Sunday, December 29, 2013

On Searching the Scriptures (Part 3): Early LDS Examples

Before Christmas, I had posted the first two installments of a series of four excerpts from a section of A Testimony and an Exhortation addressing the use of the Bible and reason as a means for ascertaining truth.  In the most recent of those excerpts, I detailed the role of apologetics and debate within the missionary work of the ancient church.  The present excerpt (from pages 69-78) continues that theme by considering some trends within early LDS missionary work (even running into the twentieth century, in some cases), conversion accounts, and overall outlook.

Some Latter-day Saints, particularly many actively-serving LDS missionaries (a class of people whom I love greatly), have told me that they do not see it as their role to engage in any sort of scriptural 'give-and-take', any practice of testing our beliefs and one another's beliefs against the scriptures.  They sometimes demean this practice as "Bible-bashing"1 and deny that it can ever be appropriate for them to engage in any sort of 'argument' or 'debate' or attempt to 'prove' anything.  (This goes hand-in-hand with the curious pleas of some that they are not 'scriptorians', people well-versed in what the scriptures teach - though, is this not the responsibility of all who claim to believe in those scriptures, to therefore relentlessly pursue a deeper understanding of them?  Didn't one General Authority - Hugh W. Pinnock of the First Quorum of the Seventy - teach that the goal is that "each member can become a spiritual scriptorian instead of remaining a scriptural simpleton"?2  Is not every Latter-day Saint neglecting to become a 'spiritual scriptorian' therefore failing to do 'all we can do'?)  But, Latter-day Saints of this particular persuasion might say, all 'convincing' or 'proving' is entirely the province of the Holy Ghost.  Their place, they (ironically) argue, is not to 'argue' or to persuade or to convince at all, but simply to bear witness and provide a setting for the Holy Ghost to himself do all the work of convincing and persuading.

But as we have already seen, this notion is far from the mentality we see in Acts of the Apostles.  The ancient apostles, in considering themselves as witnesses of Jesus Christ, did not at all exclude the importance of persuasion, of apologetics, or 'arguing' and 'debating' the meaning of statements in the scriptures.  Peter, Stephen, Paul, and Apollos are all excellent examples of people who 'taught by the Spirit' precisely by making their best case to reasonably convince their audiences of the message that they brought, trusting that the Spirit would work through their clear teaching and through their powerful arguments.  (Furthermore, one of the scriptural requirements for bishops is to "be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers" - Titus 1:9.)  We have already seen that, as even David O. McKay readily concurred, the missionary example of the ancient apostles was to "reason with them [i.e., their audiences] from the scripture, and persuade them to become Christians"3 - and so, if someone attempts to persuade us that all responsibility for persuasion (or even all power to persuade) is the exclusive province of the Holy Ghost, that person denies this well-attested truth.

Moreover, from the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until today, some of its leaders and representatives have attempted to offer persuasive accounts of its beliefs, sometimes even in formal public debates!  In such days, debate - private and public, formal and informal - was considered "a powerful proselytizing tool", in which "Mormons prided themselves on their ability to best any and all sectarian comers".4  For instance, Wilford Woodruff's early missionary journals have him recording that he "held 7 debates" during his missionary travels up through 1837.5  Two years later, he notes a five-day public debate between 'Elder James' and a local Methodist preacher.6  Later on, Woodruff notes that several Latter-day Saints, including one 'Elder Sparks', took up public debate challenges from noted critic Origen Bacheler.7  David Evans mentioned in 1835 that, upon not receiving permission from a Methodist preacher to preach the LDS faith in his Methodist meetinghouse, he had accepted that pastor's challenge to a public "debate upon the principles of religion".8  Benjamin Winchester mentioned that, "as my manner of teaching was, to reason from the scriptures", he had in 1838 "held one debate; and several times defended the truth publicly, when attacked by the priests of the different denominations", for "when truth is attacked I always feel bound to boldly defend it".9

LDS apostle Orson Hyde was reluctant to accept a debate challenge from a "learned Presbyterian priest" at Scarborough named Jenkins on the grounds that "we had all the labor we could attend to", but he accepted the challenge anyway and, immediately after the debate, baptized forty members of the audience.10  (This occurrence alone refutes all those who say that dialogue and debate can never achieve anything!)  In the summer of 1840, LDS convert Josiah Ells, who had formerly been a Methodist lay preacher, was chosen by Joseph Smith himself to debate a Presbyterian seminary president (David Nelson) from the town of Quincy near Nauvoo; and, as Josiah Ells himself recollected, "The Seer got upon the stand and challenged any of the clergymen present to continue the discussion, but none responded".11  Thus, even Joseph Smith was not averse to debating representatives from other perspectives, and this debate was a prominent event in the conversion journey of LDS apostle Ezra T. Benson, who by the debate's end was "fully convinced that the principles of the Saints were superior to those of their opponents and in perfect harmony with the Bible".12 

LDS apostle Orson Pratt, while preaching in Scotland, "had one discussion with a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, which lasted two evenings, and was the means of convincing many of the glorious principles of the ancient gospel, and they came forth and were baptized", thus illustrating (as with Orson Hyde's case) the potential spiritual usefulness of such debates.13  Elder George J. Adams noted that, while preaching in London, one Rev. Elliot "gave me challenge for discussion", saying that "he could prove our principles wrong, the bible being the rule of evidence.  I knew he could not do this, so I accepted the challenge"; and, after Rev. Elliot backed out after three days of debate, Elder Adams accepted a debate challenge from one 'Mr. Allen'.14  Noah Packard, while on a mission in Ohio, accepted a debate challenge from a Campbellite preacher on the conditions that the debate be "upon parliamentary rules and speak one-half hour each alternately".15  Around the same time, Jesse W. Crosby, serving a mission in New York, "held a number of public debates, one in particular which was published, being held with the champion of the country and resulted greatly in favor of the Saints".16  James Taylor described a "public discussion" between one 'Mr. Barber' and a branch president named Richard Cook, with "the Bible being the standard of evidence".17  Similarly, there were several subjects debated between John Bowes and Elder James Marsden, and after a listing of doctrinal subjects, it is written that the Bible was to be "the only rule of evidence".18  While preaching in France, John Taylor accepted (albeit reluctantly) a debate challenge from a Methodist minister, a Baptist minister, and an Independent minister in Boulogne, and he expected that publishing the contents of the debate would be "productive of good".19  

Elders A. P. Dowdle and J. W. Norton, LDS missionaries in Adelaide, Australia, held a "two nights' public discussion, which has added much to the spread of truth in that colony".20  Elder Henry Green Boyle, serving in California in 1857, held a three- or four-hour debate with a Baptist named 'Mr. LeMance' and one John Snyder.21  Nine years later, when serving in northwestern North Carolina, he had a debate with a Baptist preacher named 'Mr. Mooring', after which one of the Baptist congregants converted.22  Elder James L. Bunting, on one occasion in 1879 while serving in England, were met with "a spirited debate" that "took place for two hours in which Elder Martineau and myself - having the truth on our side - had the best of the argument and fairly silenced every 'gun' and every argument brought against us".23  In February 1881, B. H. Roberts debated a trained "biblical scholar" in Wilson County, Tennessee, and "the discussion was an ardent one and proved to be far-reaching in its results, so far as Mormonism is concerned", because "many honest people were brought to a realization of their true condition before the Father, and thus seeing their mistakes, repented thereof and turned to Christ".24  In 1883, Elder W. H. Jones "debated publicly with one Rev. Wheeler" in either Alabama or Mississippi.25  Elder James W. Paxman, serving in the British Isles Mission in 1884, made mention of a debate on religious authority between a local "Gentile" and LDS missionary F. F. Hintze,26 and also a 45-minute impromptu debate between "Bro. Bush" and a local Roman Catholic man.27 That same year, Elder John W. Gailey, serving in the Southern States Mission, accepted a debate challenge from a minister, one 'Mr. Cook'.28  In 1892, three LDS missionaries accepted a debate challenge from a local preacher for a debate in which "the Bible and no other book was to be used".29 

At the close of the nineteenth century, Elder David Horton Elton, while serving in North Carolina, mentions using the Bible to trounce a Methodist pastor named 'Mr. Hardin' in a debate.30  It was only a few months before this that one Methodist pastor, Rev. W. W. Anksworth, had cautioned his fellow pastors to avoid debating LDS missionaries, because "Saint Missionaries are tried and gifted debaters.  Be careful how you cross swords with them or they may whip the life out of you and carry away the whole community in their hearts".31  In September 1899, Elder W. B. Poole purportedly won a four-day debate in Tennessee against a Campbellite minister from Kentucky on the subject of the true church.32  In the early twentieth century, specifically in August 1900, an LDS missionary serving in Alabama accepted a debate challenge from Baptist minister W. S. Jones on the topic of the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ and even "drew up an agreement that there was to be no slandering nor abusive language used by either party, and we were to take King James' translation of the Bible as our standard", though the debate never occurred because Rev. Jones was put in prison for "practicing medicine without a license".33 

Three years later, Elder Silas LeRoy Richards, serving in Kentucky, held a debate with a local pastor, Rev. John Kezee, on the topics of baptism and postmortem salvation.34  Elder Stayner Richards, serving in England, mentions "studying the New Testament preparing for a Bible battle with a Mr. Morton, a local preacher".35  Several years later, Elder William Edwin Rappleye, serving in northeastern New York, wrote of encountering a Roman Catholic priest with whom he had "two hours conversation or a stiff Bible debate".36  Elder B. C. Mecham, serving in New England in 1915, accepted a debate challenge from one Rev. Munro on the subject of the apostasy.37  Elder Walter Stevenson, serving in England, described in his journal a debate he had against a local preacher named 'Mr. Stone' on the subjects of baptism, priesthood, and Zion, although Elder Stevenson was in the end "not at all satisfied with the outcome", being personally "inexperienced in debating".38 

Sometimes the debate challenges were even actually issued by the LDS missionaries themselves in accordance with the precedent of D&C 71:7, as was the case with Elder George J. Adams, who, when confronted by a preacher named 'Mr. White' who claimed that "he was prepared to prove the principles of the Latter-day Saints were all false", replied that "I was prepared to prove them true, and if he would meet me the following evening the subject should be discussed before the public, and all arguments should be brought from the Scriptures", that is, with "the Bible being the rule of evidence".39  On one occasion, he said that he had explained to a Methodist friend that, in having "turned Mormon", he had simply "renounced error" when "the scriptures had been opened up to me"; and, consequently, Elder Adams "proposed to meet him privately, and, the Bible being the rule of evidence, to examine carefully, and candidly, who was in the right, and who was in the wrong".40  On another occasion, he wrote that, after having undertaken several other debates with (again) "the Bible being the rule of evidence", he then also "publicly challenged Mr. Brindley, or any sectarian priest in Liverpool, to discuss our principles", although he had no takers, as Mr. Brindley was "fearful to be tried by the word of God".41  In some earlier debate encounters, Elder Adams "held three public discussions with the great men of this generation, one with the very celebrated Oragen Batchelor; which lasted twelve nights", which was held in Brooklyn with "the bible being the guide of evidence", resulting in several baptisms and the organization of a branch there, while "the other two discussions were with two Methodist priests; one in New Jersey and one in this city; but they both had to yield before the power of eternal truth".42

When one Rev. Samuel Haining began giving a series of lectures critiquing the LDS faith, John Taylor attended one in order to challenge him to "meet me face to face before the public, substantiate his arguments, and prove the Book of Mormon, or any of the principles that I believed in to be false, if he could; and as many other ministers were present who had frequently attacked me behind my back, I challenged the whole or any of them to do it", though Taylor said that these challenges were declined.43  Elder Reuben Hedlock recounted a scene in Ireland in 1841 where "I arrived in time to hear the close of a discussion between Elder Curtis and a Mr. Donna, a Methodist preacher.  Elder Curtis offered to meet him the next day, but he refused".44  One non-LDS observer in those days was quoted as saying, with respect to LDS apostle John E. Page, that "I have heard elder Page, time and again, publicly challenge the whole clergy of Boston to meet him on any of these questions, using their own hall free of expense, the Bible being the rule of evidence".45 In 1866, Elder James Barker had gone to a "place where men of various denominations assemble to lecture and debate" and had there declared to hearers that he "was willing to reason with them; that we invited free inquiry, and sought to persuade men".46 

Elder Alma Greenwood, serving in Australia in 1883, mentioned that he "offered to debate" and "discuss Mormonism with any representative minister of a denomination".47  Elder James G. Duffin, confronted by a Methodist minister in 1888, proposed that "we would meet as many ministers as he wished to bring along, and we would let the doctrine stand or fall by the test of the Bible, and if they would show us where we were teaching an incorrect and unscriptural doctrine, we would agree to depart out of their country in peace".48  Near the turn of the century, Elder Oscar K. Hansen met a German Presbyterian preacher named Rev. Bremick and said to him that "we would only teach the doctrines of the gospel as recorded in Holy Writ, and if he did not think we preached the gospel, to make arrangements for a public debate and we would gladly meet him on any question of religion".49 

Several months earlier, Benjamin E. Rich, a son of LDS apostle Charles C. Rich and an actively-serving mission president, had instructed LDS missionaries that they "can argue the case and demonstrate to all people, that you have the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation", and that it is wholly consistent with the Bible "from Genesis to Revelations".50  He had declared that Latter-day Saints were "happy to defend our doctrines with reason and Scripture against all comers".51  He also, speaking at a public meeting in Tennessee in December 1899, had made the following invitation to local ministers: "Let us not hate one another, but let us reason together.  If you have a truth that we have not, we will gladly accept it, and if we have an error that you can point out, we will as willingly abandon it, and be thankful to you for showing it to us".52  Just two months later, in February 1900, President Ben E. Rich was recorded as having "once more issued a call for Sectarian preachers to come and point out the errors or absurdities of Mormonism using the Holy Bible as their guide and defense".53  (Would that more today embodied this same attitude!)  LDS periodicals at times actually described the debates between LDS missionaries and local opposition, as with the debate between Elder Stephen Burnet and a Campbellite preacher named William Hayden,54 or the debate between John Taylor and a Primitive Methodist preacher named 'Mr. Hamilton'.55 

In those days, Latter-day Saints claimed to be "ever ready to examine all things which are brought against us" and were encouraged that "whenever and wherever you have or may see any thing printed in any book, pamphlet, paper, tract, or card, concerning us, or the religion we profess; whether it be for or against, in any part of Europe, read it carefully, and examine it candidly by the Spirit of the Lord, for truth will never lose by investigation; compare it with the word of God, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which giveth light; and whatever you find to be true, believe and practice - whatever you find to be false, reject".56  (This statement is wholly lacking in the peculiar fear of so-called "anti-Mormon literature" that prevails among all too many Latter-day Saints today, such as those who label any critical literature as "theological pornography" and warn people never to listen to outside ideas!57  I cannot speak for whence this fear comes for some modern Latter-day Saints, but as for my part, I have received a spirit of boldness and power rather than a 'spirit of fear', as per 2 Timothy 1:7.  In earlier times, Latter-day Saints often rightly knew that we cannot afford to remain uninformed even of the best arguments of our critics, for "the uninformed mind is very liable to be deceived, and thus be kept in bondage by the degenerating chains of error".58  They did not fear 'losing the Spirit' through daring to read 'anti-Mormon literature'; else, how could they have written so many responses to their critics' writings?)

Those Latter-day Saints rightly recognized that it was virtuous to "endeavor to persuade men from error and vain speculation", and so when it came to their belief, they resolved to "stand ready to defend it upon its own foundation when ever it is assailed by men of character and respectability".59  Speaking of the Bible, early Latter-day Saints professed that the basis of their distinctiveness had arisen from "a careful reading of the word of God", and therefore "we are bold to say, that we can draw proof and arguments to justify our belief in the religious system we profess, from this holy word".60  They said in those days that, regarding "the leading principles of our faith", it was important that "scripture and reason be adduced to authenticate them".61  One LDS missionary at the close of the nineteenth century reported having told a Baptist minister that "we had the gospel to teach the people, and could prove it from the Bible".62  Another LDS missionary a decade earlier had encouraged his hearers to "test the Mormonism by the holy Scriptures".63  Why should we not take this challenge seriously?

So too, some early LDS conversion stories emphasized, not prayer for a wholly inner witness from the Holy Ghost, but rather the phenomenon of having "examined it by the word of God".64  We have already seen the stories of conversions resulting from witnessing debates.  Another convert related that she had been prepared by having "perused the scriptures with a new zeal for knowledge and had prayed earnestly to be directed to the truth"; and, upon encountering a young LDS man in 1837, "as soon as he began to preach his doctrine I perceived it was Bible Doctrine, and as he progressed in explaining his faith I also discovered that the principles he taught were the same I had adopted".65  Still another person converted when, having "searched the Bible daily while staying at home", he "began to think the work might possibly be true"; and so he "came to the conclusion to take my Bible in hand and attend all their meetings, and investigate the subject thoroughly, with prayer for divine direction which I did for several days, comparing their preaching with the Scriptures", after doing which he then "concluded that the work was of God, and embraced it with all my heart and soul, and was baptized".66  Wilford Woodruff recounted that, like the Berean Jews of Acts 17:11, a small sect called the United Brethren "searched the Scriptures daily to see if the things which I taught were true; and on finding that the word and spirit agreed and bore record of the truth of the fulness of the everlasting gospel, they embraced it with all their hearts".67 

LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt, in one of his earliest writings (A Voice of Warning), declared that he intended to persuasively make a "positive demonstration which none can gainsay or resist", so that any Christian believer who read his words attentively could not fail to be "fully convinced of the great and important truths contained therein".68  There was indeed at least one person who joined the LDS Church after reading this and another one of Pratt's works, simply through being persuaded by the case that they presented.69  In this same work, Pratt composed a satirical speech to put into the mouths of mainstream Christians, in which they are portrayed as saying of LDS missionaries, "they have received wisdom from some quarter, which none of our learned men are able to resist, by fair argument and investigation; let us not attempt to meet them with argument lest we be disgraced, for they have both scripture and reason on their side".70  Parley P. Pratt characterized mainstream Christians as afraid to debate the LDS missionaries, who were characterized (rightly or wrongly) as spiritually empowered reasoners who had "scripture and reason on their side" and would therefore see their message prevail if only provided with "fair argument and investigation", which (as he portrays the situation) it would be an act of cowardice to withhold - and is it too much to ask that Elder Pratt's characterization of the situation be fairly put to the test in our day?  It is in this same spirit that his brother Orson Pratt offered this well-phrased invitation to those outside his faith.
If we cannot convince you by reason nor by the word of God, that your religion is wrong, we will not persecute you, but will sustain you in the privileges, guaranteed in the great Charter of American Liberty; we ask from you the same generosity - protect us in the exercise of our religious rights - convince us of our errors of doctrine, if we have any, by reason, by logical arguments, or by the word of God, and we will be ever grateful for the information, and you will ever have the pleasing reflection that you have been instruments in the hands of God of redeeming your fellow beings from the darkness which you may see enveloping their minds.  Come, then, let us reason together, and try to discover the true light upon all subjects, connected with our temporal or eternal happiness; and if we disagree, in our judgments, let us impute it to the weakness and imperfections of our fallen natures, and let us pity each other, and endeavor with patience and meekness to reclaim from error, and save the immortal soul from an endless death.71
Beyond all these examples, the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are instructed by Latter-day Saint scripture, after all, that part of their mission involves "reasoning with the people" (D&C 66:7), "reasoning with and expounding all scriptures unto them" (D&C 68:1).  This is part of what it means to "teach clearly and powerfully",72 and the basic calling of an LDS missionary ought to be "teaching the gospel in an effective manner" through "a logical presentation of gospel principles, fortified by scripture".73  Teaching in general should be carried out with an eye toward "how to develop the presentation in a logical fashion".74  Hence, the refusal of some Latter-day Saint missionaries to engage in building a biblical case for their message is, I would submit, actually an act of disobedience to LDS scripture.  Furthermore, LDS apostle Russell M. Nelson recently urged investigators that if they "want to understand the Bible better", they should "ask the missionaries!  They can help you!"75  It is not true that converting missionary preaching must bypass the reason to get at the heart; quite the contrary, conversion happens by "appealing to their intellect and reason", for "reason must play her part in the role of conversion; for she is a gift of God destined to lead man into truth, so far as the finite mind can comprehend, and she must not be ignored or neglected".76 

It is for this reason that LDS missionaries have rightly been instructed in times past that "scripture should be used to establish authority for the doctrine you teach".77  And do not Latter-day Saints believe that the Lord Jesus Christ promised to those who would draw near to him that he would "reason as with men in days of old, and I will show unto you my strong reasoning" (D&C 45:10; cf. verse 15 also)?  And do not Latter-day Saints believe, as President Howard W. Hunter put it, that "we should make every effort to become like Christ"?78  So why should Latter-day Saints (or, for that matter, all Christians) not emulate the Lord Jesus Christ in his readiness to reason patiently and convincingly?  And so "if the Father of all mercies will condescend to reason with His erring children on the earth, have we not the right, and should we not exercise the same, by reasoning among ourselves?  Yes! for 'wisdom and reason make us men'".79  Even today, LDS missionaries are instructed that they "should adjust [their] teaching approach to meet the needs of those [they] teach";80 and so, if a person's actual needs (and not just the missionaries' initial assumptions about the investigator's needs) include hearing and then dialoguing about a scriptural case for LDS teachings, can there be any justification for LDS missionaries to refuse to adapt their teaching approach in this way?

This project - that is, the project of persuasively and reasonably laying out the case for our important doctrinal or theological positions - should not be abandoned.  ('Arguing' in the sense of being argumentative is sinful, but 'arguing' in the sense of respectfully putting forward a position and making a case for it, is right in the eyes of the Lord.  One can 'argue' without being argumentative, and one can "contend for the faith" - as per Jude 381 - without being contentious.)  The pivotal role of the Holy Ghost in conversion cannot be denied and never ought to be denied, but it also should not be exploited (as it too often is) as an excuse to refuse to open-mindedly engage in persuasive reasoning, or as a pretext to wade in the shallows rather than diving in the deeps.  Obviously, our focus should not be to use the scriptures as a weapon to condemn one another, nor should we do anything (including persuading or testifying) out of arrogant or self-serving motives, for "above all things, if men must contend upon religious matters, the greatest decorum and propriety ought to be observed".82  However, we should be prepared to sincerely and intelligently offer reasons for what we believe and to critically and charitably interact with each other's beliefs and stated reasons for those beliefs, just as Jesus Christ and his apostles have faithfully modeled for us.

1   For instance, see Robert D. Hales, "Christian Courage: The Price of Discipleship", address delivered on 5 October 2008 at General Conference, as printed in the October 2008 Conference Report, page 72: "Because that power resides in the Spirit of the Lord, we must never become contentious when we are discussing our faith.  As almost every missionary learns, Bible bashing always drives the Spirit away."  Throughout the discourse, Elder Hales goes on to unfortunately characterize Christians who offer dissenting thoughts about the LDS faith as being "antagonists" filled with "hatred" and concerned with their "egos", who wallow "in the mud" as opposed to the "high ground" of good Latter-day Saints - yet these words are a far cry from Elder Hales' own exhortation to avoid being "unduly judgmental"!  Unfortunately, Elder Hales' statements can all too easily be read to condemn all "theological debate" and all discussion of "doctrinal differences" and all appeals to scripture - but this would condemn Jesus Christ and his apostles, not to mention Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Orson and Parley Pratt, and a host of the most eminent figures in Latter-day Saint history.  In fact, Elder Hales himself in his talk attempts to bolster his position by quoting a few passages from 1 Corinthians and Galatians - in short, Elder Hales is arguing and contending from the scriptures for his perspective on how Latter-day Saints should conduct themselves with regard to arguing and contending!  Elder Hales is perhaps better taken as rightly saying that it is difficult to receive spiritual edification in the midst of angrily discussing the scriptures - and naturally, when we do sin in our hearts, this is an impediment to having the scriptures opened up to us and to opening their spiritual truths up to others.
2   Hugh W. Pinnock, "Learning Our Father's Will", address delivered on 7 October 1984 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1984 Conference Report, page 94.
3   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918]), 205.
4   Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2007), 81.
5   Wilford Woodruff, summation of 1833-1837 journal (and compare references for entries for 23 April 1835, 24 June 1835, 18 October 1835, 13 March 1836, and 7 April 1836), in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 1833-1898: Typescript, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-1985), 1:198.
6   Wilford Woodruff, journal entry for 22 November 1839, in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 1833-1898: Typescript, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-1985), 1:370.
7   Wilford Woodruff, journal entry for 5 September 1841, in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 1833-1898: Typescript, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-1985), 2:123.  Origen Bacheler was the known author of a February 1838 pamphlet titled Mormonism Exposed, Internally and Externally, as well as several published debates with spiritualist and socialist Robert Dale Owen.
8   David Evans, letter dated 24 May 1835, as printed in Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1/9 (June 1835): 141.
9   Benjamin Winchester, letter dated 18 June 1839, as printed in Times and Seasons 1/1 (November 1839): 9-10.
10  "History of Brigham Young: History of Orson Hyde", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 26/50 (10 December 1864): 791-792.
11  Josiah Ells' statements are quoted in Joseph Smith III and Heman C. Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 4th ed. (Lamoni, IA: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1911), 3:765.  Further information is provided by LDS apostle Ezra T. Benson in "Ezra Taft Benson, I", The Instructor 80/2 (February 1945): 56; and also in Mathias F. Cowley, "Sketch of the Life of Apostle Ezra Taft Benson", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/51 (17 November 1900): 401.  See also discussion in Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997), 536-537; the incident is mentioned because Josiah's sister Hannah Ells was one of Joseph Smith's numerous wives.  Josiah later became an apostle in the RLDS Church. 
12   Mathias F. Cowley, "Sketch of the Life of Apostle Ezra Taft Benson", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/51 (17 November 1900): 401.
13  Orson Pratt, letter dated 16 April 1841, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 2/1 (May 1841): 11.
14  George J. Adams, letter dated 20 August 1841, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 2/7 (November 1841): 110.
15  Noah Packard, "A Synopsis of the Life and Travels of Noah Packard", typescript in possession of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. <>. Accessed 18 December 2013.
16  Jesse Wentworth Crosby, "The History and Journal of Jesse W. Crosby", typescript in possession of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. <>. Accessed 18 December 2013.
17  James Taylor, letter to Orson Spencer, dated 22 November 1847, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 10/1 (1 January 1848): 9.
18  "The Late Discussion Between Elder Marsden and Mr. J. Bowes", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 10/14 (15 July 1848): 215.
19  John Taylor, letter dated 21 July 1850, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 12/17 (1 September 1850): 270.
20  J. W. Fleming, letter dated 16 June 1854, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 17/1 (6 January 1855): 11.
21  Henry Green Boyle, missionary diary entry for 13 August 1857.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 156; entry located on 3:75.
22  Henry Green Boyle, missionary diary entry for 18 July 1868 (5:67).
23  James Lovett Bunting, missionary diary entry for 10 November 1879.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 738; entry located on 3:12-13.
24  "History of the Southern States Mission", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/15 (11 March 1899): 113.
25  John Henry Gibbs, missionary diary, page 1:129.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as Vault MSS 741.
26  James Walter Paxman, missionary diary entry for 28 April 1884.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1036; entry located on 1:64.
27  James Walter Paxman, missionary diary entry for 28 June 1885 (1:237).
28  John W. Gailey, letter dated 21 July 1884, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 46/34 (25 August 1884): 541.
29  "History of the Southern States Mission", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/51 (18 November 1899): 401. 
30  David Horton Elton, missionary diary entry for 16 September 1898.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 2050; entry located on 2:100-101.
31  W. W. Anksworth, article from the May 1898 issue of the Christian Advocate, reprinted in "How to Combat Mormonism", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/11 (11 February 1899): 83.
32  "History of the Southern States Mission", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/45 (6 October 1900): 360.
33  "Found Wanting", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/40 (1 September 1900): 320. 
34  Silas LeRoy Richards, missionary diary entries for 16-17, 26-27 October 1903.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 734; entries located on pages 70, 72.
35  Stayner Richards, missionary diary entry for 6 July 1908.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1568; entry located on page 59.  Stayner Richards went on to serve as a mission president and then as Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
36  William Edwin Rappleye, missionary diary entry for 9 August 1912.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 832; entry located on 2:59.
37  Sidney James Ottley, missionary diary entry for 7 April 1915.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1826; entry located on 3:5.
38  Alfred Walter Stevenson, missionary diary entry for 1 September 1922.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1574; entry located on pages 150-152.
39  George J. Adams, letter to Parley P. Pratt, dated 22 June 1841, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 2/3 (July 1841): 35-36.
40  George J. Adams, A Lecture on the Authenticity and Scriptural Character of the Book of Mormon (Boston, MA: J. E. Farwell, 1844), 6.
41  George J. Adams, letter to Parley P. Pratt, dated 14 December 1841, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 2/9 (January 1842): 142-143.
42  George J. Adams, letter dated 7 October 1840, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/11 (March 1841): 275-276.
43  John Taylor, letter dated 27 February 1841, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/11 (March 1841): 279.
44  "Sketch of the Travels and Ministry of Elder R. Hedlock", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 2/6 (October 1841): 92.
45  "Inconsistencies of Professed Bible Believers" (reprinted from the Boston Bee), as printed in Times and Seasons 4/23 (15 October 1843): 358.
46  James Barker, letter dated 6 June 1866, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 28/24 (16 June 1866): 381.
47  Alma Greenwood, missionary diary entry for 5 December 1883.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 336; entry located on 1:237.
48  James G. Duffin, missionary diary entry for 23 January 1888.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1696; entry located on 1:103-104 (Southern States Mission).
49  Oscar K. Hansen, missionary diary entry for 22 October 1899.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 169; entry located on 2:34.
50  "President Rich's Address", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/9 (28 January 1899): 68. 
51  Ben E. Rich, letter to Rabbi L. Weiss, dated 4 August 1899, as printed in Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/37 (12 August 1899): 294.
52  "History of the Southern States Mission", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/48 (27 October 1900): 381.
53  David Horton Elton, missionary diary entry for 18 February 1900.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 2050; entry located on 4:88. 
54  Stephen Burnet, submission describing the 3 January 1837 debate, as printed in Elders' Journal of the Church of Latter Day Saints 1/2 (November 1837): 24-26.
55  "Public Discussion on the Isle of Man" (reprinted from the 4 October 1840 Max Liberal), as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/7 (November 1840): 178-180.
56  "Look at Both Sides of the Question", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/6 (October 1840): 157-158.
57  Vaughn J. Featherstone, "The Last Drop in the Chalice", devotional address delivered on 24 September 1985 at Brigham Young University, page 5. <>. Accessed 31 October 2013.
58  W. G. Mills, "'Try the Spirits' - A Key to Spiritism", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 23/47 (23 November 1861): 747.
59  Oliver Cowdery, "Address", Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1/1 (October 1834): 2.
60  Oliver Cowdery, "Prospectus", Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 3/1 (October 1836): 385.
61  Benjamin Winchester, "To the Reader", The Gospel Reflector 1/1 (1 January 1841): 2.
62  James G. Duffin, missionary diary entry for 7 December 1899.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 1696; entry located on 1:33 (Southwestern States Mission).
63  Charles M. Nielsen, missionary diary entry for 8 November 1883.  Item held in Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, as MSS 651; entry located on page 54.
64  Thomas Smith, letter (presumably to Parley P. Pratt) dated 30 December 1841, as printed in Dialogue between a Latter-Day Saint and an Enquirer After Truth, to Which is Added, A Solemn Warning to the Methodists, by One Who Was Formerly a Preacher Among Them (Manchester: P. P. Pratt, 1842), 4.
65  Eliza Dana Gibbs, autobiography covering 1813-1857, typescript in possession of Utah State Historical Society. <>. Accessed 16 October 2013.
66  Joel Hills Johnson, autobiographical sketch covering 1802-1858, typescript in Johnson family possession. <>. Accessed 16 October 2013.
67  Wilford Woodruff, letter dated 9 July 1840, as printed in The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/3 (July 1840): 72.
68  Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York, NY: W. Sanford, 1837), 12.
69  Norton Jacob, autobiography covering 1804-1847, typescript possessed by the Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. <>. Accessed 16 October 2013.
70  Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People (New York, NY: W. Sanford, 1837), 124.
71  Orson Pratt, "Celestial Marriage", The Seer 1/1 (January 1853): 15-16.
72  Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 10.
73  A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel: Prepared for the use of Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rev. ed. ([Salt Lake City, UT]: Deseret News, 1955 [1952]), 5-6.
74  Teaching the Gospel: A Handbook for CES Teachers and Leaders (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1994), 36. 
75  Russell M. Nelson, "Ask the Missionaries! They Can Help You!", address delivered on 6 October 2012 at General Conference, as printed in Ensign 42/11 (November 2012): 20: "If you want to understand the Bible better, to understand the Book of Mormon better, and gain a broader comprehension of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, ask the missionaries!  They can help you!"
76  "Enlightenment", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/47 (20 October 1900): 373. 
77  A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel: Prepared for the use of Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rev. ed. ([Salt Lake City, UT]: Deseret News, 1955 [1952]), 23.
78  Howard W. Hunter, "Follow the Son of God", address delivered on 2 October 1994 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1994 Conference Report, page 118.
79  "Cuttle Fish Hypocrisy", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 2/24 (12 May 1900): 188.  
80  Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 20: "While the doctrines of the gospel apply to everyone, you should adjust your teaching approach to meet the needs of those you teach."
81  Compare to, e.g., Parley P. Pratt, "Editor's Address to His Patrons", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 1/1 (May 1840): 3: "If at any time we shall be under the necessity of answering objections, correcting misrepresentations, or of entering into the field of controversy with those who may differ from us, we shall 'contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints;' but at the same time, hold sacred the characters, regard the rights, and respect the feelings of those who do not see with us."  Compare also to Aaron L. West, "Wilford Woodruff: Contending for the Faith", Ensign 36/1 (January 2006): 20: "While contending for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, President Woodruff taught principles relevant for our lives today." 
82  Oliver Cowdery, "Address", Latter Day Saint's Messenger and Advocate 1/1 (October 1834): 1.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas and the Incarnation

Merry Christmas to all!  Last Tuesday, the LDS & Evangelical Conversations blog ran a post titled "Christ Came Down", which merely quoted from the Definition of Chalcedon, the essential historic Christian statement (from the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451) about the hypostatic union - that is, the facet of the Incarnation that means that Christ is one personal substance uniting in harmony two fundamental natures, deity and humanity.  The comments on this post, from a variety of perspectives, explored the ways that Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians use the word "Incarnation" somewhat differently, and thus understand the significance of Christmas differently.

Christmas doesn't seem to be a suitable time for debate, so I won't comment extensively on what seems to be the crux of the classic LDS perspective on the Incarnation.  I'll simply say that the significance of Christmas as a holy day of remembrance seems, in the classic LDS view, to derive particularly from two points of differentiation between the birth of Jesus and the births of the rest of us: (1) Although all persons of the divine/human species must inevitably enter into a mortal realm to gain a physical body, Jesus is distinguished from us because he had already earned Godhood before doing so, and thus came to earth as a God rather than to become a God; and (2) Whereas most of us receive our earthly body through the contributions of a mortal mother and mortal father, Jesus received his earthly body through the contributions of a mortal mother and an immortal Father, thus inheriting even in his bodily capacities some traits from each.

The traditional Christian perspective on the Incarnation is much different than this.  (Personally, I find it significantly more beautiful and awe-inspiring.)  The traditional Christian view is predicated on numerous background assumptions about the Creator/creation dichotomy.  Only God is eternal, necessary, and transcendent; all other things are temporal and contingent.  There is an immense difference between God and all other realities.  All these other realities, which together can be collectively labeled 'creation', resulted from the freely chosen activity of God and continue to exist because of the continued freely chosen activity of God.  They stand in a unilateral relationship of dependence.  God is sui generis: there can be only one example of what it means to be God, and he is that example.  Nothing that is God can cease to be God; nothing that is not God can become God.  (Nevertheless, God is internally plural, being eternally and necessarily expressed tripersonally: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is these eternal relationships that establish Christ's divine Sonship, and not the circumstances of his earthly birth, which really were truly virginal.)  The divine nature, or 'deity', is what it means to be God in this sense.  This divine nature is set over against the natures of all created kinds, including human nature, or 'humanity'. 

The Incarnation is the mind-blowing event wherein, quite paradoxically but no less true for the paradox, a person who is God (that is, who shares in the unique divine nature of 'deity') also becomes a person who is human (that is, who shares in the human nature, or 'humanity'), without ceasing to be God.  Thus, the Definition of Chalcedon makes clear that we have a single person who fully exemplifies two natures, one uncreated and one created: "the same one, perfect in deity and also perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human", being "one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably", with "the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and Subsistence".  The Creator breaks into creation; the Creator unites a created reality to his very self.  The entire structure of reality is permanently changed by this occurrence in and of itself.  The implications defy domestication, but cries out to let the paradox (not a contradiction, but indeed a paradox) highlight the love of God, as we see in, for instance, this Christmas hymn by Charles Wesley:
Let angels and archangels sing
The wonderful Immanuel's Name,
Adore with us our newborn King,
And still the joyful news proclaim:
All heaven and earth be ever joined,
The praise the Savior of mankind.

The everlasting God comes down
To sojourn with the sons of men;
Without his majesty or crown,
The great Invisible is seen;
Of all his dazzling glories shorn,
The everlasting Word is born!

Angels, behold that Infant's face,
With rapturous awe the Godhead own,
'Tis all your heaven on him to gaze,
And cast your crowns before his throne;
Tho' now he on his footstool lies,
Ye know he built both earth and skies.

By him into existence brought,
Ye sang the all-creating Word;
Ye heard him call our world from nought,
Again, in honor of your Lord,
Ye morning stars, your hymns employ,
And shout, ye sons of God, for joy.
Glory be to Christ!  Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas, Devotion, and Liturgical Laxity

Given the length of some recent posts, it seems worthwhile to make a short(er) one for a change.  Yesterday, the By Common Consent blog unveiled a post by Kevin Barney titled "Non-Christmas Programs in Sacrament Meeting Today".  The thread and the comments offer numerous anecdotal examples of wards not exactly holding fast to even the minimum cultural expectations of the fundamentals of the liturgical year.  Things like talks on Christmas Sunday that have nothing to do with Christmas or even with Christ, and the same for Easter Sunday, with substituted topics being matters such as tithing or missionary work, without any tie-ins to those holidays.

I don't point this out to pick on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For the record, although I've attended my share of LDS church services, I've usually taken those particular days off from that practice, so as to focus more intently on the pure gospel.  And, also for the record, the wards I've been involved with have, from what I have seen, been pretty diligent in seeking to honor Christmas, at least.  The Lexington Kentucky Stake puts on what I'm told is a quite grand and lovely Christmas celebration.  

My home church, of course, is very diligent to make quite the big deal out of Christmas, and quite the big deal out of Easter Sunday.  The whole of the Advent season is used as a celebration of Christmas, leading up to tomorrow night's Christmas Eve service, with a unique cantata each year.  As far as 'major' points of the liturgical year are concerned, my one complaint on that front is that Good Friday gets consistently rolled into Easter celebrations, without much pause to separately experience the overwhelming depths of the rest of Holy Week.  

Still, I know something of what Kevin Barney and other BCC regulars are rightly lamenting.  An area of my growing irritation with American Evangelicalism, or at least with the social circles represented by many churches in my denomination (my own included), is the co-opting of the church by hyper-patriotism.  (The LDS Church suffers from some of the same issues, but expressed in different ways.)  For instance, this past year, Trinity Sunday, a liturgical holy day, fell on the day before Memorial Day, a national holiday of understandable importance.  At my home church, the services for Trinity Sunday offered no awareness that it was Trinity Sunday, but had plenty to do with Memorial Day: using "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the prelude, singing "America the Beautiful" as our first song, a choir medley of "Statue of Liberty" and "God Bless America", and so forth.  The sermon had no relation to either Trinity Sunday or Memorial Day.  

My point is, more than just the LDS tradition has issues with what we might dub 'liturgical laxity'.  The difference is just that, in being too often inattentive to the most major liturgical occasions of the Christian year, LDS wards can readily be lax in a way that can be culturally offensive - note the sense of embarrassment about the perception that these forms of liturgical laxity might give visitors about the Christian devotion (or apparent lack thereof) in LDS culture.  And yet, my home church has not often made quite enough of a celebration out of Pentecost each year, and surely this is likewise a major liturgical occasion within the church, even if not in the surrounding culture.

So should we recover these liturgical rhythms?  I certainly think that we should.  I have had a few associates who, of course, would take a staunchly contrary view.  Some were Jehovah's Witnesses, who of course consider such holidays irreparably tainted by paganism.  (I recall some similar sentiments, albeit attenuated, in a sermon by Orson Pratt.)  To them I simply say, if God can redeem people sunk in the mire of pagan ideologies and pagan practices (and the New Testament makes expressly clear that he can), why cannot God redeem days and their practices and allow his Son to triumph over the principalities and powers?  Other associates come from a rather rigid strain of the Reformed tradition that maintain that the church has no authority to institute days of celebration and that setting apart any special day for celebration detracts from our ability to honor the object of celebration every day, as we ought.  As for them, I hope that they do not feel that their wedding anniversaries are an insult to their regular celebration of love for their spouses!  Moreover, this grossly misunderstands the benefits of a temporal rhythm, of experiencing certain sorts of transitions over time.  These sorts of movements were part and parcel of Israelite faith - and I would of course dispute the Puritan contention that no celebration is acceptable other than one that God has expressly commanded in scripture. 

The real question, then, is how we can best recover these liturgical rhythms more fully.  Certainly, different traditions will want to set different limits.  For my part, within my Christian tradition, I will not want to explicitly emphasize every feast day of every saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church.  (I admittedly have a fondness for the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, however.)  Latter-day Saints may not want to fully adopt explicit celebrations of Pentecost or Christ the King Sunday - and much less Trinity Sunday!  (And Latter-day Saints may have other unique elements of their own liturgical year to add - today is, after all, Joseph Smith's birthday - though hopefully not to the detriment of some of the more fundamental Christian feasts; I trust that we are all familiar here with the cases of Joseph Smith nativity celebrations being poorly received by some outside of the LDS community, and for understandable reasons.)  But perhaps for most of us, whether Evangelical or LDS, a bit more of a communal attachment to the liturgical year couldn't hurt.  I don't have any particular recommendations ready at hand.  What do you suggest? 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On Searching the Scriptures (Part 2): Lessons from Ancient Apostolic Circles

Recently, I posted the first of four excerpts from a section of my unpublished work-in-progress titled A Testimony and an Exhortation, wherein I began to give a look at what it might mean to use scripture, and specifically the Bible, as an external standard in weighing the truth-implications of personal revelation-experiences.  After that excerpt, I go on to quote the wisdom of John Wesley, which I have also already posted here.  Next, the following is the second of those four excerpts, which comes from pages 66-69 of the aforementioned work (as currently paginated).  Let's take a look at how the missionaries of the early church (the "Church of Jesus Christ of Former-day Saints", as Latter-day Saints were once wont to say) treated scripture and expected people to come to believe in their message:

This also matches well the missionary approach we see in the early church.  In modern times (as opposed to earlier days), the typical LDS missionary approach seems relatively unconcerned with making a strong case from accepted scripture for the truth of LDS teachings; rather, the focus is on a simple presentation of a few parts of the message and urging the person to seek through prayer a direct endorsement of the ideas from God himself.1  Prayer is, of course, an essential part of the quest for truth - we ought to pray for God's guidance and enlightenment.  Though there isn't much ancient scriptural warrant for requesting direct revelation of truths, God may of course indulge us from time to time - for he is sovereign and therefore may do as he sovereignly sees fit.  But in the missionary efforts of the early Christian church, we never see any exhortation for the yet-unconverted to pray for personal revelation to confirm the message.  We do, however, see a great deal of reasoning with people and persuasively making a rational and scriptural case for the Christian faith.

This was, for instance, an admirable habit of the Apostle Paul.  Almost immediately after Paul's baptism, Luke reports that he "confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ" (Acts 9:22) - in other words, Paul engaged them in a reasoned argument and made an irrefutable case from scripture for the message ('Jesus is the Christ') that he himself had at last accepted.  As David O. McKay put it, "the more they opposed him [i.e., Paul], the more eloquently he defended the name of Jesus and proved to them that Jesus is the Christ", even through "days of fiery disputations in the synagogues".2  (Were these a mistake?  Did Paul's "fiery disputations" serve only to 'drive away the Spirit'?  Certainly not!  So why should modern believers fear that result from a vigorous but wholly respectful debate today?)  Later, in reporting Paul's missionary efforts in Thessalonica, Luke says that it was Paul's custom to first go to the synagogue, where he "reasoned with them out of the scriptures" that Jesus was the promised Messiah who was to suffer, die, and rise again (Acts 17:2).  This was in accordance with an earlier report of the contents of Paul's synagogue-debating at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41).

Paul carried out the same activity at his next stop after Thessalonica, his stop in Berea, where Luke praises the Jewish population highly as being "more noble than those in Thessalonica" on account of their willingness to "search the scriptures daily, whether these things are so" (Acts 17:11)3 - it was a great virtue for them to test even an apostle's message critically against scripture to verify it (for, if Paul's message had not withstood the test, the Berean Jews would then have rightly rejected Paul as an apostle), but Luke makes no mention of the Bereans seeking a direct revelation from God apart from the scriptures.  As David O. McKay summarized the praiseworthy reaction of the Jewish converts in Berea, "the Jews here were more noble than those in Thessalonica, and would reason from the scripture, which was the Old Testament, kept in sacred rolls in the synagogue.  So we conclude that the Bereans not only listened attentively to what the missionaries told them but searched the scriptures to see if what they found was in harmony with the Law.  When they found it was, many believed, 'also of honorable women who were Greeks, and of men not a few'".4  

When Paul reached Athens, he delivered a powerful speech at the very same site where I first met the LDS missionaries with whom I subsequently took the discussions.  (I recall, so shortly after I met them, how intensely I enjoyed gazing at the large bronze plaque built into the side of the hill that bore the Greek text of Paul's sermon for all generations to read.)  There, Paul offered powerful arguments to the Greek philosophers, drawing on various Greek poets and thinkers to make his case for part of the Christian message (Acts 17:22-31), for the Spirit had moved him there to go "into the streets and marketplaces teaching and contending with Jews and Gentiles alike".5  Moving along to Corinth, Luke stresses again that Paul "reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks" (Acts 18:4).  As David O. McKay put it, Paul's regular practice was that he "would reason with them from the scripture, and persuade them to become Christians".6  In Ephesus likewise, Paul "entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:9).  Later in the same place, Paul "went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8).7  After being evicted from the synagogue, Paul took up space in a lecture hall, "disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus" for two years (Acts 19:9).  Throughout his missionary work, Paul regularly - as LDS apostle LeGrand Richards put it - "took the scriptures in his hands to prove that Jesus was the Christ", thus undertaking to "convince publicly the people out of the scriptures", using the scriptures as evidence in his reasoned case for the Christian message that he persuasively brought.8  

Paul wasn't alone in this behavior.  My favorite figure in the New Testament - aside, of course, from my Savior himself - is Apollos, the Alexandrian Jewish convert to Christianity who may have perhaps written Hebrews.  Though not mentioned much, I find him intensely fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.  Luke describes Apollos as "an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures" who "began to speak boldly in the synagogue" (Acts 18:24-26).  When he left Ephesus after gaining further instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos went to the Greek province of Achaia and "mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ" (Acts 18:28).  Apollos' claim to fame was being an excellent and Spirit-empowered speaker, as well as a superb debater whose familiarity with the scriptures allowed him to be a fantastic missionary and teacher in the early church (Acts 18:25).  David O. McKay deemed Apollos to be "one of the most eloquent preachers of the Gospel in that day".9  Similarly, Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy described Apollos as someone who was "very eloquent, an avid scriptorian, very fervent in spirit, and a diligent teacher" who "understood the Old Testament scriptures and was an intellectual giant", and who therefore "went on to become an outstanding missionary, effective especially among the Jewish people".10  Apollos excellently funneled his powerful intellectual training into his Spirit-empowered debating prowess, with the result that Apollos was a great benefit to the churches in Achaia (Acts 18:27), and in this he becomes an excellent model for missionaries and teachers today.

Elsewhere throughout our accounts of the early church's missionary activity, we see a similar pattern of reasoning.  In Peter's rightly famed speech given in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), he appeals specifically to scripture to validate his message, offering a strong case for his conclusion that "God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).  As Parley P. Pratt once summarized this occasion, Peter "lifted his voice and reasoned with them from the Scriptures, testifying of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection and ascension up on high - insomuch that many became convinced of the truth, and inquired what they should do".11  Peter did more of the same in a portion of his later speech at Solomon's Colonnade in Jerusalem (Acts 3:21-26).  Stephen's speech before his early martyrdom is yet another strong example (Acts 7:1-53).  Peter and Stephen both appealed, not to private revelatory experiences that their hearers were supposed to have, but to things the hearers could already know by the public facts of history and scripture.  They appealed to the witness of God in the authoritative sacred writings that their hearers shared with them, and they appealed to the mighty act of God that was public knowledge: that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer in his guarded grave and had been seen alive afterward by many.  On these bases, they made their well-reasoned case for the message that they brought.

In short, the bulk of our reports of early Christian missionary labors shows that missionary preaching was laced with apologetics,12 making a reasonable case from scripture and from other accepted knowledge in favor of the teaching they brought.  Nowhere in Acts do we see the people (whether yet converted or not) encouraged to first pray to God for direct personal revelation of the truth of the message, nor is there anywhere where we see the people praised for doing so.  But throughout Acts, we do see them praised for testing the message against the scriptures and for using reasonable persuasion to convince others that the message is true.13  Nowhere in Acts - or elsewhere in ancient scripture, for that matter - do we see a conversion that ignores or bypasses the mind.

While it's true that we have to affirm the incredible value of prayer, nevertheless searching the scriptures is the major proper method for testing doctrinal truth.  We pray for wisdom and discernment (cf. James 1:5), we pray for this "practical righteousness in everyday living"14 that "enables [us] to resist and endure the tests of this age",15 but not for easy answers; and then, as God gives us discernment, we use the tools God has graciously given us to find out the answers for ourselves as he has revealed them.  In established scripture, what the Spirit witnesses to us is an assurance of our own standing as adopted children of God who have been fully forgiven (Romans 8:16) and that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human (1 John 5:6-8).  Prayer is valuable, but it must be used in prayerful examination of established scripture (the Old and New Testaments, for us) to test all teachings, prayerful attention to the arguments for both sides of the issue (cf. Proverbs 18:17), and prayerful consideration wrapped up in a quest to love the Lord with all our minds.  After all, even publications of the LDS Church agree that direct personal revelation is not to be expected when "seeking counsel on matters that we should determine for ourselves, using our best judgment based on study and reason".16

1   Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 31, 39-40.  No doubt this missionary approach, and the popularity of (oversimplistically) holding to the incorrigibility of 'inner witness'-like experiences, explains the unfortunate fact that an "overwhelming majority [of Latter-day Saints] said that they would believe [in Mormonism] even if they were convinced that the evidence seemed to undermine Mormonism" - see David E. Smith, Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), 75 (emphasis original).  I say 'unfortunate' because this is not a mindset encouraged or praised in ancient scripture, nor is it a good way to integrate the rational and experiential in the spiritual life of a person or community.  I also note that, even though LDS missionaries often acknowledge that there are certain important evangelistic tasks that they are unequipped to carry out - such as even attempting to provide answers to some of the more difficult (but still fundamental) questions - the modern LDS missionary program is structured in such a way that, in effect, all responsibility for such things rests upon them, as much of the rest of the membership frequently considers their 'member missionary' work to involve quickly referring friends and contacts to the young proselytizing missionaries and then just providing social connections ('fellowshipping') for investigators and new converts.  Everything is channeled through them in spite of their limited training.  If there is an investigator who needs a different approach from the one that the young missionaries are trained to offer, that investigator is simply out of luck, under this somewhat one-size-fits-all system.  In this regard, the narrow modern LDS missionary program - in spite of certain benefits that it undeniably does have - can produce an unhealthy overall system.  The early LDS missionaries, like the ancient apostles, were much more flexible in this.
2   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918]), 152.
3   Compare to the statements of Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1965-1973), 2:153: "Honest and upright people search the scriptures, investigate the gospel, and learn for themselves the truth of the message which God's witnesses carry to the world."
4   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918]), 198.  For us today in our context, the time-tested scriptures that we, like the noble Bereans, can use to evaluate messages, consist of the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures.
5   The Master's Church: Course A (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1969), 126. 
6   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918], 205.
7   New Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 134: "Note that disputing in these verses means preaching or reasoning."
8   LeGrand Richards, "To Convince the World", address delivered on 6 April 1960 at General Conference, as printed in the April 1960 Conference Report, page 104.
9   David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1921 [1918], 209.
10  Ronald E. Poelman, "Companions from the Scriptures", fireside address delivered on 5 August 1979 at Brigham Young University, page 5, <>. Accessed 20 August 2013.  
11  Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, Containing a Declaration of the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Commonly Called Mormons (New York, NY: W. Sanford, 1837), 104.
12  'Apologetics' is a word derived from the Greek word apologia, 'defense' (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).  Apologetics is the practice of offering reasons in defense of what one believes.  Thus, traditional Christian apologetics gives reasons why it make sense to believe that (traditional) Christianity is true, and perhaps even reasons why someone should believe (traditional) Christianity over the alternatives.  The same goes (mutatis mutandis) for LDS apologetics, which I have had too little occasion to address directly in the course of bearing my testimony to you in these pages but would gladly seek to engage where needed in further discussion, particularly when it reflects traditional rather than revisionist LDS beliefs (as, unfortunately, much that passes for LDS apologetics these days tends to favor the latter, even when this obscures or outright denies what LDS prophets and apostles have actually taught).
13  Compare to the 1989 Evangelical statement in the Manila Manifesto A.2: "We also affirm that apologetics, namely 'the defence and confirmation of the gospel', is integral to the biblical understanding of mission and essential for effective witness in the modern world.  Paul 'reasoned' with people out of the Scriptures, with a view to 'persuading' them of the truth of the gospel.  So must we.  In fact, all Christians should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them." <>. Accessed 3 June 2012.
14  Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary 48 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 17.
15  Peter Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 71-72.
16  Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1999), 33.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Searching the Scriptures (Part 1): The Bible as the Test of Revelations

It seems important to understand how to know the truth; and, when it comes to the issues of "testimony", the matter is much more complex than most Latter-day Saints instinctively think.  The following excerpt is taken from my unpublished work A Testimony and an Exhortation, pages 57-65 of the current version.  This is the first of four from the section in question, which deals primarily with the role of scripture in determining truth. 

What the matter comes down to is that, if the fact of my experiential testimony favoring traditional Christian beliefs doesn't rule out the possibility that those beliefs are wrong, then the same could go for a Latter-day Saint's beliefs in spite of his or her testimony-experience.  I have testimonies for traditional Christian beliefs and against LDS beliefs.  Either my testimony is of God, or it is not.  If it is of God, then God bears witness against LDS beliefs, and so Latter-day Saints should return to traditional Christianity.  But if it is not of God, then that still shows that there is nothing about the testimony-experience itself that gives assurance that one's beliefs are right, and so the mere fact of having a testimony cannot be the final word on the matter after all.  If the edification and peace I encounter in traditional Christian beliefs, and the exact opposite in LDS beliefs, don't ensure that my beliefs are endorsed by God, then neither can comparable edification or peace found elsewhere - even in LDS beliefs.  As far as our experiences are concerned, it seems clear that we are at best on a level playing field, so to speak.

We know, then, that we can't both be right.  We know that, in theory, either of us could be mistaken.  We know that appealing to the phenomena of our experiences themselves is unlikely to resolve the issue.  One common option for dealing with situations of contradictory revelations is for a person to simply throw his hands up and stick with what he believes was revealed to him.  That person might do so simply because his own experience is imagined to be more reliable or relevant than someone else's.  This assumption is often disguised in an 'agree-to-disagree' or 'live-and-let-live' mentality: "I've got my testimony, maybe you've got yours, but that's between you and God, and while I can't be the judge of what you've experienced, I know what I have felt, and that's all that matters to me, so the conversation ends with that".  Sadly, this is a conversation-stopped.  It is, unfortunately, intended to be the end of any hope of a productive discussion, and it functions essentially as an easy escape hatch from the challenge of further, deeper dialogue.  Even more sadly, sometimes the unfortunate conversation-stopping character of this approach is even considered an asset by some people!1

Some people profess to not wish to dispute with anyone's personal spiritual experience.  But in effect, this is tantamount to ignoring all experiences except one's own.  This is especially concerning when this attitude appears in those who are quick to base many of their most important beliefs on their own 'personal experience', their own claims of testimony and revelation.  If one wants to set all private experiences aside and pursue truth in a different yet equitable way, that's one thing; but it's wholly another to set all private experiences aside except one's own (and perhaps those of others that just happen to confirm one's own), and to pretend wrongly that this is somehow respectful.  While couched as tolerant, this approach in fact is as arrogant as they come: the person arrogates to him- or herself the status of having the only experiences that really can ever matter, at least personally if not universally.  On the other hand, if the truthfulness of everyone else's experience is somehow relativized, then in fairness, the same must go for one's own experience.  The simple truth is that, since the 'personal spiritual experiences' of everyone are a part of the reality in which we live, then if we attach significance to those sorts of phenomena, our outlook on that reality must then grapple with their experiences and the implications thereof and must make progress toward accounting for them.  The refusal to do this is only a tacit admission of the limited nature of one's worldview, especially for those worldviews that put a premium on personal spiritual experience.  

I've met at least a few people who take an even more extreme version of this approach.  Those people teach that truth is best understood through exclusive one-on-one interaction with God without any attempts at discernment by non-internal standards or at seeking any involvement of others.  Some of those people have been Latter-day Saints; others were not.  Of those who were Latter-day Saints, I have sadly witnessed several of them since take their approach toward its inevitable conclusion by rejecting the prophetic authority of President Thomas S. Monson and by propounding Mormon Fundamentalist teachings - such as that of 'multiple mortal probations', i.e., reincarnation - that are definitely contrary to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  They went astray in that direction precisely because that is where their 'personal spiritual experiences' seemed to point, and that was all that mattered to them.  Mainstream Latter-day Saints can bear their testimonies of the Church to these people all they want, but they can respond that they 'know' that multiple mortal probations are real, they 'know' that the Church has gone astray, they 'know' that President Monson is not a prophet, and no one else's experience matters.

Such people tend especially to radically privilege their own unchecked private experience of what they call the 'spiritual' ways of knowing over what they call the 'secular' or 'temporal' ways of knowing.  They say that rationally evaluating their private 'inner-witness' experience would be unspiritual and therefore ungodly.  But this ignores the wisdom that early LDS apostle Orson Pratt showed when he said that "every truth should be acknowledged as from God.  A variety is interesting and not to remain in one channel".2  This 'testimony-only' approach is in fact so feeble that it cannot bear to grapple honestly with what anyone else says.  It abuses a 'testimony' as an excuse to not listen to others, to not take into account all of the facts, to not return to scripture and sense as solid standards.  It gives dishonest lip-service to the gifts of God - such as having authoritative scripture to consider or having the capacity to intelligently weigh doctrinal issues - while denying the legitimacy of their full and proper use.  It speaks to the weakness of the beliefs to which testimony is borne, not their strength - because "you cannot build strong testimonies out of weak doctrine".3  We can do better than this, and our loving God would desire for us to enjoy better than this.

One principal problem with the approach outlined above is that it's difficult to believe that God put us in a community and wants us to live as a community in his Church if the surest way to find truth were to reject dialogue in community in favor of the most individualistic method possible: unchecked private revelation that is allegedly from God.  In other words, if God really wanted us to ignore other people as we search for truth, then he wouldn't have given us the gift of other people to help us along our journey.  Another major problem is that the scriptures are very clear that we should "test all things; hold on to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  We are exhorted to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).4  We are to actually put our private revelations - and those of others - on trial.  But the test for one's own private revelation-experiences cannot be one's own private revelation-experiences; that would be viciously circular.  It seems clear from John's letter that one commanded way to test revelations is by evaluating the content of the message received.  In other words, private revelations can be judged valid or invalid by others through an external standard shared in common.  Therefore, two people who have opposing revelations are not left at an impasse.  They can get together in community and together find out the truth by using other approaches to check what the personal revelations (or spiritual witnesses) have seemed to say.  The extreme testimony-only approach, which holds an experience-given testimony to be wholly incorrigible (that is, unable to be corrected) by external or public standards of judgment, is radically and entirely unscriptural - and, furthermore, "to deny the wisdom of a change of mind based on evidence seems to make the human subject infallible in his or her discerning of the Spirit's voice", which is a very arrogant and problematic stance to take.5  Our personal revelation-experiences, our testimonies, our apparent guidance from God - none of these experiences are in and of themselves the final court of appeal.  But praise God for not leaving us trapped alone in our private worlds!  

This is illustrated by one of Joseph Smith's 1830 revelations, which declared that the revelations received by Book of Mormon witness Hiram Page were in fact evidence that "Satan deceiveth him", and said that the people should have known this because for Hiram Page to receive a message for the whole church would be "contrary to the church covenants" (D&C 28:11-12).6  In short, a given external standard - in this case, the 'church covenants' - should have been sufficient grounds for the other members to evaluate and reject Hiram Page's claim to revelation; and presumably, Hiram Page likewise should have used the same external standard to discount even his own apparently revelatory experiences.  The same sort of standard was asserted by Joseph Fielding Smith, who said that "when we find people secretly distributing to the Church what are said to be revelations, or visions, or manifestations, that have not come from nor received the approval of the authorities of the Church, we may put it down that such things are not of God".7  Likewise, LDS apostle John Andreas Widtsoe stressed that the impressions one receives should be tested against an external source.8  So it seems clear that it is very good, wise, and right to consider other means by which we can together examine our beliefs and see which are true.  This is in keeping with apostolic counsel.

If we do not do this, then as much as we may couch our refusal in terms of 'sticking to the simplicity of our first testimony' or 'trusting in our heart', what we are really doing is neglecting the commandments of God and exercising less wisdom than Jesus Christ offers us.  The simple things of God are good,9 but so are the deeper matters, "the deep things of God" (1 Corinthians 2:10).  (For that matter, that which seems 'simple' to me may not seem simple to you, and that which seems 'simple' to you may not seem simple to me.)  President Howard W. Hunter rightly praised those who would "search holy writ to find answers to what the Apostle Paul called 'the deep things of God'".10  Similarly, Joseph Smith himself strongly encouraged believers to "search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness".11  We can "move beyond the elementary teachings" and go "forward to maturity" (Hebrews 6:1).  All too often, the plea to return to the 'simple things' is not a call back to what scripture emphasizes, but rather ends up being an attempt to avoid the discomfort of stretching oneself, confronting questions, wrestling with them, studying the scriptures intently and more and more deeply, and ultimately growing in godliness through the process.  

We ought not focus disproportionately on peripheral things over central things, but when it comes to the truly essential things, we should relentlessly raise relevant questions and pursue their answers faithfully down whatever alleys they lead - and, in the context of LDS-Evangelical dialogue, the 'essential things' most certainly include the nature of the divine and of the world, claims about priesthood and about temples (which are crucial because of their pivotal role in LDS belief and because of their relevance from an Evangelical perspective insofar as they pertain to a proper understanding of Jesus Christ, who himself is the center), the narrative of apostasy and restoration, and the validity of LDS leaders' claims to be prophets and apostles.  Because these things are essential, we cannot afford to avoid contemplating the relevant questions simply because they might lead to somewhere deeper than we might initially desire to go.  Be things simple or complex, be things shallow or deep, our commitment to studying out the central things should allow us to understand them and evaluate them comptently from any relevant angles.

While the Christian life is about much more than the intellectual or cognitive aspects, it is certainly not about less; and it does not give us license to refuse God's command to love him with all our mind,12 or to refuse God's command to test all things, or to refuse God's command to come together to reason things out with him, or to refuse God's command to study the scriptures as the standard whereby we are prepared for holy thought and life.  God has created us so that all of our faculties can be involved in every aspect of our life - but just as our strength takes on a newfound importance when serving others, and just as our heart takes on a newfound importance when loving God and others, and just as our spirit takes on a newfound importance when communing experientially with God, so our mind takes on a newfound importance when seeking, testing, and cherishing truth.  In doing this, we use our mind and rely on God's revelation in the established scriptures.

Hence, one very wise approach was stated by President Brigham Young: "I say to the whole world, receive the truth, no matter who presents it to you.  Take up the Bible, compare the religion of the Latter-day Saints with it, and see if it will stand the test".13  In other words, both of us should take the Bible as it stands as an authoritative standard of what should be believed.  Our beliefs should be tested against it, even those beliefs that seem to be witnessed to us by personal revelation.  So, according to Brigham Young, if I examine the Bible carefully and find that the teachings of the "religion of the Latter-day Saints" measures up to it better than my own faith, what should I do?  He says that, in that case, the right thing for me to do would be to set my own prior beliefs aside and accept LDS teachings.  I agree with his approach.  If LDS teachings are found to best match what the Bible teaches, then those LDS teachings should be believed, on the basis of the supreme authority of God's testimonies in the scriptures.  On the other hand, if a careful reading of the Bible shows that LDS teachings don't match up to it, then those teachings should be rejected, on the basis of that same proper authority.  In that case, they should be rejected even if that would mean also rejecting the claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be God's one and only true and living church.  (That seems only fair, doesn't it?)  After all, LDS periodicals have asserted that Joseph Smith "taught in perfect accordance with scripture, just as a true prophet must do",14 and so surely it is not unfair to take this standard - that is, that the teachings of any true prophet must be in accordance with established scripture - as an appropriate one and so make use of it.

It is of utmost importance, therefore, to "search and ponder the scriptures".15  This is truly essential, because if someone is not willing to be bound to what God's own instruction in the scriptures says, then "even his prayer is an abomination" (Proverbs 28:9).  Prayer to learn the truth, when severed from a willingness to diligently search the scriptures and to be bound by what they say, is thus not a godly endeavor.  This searching of the scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament in order to know the truth for certain is an intensely Spirit-gifted activity, in no way inferior or secondary to the Spirit's work in our hearts.  As scripture, the Old Testament and New Testament are "composed wholly and solely of pure, unvarnished, irrefutable, and eternal truth".16  The Bible is the word of God, and "whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish" (1 Nephi 15:24).  I know that these scriptures are trustworthy and true,17 and that the Bible can be relied upon as the iron rod that leads us to the Tree of Life that is Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Nephi 8:19-24; 11:25; 15:21-24).  It is true that "personal revelation can also come to us through the scriptures",18 so that "we can receive personal revelation through reading and studying the scriptures".19  This is a powerful connection between studying scripture and being led into the truth by the Spirit.  

We know that even those things that superficially seem true at first glance may be far removed from the way of truth and life (Proverbs 14:12), particularly where our hearts are involved (cf. Jeremiah 17:9), and so we must be careful to test all things against the standard that has been given, which is that known to be ancient scripture.  We know, therefore, that we can safely turn to these anciently written and anciently revealed scriptures to judge even personal revelation and modern writings that purport themselves to be scripture.  We are less likely to go wrong if we wisely submit our personal experiences of inspiration or revelation to the sure and agreed-upon cases of revelation recorded in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  

We must know that "revelations from God will be in accordance with scripture",20 and so that "God will never give [us] personal revelation that contradicts what has already been revealed in the scriptures".21  If a personal revelation contradicts what has been revealed already in time-tested ancient scripture, so much the worse for that personal revelation!  We know that one test for discerning new truth will be that it "fits into the pattern of light known before" and thus will be "in harmony with all other truth".22  Consequently, it would be an error to assume that 'searching the scriptures' in this way is a neglect of the spiritual.  (I have seen several Latter-day Saints make this very mistaken leap in reasoning, to their obvious spiritual harm.)  Quite to the contrary, it is most spiritual to engage all of our faculties to the uttermost, including the intellect.  This is how we truly "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37, cf. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; Moroni 10:32; D&C 59:5).  As President Hugh B. Brown rightly said, we must find truth through "a prayerful study of the Old and the New Testament, and have faith in the God of the Bible".23  As Boyd K. Packer said, we should both "analyze carefully" and "be prayerful".24  President Howard W. Hunter likewise lauded "the scriptures" and "private prayer" as "the two greatest sources of spiritual insight and spiritual impression that are available universally to mankind".25 It is from the scriptures that we learn "how to discern good from evil, truth from error.  The scriptures provide the pattern and the basis for correct doctrine".26 

1   For example, see Gordon B. Hinckley, "Testimony", address delivered on 5 April 1998 at General Conference, as printed in the April 1998 Conference Report, page 91: "It [Testimony] is something that cannot be refuted.  Opponents may quote scripture and argue doctrine endlessly.  They can be clever and persuasive.  But when one says, 'I know,' there can be no further argument."  Contrary to what President Hinckley could be read as saying here, the proper and God-honoring response to a 'clever and persuasive' opponent who appeals to scripture and discourses about doctrine is not to bury one's head in the sand through an appeal to irrefutable private knowledge.  Instead, it is to give an even better case that quotes scripture more rightly and 'argues doctrine' more persuasively.  One can see throughout LDS history that LDS leaders have not been content to simply stand down whenever confronted by someone prefacing an out-of-line claim with the words 'I know', even if that out-of-line claim comes from a sincere perception of having had a powerful inner experience.  This precedent shows us that, with all due respect to President Hinckley, claimed testimony is something that can (and perhaps often should) allow for 'further argument'. 
2    Orson Pratt, quoted in Wilford Woodruff, journal entry for 13 September 1846, in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff's Journals, 1833-1898: Typescript, 9 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1983-1985), 3:77: "There is no truth but what comes from God.  It requires A portion of the spirit of God to know what portion of the truth to lay before the people.  Some Classes adore the book of Nature & deny a God.  Others profess to adore God and are afraid to contempleat Natural things.  But evry truth should be acknowledged as from God.  A variety is interesting & not always remain in one Channel.  One of the most interesting feasts I ever enjoyed was in contemplating the worlds and laws by which they are governed.  Men should be learned in order to convince the learned." 
3   Joseph Fielding McConkie, "Two Churches Only", talk delivered on 5 November 2005 at the Joseph Smith Symposium in Palmyra, Wayne County, New York, as published by Meridian Magazine at <>. Accessed 28 June 2013.  
4   Some Latter-day Saints at the lay level, observing that the particular criterion in 1 John 4:2-3 (cf. 2 John 7) is the confession that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh", have reasoned that this should be sufficient to declare the acceptability of the LDS message and the true prophetic status of Joseph Smith and his successors - see, for example, Tere Foster, "From Born-Again Christian to Latter-Day Saint", in David E. Smith, Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), 95-96.  But to the contrary, John's actual principle is more general: that the content of the message is the standard for determining the source.  Because John was dealing with a Docetist or proto-Gnostic sect that denied the Incarnation, instead contending that Christ did not take upon himself real human flesh (since flesh was regarded as horrendous to those who maintained typical Greek attitudes toward the physical world), John used this particular example for his context - see Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John, trans. Linda Maloney, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989 [1986]), 70-71.  But it certainly does not follow that anyone who maintains that Jesus was the Messiah who came in the flesh is thereby a prophet of God whose message is to be believed; even Muhammad, the founder of Islam, met that standard.  Nor is the simple confession that Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Son of God sufficient; this was confessed even by the Judaizers, whom Paul excoriated as "false brethren" (Galatians 2:4) who "pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:7) and hence are, so far as he is concerned, to be "accursed" (Galatians 1:8).  There were in his day "false apostles" who "preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached" (2 Corinthians 11:4, 13).  This is also why Latter-day Saints who attempt to assuage the concerns of traditional Christians by pointing to the definition of 'Christian' in English-language dictionaries often just leave many traditional Christians rather unsatisfied, as the Judaizers and many other groups perilously far removed from the apostolic faith fit those definitions easily, and many traditional Christians prefer to use language in a way that highlights rather than obscures the most crucial salvific issues.  The status of being 'of God', for John, is "lacking where sin is dominant and particularly where aberrant christological confession prevails" - see Robert W. Yarbrough, 1-3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 221; and, from a traditional Christian perspective, Latter-day Saints do, unfortunately, make 'aberrant christological confession'.  Incidentally, LDS apostle Marion G. Romney, following Joseph Smith, also thought that this application of 1 John 4:2 was too simplistic to be used woodenly today, though on the separate ground that a confession of Jesus Christ is no longer a "capital offense" in the Western world - see his untitled address delivered on 8 October 1960 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1960 Conference Report, page 76.     
5   David E. Smith, Mormons and Evangelicals: Reasons for Faith (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), 123.    
6   A brief first-hand description of this and other instances of upstart prophecy in the Kirtland period is given by an ex-LDS man named Ezra Booth, in an 1831 letter reprinted in the excessively hostile book by Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed; or, a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 215-216.  A more balanced description of the Hiram Page false-revelation incident is given by Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 120-121; and by John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1994), 185. 
7   Joseph Fielding Smith, in Bruce R. McConkie, comp., Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1954-1956), 1:285.   
8   John Andreas Widtsoe, "The Principle of Revelation", address delivered on 7 October 1945 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1945 Conference Report, page 144: "The test of truth, given us is very simple, easily understood.  When an impression comes, call it inspiration or revelation, compare it with the words that issue from the mouth of the prophet who stands at the head of the Church.  Then, if your impression is in harmony with his expressed words, it is from God.  If it runs counter to the prophet's teachings, your impression is from an evil source."  For Elder Widtsoe, speaking entirely within an LDS context, the teachings of the prophet were that 'external source'.  For us, having to dig down a further level, we obviously must use 'external sources' that we can truly share: sound principles of reason, probable facts of history, and the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  
9   The irony here is that, from one valid perspective, the traditional Christian view is far more simple than the unnecessary clutter that obscures the gospel in LDS theology.  Instead of an elaborate genealogy of infinitely many anthropomorphic deities stretching back into time immemorial, traditional Christianity posits precisely one God who created, governs, and rules all things; and even though this God eternally exists as three persons, this is no more and no less than is needed to underscore both divine self-sufficiency and the gospel truth that "God is love" (1 John 4:8).  Instead of a multitude of independent mortal priesthood-holders, there is one High Priest and an earthly community of those who, equally among themselves, share in a royal-and-priestly calling just by being united to him.  Instead of a proliferation of many temples, traditional Christianity names one temple: Jesus Christ with his Spirit-indwelt people.  Instead of an endless multiplication of requirements and personal worthiness interviews and temple recommend interviews, traditional Christianity asks simply a true commitment of total trust in Jesus Christ, the Crucified-and-Risen Lord, from which trust will properly come godly fruit.  In short, instead of the cluttered complexity of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would suggest that it is traditional Christianity that really unveils the true simplicity of the true gospel.  Moreover, in recent days, many Latter-day Saints - in spite of professing a strong belief in modern-day continuing revelation - have become very reticent to offer firm answers to crucial questions about God, the world, and the very nature of reality (and this reticence is what can all-too-easily create the artificial illusion of simplicity); but traditional Christians - who do not, in fact, deny that God still leads us into truth - have long had firm, clear, well-thought-out answers to many of the important questions that Latter-day Saints raised anew and then left half-answered at best.  I say this, not with the intent of offending any members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but with the intent of pointing toward something that I have sincerely come to believe offers more answers, better answers, and a vision that is both simpler and deeper.   
10   Howard W. Hunter, "Blessed from on High", address delivered on 2 October 1988 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1988 Conference Report, page 70.  
11  Joseph Smith, address delivered on 12 May 1844, as reported by Thomas Bullock and quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 109. 
12   For a sustained treatment of this, see J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997).   
13   Brigham Young, address delivered on 18 May 1873 at the Ogden Tabernacle, as printed in Journal of Discourses 16:46.  The preface to this sixteenth volume of the Journal of Discourses declares that it contains "sacred writings of inspired men".  
14   John Hyde, "A Dialogue, by John Hyde, between a Jew, a Christian, and a Latter-day Saint", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 12/13 (1 July 1850): 201.  
15   Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part A, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000 [1979]), 6.
16   Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1965-1973), 1:55.  
17   Some Latter-day Saints are unfortunately hesitant to place much stock in what they read in the Old Testament and New Testament.  This reticence is often defended by a reference to the eighth Article of Faith, wherein Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible is the Word of God only "insofar as it is translated correctly".  Of course, that statement in itself is unobjectionable - naturally, if the text is translated or transmitted incorrectly, then the errors themselves are not divine revelation.  But unfortunately, this statement in the Pearl of Great Price is often taken by Latter-day Saints to imply that there are serious problems with the biblical text.  Most troubling, I have seen some Latter-day Saints, when confronted with passages in the Bible that do not fit their personal beliefs (whether LDS doctrine as they understand it, or even their mere personal opinions), instinctively assume that the Bible as we have it must have been corrupted on that point - and this assumption is made without any desire to investigate whether this is in fact the case.  I have to say that this reaction is not a godly one: it attempts to submit the scriptures to our (individual or collective) whims, rather than submit our beliefs and desires to God's revelation in the scriptures.  (For an LDS study of LDS attitudes toward the Bible, see Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, updated ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 (1991)].)  In point of fact, the text of the Bible is not so unreliable as some LDS writers or anti-Christian popular writers would have us believe.  There is a scholarly discipline called textual criticism that focuses on discerning the original text of scripture prior to developments in the transmission process; and textual critics have generally found that, save mostly for minor errors in certain manuscript traditions that are easy to rewind (e.g., clear spelling mistakes, repetition or omission of lines, meaning-neutral changes in word order), the text of the Old and New Testaments has been remarkably stable.  Utilizing these methods, scholars have produced excellent reconstructed texts texts to serve as a basis for modern translations of the Bible: the current standard for the Old Testament is the fourth-edition Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, soon to be replaced by the currently-in-progress Biblia Hebraica Quinta; whereas the current standard for the New Testament is NA27, the twenty-seventh edition of the Nestle-Aland text used in the fourth edition of the United Bible Society's (UBS4) critical edition of the Greek New Testament.  On the Old Testament, the reader might wish to consult Ellis R. Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994); Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995 [1988]), especially chapter 16; Mark F. Rooker, "The Transmission and Textual Criticism of the Old Testament", in Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti, eds., The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2011), 108-121; Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012).  On the New Testament, one might similarly wish to consult Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1964]); ibid., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994 [1971]); J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallce, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), chapters 4-8; Daniel B. Wallace, ed., Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011).  Similarly, even the Book of Mormon is subject to questions of textual criticism - see Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Critical Text of the Book of Mormon 4, 6 vols. (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2004-2009); culminating in Skousen's critical edition, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).  Just as this transmission history in and of itself generally does not undermine the faith that Latter-day Saints place in the Book of Mormon text, so the transmission history of the Old and New Testaments should not undermine the faith that Christians of all stripes place in the Bible.  As for translation, modern English translations are all done directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and mainly differ in their approach to translation philosophy, the reading level they aim for, and the stage of the development of the English language that they use (seventeenth-century English is not twenty-first-century English) - on this topic, see Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001); Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), chapters 6-7; Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013).  Just as non-English-speaking Latter-day Saints do not have particular anxiety regarding translations of the Book of Mormon into their language (in spite of errors like the infamous 1992 Spanish translation of the Book of Mormon that mistakenly spoke of 'la imposicion de anos', i.e., "the laying on of anuses", rather than "the laying on of hands" [la imposicion de manos]), so English-speaking Christians of all sorts need have no general anxiety regarding human-made translations of the Bible into English, which can always be checked against the Hebrew and Greek texts for fidelity.
18   Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998), 82: "Explain that personal revelation can also come to us through the scriptures or another person." 
19   Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998), 87: "Explain that we can receive personal revelation through reading and studying the scriptures.  The scriptures contain counsel from the Lord that applies to us as well as to the people who first received and recorded that counsel." 
20   Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1999), 33: "Answers could include that revelations from God will be in accordance with scripture and the counsel of the living prophets.  They will be edifying.  They will not lead us to do something that is contrary to the principles of righteousness."  
21   Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998), 85: "Emphasize to class members that God will never give them personal revelation that contradicts what has already been revealed in the scriptures." 
22   William E. Berrett, Teachings of the Doctrine and Covenants, Gospel Doctrine Course 27 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1954), 29.  
23   Hugh B. Brown, "The Quest for Truth", address delivered on 6 October 1962 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1962 Conference Report, page 41. 
24   Boyd K. Packer, "Do Not Fear", address delivered on 4 April 2004 at General Conference, as printed in the April 2004 Conference Report, page 81: "But analyze carefully and be prayerful (see D&C 9:8-9).  Then expect to have inspiration, which is revelation (see D&C 8:2-3)."
25   Howard W. Hunter, "Blessed from on High", address delivered on 2 October 1988 at General Conference, as printed in the October 1988 Conference Report, page 70. 
26   Boyd K. Packer, "The Father and the Family", address delivered on 2 April 1994 at General Conference, as printed in the April 1994 Conference Report, page 26.