Reading the Scriptures Precritically

Among a certain class of LDS biblical scholars, there exists a definite nostalgia for earlier eras of biblical scholarship.  It has been reported to me that one senior scholar has repeatedly professed his preference for 19th century  biblical scholarship in terms of the methods, questions, and assumptions on which it was based.  A recent Mormon Times report about an Education Week presentation by a FARMS employee emphasized early Christian methods for studying the scriptures, including personal imagination, historical literalism, and a search for “hidden” Christian symbolism as normative guides for modern scripture study, where the devotional is entirely sufficient for understanding.

These sentiments share a studied avoidance of critical biblical studies as they have arisen in the last century which emphasizes historical context, hermeneutical strategies, sociological models, and a de-privileging of tradition.  For instance, the contemporary ethical and hermeneutical questions around the Christian practice of reading Jewish scriptures as Christian allegories and typologies is simply ignored.  (In practice, I think, these scholars do in fact value these insights, though their rhetoric does not).

Rather than seek to engage and synthesize modern critical biblical studies, some seem to suggest that it is best to simply ignore it.  We can just continue to do what we have been doing all along, and hey, look, other premodern people did it too!  It seems to me that while such a strategy has worked for the last 100 years, it is not a winning strategy either intellectually or practically.  The values that inform modern biblical studies are the same values that inform modern thinking in all other aspects.  The attempt to live a modern life in other respects, but to practice a premodern reading of scripture simply cannot sustain itself for long.

What is need is not a revival of the precritical, but a thorough engagement with the critical.  Such a stance need not be adversarial, but advantageous.  Other Christian and Jewish thinkers have engaged this scholarship fruitfully and found their faith enriched as a result.  We too, should embark on this intellectual transformation and emphasize compatibility rather than combat.

11 Replies to “Reading the Scriptures Precritically”

  1. I’ve spent six days now raging privately about my inability to move my Sunday School class even to consider the shallowest examples of critical thinking. I’m ignorant of most critical biblical studies — to my shame and regret — but I am so dissatisfied with my ward’s insistence on every detail of the Old Testament as the literal, historical, physical “truth” at the expense of reason and good doctrine (Lucifer entered the presence of God? Really? And God was willing to play games with the life of Job, whom you believe was an actual historical person, letting Lucifer set most of the rules? Really? And you’re OKAY with believing that?? You see no doctrinal problems AT ALL???) that I’m losing sleep. I just know that no matter what I say a week from now, someone will stand and insist that yes, Hosea married a prostitute because he had agreed in the preexistence to do exactly that.

    A “thorough engagement with the critical”? At this point I’d settle for the roughest beginning of rational thought at all.

  2. Ardis,

    An amazing thing has happened to me. That frustration has led me to an actual appreciation of the Bible. I do not think I really had one prior to this year. Between teach 16, 17, and 18 year olds in Provo and the horrible lesson I have had over the last month, I am now connected to a book that I long ignored.

  3. “What is need is not a revival of the precritical, but a thorough engagement with the critical.”

    I agree (of course). I think that in approaching the Bible in a literal sense, we miss the theology.

  4. Nice post. In your opening sentence, you single out “a certain class of LDS biblical scholars” (and allude to some representatives of FARMS being part of said class). Is there another “class of LDS biblical scholars” (and I imagine the answer is yes, if several of the anonymous folks here at FPR can be accurately categorized as such) who do not long for outdated modes of biblical scholarship? If so, is this primarily an issue of the nostalgic scholars winning the battle to inform the interpretational approaches of Latter-day Saints at large? What can (reasonably) be done, in your opinion, to promote a more up-to-date and critical engagement with the scriptures? How much of a role do other groups—including the rank-and-file LDS Sunday school students Ardis mentions and the leaders of the institutional church—play in determining this sort of thing?

  5. As a response to Christopher’s question, are there people who are willing and able to take this approach to BYU Education Week. Would they even get a slot? That may be a naive question but I have no idea how the sessions are selected or organised.

  6. Ardis, it is definitely going to be a long, slow road, for sure!

    Christopher, there most certainly is a class of LDS scholars and lay people who have thoroughly engaged critical biblical scholarship at BYU and beyond! I’d say that the Jesus and the World of the NT and Jehovah and the World of the OT volumes that have recently been done offer the basic introductions to key issues, among other instances. We don’t yet (to my knowledge) have a book that really works this out, and both the possibility and desirability of such a book remain in question, but I do think there are the seeds of a more robust engagement, at least among scholars.

  7. Great post! I agree with your thoughts, and think they need to be shouted from the rooftops more often.

    Isn’t this just another form of historical revisionism in the Church? We also have difficulty coming to terms with real Mormon history (the sort where Joseph Smith had magic peep-stones and used these to translate the BoM). We also re-write history when it comes to human evolution and scientific answers to the creation of the universe. Is it really compatible with LDS cosmology that humans evolved and share a common ancestor with all other life forms? Is it really compatible with LDS cosmology to accept that the Big Bang – and everything after – happened on it’s own, according to natural laws, with no need for a “Great Intervener in the sky” to intervene and keep things moving along?

  8. this is sobering:

    “The values that inform modern biblical studies are the same values that inform modern thinking in all other aspects. The attempt to live a modern life in other respects, but to practice a premodern reading of scripture simply cannot sustain itself for long.”

    maybe the answer is for us all to take up the premodern life. the village is one of my favorite movies after all.

    about drawing the line between the modern and premodern, the critical and precritical circa 1900 anno domini i wonder. as a general rule, perhaps. but there was some pretty serious criticism going on before then. no?

    your point still holds, of course. we’re not likely to see any ed week classes on reading the scriptures a la f.c.baur, wellhausen, or, going further back, spinoza and reimarus.

  9. “Such a stance need not be adversarial, but advantageous. Other Christian and Jewish thinkers have engaged this scholarship fruitfully and found their faith enriched as a result.”

    TT, great post; one of the things that FPR seems to be able to do is point out how engaging in scholarship can enrich faith. Certainly critical engagement has been hugely helpful for my faith. Maybe I’m naive but if members found devotional value, they would probably engage. Somehow we need to convey that the fruits of the engagement are worth the effort. How to make scholarship more accessible?

    Or is that the wrong question? Perhaps making scholarship accessible is as unproductive an idea as making it massively easier to get to the top of Mt Everest: is part of the value of the scholarship the work required to engage critically, to actually stretch one’s brain?

    Perhaps enticing others with descriptions of the fruits we’ve tasted through critical engagement is the best way?

  10. Thanks Secco!
    Frankly, I think that one of the things that FPR can do better is to make the case for the fruits of critical scholarship. I do think that this scholarship can be successfully reconciled with a faithful life and outlook, but I also think that LDS scholars have not yet completed this task for our generation, as LDS scholars of previous generations had attempted in their time (Talmadge, Roberts, Nibley, etc).

    While I completely agree that it is possible to bridge critical scholarship and “faith”, I am also not sure whether I come down on the side that says that critical scholarship should be pursued because it is faith promoting in some way. I think that we start out with perhaps some wrong assumptions if we suggest that the telos of scholarship is always some kind of spiritual payoff. In many case, there is not, and probably scholarship undoes more “faith” that it offers in the grand balance of things. Yet, this does not seem to me to be a reason that it should be avoided, only if we have already assumed that promoting faith is the ultimate goal.

    So, what other kinds of goals are there? I’m not sure I have a complete answer for this when it comes to how LDS should engage scholarship, which is why I think it is an unfinished work for our generation. Things like accuracy, humility in our assertions, self-reflection about our categories, moral reasoning, etc, are other values that might compliment “faith” as a goal of scholarship.
    I do think that you are correct that we cannot expect all LDS everywhere to embrace scholarship or to engage in mass education along the scale of what current CES and SS offers that is informed by the latest research. But that is not exactly what I am asking for. Rather, I am seeking for a paradigm that allows for multiple voices, for conversation and debate, and room for those who do want to seek a more nuanced, informed understanding of scripture to engage it in that way, provided not by the official church but by scholars. I’d like the audiences who take the extra effort to attend scripture study classes at Education Week to be given something more substantial and critical to accompany their desires to study that goes beyond a set of devotional techniques they already know. In truth, I have no objection to devotional techniques (though I think they need to be critically investigated as well, as in the example of searching for “hidden” meanings), but when they become the substitute for scholarship, rather than the companion, I grow weary.

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