Interpreting Scripture, Unity, and Charity

I spent part of the morning reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, on Ben Spackman’s recommendation (here).

It’s a really, really good book about an issue near and dear to my heart: what is Genesis 1-11? This issue originally became near and dear to me because I love science, and I wanted desperately to know how I could accept the best parts of science, scholarship, and scripture. How do we bring together the best findings of “Biblical criticism” (which often consists of very good, Christian scholars trying to read scripture closely) and the amazing scientific findings of the last several hundred years, and make sense of them in light of the best parts of the Restoration? The Book of Moses and the JST, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple–God’s word to us in these Latter-days? For me, this has always felt essential: synthesizing all these approaches to truth–revelation, reason, authority, observation, and science–without letting one overwhelm the other.

As I’ve been trying to “get” Genesis 1-11 for myself, and synthesize these approaches, I’ve also been concerned with the pastoral side of things: how do I discuss this kind of thing with fellow church members? Is it even important? (I believe it is.) And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t diminish faith, or cause contention, or fracture our church? How do we discuss issues like this in a way that fosters unity? And how can we, if unity simply means–we all believe the same thing?

In the spirit of these questions, a particular section of this volume of “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?” really stuck out to me. In the conclusion, and after reviewing the positions of each of the volume contributors, Charles Halton (the editor) tries to describe the relationship between the debate about Genesis 1-11 and the church. He writes:

[In talking about these different viewpoints]… this is not to say that questions of genre and historicity are unimportant for the study of the book of Genesis. These are topics that concern many within the contemporary church and, accordingly, we should think deeply about them. In doing so, it is vitally important that we should take care to not let these issues become impediments to Christian unity. Christians have a very long and deeply troubling history of division, rancor, exclusion, and fratricide over a myriad of issues, including the ways in which Gen 1 – 11 is understood. The root of these conflicts–whether they split churches, get seminary professors fired, or even lead to bloodshed–is a lack of charity.

…Each of the contributors to this volume is a respected and senior scholar of biblical studies. Each of the contributors wrote their essays with deep insight and expertise that came from a lifetime of study. And all of the contributors share a concern that their work benefit the theological understanding and practice of the church. Nonetheless, each contributor offered different conclusions regarding the genre of Gen 1 – 11. This should give all of us who read their essays a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexities involved in this topic. If they cannot come to a consensus, this must be a thorny question indeed. Even more importantly, this fact should join Christian readers together even more deeply and make us all the more reticent to fracture the body of Christ when we have disagreements regarding issues such as this.

Charles Halton, “Conclusion”; emphasis my own

He goes on, and I’ll quote this in full (because it’s do dang good):

Let me make what might strike you as a startling claim. Actually, I’m not the one making it — I am repeating what St. Augustine has said: avoiding errors is not the primary task of interpretation. In other words, when we are reading Scripture, our primary goal should not be to prevent ourselves from making a hermeneutical mistake. To put it differently, the thing we want most from our reading of the Bible should not be to attain its correct interpretation. Augustine was not saying that correctly understanding Scripture is unimportant. Arriving at proper interpretations was important for him but more paramount within the act of Christian reading is for the reader to interact with Scripture in a way that builds up charity. Augustine said: “[I]f he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.” For Augustine, charity is what God most wants to foster, not correctness of belief. In his understanding, charity was such an essential component of Christian devotion that he said this within a sermon on 1 John: “But there is nothing to distinguish the sons of God from the sons of the devil, save charity. They that have charity, are born of God: they that have not charity are not. There is the great token, the great dividing mark.”

One might rejoin Augustine with Paul’s desire that the church be united in “one mind” (Romans 15:6) and, accordingly, argue that uniformity of belief and correct interpretation are marks of the true church and are the goals for which we should aim. However, Ephraim Radner points out that in Romans 15 Paul links this one mindedness with “contributing to the needs of the saints,” being “hospitable,” “blessing one’s persecutors,” “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,” and not being “haughty” or “conceited.” In other words, Paul does not mean that Christians have one mind when they are united together in uniform doctrinal understanding and biblical interpretation. On the contrary, “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others.” Christians are united together in a way of life that points toward Christ. Of course, this implies that we share in common a few bedrock ideas (such as, who is Jesus?), but Paul sees this one-mindedness as an interconnected way of life and not as unitary belief structure. This way of life is centered around deference to others, or, as Augustine may have put it, charity.

Christians [and Latter-day Saints] are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1 – 11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another even as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith. In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1 – 11 ultimately points toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. This shared way of living with one another not only unites us together when we disagree over the genre of Gen 1 – 11 but it also unites us together with Christians of all times and places — Christians who had tremendously different outlooks on their faith than we do today. This way of life unites us with the likes of Augustine and Charles Wesley and Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Calcutta. But this way of life also unites us with Origen who, along with being one of the church’s greatest apologists and influencer of early trinitarian formulations, also denied the resurrection of the body and was denounced as a heretic by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. This way of life unites us to Martin Luther in spite of his, at times, virulently anti-semitic rants. And it unites us to the Anglican Church that profited from directly owning and managing slaves on the Codrington plantation where punishments for slaves in the West Indies included being pinned to the ground and slowly burned from heel to head for rebellious behavior and for lesser crimes, castration and feet chopped in half. Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origin, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1 – 11.

Let us discuss matters such as the genre of Gen 1 – 11 and debate them vigorously if we desire. But if Christians are united together with the people and organizations that committed moral atrocities and who believed twisted and aberrant theologies, then how we regard Gen 1 – 11 should not come between us. May our God forgive us if this topic and even this book spur division in place of unity and strife instead of love.

CHARLES HALTON, “CONCLUSION”; EMPHASIS MY OWN

As the Lord’s people, we’re commanded to be united. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I’ve written about it before, but what does this mean? I’m inclined to say, with Charles, that it does involve some basic, shared beliefs. While we’re not a creed-loving people, but it does involve some basic ideas, perhaps best encapsulated in the temple recommend questions: do I believe in God, our Heavenly Father? In the resurrected Christ? In the reality of their appearance to Joseph Smith? But beyond this, we can believe many things.

I think sometimes those things can tend to distract us from what “unites us”: we get caught up in whether certain ideas are “conservative” or “progressive.” And we worry, with some reason, whether certain ideas will undermine the faith of the Church. But the Church is, and must be, a big tent: a collection of various people from various countries speaking various languages, all with various histories, but united by our covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” This unity does not emphasize orthodoxy, but “‘contributing to the needs of the saints,’ being ‘hospitable,’ ‘blessing one’s persecutors,’ ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,’ and not being ‘haughty’ or ‘conceited.'”

Further, in the Book of Moses, it says that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” The result was not that everyone believed the exact same things: no, it was instead “that there was no poor among them.” This lines up with the above quote’s summary of Paul’s teaching on unity: “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others”–or in other words, charity.

In light of Mormon’s emphasis on charity (which paraphrases Paul’s language), and the scriptures from the books of Moses and Mosiah, this certainly seems to align with our faith. Certainly, as a church, we can tend towards orthodoxy: and we have apostles to keep doctrine pure, and doctrine is the purview of prophets and apostles, and it is important. But as long as we’re aligned in the key things, then this unity-as-charity seems to make the most sense. We are not united in believing the exact same propositional statements about the nature of God (though a certain orthodoxy is necessary); and a quest like that is probably hopeless. No, we’re instead believers united in their allegiance to a loving Heavenly Father, and to His call to bless the nations. This unity leaves room to focus on what is most important, and leaves an allowable space for us to make the best sense of scripture, history, and science as we see fit.


I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine. It looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day-Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

Joseph Smith (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton)

Meaning, Significance, and Silencing the Prophets

This week, the Bible Project podcast finished their series on parables. On the most recent episode, “Finding Meaning in the Parables,” Tim Mackie (the host) talked about something that really stood out to me: the difference between meaning and significance.

“Meaning” (in the way he’s using it) is what’s intended. It’s what Jesus meant when describing the parable of the prodigal son, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, in the original context. It’s focused on the person preaching or writing, on the authorial intent.

“Significance” is what stands out to the listener. It’s what we get out of it, what strikes us as poignant or important. It’s oriented around the hearer, “the eye of the beholder.” It’s what we take out of a parable or sermon. It’s likening the scriptures to ourselves.

Their point in the podcast is to say that while searching for significance is good, it’s vital to find the meaning first.

This happens with my wife: she’s telling me something, and I’m somewhat distracted, until something stands out that’s relevant to me, or something wakes me from my stupor. I tune in, and occasionally, admit, “Honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t really listening. Can you say it again?” And with a kind eyeroll (and the occasional dirty look), she sweetly repeats, allowing me to focus on what she means.

As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes focus more on the significance than the meaning. I do this all the time. I’m sitting in General Conference, or reading scripture, and I’m searching for answers to my questions. I’m searching for significance: what does God want to say to me? In doing so, I’m asking what this means for me, without asking what this means–period. I should be searching for both what the prophet intends, and for its significance to my life and world.

In thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Joseph Spencer’s discussion of First Nephi:

Nephi has purposes we ought to let guide us. That’s perhaps something we don’t often reflect on as we read scripture. We read a little every day, mostly looking for something to touch us, to speak to our everyday life in a way that will help us press on as disciples of Jesus Christ. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that. But if it’s all we do with scripture, we’re likely to find that we’ve silenced the voices of the prophets. Part of what it means to have faith in the prophets is to trust that they have divinely ordained reasons for speaking to us. They aren’t just another means to the end of feeling the Spirit and receiving direction for our lives. They’re messengers with things we’re supposed to come to understand.

Joseph Spencer, “1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction”; emphasis my own

I’ll admit that during conference, I was probably more focused on finding significance for my own life than trying to come to terms with “prophetic priorities,” with the “divinely ordained reasons [they had] for speaking to us.” By doing so, have I “silenced the voices of the prophets?”

It’s a heavy question that’s been weighing on my mind. As I go through Benjamin’s words this week, and conference talks too, I’ll be thinking about it.