Interpretation and Revelation

I’ve been thinking lately about the question of revelation; not necessarily in a definitional sense (in terms of this post we can talk about revelation as knowledge revealed from God to his prophet(s)), but in a material sense–is revelation an idea interpreted into a particular language, recorded on paper, edited, and reproduced for others to read? Or is the reproduction the revelation itself? (And if so, then how materially should we take it–is the reproduced paper and ink sacred? Or if we download it, does our computer become sanctified? I remember a visiting GA on my mission talking about the power of having the BoM open when teaching, even when not using it.) 

I don’t believe there’s a clear cut answer (and it may vary from situation to situation); but I do believe that our response to this question, perhaps tells us a lot about the way we view the authority of prophets. 

If one’s response is the former–that revelation in fact transcends materiality and language–then prophets are involved in “interpreting” the revelation that they received. This first of all means that what is in fact recorded in our texts or spoken by our prophets is in effect one degree removed from the revelation itself–it is an “interpretation” of the revelation. This then raises the question of “right to interpretation”. Is there something, for instance, that makes a prophet’s interpretation better than anyone else’s? 

In the latter position, the prophet acts as a pure filter for the revelation–there is no “interpretation”, because what is passed on is the same thing that was revealed to the prophet. 

Personally I find this an interesting tension within Mormonism. On the one hand the BoM is the most correct book on the Earth (perhaps every word was seen by Joseph?); on the other it is amendable to editorial changes, and so at least one step removed from pure revelation. We want our revelation to be adapted for our times (changes in the WoW for instance); but we also want to believe that our prophets are pure filters (or at the very least are much better interpreters than us–although an interesting question would be why that is).

17 Replies to “Interpretation and Revelation”

  1. I think that this post raises an interesting set of questions. I am not sure that we can make the claim that prophets are “pure filters” or that their experience is somehow transcendent, without interpretation. Even if we imagine that every communication they have with God is a verbal communication (which I don’t think they have claimed, rarely even for JS), it is still interpretive. First of all, the fact that they receive revelation in language requires that interpretation happen. There is no pre-discursive, and even if there is, it is “translated” into the language of the prophet. Additionally, just as soon as the divine communication passes from the prophet to the church, it is subjected to an near-infinite number of interpretive possibilities.

    Given that, is there such a thing as “less” interpretation in a prophet’s encounter with the divine? Is the mediation diminished in some degree? If so, I am not sure how this would look. That said, it seems that we have standards for evaluating “better” and “worse” interpretations, even though they are all interpretations. The status as “interpretation” doesn’t necessarily diminish its value. I think that we see our prophets as especially good hermeneutes in discerning the divine will in their reception of the revelation, in a similar way to what we would say about a poet or novelist who somehow captured in words what some event, or human experience might mean. Of course, there will be many interpretations, but not all are epistemologically equal in that the community of interpreters decides to authorize some and not others based on the criteria they employ.

  2. Blake Ostler, in his response in volume 11 issue 2 of the FARMS Review to Stephen Robinson’s and Craig Blomberg’s discussion of scripture and inerrancy (among other issues) raised in the book “How Wide the Divide?”, discusses and fleshes out many of the questions you have raised here. I think you may like to read the first third to half of the essay. He terms his view “creative co-participation.” (I don’t know to what extent, if any, he has sharpened his views since writing that piece, but it is still a good read.) In case you have not read it before or have forgot about it, it can be found here:

  3. smallaxe,
    My experience is an “interpretation” of the revelation, but often more than one “interpretation”.

    We want to believe that our prophets are pure filters but this isn’t necessary. God knows our minds so he uses a simple feed back loop by sending a message tailored to our frame of reference, then as we mentally process it he helps us dial in on the meaning with additional mini revelations.

  4. Blake,

    I first have to apologize because I haven’t spent much time looking at your work. I did however read this piece (although I skimmed the middle 10 or so pages), and it puts into perspective the wonderful things I’ve heard about your expansion theory.

    I do want to raise an issue regarding your notion of creative co-participation in the revelatory process.

    I’m a little unclear about a distinction between revelation and interpretation (although I may be using ‘revelation’ in the sense that you use ‘experience’). I understand your claim (or at least borrowing the claim) that revelation is experience and interpretation at the same time (109); but it seems to me another way in which LDSs use the notion of ‘revelation’, besides designating the process of receiving some divine knowledge/truth (which implicitly involves interpretation), is to signify the particular truth/knowledge itself. In this light, to claim that this truth/revelation cannot be known other than by a process of interpretation is tantamount to saying that we ultimately have no access to truth, or that truth is subject to interpretation (i.e., it is subjective). While I may agree with you for the most part, I think many LDSs still subscribe to a realist paradigm, and I don’t see how it would be possible to persuade them otherwise. In some regards I guess this is the traditional Kantian problem of having no epistemological basis for knowing a thing-in-itself; yet I think many members (for good reason) have a problem with that. It would seem that in your theory revelation would have no ontological status, and I’m not sure that’s something most members are willing to concede.

  5. TT,

    The status as “interpretation” doesn’t necessarily diminish its value.

    I agree with you on this, but that’s probably because I’ve come to value ambiguity (although I can’t quite put my finger on how). In other words, ‘interpretation’ seems to suggest that what we have is one step removed, or possible to change, or relative to the time/place (i.e., relativistic). How does one come to value interpretation?

  6. Howard,

    Perhaps you could elaborate by what you mean when you said, “God knows our minds so he uses a simple feed back loop by sending a message tailored to our frame of reference…”. If we’re talking here not about personal revelation, but revelation received by prophets (unless you want to argue that there really isn’t a difference), how is that message custom tailored? It seems that it’s recorded with the same words for all.

  7. Smallaxe,
    Assume no difference in the method for personal revelation vs. prophet revelation. Why would there be a difference? Aren’t they both prophets?

    My experience and that of my son suggests that he custom tailors a message to the specific frame of reference of the prophet. Then he checks the prophet’s understanding adjusting as necessary with additional mini revelations until the intended message is clear and accurate in the mind of the receiver.

    What is “recorded with the same words for all” is the prophet’s final interpretation of the message.

  8. Interesting post and discussion. I second TT’s take, I think interpretation should be thought more in terms of, say, an invitation to imagine (the Bruegemman quote below elaborates on what I mean by this) than, say, an epistemological/propositional explication of something. Here’s a lengthy quote from Bruegemann’s Theology of the Old Testament that I think summarizes recent thinking about this from scholars with postmodern/Continental inclinations (the reason I’m posting such a lengthy quote is I have an electronic version of the text so it’s easier to paste a quote than to try and summarize or shorten it—sorry for my laziness!):

    Imagination as crucial ingredient. The cruciality of speech in the faith of Israel (and of narrative speech in particular) suggests that imagination is a crucial ingredient in Israel’s rendering of reality.?21? A narrative rendering of experience or of proposed futures entails the freedom and daring to plot, shape, construct, and construe around certain sequences and images that are indeed acts of constitutive imagination, not bound to what is flatly, evidently “on the ground.” Israel engages in a dense rhetoric that makes available the density of its God who refuses every exhaustible domestication. As the classical, hegemonic tradition has been inclined toward essence and away from rhetoric, so it has also been inclined toward sober descriptiveness and away from imagination. The history of imagination, as it has been variously traced by Richard Kearney, Garrett Green, and David Bryant, indicates that since Aristotle, imagination has been regarded as an inadequate and unreliable mode of knowledge, in contrast to reasonable, logical, or [Page 68] empirical discourse.?22? And the classical theological tradition, with its bent toward the philosophical, has been reserved about imagination that moves beyond the logical or the empirical.

    The Old Testament, in its theological propensity, refused such monitoring by the reasonable and the logical, or even by the empirical. Old Testament rhetoric characteristically takes great liberty in moving away from, beyond, and in contradiction to “sober reality,” which might usually be regarded as a given.?23? What we in our modernity may regard as given may not be so much a function of genuine knowledge as it is a function of hegemonic power. For it is clear that in the ancient world of the Old Testament, the taunters of Yahwism, characteristically the urban power elite, likewise held on to givens that precluded Yahweh in principle—and that without the benefit of Enlightenment epistemology! (Cf. 2 Kgs 18:31–35?*? for an example of such mocking, and Ps 73:9–12?*? for an example internal to Israel.)
    The imaginative force of Old Testament rhetoric refuses to live with the restraints of either hegemonic power or Enlightenment epistemology. Therefore in its construal of reality, propelled as it is by Yahweh, the Character who continually astonishes the other characters in the narrative, Israel’s rhetoric notices and bears witness to what the world judges to be impossible. Indeed, at the center of Israel’s imaginative enterprise are Yahweh’s “impossibilities” (pela?), which regularly transform, reverse, and invert lived reality, either to the delight or to the dismay of the other participants in the narrative.?24?

    Without a precise definition of imagination, we may characterize its work as the capacity to generate, evoke, and articulate alternative images of reality, images that counter what hegemonic power and knowledge have declared to be impossible. This counterversion (sub-version) of reality thereby deabsolutizes and destabilizes what “the world” regards as given, and invites the hearers of the text to recharacterize what is given or taken as real.?25?

    Such a way of articulating and construing reality is problematic both for realistic history (which believes it can recover “what happened” and which characteristically serves “reasons of state”) and for classical theology (with its temptation to excessive certitude and orthodoxy). It is nonetheless the case that in Israel’s rhetoric, a Yahwistic version of reality refuses to be monitored or tamed by safer, more controllable, more credible givens.

    [Brueggemann, W. (1997). Theology of the Old Testament : Testimony, dispute, advocacy (67). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.]

  9. Robert C.,

    Thanks for the quote. Do you think license to imagine is also license to avoid epistemological issues? In other words, I tend to agree, but then I’m not quite sure how this is justified.

  10. smallaxe, in short: no. But I’m currently buried in studying Ricoeur’s philosophy to try and get a better understanding of how to do this (b/c my sense is that Ricoeur has thought through these issues better than anyone else, and I think that is who Brueggemann is primarily getting these ideas from…).

    My understanding so far is that, at least for Ricoeur, historical study and careful exegetical work are necessary to set bounds on what we can say, but regardless of our best efforts in these regards, there will still remain many ways in which we can interpret the text and this is where it is important to think carefully about the role that imagination plays in this “last step” of interpretation (and, for Ricoeur, epistemology ultimately must be a matter of interpretation).

    I’m not sure how gross of misrepresentation of Ricoeur this is, but I tend to think of him saying that the way we get out of the Cartesian problem of solipsism is by bumping into things from the outside world—things like the constrained meanings of words (if I say the word “marker,” there is a wide range of things I could mean by that, but that range is constrained: it would be absurd to think I mean “kangaroo,” but I could mean a kind of rock that is used to mark other things. I’m stealing this example, by the way, from Jim Faulconer). So I imagine a world that is on the one hand constrained by various bumpers, but on the other hand is fleshed out in more detail (only) through imagination….

  11. Robert,

    If I understand you correctly (and we’re both working through this issue as we correspond), imagination works within the “boundary” of possible interpretations of the text. Much of the epistemological debate would perhaps center on the question of how wide (or narrow) the boundaries are. In Brueggemann’s case, the OT also serves as a voice of critique to hegemonic power and knowledge.

    Now, I’m certainly willing to grant this about the OT, because I think the boundaries of the text allow for it. Although this raises the issue of how much of a “post-modern” reading of the text this is. Not that I’m trying to debate the meaning of “post-modern”; and perhaps this isn’t a problem if one is up front about the hermeneutic one is using. In other words, there seems to be a crucial difference between making the claim that the text means ‘x’, and that there is no way can access the meaning of the text (or perhaps there is no one meaning) given that my particular position is always going to situate my interpretation. But admitting the latter isn’t license to “freely imagine” random readings of the text–so we move back to the question of boundaries.

    It seems to me the right to imagine must be earned by providing a thick elaborative understanding of the text. In other words speaking normatively should be predicated on descriptive proficiency.

    I wonder if another way of viewing the situation isn’t to see text as a point of departure for creative thinking. This would perhaps deal with the issues of boundaries of textual interpretation in another light.

  12. Smallaxe,

    Yes, I think that all makes sense and is on the same page of my thinking and understanding. I’m a little fuzzy by what you mean by “the epistemological debate,” but I think you’re right to talk in terms of what kind of boundaries are being set.

    I agree that “the right to imagine must be earned by providing thick elaborative understanding of the text”—up to a point. My reservation is best expressed in terms of art: although I think that studying the historical context of a particular work of art can significantly aid one’s understanding and appreciation of art, I don’t think such study is ultimately necessary or sufficient for a meaningful and valid appreciation of the artwork.

    For example, take a picture of a boat on a stormy sea (I’m thinking of the scene in Goodwill Hunting…), although an understanding of the historical context for the painting would surely be informative, an appreciation for the artwork will also depend on, say, one’s own existential encounters with hardship and/or loneliness. And, in a certain sense, I think the latter is necessary whereas the former isn’t: I can’t, in this sense, appreciate the art without life experience, but I can appreciate it without knowing the historical context of the artwork.

    Now, my point only applies to scripture inasmuch as scripture is art or functions as art. But I think the extent to which scripture should be read as art vs. something more . . . well, objective, I guess . . . is a very difficult (and probably unresolvable!) question….

    (I don’t want to give the wrong idea, I happen to believe that scripture should be read with as much adamant faithfulness to the historical, textual, contextual, structural, etc. elements of the text as possible, I’m just trying to clarify what I do think is a legitimate “post-modern” point about interpreting a text. Whether or not one has “a right” to imaginatively play with a text, I do not find readings that are not grounded in a “thick elaborative understanding of the text” very interesting, or helpful, or enlightening, etc.)

  13. (Addendum: I’m thinking largely of the art example b/c of Heidegger’s later work, but I think an engineering analogy might be better: imagination can play a very important role in, say, what kind of buildings are constructed, but there are important scientific laws/boundaries that will play a crucial role in determining the feasibility and durability of the building, and there are also important social conventions that will determine the aesthetic appeal of the building. The role of imagination in interpretation would seem to play a similar role, at least in my view….)

  14. Closer to the engineering analogy is to view it in terms of language. There are certain boundaries (grammar, syntax, etc.), but those can change, and often the most creative linguistic expressions, while for the most part operating within the rules, also redefine the rules. I’m fond of a term the late philosopher Antonio Cua used (perhaps borrowing from James)–“experiments in paradigmity”; where the boundaries of human experience are defined by experimentations with those boundaries, which are then in turn judged by the human community.

    I think these analogies are rather different however, from the art analogy (at least the way you use it). I believe we would agree in the language and engineering examples, that there is an implied training that goes into the creative process–a passerby cannot engineer the creation of a building, although s/he perhaps could have a creative insight into its look. With the art analogy there seems to be very little “training” required. I find your usage of the analogy interesting because it sounds familiar to what we hear much of at EQ–formal training is not a prerequisite to correctly interpreting scripture, although you seem to come at it from a different angle (it’s not necessarily about a revelatory insight that allows me to see the “true” meaning of the text, but a forward looking creative expression within the bounds of plausible interpretation).

    I wonder if we can’t talk about this notion of creativity as a kind of connoisseurship where training certainly could help for most people (provided that it is both a theoretical and experiential training), but some just seem to naturally have the “taste” for it.

  15. I really like this phrease, “experiments in paradigmity.” I think it echoes an idea that Ricoeur brushes with, that learning to interpret is a bit like learning how to move our bodies in that it requires a kind of experimentation.

    Yeah, I struggle with how to think about untrained readings of scripture, though I like your connoisseurship view. I want to believe that scripture is accessible to those with no formal training, esp. when they don’t have access to such training, though I think formal training is definitely helpful (and I believe we’ll somehow be held accountable for how seriously we take scripture in some broad/general sense, incl. how we take advantage of the opportunities to study that we have access to). But this aversion to formal training is something I think is silly—usually smells like a rationalization for laziness, if you ask me! (Though the reason I struggle with this is that I’m not sure how to think about the role that “inspiration of the Holy Ghost” can and should play in reading—typically I think it’s leaned on way too much, but I don’t think it should be reduced to playing no role either….)

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