Scholars and Prophets

I presented a paper at the Yale conference in February in which I argued that the reason that most people don’t read the works of Biblical scholars (LDS or otherwise) is that most people don’t read scripture in order to understand what scripture says; most people read scripture in order to interpret it in light of their own experience or to have a revelatory moment with God. Actually understanding the original intended meaning of the words is secondary to this personal divine experience and it is possibly entirely unnecessary to having this experience.  This explains, I think, why most scripture readers don’t seek the original meaning.

So, if what scholars do is not considered necessary by most of the religious public, is it actually necessary?  I would say yes (well…duh), but not for the reason that most lay people would assume.  I fundamentally agree with the lay person’s position that, in terms of establishing contact with the divine, the scholar is a vestigial appendage at best.  Instead, the function of a scholar is to offer interpretive models for revealed information; ie. scholars exist to help you understand what the scriptures have to say.

We don’t need interpreters for genuine personal revelation.  However, the recorded revelations given to other people require some interpretive help.  So, scholars study the original context, the history of transmission, and the history of interpretation, adding their own ideas in order to try and make sense of the passage.  Just as we would do with Shakespeare’s words or Mao’s, scholars exist to try and make the alien familiar.  With that in mind, we should understand the limits of this approach.  Ultimately, it isn’t clear whether we are removing filters or adding more and, therefore, we may actually be making the picture fuzzier instead of clearer.  Most scholarship has a system of self-correction that helps prevent this phenomenon, but nonetheless mistakes are made.

Here is the issue, scholarship is based on reason and it is therefore limited thereby.  Scholarship cannot generate revelation; it can only seek to understand revealed knowledge.  Everything in scholarship is based on what is logical, provable, or, at least, plausible.  It is how we make decisions.

Prophets do not operate under these strictures.  They have no obligation to make sense when they speak.  They have no obligation to explain what they mean.  Since they are speaking for God, it is entirely possible that a prophet doesn’t even realize the full meaning of the words coming out of his own mouth.  As spokespeople for God, prophets generate data, not interpretations.  Even if they give us a revealed interpretation, that is still an interpretation that requires interpreting (God’s ways not being our ways after all).  So prophets reveal knowledge and scholars explain it.

More specifically, prophets reveal knowledge that is intended for other people.  Anyone is entitled to personal revelation, but not anyone gets revealed knowledge that applies to anyone else.   Only a very few people are given that sort of responsibility.  However, anyone can be a scholar.  Everyone has the right and the option of interpreting the words of the prophets.  For that matter, we have the duty to do so, as they are directed to us.

Sometimes, prophets decide to act as scholars.  So, they take a look at revealed doctrine and try to find a rational explanation for it.  In so doing, they are acting as scholars and we can choose to accept or reject their  assertions as such.  One thing I am sure of, our prophets take revelation very seriously and they are very careful in its distribution.

That said, scholars should not pretend to be prophets (although, if a scholar is a prophet, no pretense is involved).  All our knowledge is limited in its strength.  We can only know what we can show to be known.

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39 Comments

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39 responses to “Scholars and Prophets

  1. Excellently expressed. I fully agree.

  2. larryco_

    “Sometimes prophets decide to act as scholars.” To a certain extent, Joseph Smith’s translation of the bible loosely fits this discription. I have always felt that people are wrongheaded when they assume Joseph was attempting to get back the words as they were originally written in Greek or Hebrew. It seems to me that instead of looking “at revealed doctrine and try(ing) to find a rational explanation for it”, he would read the words with Sidney Rigdon, allow the Spirit to tell him when something was amiss, and seek to correct it. If this is true, then the word “translation” is probably inaccurate in discribing the process; “inspired reading” might be closer.

  3. HP

    larryco,
    I would actually describe that as Joseph acting as a prophet, not as a scholar. The scholar who does that will get laughed right out of the academy

  4. Matt W.

    One question is how do we discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet or a scholar? This does not always come with an official chaging of the hat. I mean, in some cases McConkie was told to go back and change “seven deadly heresies” to say it was his beliefs only, and in other cases…

  5. lxxluthor

    A good sentiment HP. I’ve had a number of discussions with friends, and a few with myself in my head, about how I justify the existence of the job I want to have. This is a very good rational. Though, occasionally I wonder why we have to do this, I mean justify why our jobs deserve to exist. And then I remember that most participators in academia have to do this too and I feel better.

  6. HP

    Matt, my basic rule of thumb is that revelation is clearly defined as such. If there is no such definition, I don’t know that we have to accept what our prophets say as revelatory (although it may be wise, thoughtful, and good). Further, attempts to reason things out strike me as being scholarly (prophets declare; scholars reason). Therefore, those two things would be what I look at. Mileage may very and these are not hard and fast rules.

  7. jupiterschild

    This is an interesting statement. I have to agree with Matt W. in that the tricky thing is distinguishing between prophetic “scholarship”, scholarship scholarship, and prophecy. I don’t think your categories are contained in the way you want them to be.

    This is actually something I was thinking of posting on in light of some statements on the Snarkernacle about Moggett’s recent post. SnarkimusPrime stated that

    the job of the LDS General Authorities is not to hand out “accurate biblical exegesis” it is to get people to repent and follow the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. In other words, to be special witnesses for Jesus Christ. Not to bible bash with anti-mormon trolls like you. How is that for a serious answer? Show me where in the Scriptures Jesus taught that the way to the kingdom of Heaven was accurate biblical exegesis. Oh, it doesn’t? OK. So, we will just have to keep the commandments and repent instead, like Jesus told us to. If anyone will do his will, they will know the doctrine.

    I agree fundamentally with this, to the extent that I believe the prophetic function is to speak to (i.e. correct) behavioral problems, and not to expose some “original meaning” of scripture. But I don’t think this is how most people perceive prophecy. I think that prophets have no hesitation to tread in what is usually considered the domain of intellectuals and to make pronouncements that run fundamentally contrary to what scholarship is doing, and to expect it to be taken not as some meta-commentary but as revealed and unalterable truth. (Okay, that may be putting it a bit too strongly, but it’s certainly not in some cases).

    On the other hand, I think a lot of people in our Church consider “faithful” scholarship to sometimes be a source of revelation. The brightest example is John K. Carmack’s General Conference Address that features Jack Welch’s “findings” of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, among other things. I think this all adds to the LDS blurring of lines when it comes to scholarship, revelation, and truth. I’ll bet a majority of church members would agree with the kind of thinking we talked about with the Kent Jackson article, that scholarship, if done right, will confirm what prophets reveal. (Sorry this is so long. As I said, it was going to be a post outright.)

  8. Matt W.

    HP, That is an interesting dividing line. I hope you don’t mind if a throw a few questions at it to get your thoughts.

    What about when a prophet declares a reason, and claims inspiration? (Say for example, the gender declaration in the proclamation on the family?)

    What about when a prophet reasons out a declaration, and claims inspiration? (Isn’t this what D&C 9 is all about?)

    By your definition, is the last revelatory declaration O.D.2, since it was the last item officially define as such?

    Do these rules apply to the scriptural prophets as well? (Nephi reasoning that the dark skin is related to iniquity.)

    This is really an interesting paradigm.

  9. Jonathan N.

    I question the original premise of the post. In my experience, the reason “most people don’t read the works of Biblical scholars (LDS or otherwise) is that most people don’t read scripture.” Period. I think there are at least as many people who read commentaries only as there are who read scriptures only. In fact, there have been conference talks about not relying solely on commentaries, encouraging people to read the scriptures directly.

    Those who do read scripture generally don’t have the time to also read the scholarly work unless it is summarized and simplified. But I think most people want to know what the scripture actually says.

    I don’t know many people who use the scriptures as a sort of divining rod or touchstone for personal revelation as opposed to trying to understand what the scriptures mean. Scriptures are almost always quoted to prove or disprove a point, which implies that the scriptures have a particular meaning.

    On the further point about prophets and scholars, I can’t think of many examples in the last 100 years where prophets have made pronouncements contrary to what scholarship is doing. Can anyone provide examples of this?

  10. Pingback: A Case for the Documentary Hypothesis, Part I « Faith Promoting Rumor

  11. “Nephi reasoning that the dark skin is related to iniquity.”

    We’ve traditionally read it through our western racial glasses, but I don’t think this is what Nephi is actually saying.

  12. Matt W.

    Nitsav, good point. I was throwing out a cheap example in an attempt to make a point. To clarify and get a better example, I guess what I am saying is how can we be sure that when Alma says Christ suffered every affliction to know how to succor his people, he is declaring this, and not just reasoning it out? (Personally, I think we must rely on our own reasoning and our own personal revelation.)

  13. jupiterschild

    Nitsav,

    Not to threadjack, but care to expound?

  14. Ultimately, it isn’t clear whether we are removing filters or adding more

    Exegetes remove them, theologians add them.

    They [prophets] have no obligation to make sense when they speak.

    The Deuteronomistic Historian would argue otherwise. But those like Pentecostals who are into glossolalia would applaud you for that.

    Since they are speaking for God, it is entirely possible that a prophet doesn’t even realize the full meaning of the words coming out of his own mouth.

    That’s ridiculous. I don’t like the idea that the prophet slips into some bezerkoid trance and just downloads God’s will without any form of personal involvement in how those words are formed, the themes involved, the grammar, the characters, or even the motives. God doesn’t “possess” a prophet’s mind when giving revelation – that’s what demons do.

    Only a very few people are given that sort of responsibility.

    According to the Correlation Committee, you are correct.

    God’s ways not being our ways after all

    You’d be surprised how human he is.

  15. HP

    jc,
    I don’t disagree that many LDS believe that scholarship done right will confirm what the prophets say (depending, of course, on which prophets one happens to prefer). I think that this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what scholarship can and should do. I also agree that what I am laying out here is not the way that most LDS people approach this. However, I do think that this is pretty close to how it works. I don’t think that there is a bright dividing line between those who use revelation and those who use scholarship and I don’t see a reason why there should be. Certainly there shouldn’t be on a personal level.

    jonathon,
    I would be very surprised if many people in the church read commentaries to the exclusion of scripture. In my experience, the opposite is always the case. I don’t see anything wrong with the judicious use of commentaries (of course), especially if one is judicious about it. Also, if you only have time for one, I would suggest reading scripture. Then again, I think it is relatively easy for people to find the time to learn more about scripture if they are sufficiently motivated.

    Matt W.,
    regarding reasoning in revelation, certainly God does it and can do (let us reason together, after all). He speaks to us according to our understanding, which in the modern West means rationality. However, he is under no obligation to do so. As to our reasoning, I think sometimes God offers a confirmation that our best guess or reason is as good as anyones and we mistake it for a more forceful affirmative. This I think is what was behind the decisions of men like President Brigham Young and Elder Bruce R. McConkie to publicize doctrinal theories that have since been repudiated. Sometimes, all God does is provide us with the end and then he lets us figure out the means (I also think that this is why different atonement theories co-exist so well in the scriptures).

    David J,
    Exegetes remove them, theologians add them.
    This is a false dichotomy. Exegetes have their own set of filters which were developed far after the historical events that we seek to uncover and understand. We have no certain way of knowing if we are getting at the lived experience of the ancient past or if we are simply constructing something that never was, but makes sense to us.

    The Deuteronomistic Historian would argue otherwise.
    The Deuteronomistic Historian is not above adjusting the past in order to suit his theological needs. I am not entirely certain that what Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic Historians have to say about the proper conduct of prophets is always reliable (it certainly isn’t reliable within the Old Testament).

    That’s ridiculous. I don’t like the idea that the prophet slips into some bezerkoid trance and just downloads God’s will without any form of personal involvement in how those words are formed, the themes involved, the grammar, the characters, or even the motives. God doesn’t “possess” a prophet’s mind when giving revelation – that’s what demons do.

    That isn’t what I was trying to say in any case. I was trying to say that the God provides revelation and prophets are filters that try to convey that revelation. I am not sure, for instance, that Isaiah always knew that he was prophesying about Christ when he may have thought he was prophesying about Hezekiah. It is possible that Jeremiah and Isaiah thought that the promised restoration referred to events in their time. Then again, maybe not. I just think that we should be open to the possibility (especially when considering, for instance, the thoughts of early Christians on the Second Coming).

    Only a very few people are given that sort of responsibility.
    Well, the D&C narrows it down to one person at a time and that is pre-correlation if my memory serves me correctly.

    You’d be surprised how human he is.
    What on earth does that mean?

  16. Jupiter- I’m still undecided on the interpretation, but here’s what I have.
    Several people (Brant Gardner? Can’t remember whose arguments I’m parroting here) have suggested that the idea of a skin-color change is a misreading of the text. There are several episodes in the BoM that indicate that there was no visual difference between Lamanite and Nephite, but it’s complicated somewhat by a)stories that suggest the opposite and b) the multiple meanings of “Lamanite.”

    Further the phrase “skin of blackness” isn’t the normal way to express color in Heb, as you know, and “blackness” is an abstract noun. The famous phrase in 2 Nephi 30:6 which supposedly refers to the Lamanites black skin (except the passag refers to “scales of darkness [falling] from their eyes”) turning white at their repentance actually reads “pure” not “white. (JS flipflopped on the translation there, and settled on “pure” but for an accident of history, most editions until 1981 read “white and delightsome” instead of “pure and delightsome.” That suggests to me lbn in Heb.)

    Certainly the Nephites were colorist, ie. white is good and pure, dark is bad and impure, etc. But I am no longer certain that skin color differences are there with the accompanying (as we read it) racism.

  17. jupiterschild

    … since the discussion has slowed on this post, a tangent:

    Nitsav: Could “skin of blackness” be a JS idiom? I’ve always thought of this as rooted in thinking of the curse of Cain as related to black africans, which I admittedly assume was prevalent in JS’s time (though I haven’t checked). In any case, I think it’s dangerous to make arguments about things in the BofM being abnormal representations of Hebrew. I don’t think we have good existing models for the type of translation the BofM represents (perhaps targum would be one?).

  18. I don’t know many people who use the scriptures as a sort of divining rod or touchstone for personal revelation as opposed to trying to understand what the scriptures mean.

    I think HP’s point here is that members, for the most part, seem to be interested in scripture in as much as it has some clear application in their lives. They read scripture with the assumption that it speaks to them, and with the intent to impliment what is discovered therein. This is somewhat different than members would approach non-scriptural texts. In this sense the question they bring to the text is not “what does passage X mean?”, but “what does passage X mean for me?”

    They have no obligation to make sense when they speak. They have no obligation to explain what they mean. Since they are speaking for God, it is entirely possible that a prophet doesn’t even realize the full meaning of the words coming out of his own mouth.

    HP, I understand what you mean here (with your clarification to David J.’s remarks), but I do think that since revelation is meant to “communicate” something, there is a responsibility for the message to “make sense”. This point however, is a smaller point of contention, and I think we might actually see eye-to-eye on this. The larger point, though, is with the clarity of the distinction you make. To build off this notion of revelation, how much of God’s message is dependant on the instrument through which it is delivered? Are prophets pure filters through which revelation is communicated? It seems that a willingness to see at least some of JS in the BoM (as opposed to it being a record that God himself could have written) goes against a pure filter theory.

  19. HP

    SmallAxe,
    I tend to see prophets as filters, but I think that sometimes filtering is beyond them. Think about all those speculations regarding visions of helicopters in Isaiah. Sometimes, the prophets simply aren’t equipped to communicate what they are given. In those cases, I think that we come closer to unfiltered revelation.

  20. SmallAxe

    Not much time, but I did want to ask:

    On what grounds can we determine the level of filtration?

  21. smallaxe

    I have a moment to elaborate, so let me give it a try.

    Your theory asserts a distinction between revelation and interpretation (the job of the prophet and the job of the scholar). I am assuming that motivation for this theory is to delineate clear roles for both parties–the prophet opperates here, and the scholar opperates there. As such I think we can posit the existence of a distinction, but we are not equipt to recognize it. In other words, I don’t think we can tell where revelation starts and reason ends. As this relates to my comments about revelation, and since the prophet can opperate as both prophet and scholar, how can we know when the prophet is acting as prophet and not as scholar?

    While clear, I think your system ultimately puts the scholar in the place of having to buttress the claims of the prophet, even when they run counter to “scholarly” findings. IMO, what scholars need to do is to create more room for “loyal opposition”. I think there’s plenty of space for those wanting to substantiate the “revelation” of the prophet, but much less room for those who are “loyal” to the church while still challenging some of their claims.

  22. HP

    I think that the best scholars can do is to provide a contextual framework wherein interested parties can make decisions regarding how to understand various revelations. I don’t believe that scholarship can definitively say whether Joseph Smith or Gordon B. Hinckley received a revelation so I don’t ever imagine it being able to challenge the authority of revealed knowledge. The best it can do is help us to better understand it.

    I don’t think that classical Greek rationality is the only way to understand the world, nor is it inherently the best. Certainly, it falters in attempts to really get religion. But, at the moment, we simply don’t have anything more apt in an intellectual sense.

  23. SmallAxe

    I don’t believe that scholarship can definitively say whether Joseph Smith or Gordon B. Hinckley received a revelation so I don’t ever imagine it being able to challenge the authority of revealed knowledge. The best it can do is help us to better understand it.

    I don’t see it as an issue of proving revelation true or false, but a problem between the boundaries of revelation and scholarship. I don’t have much time now and so I will try to elaborate on this later.

    One point for now though: Whether or not the boundaries are as clear as you make them out to be, the larger point of contention is not about infringing in the intellecutal arena of the other, but stepping on their toes as it relates to the mobilization of bodies. The prophet is concerned with bringing souls to Christ, which means obedience to the church, in particular attending on sundays, fulfilling a calling, paying a tithe, and going to the temple (among other things). As such I don’t see the division (between interpretation and revelation) as the necessary one. IMO scholars are rather free to tread on any grounds as long as it is “faith building” as defined directly above. They are not free to “interpret” as they like if it impacts these things.

  24. HP

    Smallaxe,
    I just don’t see how scholars could comment on direct commands from prophets (aside from possibly making arguments regarding the trustworthiness of the source (which is much more like journalism than scholarship)). We comment on the interpretation of scripture, which prophets may use to justify their commands, but the command itself is beyond our ability to critique.

    As an example, the prohibition on coffee and tea has been given differing explanations over time by prophets, some relating to D&C 89 (prohibition on hot drinks) and some not (prohibition on caffeine). None of this has changed the command, just how we understand it. And in fact, there isn’t a universally good explanation for the coffee/tea prohibition that I am aware of. Ultimately, we do it because we believe God has told us to through modern prophets.

  25. smallaxe

    We comment on the interpretation of scripture, which prophets may use to justify their commands, but the command itself is beyond our ability to critique.

    If the justification of the command can be challenged, I don’t see how this does not also challenge the command itself. This relates back to the “filtration” question I was asking earlier. If we are incapable of knowing a prophet is a “pure filter” then it seems that we in fact cannot take the command as a pure command. It appears to me that you are trying to separate the message from the messenger. But if the prophet is in fact the instrument that plays the music of God (to carry the analogy a little further), then I do not think the music can be detached from the instrument. I’ll have a bit more to say in a little while.

    I still think the bigger point of contention is not with the intellectual arena of the scholar, but when the scholar does anything that challenges the authority of the church in its power to mobilize bodies.

    Also, I did want to briefly point out, even in the Western tradition there are those who critique the notion of rationality that you refer to. Rorty (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) and Habermas (his notion of communicative rationality rather than instrumental rationality) are two examples. This is not to mention other Asian sources that perhaps could provide important points of reference.

  26. HP

    An example of challenging the justification without challenging the command would be the word of wisdom example I used. I believe that it can be definitively shown that neither the heat of the drink nor the presence of caffeine is the motivation behind those commands, but both have been offered as justifications. I say that with no intent to stop living the word of wisdom and no intent to convince other people to do so. I don’t think that saying that someone may have been mistaken in a justification is the same thing as saying they no longer have the ecclesiastical authority to issue commandments (especially as I continue to keep the word of wisdom).

    I still don’t see how a scholar can mount an effective challenge to the authority of the church to mobilize bodies. That area of church authority is, as far as I can tell, wholly outside the domain of scholarly critique.

  27. smallaxe

    I still don’t see how a scholar can mount an effective challenge to the authority of the church to mobilize bodies. That area of church authority is, as far as I can tell, wholly outside the domain of scholarly critique.

    Using your example, and even your categories of interpretation and revelation, if a scholar was to “discover” (hypothetically speaking) that the injunction against coffee and tea was in fact a culturally situated interpretation of the prophet at a certain time and JS in fact clearly had no such idea in mind and therefore drinking coffee and tea was okay, this would infringe on the authority of the church to mobilize members to behave in a certain way. Doing this would undoubtedly make the scholar unwelcome in the church regardless of the fact that he/she challenged interpretation and not revelation. This is why I say dividing lines are not interpretation/revelation but interference in the control of bodies.

    Pragmatically speaking, I don’t think the church as an organization sees a division between interpretation and revelation as much as it does between authority to mobilize and lack of that authority. The reason a scholar cannot claim revelation is not because revelation is something distinct from interpretation, but because claiming revelation is a challenge to that authority.

    But of course I was not only speaking pragmatically. Challenging the interpretation of the WoW is in effect challenging the WoW itself because the two cannot be separated (which is what my claim is). We cannot speak of a separation between revelation and reason because they are not two separate things. Revelation cannot but be interpreted. IMO if you want to say that scholars should not be involved in revelation, it is out of the pragmatic claim of non-interference in the realm of the authority of the Prophet and not because revelation is some unintelligible thing.

  28. Thanks a lot for the invitation, HP. I hope that I did not create too much trouble for you on BCC.

    This essay advances an interesting hypothesis, HP. My apologies for being contrarian once more but let me point out that you are assuming that religious practitioners are charismatics. The charismatic tradition is one among others.

    Martin Luther famously limited access to God’s will exclusively to scripture (sole scriptura). While he asserted the supremacy of the conscience, in the evangelical tradition scholarship is the vehicle that reveals the divine.

    Whatever separated Jean Calvin from Luther, they agreed about the primacy of scripture and the necessity of scholarship for scriptural interpretation. While Catholics supplement scripture with the Church’s tradition, they conceded the centrality of scriptural expertise quickly. Of course, the Reformation also generated leaders who laid claim to prophesy, most prominently Thomas Münzer but that approach failed to find political protection for quite some time.

    In the Lutheran tradition, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, assumed the equivalent of a prophetic voice. Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu are also prophet scholars. That group of scholar prophets seems to be a considerable empirical challenge to your typology.

  29. Any body of statements that is supposed to make sense ought to be at least coherent. Hence revelation or claims of revelation can always be subject to scholarship, particularly to logic.
    I would agree with you, HP, that usually the results of scholarship will be indeterminate but that seems to be somewhat different than two entirely separate realms for prophecy and scholarship.

  30. HP

    “the injunction against coffee and tea was in fact a culturally situated interpretation of the prophet at a certain time and JS in fact clearly had no such idea in mind and therefore drinking coffee and tea was okay, this would infringe on the authority of the church to mobilize members to behave in a certain way.”

    This simply isn’t true. We know that, biblically speaking, the term “saviors on Mount Zion” has nothing to do with temple work and that it never did until modern prophets began to use it that way. Tea and coffee don’t have anything to do with the original Word of Wisdom in any shape that I am aware of and their inclusion into into postdates Joseph Smith (pioneers heading west included coffee in their supplies). None of these facts has altered people’s perception of the manner in which these things are utilized in the church today, because people believe in the right of later prophets to change the commands of earlier ones. Although prophets often use scholarship to provide a rationale for their commands, we obey because we accept their authority to give commands, not because we accept their rationales (although we may do that as well).

    Also, in the church we have conflated authority to mobilize with authority to receive revelation for others. In fact, it is the authority to receive revelation for others that gives one the authority to mobilize. I don’t know that these things can be seperated in LDS belief.

    Finally, of course interpretation can be separated from the act itself. I can argue that someone’s understanding of the Atonement is incomplete without arguing against the Atonement itself or arguing that it isn’t important. I would never tell a member of the church to not keep the word of wisdom, but I can tell them that previous explanations are inadequate without impugning the commandment or the prophets who gave it.

    Hellmut,
    no trouble. It’s just easier to converse in one place.

    I should have noted in the original post that I was considering LDS prophets, who are quite clearly in the revelatory tradition and draw their authority therefrom. As to examples like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther, I don’t know that they would necessarily consider themselves prophets, so I don’t know how they would consider the division I draw. A scholar can be a moral individual and can lead a congregation. For that matter, even in the limited, charismatic sense that I am using prophet here, a scholar can be a prophet. But one’s authority to prophesy in this sense is never derived from one’s scholarship.

    “Any body of statements that is supposed to make sense ought to be at least coherent.”
    Possibly, but I am uncertain. If you consider the symbolists of the turn of the last century, for instance, they sought to convey meaning in irrational ways (as does much modern art). I do think that some form of reason is involved in every human attempt at communication, even attempts to communicate divine will, but that reason does not have to accept as axia the axia of Western/Greek rationality. One can make sense without being reasonable.

  31. smallaxe

    This simply isn’t true.

    You know I was speaking hypothetically right? I’m aware of the changes in the WoW, which is why I said “the injunction against coffee and tea was in fact a culturally situated interpretation of the prophet at a certain time and JS in fact clearly had no such idea in mind”. “Prophet” here meaning the prophet of a different time. But I wasn’t trying to make a historical claim.

    Also, in the church we have conflated authority to mobilize with authority to receive revelation for others. In fact, it is the authority to receive revelation for others that gives one the authority to mobilize.

    This is actually the very point I was trying to prove above. The dividing line between the scholar and the prophet is not the intellectual one you are asserting, but one of authority to mobilize. A scholar in the church is free to say things without fear of chastizement in reverse proportion to its impact to mobilize. IMO, this is a pragmatic argument against the dividing lines you were trying to construct–irregardless of the reality of any division, the debate centers here. The space of the scholar is not about interpretation. If that is the space you want to argue for then you need to work out a non-mobilizing form of interpretation, and then argue for this as a legitamate form of scholarship. It seems like you make the first step when you say:

    Finally, of course interpretation can be separated from the act itself. I can argue that someone’s understanding of the Atonement is incomplete without arguing against the Atonement itself or arguing that it isn’t important. I would never tell a member of the church to not keep the word of wisdom, but I can tell them that previous explanations are inadequate without impugning the commandment or the prophets who gave it.

    Give me a moment to come back to this.

  32. smallaxe

    Jumping right back in:

    I have two problems with this. First, revelation does not exist outside of interpretation. Secondly, good scholarship cannot be separated from the actions it implies.

    As far as my first point is concerned, the fact that revelation exists in (or at least comes into) a given context, means that it must be contextualized. Saying that there is a revelation called the WoW necessarily attaches itself with the question of “What is the WoW”?, “What does the WoW mean?”. These are interpretive questions. The WoW as a revelation is not detached from its meaning. Anyone (scholars included) challenging an interpretation of the WoW also challenges the revelation itself. This may or may not challenge the existence or possibility of revelation, but that is besides the point. The value of the revelation is in its context, in its interpretation. In this sense there is no “bare revelation”, it is always embedded in interpretation beginning with the instrument (i.e. prophet) which delivers it.

    The implication of course is that scholars are revelators (but, hey, we all are anyways, so no special place granted). Not in the sense of issuing authoritatively binding commandments, but in the sense that their work is not bound to a rationality that excludes it. On a side note, I don’t think JS would have supported a dichotomy between rationality and revelation either. At least not in the everyday sense of revelation we often times speak of.

    As for the second point. Claiming that the way we obey the WoW is culturally dependant (which I think we would agree is a position scholars could take up) implies that culture (at least partially) determines revelation (or in your view interpretation of revelation). Since we live in a rather different culture than previous interpretations (the coffee and tea interpretation), why shouldn’t the WoW be re-interpreted? Teas are actually a wide variety of drinks, especially in Asia (where even water is called “tea”, at least in parts of China, and this of course causes Saints in these areas-Taiwan for instance-to refine the WoW to specific kinds of teas). Knowing that the past interpretation is culturally specific could make some people feel less at odds with drinking tea (I actually know a few people who make this claim). Point being, this kind of scholarship does tread on the toes of those in “authority to mobilize”.

  33. I hate to ruin a good analogy in an interesting conversating, but the following isn’t true “Tea and coffee don’t have anything to do with the original Word of Wisdom in any shape that I am aware of and their inclusion into [it] postdates Joseph Smith.”

    According to Thomas Alexander (Mormonism in Transition, 258), Joseph was the one who interpreted “hot drinks” as coffee and tea. However, no one at that time, including him, understood the WoW as an absolute prohibition, hence the inclusion of coffee as a supply, etc. There’s a spicy article addressing early LDS usage of things considered against the WoW here, particularly part II.

  34. HP

    Thanks, Nitsav. I was worried about that claim when I made it, so I looked up a list of pioneer supplies printed in the Nauvoo Neighbor, found tea and coffee, and assumed it to be true. But I am happy to go with coffee and tea as being the original intent. It doesn’t really change the point since WoW is enforced differently today than it was then.

    smallaxe,
    I feel like too much is being made of the dividing line. I was trying to say that what prophets do is different from what scholars do because prophets receive revelation for other people/authority to mobilize and scholars don’t. However, I think that both prophets and scholars rationalize, in the sense that they try and make revelation make sense. Of course they give a local context to any given revelation (how could they not?).

    I suppose that my argument is that there is a dividing line between the revelation itself and the justification for that revelation. Anyone, prophet or scholar, can create a justification; only the prophet can receive the revelation itself. This can make it difficult to figure out what is revelation and what is justification when the words come from the prophet’s mouth. As a general rule, I think it is important to remember that prophets try to be clear about what is revelation and that prophets are not shy about tying revelation back into previous scripture for justification. If Brigham Young finds justification for Adam-God in scripture and Elder McConkie simply doesn’t, it gives one the opportunity to consider the relative merits of competing justifications. Scholars have as much right to examine justifications as anyone; perhaps the problem has to do with how they present their findings. Attempts to usurp revelatory authority are definitely frowned upon and LDS scholars go to great lengths to explain that they are not trying to do that while still looking to participate in the debate.

    “The implication of course is that scholars are revelators (but, hey, we all are anyways, so no special place granted). Not in the sense of issuing authoritatively binding commandments, but in the sense that their work is not bound to a rationality that excludes it.”

    I don’t follow the argument here. How is any work of scholarship not bound by rationality? Do you mean Greek rationality by this?

    “Since we live in a rather different culture than previous interpretations (the coffee and tea interpretation), why shouldn’t the WoW be re-interpreted?”

    Sure, we certainly can re-interpret it. But there is a difference between saying “It isn’t about caffeine, just so you know” and “It isn’t about caffeine, therefore it is inconsistent and you shouldn’t bother.” Your findings don’t necessarily have to support current church policy, but I don’t see where scholars have the authority to contradict it. Certainly the members of the Church haven’t given it to them and neither have the leaders.

    For a differing example, the Word of Wisdom says that we shouldn’t drink coffee. I know of people from the 50’s who were told by their doctors to drink coffee for their heart and, after discussing it with their local leaders, did so, maintaining good fellowship in the church. An argument may be made with this in mind that medical exceptions should be added to the current language of the word of wisdom so that people understand that this is an option and don’t stress out about it. A similar argument may be made that the Word of Wisdom isn’t about health at all; instead it is about maintaining a proximate distance from worldly things for the membership of the church. Both arguments turn some ideas about our current popular understanding of the WoW on its head. Both arguments could be offered without impinging on revelatory authority. However, if the first argument was written not as an observation or suggestion, but rather as a demand, then revelatory authority is being questioned. If the second argument is written as an expose, instead of an observation/interpretation, then it too questions that authority. Tone means everything in these debates.

  35. smallaxe

    Sorry to take so long, but duty sometimes calls.

    I was trying to say that what prophets do is different from what scholars do because prophets receive revelation for other people/authority to mobilize and scholars don’t.

    Not to make too much of the dividing line, but I thought that’s what the point of the post was–to articulate the space of the prophet and the space of the scholar. In any sense, as you can tell, this is a question that is also on my mind.

    If this is your position, then we perhaps agree on the major point of the post. This differs significantly though from the original. If the distinction is one of authority then the questions become–can scholars function in the space given to them? What type of scholarship will result? Will it be legitimated in the larger scholarly community? What will happen if scholarship encroaches beyond these lines? If your position, however, is that scholars work with rationality and prophets (while also rationalizing) work with revelation (not necessarily in the authoritative sense, but in the notion of revelation being non-rational (not necessarily irrational)), then you will be led toward different questions.

    I don’t follow the argument here. How is any work of scholarship not bound by rationality? Do you mean Greek rationality by this?

    My argument here is that revelation and rationality are not so easily separated. Rationality does not starkly exclude revelation. Perhaps I was unclear. All scholarship is bound by some form of rationality.

    Sure, we certainly can re-interpret it. But there is a difference between saying “It isn’t about caffeine, just so you know” and “It isn’t about caffeine, therefore it is inconsistent and you shouldn’t bother.” Your findings don’t necessarily have to support current church policy, but I don’t see where scholars have the authority to contradict it. Certainly the members of the Church haven’t given it to them and neither have the leaders.

    I’m not saying that scholars have the authority to contradict church policy, my claim is that their findings either implicitly or explicitly engage this authority. As you say, “it’s about the tone”. In other words, it’s not about meeting certain requirements of rationality, or not stepping beyond this into the realm of revelation (not in the authoritative sense), but about divesting one’s scholarship from the space of authority (or of course making sure that it agrees with it). In some regards this is the minimum requirement of being a “scholar” in the church. The question of course is what happens when a second criteria (from the “scholarly world”) of “good scholarship” is applied to the space that remains. If anywhere, it would here that the distinction you argue for should be applied—in the extra-institutional discourse and not the intra-institutional. The problem here is that scholarship (in my opinion) has always been about making claims of power (at least implicitly). Scholarship divested of this, I believe, is not good scholarship. I think perhaps a better way of articulating the distinction you are aiming for is fact-value, which I think we may have addressed a little some months ago—scholars discover facts, and the church can then determine what those facts “mean”, or what value they have. This however I also believe to be a false distinction. Galileo, one could argue, only discovered facts. Some of the value of those facts, was not and could not be determined by the church without them rearranging their world-view in light of those “facts”.

  36. HP

    If your position, however, is that scholars work with rationality and prophets (while also rationalizing) work with revelation (not necessarily in the authoritative sense, but in the notion of revelation being non-rational (not necessarily irrational))

    This is a good summation of my position. What questions come to mind for you?

    The problem here is that scholarship (in my opinion) has always been about making claims of power (at least implicitly). Scholarship divested of this, I believe, is not good scholarship.

    I am very interested in your take on this. It seems like you are saying that scholarship that is honest about its interpretive role is considered weak, but scholarship that overstates its explanatory power is considered strong and, therefore, is generally accepted. Are we simply interested in the power of big lies now?

    I think perhaps a better way of articulating the distinction you are aiming for is fact-value, which I think we may have addressed a little some months ago—scholars discover facts, and the church can then determine what those facts “mean”, or what value they have. This however I also believe to be a false distinction. Galileo, one could argue, only discovered facts. Some of the value of those facts, was not and could not be determined by the church without them rearranging their world-view in light of those “facts”.

    The problem with this analogy for me is that I don’t consider most liberal scholarship as capable of finding “facts,” if by that we mean objective data points based in some real or actual event or object. Most liberal scholarship isn’t interested in the discovery of facts, but rather in the interpretation thereof, which is why Shakespeare continues to have books written about the same old plays. Some scholarship is interested in the discovery of facts (archaeology comes to mind, perhaps textual critics), but even then, the archaeologist who only discovers facts is an excavator; an archaeologist must offer an interpretation in order to make his facts make sense.

    So, maybe I am arguing that prophets are like archaeologists. They actually get to handle new and interesting data points and they draw theories therefrom. This doesn’t necessarily make there theories better than those of scholars, especially as archaeologist (like the rest of us) have a tendency to view the rest of the world through their particular site. But what they do is the life blood of my field and the only way to get new data, new facts introduced into the discussion.

  37. SmallAxe

    This is a good summation of my position. What questions come to mind for you?

    One question that comes to mind is, how do scholars maintain their proper bounds (i.e., how do they use the tools of rationality available to them)? Questions such as this, though, eventually move to the questions that I pose below. To me, I should add, this is the wrong paradigm to begin with. On the one hand I think it is a false distinction; and on the other, even if it were an appropriate distinction, it is irrelevant. This is because the relationship is not about determining the grounds of rationality (this sounds like a justification that a scholar would need to make to the community of scholars), but about determining spheres of influence.

    I am very interested in your take on this. It seems like you are saying that scholarship that is honest about its interpretive role is considered weak, but scholarship that overstates its explanatory power is considered strong and, therefore, is generally accepted. Are we simply interested in the power of big lies now?

    My point here is that “honest” scholarship acknowledges the fact that interpretation involves value judgments and value judgments/meaning cannot be separated from fields of power. Since competing interpretations compete for power over individuals, scholarship that seeks to divest itself from claims of power is impossible. Scholarship that seeks to lessen its claims to power is only a small, and ultimately limited, sub segment of scholarship. Scholarship that “overstates its explanatory power” is of course bad scholarship; but also bad, is scholarship that pretends it has no power. I still think Galileo is a valid example, because what he did was interpret “data”. The problem was that his interpretation conflicted with the interpretation of the church; and threatened the power of the church.

    It is within this paradigm that Mormon scholars must ask themselves: Can we do good scholarship in this limited area? If not, is it possible to re-work these areas to provide more room for scholars without creating a confrontational situation with the church?

    In response to the first question, I would say that some good scholarship can be done: We can have good scholars of philology, history, etc. as long as they do things that do not impinge on the power claims of the church. I can be a great (in the eyes of the church) OT scholar if I am a specialist in Hebrew syntax (if there even is such a thing). Not so great if I do work in the DH. To me, this leaves some of the most interesting work undone by Mormons.

    As far as the second question is concerned, I’m not so sure where to go.

    So, maybe I am arguing that prophets are like archaeologists. They actually get to handle new and interesting data points and they draw theories there from. This doesn’t necessarily make there theories better than those of scholars

    If we agree, as it seems we do, that fact cannot be separated from interpretation, and the prophet is on equal interpretational grounds as the scholar, then this is bound to create conflict. To me, you still haven’t proved that revelation can exist outside of interpretation. Your WoW example still breaks down because once we ask “What is the WoW?” interpretation begins. You can argue that posing such a question implies the existence of a “thing” independent of interpretation, but we have no access to it, and no way to understand it outside of interpretation. This “thing” cannot but be interpreted. You may say that this is precisely your point—the prophet reveals “things” and scholars interpret the “things”; but my point is that you can never have a “thing” without having interpretation (I would also add that interpretation implies the existence of a “thing”). To say that one party does one job, and the other party does another is to do the impossible—separate the thing from interpretation.

  38. smallaxe

    Directly related to this discussion is one part of Elder Holland’s interview done for “The Mormons” on PBS. Transcript at:

    http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html

    “What about people who question the history of the Book of Mormon?

    There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church — firmly, in their mind, in this church — and the church isn’t going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn’t going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: “Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve.” At that point, we’re going to have a conversation. A little of that is more tolerated than I think a lot of people think it should be. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. … “Patient” maybe is a better word than “tolerant.” We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can’t go. …”

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