Slavery, Homosexuality, and the Authority of the Bible

I’ve been thinking about the status of the Bible in Mormon culture. Really, my thoughts apply to all scripture, but the Bible focalizes the issue in key ways. What is the value of the Bible for Latter-day Saints? What are we supposed to take from this strange document? I take it that we are not biblicists (fortunately!), deriving our beliefs from the Bible, but then where do we turn? The biblicist/inerrantist/Protestant position roots its interpretations in the Bible, arguing that the correct interpretation of the Bible is the source of authority. The hermeneutics of this position are highly problematic. The Bible never tells us anything without first passing through our own interpretive frameworks. Its world is wildly different from our own. For instance, the Bible condones slavery but rejects homosexuality. If we accept the biblicist position, how can we reject the Bible’s position on slavery as a moral evil and yet accept the Bible’s view on homosexuality? On what basis do we interpret one as morally binding, and the other as relative?

Inasmuch as we appeal to scripture in our justifications for any anti-homosexual arguments, we must deal with this hermeneutical problem. However, it doesn’t seem to have quite the same force for us as it does for those who base their arguments solely on the authority of the Bible. For Latter-day Saints, this issue is actually resolved quite easily. We simply point to our modern revelatory tradition to mediate the interpretation of ancient scripture. The ancient revelation is always secondary to the modern revelation in authority (despite the rhetorically assertion that they are in harmony). But this forces the issue of precisely why have a secondary authority at all? If the Bible (and Book of Mormon, and D&C) are always of secondary authority, do they really have any authority at all? Is the reason that the Bible is practically irrelevant in Mormon culture simply because it is irrelevant? What authority if any does the Bible have. I submit that it has none.

19 Replies to “Slavery, Homosexuality, and the Authority of the Bible”

  1. I actually think that the scriptures have a primarily devotional character. Practically, they are tools for the Saints to commune with God. There is wisdom to be found for sure, but institutional Church policy/teaching trumps all (including regularly the BoM, and D&C). By accepted definition Church authorities are the lens through which scripture is interpreted.

  2. J.,If the scriptures have only a devotional character, would you agree that they actually have no binding authority on belief and doctrine except where they happen to coincide with modern revelation?

  3. For many reasons, it is easier to ground a doctrine or practice on the Bible (or on other LDS scriptures) than on modern revelation alone. Only when a modern revelator seeks to deflect or reject a clear Biblical pronouncement does the modern revelator then need to stand on his or her own authority. And since LDS revelators make few express pronouncements (General Conference is mostly moral exhortation), the tension between biblical or scriptural authority and live prophetic authority rarely becomes an issue.

  4. I would argue that that is the current situation in the Church.Now it is true that extra-hierarchal debates (over or including scripture) can ultimately sway hierarchal interpretation of the scripture (see, e.g., FARMS or even Dialogue).

  5. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly…”When/where slavery has existed, the scriptures have told one should submit oneself willingly to it. (This happened with the people of Limhi and Alma the elder in the Book of Mormon, also).Jesus pointed out that divorce was allowed under the “law of Moses” (but given by God) because of the “hardness of (your) hearts”, but from the beginning it was not so” (i.e., the time of Adam)The scriptures clearly indicate that the Lord’s word shall endure (even longer than the earth, or the condition of the earth now). Hence, the Bible is as relevant inasmuch as it applies to us today, as ever. And who can say that any scripture is inferior to another? Scripture has authority because it is the word of God—as pointed out in D&C 1, this is true, whether spoken by the Lord’s servants or himself, it is the same”True, what the Lord says now may (but does not forcibly) override what he has said in the past. Situations can and do change, and hence current revelation is needed for the present moment.But, by and large, God is unchanging, though man, either individually or collectively, may change some or much one way or another. He will give his word at a given time as by him is deemed appropriate.But trying to justify homosexuality because slavery is not as extensive today as anciently, and hence is little spoken of in restoration scriptures, is wrong.Homosexuality is addressed, I assert, in restoration scripture–“6 Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.”Homosexuality, is, like adultery, in that it is a sexual sin– hence, it is “like unto it”, and is something we are commanded not to do.DMP

  6. TT,Actually, this similar to the idea I am presenting in the February conference. That said, although I think that scriptures are valuable for their aid in receiving revelation, they serve a variety of important roles in their own right. They contribute to a continuum of interpretive models and provide a check on the more exhuberant thereof. They reveal to many the good news of Christ. It would be a huge mistake to classify or to assume that the scriptures are entirely without authority. In fact, they are authoritative and their authority is evident in the discourse of modern prophets who use them as further legitimization for their own revelatory discourse.

  7. Hmm… And where does modern revelation get it’s persuasive authority in LDS thought? The personal confirmation of the Spirit, perhaps?And ditto for the Bible.

  8. I think the Bible has a sort of de facto authority. Mormons are very selective readers of the Bible, but they do refer to it in policy and doctrine discussions. Those of us who have been on missions or graduated from seminary are also very gifted at pulling out prooftexts (never mind the actual context of the verses). The line “as far as it’s translated correctly” has become something of an “escape clause” when the Bible doesn’t mesh well with our beliefs. Yet, I would say that ,overall, the Bible still commands a certain respect in LDS circles. As for the issue of homosexuality: one is reminded of how church leaders once used the scriptures to justify withholding the preisthood from blacks. Hopefully we can embrace an equality-based hermeneutic before kingdom come.

  9. I think another way to reconceptualize it is as follows:Do we need the Bible to establish the Mormon position? Ultimately speaking, no, because the prophet could technically fill the role of the Bible (and the BoM for that matter, and all recorded scripture). He delivers the message of God to his children. So from an ontological perspective we can safely say that the scriptures are not necessary. However, the fact that the prophet(s) choose(s) to continue to employ them binds us to them as authoritative. In a sense we agree with the scriptures because they agree with the prophet and not necessarily the other way around. As such it seems that the question we should pursue would be, why does the prophet contine to use the scriptures? And I think here some answers have already been suggested, but I’ll also add: The scriptures serve to bind us to the people of the past in such a way that we see the gospel as something extending back to the first human beings.just some random thoughts for what they’re worth…

  10. anonymous said:”When/where slavery has existed, the scriptures have told one should submit oneself willingly to it. (This happened with the people of Limhi and Alma the elder in the Book of Mormon, also).”I think that this illustrates the problem with a strict view of the revelatory nature of scripture. You end up having to defend ugly ideas like this.HP,I’d like to hear more about how you think that the scriptures provide a “check.” From what I can see, I can’t think of any “revelation” given by the FP that would be rejected because it didn’t coincide with the scriptures. I can concede that the scriptures may be a catalyst for new revelation, and inspire new ways of thinking about things, but I don’t see them as providing any regulatory limits on doctrine per se. Handle,I think that you are right that Mormons refer to the Bible in doctrinal discussions and as “evidence” for certain doctrines, but this is what causes the hermeneutical question. Why are some biblical “doctrines” accepted and not others? There must be a third factor by which to judge the authority of any biblical teaching. For conservative Protestants, this third factor is invisible. They take their own experience of the world and their own values as “natural” and interpret the Bible accordingly. For LDS, this third factor is revelation from the FP. In both cases, this third factor is authoritative, not the Bible itself.

  11. trailertrash, just a couple questions . . . What kind of testimony for God would a believing slave have in a hollow, material world?What is your final authority?

  12. Todd,I am not sure that I understand either the content or the force of your first question. Care to explain?As for the second question, I am not sure that I understand the force of this question either, but I would suspect that my answer is the cumulative revelation of the church, my own testimony, and my brain to figure out the rest. Is that what you were asking?

  13. TT,Generally speaking, in the modern era, revelatory changes have been accompanied with a rhetoric indicating that the new way was to be found in the scriptures the whole time. All our changes are tied into the scriptures in part because we tend to say that our changes reflect better developed understandings of the scriptures.Also, we have the following two quotes from Bruce R. McConkie (found in his famous letter to Eugene England):”Yes, Brigham Young did say some things about God progressing in knowledge and understanding, but again, be it known, that Brigham Young taught, emphatically and plainly, that God knows all things and has all power meaning in the infinite, eternal and ultimate and absolute sense of the word. Again, the issue is, which Brigham Young shall we believe and the answer is: We will take the one whose statements accord with what God has revealed in the Standard Works.””We do not solve our problems by getting a statement from the president of the Church or from someone else on a subject. We have been introduced to the gospel; we have the gift of the Holy Ghost; we have the Standards Works and it is our responsibility to get in tune and understand properly what the Lord has revealed and has had us canonize. The end result of this course of personally and individually pursuing light and truth is to reach that millennial state of which the scriptures say it will no longer be necessary for every man to say to his neighbor “know the Lord,” for all shall know him from the greatest to the least. Joseph Smith says this will be by the spirit of revelation.”Of course, he followed that with the following:”If it is true, as I am advised, that you speak on this subject of the progression of God at firesides and elsewhere, you should cease to do so. If you give other people copies of the material you sent me, with the quotations it contains, you should cease to do so. It is not in your province to set in order the Church or to determine what is doctrines shall be. It is axiomatic among us to know that God has given apostles and prophets “for the edifying of the body of Christ,” and that their ministry is to see that “we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Eph. 4:11-16.) This means, among other things, that it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. You do not have a divine commission to correct me or any of the Brethren. The Lord does not operate that way. If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact still remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do. The appointment is not given to the faculty at Brigham Young University or to any of the members of the Church. The Lord’s house is a house of order and those who hold the keys are appointed to proclaim the doctrines.”For those interested, you can read the full letter here (warning: it is an anti-site).

  14. I agree that for the most part we want to interpret current revelation in light of past revelation for a multitude of reasons. But I think two quotes in particular spell out what happens when push comes to shove:Ernest L. Wilkinson, BYU Speeches, April 21, 1966, p.3. In one of the early meetings of our Church, one brother, in the presence of the Prophet Joseph, preached that doctrine, stating that “those who give revelations should give revelations according to those books” and “confine [themselves] to them.” When he concluded, Brother Joseph turned to Brother Brigham and said, “Brother Brigham, I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.” Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of D&C, and laid it down before him, and he said: “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world almost, to our day. And now, “said he, “when compared with the living oracles, those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet . . . in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books. . .” When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation: “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.” (Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report 10, 97:22-23)Also Ezra Taft Benson stated: “the Living Prophet…is more vital to us than the Standard Works [Bible, Book of Mormon, etc.]…The living Prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet [an Old Testament Prophet]”…”Keep your eye on the President of the Church. If he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it” (Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophets, BYU Devotional, Feb 26, 1980, p.3,6).

  15. I read the Old Testament as a largely symbolic, metaphorical text–and tend to dismiss its violence as tragic examples of our willingness to justify offences against humanity in the name of God–a rather common and persistent sin. LDS scripture relies on symbols established in the Old Testament and continued in the New Testament. The Tree of Life, for example, was hardly a new idea, nor was the rod of iron. The metaphors of feasting, marriage, infidelity/fidelity, kingdoms, shepherding, captivity/deliverance and redemption through sacrifice are all basic to Biblical texts and thus to LDS texts.I believe in the atonement, but find many symbols and metaphors leading us to understand it which may not be literally true. But relevant? We thrive on symbols. We dream them and write them. The Bible is the metaphorical foundation for everything the LDS Church stands on and for. I doubt you’d find a single General Conference session which didn’t refer to a multitude of Biblical syjmbols.

  16. TT,I am back. I don’t think the Bible is encouraging that I should go out and buy some slaves some time in the near future. But what I do find remarkable is Paul’s exhortion to slaves and masters in Ephesians. This is so contra, so remarkable to secular, hollow lifestyle in the Roman world. A slave that happily obeys? What is wrong with that dude?! Can you imagine the discussion in Ephesus?TT, I appreciate your honesty. Why is it so difficult for my LDS friends in Idaho to flat out tell me the priority of authority.First – the intuitiveness of my own heart and its reasoning skills.Secondly, the collective wisdom of the modern day LDS authoritiesBelow that, thirdly, latter-day texts.And way down at the bottom of the totem pole – the Bible.But TT, I am one of those Protestant inerrantists. (curious, hp, would you consider my blog an anti?)

  17. Todd,Thanks for coming back. As for your point about a “slave that happily obeys” as being some sort of desirable, I think that you seem to be missing the moral problem here. The boogey man of a “secular hollow lifestyle” isn’t the problem, it is the advocacy of slavery.As for your list about the priority of authority, where are you getting it from? I suspect that the reason that many LDS can’t answer the question is because there is no answer for LDS. We have multiple sources of authority and no official way of prioritizing them. So what? What is the point of your list?

  18. TT, thank for the alert on my blog. It must have been my bumbling fingers.I don’t think Paul was trying to be the political revolutionary in correcting all the political ills. He was not a Jewish zealot promoting the overthrow of the Roman government so that Jews could be free, no longer household slaves. He greeted local house fellowships in Rome that consisted of both believing masters and believing slaves. He sought reconciliation between a master and his servant in the book of Philemon. I clearly see Paul’s words not elevating certain social status but eradicating it. Believers are one in Christ whatever there position is.Was Paul out there promoting that Christians ought to go purchase slaves? I don’t think so. When I am reading the Bible, I don’t experience the need to possess slaves or multiply wives. I don’t interpret King David to be the spiritual paradigm for either of these cultural activities. Do you find such encouragement within Scripture?I do see Paul addressing the big boogey man . . . the spiritual slavery of the human heart. Everyone is a slave to something or someone. TT, what or to whom are you a doulos?In regards to my prioritizing of religious authorities, just chalk it up to my own personal observations. Maybe, I am completely out of the ballpark. But this is what I perceive presently. I think what we identify as our religious authority has much bearing on our Christianity in practical life.Thanks for letting me interject on your blog. Feel free to do the same on mine.

  19. “When I am reading the Bible, I don’t experience the need to possess slaves or multiply wives.”There are historical reasons why this is the case, not because that is what the Bible plainly teaches. When our 19th century ancestors read the Bible, they read it as saying that slaves should obey their masters. There are still slave holders today in various parts of the world, including our own country. Since the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, should we take the neutral position and tell those slaves that according to our religion they should just try to be good slaves? This isn’t some hypothetical. It is a real moral problem and I am not comfortable excusing Paul on this point.

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