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.

Oh Snap! Society of Biblical Literature is lame all around

Anyone interested in the state of Biblical Studies in North America should read this article:
The Chronicle: 11/10/2006: What’s Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?
It raises a lot of important questions about the kind of pedantic scholarship that biblical studies has cultivated. Clearly lay people are bored to tears by most of what biblical studies produces. It has carefully avoided anything interesting or truly controversal since the mid-ninetes. But what interests me is the critique that it has for religious education like that at BYU. Should the SBL intervene in BYU’s biblical studies classes to make sure that they are taught by professionals? Should they lean on BYU to insist that more “secularly” trained scholars be hired by the faculty? If the SBL had to produce a scorecard for BYU, how would it do? Finally, is this article right to emphasize the need for “secular” biblical studies at universities across the country?

UPDATE: One of the main NT blogs has some interesting reactions here.

On Being Disturbed


The Gospel of Thomas preserves a version of Jesus’s familiar saying about searching and finding, but with a twist: “Jesus said, ‘Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all.” (Logion 3). The emphasis here is that the divine mysteries, the secrets of the Kingdom, are unexpected, troubling, even disturbing. As Latter-day Saints, is the divine fundamentally disturbing?

The injunction to search and find is foundational to Mormonism. The prophet Joseph’s reading of James 1:5 is essentially a version of this common theme. Joseph’s great visions were certainly “disturbing” both to him and to the world. This is often set into contrast with the radical teachings and practices of the early LDS church. Mormons today seem to see the divine as essentially benign, benevolent, and which confirms our basic values. The radical is something which is unthinkable, but in both early Christianity and early Mormonism, the radical was precisely what defined God.

Is there still room for being disturbed? Where the spiritual tradition of being distrubed remains a powerful force is actually in the study of LDS history or the study of Christian history in general. LDS seekers often find what is distrubing, though it is not God, but the church which disturbs. Can we revive this practice of being disturbed as a central aspect of spiritual practice? Can the process of doubt and disturbance not be seen as antitheses to faithful existence, but its very foundation?

A Resurrection of Flesh and Bone?


In 1 Cor 15, Paul declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” This text appears in the larger context of a defense of the resurrection, which seems to create a problem. How can Paul defend the resurrection, but in the very same passage declare that flesh and blood cannot go to heaven?

The difficulty of this passage was debated strenuously in antiquity. Those who defended the “resurrection of the flesh” wrestled mightily with this problem, while those who argued for a more spiritual resurrection relied heavily on this text to prove their point.

Mormons have been bothered by this passage as well not only because we are defenders of a resurrection of the flesh, but also because we have a notion of an embodied God. To my knowledge, our exegetical solution to this problem is unique. We argue that is true that flesh and blood together cannot inherit the KoG, but that the combination of “flesh and bone” can. We simply drop blood out of the equation. In antiquity they wondered about the blood of resurrected beings. Origen argued that Jesus’ blood was not Ichor, the sacred blood of the gods. He never said what it was instead.

So what then do resurrected beings have in thier veins? Is blood the only thing that is missing from the resurrected body? Can a body really be a body without it, or is it something else?

No Mormon Love for Paul?

There is an aversion to Paul in Mormon thought and culture. A recent comment by Julie Smith at T&S gives some of the reasons for this phenomenon. I must insist, however, that we are completely missing out. For starters, Paul is hot right now. Yeah, he had some bad times at the hands of feminists in previous decades, but he is back with a vengeance now. Jewish scholars like Daniel Boyarin have embraced Paul. Not to mention some of the most cutting edge contemporary atheist philosophers like Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, and Taubes have all published books on Paul’s contributions to and resources for contemporary philosophical problems. If Jews and atheists can embrace and praise Paul, why can’t we Mormons get it together?

I suspect that one of the reasons that we have ignored Paul is because we are so caught up in a provincial debate with Evangelicals about whether we are saved by grace or saved by works. Neither we nor Evangelicals seem to be aware of recent developments in Pauline scholarship that more or less resolve this quesiton. Well, to be more accurate, recent scholars have shown that this question is not what Paul is answering. He is not dealing with the Grace vs. Works as two polar opposites. Rather, he is dealing with a specific set of “works of the Law”, namely, circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In my view, this “New Perspective,” as it is called, opens up a great deal of space for Mormon thinking with Paul.

Unfortunately, the results of our discomfort with Paul is that we literally ignored him. Even though his writings (or those attributed to him) make up 1/2 of the books of the New Testament, we devote hardly any time to him in the Sunday School curriculum. As a culture, we simply have not paid any attention to him, hoping in vain that the problems we thought he created for us will dissappear. We can no longer continue to do this.

I suspect that one of the other difficulties that we have with Paul is that we try to read him in the KJV, with the odd page layout of the Standard Works. I admit that I never really understood Paul until I read him in modern translation. The particular translation that we have in the KJV is rooted in a Protestant reading of him, which contributes to the misunderstanding and discomfort we have.

So, what can Paul do for us? We can start with the problems that he is dealing with himself. He is deeply concerned about the problems of universalism and particularism. How can God and Truth be universal, yet have a particular relationship with a particular people? We can also think about how he deals with immanent eschatology and time, which we share with him. We can also pinpoint areas where we might disagree, perhaps on questions of gender. Finally, we can look at how he is dealing with diversity and difference within the church, the kind of ethics between the “strong” and the “weak,” as well as ethnic differences between Jew and Gentile. All of these are analogous problems that we are dealing with in LDS thought as well. Paul can help!

Jesus in History

The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” has emerged in various stages. With the emergence of critical historical tools in the Enlightenment, it wasn’t long before these were turned to the sacred history of the Bible. Very briefly, the First Quest argued about what kind of a figure Jesus was, culminating with Albert Schweitzer’s convincing argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who preached the end of the world and the end of the present order. Not long after this, Bultmann argued that in fact there was hardly any access to what Jesus might have said because it was all filtered through the memories of the church which altered Jesus’s sayings for its own purposes. Besides, he argued, the positivist history was the wrong kind of question to be asking of the Bible. Instead, we should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel. This remained virtually the dominant opinion for thirty years when finally someone broke the silence on Jesus in 1953. Bultmann’s student Ernst Kasemann argued that actually we can know a little about who Jesus really was, and that it is important to match history with our theological beliefs. Where they don’t match up, we should be willing to change our theology.

Is Kasemann’s theological demand a reasonable one? What effect should history have on our beliefs? If we know that Jesus didn’t actually teach something that is attributed to him, must we discard it, or does it have some other kind of validity? What kind of authority does history have over our construction of faith?

Book of Mormon: Blessings, Righteousness, and Evil

The two principal authors of the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Mormon, for the most part share a particular world-view. Both subscribe to the idea that the wicked are punished and the righteous prosper. This idea is so ingrained in the thinking of these two authors, that it forms the entire narrative framework of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s description of the responsibilities his people bear in the Promised Land stand as a prophetic announcement, while Mormon chronicles the history of his people as the explicit fulfillment of Nephi’s warning.

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