Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Church’s (Official?) Position on Biblical Interpretation

Posted by Andrew on January 25, 2008

Brother Jensen thinks the story of Jonah spending three days in a whale’s belly is not literally true, but is a beautiful metaphor of Christ’s death and resurrection. Brother Christiansen, on the other hand, insists the story is literally true, and thinks Brother Jensen is going to hell for thinking otherwise.

Brother Smith believes story of the Garden of Eden teaches true spiritual principles, but is not historically accurate. Brother Young, on the other hand, insists Mormons must believe the Bible’s history as well as its spiritual teachings.

For quite some time I’ve been trying to figure out whether the Church has an “official position” on how we are to interpret the Bible (e.g., literally or not, historically accurate or not). And I’ve been completely unable to find any such statement from the Church. Until now . . .

Today, the LDS Newsroom on the Church’s website published an article entitled: “Reverence for the Bible,” which addresses the question of how Mormons view and interpret the Bible. Here is the passage that caught my attention:

“There is a broad range of approaches within the vast mosaic of biblical interpretation. For example, biblical inerrancy maintains that the Bible is without error and contradiction; biblical infallibility holds that the Bible is free from errors regarding faith and practice but not necessarily science or history; biblical literalism requires a literal interpretation of events and teachings in the Bible and generally discounts allegory and metaphor; and the “Bible as literature” educational approach extols the literary qualities of the Bible but disregards its miraculous elements.

The Church does not strictly subscribe to any of these interpretive approaches. Rather, in the words of Joseph Smith, it regards the Bible to be the word of God, ‘as far as it is translated correctly’ (8th Article of Faith).”

To me, this statement is significant because it undercuts arguments I’ve often heard from literalists that theirs is the Church-endorsed approach to interpreting scripture. This new statement acknowledges an interpretive flexibility within Mormonism that I haven’t seen the Church publicly recognize before now. (Please correct me on that if you know otherwise.)

This statement about Mormonism’s flexible interpretation of the Bible also raises an interesting question: Does this same flexibility apply to our interpretation of the Book of Mormon? Or are we required to take a more literalist approach to the Book of Mormon because we don’t qualify our belief in that book of scripture as being the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly”?

Your thoughts?


7 Responses to “Church’s (Official?) Position on Biblical Interpretation”

  1. Kerry K. said

    Some people seem bothered when the church does not take a strong and unwavering stand on every issue. And I have to admit, sometimes it is easier to simply be given all the answers.

    But I love it when the church takes an official stand like this one: “The Church does not strictly subscribe to [fill in controversial topic here].” It is a ‘neutral’ position, essentially saying that any of those approaches, or a combination of them, could be the truth. And feel free to interpret as you may, but do not ever claim that the church subscribes to one or the other, Brother Christiansen.

    There could be another interpretation of the position taken by the church. Aside from the above interpretation (“any of the approaches could be true”), could it be that the brethren do feel strongly about one of the approaches, but they don’t feel like that approach needs to be made public and/or don’t feel like it should be an official position?


  2. Jon said

    Andrew, great point and I appreciate you bringing this new “announcement” to light. I agree with Kerry, I love our church so much the more for comments and positions like this one. Of course, even with official positions, the church leaves it up to members, and even expects members to go and find our own testimony on the subject. Of course, since Jonah’s time in the whale doesn’t have much baring on my “eternal salvation” I’m not sure if a confirmation about its truthfulness will be coming to me?

  3. Shawn L said

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Generally speaking, I am very intersted in the rise of the anonymouns “Newsroom” as the new giver/clarifier of Church doctrine. On the one hand, I find it a refreshing bit of clarity. On the other hand, I would rather doctrine come from over the pulpit in GC or from the Bishops, rather than in Internet bulletiens which, by their very nature, are likely to seen only by a fraction of the members (no one I worked with in rural Guatemala will have any idea about this latest blurb).

    As to the substance — you think the Religious Right didn’t like us before, just wait ’til they really figure out that we are not Biblical literists! It’s funny, my wife were having a discussion on this point just the other night (using Jonah as an exmaple). As far as I am concerned, this is a step in the right direction. I enjoy an approach to Mormonism that allows a wide range of thought.

    The BoM, however, is a whole other can of worms. I don’t think the Church is planning to move in a less literal direction. It certainly has shied away from trying to pinpoint ancient sites to modern landmarks. I don’t see it taking any furter steps in that direction.

  4. peetie said

    #3, a big, “Amen!” to your first paragraph.

  5. Craig A said

    Speaking of pin-pointing modern landmarks as ancient sites in the BoM; I was recently given a DVD for Christmas that was on this very topic. While it was interesting and the Meso-American scenery beautiful, I realized that such endeavors are a complete waste of time and have zero bearing for or against my testimony. It follows Jon’s point that these things would be nice to know but have to weight when it comes to salvation.
    Do the scriptures have any more power to move us if they are literal or allegorical? I think as long as we learn and live the principles, it is irrelevant.

  6. Craig A said

    Correction: no weight not to weight.

  7. Shawn L said

    Craig — I agree; for me personally, speculative BoM geography has very little value. I am heartened,however, by the rise of the “limited geography” model, which helps answer questions I’ve had about the BoM since I was a missionary. But putting ancient names on modern maps is, for my money, a complete waste of time. At the same time, I recognize that for others, this is a very faith-promoting endeavor and who am I to poo-poo another’s path to the divine.

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