Interpreting Scripture: A response to my friend Ben Spackman

Recently, on his Facebook page, my friend Ben Spackman posted about the interpretation of scripture(post below). This post was perplexing to me in some ways. In many ways I agree with what he is saying. However, in other ways I do not.

In his post he lays out three stages to understanding scripture. Stage one is “what does the text ACTUALLY SAY.” I agree on this point. There are many times in the scriptures when we want to make our own interpretations based on things that the text never actually says. This is illustrated in Alma 39 that many people think talks about sexual sin but no mention of sexual sin is mentioned in the text itself and in reality talks of something else completely. Or when interpreting the purpose of Satan’s plan, no mention is made of obligating people to comply with the will of the Father. This is an interpretation placed on the text that doesn’t exist with the text itself. These type of readings lead to false traditions that are sometimes harmful.

Stage two is to determine “What did the text MEAN to the author(s) who wrote it? To the audience who first heard it.” This is where I start to differ with Ben’s methodology of interpretation. I don’t believe this is always needed. There is no doubt that value can be derived from this method. For example, as Ben mentions the days of creation in Genesis and how it is important to understand how the ancient Israelites would have viewed that as opposed to our modern day perception of what that means. This may be beneficial for some seeking understanding of how to reconcile secular learning with gospel truths. I can certainly understand how some of the things in the scriptures could cause some to stumble in their faith. I have had some of those moments myself when trying to reconcile certain things. However, I think Ben leaves out an important part of understanding, the spirit.

There is an excellent example of this in 2 Nephi 25 in Nephi’s epilogue to the Isaiah chapters.

1 Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.

2 For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.

3 Wherefore, I write unto my people, unto all those that shall receive hereafter these things which I write, that they may know the judgments of God, that they come upon all nations, according to the word which he hath spoken.

4 Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.

2 Nephi 25:1-4

Here Nephi is giving an account of a situation that all of us as at some point encounter. We have to understand an ancient text that we don’t understand the historical, religious, or methods of story telling used by ancient cultures. The problem with this approach is that many of these things are very debatable in the academic sphere and are a matter of interpretation by the academic. Sometimes there is a consensus sometimes not. Knowing what sources to trust is sometimes a daunting task. Ben presents this as a straight forward task which is not. However, I am not suggesting that study in these areas are not worthwhile. What I am saying is that it has to be done and understood through the spirit. As Nephi stated, “they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.”

Stage three, according to Ben, is to use the understanding gained from the previous steps to then ask “what is this text’s significance to US, here, today in a very different time, place, culture, and circumstance?” Again I disagree with Ben on this point. I don’t believe that that the interpretation of scripture is always predicated upon understanding of what the text actually says or what ancient Israelites thought about it. This depends on the application of of the interpretation. If the interpretation is for the church as a whole it would be wise to understand the historical, linguistical, and cultural context at least to some degree. If the application is to reconcile some secular beliefs or to reconcile some of the actions in the Old Testament to our modern mind then it would be beneficial to understand the full context. If the application is personal then it might be more beneficial to take an analogous approach. This is what Nephi did in 1st Nephi 19:23.

I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.

1st Nephi 19:23

To the faithful member of the church, interpretation of scripture, therefore, cannot be a mere academic pursuit. Faith would never be brought to pass if that was the case. Interpretation, therefore, has to be combined with revelation in order to be complete. In an LDS context the two cannot be separated. The methodology set forth by Ben is not a sufficient framework for all faithful pursuits and understanding. I have no problem with each one of the individual stages presented but presented as a framework, it breaks down when applied to different types of interpretation and is not a sufficient framework for all instances.

Ben’s original post

Latter-day Saints are very practical. We tend to be interested in what scripture means for our beliefs and our actions. But sometimes, we jump the gun and end up misreading or misunderstanding scripture because we want to get there so quickly! We fail, in effect, to gather the necessary data before interpreting it. Part of that impulse might be the idea that “scripture was written for our day”… except it wasn’t. (And that’s a reductionist reading of the Book of Mormon too, but that’s for another post.)

Here are three very basic stages of scripture study, taking this into account.

Stage 1) Ask, “what does the text ACTUALLY SAY?” Don’t jump to application, don’t jump to quotes from Church leaders or the manual. Start with making sure you are reading the scriptural words on the page. Look at the textual context, the sentences before and after. If you’re at the beginning or end of a chapter, look at those too. (Chapter divisions are 99% a later artificial imposition on scripture to make it easier for us, and didn’t exist as such in ancient manuscripts.) This stage might involve looking at different translations, or in the case of modern scripture, the critical editions which explain textual differences.

Stage  2) Ask, “What did the text MEAN to the author(s) who wrote it? To the audience who first heard it?” This takes us beyond textual context to historical, cultural, and literary contexts (i.e. genre. What KIND of thing is this text?) These are the kinds of contextual information that make sense of a lot of things in Genesis, like the days, the purpose of the accounts, various details about ages of the patriarchs, etc. This stage thus often involves, as Elder Ballard has talked about, expertise; Ballard said he (and by implication, Apostles in general) are not experts! They consult experts! So for this stage, we might look to study Bibles, legitimate, trained, and recognized LDS scholars, commentaries, etc. This is the stage where Hebrew or Greek is useful. It’s still a data-gathering stage.

In some ways, this is trying to put things in their right category, keeping separate things separate, e.g. what the temple says is not what Genesis say; should we impose the temple back onto Genesis? John is not Mark; should we impost Mark on John? Elder McConkie is not Joseph Smith; should we impose the former on the latter? Gather all the data, and take it into account for what it is, don’t try to blur it all together into one thing

Stage 3) Once those two are out of the way, once we have gathered all the data, THEN we ask, “what is this text’s significance to US, here, today in a very different time, place, culture, and circumstance?” This is when we are looking for current doctrinal meaning, personal application. This tends to be when Apostolic statements and manuals have the most utility; it’s what the latter are explicitly written for.

Now note, #2 and #3 don’t have to say the same thing! They don’t have to match 100%! Ancient people could have very different doctrinal ideas, cultural ideas, values, etc. Israelites, for example, wrestled constantly with the attraction of polytheism and much of the OT addresses that. Genesis addresses that. And with both the principles of progressive revelation, and that God adapts his commandments to the setting, we don’t need to to see a disconnect between #2 and #3 as problematic! We don’t need to make ancient scripture seem like it teaches every modern principle. Ancient Israelites were not 2021 Latter-day Saints.

I think if we teach students to separate these three stages of scriptural study and understanding— to try to understand BEFORE we apply— we can avoid some future problems of faith crisis. Also, sometimes reframing certain problems makes them much less problematic.

Ben Spackman