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.
In the last installment of this series I concluded with the idea that we shouldn’t teach anything as God’s word unless it is actually obtained from God. I also made the point that scholarly study alone isn’t enough to obtain God’s word.
However, because ignorance of the things of God is our greatest sin, and scripture study is absolutely vital, in today’s installment I’ll examine scripture study itself and share some thoughts about an effective approach to it.
We must begin with the realization that scripture has two roles. The first, obviously, is to inform us. The search for truth starts with scripture, and if successful, leads to personal knowledge of God.
The second role of scripture is much less obvious, but every bit as important.
It is to keep things from us.
Now I realize such a statement may be surprising, so we’ll spend some time on it. Let’s start with a good understanding of how our scriptures are limited when it comes to teaching the things of God. It’s important we keep these limitations in mind as we consider scriptures and scripture study:
1. The scriptural record is VERY incomplete. For example, we have almost no information about events between Eden and the Flood. We know almost nothing at all about God’s dealings with people other than a particular family line that became a nation, and was ultimately scattered and destroyed. We are informed that the Lord ministered to other sheep, but we know nothing about them. And so on. Even great examples featured in scripture, like Enoch, Melchizedek, or Abraham have precious little written about them. Therefore, we must keep in mind the idea that the scriptures are not a very complete history—nor are they designed to be. They are a series of vignettes intended to teach specific lessons.
2. The Biblical record has been BADLY corrupted—and the most plain and precious parts of the gospel, as well as vital information about the covenants of the Lord, have been intentionally removed. The pieces of truth that remain lack proper context, and are therefore widely used to promote a false gospel, based on the assumption that these tattered vestiges of the true gospel are the complete picture. They are not.
If you rely most heavily on the Bible as your source of truth, you are relying on the weakest link in the scriptural chain. Referring to my previous allegory, the Bible talks a bit about cars, but it will never make you a driver.
According to the Book of Mormon:
And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God.
Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.
And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. (1 Nephi 13:24-26)Plain and precious truths and covenants were removed by the great and abominable church for a reason: to keep people dependent upon the church and its leaders, rather than seeking the Lord themselves. After all, those who practice priestcraft must maintain a market for their services, and the solution is to blind eyes and harden hearts by withholding the true gospel. What remains essentially amounts to grace and gospel platitudes with no saving power.
...because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them. (1 Nephi 13:29)The Bible actually gives Satan great power. Those who preach solely from the Bible cannot and do not preach enough truth to lead to salvation. Period. The covenants are gone, and with them, the fundamental understanding of the gospel. Increasingly, Biblical preaching amounts to the Prosperity Gospel of good feelings and unlimited blessings. But it is a false gospel.
Intercourse with the whore never produces fruit.
Joseph Smith made some attempts to correct the Bible, but his effort was not exhaustive and was not published during his lifetime. The work he did shed remarkable new light on the Bible, but barely scratched the surface. The Bible remains severely impaired as a source of saving truth.
3. The Doctrine and Covenants has been tampered with. Sections have been expanded and altered; important revelations have been removed or never included; and the ENTIRE “Doctrine” portion of the Doctrine and Covenants was removed in 1921 when the Lectures on Faith were stripped out of the D&C by an ignorant committee without authorization. What remains is incomplete, and even misleading. It is NOT what Joseph intended.
4. Ambiguity is a significant challenge. Take the Book of Abraham, for instance. The truths it contains are remarkable, yet its provenance gives scholars no end of fits. Most scholars stand in the shallow end of the pool, claiming it is an absolute forgery and that Joseph Smith was a fool and a charlatan. Even the LDS Church concludes that the book didn’t come from the papyrus. And yet, Joseph’s teachings correlate amazingly well with the earliest histories and records about Abraham. What is easily dismissed when knowledge is shallow, becomes astonishingly powerful, even life changing, when the depth of the picture is revealed. The greatest truths only yield to the diligent and faithful.
5. Fake and corrupt records abound. There is no shortage of apocryphal and even fictional books tantalizingly posing as scripture. Seeking after them because they contain SOME truth makes about as much sense as eating a banjo because its metal strings contain the important nutrient iron. In both cases, we’re well advised to stick with the purest sources we can find. Don’t eat the banjo.
6. True records have been withheld. For example, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Joseph, from the Abraham Papyri, is purportedly held by the LDS church but has never been published. Joseph also kept extensive notes and expanded explanations of the Book of Abraham that have yet to see the light of day.
What’s The Solution?
And after all that, we’ve stripped it of its power through misuse and neglect. In the early days after its publication, the Book of Mormon was mostly used to prove the truth of the Bible, even though its very text says the Bible is so corrupt it actually leads into darkness. Otherwise, the Book of Mormon was mostly regarded as a group of inspiring stories for children. Its gospel truths were strictly interpreted through the corrupt lens of existent Bible teachings.
Less than three years after the Book of Mormon was printed, the Lord pointedly condemned the whole church for treating it lightly. (See D&C 84:54-57) We have no record of the Lord lifting that condemnation. Until we make the effort to comprehend the Book of Mormon and place it in its proper role, we remain condemned. The good news is that we can individually shed the condemnation, even if our group or church does not.
As we seek to elevate the Book of Mormon to its rightful place in our lives, it’s important that we understand the book’s role and limitations. So here are some tips:
The Book of Mormon likely doesn’t say what you think it does. Since it was first published, people have attempted to overlay Biblical Christianity on the Book of Mormon, claiming ideas and events are portrayed in the text that simply aren’t there. The first step to understanding the Book of Mormon is to read it for what it actually says, independent of any other book.
If you manage to drop your traditions and understand what’s actually written in the book, you’ll find it shocking, amazing, and unparalleled in its proclamation of life-changing truth.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t say what it should. By that, I mean the text has been tampered and tinkered with here and there, attempting to clarify ideas that weren’t quite comfortable to those doing the tinkering. Even the punctuation is completely invented, and was not contained in the original manuscript. Therefore, its important to look past the punctuation, and in some cases even the text changes, to get the original meaning.
The Book of Mormon is intentionally incomplete, and only contains the “lesser” things. Mormon informs us of this fact and what we must do about it:
And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people; But behold the plates of Nephi do contain the more part of the things which he taught the people.
And these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, from the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken.
And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation.
Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people. (3 Nephi 26:6-11)Whether we receive any more is entirely dependent on how we respond to what we have. As Moroni mentioned, our faith is what’s on trial. Therefore, a faithful response to the Book of Mormon is vital if we want to receive more truth. But unfortunately, our response has not gone well. Remember the Lord’s condemnation that still rests on the church?
So what is the proper response to the Book of Mormon?
In a word, it is repentance. Repentance is how we exercise faith—and faith is what’s on trial.
Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you. (Alma 34:17)Repentance is a whole topic by itself. It doesn’t mean we feel guilty, confess, get punished, make restitution, wait for time to pass, or any other such nonsense. Repentance simply means we recognize the course we’re following is ineffective and will not lead where we want to go. So we change course. To repent is to turn and face God, and pursue the course that leads to Him. Until we do this, we cannot receive more truth—a fact also made known by Moroni:
For the Lord said unto me: They shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord.
And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are. (Ether 4:6-7)In fact, the notion of repentance necessarily requires that we come to know more than we do now. To repent is to come to understand enough to want to change course. And scripture study is where that understanding begins.
How Not to Study
So, now that we’ve faced the very real limitations of the canon of scripture available to us, coupled with the necessity of overcoming our ignorance and gaining understanding, let’s talk about the most common mistakes we make when we attempt to “study” the scriptures. Don’t do these:
Proof texting: This is when you start with a conclusion and then “cherry pick” a snippet of scripture here and there to “prove” it. This is easy to do, and if your goal is to support what you already believe, you will. The problem is that your initial premise may be false. And if so, you will only succeed in “proving” a falsehood. This is no way to search for truth.
I’ll add that proof texting is most common in lesson manuals and conference talks that start with a premise and then use fragments of scripture to “prove” what has already been stated as truth, though the scripture may actually mean something very different.
Cherry picking snippets of scripture to establish your proposition is NOT scripture study.
Faulty logic: Sometimes true ideas are presented as proof for other ideas that aren’t true. One of the simplest to recognize is taught by missionaries throughout the world every day. It goes like this:
The Book of Mormon is true, so therefore Joseph Smith was a prophet, so therefore we have a prophet today, so therefore the church is “true,” So therefore you must get baptized. It’s all or nothing.
Of course, the truth may not be remotely close to all the assumptions strung together in that chain. The Book of Mormon is indeed true, but it has nothing to do with whether we have a prophet today. And you should get baptized because Christ has invited you to, not because the church is “true.”
It’s incorrect to assume something is true just because something else is. Check your assumptions.
“Reading” the scriptures: Have you ever encountered someone who attempts to substantiate his knowledge by telling you how many times he’s read the Book of Mormon? Obviously, it’s possible to read the book a hundred times and never understand it. A proper study of the Book of Mormon may take a lifetime, and may not encompass “reading” the book from cover to cover even once. You won’t find the gold by scratching at the surface.
Scholarship as a source of truth: As I covered previously in this series, a lifetime of scholarly study and research may not lead to one iota of saving truth. Scholarship and research are NOT the tools that will lead you to God.
Corrupt vocabulary: The words of scripture have particular meanings, many of which have changed over the years. When we speak of priesthood, temples, grace, atonement, sin, repentance, iniquity, or a thousand other terms, we may assume we know what they mean, when in fact the original authors ascribed a very different meaning to those words. Even the right vocabulary will get us nowhere if we have the wrong understanding.
Only God knows the meaning HE had in mind when he caused the scriptures to be written. Therefore, to understand what is written, you MUST access the mind of God. And what is the mind of God? According to Lectures on Faith 5:2, the mind of God is the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, any correct understanding of scripture MUST come by the Holy Spirit. As Joseph Smith said, “Thou must commune with God.”
Communing with God
And now, finally, we’ve come full circle to the point of this post. Let’s review:
- Scripture is here to inform us, but is also designed to withhold information.
- Our current canon of scripture has important limitations that do, indeed, withhold or conceal information.
- Scholarship, poor logic, and improper study are incapable of arriving at truth.
- The only correct way to understand scripture is to access the Holy Spirit, or mind of God. You must commune with God.
- According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, to “commune” means “To converse; to talk together familiarly; to impart sentiments mutually, in private or familiar discourse.”
- Therefore, the fact that information is withheld should entice us to seek what is missing.
The purpose of scripture is to cause you to ask questions.
Did you get that? It’s really that simple. All the limitations, difficulties, and even corruption ought to cause us to question. Our ignorance and foolishness ought to cause us to question. Our desperate need for redemption ought to cause us to question desperately. And we must bring those questions to God. Faced with such a limited canon in our lost and fallen state, we ought to be desperately seeking answers from God.
Joseph modeled it perfectly when, as a boy of 14, he could not settle the most important of questions with an appeal to scripture, “for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” (JSH 1:12) So he took James’s advice and appealed directly to God.
And that’s why our Lord’s brother James wrote what he did. That’s how it works. That’s what it’s for. That’s how God is revealed. We must ask.
Said our Lord to His disciples:
Say unto them, Ask of God; ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened. (JST Matthew 7:12-13)Do you know of any other statements in scripture about how to receive, how to find, or how to have truth opened to you that don’t entail asking, seeking, knocking? It doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by effort.
If the purpose of scripture is to cause us to ask questions, we shouldn’t be surprised when the Lord also uses scripture to provide the answers. When Joseph asked his question at age 14, the Lord’s answer primarily consisted of quoting scripture.
When the angel visited Joseph in his bedroom and spent the entire night in conversation, the discussion consisted primarily of expounding scripture.
The pattern is no different today. The scriptures are both the puzzle and the solution, and are properly used as a Urim and Thummim. The Hebrew words “urim” and “thummim” are plurals meaning “lights” and “perfections.” When our lack of light causes us to seek God, his answers bring perfect understanding. Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Seek light to gain perfection in your understanding.
One of the first times I recognized this process at work, I was studying the Book of Mormon, and I encountered an odd phrase that contradicted my current understanding. As I thought it over, I formed a question in my mind, along the lines of “Lord, what does that mean?” And instantly, an inner voice answered, in a sentence, quoting scripture.
The experienced shocked me because I wasn’t expecting to hear a voice, and didn’t even realize God was listening to my question. But that answer unmistakably came from God and led me into a further search, leading in turn to more questions, more answers, more light, and a more perfect understanding.
Do you want to receive revelation? Do you want to commune with God? Ask Him questions about scripture. You have your very own Urim and Thummim, right there on your shelf. It has been carefully designed to both conceal, and in due time, reveal, lights and perfections.
We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based, which excited the enquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints, to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God: and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this enquiry, in the first instance in their minds—it was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers—this testimony having aroused their minds to enquire after the knowledge of God, the enquiry frequently terminated, indeed, always terminated, when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty.
—Lectures on Faith 2:56