Exploring Mormon Thought: Biblical Criticism

William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"Life has intervened and time is short.

But I still want to write a few more posts on Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought books before putting the project to bed.

The third volume of the series, Of God and Gods, begins with some 200 pages dedicated to summarizing some of the most persuasive and respected contemporary work in biblical criticism.

In particular, Ostler focuses on what this scholarship reveals about what the biblical text’s themselves say about the nature of God. It turns out – surprise! – that the ancient Hebrews didn’t have anything like the creedal Trinity in mind. (It also turns out that NT authors didn’t either.) Moreover, it even turns out that many of the Hebrew authors didn’t have anything like a strict (metaphysical) monotheism in mind. This is true even of the Shema. Rather, monolatry is more apt as a general descriptive category for the milieu than monotheism.

I won’t rehash Ostler’s own summaries and arguments on these points here (though you should read them yourself – they’re persuasive, instructive, accessible and don’t require any philosophical training), but I do want to make a kind of meta–observation about what Blake’s approach, here, models for Mormon thinking in general.

He’s what Ostler does in this book: he marshall’s, to devastating effect, the best of contemporary biblical criticism in order to cut creedal monotheism off at its knees and make room for a Mormon conception of God that is more complex, plural, and passible.

Read that previous sentence again: Ostler sides with contemporary biblical criticism in defense of Mormon theology.

The interesting by-product of this strategy is that, having cut creedal monotheism off at the knees, he has also cut generations of CES-style, neo-evangelical Mormon readings of the biblical texts off at the knees.

Further, the most remarkable aspect of Ostler’s work here is that he sides with biblical criticism without divesting the biblical texts of their revelatory force and authority. In fact, he engages biblical criticism as a way of affirming and defending the Bible’s revelatory authority.

On this score, take the first 200 pages of Volume Three as a primer on how to think biblically as a Mormon theologian.

Don’t hide in the skirts of neo-evangelical literalism and inerrantism. Take all of the best historical and critical scholarship on the Bible that we have, look it square in the eye without gullibility or bias,  and then work with it on behalf of Mormonism.

12 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: Biblical Criticism

  1. Great points, Adam. There are so many Christians (LDS and otherwise) who have developed a certain view of what the Bible states, but when one really looks closely at it, we see something radically different. It is hard for many people to give up their cherished traditions, in order to see the truth of what the Bible actually says about God.
    But we live in a time when we need to do just that. We cannot know God, if we hold onto traditions that are based on light readings of the scripture. We cannot read one verse “God is Spirit” and define God from three words, when most of the Bible sees him as anthropomorphic and as three separate beings.
    Even early apologists, such as Origen, saw the distinctions that we have since lost or ignored.

  2. Adam, thanks very much. Now I don’t feel quite so bad about bringing up the documentary hypothesis in church last week. In Gospel Essentials. As the teacher.

  3. Thanks for the description of the first part of Volume 3, Adam. I wish Blake’s productive use of modern critical biblical scholarship was not such an outlier within the Church. Leadership in particular seems to follow “neo-evangelical literalism and inerrantism” without much reflection on the validity of that approach and with little or no familiarity with modern biblical scholarship.

    A better model to embrace would be the Catholic approach. After fighting against modernism for generations, in 1943 a Papal Encyclical was issued endorsing the use by Catholic scholars of lower criticism (critical study of the biblical text) and higher criticism (the historical-critical method for putting texts into historical context and interpreting the text). So we’re 69 years behind the Catholics. It’s really quite embarrassing.

  4. # 1 “We cannot know God, if we hold onto traditions that are based on light readings of the scripture.”

    What do you mean by knowing God? Isn’t it possible to know everything about God without actually knowing him? (Mosiah 5:13)

  5. this sounds really good. maybe a little too good. but i haven’t read ostler’s volumes. i’m gonna have to one day.

    “…look it square in the eye without gullibility or bias, and then work with it on behalf of Mormonism.”

    a nice recipe, i’d say. i’m not sure which part is more difficult, the looking or the working with it.

    and what dave said about being behind catholics (who were behind liberal [german] protestants and anglicans).

  6. “Leadership in particular seems to follow “neo-evangelical literalism and inerrantism””- True, but not by any (apparent) decision informed by careful study and prayer, but by default adherence to a (relatively recent?) mainstream tradition.

    I suspect that many leaders of the Church, if they had time and interest, would find their opinions shifting, once they encounter this kind of work. I know my Dad has, though he’s only a Stake President. He’s on board with the idea of Genesis answering ancient questions in ancient ways, instead of modern scientific histories.

  7. In the same vein, I would like to recommend two new books published by the Open Yale Course Series: “Introduction to the Bible,” by Professor Christine Hayes, and “New Testament History and Literature,” by Professor Dale Martin. Both are excellent syntheses of the origins and history of the Old and New Testaments, though they do not dwell on doctrinal issues or questions of comparative religion (by the way, the word “Bible” in the first book refers to the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the OT). And each is available in paperback on Amazon for about twelve bucks. I enjoyed them both immensely and plan on re-reading them several times.

    It is exciting to see so many new and accessible scholarly works, by both LDS and non-LDS authors, on a variety of historical and theological topics. Matthew Bowman, in his recent book “The Mormon People,” observed that CES is little more than a youth ministry that eschews all serious scholarship and doctrinal issues and is wedded to the ultra-conservative theology of Bruce R. McConkie. If this does not change, I fear that CES will become largely irrelevant.

  8. You are most welcome, Todd. The books I think are better than the actual courses because they contain more information and a more thorough analysis of the history surrounding the authorship of the Old and New Testaments. They also, like Mr. Ostler, discuss how the theology and doctrines of the Israelites were influenced by their neighbors and how they evolved over time. They both do a good job of synthesizing the latest scholarship and archeological discoveries, and they do it strictly from an academic perspective. Their sole focus is trying, to the extent possible, to understand how the Bible came to be and what the authors of the books of the Bible were trying to say.

  9. Just bought the first book in the series on the kindle. It looks like the kindle version is only half the book. The second part of the book doesn’t seen to be available on the kindle. Considering the hardcover is only a few dollars more than the kindle version, I feel a little cheated. Our am I missing something.

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