Faith, Revelation, and Jewish Parallels

Some Jewish reading recently has triggered some LDS thoughts and parallels. I jotted these down between lengthy organic chemistry homework sessions, so they’re less refined than I’d like, but still important to get out there. (I’m trying to shed my perfectionist writing tendencies.)

James Kugel is an insightful and approachable Hebrew Bible scholar. He’s also an Orthodox Jew who retired from Harvard to go live in Israel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible details how and why ancient and modern audiences understood the Bible differently, exposition which many people find disturbing or even undermining of faith. Most interesting is that like Marc Brettler’s very different How to Read the (Jewish) Bible, which is more of an introduction (Brettler is another Orthodox Jewish Hebrew Bible professor) Kugel’s How to Read the Bible includes a section at the end of his book about how he reconciles his faith with his knowledge. This spills over onto his website (or used to, I can’t find it now) as well as an SBL presentation I heard years ago. Apparently, he is now sought out by struggling Jews trying to reconcile strong scholarly evidence with individual faith and/or traditional views. If it helps, there’s a loose analogy between Kugel/Hebrew Bible and Richard Bushman/Mormon history.

A recent interview with Kugel (with comments from others) struck me several times as illustrating parallels to current LDS struggles and some responses. The whole thing is worth reading, especially if you’ve read the earlier fictional accounts of such struggles in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, which can contextualize the crux of these issues from a Jewish perspective.

Jon Levenson, a Jewish studies professor at Harvard and a former colleague of Kugel, sees a way to cross the theological chasm: Just because the Bible has a human history, it does not logically follow that it has only a human history or that it lacks a transcendent source, namely God, says Levenson, who describes himself as a “somewhat unorthodox Orthodox Jew.” “What is needed is a more sophisticated model of divine revelation, one that can take account of the modern discoveries, for example, the complex pattern of composition in antiquity, without losing sight of the theological dimension.”

One of the things I see Mormons similarly struggling with is the apparent humanity in scripture and modern LDS leadership. We want inspired scripture/leadership to be easy, inspired at all times, perfectly consistent with itself and our expectations; in spite of lip service to fallibility and multiple authoritative statements, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that God lets the humans drive most of the time and that we’ll eventually get where we need to go with such a system. I’ve said before that

I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can….I find that to be both realistic and believing.

I think there’s a substantial disconnect between lay ideas of “prophethood” and the reality, one of the things I had in mind in that same post when I said

We have a culture, we inherit a tradition, about definitions, about the past, about many things. Those create expectations, which combine with experiences we interpret from within our own personal worldview (which is shaped by  those traditions, expectations, definitions, etc.)

Prophets are not prophets because they have a red hotline phone to God (it’s called prayer, we all have it) or an unlimited backstage pass to some divine ultimate-answer library. That is getting things backwards. Rather, what makes a prophet a prophet is that God chooses to speak to them. That’s the way the prophetic causality flows. Similarly, the attribution of the labels “inspired” or “revelation” on certain content doesn’t guarantee the exclusion of all human aspects from that content, but the inclusion of some divine aspect among that humanity. I’ve touched on both of these aspects before, here, here, and here.

[Kugel] points out in How to Read the Bible—that Orthodoxy, almost despite itself, isn’t really about the Bible. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret,” he writes. “It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling…Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words.”

I think Mormons have unconsciously absorbed a lot of Protestant ideas and attitudes. One would be a loose parallel to sola scriptura, that “scripture alone” is authoritative. I think the LDS parallel would be sola revelatione (thanks Kevin!) Stepping back a bit, we need to recognize that the LDS system of authority is much more like Judaism and Catholicism than Protestantism. That is, there is a binding canon, but there is also an authoritative interpreter standing between the canon and the believer. In Judaism, this is the rabbinic tradition; in Catholicism, the magisterium. In LDS, that role is filled by the prophets and apostles. And in what follows, I’m either stating the obvious, splitting hairs, or messily cleaving with a chainsaw something that should be uncleavable, depending on your perspective.

In sola revelatione, LDS fail to recognize the divinely appointed role of LDS prophets and apostles in making authoritative and binding declarations. That is, ideally every formal policy, doctrine, General Conference talk, is inspired and guided by “direct revelation,” whatever that term might mean. I suspect that many decisions must be made in the absence of strong revelation, ie. ” since we’ve received no revelation but must make a decision at this point in time, option B makes the most sense, and we feel good about it.”

As is so often the case, a gap exists between the reality and the ideal. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Someone who reads D&C 89 and says “hey, the Word of Wisdom lets us drink beer” is following sola scriptura. It’s true, D&C 89 does allow that, and the history of interpretation bears it out. (If that means nothing to you, see here for a good overview or Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the LDS Church from 1890-1930 for a historian’s account.)

Someone who reads D&C 89 and demands to know where the revelation is that narrows it to prohibit beer, for example, is following sola revelatione, not recognizing the divinely appointed role of prophets and apostles to legislate within the Church with or without revelation. That is, while I believe they seek revelation on nearly everything, receiving a divine “green light” doesn’t necessarily indicate “this is absolute perfection and will result in the best results possible.”

I think another example is the length of mens missions. At one time, they were shortened to 18 months. At another time, lengthened to 36 months. And then returned to 24 months. This, to me, seems like a clear example of trial-and-error. I suspect a good amount of thought, prayer, and “studying it out” was spent on each decision, and that each probably received some light form of divine “approved.” Yet 18 months was not the ideal nor 36, and 24 may eventually prove to be too much of a one-size-fits-all, or need to change for other reasons. (See the end of my post here “we cannot easily extrapolate” for an application with Abraham and Isaac and the JST.) I suspect, as that liberal Elder McConkie expressed, that even prophets “are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 547.)

To draw a different analogy, canonized revelation on the books is a bit like law. It may be The Law, but law is not self-interpreting. It requires an authoritative judgment to declare what the written law means, and how it is to be implemented, enforced, or ignored in actual practice. (Google for the multitude of articles about crazy unenforced laws that were still on the books, like “As late as 1987, it was illegal to wear blue underwear on Thursdays  in Kentucky.”) Now, The Law on the books can be amended, updated, or invalidated. But even if The Law stays the same, the authoritative interpretation may change, based on better understanding of the Law, circumstance, or other things. (I believe this legal analogy approach is taken by Nate Oman in this Dialogue article, but haven’t reread it recently.)

Sola scriptura, in essence, denies the changeability of The Law and the necessity or existence of any authoritative interpreter. (Thus Protestantism, loosely.)

Sola revelatione allows for The Law to be amended, but denies the role of authoritative interpreter.

The fullest recognition of the divinely appointed system in the LDS Church, I believe, is to recognize both the changeability of The Law and the authority of divinely-appointed Church leaders to interpret, apply, and reinterpret.

The role of authoritative interpreter is played in the Church by Apostles, acting in concert (not individually), ideally with strong inspiration. However, that inspiration may not always be forthcoming, and if it is, may not indicate what we assume it does, that the approved thing represents the best of all possible things. Would it be helpful to think of Apostles as stewards of the Church who also may receive revelation, instead of Infallible Prophets who can’t NOT receive revelation? (McConkie talks about “administrating,” but I like “steward” better than “administrator” or “manager.”)

To return to Kugel, his interlocutor doesn’t find him terribly helpful in restoring his faith after the fact. That seems to indicate to me, it’s much easier to shape paradigms in a healthy and robust way early on, than to perform emergency paradigm surgery after a spiritual crash or on the middle of the battlefield. We have too many casualties that way.

11 comments for “Faith, Revelation, and Jewish Parallels

  1. If you want to make the slogan truly Latin it would be sola revelatione, “by revelation alone.”

  2. “I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can”

    I’m not sure what you mean by human. Humans are afterall created in the image of God. Jesus said we are gods. But more to the point, I wonder if human is perhaps a cop-out for “uninspired”.

    Which statement is (more) true:
    Most teaching in the church is inspired. or Most teaching in the church is uninspired.

    I think it’s important for us all to answer that question on our own.

  3. I think this is an important post, following in a long line of work you’ve done over the years on this topic for which I am really grateful. And I loved your quote from an older post:

    I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can….I find that to be both realistic and believing.

    I truly wish more members of the Church would read this and take it to heart. I believe you are correct in these perspectives of yours and, frankly, this stuff should be obvious. I think that if more of our members had this perspective, we would see a drastic reduction in people having brittle testimonies shattered when they learn historical information that does not fit into their previously crafted paradigm of quasi-infallibility and their expectation of a body of revelation that they have chosen to believe must be entirely internally consistent at all times and in all ways.

    The other problem is the truly detrimental Presentism that pervades our scripture culture in the Church. We read the Old Testament and think that the prophets and priests depicted there will have had the same personalities and mannerisms of modern Apostles, with neat and tidy suits and very proper professional careers behind them. Mormons of this mindset (call them Meridian* Mormons?) who read Ezekiel, for example, will see a doting, soft-spoken old man — an Elder Hales? — rather than a seemingly insane desert shaman who “lays siege” to a model of the city of Jerusalem and eats bread made with human dung (or cooked using it as fuel — text unclear) or at least cow dung (after obtaining a reprieve from God) in the public view to make his point about the impending doom threatening Jerusalem and the people’s defilement of the law. (See Ezekiel 4.)

    Ditto Noah. I am sure many contemporary Mormons would join Evangelical Christians in doubting that Noah actually got drunk after making landfall, though it says so right in the Bible. Our Presentism gets in the way of understanding them in their own context. Elder Perry would never get drunk after disembarking from the boat so how could we possibly imagine Noah doing it?

    Our intellectual culture is impoverished and culturally we face pressure to wear that as a badge of pride. We view it as a sign of our faith if we can “hang heavy doctrinal weights on slender revealed threads, or make every point of scripture an ultimatum on which hang all the law and the prophets” as you so perfectly described the problem in your exceptional 2010 Patheos post (one of my favorite posts on the topic in all of Mormon blogging so far). The result of that mindset is an exceptionally brittle testimony incapable of adjusting and handling contextual information that could clarify doctrines or teachings but instead becomes a stumbling block, leading well-meaning local leaders and even General Authorities to retrench and magnify the tendencies of Presentism in scriptural understanding and interpretation and in the concept of “sola revelation” that you’ve identified here. Our efforts then “unwittingly put many others on a path out of both the Church and theistic faith,” as you observed in 2010.

    We can and MUST do better. It doesn’t have to be this way. Your thoughts here hint at the way forward. Thank you so much!

    * Meridian magazine, guaranteeing our children’s future apostasies since 2001.

  4. Nice, Ben. Occasionally I’ve noticed views that strike me as “Lachmannian sola scriptura” in outlook, or the assumption that if we had the original text and a perfect translation, the scriptures would solve all our problems. But the scriptures we’ve canonized have always been incomplete, problematically transmitted, and imperfectly translated – and that doesn’t change our obligation to read and ponder them. In the same way, sustaining the apostles includes sustaining them even when they’re only doing the best they can with the talents they have.

  5. “But the scriptures we’ve canonized have always been incomplete, problematically transmitted, and imperfectly translated” — unfortunately very few of our people, it seems, have this perspective, and believe instead that the scriptures have come to us straight from the lips of God, and Correlation has us thinking that each scripture verse is compatible with and entirely consistent with every other. At best, our curriculum more or less demands Presentism as our mode of reading and pondering the scriptures. At worst, it reduces the value of scripture to the ability of individual verses to function as prooftexts for specific current teachings of General Authorities. (i.e., we’re not reading scriptures for their own sake or with a view to the actual substantive information that they can impart to us when read in their context and with an awareness of enculturated writers of those texts.)

  6. Kevin: Thanks! Latin is something I have no training in, much to my classical shame.

    DQ: I don’t think a dichotomy between “inspired” and “human”/”uninspired” is the way to go. As I try to lay out in the post, getting a divine “approved” doesn’t always mean what we think it does. Moreover, my view is that not every policy, talk, article, etc. is written in stone by God’s finger, may or may not have the divine “approved, ” which even then is no guarantee of ultimate correctness. In other words, I think the “Moses on Sinai” or “Joseph in the grove” moments are few and far between, not the paradigmatic examples from which we should extrapolate everyday occurrences or SOP for every policy, statement, etc.

    In summary, I’d like to recognize a spectrum and jettison the dichotomies (which might conceivably represent far endpoints on that spectrum.)

    John: Thanks for the comment. This kind of thing shouldn’t be seen as radical at all, as it can be well grounded in a long tradition of Apostolic teaching. It is certainly competing with a popular culture, though, and often loses.

    Presentism has an all-too-easily available defense among LDS, namely “translated correctly.” Common understandings of the JST easily play into that defense. I took square aim at this idea and presentism in my recent RE article (which I am so glad they published.)


    Many LDS seem to approach the Joseph Smith Translation (or JST) as pure restoration of original text, replacing text that was “incorrectly translated,” a concept which serves on the popular level as an escape from any text which causes discomfort or doesn’t seem to represent current doctrinal understandings.


    The assumption in the phrase “preserved less adequately” appears to be that any lack of doctrinal harmony between the Bible and modern revelation is explained by asserting the original presence of that doctrine and its subsequent loss. This is not a necessary assump- tion, as Latter-day Saints also have the idea of line-upon-line and continuing revelation.


    Given the core LDS principles of continuing revelation, line upon line, and that God shall “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” doctrinal accuracy is a bit of a moving target. The question of doctrinal accuracy is similar to that of the quality of a translation; both are measured against a non-static standard. A good translation at one time may, because of language changed over time, be found less so. A doctrinally accurate statement at one time may, because of further revelation, no longer be as accurate. LDS should therefore not treat the Book of Mormon as some Protestants approach the Bible, as a static and de facto infallible doctrinal handbook that matches in every way what has been revealed today. Such a degree of doctrinal harmonization does violence to the text and context, as well as LDS doctrinal principles.

  7. DQ, to me I suppose it depends on what you mean by “inspired”. Were the teachings given word for word by direct revelation? Was it perhaps an inspired idea or concept that was then left to the person to interpret or act on?

    As a metaphor, did the Liahona act like a compass, or a GPS system? Did it just point towards the Promised Land, or did it direct them through each turn in their path?

    If it was revelation from God, why did Nephi and Lehi get similar but different things out of the vision of the Tree of Life?

    Just because something is “inspired” doesn’t mean that the entirety of it as filtered through the inspired individual is divine. I believe that when the apostles speak next weekend they will have been inspired to give the talks they give. That doesn’t mean that all their inspiration was the same. One may have been inspired to discuss a certain idea or gospel concept. Another may instead be inspired to a certain set of scriptures. Another may have been inspired by an experience they recently had during his ministry. Yet another may have been given paragraphs or even the whole talk from the mouth of an angel much like King Benjamin.

    Inspiration comes in many forms and degrees. It is not faithless to question the form or degree to which something we may encounter has been inspired. Feasting upon the word of Christ does not mean we should voraciously consume everything in our path. We can feast while still having discriminating tastes.

  8. On the problem of revelation and “working it out” ourselves, I tend to fall back on an experience I had in college. It was in the late 90s, not long after the Church had rolled out the “equal pay for missions” and “ward budget based on attendance from HQ” programs. I was sitting near a couple of recently returned missionaries (based on their enthusiasm and zeal), one of whom breathlessly announced to his friend that he had heard that the FP and Qof12 had had a 24-hour-long meeting in the SL Temple and had emerged with those two programs, cut out of whole cloth. I laughed (to myself) and went home to tell my roommate the joke–since his uncle, who was at the time on the Church’s Finance Committee, had just wrapped up more than a decade of work on both of those programs, including pilot programs and other real-world testing.
    Do I believe that there was a meeting in the temple to approve those programs? Yep–probably not twenty-four hours long, though. I’d also guess that the meeting in which it was approved wasn’t the first time it had been on the agenda. Do I think that inspiration, even revelation, was involved in those programs? Yes, I do. There was the initial idea–and whether it came from an apostle, or a mission president, or a ward finance clerk doesn’t matter, to me at least–and at every step along the way inspiration molded and shaped what eventually was stamped “approved” at the highest levels of Church administration.
    Because of that experience, I tend to see revelation as a process. Even the most visionary of our modern prophets, “the Prophet,” received the Book of Commandments and other founding revelations bit by bit, “precept upon precept.” Why we’d think that it comes any other way is a bit mystifying, but we all want the mountaintop experience without the hike, apparently.

  9. Ben, I really appreciate this post.

    Regarding “human” vs. “inspired”: When I think about my own efforts to prepare a talk or a lesson, or serve in a church calling, I am inclined to agree with you that this is not necessarily a dichotomy.

    When I wrote my sacrament meeting talk a couple of weeks ago, was I human, or was I inspired? I hope and believe that I was inspired. The pieces seemed to fall in place. I felt uplifted and joyful as I was giving the talk, and several people thanked me warmly afterwards. I felt that what I was saying was true. But I am also certain that it wasn’t perfect, that (on second thought) I interpreted one scripture badly, and that my choices of examples to illustrate my points were colored by my personal biases. Moreover, the feeling of being inspired also felt very human. I felt like I was drawing on my own studies and experiences and that God was helping me to put them together and blessing my efforts.

    I know that I don’t have the same kind of stewardship as the General Authorities do, but I do believe that I am entitled to receive revelation for my own responsibilities in the church and in my personal and family life. Those revelations always feel that they are mixed up, to one degree or another, with my human thoughts and emotions. When I am inspired, I’m still very human.

  10. Jared, thanks for the comment.
    Derk, I think revelation is often a process, not an event. Good story.

    Genevieve, agreed. Revelation, it seems to me, is rarely a clearly delineated, Other, out-of-body/mind experience, but rather a combination of human and divine, a meeting between heaven and earth that raises the human from the ground while yet leaving their feet on it, and their humanity intact.

  11. I appreciate the original posting. I remember hearing President Hinckley speak several years ago, not at a general conference — he was newly the President of the Church, and he said something along the lines that he wished members could appreciate that in his actions and sermons, he acts and speaks far more in his President of the Church office than in his Prophet office. This isn’t to deny to Prophet office, but to give reality to the President of the Church office — a man doing the best he can to magnify his responsibility.


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