I recently had an unusual opportunity to read a book before the publishing date. The book, which goes on sale Feb. 19, was the latest by Peter Enns, a controversial Christian writer known for challenging the traditional evangelical concept of Biblical inerrancy. Its title is almost enough to be a paragraph in itself: How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers — And Why That’s Great News.
As I read the book, I thought: “Somebody needs to do a book like this for Latter-day Saints. There is so much here that resonates with the way that Joseph Smith approached the Bible, but few Saints will see this book because its main audience is evangelicals and others who see the Bible as the only valid Scripture.”
Before I proceed further, a disclaimer: I’m not writing this article for most active Latter-day Saints. If you’re not troubled by the messiness of the church’s history and have no doubt that the church’s prophets always tell you exactly what God wants you to know, this article isn’t for you. If you’re happy as a traditional Saint, I have no desire to change or even challenge that. (In some ways, I even admire you.) If you quit reading now, I won’t be offended.
But the fact is that the Internet and growing cultural secularism, among other things, are posing an unprecedented challenge to the Church. No one other than Church statisticians and their bosses have good numbers, but tens of thousands of the church’s brightest and best have left the church or gone inactive in recent years. For many, their doubts about the church are related to matters of church history, which, as it turns out, isn’t nearly as tidy as the Church’s instruction manuals have suggested. Others have been bothered by the church’s policies regarding women and gay members, or the Church’s failure to acknowledge that it made a mistake in once barring black men and women from temples.
The Church has responded to some of these concerns by doing more to recognize women’s leadership and by becoming much more open about Church history. Also, numerous firesides, General Conference talks and school devotionals in the past year or so have focused strongly on matters of doubt. Unfortunately, however, many of the talks do more to reinforce beliefs held by the nondoubters than to help the actual doubters with their struggles. (By the way, I don’t like the word “doubters” in this context. I would prefer something more like “those with beliefs in transition,” but that’s too long, so for now I’m stuck with the shorter term.) I think that’s partly because those who have never doubted seldom understand those who do.
In any case, this is where Enns’ book comes in. I’m using it here because I just read it and am more familiar with it than I am with other writings (including some by Saints) that have expressed similar perspectives. I believe it provides an approach for doubting Saints to move forward in a church they see as imperfect. The premise of the book can be found in its long title: The Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse — meaning, among other things, that it’s too much to expect that it will have clear answers to all the questions we may ask about life. Instead of thinking of the Bible as the definitive rulebook, Enns writes, perhaps it would be better to think of the Bible as a springboard of sorts, as a book that encourages to sort through the ambiguity in pursuit of wisdom for our own time and place.
Wisdom. There’s that word. It’s the pursuit of wisdom that the Bible models as its writers sort through the past and their own cultures, Enns writes. The New Testament authors, for example, weren’t content to leave the Old Testament as it was. Because they knew that their Messiah had died and come back, they had to find a way to reinterpret the Old Testament prophecies to fit a new situation. Also, Paul offers contradictory perspectives on the role of women — but that should be seen as a feature of his writings, not a bug. Paul wasn’t giving the definitive word, but rather seeking wisdom through the Scriptures he knew as well as his own experiences and culture.
And this is where Joseph Smith comes in: What was Smith doing in the best-known version of the First Vision? Seeking wisdom! This is what he wrote about James 1:5, where James says those who lack wisdom should ask of God:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; 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.
Because the Bible is ambiguous, there were numerous churches in his day, all claiming to have their corner on the correct interpretation. But because of what he experienced in his theophany, Smith would have none of that. Wisdom — not creeds, not a decision to settle the truth for once and for all — was the answer.
“We follow the lead of [the Biblical] writers not by simply reproducing how they imagined God for their time, but by reimagining God for ourselves in our time,” writes Enns. Isn’t that exactly what Joseph Smith did? Smith was never content to settle for traditional explanations. Unsatisfied with a traditional understanding of hell and eternal damnation, he instead saw multiple kingdoms of glory and a God Who would welcome all. Instead of seeing Adam and Eve as those who brought humankind the curse of original sin, he saw Eve and Adam as implementing God’s plan to help humankind grow into its own divinity. Instead of teaching that all relevant truth can be found in the Bible, Smith taught the value of seeking “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.”
When we take this wisdom approach to understanding scripture, we don’t have to worry that the writers of scripture didn’t always speak literally, nor even that they sometimes made errors of fact or theology. (Even the Book of Mormon admits on its title page that it may have “mistakes of men.”) A better way to put it that is that the writers and editors did the best they could to interpret God’s will in the light of their own culture and limitations. Just because the Earth isn’t covered by a dome nor created in six 24-hour days as Genesis 1 says, for example, doesn’t mean that Genesis 1 is devoid of truth about the creative powers of God.
Nor do we need to concern ourselves with whether the writers of scripture were always righteous in their behavior. Most famously, David committed adultery and murdered in the cover-up, yet some of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible have been attributed to him. Similarly, as Latter-day Saints, we can find value in the Doctrine & Covenants and the Book of Mormon even though Joseph Smith wasn’t always forthcoming with his first wife, Emma, about his other marriages. Likewise, today’s prophets, seers and revelators don’t have to be perfect or get everything right for us to listen to them and prayerfully weigh what they have to say. We sustain then not by robotically letting them do our thinking, but by pondering and determining for ourselves the value of their words.
One assumption of taking the wisdom approach to Scripture is that there is no final authority except God and the Holy Spirit, whom none of us understand fully and infallibly. Yes, we can rely on Scripture, we can rely on reason, we can rely on Church leaders — but only so far. But isn’t that the point of the Church’s teaching on the supremacy of agency and our purpose to become like God? After all, the greatest hero in the Latter-day Saint faith after Jesus Christ isn’t Joseph Smith nor Russell M. Nelson but Eve — who became a hero by deciding for herself where wisdom lay. It is only as we learn to discern and act on wisdom that we can become everything God meant for us to be. Our Heavenly Parents aren’t helicopter Parents who do for us what we are capable of doing on our own, but Parents who give us every opportunity to learn through the grace of the Atonement.
An example of looking at Scripture and church teachings in this way in a Latter-day Saint context be found in the groundbreaking book The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us Fiona and Terryl Givens. The Givenses brilliantly challenge the prevailing Latter-day Saint paradigm that incorporates the penal-substitutionary theory of the Atonement and propose that the Atonement is more about healing than it is about placating an angry God. For them, the traditional outlook is something that the Church inherited from 19th-century Protestantism, and the Givenses saw value in going beyond what Church curriculum has traditionally taught. I don’t think they were consciously adopting an Enns-like approach; their contribution to the theological discussion is simply in that they adapted traditional teachings to a more inclusive understanding of God’s character. That is part of what Enns might call wisdom.
Pursuing wisdom isn’t always easy, and I’m not claiming to be good at it. It requires patience and humility. It requires a sound mind. It requires a desire to listen to completing voices, not all of whom agree with each other or get everything right. Finally, it requires a willingness to listen to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. But the assurance we have as followers of Christ is that whatever wisdom we gain will guide us in this life and go with us to the next. For Latter-day Saints, I believe, that’s the great news in the title of Enns’ book.
(Note: I was given an advance copy of Enns’ book by the publisher, HarperOne, which in return asked me to give the book my honest appraisal in social media.)
Photo of the Sacred Grove by Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0.