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.