The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.
A Reinterpretation of Inspiration, Revelation, and Scripture
Geoffrey F. Spencer
[p.19]One of the distinctive marks of the Christian tradition is its prophetic character: its existence centers on the self-disclosure of God. In what follows I hope to explore the notion of inspiration and revelation held by the churches of the Restoration and to examine the doctrine of scripture that has been traditionally employed. Further I hope to consider to what extent these views persist today and if they remain adequate.
Prevailing cultural environments influence any religious organization, especially during its formative stages. Although our polemics suggest that the Restoration was established by a vertical thrust from heaven in isolation from the rest of history, it is clear that we have not escaped such environmental influences. It is possible to discern significant influences shaping early Mormon concepts of revelation and its relation to the nature and authority of the scriptures. No explicit theory of revelation was articulated in early Mormon writings, but evidence points to two trends, both of which reflect contemporary stances among American evangelical and orthodox religions.
First is a literalistic view of scripture, which identifies revelation as God’s very words and holds that the content of scripture was delivered by direct verbal inspiration. Implicit is the concept of faith as assensus, assent to propositions which have been directly and [p.20] divinely communicated through revelation, rather than fiducia, trustful commitment. A second implication is emphasis on the subjective: in speaking of revelation, we refer to events which occur in private and which animate one’s personal, inner life.
The literalistic view was almost universally held by Mormons in the nineteenth century, but the scriptures produced by the early church do not support the position. Charles Davies, an official historian of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has written that “the position taken by some that every word of scripture is literally given by God is untenable. A study of manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and the Inspired Version [or Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible] and also changes in the text after the first publications of some of the revelations now in the Doctrine and Covenants absolutely contradicts that position.”1
As Davies suggests, the extent and nature of changes made in the Book of Mormon before and after the first printing make it clear that the translation process was not one of direct verbal communication of specific words. Changes were not merely editorial nor did they merely correct scribal errors but often introduced deliberate conceptual modifications. Thus Davies writes, “After intimate contact with the manuscripts, I am of the opinion that the most plausible theory is that the work was conceptual rather than plenary.”2 Based on the testimony of contemporary witnesses, James Lancaster also argues for the conceptual theory of production for the Book of Mormon.3
The early church did admit that errors existed in the Bible, and this claim at first glance appears to disavow literalism. But the assertion was based on the belief that errors occurred during translation or copying or through deliberate falsification by dishonest persons rather than because of human fallibility in the revelatory experience. Presumably, such errors could be corrected by inspiration and an infallible record of the “words of God” recovered. Whenever the text reflected a concept which nineteenth-century eyes saw as deficient—for example, “an evil spirit from the Lord” or Paul’s expectation of an imminent return of Jesus—this was thought to be a departure from the original text and therefore called for restoration.
Many of the changes in the Inspired Version bring the text into line with contemporary views. Reference to the idea of original [p.21] guilt in Genesis 6:56, allusion to “telestial glory” in 1 Corinthians 15:40 (there is no other instance of such a word in English or Greek), the proleptical references to Jesus Christ and the “gospel” in the early chapters of Genesis, the “choice seer” of Genesis 50, the text of Isaiah 29, and the material on Enoch are examples of such elaborations made by Smith in the Inspired Version.
However, of the more than four thousand changes in the New Testament, 80 percent make no difference in the meaning of the text. These generally modified language forms, word order, and literary style or modernized archaic forms. On the whole, however, they demonstrated a lack of consistency within chapters and sometimes within verses, as well as a rather free modernizing of the language. Such a procedure not only undermined any claim of plenary inspiration but conflicted with the procedure of revision as customarily reported.
Furthermore, other changes introduced in the Inspired Version contradict similar passages in the second edition of the Book of Mormon published under Joseph Smith’s supervision in 1837. Differences in the Lord’s Prayer are common. Another example can be found in the Matthew 5:34 reference to the “second mile.” The Inspired Version modified the verse to read: “whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him a mile; and whosoever shall compel thee to go with him twain, thou shalt go with him twain.” But the Book of Mormon rendered the same situation: “And whosoever shall compel thee to go with him a mile, go with him twain” (RLDS 3 Ne. 5:87; LDS 3 Ne. 12:41). The Book of Mormon rendering affirms the King James text not the Inspired Version.
While claims of literalist inspiration are undermined by an examination of the scriptures, other difficulties remain. Specifically, the claim to verbal inspiration leads to an emphasis on the propositional character of revelation; that the “truth” of revelation rests on infallibly worded propositions to which we must give assent. Official church literature thus literally interprets scriptural pronouncements on history, presenting them as empirical data. Major examples include: modern scriptural passages on the high priesthood in early biblical times which provide ages, even months and days, of ordination of pre-patriarchal figures; recorded conversations before the Creation; information relating to Enoch’s ancient civilization; financial advice concerning stock investments in the Nauvoo House; [p.22] and even matters of curiosity such as whether John the disciple died or remained on the earth.
Literalism limits the potential openness which the concept of continuing revelation allows. M. L. Draper has articulated the promise of such a notion: “The concept of continuing present-day revelation and the open canon of scripture is one of the most appealing and significant doctrines of the Restoration movement… Not the least of these obligations is the cultivation of the state of mind which welcomes new insights and rejoices in the development of new points of view.”4 But even Draper demonstrates the tendency to identify revelation with scripture and with an open-ended canon. The corollary to this is that since ours is the only church with an open canon, it is the only one which believes in contemporary revelation. This may not only misconceive the nature of revelation but also lack insight into the purpose of canon and misplace confidence in the uniqueness of our belief.
The identification of revelation as scripture leads as well to a tendency to discount literature outside the standard works as qualitatively different from that which bears official sanction. An artificial classification of literature into “inspired” and “other” arises on the basis of where it is located. In practice this means that many if not most Mormons are generally unfamiliar with most of the great and moving literature of 1,500 years of Christian tradition.
This emphasis on a propositional view of scripture means then that the gospel is interpreted not as the good news of God’s saving grace but as a set of doctrines, expressed catechistically. Proponents of such a view tend to hide in catechisms, claiming to deny dogma, but in fact embrace dogmatism. Faith is interpreted as obedience or adherence to that doctrine. Literalism implies inerrancy, and thus the gospel becomes a body of truths once delivered to the Saints but now impervious to change or development. And our propositions are superior to all others, since God concerns himself exclusively with the Latter Day Saint movement.
If we acknowledge these limitations imposed by our literalistic view of scripture, one of the most pressing demands facing members today is developing a respect for and familiarity with critical approaches to scripture. We have been disinclined to give attention to the rich and comprehensive fruits of biblical criticism, refusing to acknowledge either the scholarship or the devotion of biblical [p.23] scholars unless some particular conclusion tends to support our own perspective. We have neglected as well to apply these methods to our own literature. Instead the research of scholars has been dismissed as the wisdom of fallible men and women and thus unworthy of serious attention.
But these considerations lead us into even broader issues confronting the church. Disavowing the propositional character of revelation by many Christians during the past half century has been helpful in suggesting a more valid understanding for the contemporary church. A suitable point for beginning to consider alternative views is the stance taken by Archbishop William Temple in his Gifford Lecture of 1932-33 and 1933-34, printed under the title “Nature, Man, and God”: “Knowledge of God can be fully given to man only in a person, never in a doctrine, still less in a formless faith, whatever that might be… There is great use in formulated doctrine, because it points us to that in which many have believed themselves to find the revelation of God. But the life of faith is not the acceptance of doctrine… Faith is not the holding of correct doctrines, but personal fellowship with the living God… What is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific revelation is not truth concerning God but the living God himself.” Arthur Oakman pursues Temple’s position further: “There are, then strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are ‘truths of revelation’—Statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experience… Revelation is based upon the intercourse between the mind which guides the event, and the mind which views it. When appreciation of Divinity in nature and history comes to man, revelation takes place… The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it … but it became revelation to them when they apprehended this divine movement.”5 I agree that such a posture might be more consistently true to the nature and locus of revelation and more appropriate for the church which endeavors to meet the critical demands of our day with prophetic thrust.
The late John Baillie, examining the nature of revelation and writing in appreciation of the newer insights, has said: “It is not enough to think of God as giving us information by communication, but we must rather think of Him as giving Himself to us in communion. Two things are implied in this: … It is that what is fundamentally revealed is God Himself, not propositions about God. Equally [p.24] remarkable, however, is the recent agreement … that God reveals Himself in action—in the gracious activity by which He invades the field of human experience and human history which is otherwise but a vain show, empty and drained of meaning.”6
Of course such views are by no means a modern discovery. In Hebrew thought the term “Word” was understood in terms of action or event rather than of discourse. In the Testaments the Word of the Lord came in the form of an interpretation of a contemporary situation or event and in a challenge to action. The genius of the Old Testament prophets was not that they produced oracles about future events but that they were inspired to understand God’s action in their people’s history and in the crises of their own days. Only in this context could they assert with confidence the plan of God’s judgment and salvation in the time to come. History becomes prophetic because what God has done becomes the key to what he will do.
What do such views have to say about the responsibility of the church in our age? Gibson Winter, concerned that the church confront the secular myths of our generation adequately, writes: “The work of the servant church is to engage the world in reflection on the meaning of its history, to summon men to the search for the meaning of the events in which they are engaged… This form of apostolate is essentially the prophetic ministry of proclamation … the discerning of God’s history as mediated in the events of our history before God, and this is, precisely the task of prophecy.” Pursuing what this means to the calling of the church, he adds: “The church as prophetic fellowship has no escape hatches from this history; she is only open to the same history and more committed to shape the same future for which she knows herself responsible.”7
In a similar vein, contemporary Protestant theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that involvement in history, not withdrawn contemplation, is the distinctive insight of Hebrew religion. He suggests that Exodus serves as a sober reminder that it is dangerous for followers to confuse a “God of peace” with a God of order, to save the status quo instead of discerning the future.8 The great movements in the Judeo-Christian tradition have been propelled by events in history which disclose God to the eyes of faith. Such events penetrate to that ultimate level where the predicament of all ages is perceived.
[p.25]In this context faith is not an assent to propositions but a living, orienting relationship towards God which enables creative responses and new perspectives. The authority of scripture then is not found in its infallibly communicated propositions. Its final authority is the demand it places on our lives. It is disquieting to recognize how in affirming the role of the church to be “in the world but not of it,” we have tended to observe the second part of this injunction more than the first. But detachment rather than involvement in history and society is a disavowal of the prophetic.
As perplexing and threatening as this present world is, it is in encountering this perplexity and threat that the church is called to fulfill its mission. As H. Richard Niebuhr has written: “By revelation in our history, then, we mean that special occasion which provides us with an image by means of which all the occasions of personal and common life become intelligible… Whatever else revelation means it does mean an event in our history which brings rationality and wholeness into the confused joys and sorrows of personal existence and allows us to discern order in the brawl of communal histories.”9 The true church will recognize that God may be as much a part of the change and upheaval characterizing our world as a part of the stability that has passed. Thus change may be characterized as much by promise as by threat.
A broader and more dynamic idea of prophecy is one fruit of such thinking. Prophecy in the LDS experience has traditionally pointed to a subjective experience. Such communications generally call for deeper personal and congregational piety, for more comfort and aid to our own. However, this represents a disengagement from rather than an encounter with history. As Gibson Winter has observed, the crisis of institutionalized Christianity arises from “the preoccupation of the religious community with private concerns, while the forces that are shaping human destiny dominate the public realm.”10
Prophetic activity in the primitive church was not rooted primarily in an individual’s subjective experience but in the perception of God’s redemptive activity in history. The literature arising from this does not emerge as official statements from presiding officers. Rather its authority inheres in its power to convey a personal experience of reality and to call forth our participation in that [p.26] experience. Prophetic activity is not an utterance for maintaining the wellbeing and security of the organization. Rather the church also is called to lose itself and its preoccupation with its image, if it is to be faithful to its true calling in the world.
Prophetic insights may be found where we have little expected them or dismissed them as “the wisdom of men.” It is not altogether improbable that where once it was said, “We have Moses and the prophets,” we are now tempted to say, “We have the standard works.” Prophetic activity goes beyond dependence on infallible propositions communicated literally through the scriptures, beyond subjectivism, beyond the preoccupation of the membership with its own concerns in isolation. The true church might well be obligated to venture in faith, as did Abraham, “not knowing whither he went,” rather than to seek refuge in the safety of organization and tradition. The scriptures do not so much require assent as they do participation.
I am reminded that a very old story tells how Moses first had to turn aside in order to see the burning bush, after which the Lord spoke to him. The church should also willingly turn aside to see—if only indirectly—God’s action. The prophetic eye will see through the morass of events to discern the revelation of God for its day. The prophetic ear will distill the themes of redemption and fulfillment from the clamor of discordant voices. And God’s servant people will hear his voice in the burning bush of our promising yet threatening world—in the hum of cities, the clack of computers, the turmoil of social unrest, and the echo of marching feet in search of true humanity.
Geoffrey F. Spencer is a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “A Reinterpretation of Inspiration, Revelation, and Scripture” first appeared in University Bulletin 20 (Winter 1968): 41-51, 103 as “A Reinterpretation of Inspiration, Revelation and L.D.S. Scriptures.”