Q&A between volume and series editors of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Scriptural Theology February 19 2015
Paperback $24.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-712-0)
Hardcover $59.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-713-7)
For this Q&A, Perspectives series co-editor Loyd Isao Ericson discusses the inaugural volume
with editors James E. Faulconer and Joseph M. Spencer.
Loyd: While we would love to say that we initially planned it this way, it is fortuitous that the first volume for the Perspectives series is on scriptural theology. How would you describe scriptural theology? What is the relationship between scripture and theology?
James: We have borrowed the term from Protestant theology, where it means theological studies in which one tries to understand how God reveals himself in scripture, without imposing a theological system onto the biblical text. It is not necessarily opposed to historical, sociological, ideological or other kinds of interpretation. However, it does not look for what history or culture is behind the text, as does much biblical criticism. Nor does it look for how our own ideas are reflected in the text, as does ideological critique. Instead, scriptural theology tries to understand the Bible as the word of God, a text about God and human relationships with God.
Joseph: As anyone terribly serious about scripture knows, it's difficult to find a clearly consistent message in the canon. This scriptural voice clashes with that scriptural voice, this style of presentation differs fundamentally from that style of presentation, this book privileges a theme entirely distinct from the one privileged by that book, and so on. One might respond to such tensions and inconsistencies in, very broadly speaking, one of two ways. On the one hand, one can hope to release undesired tensions, to reconcile inconsistencies, to find a largely unified voice that's to be given greater weight than competing voices. This can be accomplished in several ways: reading quite imaginatively, scuttling inconvenient passages, translating away problems, ignoring scripture entirely. On the other hand, however, one can hope to learn from tensions, to be fascinated by inconsistencies, to welcome an irreducible chorus of voices that all together present God's word and will to humankind. This latter approach is something like what we have in mind when we speak of scriptural theology.
In a formula: we theologize because scripture is messy and complex, and we do so scripturally when we struggle to let the messiness and complexity of scripture guide our reflections.
Loyd: Is all theology scriptural? And, conversely, is all scripture reading an act of theologizing to some degree?
James: The answer to both questions is yes, in a qualified sense in the first case and an unqualified sense in the second.
In the sense that, presumably, all Christian theologies advert eventually to scripture, all of it is scriptural. But sometimes theology uses scripture as, more or less, a proof text for the ideas that it wants to hang on scripture. The point of scriptural theology is to focus on the text and see what things arise from it. The line between scriptural theology and other theologies, though, is not bright.
On the other hand, if a person reads scripture and talks about it, gives explanations, relates on thing to another, that person is theologizing. So all scripture reading and discussion is a kind of scriptural theology. In both cases, what would make something scriptural theology in our sense would be (1) how explicitly they were about doing theology and (2) how closely what they say is tied to the scriptural text.
Joseph: To the extent that scripture, as scripture, motivates theological reflection in the first place, all theology could be said to be scriptural. In the sense reviewed above, however, not all theology is scriptural. Any theology that pretends to do its work while oversimplifying scripture distances itself from scripture—and to that extent, it could be said to cease to be scriptural. Of course, no theological reflection avoids oversimplifying scripture. So perhaps it's best to say that all theology is scriptural to a certain degree, but no theology is or even could be perfectly scriptural. One of the tasks of the scriptural theologian is to do all she can to work against the inevitable tendency to move away from scripture, to avoid its complexities and difficulties, to embrace something cleaner and more definitive than the word God's given her to work with.
And it's certainly the case that all scripture reading amounts to a theological exercise—at least whenever the reader attempts, even if only halfheartedly, to understand scripture. Every understanding of scripture, even if it's terribly misinformed historically or naive philosophically, requires a certain theoretical investment and an attempt at deciding what in scripture matters or doesn't matter. That investment and that attempt lie at the heart of every theology. In the end, we're all theologians; we're just more or less conscious of the fact, more or less conscientious about the fact, more or less arrogant about our theological speculations.
Loyd: One of the primary goals of the Perspectives series is to highlight the many ways in which Mormon theology can be understood and explored. Given that all Latter-day Saints share a single set of canonized scripture, why is it that so many varied perspectives exist?
James: Isn’t that a bit like asking “Why is it that so many varied Latter-day Saints exist?” More seriously: if I believe in continuing revelation, then I believe that God can and will continue to reveal. That implies differences in the revelations. Subaltern to that idea is that to believe that revelations will between differ people. I would say that there are different perspectives because the Holy Spirit continues to teach us.
Joseph: Perspectives are internal to the canon itself. One might think here of some of the prophecies Mormons associate most often with Malachi. They were produced originally in Hebrew. Over the centuries following their original production and textual arrangement, they were translated into a variety of languages used by Jews scattered all over the ancient world: various renderings in Greek, in Aramaic, in Syriac, and so on. Those translations in all their variety affected the reception and popular understandings of those prophecies, which were then reflected in certain early Christian renderings and uses of the prophecies—some of which were eventually canonized in the New Testament. In the meanwhile, the resurrected Christ visited Israel in the New World and quoted the Malachi prophecies in some other form or language, a form that would nonetheless be rendered in English to match the King James Version of the Hebrew text passed down by scribes—though other passages in the Book of Mormon borrow the language of those same prophecies in creative and inventive ways. When the angel Moroni came to visit Joseph Smith, however, he quoted from the same prophecies, but with some inventive and theologically significant variations—variations that would be canonized in both the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants at different points in Mormon history. And yet then again, in letters written during the Nauvoo period, canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants several decades before Moroni's version, Joseph quoted the passage from Malachi and noted that it was sufficiently clear for his purposes.Here we have a single prophetic text that, internal to the canon itself, is subjected to all sorts of perspectives and project, differing interpretive programs and communicating with distinct audiences.
Yet all of them end up within the covers of a single set of canonized scripture. That we as readers of scripture mirror the variety and multiplicity already on display in the scriptures themselves is only to be expected.
Loyd: What challenges exist in Mormonism between engaging in scriptural theology and having authoritative prophets leading the LDS Church? How do your authors respond to these challenges?
James: I read and study scripture to learn from it. There isn’t any in-principle difficulty between doing that and believing that there are those who can speak authoritatively for God, especially not if I believe in continuing revelation, that the scriptures are not closed.
Perhaps this isn’t completely relevant, but it raises a pet peeve of mine, our discussions of authority. Authority is a very complicated matter about which we almost always think too simplistically. It’s too big a question to deal with well here, but let me say something briefly: Without knowing that we do, we use the language of Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” and talk as if it is possible to reject all authority. But it doesn’t take much to know that can’t be.
The question isn’t whether to accept authority, but which ones and how. And those questions cannot be answered independent of my ceding authority to the authorities I recognize. So real authority, as opposed to despotism, is something that cannot exist without the agreement and support of those whom it governs. (Want to know more, read Gadamer’s Truth and Method.)
Joseph: Adam Miller has suggested drawing a distinction between theology and doctrine, understanding the latter term to refer to institutionally normative ideas—the kinds of things one must or should believe to adhere to a certain shared faith. There's virtue in that suggestion, since it allows one to set aside as the work of theology to reflect in a way that neither distressingly confronts nor unthinkingly follows institutionally authoritative statements issued by those positioned to govern the Church. It's also helpful that the Church has never really established any officially binding interpretations of the scriptures, simply affirming their truth and encouraging the Saints to read them with real intent and an eye single to God's glory. In short, it's possible to deny, in certain ways at least, that there are any terribly substantive challenges along the lines suggested by this question.
But in other ways, there are real challenges, of course. Scriptural theologians have to get used to hearing objections like, "Well, I've never heard that in General Conference!" or, "If that kind of thing mattered, then the Brethren would be talking about it!" It's too easy to retort to such objections that Church leaders urge close study of the scriptures, or to dismiss such objectors by suggesting that they're simply not curious enough about scripture. The best response is probably to see in such objections reason to ask oneself whether one's questions have indeed gotten too far afield, or why one's reflections don't seem relevant to the average Latter-day Saint.
How do our authors respond to these challenges? It's hard to say without reading through all the essays afresh with that question in mind. It's certain that they're all quite aware of the difficulties, that they're all used to hearing the kinds of objections mentioned above. And it's certain that they therefore attempt to position themselves rhetorically so as to be as non-threatening, as open-mindedly reasonable, and as faithfully committed to the Restoration and its core institution as they can possibly be. It's to be hoped that they succeed in doing so. And there's reason to think that, for the most part, they do.