BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part II: Scripture “Mastery”

This is part II of a post begun a week and a half ago in response to a devotional lecture given by Terry Ball, dean of the BYU college of religious education. That discussion centered on what I argued to be the problematic connection Ball makes between the pre-existence, Isaiah 28, and mortality. This post focuses on the scriptural aspects of his argument.


Ball begins by discussing a “grand experiment” undertaken by CES when he began his career as a seminary teacher, which “emphasized teaching each book of scripture sequentially, from beginning to end,” and was designed to “help students better know and love the scriptures.” Now, decades later, Ball conducts at the beginning of his talk a little exercise in order to assess the fruits of this experiment: He has the students in the Marriott Center audience finish the scriptures he begins. “I will go________,” “This is my work and _________,” etc., to show that this experiment worked. When the hundreds (thousands?) of voices are generally able to quote back to him these (“Scripture Mastery”) verses, he reflects, “Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it wonderful to be part of a people that know and love the scriptures.”

Ball then goes on to take up the theme of his talk, (secular) learning and (gospel) knowledge. He argues that with 1) faith in true things, 2) obedience, and 3) an observant mind, one can reap blessings from higher education. In discussing point number 3, Ball attempts to show how his learning has informed his faith by presenting an interpretation of the end of Isaiah 28 that draws on his BYU training in Botany.

This passage is a parable of a farmer, who knows when to plow, when and where to plant, and which techniques to use in harvesting different types of produce. Ball says, “I believe Isaiah wants us to liken the farmer to our Heavenly Father, and the seeds to ourselves,” and goes on to say that this is evidence that Heavenly Father has put each of us in different parts of the earth according to our premortal agency and nobility so that we could “maximize his harvest of redeemed souls.” In the last post I argued that this is highly problematic from a theological standpoint; in this one, I will argue that it is highly problematic from a textual standpoint.

First of all, in the verses he quotes (28:23-29), there is absolutely no hint that we’re talking about the foundation of the world here. There is no indication of pre-existence or anything that could be construed as such.* Second, it is clear that the farmer is not God. In verse 26, for example, God is teaching the farmer, and in verse 29 the Lord of Hosts is dictating the harvest to the farmer.

Some may say that this is splitting hairs, because the farmer is an agent of God, and divine investiture of authority allows us to equate the two. Fair enough. The real difficulties for Ball’s interpretation, however, come because he has dislocated the parable from its setting in the rest of Isaiah 28. This chapter is clearly not related to any pre-existence. It is an oracle of judgment and destruction given to Ephraim (Samaria) and to Judah (Jerusalem). Ephraim will be “hurled with force to the ground” and “trampled underfoot,” and the remnant (Judah), who have made a “covenant with death,” will smitten by hail and flood: “Your pact with Sheol shall not endure / When the sweeping flood passes through / You shall be its victims.” These oracles conclude with a threat: “For the Lord will arise / as on the hill of Perazim, / he will rouse himself / as in the vale of Gibeon, / to do his work– / strange is his work! / … / Therefore refrain from mockery / lest your bonds be tightened. / For I have a decree of destruction / from my Lord God of Hosts / against all the land.”** And the parable immediately follows.

In such a context, the parable appears to be more about the abilities of God to mete out destruction differently to different groups. He causes the farmer to plow, then to plant, allow to grow, and then teaches the farmer exactly how to harvest different types of seeds. Some are threshed, some are beaten with rods. In the context of chapter 28, then, I think this parable plays on the plowing and harvesting as metaphors of violence and destruction. It appears to underscore the different treatments Ephraim and Judah will receive in their own due times.

Some might raise the objection to this, that I myself have at times raised, that context doesn’t matter. The text has no meaning outside of its readers. We can’t look for original intent. So I can’t accuse Ball of anything because his interpretation is as valid as the next. Well, not so fast. Not all interpretations carry equal weight, especially when Ball began his exegesis with “I believe Isaiah wants us to…”. In this mode, at the very least, his interpretation is deeply flawed.

However, even removing his opener does not salvage the interpretation. Not all interpretations are created equal. As Paul Ricoeur says,

If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal. … The text is a limited field of possible constructions. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism. It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them, and to seek for an agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our reach. [From Text to Action (trans. K. Blamey and J.B. Thompson; Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 160.]

In any case, leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure exactly how his botanical training really changes or affects the understanding of this passage and therefore how illustrative an example it is for his paper, Ball’s is not a good example of scripture mastery. Or maybe it’s a perfect example of Scripture Mastery, as it it known in the Church. As his opening “quiz” showed, Latter-day Saints are proficient at wrenching scripture from its context in order to prooftext or to reinforce some moral or ethical message. We are not alone in this, of course, but we are gravely mistaken when we think that this constitutes mastery, or scriptural knowledge, as Ball calls it.

Ball’s type of interpretation is an imposing obstacle to real scripture mastery. Most of my trouble reading the scriptures growing up, besides the highly problematic King James Version, came from trying to read the interpretations my church leaders, seminary teachers, and BYU religion instructors taught me back into the scriptures. Try, for example, extending the Christ=Immanuel equation beyond verse 14 in Isaiah 7 (try even just v. 15). This is not scripture mastery, and, in my opinion, leads almost inevitably to gross confusion and deep frustration with the scriptures.

Then again, Religious Education is self-admittedly not geared toward helping students to know the scriptures in the sense of being able to deal with them responsibly as texts. The departments of Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture are, at least from the administration’s perspective, about proper homiletics, or how to get the scriptures to mean something that will help students to behave properly. In this latter sense, Dean Ball has provided a fitting example.


* Not surprising, given that very little in the Hebrew Bible can be construed as informing a pre-existence.

** All translations from the New Jewish Publication Society Version.

16 Replies to “BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part II: Scripture “Mastery””

  1. “The departments of Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture are, at least from the administration’s perspective, about proper homiletics, or how to get the scriptures to mean something that will help students to behave properly”

    Exactly. The problem comes when they/we conflate the two genres. The difficulty is that Ball and many others who teach don’t seem to recognize that the existence of the two, and they also don’t teach it to students.

  2. So, I have been thinking more about this. I think that you raise some incredibly important issues, but I still wonder about the pedagogical issue that inspired the “Scripture Mastery” program in the first place. On one hand, it would be great if everyone could be trained exegetes. On the other hand, this is perhaps impossible to do, so instead we settle on giving people basic tools to understand how to read the scriptures and obtain some minimum standard of scriptural literacy. To have even achieved this latter goal is something to be proud of.
    Is the fault that you see here that we are conflating this minimum standard with a high standard of what constitutes scriptural understanding? How would you reform gospel education to reach that higher standard?

  3. Generally speaking, I think there is little interest among members of the church in critical thinking about scriptural texts. After a couple of encounters with others who considered my interest in such things to be “boring” and that they “were glad that they didn’t have to think about those kinds of things,” I stopped trying to offer my enthusiasm of it all.

  4. I was in seminary (early morning) in the early 1980s, I loved that we read the scriptures straight through rather than imposing an agenda by text selection. But I think it odd that Ball thinks the “read-straight-thru” experiment worked because college students can finish a quote most those of them know from a primary song by Bill and Lisa Hansen.

  5. Good thoughts, all. Nitsav, I think you’re right, that there’s not a spectrum of modalities presented when reading scripture in LDS settings. There’s one way to do it. We just had a Sunday School lesson, for example, on “how to study the scriptures” given by a local “scriptorian” that only confirmed what I’ve written. (By scriptorian, people of course meant that he “read his scriptures” a lot.)

    TT, I think the Lord will flog Ephraim by letting Ephraim be Ephraim. Your question, along with BJH‘s comment about making exegetes out of teenagers and the average member is well taken, and I should say that that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, so maybe I didn’t put it as clearly as I can.

    I’m thinking more that we need to (and can) revise our definition of scriptural knowledge (and knowledge in general–cough! testimony meeting!). It’s funny because our definition of knowledge changes based on the texts we are reading, I’d argue, even within the Bible. Someone who knows, for example, Shakespeare is likely conceived of as someone who knows more than just being able to quote Hamlet’s famous soliloquy out of context. But someone who knows the scriptures is someone who can quote verses (think of apocryphal stories about BRMcConkie).

    I don’t think the average LDS should become a professional exegete, but I think we should be teaching people to *read* the scriptures, that is, to do what I did with Isaiah 28, which wasn’t any brilliant, detailed exegesis, but rather a plain reading of Isaiah 28. I think the average member will be able to get much more out of reading if they read more like they’d read a book, or poetry, or even the newspaper. This would, of course, involve revising the way we think about the KJV and other translations, along the lines DKL pointed out (see links above).

    jb, reading straight through is the first step, and I think it’s infinitely more effective than the alternative. There are still problems, of course, because since one can’t cover all of the material in a school year, one has to be selective, which I think reinforces the topical, thematic mode of reading. Which only reinforces the idea that this is the way to read the scriptures–atomistically.

  6. I’m not sure if I’m getting you right, but it seems that the problem isn’t necessarily with the approach per se (personally I find the memorizing of texts somewhat appealing and part of a more traditional style of education where the text literally becomes a part of your body/self); but rather with the assumption that the approach can lay claim to a “knowledge” of the text without the recognition that in fact there are many other ways to approach the text that will also yield “knowledge”. In other words the current approach is pretending to be much more of a robust hermeneutic than it really is. Not that something more complex should be expected, but we should at least be self conscious of the fact that there is actually much more to be said.

    Perhaps someone should do a post on the notion of the “scriptorian” in our culture.

  7. Please pardon my interruption –
    I don’t post here, but I have enjoyed your comments. I’m certainly not an exegete; I’m just a person of average education and intelligence who loves to read and learn.

    I would really enjoy a series of books that would start out in the simplest of terms to teach critical reading and help me to develop the skills needed to study the scriptures.

    I remember years ago I had a desire to learn more (seminary wasn’t available to me growing up) and set out to read the scriptures from the Old Testament through to JST. I didn’t know how to do it, so I just prayed for inspiration and set out on my journey. It was a wonderful process; however I would like to develop my skills.

    Do you have any recommendations for books or sources that would help me?

  8. tkp, thanks for the comment. I’d start by just reading a good non-KJV translation of the Bible. Many like the NRSV, available in the helpful New Oxford Annotated Bible and the HarperCollins Study Bible. These bibles not only have the updated translation of the N(ew)R(evised)S(tandard)V(ersion), with the text set out in modern literary typological conventions (paragraphs, poetic lines, etc.), but also helpful footnotes written by some of the best scholars in the field. (This is DKL’s suggestion that you can read in the links provided above, in the original post).

    Then there are some helpful introductions geared toward the non-specialist, both published by Oxford: Michael Coogan’s The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures and Bart Ehrman’s A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. These are good places to start for background and context.

    For the Book of Mormon, I recommend Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition that formats the text according to modern conventions, and is quite refreshing to read in that format.

    What am I missing, y’all?

  9. SmallAxe, you make some good points, and I also find the idea of memorization appealing, but even that is atomistic compared to most other traditions, I think. We’re not even memorizing chapters or intact compositions, but rather verses which reinforces the problematic idea of prooftexting. It tells the students, in my opinion, “You can feel safe in your belief because we’ve found (and founded) all of our current beliefs and practices right there in the ancient scriptures.” This should be acknowledged, perhaps not in Seminary per se, to be the interpretive move that it is, rather than an assumption that such scriptures speak plainly and cannot be interpreted in any other way.

    Sorry, that was a little tangential. I’m actually not talking so much about scripture mastery as a program of memorization but more as a symptom of a wider, authoritarian hermeneutic that is hard to break away from in the Church, as evidenced by Ball’s talk. But I think you’re right fundamentally, that the problem is that this is held up as a primary model for “knowing” the scriptures, as is “finding Christ” everywhere in the scriptures, but there’s so much more that constitutes scriptural “knowledge”. It has the effect of flattening the diversity of thought present in Scripture, and of reducing the textual richness to a series of soundbytes.

  10. First, great post. A classic problem in Mormonism is that we go for the “checklist” approach to life: if I know my Scripture Mastery scriptures, then I know the scriptures, just like if I pay fast offerings, then I care for the poor. Both are not wrong per se, but lead to substituting the means for the ends: the goal is really understanding the word of God, or really caring for the poor, not just checking off the item on the list.

    Nevertheless, in my contrarian mode, let me offer a couple of thoughts.

    1. Citing fragments of scripture rather than full context. TT can probably comment on this more authoritatively than me, but I thought there was good evidence that Paul did this in spades. Now, I’m not saying Prof Ball has Paul’s abilities, but taking a scripture out of its context to support a new theological point happens so many times in Paul’s writings that we can hardly condemn it. This seems to happen in Joseph Smith’s writings as well. Perhaps the difference is that Paul did it fully cognizant of the full original context, whereas we moderns, who generally are not scripturally knowledgeable, do it out of ignorance and with much less effectiveness. Still, given that there is precedence, I think we can’t condemn the method itself, but rather the results. Which the post does as well, of course.

    Second, I’m a bit nervous to post over on DKL’s thread because of the vociferousness of the rhetoric, but I think he’s giving the KJV too much of a bad rap. I love other translations — at last count I own at least 25 non-KJV translations, and I too find them very much clearer than the KJV and treasure them and recommend them. However, I still find tremendous value to the KJV, so much so that I endorse the use of the KJV as the main text I recommend and teach from, and see DKL’s approach as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    For one, the KJV gives us many phrases that are classic English, preserving some of the best of Tyndale’s phraseology: “eat, drink, and be merry,” or “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” The NRSV and other translations often keep these, it is true, but do not keep others that are now well ingrained into our lexicon. Trivial example: “new testament,” used six times in the KJV but never in the NRSV, NASB, nor in my personal favorite, the New Jerusalem Bible. (Who can help but admire the skills of JRR Tolkein?) Sure, “new covenant” can be seen as more accurate, technically, but then the link to the title of the bible’s divisions is lost, reducing overall clarity. And of course, like it or not, the Book of Mormon and other modern scriptures are in the King James idiom. If we move away from the KJV, the links to these sources could be lost, which would be a Bad Thing. (How else would we see Song of Solomon quoted three times in the D&C? 🙂 ) Finally, one of the things I took away from Phil Barlow’s book was that Joseph Smith was immersed in the KJV to a degree few if any of us are today, and that if we want to really understand Joseph Smith’s thoughts, we need to know the KJV.

    So I would endorse the sentiment that we shouldn’t stick to the KJV alone, but after I’ve read the other translations to get closer to the meaning (my hebrew and greek will never be good enough to use them directly), I find for myself that the KJV frequently ends up having more power and beauty than other translations. (1 Cor 2 is a good example of this for me.) I concede the point that it doesn’t have the immediate clarity to modern readers that other translations do, but I don’t think that it deserves to be called names, or even problematic.

  11. Secco, you raise some great points. Thanks for engaging…

    First of all, you’re absolutely correct about the ancient pedigree of the sometimes minuscule parsing and citing of scripture. I’m not so much condemning the method as much as what the method purports to be: an insight into what the original author meant. And in that light, one might as well point the finger at NT authors as well (and at most of Second Temple writings, and on into Rabbinic texts… and on…). Because one gets the sense that the writing of Jesus back into Isaiah, (Immanuel, for example), assumes that this is what the texts meant all along.

    But in another way, I don’t think they had as narrow a view of intent as we do. The work of Kugel and others shows that many interpreters were well aware of the fact that they were in some way “getting behind” the text, that is, reading more into the text than the text itself indicated. The problem with Ball’s example (and I think you already agree with me on this) is that it purports to unlock the one true meaning of this text. And that, I would contend, seems to be our main paradigm of scriptural knowledge: taking a scripture out of its context in order to fit our a priori views or to justify modern prophets. Paul, as you rightly point out, likely knew the scriptures infinitely better than any of us, Ball included. And the fact that he wove them into his writing is a reflection of this knowledge, perhaps not unlike Joseph Smith naturally working in “Jacobean” (or his dialect of Jacobean) English.

    On that topic, I see your point about not wanting to sever the BoM etc. from the KJV. My feeling is that if someone is carefully studying BoM for allusions to scripture, that someone could as easily handle working with a couple of different translations. But the average LDS reader, IMHO, would be better served having a readable translation. And, again, about the (well taken) point about colloquialisms and idioms stemming from Tyndale via KJV, I’m not sure that this outweighs the problem of plain reading in most of the text. It would be nice if readers knew where “eat, drink, and be merry” came from, but I’m not sure it is nicer than having readers that are enabled to understand Paul better. Things like “New Testament” and such can be taken care of easily with a well placed footnote or introduction. I wonder whether the KJV’s seemingly greater literary power isn’t the reason that the Mona Lisa is considered great art: it’s famous because it’s famous. It’s the language in which we’ve been taught to interact with God from our youth. Therefore, it is perceived to have greater power. But my great worry is that the language will overtake the content.

    I look forward to your response. Thanks for bringing these important issues to the fore.

    Chandelle, I’m glad you love seminary; I do too. I just think it can be done better than it is currently being done.

  12. JC 15, Yes, I think we are on the same page in many ways: I agree Mormons have a too-rigid approach to finding the ‘one true meaning’ of scripture when in fact Mormon doctrine strongly encourages (perhaps even commands) multiple meanings. Nephi says that we should to liken scriptures to ourselves, the same scriptures that he has likened to himself. We see fulfillment of OT symbols (flood, exodus, akkedah) at multiple later times. And so on. I need to re-read Kugel to get a sense for what evidence there is that biblical (as opposed to Rabbinic) OT interpreters knew they were reading more into the text than ‘original intent.’ So we are in agreement there, and I look forward to when General Conference includes some expansive re-interpretation and re-application of ancient texts to our own day. (Which it does, every once in a while.)

    I fear I didn’t do justice to the link we have with the KJV. It isn’t just the two throwaway phrases (New Testament, eat/drink/merry), but really, really core Mormon ideas: ‘dispensation of the fullness of times’, ‘calling and election made sure’, ‘more sure word of prophecy’, ‘celestial’ versus ‘terrestrial’ glory, and probably many more that I’m not fully aware of (but likely Joseph Smith was). These links don’t/can’t appear if you don’t have the KJV.

    (Aside: I used to feel sorry for non-native English speakers who didn’t have access to the KJV because these sorts of links do not jump out at them. Now I feel sorry for me because I guess these same sort of links jump out for those who can read LXX and Greek NT texts and they don’t for me… )

    Put another way, I would encourage a new convert who wasn’t familiar with KJV to pick it up and learn it precisely because whether or not you are right about your la Joconde argument, our B o M / D&C idiom is not going to change, and these texts are better understood with a strong familiarity with the KJV.

    Don’t get me wrong: like you, I also strongly encourage current members to have a modern translation close at hand and to refer to it frequently/daily. But I think it is less about replacing the KJV and instead acknowledging both that the KJV has become less approachable for us moderns while simultaneously acknowledging that the KJV is here to stay.

    I agree with you that the language can overtake the content. But my proposed solution to that is not to replace the KJV; it is to build a community of expertise and comprehension. I have grown to love the KJV not only because it is what I first “sunk my teeth into” (as one of the non-mormon study group members I was in years ago gave as her reason she stuck with the KJV after decades of use) but also because I do truly perceive greater heights of literary beauty *after* I’ve come to understand the sense of the text via other more readable translations.

    I do wonder how to create a community of expertise when there seems to be such polarization around this topic. Pluralism in our approach to the text seems like a better way forward…but how to do that…hmm…

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