The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.

Chapter 4
Beyond Literalism
William D. Russell

[p.43]Mormonism has, in my view, a theological problem with its understanding of scripture. The problem lies in the tendency to read the scriptures uncritically, and it exists in both the Latter-day Saint and the Reorganized Latter Day Saint traditions. We tend to assume that all which is contained in scripture is true, is literally the word of God, and has universal application through time and space. The scriptures are treated as though they are a collection of statements of equal value, no matter when they were written, by whom, where, or for what purpose. We tend, in short, to see all extracts from the scriptural canon as consistent and true.1

When we hold this view, we are tempted to use proof texts, stringing together a succession of quotations from various scriptures. By this method, a person can support almost any doctrinal belief since it does not require the user to evaluate the passage in context or accommodate other scriptures which may support another conclusion. This uncritical, literal understanding of the Bible produces many misinterpretations, which sometimes can be harmful or even absurd.

The explanation for the Mormon tradition of using the Bible uncritically and literally lies in our history. The authority of the Bible was an important issue in American Protestantism at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Orthodox Christians felt threatened by the European Enlightenment position that rational discussion and empirical verification were the final tests of religious claims. In this view the Bible contained a great deal of superstition. [p.44] Part I of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, published in 1794, contained perhaps the best-known criticism of the Bible in that period.

Orthodox Christians countered by terming skeptics “infidels” and urging that the faithful be prepared to answer them. The Bible was an important source of authority for orthodox Christians, partly because other traditional sources of authority had been eliminated. The American Revolution had overthrown the king, who was the head of the Church of England. Some of the state constitutions and the federal constitution eliminated or forbade established churches—another traditional source of authority.2

As Joseph Smith grew to manhood he was apparently aware of the challenge to orthodox Christianity presented by religious skepticism. If he had not read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, he was probably aware of Paine’s criticisms of Christianity, perhaps from his grandfather. Robert Hullinger, a Lutheran minister, has argued that both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s “new translation” of the Bible were, in part, a response to Paine’s attack.3 The Book of Mormon, for instance, answered Paine’s charge that Christianity is based on a revelation given to a few people long ago and far away, with the rest of us being expected to accept it on hearsay.4 Paine, along with Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Priestley, also charged that Jesus’ plain, ethical gospel had been distorted by the Christian church which had “set up a religion of pomp and of revenue, in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.”5 The Book of Mormon also contains this view, and Smith’s “new translation” of the Bible attempted to remedy the presumed corruption of the biblical text (see RLDS 1 Ne. 3:155-75; LDS 1 Ne. 13:20-29).

Thus Joseph Smith was probably aware of some of the biblical issues which had been raised during his father’s generation. I believe that his scriptures reflect that perspective. However, Smith would probably not have been aware of the issues raised by the “higher criticism” of the Bible.6 Even though this new biblical scholarship was already beginning in the German universities in Smith’s lifetime, it was not extensively disseminated in the United States until after his death. This new approach to scripture went beyond the skepticism of the Enlightenment. The new critics challenged long-held traditions as to the authorship, date, and purpose of various biblical writings. They suggested naturalistic explanations for [p.45] the miracle stories, assumed that Jesus was human rather than divine, and noted conflicts within the Bible, undermining the assumption of internal consistency in the book.7

Here are a few examples of these internal inconsistencies:

1. There are two creation accounts in Genesis—the Yahwist account in chapter 2, and the Priestly account in chapter 1. They are different in style, content, approach, and concerns.

2. The Deuteronomic history in the Old Testament assumes that the reward for faithfulness to Yahweh is long life, good health, numerous posterity, and material prosperity. The book of Job strongly challenges this assumption.

3. The book of Ezra forbids marrying foreigners, yet the book of Ruth indicates that King David himself was the product of a mixed marriage, having a Moabite great-grandmother.

4. The birth stories in Matthew and Luke differ in several details, though not all of these details are contradictory.8

5. Matthew and Luke, copying Mark, make numerous alterations in his account.9

6. The Gospel of John is different from the three synoptic gospels and has almost no points of contact with the other three gospels prior to Holy Week.10

7. In Matthew 27:5 Judas Iscariot dies by hanging himself, while in Acts 1:18 his death comes as a result of a disemboweling fall.

8. The information about Paul and the early Christian church as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles differs significantly from that in Paul’s own letters.11

9. Finally, the dualistic world view of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation is quite contrary to the world view found in the rest of the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John. Most scholars find it improbable that the same person could have written both John and Revelation.12

These examples illustrate the kind of challenges that higher criticism presented to those who held a literal view of the Bible and assumed its internal consistency. Quite naturally, many if not most Christians opposed higher criticism because it seemed to undermine the authority of the Bible. It was inherently more threatening to Protestantism than to Catholicism, since the Protestant Reformation had rejected tradition, including the pope, as a source of authority and had exalted the Bible as the sole authority for faith.

[p.46]The most significant scholarly critique of higher criticism in America was called the Princeton Theology. It was developed originally by Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), who founded the seminary at Princeton in 1812, and was carried forward by Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge, and others.13 Unfortunately, their central argument was that the Bible is without error. In a classic statement of their position in the Presbyterian Review (1881), Hodge and Warfield wrote that “the historical faith of the Church has always been, that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without error.”14

As the Princeton theologians became aware of the difficulty in reconciling conflicts in the biblical text, they contended that errors and inconsistencies would not appear if we were dealing with uncorrupted “original autographs.” The “autograph” argument does not appear in Hodge’s first edition of Outlines of Theology (1860), but it does in his second edition, nineteen years later.15

Perhaps the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility by the Catholic church in 1870 was in part a response to the challenges of higher criticism. Princeton theologians, in contrast, insisted on the ultimate authority of the Bible: “God could not, would not, convey truth through an errant document.”16 God guided the process so that the writings would be free from error. As stated in the Hodge-Warfield article, this occurred through a process of “divine superintendence.” This supervision “extended to the verbal expression of the thoughts of the sacred writers, as well as to the thoughts themselves, and that, hence, the Bible considered as a record, an utterance in words of a divine revelation, is the Word of God to us. Hence, in all the affirmations of Scripture of every kind, there is no more error in the words of the original autographs than in the thoughts they were chosen to express.”17

One cannot help but wonder why the very God who protected the process of writing withdrew his watchful care during the translation and transmission process. The Princeton position seems to be a retreat from the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian faith which held that by God’s “singular care and providence” the scriptures have been “kept pure in all ages.”18 Joseph Smith’s position—that the Bible is correct “as far as it is translated correctly”—seems very close to the “original autographs” theory of A. A. Hodge.

[p.47]From the Princeton theology and other sources would eventually emerge twentieth-century fundamentalism. According to Oxford biblical scholar James Barr: “Fundamentalism begins when people begin to say that the doctrinal and practical authority of scripture is necessarily tied to its infallibility and in particular its historical inerrancy, when they maintain that its doctrinal and practical authority will stand up only if it is in general without error, and this means in particular only if it is without error in its apparently historical remarks. The centre of fundamentalism is the insistence that the control of doctrine and practice by scripture is dependent on something like a general perfection of scripture, and therefore on its historical inerrancy; and this in turn involves the repudiation of the results of modern critical modes of reading the Bible.”19

Many Mormons would feel comfortable with this description of their own attitudes toward scripture. I feel that this “pre-critical” view of the Bible comes from Joseph Smith’s own attitudes. He couched his revelations in terms that assumed the common understanding of the Bible in his time and place, not aware that biblical scholarship would soon call these traditions into question. Thus he and his fellow Mormons operated with an uncritical, literal understanding of the Bible. One early Mormon recalled an occasion when some elders undertook to correct the grammar in a revelation Smith had just uttered; he rebuked them, saying that every word had been dictated by Jesus Christ.20 Presumably, he applied the same process to the production of other scriptures as well. Mormon historian Gordon Irving, analyzing the early use of the Bible in Mormon publications, has observed that the Saints understood the Bible literally. They assumed that the meaning of the biblical writings was clear and consistent, that the historical accounts were accurate and the prophecies were to be fulfilled exactly as written. In addition, the Book of Mormon itself and the subsequent revelations of Joseph Smith supported a literal interpretation of the scriptures.21

This early identification with literalism has continued to our day and imposes limitations on alternative views of scripture. When we consider issues in biblical scholarship which point to a non-literal conception of scripture, the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith may appear to be in jeopardy. The problem lies in the fact that it does not occur to us that a prophet’s canonical utterances are limited by his humanity and by the culture of which he is a part. [p.48] With this pre-critical understanding of the Bible, the more modern view based on biblical scholarship seems to dismiss or repudiate Joseph Smith. Thus there is a tendency to reject biblical scholarship. Joseph Fielding Smith put it well in 1931: “The Latter-day Saints are not bound to receive the theories of men when they do not accord with the word of the Lord to them.”22 Thus, we are forced to choose between biblical scholars and prophets. But can the matter be settled so easily?

In the late nineteenth century and through most of the twentieth century, the RLDS church was essentially unfriendly to modern biblical scholarship. The literal approach, which assumes internal consistency, was the dominant understanding of the scriptures. While the church leadership in the last half of the twentieth century has been moving away from the literal conception of scripture, many rank-and-file members remain literalists. This tension between fundamentalists and liberals has created real confusion about the identity of the church.23

Similarly, in the LDS church modern biblical scholarship has not been well received. The pattern of biblical exegesis used by Joseph Smith and his followers has consistently been, according to Heber C. Snell, “to quote scripture and interpret it without regard to the historical milieu in which it arose.” Snell cites the sermons in the Journal of Discourses, Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning, B. H. Roberts’s The Gospel, James E. Talmage’s The Articles of Faith, Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Way to Perfection, and Milton Hunter’s The Gospel Through the Ages. “Numerous examples of ‘proof texts’ and their application could be cited from them and other Church writings,” he concludes. “One will rarely hear, in a Latter-day Saint assembly for worship or instruction, any departure from the traditional method. This is true, in lesser measure, in the Seminaries and Institutes of the Church. It is as if the modern study of the Bible, through literary, historical, and archeological approaches, had never been heard of.”24 More recently Keith Norman has written of a growing anti-scholarly interpretation of the scriptures in the church,25 and Sterling M. McMurrin has stated that “Mormons even today are in general the victims of traditional patterns of biblical thought that often tie them to an outworn and intellectually frustrating scriptural literalism.”26

At one point in the early twentieth century, some Latter-day Saints manifested interest in higher criticism. William H. [p.49] Chamberlin (1870-1921), who taught at Brigham Young University from 1910 to 1916, was apparently the first LDS teacher to make extensive use of the historical method in teaching the Bible but left BYU because of strong pressure to abandon this method.27 Sidney Sperry, the first Mormon to get a doctorate in a divinity school, taught Old Testament at BYU from 1932 until his retirement in 1970 but represented an acceptable position which subordinated biblical scholarship to the word of the prophet.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, several Mormons were encouraged by church leaders to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School.28 This encouragement stopped by the mid-1930s in part, suggests Russel B. Swensen, because “many general authorities of the Church were fearful that the sociological, historical, and literary approach to Bible studies plus the liberal spirit of the [University of Chicago] Divinity School would undermine the faith and loyalty of L.D.S. students who went there to study.”29

The uncritical, literal approach remains strong in both churches. Modern biblical scholarship is not taken seriously by many members. In the RLDS church it is most noticeable in the public dissent of literalists disenchanted with the leadership. And frequently the most liberal church members, while accepting biblical scholarship, nevertheless do not take it seriously.

In the LDS church opposition to modern biblical scholarship is often seen in official kinds of sources. For example, BYU philosophy professor David Yarn examined “wisdom” (sophia, philosophia) in the Bible without acknowledging different authors, without interpreting passages in context, and showed no awareness of the scholarly studies of the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East and of the Hebrew Bible.30

Victor Ludlow’s Unlocking the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981) makes no attempt to organize the books in any logical order, such as the sequence of their composition. He assumes that Moses wrote Genesis and that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. He does not acknowledge the two creation accounts in Genesis, does not mention that Ruth runs counter to Ezra-Nehemiah, downplays the religious pessimism of Ecclesiastes, ignores the sexual component of Esther, fails to acknowledge the fiery message of social justice in Amos, and does not discuss the Second Isaiah issue or the difference in setting after chapter 40.

[p.50]Glen L. Pearson, in The Old Testament: A Mormon Perspective (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), believes that higher critics undermine faith.31 Another example of the uncritical, literal approach is Monte S. Nyman, Great Are the Words of Isaiah (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981). Richard L. Anderson’s Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), is more scholarly but nevertheless brushes aside some of the key problems of modern biblical scholarship.

Student manuals for Bible courses at Brigham Young University are collections of statements from General Authorities, church literature, and the standard works which are presumed to settle the question addressed.32 Most of the major issues in biblical scholarship are ignored. Few biblical scholars are quoted or listed in the bibliography. The student manuals teach more about modern Mormonism than they do about the Bible.

Mormons in both LDS and RLDS traditions tend to regard the utterances of prophets or other producers of canonical writings as radically different in kind from other writings, such as those of the biblical scholars. A good example is a comment by Hugh Nibley’s associate, Curtis Wright: “I reject in principle the academic criticism of prophets… I can’t bring myself to criticize a prophet for any utterance, no matter how foolish or profound, on the basis of academic rules. I don’t always agree with everything the prophets say, but they are free to say anything they like without opposition from me.”33 Wright thus suggests that the scriptures—and any utterances of latter-day prophets—are beyond the purview of the theologian, historian, sociologist, or literary critic.

I suggest that we move beyond that kind of attitude, recognizing that the authors of holy writ, including modern prophets, have all been human and products of their environment, even when inspired. As RLDS scholar Robert Mesle has stated, “Persons, texts, communities, and institutions are all creatures of history.”34 We must not abandon our ability to reason when we examine the scriptures or the statements of church leaders.

Assertions that we should choose the word of the Lord over the word of men (the biblical scholars) are not very useful. Who would not choose the word of God to the word of men? But we cannot assume that something represents the mind and will of God [p.51] simply because it is contained in the scriptures or was uttered by a prophet or one of the General Authorities. Furthermore, cannot the work of scholars be inspired? There simply is no sure way to distinguish between the word of God and the words of men—or to distinguish between what is inspired and what is not. As Heber Snell observed: “Every biblical book is the product of some human mind, or minds, activated variously by the Divine Spirit and reacting to a certain environment. It follows that the more one knows about the writer and his milieu the better one is prepared to uncover the meaning of his book. It may be said, indeed, that without this knowledge the message of the ancient text will remain more or less hidden.”35 In short we need biblical scholarship to help us better understand the scriptures. Why not see them in a cooperative rather than in a conflicted relationship?

Scriptural fundamentalists who say that if we take scholarship seriously we “trust in the arm of flesh” (or in the “words of men”) are guilty of the very accusation they make of others. The scriptures are, to a certain extent, the “words of men.”

Only God is holy. No writing, person, or institution is holy except as it points beyond itself to the divine. The authority of the Bible lies not in its perfection but in its life-changing power to direct us to God. The Book of Mormon has authority for Latter-day Saints because it is the founding document of Mormonism and has drawn many converts to the church. For them it is “the keystone of our religion.” For me, its authority stems from containing the thought of the founding prophet just prior to the organization of the church. Mormon doctrine in both churches has evolved considerably beyond the Book of Mormon, in ways not always consistent with the founding document.

Similarly, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price have authority because they contain documents which the founding prophet considered to be the will of God. Even if we think some of these revelations—or parts thereof—do not represent the will of God, I see no reason why they should not have an authority for Mormons roughly equal to the authority the Bible has for all Christians.

We need to learn the value of applying critical scholarship to the scriptures. Through careful scholarly examination, we can [p.52] gain a fuller understanding of the scriptures, thereby maximizing their authority for us. It is my hope that some day soon biblical scholarship will flourish in the Mormon churches.

William D. Russell, author of Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Introduction to the New Testament, chairs the division of social sciences at Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa. “Beyond Literalism” first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 57-68.


1. Thomas G. Alexander extends this assumption of consistency to church doctrine in general. See his “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” in Gary James Bergera, ed., Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 53.

2. See Timothy L. Smith, “The Book of Mormon in a Biblical Culture,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 3-21.

3. Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1980).

4. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974), 5-6.

5. Paine, 22; see Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1948), 151-66.

6. Had Smith lived in a later generation and had access to higher criticism, I suspect that his revelations and other pronouncements may not have taken a literal approach to the Bible. He would have considered questions that did not occur to him in the 1830s and that would have been reflected in his prophetic utterances.

7. For more information on the history and nature of higher criticism, see the following articles in The Interpreter’s Bible and The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible published by Abingdon Press in Nashville: Samuel Terrien, “History of the Interpretation of the Bible: Modern Period,” IB I (1952): 127-41; Kendrick Grobel, “Biblical Criticism,” IDB I (1962): 407-13; Simon J. De Vries, “History of Biblical Criticism,” IDB I (1962): 413-18; Elizabeth Achtemeier, “History of Interpretation: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Christian,” IDB Suppl. (1976): 455-56; Henri Cazelles, “Biblical Criticism, OT,” IDB Suppl. (1976): 98-102; Howard Clark Kee, “Biblical Criticism, NT,” IDB Suppl. (1976): 102-104. See also Alan Richardson, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship and the Recent Discussion of the Authorship of the Bible,” in S. L. Greenslade, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), 3:294-338. For the early rumblings of higher criticism in America, see Jerry Wayne Brown, The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, 1800-1870: The New England Scholars (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969). For a brief discussion of the historical-critical approach to the study of the Bible, see Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

[p.53]8. See Francis Wright Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962).

9. William D. Russell, “A Further Inquiry into the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 7 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): n27.

10. It is useless to try to harmonize the four gospels or arrange them in chronological order as one account, although some Mormon writers have tried. See David Yarn, The Four Gospels as One: The Life, Ministry and Mission of Jesus Christ: An Arrangement of the Gospels in Narrative Form (1961; rprt. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982); James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1915).

11. See Samuel Sandmel, The Genius of Paul: A Study in History (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958).

12. See Werner Georg Kuemmel, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. Howard Clarke Kee, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975).

13. See Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 462, 813-14; Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), 303-304.

14. H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960, 1963), 2:332.

15. Sandeen, 128, 130.

16. Ibid., 130.

17. Smith, Handy, and Loetscher, 2:328.

18. John A. Harden, The Spirit and Origins of American Protestantism: A Source Book of Its Creeds (Dayton, OH: Pflamn Press, 1968), 128.

19. James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 65-66. See also Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978).

20. Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 141.

21. Gordon Irving, “The Mormons and the Bible in the 1830s,” Brigham Young University Studies 13 (Summer 1973): 473-88.

22. Richard Sherlock, “‘We Can See No Advantage to a Continuation of the Discussion’: The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 68-69.

23. Larry W. Conrad and Paul Shupe, “An RLDS Reformation? Construing the Task of RLDS Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Summer 1985): 92-103.

[p.54]24. Heber C. Snell, “The Bible in the Church,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Spring 1967): 60.

25. Keith Norman, “A Not So Great Commentary,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 130-32.

26. Brigham H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), xxiv-xxv.

27. Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 135-48.

28. See Sidney B. Sperry, “Scholars and Prophets,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Spring 1967): 74-85; Bergera and Priddis, 53.

29. Russel B. Swensen, “Mormons at the University of Chicago Divinity School: A Personal Reminiscence,” Dialogue: A Journal of MormonThought 7 (Summer 1972): 45; see also Bergera and Priddis, 63.

30. David Yarn, “‘Wisdom’ (Philosophy) in the Holy Bible,” Brigham Young University Studies 13 (Autumn 1972): 91-103. On the wisdom literature, see, for example, R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (NY: Macmillan, 1971), or Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville:Abingdon Press, 1971).

31. In her review of the book, Melodie Moench Charles writes, “Pearson implies that any Mormon armed with a testimony, a Pearl of Great Price, and a Book of Mormon can understand the Old Testament better than any secular scholar can” (“A Mormon Perspective—Cockeyed,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 [Autumn 1982]: 123).

32. Church Educational System, Old Testament: Genesis-2 Samuel (Religion 301 Student Manual) (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981); Old Testament: 1 Kings-Malachi (Religion 302 Student Manual), 2d ed. (1982); The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles (Course Manual Religion 211-12), rev. ed. (1979).

33. In “A Conversation with Hugh Nibley,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 23.

34. Robert Mesle, “The Restoration and the Old Jerusalem Gospel: The Nature of Earliest Christianity,” unpublished, 1984.

35. Snell, 63.