By Study and Also by Faith

I want to ask a question within the genre of scriptural exegesis. When our church leaders commend us to seek education, they often quote a verse from the Doctrine and Covenants. The line is sometimes “the glory of God is intelligence.” Or the verse about no man being saved faster than he gains knowledge. Often the verse cited is D&C 88:118: “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

What does that verse mean today? In Joseph Smith’s day the context involved the formation of a school for missionaries called the School of the Prophets. The Lord was commending “the best books” for elders who had little knowledge of the people and lands they would one day serve. The relative youth and inexperience of our missionaries today means the early context has surprising relevance in our times.

But of course scripture gets interpreted far beyond the original context. We are always eager to liken the scriptures unto ourselves. In talks by BYU officials, the phrase “by study” often gets interpreted to mean book learning; learning comes to mean truth; truth is the truth of the discplines; and the truth is sought by adopting standard methods of the disciplines like scientific hypothesis testing.

The phrase “study…by faith” is what I am curious about. What does it mean to T&S readers? Does anyone have any experience with learning “by faith.” Be specific.

Of course I welcome comments on any parts of the verse.

20 comments for “By Study and Also by Faith

  1. I am reminded of the introduction to the BoM where it is said that this is the most correct book in the earth. If we consider that, then we must accept that the BoM is a great book and is certainly one of the books that should be studied with faith. I would imagine this would apply also to any teachings of the prophets, ensigns, missionary manuals.

    Aside from those fairly obvious examples, I can’t count the times I studied math and science back in college without the occasional prayer to keep me up and hoping I would at least pass that midterm.

  2. This reminds me of a quote from the astronomer and monk Ptolemy:

    “Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried mutlitutde of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

    IMHO all learning, if it’s done with the purpose of glorifying God, is learning by faith.

  3. There are only two things you can take with you: the knowledge in your head and, conditionally, your family.
    Faith and discernment can show you things to avoid and things to accept.
    There is often in conference a talk about getting or completing your education.

  4. There was a point in my graduate studies when I had to solidify my hypotheses and spend a year and a half in the laboratory to validate them (or not). I happened to choose an area that hadn’t been worked in for a while and my preliminary hypotheses (based on my synthesis of all my reading) were rather iconoclastic. At that point I took it to the Lord and worked with him through prayer to solidify my hypotheses in a manner that I could not only believe in, but also have faith in the Lord that they were correct. End result: The data validated the hypotheses.

  5. But, faith should be founded on fact. Subjectivism, i.e, existentialism was first formulated by the Danish gadfly and philosopher Soren Kiergegaard and said that one’s faith does not necessarily need to be grounded in historical evidence, all is needed is passionate faith. The difficulty with this is that there are myriad of religious options in the world today all claiming to be true, without factual substantiation of one’s faith, it is then rendered nonsensical and void. The law of non contradiction states that two mutually exlusive propostions cannot be true inn the same way at the same time, therefore it is a factual impossibility that the LDS religion and say Isalm which says Jesus is not the Son of God or Evangelicalism which believes in the Trinity can be simutaneously true in the same way at the same time. Therefore faith is a good thing, as long it is backed up with historical veriifcation.
    Sincerely in Christ,

  6. I had a similar experience when I was just starting serious dissertation research. Personally and professionally, some things just didn’t seem to be working out the way I had hoped, and I was considering abandoning my topic and maybe my studies as well. I decided to head to the archive and work normally one day, with the exception that I was fasting as I did so. When I left in the evening, I had a new confidence in and commitment to my research and a reassurance that things would work out personally. And a new respect for fasting.

    Uh, Glen, “monk”?

  7. ‘Uh, Glen, “monk”?’

    Yes… you know, a monk, somebody who adopts a strict religious lifestyle.

    Although apparently I got it wrong; I was sure Ptolemy was a member of a religious order, but I can’t find any reference to that. Also I was thinking he lived in the seventh or eighth century, when in fact he lived from 85 to 165 AD. Sorry about that.

  8. technically a monk comes from a shortened version of Monasticism: a secluded priest in Roman Catholicism during the Middle Ages. Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer who argued that salvation is by grace through faith alone in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ was initially an Augustinian Monk with the RC Church.

  9. I assume that “by faith” is meant to parallel “by study,” which is clearly instrumental. So to “seek learning…by faith” to me suggests that knowledge we gain by the witness of the Spirit.

  10. Kevin: learning, as you see it, leads to knowledge. What does the “learning” mean. What is involved?

  11. Could learning by faith be another way of saying learning by experience? In other words, seek learning by study–but also seek learning by putting things into practice while trusting God to help you along.

  12. Good question, jpatch. Experience could go in many directions, including spiritual experience. If I am to learn in the present from my past spiritual experience it would seem I need to have faith in that past experience, I would need to remember how God operated at one time in my life and “learn” that he will bless me in similiar ways in the present and future–that he is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

    But the word “experience” is used elsewhere in the D&C. If “experience” is the idea intended why not use that word. Instead we have “faith.”

    Does anyone know how “learning” is used elsewhere in the D&C?

  13. One of the definitions of learning that I have always enjoyed is something that leads to a change in behavior. It can be a learned behavior response like the Pavlovian Dog response, or learning principles in the gospel. When we truly learn something it causes a change in us. Aquiring knowlege without it impacting us in some way would be pretty sad don’cha think?

    In this sense learing by faith regardless of the subject would be allowing our faith to impact what we learn and vice versa. When we learn non-doctrinal principles in various subjects we can through faith apply them to the gospel in the sense that all knowledge is of God.

  14. I define learning in using the old-fashioned behaviorist formula: changes in behavior not due to maturation.

    That said, I’m not sure that Joseph Smith drew the distinction that we draw between spiritual and secular knowledge. Given that, along with statements to the effect that all truth is light and intelligence is eternal, make me think that all learning is learning by faith.

  15. Faith can also mean optimism, confidence, hoping for the best. I can’t think of anything that requires more of that than undertaking an education. We invest these dollars and these years based on the hope for a tenured position doing meantinful work in a flexible and dynamic environment. That’s faith to me.

    I think it’s also important for us to remember, though, that intelligence (the glory of God) and education are not synonymous. There are lots of intelligent people with no education. And there are lots of types of intelligence that will never succeed in our educational system.

  16. Jed,

    Excellent blog.Learning by faith, to me, has been having an “aha” experience after studying, pondering and praying about something for some time and then having an afterthought along the lines of “I knew that all the time”. It felt intuitive once I had the experience.

  17. Jed:
    One reason “by faith” might be the phrase of choice rather than by “experience” is to convey the importance of intention or purpose on the part of learners. After all, even aimless wanderers learn things “by experience.” But when juxtaposed with “by study” in the context of divine revelation, learning “by faith” appears to mean going forth and putting into practice what is being learned (the “works” component of faith) with the hope that what has been learned is true (obviously the “hope” component).

    To put it mildly, members of the school of the prophets were very excited to learn. Although “learning” to them would have had a fundamentally different meaning than it does to most of us. They fervently and unquestioningly believed the gospel is the be all and end all of existence (do we?). They genuinely believed both that all truth is part of a great whole, and that spiritual learning would enhance if not supplant worldly efforts at learning (isn’t this idea truly peculiar?).

    Imagine dirty mostly blue-collar types with little formal education living on the developing frontier of the 19th century American West, yet meeting regularly to learn the academic disciplines of the civilized world as they knew it (mostly from books) along with the “word of God”–all without making any distinction between the two like we do today. Imagine them in a cramped smelly space, chewing tobacco, reading Josephus, and taking turns slaughtering various Hebrew pronunciations. (All such imagery was first suggested to me by Mark Ashurst-McGee)

    Perhaps the scripture said to them: “you are learning the mysteries of godliness (how the world/universe/everything works) now go forth and put into practice these principles and see by faith that they are true and that the universe indeed works the way you have learned (exercising faith you come to a knowledge (Alma 32)). Organize the Kingdom of God and Its Laws (Council of Fifty), prepare ye the way of the Lord, build Zion, build temples, etc., etc., etc.” Such actions would be directed by faith and would enhance “learning” as they saw it.

    So what does the scripture say to us today? Can we (LDS or the world at large) relate to this kind of “learning”? If not, I think the phrase “learning by faith” will be necessarily devoid of meaning.

  18. Pete: Good to hear from you. Hope you and Jinger are well. You paint a graphic picture of the S of the P, sounding very much like today’s ruffian/rabble crowd. The spread of middle-class gentility makes all the difference.

  19. I think that one could rephrase it as “.. seek learning, even by work and also by revelation”. We need to study and tap into human sources of knowledge but there are many limits to such inquiries that need to be supplemented with spiritual sources. The “ahaâ€? mentioned above is driving at the same point I think. I think the word revelation was not used because it commonly is given a little more narrow meaning than I’m intending hear. Another choice might be inspiration, but it also has its connotations that are less than a perfect fit.

    As to the specifics that were requested. In my work I have often had to branch out into new areas of knowledge. I do what any university educated professional would do, I start studying. But as a study I find myself understanding the new material in a cognitive context and combining with a set of “knowledge� for which I cannot identify a source. I didn’t learn it in Miss Wilson’s third grad class. I didn’t learn it in Mr. Knott’s 9th grade world history class. It is just inexplicably there.

    People that excel in various careers do apply knowledge and experience, but they also rely on instinct or gut feeling. I think that this is learning by study and also by faith. It is not to discard the purely rational, it is to embrace it and yet augment it.

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