Saturday, September 1, 2012

Scripture: What Does It Mean? - or, I Love the Ambiguity within Mormonism

[First, this has been an interesting year for my New Year's Resolution focus.  I did extremely well over a four year period writing a post almost every Saturday, but I have not been successful over the past few months in doing so - and I have felt frustrated about that.  I understand why it has happened, as I have moved into an unexpected professional position that requires extensive work to shift the entire culture and structure of the area I now am directing - and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, but I have missed emotionally the chance to  reflect and write and share.  I am trying tonight to get back to my resolution, and the topic this month is "scripture".

To most people in the world, "scripture" is a fairly simple thing conceptually.  There are different views about it, of course, but, in nearly all cases, those views are quite straightforward and not truly complex.  For example:

1) At the most basic level, "scripture" is defined as:

"a sacred, solemn or authoritative book or piece of writing"

In strictly Christian terms, this can be shortened to "the word of God" - but the core definition can apply to any religion, denomination or even, in popular reference, organization.  In Christian cultures, this can be seen when people call something the "________ Bible" - meaning, simply, "the most authoritative writing about _________".  (like the missionary  handbook being called the missionary Bible, or a football playbook being called the team Bible.) 

2) "Sola scriptura" means "scripture alone" and is a description of how many Protestants view the Bible as the singular, solitary authority of God - that God's authority is not vested in humans in any way but rather is vested in "the word".

In breaking away from Catholicism and its claim to exclusive authority vested in the Pope and the Priesthood line of authority, and knowing they personally had not been "ordained" by God or anyone outside the Catholic line of authority, the Protestant reformers had little choice but to vest God's authority in what they had available - the words attributed to God in the Bible.  (The irony, of course, is that those words were considered authoritative when included in the compilation of the Bible specifically because of the assumed and accepted "authority" of those to whom they were attributed.  That irony is lost on most people who believe in "sola scriptura".)  Thus, in contrast to the Catholic Priesthood of clergy, Protestantism generally came to accept a priesthood of believers. 

There are complex arguments that can be made about "sola scripture", its "legitimacy" and its impact on Christianity, but the concept itself is straightforward and simple.

2) Obviously, the counter-example was the Catholic Church's claim that scripture included not only the Bible but also all official proclamations from the Pope as God's modern mouthpiece.  This fits the first definition, since it simply adds "authoritative" sources to the creation of scripture.

Mormonism is a unique amalgamation of these interpretations, and I love the ambiguity that mixing creates.  The LDS Church, organizationally, functions much like the Catholic Church (and there have been leaders and times of leadership that moved more toward the Catholic view of authority and scripture, with the effects of those times still lingering in the Church), with an obvious Priesthood authority structure - but, when it comes to scripture, the LDS Church combines the Catholic and Protestant views and "opens" the meaning of scripture as widely as is possible.

Let me explain what I mean by that, starting with the definition found in the LDS Bible Dictionary:

The word scripture means a writing, and is used to denote a writing recognized by the Church as sacred and inspired. It is so applied to the books of the O.T. by the writers of the N.T. (Matt. 22:29; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15). For an account of the process by which the books of the O.T. and N.T. came to be recognized as scripture, see Canon. Latter-day revelation identifies scripture as that which is spoken under the influence of the Holy Ghost (D&C 68:1–4). 

It is the last sentence in the definition above (that I have bolded) that is uniquely Mormon - and it is that sentence that makes "scripture" within Mormonism so ambiguous and difficult to confine.   Since we believe that  all baptized members of the LDS Church have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, and since we believe all people who have been born have the opportunity to be inspired and taught by the Holy Ghost (that the Holy Ghost can speak to anyone), we literally believe in the most comprehensive, all-encompassing, universal definition of scripture in all of  religion - or, at least, I believe we should.

This definition allows scripture to be uttered by leaders and members of other Christian denominations, leaders and members of non-Christian religions, atheists, children, the mentally ill, the righteous and unrighteous (theoretically), and any other categorization imaginable.  It includes me, and it includes every person reading this post - regardless of any identifying aspect of their existence.  It "frees" scripture from mortal constraints and puts it squarely into the hands of "God" - where, as "the word of God", I believe it should be. 

I hope to examine the implications of that view in other Saturday posts this month, but it is the breadth of the definition itself that I love to much - and the ambiguity it creates is one of my favorite elements of "pure Mormonism".  I know it frustrates many people, and I know many members don't see it as expansively as I do, but it truly is "delicious" to me. 

1 comment:

Rich Alger said...

I watched recently a BYU tv episode on Tindale and the initial printing of the English bible. It seems logical for the people to attach a divinity to the bible. Especially the revolution that has come because of the printing press and especially the bible.

It taught us that the bible is enduring. Even now that everything is archived forever in the Internet, the bible stands out because it is one of the memes that has endured before the aid of printing.

It is God-like in its endurance.

I love the LDS definition of scripture because it is centered in what is truly Good. What is actually inspired by the Holy Ghost.

Now the messiness comes when my inspiration conflicts with yours. That is why I also like the anchor we have in agreeing on the standard works. And the emphasis Mormons have on living the simple gospel. Or at least the emphasis we teach we should have.

It is all wonderfully messy. It seems odd to me that I put it that way, but I really feel like it is a blessing from God.

He gives us all weakness that we might be humble. And His Grace is sufficient for the meek. For we will see our weakness and He will assist us in making us strong as He Is.