The myth of applying all scripture

An argument that I occasionally see floated in blogs is the argument that ideas are to be shunted aside simply because they neglect to consider all the scriptures. This is a strange argument to me. No single argumentative notion is capable of encompassing all scripture, or even most scripture. There may be one or two exceptions, but I would tend to think that they would be promoted by ideologues who dismiss counter-arguments without real consideration. Sure, all scripture may testify of Christ, but that argument reduces the Jews to a group of incompetents and ignoramuses. We need to accept that it helps us, in seeing the obviousness of Christ being testified of everywhere, that we are already Christian.

In any case, it seems that when people state that a given argument does not consider all scripture what they are really saying is that it doesn’t consider the particular scripture that they just thought of. Fair enough. In that case, you should mention the scripture and your interpretation of it in order to make your argument clear. Then it is possible to engage in dialogue and learn.

The secret that no fundamentalist/literalist hopes that you won’t realize is that no-one, no matter how literally they claim to read the Bible/Book of Mormon/Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price, reads the Bible completely literally. It simply isn’t possible; there are conflicting commandments and doctrines that render it so. Even the chronologically first commandment (Multiply and fill the earth) is contradicted by the second (don’t eat the fruit of that tree). You cannot do both. Or, to take a New Testament example, Christ in one place tells people to honor their father and mother (Matt 19:19) and in another says that he is come to set parents against children (Matt 10:34-35). In every situation, the individual, acting ideally in accordance with personal revelation, has to figure out their own path. There are situations where it is impossible to honor both father and Father. In such, even the most literal literalist must choose.

For that matter, most of us don’t wait for extremities like that in order to decide how we will read the bible. Everyone I know picks and chooses and I would deeply distrust anyone who claimed differently (or, at least, I would distrust their exegesis). If slavers and abolitionists can find justification for their acts in the same Bible, why should we assume that living according to every scripture is possible?

Finally, I, personally, feel that improbability for mortals of keeping all the commandments is built into the system. We are sent here to learn to rely on God and to allow him to change us to become more like him, not to figure out the grand hermeneutic that will allow us to escape all future sin by superior knowledge. God is quite clear that our job here is to repent and his job is to save; attempts to subvert that have not historically met with success. The purpose of the law is to remind us that we need God; I don’t understand why we need to come up with alternate explanations.

14 Replies to “The myth of applying all scripture”

  1. I think I disagree. I believe that all truth can eventually be taken as a great whole. It is by trying to fit our views to all scripture that we shed fundamentalist approaches. We understand that sometimes God says this, and sometimes he says that. And we mostly should assume that this is not meant to be a forced either/or. It is by applying all scripture that we can gain a consistency and a balance in our view of things.

  2. Eric: While all truth can be eventually taken as a great whole, I think you’d agree that the great whole is not found in the scriptures, right?

    John C/JDC/HP- This is an excellent point. A major item in scriptures is timing as well, so not all scriptures all apply all the time. A simple example in Mormonism would be polygamy.

  3. Isn’t the “consider all scripture” really just a cry that “context matters.” I think one problem folks engage in is neglecting context. And of course, when looking at theology, that entails trying to make sense of scripture and modern teachings when reading any one passage. Now the other extreme of the pendulum is that folks sometimes like to think scriptures are a consistent whole using rhetoric and meaning in the same way. Which is of course not the case. And a lot of the “consider all scripture” folks are really saying, “everything is consistent” when it is not.

  4. Eric,
    I actually kinda believe that there is Truth out there and that the scriptures are a good way to approach it. I personally adopt the “focus on the things that are not apparently contradictory” approach most often. That said, I think that sometimes we stick our heads in the sand over this.
    That said, I don’t think I am really responding to your comment. If we accept that paradoxes are one of the things that God does trade in, then I think we will be fine. If we insist that what God is doing when he tells Nephi to kill Laban is not a contradiction to “thou shalt not kill,” then, I think, we are deluding ourselves. It is in the insistence that these divine contradictions should be anything other than contradictory that I find unhelpful.

    I agree that not all commandments are or were meant as eternal.

    I don’t disagree with the suggestion that they are saying context matters, but they may also be saying that “so-and-so’s” context doesn’t matter because they don’t agree with it (another iteration of “not considering my verse”ism). However, I do agree that many apparent Biblical contradictions can be explained by a consideration of context, although, of course, not all. Resolving such contradictions is how Robert Alter makes his living after all.

  5. John C., I think this is excellent. Not all of the text in our canon is of equal value, and much of it is mutually inconsistent. So it’s simply not reasonable to insist that a particular theology account for all of it. Worse still, though, is that people fail to distinguish between their personal interpretation of those texts and the texts themselves. I am responsible for explaining why I might not take a particular text in the scriptures seriously in my theology, but I am not responsible for explaining why I don’t take an interpretation that I don’t share of such text seriously.

    Eric, great point. It’s really tricky to figure out how paradox and truth coexist; it requires very careful definitions of truth.

    Clark, context is both necessary and immensely problematic, isn’t it? It’s an invitation to import a lot of unexamined and under-examined interpretation into the scripture. We’ve never canonized the context of a revelation, just the text. So deciding a major theological point by reference to the context is somewhat problematic; just because people in the Joseph Smith years read one of Smith’s revelations in a certain way doesn’t mean that God didn’t intend it to be read in other ways. Yet it would be crazy to discard contextual information altogether, even though its use as a means of theological arbitration is suspect and probably will not be seen as binding by those who disagree with a certain reading of the context.

    Maybe context is better as a tool for forming impressions and interpretations than as a resource for persuasion?

  6. Certainly context can make things more, not less, complex. However I think that often what happens is that other verses illuminate the ideas in discussion.

    What I worry about is that some who perhaps adopt too narrow a context (i.e. the milieu in which a text is written) neglect the idea that there is an external reality the scripture is attempting (usually in a very fallible way) to point at. If the danger in “lay” discussions is in invoking too naive a context the danger in intellectual discussions is in excluding too much context.

    Not that I’m saying anyone here does that. Just that I do notice a tendency in intellectual discussions of verses to focus more on what a particular author or reader would have understood and neglect the denotive function of a text. That is, the idea that the scriptures are ultimately about something and that multiple perspectives can help us get a glimpse of what is being discussed.

    The issue of persuasion, you bring up RT, is interesting. I think which contexts matter will vary according to whom we’re speaking with. (No duh, right?) Obviously this gets prickily in intellectual discussions. You bring up Joseph Smith. But one could well argue that the whole FARMS/Signature divide ends up being one of which context to privilege: the 19th century or ancient. Of course most at FARMS acknowledge the 19th century context and even the most ardent narrow translation advocate acknowledge that Joseph’s understanding affects the produced text. But ultimately how one decides that “which context” dramatically affects how one reads the text. Needless to say Royal Skousen and Dan Vogel read it in dramatically different ways. Both are being intellectually honest (although both make mistakes) but that context pretty well decides the range of possibilities each can accept as a reasonable reading.

    The bigger issue though is in moving from these issues to the issue of theology.

    Of course reader response readings (which I find a rather valuable use of the scriptures, under inspiration) offer even wider ranges. The whole “liken the scriptures unto ourselves” tends to imply a rather radical way of reading and thus context.

  7. Nice post, John C. It reminds us that every position that we or anyone else claims is supported by “the scriptures” reflects a choice of a few key texts and our interpretation of those texts (as supporting or establishing the position in question). Just the general term “the scriptures” or referring to the Bible as a “book” implies a unity that is not at all evident from an open-minded reading.

  8. Good comments, all. I like the direction of this discussion. The truth is that, short of being the prophet/author, any context is created by the reader/investigator. So, to some degree, I view all attempts at interpretation as reader-response (different readers want different kinds of responses). In writing this, I wasn’t attempting to invalidate any particular response, rather I was trying to say that an appeal to “all scripture” is an impossible appeal and should be branded as such (at least, it is in mortality).

  9. I’d be interested in hearing some specific examples or the “context” under which this statement is made. The statement could mean all kinds of things. I agree with Clark that in many cases it means “context matters.” It is also equally plausible that in some cases it could mean, “I don’t understand what you are talking about,” “You need to look at the verse I am looking at,” “Why are you ignoring the verses I’m looking at?” “Why don’t you see things my way?,” “I want to end this conversation but I don’t know how.” Or it could be short hand for, “I know there are a several scriptures which contradict what you say but I’m just too tired to dig them up and post them, and even if I do, you probably won’t care so let me just say…you need to consider ALL the scriptures.” In fact, perhaps it is more accurate to say it means “You need to consider MORE scriptures than you are.” It depends on the context.

  10. I think he’s asking about some examples when people raise the, “you aren’t considering all scriptures,” charge. That is what is being asserted in particular. I’ll admit that usually when I hear this kind of comment it’s because someone is being criticized for doing a naive proof-text. But that’s only my experience.

  11. The criticism that inspired this particular post is found in the comments here, but I have seen it used elsewhere in similar argumentative contexts. I suppose that part of my confusion is that, to me, Acquinas’s suggested meanings all repeat my suggested meanings.

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