Correlation and Computers

Here are two lines of computer code:

int myNumber;
myNumber = someOtherNumber + 3;

If you’re not familiar with programming, the first line says, “Here is an integer (int) called ‘myNumber’.” The second line says, “Set the value of myNumber to someOtherNumber plus 3.”

So what if I want to know the value of myNumber? I’ve got two options. Either I can tell the program to display the value, like this:


or I can look back through the code to find the value of someOtherNumber and mentally add 3 to it:

int someOtherNumber = 8;

So now I know that myNumber is 11.


My point is, how do we interpret unclear statements in scripture? BCC’s Friday Firestorm this week gives a great example of why this matters. Is D&C 82:7 despair inducing, or is it motivating? It depends on what “unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return” means.


That approach isn’t an option, unless the Lord stops by to explain for us. So instead we search through the scriptures, prophetic utterances, and whatever other materials we feel will help us understand how the value of untoThatSoulWhoSinnethShallTheFormerSinsReturn was set. I think this is why books like Mormon Doctrine gain so much traction — they purport to provide universal value definitions for complicated scriptural terms.

As a missionary, I loved the Missionary Guide for the same reason. I recall one line in it that stated, “Righteousness is obedience and worthiness.” This definition replaces an abstract concept with two (somewhat) more concrete concepts.

righteousness = obedience + worthiness;

Armed with that equation, I felt that anywhere I encountered the word “righteousness” — in the scriptures, General Conferences addresses, etc. — I could replace it with the words “obedience and worthiness”.

To me, this is the idea at the heart of “correlation”, that there is a fundamental harmony between all authorized statements. That all such statements can be read with a single lens — the same lens, conveniently, that we happen to hold in the modern church today. This paradigm is compelling for its simplicity and accessibility, but it naively ignores “context”, or what we in computer programming call “scope”.

class MissionaryGuide { righteousness = obedience + worthiness; }

class BookOfMormon { righteousness = ... }

A word’s value is assigned by its author. What “righteousness” means in the Missionary Guide is not necessarily reflective of what “righteousness” means in The Book of Mormon. Of course, the use of the word isn’t necessarily consistent throughout the Book of Mormon:

class BookOfMormon {
class 1Nephi { righteousness = something; }
class Alma { righteousness = somethingElse; }

So, turning back to D&C 82:7, what does it mean for “the former sins” to “return”? I’m not sure. The issues of context and interpretation don’t provide easy answers. But I feel confident that the answer won’t be conveniently found in a comprehensive user’s manual. The gospel is not a computer program. In the meantime, I’ll lean toward using the definitions that I find the most useful in my own life.

12 comments for “Correlation and Computers

  1. I thought I was going literally crazy; I’ve been coding all day today and thought I’d take a blog-break. :-o Then I realized it was JSP and not PHP and took a moment to actually read the post.

    Sorry, I’ve got nothing more substantive to add right now (kinda brain-dead). I just wanted to share how much I enjoyed the post!

  2. So perhaps Correlation is a virus — it destroys class formatting so all defined terms can take on only one value. The Correlation virus is also known to corrupt stored data, rewriting new definitions over previously stored traditional definitions.

  3. I usEd to wonder why the scriptures were occasionally confusing, opaque and difficult to parse. Then I discovered God coded in Lisp with a bit of Forth as a bootloader and suddenly everything made more sense.

  4. Dane, I like your overall point. I’m not sure if correlation is really the main culprit here; in your post, it mostly serves as an undefined boogeyman. But the way of reading that you’re talking about, which engages scripture more or less like an algebra exercise, is all too real and widespread.

  5. Correlation is just like obvious requirements like comment your code, don’t invoke Inline assembly code, no using strange libraries that may be GPLed, no one letter variable names and heed certain compiler warnings as if they were errors.

  6. NoCoolName_Tom, I’m impressed that you identified the code as JSP as opposed to plain ol’ Java. There’s really only one clue in there that would distinguish between the two…

    Dave, that’s an interesting take. It essentially says that all variables should be global, public, and static.

    Clark, ‘fraid not:

    Jonathan, part of the confusion is differentiating between “correlation” and capital C “Correlation”. I think that Correlation is an undefined entity anyway, but that’s not my contention here. You summed it up well, that correlation is about treating scripture study like an algebra exercise.

    Clark, I’m not seeing the parallels.

  7. I would say that D&C 82:7 is best interpreted in the context of the doctrine of justification, which is where imperfect individuals are granted the blessings of divine grace and communion on account of their faith.

    But to willfully turn away from that faith and return to a life of sin, does despite to that blessing and makes it as naught. No one needs forgiveness for sins they aren’t even trying to repent of. Thus the former sins “return” and the person returns to an unjustified state.

  8. We would all like it if every occurrence of a work in the standard works meant the exact same thing. But it’s not true. I think we want this to be true, because then it makes a lot of the gospel into a puzzle which feels solvable. All you have to do is substitute in all of the correct definitions, make all of the relevant connections, and you’ve successfully “solved” the scriptures.
    The poignant example for me is the word ‘soul’. In D&C 88:15 we learned that “spirit and the body are the soul of man”. This inclines one (or it perhaps it’s just me) to substitute the words “body and spirit” every time they run into the word soul in the scriptures. But it just doesn’t work like that.
    On the word soul has a much broader definition that apparently evolves depending upon what part of the plan of salvation the context is in.

  9. Mark D., I’m not convinced that’s the case. I prefer the prophetic interpretation, that a person’s sins will return to them in the sense that the person will return to those same actions.

    Jader3rd, I love your use of the word “puzzle”. One common struggle in life is the desire to find a point in it — to make life into a game you can win, or a puzzle you can solve. I guess that’s because it implies a right way, which gives a person hope of finding the right way to live their life. The opposite of a game is a toy. There’s no right way to play with a toy. Halo is a game. SimCity is a toy. I’m increasingly inclined toward life-as-a-toy instead of life-as-a-game.

  10. Dane, I know I’m very late to this conversation, but I really like your comparison. I completely know what you mean about wanting to find an equation that allowed for one word to be replaced with others, or in general to just relate them all to each other. But I’ve also reached the same conclusion you have: they aren’t easy to nail down as having consistent meanings across (or even within) particular books of scripture or prophetic statements.

    I know this just means I’ve been overly influenced by my sister Lynnette, but I think it’s ultimately easiest to think of the scriptures in terms of their narratives and give up on trying to isolate what the little snippets of them mean.

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