Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
What, exactly, is a scribe? We ought to be curious about this question, as we have no fewer than 8 instances in the New Testament of Christ pronouncing woes upon the scribes, along with their pals the Pharisees—though the term “scribe” curiously doesn’t appear even once in the Book of Mormon.
In ancient Judaism, the scribes were a class of highly trained and respected professionals, whose duties included reading, copying, and interpreting the scriptures. Scriptural questions, when they arose, were settled by an appeal to the scribes, who had devoted a lifetime to study. In short, the scribes were the equivalent of professional gospel scholars today.
Also referred to as “doctors,” some of these were the men who discussed scripture in the temple for three days with the 12-year-old Jesus, and found themselves “astonished at his understanding and answers.” (Luke 2:47) Despite their lifetime of professional training, this 12-year-old boy had greater understanding than did the scribes.
Christ therefore knew exactly what ideas he condemned when he pronounced woes upon the Scribes for what they taught. Our Lord’s understanding of God’s word reckoned from a different place than the scribes’ understanding.
Obtaining God’s Word
As we’ve discussed previously, if you’re going to teach in the name of Christ, you better make sure you’re actually teaching His word. Therefore, the question we all must confront concerns how we go about obtaining His word. The Lord summarized the process, to no less a light than Hyrum Smith, as follows:
Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men. (D&C 11:21)So how do we obtain His word? Here are a few scriptural thoughts:
And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118)Note that faith is given superior consideration in this verse, and that studying books is a secondary method for those of weak faith. Here are some of Joseph Smith’s thoughts on the matter:
It is the privilege of the children of God to come to God and get revelation. (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 13)
Salvation cannot come without revelation. It is in vain for anyone to minister without it. (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 10)
The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching. (TPJS p. 191)
If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject. Could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam, on the relation of man to God and angels in a future state, we should know very little about it. Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject. (TPJS 324)And so there you have it, from one who, by age 14, knew God face to face. The best way to gain the Lord’s word is from the Lord himself. It really does, in the end, come back to James 1:5.
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.Seeking to understand God in any other way is to, in some degree, deny the spirit of prophecy and revelation (see Helaman 4:12, 2 Nephi 28:4).
Prophets vs. Scholars
Truth, of course, also comes through true prophets who have been in God’s presence, and deliver His message. Their role ultimately encourages us to do what they have done—that is, come into God’s presence and receive the truth for ourselves. Some truths cannot be taught in any other way. (Ether 4:7, 3 Nephi 17:16-17)
True prophets do not rely on scholars. But at times when there are no prophets, and questions must still be answered, the first inclination is to turn to the scholars or scribes.
Christ himself was born at a time when prophecy had ceased among the Israelites. Yet the Pharisees, zealous in their religious devotion, still sought guidance on every bit of minutia they could find in the law of Moses. So they turned to the scholarly scribes to settle questions and provide interpretations. The scholars, devoid of the spirit of prophecy, used their learning and study to establish doctrine, rules, and social order. They “taught for doctrines the commandments of men.” This is always the pattern when prophecy ceases.
King Herod, though the ruler of Judea, was totally unaware that the King of the Jews had been born right under his nose. When the wise men made him aware, Herod still knew nothing about the event. So he consulted with the scholars, who also knew nothing about Christ’s birth. By consulting scripture, they came up with the right location of Bethlehem. But they still did not know the timing.
The prophets from the East, on the other hand, who had been watching the signs overhead, knew all about Christ’s birth, together with its timing and rough location, and traveled a great distance to be there. It was the prophets who worshipped the child, while the scholars stayed aloof.
Seeking Truth through Scholarship
Scribes are scholars. They spend their time studying, and the more years spent in scholarship, the more they claim to know (2 Timothy 3:7). Their tools are study, debate, criticism and reason. Their degrees make them feel qualified to define truth for others. They publish their ideas to gain notoriety and professional standing. Their peers are responsible for evaluating their ideas for importance and truth. And their conclusions regularly change as debate continues, thus justifying their continuing employment.
Such tools, useful as they may be, are ill-fitted to discovering the things of God. You simply will not find God in a book—not even a book of scripture. Even the greatest theologians in world history have never matched the achievements of fishermen and plowboys in piercing the veil and knowing God. And the greatest prophets in history likely had less formal education than a modern high school student—yet they knew God and his unchanging truths. God is known through experience, not education.
Gospel scholars, with no actual experiences of their own, ALWAYS rely on the actual experiences and revelations of these uneducated men as a basis to make their educated, scholarly arguments. Rather than piercing the veil themselves, scholars endlessly debate the experiences of others who have done so. In the end, prophetic knowledge is not obtained merely by study, reason, and argument. Prophets have access to a higher source of truth.
What would Russell Do?
LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard recently taught the following about his approach to seeking truth:
When I have a question that I cannot answer, I turn to those who can help me. The Church is blessed with trained scholars and those who have devoted a lifetime of study, who have come to know our history and the scriptures. These thoughtful men and women provide context and background so we can better understand our sacred past and our current practices. (M. Russell Ballard, “To the Saints in the Utah South Area” Sept. 13, 2015.)Notice that Elder Ballard doesn’t merely consult scholars, but stresses they are “trained” scholars with a “lifetime” of study to qualify them, thus lending weight and validity to their opinions.
Those old enough to have received the LDS temple endowment prior to its 1990 changes may remember the following, ironic conversation:
ADAM: I am looking for messengers.
LUCIFER: Oh, you want someone to preach to you. You want religion, do you? I will have preachers here presently. [A preacher enters.]
LUCIFER: Good morning, sir!
PREACHER: Good morning! [Looking out over the initiates.] A fine congregation!
LUCIFER: Yes, they are a very good people. They are concerned about religion. Are you a preacher?
PREACHER: I am.
LUCIFER: Have you been to college and received training for the ministry?
PREACHER: Certainly! A man cannot preach unless he has been trained for the ministry.Lucifer then hires the minister to preach for pay, and the well-trained minister proceeds to teach all manner of falsehoods that Adam neither accepts nor even understands. Adam knew God, you see, and was uninterested in the opinions of the “trained” imposter who did not. Sadly, however, this entire vignette and the truth it conveys have been removed from the endowment, and few remember it. I was fortunate to be endowed in 1989, and saw this exchange first hand.
Elder Ballard also recently taught the following in a broadcast to CES religion teachers:
For you to understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history, you will need to study from the “best books,” as the Lord directed. The “best books” include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available…
Wise people do not rely on the Internet to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and physical health challenges, especially life-threatening challenges. Instead, they seek out health experts, those trained and licensed by recognized medical and state boards. Even then, prudent people seek a second opinion.
If that is the sensible course to take in finding answers for emotional, mental, and physical health issues, it is even more so when eternal life is at stake. When something has the potential to threaten our spiritual life, our most precious family relationships, and our membership in the kingdom, we should find thoughtful and faithful Church leaders to help us. And, if necessary, we should ask those with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help.
This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and from others with expertise in fields of Church history and doctrine…(“Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century” February 26, 2016)He then goes on to recommend 11 essays available on LDS.org dealing with controversial topics. These essays, written by paid scholars, are unsigned and undated, making them easy to change with the winds of scholarship. He states that CES teachers must know these scholarly essays “like the back of your hand” along with “the Church history section on LDS.org and other resources by faithful LDS scholars.”
Authority and Scholarship
When Elder Dallin Oaks and Richard Turley (both trained lawyers) visited my stake last year for the fireside now known as the “Boise Rescue,” Elder Oaks came as the church authority, while Brother Turley brought his scholarly credentials. In fact, Turley mentioned his training and experience 4 separate times to lend weight to his opinions—including his degree in English, his graduate studies in scripture, his doctoral degree, his publication of books, his staff of assistants, and his 30 years of experience. (All of which matter not, in the Lord’s economy. Our Lord cares much more for souls than degrees.)
Brother Turley then proceeded to preach, for hire, a mixture of truth and falsehood, as in the temple vignette above.
Perhaps most tragic point of all this is that LDS scholarship, though heavily relied upon, has intentionally been curtailed and limited. You may have heard about the excommunication of the September Six back in 1993, or the ensuing debates about academic freedom at BYU. But you may not know that BYU—the “Lord’s University” and source of most LDS scholarship—for all intents and purposes, prohibits any research on the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. It’s death to the career of any academic foolish enough to engage in it. The Book of Mormon is only to be treated as a 19th-century creation in any serious scholarly work. The only Book of Mormon classes offered now are introductory level 121 and 122 courses. FARMS has been dissolved. And the university most uniquely situated to promote the Book of Mormon treats it as an embarrassment and a distraction, pulling in “teachers” from practically every unrelated department to teach it in entry-level courses.
But it’s not just the Book of Mormon being neglected. BYU, along with the entire Church Educational System, have eliminated courses on scripture from religious education requirements, and replaced them with classes that basically amount to “follow the prophet” and “follow our traditions.” Or, as I like to call them, Idolatry 101 and Pharisee 202. These dumbed-down courses replaced scripture study over the objections of nearly the entire religious education faculty at BYU, who fear scriptural literacy among Latter-day saints will plummet even lower. But evidently, the Lord’s University has little interest in teaching the Lord’s scriptures (though scripture courses can still be taken as electives.)
Keep in mind, this is the well from which the church draws its “trained scholars” to answer doctrinal questions the apostles can’t answer themselves.
Therefore it’s not surprising to see this latest effort for sale at Deseret Book. Click to watch the marketing video:
Notice the following quote from the ad: “Our team of authors has spent an average of 25 years researching these topics. Their depth of knowledge qualifies them to share reliable details, perspective and context to both LDS doctrine and church history.”
There’s no scriptural statement supporting the idea that length of study or depth of knowledge makes one a “reliable source of truth.” Quite the contrary, in fact. If we’re going to rely on “trained scholars” as sources of truth, it’s best to do so with a firm understanding of what the “most correct of any book” has to say on the matter, which is quite a lot. To wit:
|Click to Enlarge|
Here’s the obvious problem we confront. As the LDS church no longer controls the flow of information to its members, many are discovering both fact and fiction that make them uncomfortable or worse. Many lose faith and leave. The church’s answer to this ever-growing problem is to bring out the “scholars” because the prophets are silent. Just like the Pharisees of old, those we call prophets openly admit their lack of understanding and defer to the scribes, or “trained scholars.”
And just who trains the “trained scholars?” Well, the prior generation of scholars, of course. Thus the traditional indoctrination is preserved, inaccuracies and untruths are defended and perpetuated, and the mighty ship steers straight toward the rocks, mistaking the lighthouse for an opposing ship, arrogantly refusing to alter course.
Saving truth comes from God, not scholars. Even the most basic testimony only comes by revelation. Scholarship and study alone have never, ever, not once in history, produced adequate light to bring a soul to salvation.
The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. (Joseph Smith, Letter from Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839)If you lack wisdom, ask of God, and for heaven’s sake, don’t use Christ’s name to teach what some “trained scholar” claims is true. There is one source of truth. Commune with God.
Of course scripture study is important, when properly undertaken. In the next installment, we’ll talk about scripture and scripture study.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.