Questions have arisen, and various thoughts, regarding the role that non-Latter-day Saint scholars, meaning academics of the world (friendly or not), have to play within scholarship of the Restoration. Simply put, should we be studying their works to inform our own understanding of scriptural texts? Let us review this issue.
Twenty-five years ago I attended a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls by , given at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. Sitting on the stand was then-Elder Russel M. Nelson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. Elder Holland conducted the meeting. Tov gave an excellent presentation and Elder Holland indicated afterward that he considered it outstanding himself and even said that if the building wasn’t dedicated that we would all have applauded.
I feel safe in suggesting that neither of these apostles were there to learn new doctrine or to obtain an improved interpretation of any scriptural text from this fine Jewish scholar, who did not believe that Jesus was/is the Christ. Neither of them could be taught doctrine about God and the plan of salvation by Tov. But they both wanted to know more about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a trending subject of scholarly study at that time, and Tov was an expert. So they enjoyed learning from him, as did I.
This illustrates a wise way to approach the scholarship of the world. Where they know more than Latter-day Saint scholars, in matters related to historical, linguistic, geographical, or specialty subjects, their studies may make a helpful contribution. Yet when it comes to doctrinal explanations or interpreting any of the standard works (usually the Bible), we should be very wary of accepting their conclusions.
Elder Mark E. Petersen gave the following counsel to Church Education System instructors. While it is true that teachers employed at church universities have greater (academic) freedom in their teaching than do those in the Seminaries and Institutes, Elder Petersen’s general cautions still apply:
You remember the book entitled The Man Called Peter—both the book and the movie. We must remember that was a Presbyterian preacher, and that the Presbyterians believe in infant baptism, in acceptance of any mode of baptism, whether sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. They will accept the baptism of any other church. They say that one church is as good as another and that there is as much salvation in one church as in another….
Can a man who teaches doctrine like that, even if his name is Peter Marshall, become an authority on doctrine for Latter-day Saints? No matter how impressed we may be with the views and the learning of the wise men of the world, if those views are contrary to our revealed truths, they are wrong!...
We can no more accept the wisdom of the world on doctrinal matters than could Joseph Smith. We must be as strong in resisting the influence of these worldly doctrines as was he, and we must protect our students from them just as he has protected us….
We are not to accept these worldly people as authorities in doctrine, no matter how many degrees they may have nor how much research they have done. They do not know doctrine. If they did, they would be in the Church of Jesus Christ. That is the reason they sustain the churches of the world. They do not know doctrine, and that is the reason they discount what we teach and oppose us on every hand. Then why should we accept them as authorities? (“Avoiding Sectarianism,” address to religious educators,
22 June 1962; in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd
ed. [ :
The Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, 1982], 117.) Salt Lake City
But wait a minute, some might say, didn’t (in famous verse) and others say that we should accept truth from any source? And the answer is that, yes, he did: “It suffices me to know, and to testify, that this people are the friends, not the foes, of education; that they are seekers after wisdom, lovers of light and truth, universal Truth, which, like the waters of earth, or the sunbeams of heaven, has but one Source, let its earthly origin be what it may. "Truth is truth, wher'er 'tis found, On Christian or on heathen ground," and worthy of our love and admiration, whether far or near, high or low, whether blazing as a star in the blue vault of heaven, or springing like a floweret from the soil.”
Let us examine this oft quoted ditty. Ironically enough, at the time he spoke those words, then-Bishop Whitney himself was believing (though not publicly teaching) some false doctrine he had obtained from a counterfeit source—things like reincarnation (at that time he thought he was the brother of Jared reincarnate). So there seems to be a little room to question the motivation of his notion. (Whitney repented of his false doctrine before his call to the Twelve.) Let us also ask ourselves this question: where are we most likely to find eternal truth?—from Christian or from heathen sources? Though there are bits and pieces of truth in many religions and organizations (even heathen), why go there—to the world—to seek truth bits/pieces when the Lord has already plentifully provided it in the Standard Works (scriptures)? In other words, when hungry, why leave the fertile farm to go stand in the soup kitchen line?
Illustrating this general principle is this anecdote from the life of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, as related by his son:
While returning from a conference assignment, he was reading [a non-Latter-day Saint scholar’s book] while waiting for a plane and discovered some material by a sectarian scholar that harmonized perfectly with the restored gospel. As he boarded his flight, he met Marion G. Romney, then a member of the First Presidency, who was also returning from an assignment. He said, "President Romney, I have got to read this to you. This is really good stuff," and proceeded to share his newfound treasure. When he was finished, President Romney said, "Bruce, I have to tell you a story. A few years ago I found something that I thought was remarkable confirmation of Mormonism written by one of the world's great scholars. I read it to J. Reuben Clark, and he said, 'Look, Marion, when you read things from the great scholars of the world and they don't agree with us, so what? And when you read something like that and you find they are right on the mark and they agree with us, so what?'" My father thought that a good lesson. We err when we seek confirmation for our doctrines from the world. (Joseph Fielding McConkie, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, chap. 14.)
We have authors and scholars in the Church today who have studied extensively the scholarship from the authorities of the world. Some of them then write books and articles in which that scholarship is reflected. This is both good and bad. Good if the author recognizes that what they write should conform with doctrine and interpretation provided by modern revelation and prophets and if they bring accurate knowledge of history and culture and geography and linguistics. These items can be of help with contextualizing scripture.
When it gets bad is when they accept the doctrinal interpretations of worldly scholars and pass those on to latter-day saints, thereby contaminating the doctrinal well. This can be very harmful. Elder McConkie taught: “Those who turn to the original tongues for their doctrinal knowledge have a tendency to rely on scholars rather than on prophets for scriptural interpretations. This is perilous; it is a sad thing to be numbered with the wise and the learned who know more than the Lord. Certainly none of us should be troubled or feel inferior if we do not have a working knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was first written. Our concern is to be guided by the Spirit and to interpret the ancient word in harmony with latter-day revelation.” (I much prefer on this matter to .)
For some years I have noticed an author giving interviews and on websites, stating that the Latter-day Saints are , including wrong readings of the book of . This fellow says he can now bring us, through scholarly study, . He cites many of the works of the scholars of the world in his . This is where he has gone for much of his presentation.
I have a problem with this. I doubt we need help from worldly Bible authorities to interpret the Old Testament or Genesis. We have several other creation accounts in our scriptures and in the temple to help us with that, not to mention . I don’t think the Lord is going to use a scholar to teach His Church some new variant proposal of how the Bible should be read and understood. I also don’t think the Lord wants all of the members of His Church to become Bible scholars as that label is generally used in larger academic circles (today most of them don’t even believe in Christ). I don’t think we all need to study the ancient languages and Hebrew poetry and literary forms, textual criticism, etc.—any more than I think the Lord expects us all to become geologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, geographers, archeologists, or any other scientific discipline, in order to understand scripture better. Instead God has given us the Holy Ghost; more beneficial than all the rest by far. Joseph Fielding McConkie has reasoned well on this matter:
Scholarly decoys are the danger here. . . . Faith is available to all on equal grounds, as are answers to prayers—scholarly understanding is not. When those who do not have the necessary academic skills are induced to build the house of their understanding of blocks supplied by scholars, they become beholden to the scholars. They find themselves out of context. The scholar then stands between them and God. That is precisely what happened in the Great Apostasy and brought the meridian dispensation to an end. Scholars replaced prophets, and the gospel was declared a mystery that could be understood only by those who had been schooled and trained for the ministry. Thus the trained minister was placed between the believer and God. (Here We Stand [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1995], 120-21.)
I don’t feel beholden to any author/scholar (fine folks that they may be), who has studied the worldly authorities, to teach me or you , nor do I think the prophets and apostles have been mistaken in . I think when the prophets and apostles teach us the doctrine of of mankind and the world, they know what they are talking about. I need no Bible scholar to attempt to improve on them and my own readings with their worldly knowledge. I think Elder Mark E. Petersen was teaching this same thing to CES instructors:
We understand the Bible better than any other people. It is not because we are smarter than they are. But we understand the Bible better than the rest of the world because of the new light we have received from heaven in modern times. This additional light is part of the new revelation of God which has been given to the Latter-day Saints. Just as Joseph Smith, after his first vision, knew more about the nature of God then the best–schooled clerics of the world, so we know more about the meaning of the Bible for the same reason.
No matter how bright other religious teachers may be, they do not have the light of revelation to guide them. They do not even believe in modern revelation. Therefore, we do not and cannot regard them as authorities in interpreting the doctrines of the Bible. They may do research on the history or the geography of the Holy Land and may know more about those subjects than the Latter-day Saints who have never made that kind of research. We are grateful for knowledge of that kind and believe that it may develop much useful information which can be very helpful to us when properly used.
Nevertheless, these men are not authorities on doctrine. We must not suppose they are, and we must not put their views on doctrine ahead of ours. Ours comes by revelation. Those men are not inspired. They may be ever so skilled in other things, but they are not to be depended upon as interpreters of the meaning of the doctrine of the scriptures. (“Avoiding Sectarianism,” address to religious educators,
22 June 1962; in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd
ed. [Salt Lake City: The Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 117.)
Keep in mind that we are talking about interpreting doctrinal meaning from the scriptures, not about peripheral matters that worldly scholarship may shed light on. As mentioned above, the prophets and apostles themselves value and seek this kind of knowledge as time allows. But no one ought have the temerity to tell the Brethren or the Church that we are all reading Genesis or any other book of scripture, wrong.
This discussion brings up the associated question of interfaith dialog, of two kinds. We have had who have spent much time and resources “dialoging” with scholars and ministers of others faiths in these interfaith exchanges. As far as I can tell these efforts have been largely useless in bringing souls into the kingdom of God on earth, but I haven’t followed that effort closely. Where they have engendered good will and friendship and mutual respect and understanding with people of other faiths, they .
There are also those who seek to study and engage the scholarly work of some people that are friendly to the Latter-day Saints. I see people talking about the work of and Jan Shipps. I have never read their books and don’t intend to. While I am pleased they write and speak in a friendly manner about subjects of interest and importance to the Church, they also fit the category that Elder Petersen spoke of. They don’t have the gift of the Holy Ghost; they aren’t authorities on doctrine; they haven’t joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; they speak from the perspective of the learning of the world. If they have stumbled upon bits and pieces of truth in their studies, that’s nice, but as much as we may like and appreciate them, we aren’t learning anything of doctrinal substance from them.
Elder Matthew Cowley touched on this perspective some decades ago while speaking to the students and faculty of BYU. Some who have been involved with interfaith dialogue or studying the works of non-Latter-day Saint scholars may not appreciate what he said, but it rings true and sound nonetheless. In relating a conversation, he said: “I answered that question the way I always answer questions such as that, that you can’t understand our program [doctrine] unless you join us. It is impossible to understand this church, really understand it, unless you are a member of it. Because you can’t have the spirit of it unless you’re a member and if you don’t have the spirit of it then you don’t have a full understanding of the program of the church.” (Matthew Cowley, “ ,” BYU Devotional, June 19, 1953.)
Anyone can study the Church/gospel as an intellectual or scientific enterprise; they can use scholarly tools to obtain and quantify information; they can probe and research and interview and reach a conclusion. But they still won’t “really understand it” without membership and the Holy Ghost; they will learn the forms but not comprehend the power. We are deeply grateful for their interest and good will and friendship, but they can’t really teach us anything truly important, as Elder Cowley and Elder Petersen observe. Elder McConkie agreed with them: “That gift [of the Holy Ghost] is given to us as the Saints of the Most High and to none other. We stand alone and have a power the world does not possess. Our views on religious and spiritual matters are infinitely better than theirs because we have the inspiration of heaven.”
Further, on the subject of dialoging with these other Christians, if it is kept friendly and civil, and cordial, one can always hope for something good and profitable to emerge. However, sometimes the opposite takes place. I thought this story related by Elder McConkie was worth pondering before approaching such an exercise:
A number of years ago I got a letter from a minister of the Church of Christ [Pentecostal] in a distant state. And he said: “I’ve been in contact with some of your elders. I wanted to discuss gospel subjects with them and they didn’t want to discuss them with me and so they told me to write you.” And he said, “I would like to have a discussion with you on such and such a subject and we ought to follow these ground rules: I will write so many words and you write so many words, and we will each write so many in reply and then we will each have authority to publish this material.” I wrote back to him and I said, “For one thing, the matter you want to discuss has been fully and adequately analyzed in printed form and made available to anyone if they want to read such and such books. . . . But for another thing, may I call your attention to the word of our Lord wherein he said”—and I didn’t tell him where I was quoting from, I just left him to find that out, and then I quoted 3 Nephi 11:29-30—“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” That’s a wonderful statement, and I immediately got a reply, and this had touched such a sore spot with him that he just went through the ceiling to the sidereal heavens, calling me names for accusing him of being contentious” (as quoted in Dennis B. Horne, Determining Doctrine [Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005], 57).
Let us hope that interfaith dialogue can be of a higher standard and that a proper level of mutual edification can occur, instead of contention. I have been pleased to note that, when I have followed some of this dialog in books and articles, a high standard seems to be in place. I think that commendable and worthy of emulation.
As to how academic institutions connected to the Church through BYU should behave in their scholarly pursuits, a number of fine addresses have been given by various Brethren, with being the most recent. In speaking to the present and future work of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute attached to BYU (formerly FARMS), among other things he stated: “But any scholarly endeavor at BYU—and certainly anything coming under the rubric of the Maxwell Institute—must never principally be characterized by stowing one’s faith in a locker while we have a great exchange with those not of our faith. … ‘Bracketing your faith’ is what those in the field call it and it does not apply at Brigham Young University.” . . . “So if the university is to reflect the best the Church has to offer by way of a world-class academic endeavor, no apologies to anyone, then the Neal A. Maxwell Institute must see itself as among the best the university has to offer as a faithful, rich, rewarding center of faith-promoting gospel scholarship enlivened by remarkable disciple-scholars.”
These words, part of a longer address, were no doubt carefully selected, and one hopes that NAMI will follow their course, and pursue only “faith-promoting gospel scholarship enlivened by remarkable disciple-scholars.” I had brief hope that things there might improve until but weeks after Elder Holland’s address, when NAMI brought on board who have achieved high visibility by writing books and making the rounds giving public presentations on various subjects, but whom have written some false and sectarian doctrine. One of the false doctrines they teach is that everyone but the sons of perdition will be saved (I presume they mean exalted), what some have referred to as a form of “Mormon universalist” doctrine. This doctrine is also known to others as nonsense. This incident from Church history, related in the journal of an early apostle, becomes pertinent:
I was at the Tabernacle at two o’clock, and heard ____ speak for 50 minutes. He spoke of the universality of salvation, and advanced false doctrine, that is, so far false that he made it appear that all men would be saved regardless of their sins here upon the earth. His sermon might have been considered a good Universalist discourse. Father [President George Q. Cannon] corrected the impression he had made, and read from the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon to show that there will be a very severe punishment meted out to those who sin, and so great will be their torture that it will seem to be eternal. He also referred to the case of Nehor, who in the days of Nephi taught such doctrines, and thus did great injury to the Church. (Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, October 21, 1894.)
One would think that no one who had read D&C 76 and 88 could come to such a notion, but these folks have done it. They also teach that the great apostasy ; that ; and who knows what other gunk. If I chance to run into a quotation online from one of their books, I say to myself, what they have done is take the Church and the gospel standard and lower it so that doubters and those of little faith can remain comfortable in it. Section 76’s description of those righteous and valiant who will inherit Celestial glory, the members of the Church of the Firstborn, allow for no such gimmicks.
I take comfort in the knowledge that the Brethren will be watching and if NAMI goes too far astray, as some of their past publications have gone, there could easily be some reorganization or a discontinuation take place. I don’t see tithing money being used to publish nonsense very often, although . This entire situation strikes at the very heart and center of the reason why I have set forth my views here. BYU as an accredited university must have academic freedom to remain accredited, the same wide latitude does not apply to NAMI. That BYU institution must use its resources and brains to bolster and support the Kingdom of God, as Elder Holland said, or the plug will likely be pulled.
The Brethren are very serious about keeping church doctrine pure and not allowing the world to weaken or infiltrate or poison or mix or overcome: “We are about the only ones left in the world who hold to these standards,” said Elder Packer. “When we look around, we cannot find any organization that is holding to the standards. We do not like to talk about the other churches, but we are going to stand alone. If so, there we will stand.” (“ ,” CES Fireside for Young Adults,
2, 2003, n.p.)
As the Lord has said: “my servant [a church member] shall be ordained unto this work, that he may reason with them, not according to that which he has received of them, but according to that which shall be taught him by you my servants; and by so doing I will bless him, otherwise he shall not prosper” (D&C 49:4; italics added). Seems the Lord has long known the way it should be.
Note: Seeand clearest expositions from one of the Brethren about the dangers and problems associated with obtaining doctrine from the world.