The Old Testament, Scripture, Apostles, the Priesthood Ban, and Theological Diversity: Calibrating Our Expectations

It's rhetorical, I know why.

It’s rhetorical, I know why.

(I’m probably cramming too much into this mishmash of a post, but frustration over certain conversations has collided with academic stress and lack of time to refine it. I may regret it, so consider this a preview, a beta.) The expectations we bring to reading scripture can radically affect our reading, our faith, and our communities. One frequent assumption, traditional in many religions, is that revelation (and scripture, as a subset of revelation) must be monolithic, unified, in harmony, univocal, internally consistent. This is not the case, and it is not an accident.

Let’s back up, though, particularly as we get in to the Old Testament, and ask, what are our expectations of scripture? Are they properly calibrated?

I think we tend to read the scriptures for three reasons, devotional (performing piety and seeking communion with God), doctrinal (stripping away the “irrelevant cultural dross” to extract “True Doctrine”), and moralistic (expecting to find simple models of modern LDS principles and standards). Certainly, those are worthwhile things to do, though the last two are problematic in their assumptions. The Old Testament wasn’t written for those reasons. (Heck, it wasn’t really “written” at all, but no time to get in to that.) The last two goals in particular, because of the the faulty assumptions on which they are built, are likely to be thwarted unless you are highly selective in choice of passage and stick with KJV.
The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is — what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.
-C.S. Lewis

Here’s the thing. Scripture was not intended as eternally timeless and univocal instruction in all things. It is not meant to be a rigid, static guide  that we mindlessly accept and implement. Nor was it intended to model perfect attitudes and behavior for us to emulate. No one in the Bible ever says, “why can’t you be more like Abraham? He was such a good guy!” because the patriarchal narratives a) were understood to have other purposes for inclusion and b) the patriarchs aren’t always that great of people. They were not presented as ideal people to be followed, and if we try to read them that way, our expectations will not be met and we’ll be confused as to why our scriptures “aren’t working.” Well, son, it’s because that thing you’re trying to wield as a hammer is actually a screwdriver.

Most scripture was not written as detailed instruction on How You Should Live, but had other purposes (which I also can’t really get into here.) But as it turns out, the Israelites *did* have a body of instruction on how to live a proper life,  called Wisdom Literature (which was widely shared among different  Near Eastern cultures.) It’s mostly found in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, which explains why most of us have never encountered it. What is most interesting and relevant is, well, let me show you.

Take Proverbs 26:5, which instructs to “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Clarity!

But wait, your eye wandered onto the previous verse (damnable context! Can’t we just ignore it?) which says, “Do NOT answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”

What’s the scriptural fundamentalist to do? Is this an accident? A passage that we can dismiss as “not translated correctly” because it contradicts the next verse? No, it’s meant to be there. Both directives next to each other mean that they (and we) were intended to study, internalize, think, and weigh the appropriateness of each response for each situation, making mistakes, but growing in the process. Inspired instruction is not monolithic in this case.

So, multivocality or theological diversity may be there on purpose. It may also be there because of the principle of line-upon-line, but also because times change. That is, God spoke and speaks to different people in different times in different cultures, and scripture is a snapshot of that time and culture. That’s not the only thing Scripture is, of course, but we often lose sight of that aspect of it.  Revelation, then, is culturally embedded, and multiple modern prophets have recognized that fact.

It is hardly surprising that we should find differences in expression or differences in practice or understanding at other times and other cultures, such as our own. This is not to give free reign to relativism, or undermine scriptural authority, or propose that there are no absolutes. But we must understand that scripture is an artifact of the past and reflects in many ways the time period it came from. God expects us to read and evaluate it, to take its truths as well as learn from its mistakes, to take its multivocality and make judgments in application. (See my story teaching this at BYU.) This is much more difficult than the monolithic model, but is also much more faithful to scripture as we have received it.

Several things have happened recently that dovetail with this understanding, but these events have made clear that monolithic assumptions about scripture spill over into modern scripture and modern Church authorities. Without passing judgment on either the content of the talks or the people making this claim, many people felt a disconnect or disharmony between Elder Uchtdorf’s recent General Conference talk and Elder Oaks’. Yet we sustain them both as prophets, seers, and revelators.  The idea was that they can’t both be right. Shouldn’t there be harmony? My thought was, it’s great to get some multivocality in conference! (The content of their talks is not the topic of the post, and I will liberally remove comments that veer in that direction.)

Or, take the recent “non-statement” on the priesthood ban (discussed here and here). If the various reasons offered for the ban were wrong, what about the mark of the curse in the Book of Mormon, with its implicit or explicit racial aspects? Should we get rid of those parts, or rewrite them? Or shouldn’t they, you know, not be there to begin with? Cause it’s scripture, and stuff, right? Well, no. In fact, the Book of Mormon would be a bit suspect if it lacked older views, and depicted some kind of modern utopia of racial/gender harmony.

This is about understanding what scripture is and how it should function. We can get real or apparent multivocality at the same time (Oaks vs. Uchtdorf, James vs. Paul, even Jesus vs. Jesus depending on which Gospel you’re reading ), multivocality at different times as God speaks to different needs and cultures, or multivocality due to the progressive Mormon doctrine of line-upon-line (e.g. “circumcision is an eternal covenant” vs. “circumcision is nothing.” “Be polygamous” vs. “stop being polygamous.” “Heaven and hell” vs. “three degrees of glory plus outer darkness plus maybe subdivisions of glory.”)

But let’s not flatten scripture and claim the same thing is or should always be taught on every topic in every passage! Nor should we think we must believe or do something simply because scripture says so! It may well depend on which scripture you’re looking at. Heaven-hell binary, or Three Degrees of Glory? Well, are you in the Book of Mormon or D&C? In one sense, scripture is a little like the Church Handbook of Instructions, except when an update goes out, no one replaces the old pages. The new and old are in there together.

Scripture, then, is not a simple rulebook or doctrinal encyclopedia that we simply consult to get Truth. Scripture is meant to challenge us to think and apply. So as we move on to reading the Old Testament, let’s get with Elder Widtsoe’s exhortation that “the scriptures must be read intelligently” and recalibrate our expectations.
Edit: I’ve written a bit on theological diversity before. Scroll down to the section called “Theological Diversity”

45 comments for “The Old Testament, Scripture, Apostles, the Priesthood Ban, and Theological Diversity: Calibrating Our Expectations

  1. “In one sense, scripture is a little like the Church Handbook of Instructions, except when an update goes out, no one replaces the old pages. The new and old are in there together. Scripture is not simply the rulebook or doctrinal encyclopedia we look things up in. Scripture is meant to challenge us to think and apply.” Love this!

  2. Thank you so much for pointing this out. It takes exceeding patience to put up with all the false dichotomies and rash assumptions that cause people so much problems and are such a distraction to a better and happier life!

  3. Ben! that Lewis quote is so money! I’m pasting it somewhere.
    Something I heard you say once is also relevant – “Unlike the BoM, the OT was NOT written for our day…” Its amazing to consider the divers genres that are contained in the standard works alone. Oh that we would start with that.

  4. A profound way the Church can avoid so many problems contemporary Christian Orthodoxy consistently creates (internally, politically, and socially) on account of antiquated dogma such as scriptural inerrancy and papal infallibility. Scripture as subject to mistake, error, misinterpretation, reinterpretation or whatever, is so much more enjoyable AND beneficial! On point, Ben. Thanks!

  5. God speaks to us in two ways in Holy Scripture. In law (what we should, ought, and must be doing)…and in gospel…the forgiveness of sins handed over to the sinner…to the ungodly …to declare him/her righteous…for Jesus’ sake (not even for their own sakes).

    “The finite (Scripture) contains the infinite (God).”

  6. Reminds me of a great review written by Mack Sterling:

    My interpretation of these scriptures creates a problem which the author appears anxious to avoid: it appears to make the Book of Mormon inconsistent with the teaching in the Doctrine and Covenants that only sons of perdition suffer the second death after resurrection. It is possible to resolve this apparent discrepancy by concluding simply that the Book of Mormon prophets received less revelation about hell, indeed about the plan of salvation in general, than Joseph Smith did. They understood that the unrepentant wicked are thrust down to hell after probation ends, but did not foresee their eventual redemption from hell. I would suggest as well that even our current more fully developed understanding of hell is as yet incomplete. The author prefers to see the Nephite prophets (in fact all prophets) as having precisely the same (complete) understanding of the plan of salvation as Joseph Smith. (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5/1 (1993))

  7. This is good stuff, Ben.

    The complication comes in when there are leaders at the local level and in the hierarchy who hold these fundamentalist views and also exercise control over manuals, teaching, and church discipline.

  8. There is a scriptural passage that explains nicely the disconnect and disharmony between the ideas of Elder Oaks and Elder Uchtdorf: “There must needs be opposition in all things.” We need more of this, not less, and we need it out in the open for everyone to see, discuss and think about. This is one of the best ways to get closer to the truth.

    Nice first draft.

  9. Great post. One quibble:

    “No one in the Bible ever says, “why can’t you be more like Abraham? He was such a good guy!””

    You should probably go with a different example here, since Isaiah 51:2//2 Nephi 8:2 complicates your point.

  10. A counter-quibble: Abraham isn’t being held up as a model of righteousness to be emulated there, but as an example of what God did for him and his wife.

    “2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
    3 For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden (Isa 51:2-3 NRS)”

  11. Late in the Book of Mormon, we do have something like this, though not aimed at the patriarchs.
    “Behold, my sons [Lehi and Nephi], I desire that ye should remember to keep the commandments of God; and I would that ye should declare unto the people these words. Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good.” (Hel 5:6 BOM)

  12. Ben S, I agree with your counter-quibble. But there is still enough murkiness there that another example might better serve.

  13. You say that your argument about scripture and revelation are not a free reign to relativism, but it is hard to see from the structure of the argument why you couldn’t replace scripture with God and say exactly the same things.

    What non-culturally embedded evidence do we have for either moral absolutes or God as not being a cultural concept?

    The more universal and historically knowledgeable a culture becomes, the harder it is to have a coherent concept of God.

    At least the church has regained a sense of adventure, which is fun.

  14. This seeming disharmony in general conference talks and the changing doctrines simply show that these are men speculating and not necessarily speaking for God at any particular time, if ever. It’s just another church.

  15. Goreg, scripture itself shows “changing doctrine”. My whole point is that multivocality doesn’t undermine the possibility of revelation. If it does, out go Judaism and Christianity as a whole.

  16. You would think there would at least be harmony at the core doctrines. In the past people were baptized many times and JS was baptized himself many times. Now it’s not done. There is more than one version of the sacrament prayers. The priesthood was banned and now we don’t know where the ban came from or maybe it was from Brigham Young, who really knows anyway because we really need to look to the future and not the past. And we know there are many other examples like the temple ceremony changes, first vision changes, etc.

    So my point is that these men are speculating about something that we know very little like Pres. Hinckley said in one of his interviews around the time he was running away from the man may become “doctrine.”

  17. I don’t think consistency is necessarily proof of inspiration, any more than lack of consistency would be proof of its absence. In a church that makes “continuing revelation” a pillar, how can change not be a constant? (Lots of General Authority statements along these lines.) I agree, though, that more recent rhetoric has encouraged the “complete and utter consistency” model.

    I believe Hinckley was dealing with the first half of the couplet, not the second, Goreg.

    There’s no objective way to measure inspiration, only the method that’s been pushed on us from Brigham on down, namely personal study, prayer, and experience. President Clark’s famous discourse is one example of this-

  18. Continuing revelation does mean that there will be change and change is good sometimes and change for change sake can be bad. However, I think there needs to be a core upon which we can rely so we can avoid being tossed about by gospel fads. I don’t think truth is relative to our time period. So, yes our leaders are imperfect like we are imperfect. But at a certain point too much change of the past to conform to the present makes it look like these illustrious men were simply speculating and it raises the question of which current leader will be discredited in the future?

  19. Goreg:

    Here’s an applicable quote from Neil Anderson of the 12 in the Oct. 2012 General Conference:

    “A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.

    The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”

  20. We do get an example of who we should be like in Alma, in Mormon’s “Oh that all men were like Moroni” tribute. From how it is written, Mormon is obviously a fan of Capt Moroni (even naming his son after him), but me, not so much. Capt Moroni seems arrogant and rude, and I really hate his decision that something is not a sin if it’s against someone evil. Helaman is a stark contrast in how he works his part of the war, seeking more to keep the inner vessel clean and having more success than Moroni.

    Excellent post. Many of us wish we could have drafts this good.

  21. And for the record, I don’t subscribe to the notion of an Uchdorf VS. Oaks dichotomy. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read both, but I don’t recall anything in either talk that hasn’t been echoed in some respect by other members of the 12.

    While I’m sure there are plenty of divergent viewpoints among the members of the 12 on many important topics, I submit that their two talks are not evidence of such. If you were to ask Elder Uchdorf or Elder Oaks about their two talks, I submit that both men would tell you that they were complementary rather than contradictory.

  22. Now to discuss the point of this post, I thoroughly agree with it. What confuses me is your label of fundamentalist to apply to a supposed traditional conservative type to insists in scriptural perfection and conformity. That’s really a strawman. Sometimes, we’re probably all guilty of putting a little too much trust in the exact words on a certain page and exploding it’s meaning to be more than it is.

    Hmmm… who also does just that to spectacular effect? Why, liberal, progressive, enlightened, intellectual, or whatever label you prefer Mormons.

    In fact, virtually every disagreement I personally have with what much of the bloggernacle puts out there from a progressive angle stems from what you might call an unfair or irrational expectation of consistency or we need to throw prior understanding out or at least ignore it. (ban, gender, plural marriage, modesty, virtue, sexual immorality, etc)

    The holistic approach your describing, or rather I at least hope your describing remind me of Bennett’s 5th and 6th stages of cultural sensitivity. In that model the strawman conservative and progressive would both be stuck at stages 1 and 2.

  23. These are valuable thoughts, Ben. One problem, that others have already alluded to, is that unless one is really attuned to the statements endorsing multivocality or diversity (and they are there), it’s quite easy to assume, from most talks and lessons, that the church’s default exegetical approach is a quasi-inerrantist one, despite lip service to AoF 8.

    “In one sense, scripture is a little like the Church Handbook of Instructions, except when an update goes out, no one replaces the old pages. The new and old are in there together.”

    Within Islam, there is a long tradition of studying abrogation (al-n?sikh wa l-mans?kh) as it applies to the Qur’anic text and Hadith. Much of this genre of commentary is legalistic or procedural—is the original text superseded/substituted or merely “specified” for a new context?—but I believe there are some useful analogies in there. It seems that some discussion of ideas about abrogation (does the BoM trump NT? What about D&C? etc.) could be helpful in articulating possible LDS exegetical approaches.

  24. Another thought along the same lines as my last comment. I remember reading in a commentary on Matthew 9:17 that some have interpreted it as advocating a multivocal rather than supersessionist theology. Here’s the text (NIV): “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved (italics mine).”

    Contrast that with Luke 5:37 (“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.”) and Mark 2:21–22 (“21″No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. 22″No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”)

    Now to me, it seems that the straightforward reading of “both are preserved” is that both the new wine and the new wineskins are preserved. But the commentary suggested that it’s at least possible to read it as meaning that both the old wineskins (OT, Judaism, etc.) and the new wine (NT, Christianity) are preserved. Anyhow, possibly relevant to your thoughts above.

  25. agnostic, plenty, ranging from history to theology to doctrine to community, although it certainly also has a lot in common with other churches.

    The implication of your question seems, however, to be the same as, e.g., Goreg above, that if the Church isn’t led by perfect people, it cannot be True (or Good, or whatever your capitalized adjective of choice).

    But making the leap from leaders aren’t perfect to church isn’t true requires the same misunderstandings that motivated Ben to describe the multivocal nature of scripture. That is, your assumption is flawed.

    So how can God work through, and direct His church through, flawed people? I don’t know, but that’s the method He’s used throughout history. Sadly, if you’re going to let people work for you, things will get messy and imperfect. As for me, I see that as a feature, not a bug. But, of course, YMMV, depending on the assumptions you bring with you.

  26. “What makes this church any different from other churches that are run by imperfect men too?”

    Is that a question you don’t know how a Mormon would answer or is it a statement (accusation?) rephrased as a question?

  27. It’s a question not meant to be accusatory. I like all my mormon friends and your church does a great deal of good. However, it seems confusing when you claim to be the one and yet the one has made obvious errors. So is the uniqueness based on authority that is flawed when it gets transferred from god to man? Is there always going to be man made error that seeps in unavoidably? And if so how can one tell what is from god and what is from man?

  28. 34. Try this quote from Brigham Young:

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”

    There are a lot of other quotes (I Googled the part I remembered and found it at Not the topic I was looking for on that site, but the quote.

    Bottom line: In Mormonism, while only the Prophet has the authority to speak for the entire church and on the Lord’s behalf, every member — actually every human being — is entitled to receive his/her own witness from the Lord as to whether the doctrine in question is from the Lord.

    There are some important conditions that often preclude receiving personal revelation of this kind (a pattern is famously outlined in Moroni 10:3-5, and there are others), but in its essence, that’s it. We’re not a church where one speaks and others fall into lockstep. The ability to receive personal revelation is a central doctrine.

    As to imperfect men and women and mistakes … that’s all the Lord has to work with.

  29. When people write “God” or “Lord”, do they mean God, the Father, Jesus, some Trinitarian combination, or something else entirely.

    In my own usage, I don’t know what I mean, and I wonder if others also don’t know.

  30. I don’t know or care what was the thought process behind the question agnostic posed. Here’s another question it would be good to have answered (rather than psychoanalyzed):

    “Why should investigators believe the missionaries when they tell them that God will confirm to them the truthfulness of what they have been taught, if President McKay prayed earnestly about the priesthood ban but kept getting the wrong answer?”

  31. President Mckay, as I understand from his bio, never learned anything by revelation about the reasons given for the ban. Rather, he was told “not now.” Even if it began without revelation (as I believe), it’s within reason that 100 years later God would want a hand in controlling how and when it ended. In other words, I am not convinced McKay “kept getting the wrong answer” because that conclusion seems to flow from assumptions I am not making.

  32. I agree with 39. Pres. McKay wasn’t getting the “wrong answer.” He simply wasn’t getting an answer, and concluded the time was not right.

  33. >39

    So you’re saying that it’s still religiously permissible to believe that the prophets (like President McKay) who maintained the ban were acting in harmony with God’s will?


    That’s not what his biography says. It says he did (repeatedly) get an answer and the answer was “not now”.

  34. There’s a broad swath of things that are “religiously permissible” Publius. When McKay repeatedly talks about the mental and emotional effort that went into consulting God on the issue, I’m willing to take him at his word. Unlike Brigham, McKay certainly wasn’t simply maintaining his own views by keeping the ban.

    And as I recall, McKay spoke about this on several occasions. At times there was no answer, and later on it was “not now” and “don’t ask me again.”

  35. >41

    Here’s a few relevant passages:

    “He wrestled with the subject for years and years, making it a matter of intense prayer on numerous occasions.”

    “[H]e told the secretaries in his reception room that he had inquired of the Lord several times on the matter, and that the answer was, ‘Not yet.'”

    “I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly: The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”

  36. >42

    When he got the “not now” and “don’t ask me again” answers, were those answers reflective of the will of the Lord or weren’t they?

  37. I don’t think there’s an objective way to respond to that.

    My gut, as uncomfortable as it may be in this case, is to take as authentic the reported responses received by a spiritually sensitive prophet who was acting counter-culturally, on multiple occasions. Those responses were clearly not what he wanted.

    God often acts counter-intuitively.

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