural adoptions took place.

    Sometimes it is an issue of seeing things through the eyes of the ancients. However, we try to see things through modern eyes, which “require” a modern historical sense of things.

  20. Jim F. said

    I think there is a problem with stipulating the definition of truth as you do in this post, KirkC. You stipulate that “true” means “historically true.” (I assume you mean something like “historically true by the standards of the contemporary understanding of what history is.”) But people have a hard time remembering that stipulation.

    I would say “Yes, the historical stories of scripture are historically true, but ancient writers had different ways of telling history than we have, so their histories may not look like what we expect histories to look like.” (For simplicity, I’m ignoring some of the difficulties possibly introduced by changes to the Old Testament.) Because of those differences, if we anachronistically apply our standards for what a true account should look like to their accounts, we may be tempted to say, “That’s not true.” Conversely, if we anachronistically apply our standards for what a true account is to scriptural accounts, we may be tempted to defend the scriptures as if they were contemporary historical accounts (in my opinion, most fundamentalists make this mistake).

  21. RuthS said

    I can’t remember the name of the person who said this but I think it is worth remembering. The statement is, “I prefer writing fiction over history. When I write history I can make things up. When I write fiction I have to tell the truth.”

    The truths found in good fiction are timeless and universal. The scriptures are timeless and universal they tell us what we need to know are about man’s relationship to God and our fellow men. Issues are of primary importance in history as in scripture. Interpretations of facts and events matter.

    There certainly are different ways to study the scriptures. If one hopes to study the issues the scriptures address honestly, one must tell the truth and not make things up, or start out with a conclusion and then look for supporting passages. If there are are apparent contradiction in the text then look to the text for the reasons.

    It makes a big difference to me if the scriptures are true whether or not they are 100% factual regarding the number of Israelites that walked out of Egypt. Regarding the OT I believe the prophetic books are inspired. I don’t think the historical books are. I think they were written for a purpose specific their time. But I don’t have any problem with that because I don’t believe God dictated any of it word for word. That does not mean I don’t believe the issues dealt with in those accounts are not relevant today. I do believe it tells the truth about man’s relationship to God and the other issues that matter day to day.

  22. Robert C. said

    Ruth #21, I know that Orson Scott Card makes a similar claim in his book A Story Teller in Zion. Surely he is not the first to have made this point, but it’s the first time I heard it, and it made an impression….

  23. KirkC said

    #17, Joe, “The question here being asked thus seems to ask something like: Is it valid or worthwhile to de-scripturalize scripture by adopting non-scriptural notions of truth in our assessment of what scripture aims to accomplish?” I liked the way you phrased this.

    #20, Jim, I agree my definition of history is not the best. However, I intended this thread to be more about how we read scripture and less of a philosophical debate on what truth is. Therefore, I set forth a definition so we would all at least start out of the same page.

  24. Sterling Fluharty said

    I think it would be interesting sometime to discuss how recovering history from the scriptures can be an act of charity, since it requires us to put aside our own mindset and to figure out sympathetically how and why people said and did things that are recorded in the scripture.

  25. KirkC said

    Sterling, I’d like to hear more about how you see recovering the history of a text as a charitable event. Are you talking about archeology, or maybe something like FARMS does?

    I’m not sure we can categorize something as charitable if we are doing it for our own ends, or only to further our own personal understanding. How would uncovering historical facts about a text be a charitable act towards those who are dead? I’m not saying you are wrong, but I would like to hear more of your reasoning behind this statement.

    However, I we do say gynecology is an act of charity, and that is uncovering history. Although, the actual charitable part takes place in the Temple, and not in the research, imo.

    • Sterling Fluharty said

      I think it is natural for modern readers of the scriptures to judge the words and actions by the standards of the present. In modern times we are much more aware of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, income, religion, etc. It is easy for us to condemn these practices when they appear in the scriptures, but we often fail to historicize them and try to understand these issues through the eyes of those in the past. But in looking for either faithfulness or failings of our predecessors, we often miss out on the richness of their culture and ignore how that provides a valuable context for understanding their behavior. Frequently we assume we know the motives of the people we read about in the scriptures, because we expect that their beliefs, fears, hopes, and interests will be similar to our own. Doing history is one the ways we can become more selfless and righteously judge scriptural characters by an appropriate mixture of our own and their moral standards.

    • BHodges said

      I think we should also remember that FARMS has published a massive amount of work, and not all of it deals with questions of historicity, archaeology, or anthropology. I read a great essay by Jim about idolatry, and a response of Blake Ostler to issues of grace and works, for example.

    • BHodges said

      Did you mean genealogy as opposed to gynecology?

      You asked: “How would uncovering historical facts about a text be a charitable act towards those who are dead?”
      First, it can help us better understand the living, or at least, help us understand that we don’t know all the facts even though we are right here with them any more than we can know all the facts of a historical person.

      Second, it is an act of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers, imo.

  26. KirkC said

    #21, Ruth, “Regarding the OT I believe the prophetic books are inspired. I don’t think the historical books are. I think they were written for a purpose specific their time.”

    I’m assuming this was the part of your comment to which Robert made reference. How do you tie your comments in with AOF 8, “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.” In other words, how can something be the word of God, yet not be inspired by Him?

    But then again, I have pondered upon this issue before. Much of the history of Israel was composed during the Exile, which, personally, makes much of it suspect, and greatly affects how I approach the text. But my above question in relation to AOF 8 makes me wonder how much stock I should put into my thinking.

    • RuthS said

      That is an interesting question. I think that it can be the word of God in as much the totality of the work reflects God’s dealings with and relationship to man. In other words the selection process by which the various books of the Bible came to be part of the collection might be inspired. I see the hand of God in the preservation of these particular works as opposed to others that have been lost and others that are still being discovered.

      God works with the material he has at hand. Some of the authors wrote more accurate and factual things down. None of them wrote without a purpose specific to their time. Jeremiah’s book is not as poetic or lyrical as Isaiah’s book. There are many similarities and many differences. Those differences come from the experiences and background of each writer as well as the differences in the culture and their intended audience. So while the totality of the Bible can be said to contain God’s word not every single book is of equal value. There isn’t much of value in Esther or The Song of Songs for most LDS readers.

  27. Robert C. said

    Sterling #25, I think this is a great point–probably because I’ve had similar thoughts! :)

    In particular, some of the points that J Madson has made regarding the violence in the Book of Joshua, and what not, has pushed me toward this “charitably reading history” view….

  28. KirkC said

    #25, Sterling, “Frequently we assume we know the motives of the people we read about in the scriptures, because we expect that their beliefs, fears, hopes, and interests will be similar to our own.” This is a great line. In fact, I’d like to extend that beyond scripture and into our personal lives in the present.

  29. TheSisterofJared said

    Fascinating discussion.

    The more I invite the Spirit to influence my scripture study, the easier it becomes to reconcile things about God that at one time might have appeared to me to contradict each other. The Holy Ghost testifies that God of the OT is the same God personified as Jesus Christ in the NT, and that while one book showcases His justice, the other reflects His mercy. It is impossible to truly understand God while rejecting either aspect of Him.

    To view the OT God as imperfect if He really did command the deaths of certain humans and yet view the NT God as perfect if He really did command certain humans to return to life is inconsistent. If I believe that He can perfectly determine who must live longer, then reason demands that I also believe that He can perfectly determine who must die.

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