Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Do Mormons Read The Bible? 6 Tips to Unlock The Bible.

Do Mormons believe the Bible to be the word of God?  Do they regard it as scripture?

The answer is: yes, the Bible is revered as scripture by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  However many Mormons, like many other Christians, likely do not read and study the Bible as much or as diligently as perhaps they ought to do. To the end that I might foster a greater love for and familiarity with the Holy Bible among all Christians, and especially among my fellow Latter-day Saints, I have provided six suggestions to help make the Bible more approachable and enjoyable.

1)  Context is everything.  Find out who is speaking (or writing), and to whom it is that this person is speaking or writing. Find out when (roughly) the passage of scripture that you happen to be studying was written, and try to find out where it was written as well. It’s hard to understand anything when you take it out of context, and you might even enjoy the discoveries that you make as you delve into the ancient cultures and environments that formed the backdrop (and informed the writers) of the Bible.

"It will greatly help you to understand scripture if you note – not only what is spoken and written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goes before and what follows." --Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), in his introduction to his Bible translation (the first complete English translation of the Bible to be put into print).

2) Bring a dictionary to your study table. The language of the King James Bible, while deeply poetic and beautiful in the majesty of its prose, is written in a form of English that people today would doubtless consider archaic at best. Some people find it much too difficult to understand, though I would submit that it just takes some getting used to, and that the language of the King James is not so far removed from ours as one might think at first glance. Sometimes it might be helpful to use a modern language  translation of the Bible, but I would caution you to take care concerning which translation you decide to use, because some translations are better than others.  The New International Version is probably the most scholarly and reputable of the newer translations, and I often find additional insight into the meaning of certain verses by consulting this Bible as a supplement to my study in the King James Bible.  However, you should not assume that a simpler, more modern, translation alone will allow you to fully grasp the principles and doctrines of the Bible if you are not willing to engage in rigorous study and diligent application of the teachings you find therein.  The doctrines and concepts are no less complex just because the language is a little more contemporary, and so you should not view a more modern translation as a shortcut to understanding.  For that reason, even if you were to choose to read a modern language translation, you would probably still find it helpful to define words and terms (and concepts) that might be unfamiliar to you using a standard dictionary, a Bible dictionary, or a scripture encyclopedia.

3) Consult study guides and commentaries. Much has been written both inside and outside of the Church by way of Biblical analysis, and history.  Many of these books can be invaluable as aids to increase and enhance your understanding and appreciation of the Bible text, and the world that is chronicled within it. A note of caution, however. When consulting study guides that were produced by people who are not members of the Church, it is helpful to remember that they do not have modern revelation from which to draw, and therefore these authors must depend largely upon their own learning. This is true, to a slightly lesser degree, of those authors who may be members, but who are not ordained general authorities of the Church. In other words, these authors may not have all of the answers, and may in fact have erred in some of their analyses if the Bible and its doctrines. Accept what they write with a grain of salt, and as always follow the guidance of the spirit when studying these things.

4) Read the Book of Mormon. You heard me. The best study aid for the Bible is the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon testifies of the truth of the Bible, and helps to clarify and bear witness to many of the doctrines contained within it. These books were intended to be read together (see 2 Nephi 3:12, Ezekiel 37:15-20, and D&C 20:8-12). You will find that your understanding and enjoyment of the Bible will increase as you study the Book of Mormon, and that studying the Bible will do the same for your appreciation of the Book of Mormon. Heber J. Grant found this to be true, as he stated in a 1936 edition of The Improvement Era: "All my life I have been finding additional evidences that the Bible is the Book of books, and that the Book of Mormon is the greatest witness for the truth of the Bible that has ever been published" (IE 39 [Nov. 1936]:660).

5) Just read it (the Bible that is). As Joseph Smith once said about the Bible, “He loves it best who reads it most.”  How can you expect to understand or enjoy a book that you never read?  Additionally, some of the intimidation you feel about reading the Bible is almost certainly due largely to negative hype. Don't let your anxiety over the possible difficulty of the text keep you from experiencing this incredible and inspired book.  You will find that the Bible is much easier to read and understand than you have been led to believe.

6) As always, seek the guidance and instruction of the Spirit. Without the spirit of God, you cannot truly hope to understand any of the things of God (See 1 Corinthians 2:9-14). God has prepared many things for the understanding of those that love him, and we can only gain access to those gifts through the inspiration of the spirit.  Many of the difficulties you may face when you begin reading the Bible can be largely overcome with the aid and inspiration of the Holy Ghost.

Why Are People Intimidated By the Bible?

I teach a weekly informal Bible study that consists mainly of my friends and their various acquaintances, most of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Bible (specifically the New Testament) was chosen as the text for study before I was even invited to teach. The reason for this choice, as far as I have been told, was that out of all of the books of scripture available for study, the Bible was the book about which my friends knew the least, and the one that they found the most difficult to understand on their own.  In talking to other members of the church (especially those who are in their early to mid-twenties) about the Bible over the past few years, I have found this feeling about the Bible to be almost universal. I have discovered that many people (not just members of the Church) feel intimidated by the Bible.  That is understandable--after all, the Bible is a fairly tough read even when compared to the other standard works.

What is not understandable to me are those members of the LDS church who look upon the Bible as if it is somehow suspect because there have been a few errors made in the course of the many copies and translations that have been made of the Bible over the centuries.  This suspicion seems as bizarre as it is baseless.  After all, the church devotes two whole years of Sunday School instruction, not to mention two whole years of high school seminary instruction, to the study of the Old and New Testaments, which I take to be a pretty good sign that the Church itself considers the Bible to be a crucial part of our scriptural canon.  Yet somehow the Bible doesn't seem to get as much respect as it deserves among some of the church's less enlightened members.  In fact, some of my friends found that when they tried to invite some of their friends to our informal Bible study, their friends did not respond favorably to the term “Bible study.” Apparently, some of these people even responded to the invitation with “Bible study? What, so you’re not a Mormon anymore?”  I personally have had many people either imply or say outright that I personally must have fallen away from the church if I am teaching my own Bible study class.  This attitude irritates me deeply.   I don’t see how it naturally follows that a Bible Study cannot be held or attended by righteous members of this Church.  It boggles my mind that these people cannot believe that an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would even want to hold a Bible study. 

Where do these unfortunate notions come from?  In my opinion, they are a product of a strange phenomenon in the sub-culture that surrounds the church that some of my non-member friends had to point out to me before I could begin to fully comprehend the extent of this disturbing trend.

It was brought to my attention that many members of the church, particularly LDS youth (and young adults), seem to know next to nothing about the Bible, while most of them have read at least a part of the Book of Mormon. The people that pointed this out to me also asked me why it was that the Church seemed to de-emphasize the Bible in its religious instruction to these young people. While I was quick to point out that the Church does NOT de-emphasize the importance of the Bible (in fact nothing could be further from the truth), I was disappointed to find that I could not entirely refute their assertions concerning the general level of Bible knowledge among the members of the church (especially when it comes to the youth of the church).

The Bible Testifies of the Doctrines of the Restoration

I often resented it when, as a missionary, I was told in what I felt was a patronizing manner that I needed to learn to read the Bible so I could learn the truth. The reason why I resented such statements so much was because the people who made them were trying to imply that if I had ever read the Bible there would be no way that I could believe in my religion. I felt then, and still feel, that there is nothing in the Bible that can make a righteous member of the Church of Jesus Christ (in any age) lose their testimony, anymore than there is in any of the other scriptures. In fact I feel that the Bible (as well as the other standard works), if read with the guidance of the spirit, can only testify of the truth of what we believe as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I can also testify that each book of scripture within the LDS standard works supports and sustains the other, and that they are better read together than apart.

D&C 42:12  And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel.

Brigham Young echoed my sentiments when he said: "There is no clash in the principles revealed in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants." (Journal of Discourses, 5:329). “In all my teachings, I have taught the Gospel from the Old and New Testaments. I found therein every doctrine, and the proof of every doctrine, the Latter-day Saints believe in, as far as I know, therefore I do not refer to the Book of Mormon as often as I otherwise should. There may be some doctrines about which little is said in the Bible, but they are all couched therein, and I believe the doctrines because they are true, and I have taught them because they are calculated to save the children of men.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 16:74) Brigham Young also declared in another place that the Book of Mormon “proves that the Bible is true. What does the infidel world say about the Bible? They say that the Bible is nothing better than last year's almanac; it is nothing but a fable and priestcraft, and it is good for nothing. The Book of Mormon, however, declares that the Bible is true, and it proves it; and the two prove each other true." (Journal of Discourses, 13:175).

D&C 20:9-12  [The Book of Mormon] contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also; Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever.  Amen.

D&C 33:16  And the Book of Mormon and the holy scriptures are given of me for your instruction; and the power of my Spirit quickeneth all things.

"Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). We love the Bible and other scriptures. That may be surprising to some who may not be aware of our belief in the Bible as the revealed word of God. It is one of the pillars of our faith, a powerful witness of the Savior and of Christ’s ongoing influence in the lives of those who worship and follow Him. The more we read and study the Bible and its teachings, the more clearly we see the doctrinal underpinnings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We tend to love the scriptures that we spend time with. We may need to balance our study in order to love and understand all scripture" (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

For a powerful example of the Bible acting as a primary witness of Jesus Christ and "the doctrinal underpinnings of [His] restored gospel," please read my article "The Living Christ: The Scriptural Basis for Mormon Beliefs About Christ."

Why do People think Mormons don't believe in the Bible?

In truth, the notion that Mormons do not believe in or read the Bible is largely a misconception stemming from the fact that we will forever be associated in people's minds with our unique book of scripture, the Book of Mormon.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that many people assume we are promoting our book as scripture OVER, or instead of, or as a replacement for, the Bible.  This misconception is happily promulgated by the enemies of the church as a way to make us seem more alien and even less Christian in the popular mind.  This idea could not be further from the truth:

"Brothers and sisters, I am sure many of you have had the experience of hearing people say that “Mormons are not Christians because they have their own Bible, the Book of Mormon.” To anyone harboring this misconception, we say that we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and the author of our salvation and that we believe, revere, and love the Holy Bible. We do have additional sacred scripture, including the Book of Mormon, but it supports the Bible, never substituting for it.

"Those who join this Church do not give up their faith in the Bible—they strengthen it. The Book of Mormon does not dilute nor diminish nor de-emphasize the Bible. On the contrary, it expands, extends, and exalts it. The Book of Mormon testifies of the Bible, and both testify of Christ" (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

Let me reiterate this crucial concept:  Mormons are taught to believe in and study the Bible as divine scripture.  Any claim to the contrary is a mistake which can be easily dispelled by talking to an ACTUAL member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to learn more about what we believe.

"Those who think that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not believe in Jesus Christ or in the Bible should take time to understand the Church, the significance of its name, and the power of its message" (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

Even in view of all of this, I was struck by the idea that there might be more factual reasons to explain why others seem to think that “Mormons don’t read the Bible,” and so I began to study the attitudes of the members of the church toward the scriptures as a whole, and especially towards the Bible. As I observed my fellow members while I was on my mission, I found that most missionaries, and some members, know their scriptures-ALL of their scriptures- like the back of their hands. There was even a saying among the saints in Argentina that “The Mormons are the only ones who believe the Bible,” which echoes something Joseph Smith said when he was asked “Do you believe the Bible?” to which he responded “we are the only people under heaven that does, for there are none of the religious sects of the day that do.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 119-121. To complement this saying, I found that many of the saints in Argentina seemed to be extremely conversant with all of the scriptures, but especially with the Bible.

Unfortunately, this is not true of all of the members of the church around the world, and I was especially dismayed to return home from my mission to find a sort of apathy among my peers concerning the contents of the Bible in particular, and frankly, of the scriptures as a whole.  It is my opinion that, while the problem is most apparent among the youth of the Church, the actual roots of this problem go much deeper, and the problem itself is much more widespread.  For example, I have personally attended Sunday School lessons about such gospel topics as spiritual gifts, or the plan of salvation (concerning which principles the Bible has a great deal to say), and have been somewhat dismayed to note that the teacher studiously avoided using any Bible references to teach the lesson. (In fairness the teacher in the Sunday school lesson about the plan of salvation neglected to utilize any scriptures at all, much less those of the Bible, presumably for time's sake.)

While I am definitely not accusing the membership of the Church of rejecting the Bible altogether, I have noticed a recent tendency to neglect this important book of scripture. I am not alone in this appraisal, as it is partially echoed in this observation by two BYU professors in the introduction to their commentary on the second half of the New Testament: “Sadly, the second half of the New Testament is sometimes neglected by Latter-day Saints. That is unfortunate because the times in which those books of the New Testament were written were not so different from our own…Latter-day saints and all other Christians for that matter, ought to highly prize the second half of the New Testament…The information in those books and the lessons we can learn from them could become a towering source of peace and power in coping with life’s challenges in our times” (D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, Verse by Verse: Acts through Revelation, vii and ix).

Moreover, this neglect has not escaped the notice of the General Authorities of the Church, and it is apparently a big enough concern that it has prompted Apostolic warnings addressed to the whole church such as this one given by Elder M. Russel Ballard in General Conference in 2007:

You young people especially, do not discount or devalue the Holy Bible. It is the sacred, holy record of the Lord’s life. The Bible contains hundreds of pages more than all of our other scripture combined. It is the bedrock of all Christianity. (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

The Bible is one of the Pillars of Our Faith, and the Church Encourages the Members to Study and to Revere its Contents

I am curious as to how this state of affairs could possibly have arisen, given that the Church has an excellent religious education system, especially where its youth are concerned, in its seminary program. In the Seminary course of instruction, two full years are devoted to the study of the Bible (one year for the Old Testament, and one year for the New Testament). During the course of their seminary classes, youth of high school age are strongly encouraged to read and study the scriptures (especially the books that are the focus of study for that year) on their own time, outside of classroom instruction.  They are even given a set of “Scripture Mastery Scriptures” (key passages that provide important doctrinal or spiritual insight and understanding) that each student is encouraged to commit to memory.  The Church even goes so far as to provide sets of flash cards that contain the scripture mastery scriptures for each course. This excellent religious instruction does not end when these kids enter college, and if anything it only improves when they enter one of the “Institutes of Religion” that the Church has established to help instruct its college age members.

Beyond that, the church has provided an excellent set of resources for the average member to gain greater access to, and insight into, the scriptures as a whole and the Bible in particular. Since 1979 the Church has produced an edition of the King James Bible that is extensively annotated and cross-referenced in such a way as to encourage and facilitate an increased understanding of the Bible in harmony with the other scriptures that the Church has established as canon (known as “The Standard Works”). The value and quality of this edition is beyond measure, and is apparent even to those outside of the church, as related by President Thomas S. Monson, “Prestigious awards for them have been numerous, both in America and in Great Britain. A citation presented in October of 1982 by the Laymen’s National Bible Committee is typical: “Presented to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in appreciation of outstanding service to the Bible cause through the publication of its own new edition of the King James version, which features interpretive chapter headings, a simplified footnote system, and the linking of references to all other LDS scriptures, thereby greatly enhancing the study of the Bible by its membership.” (Thomas S. Monson, “‘Come, Learn of Me’,” Ensign, Dec 1985, 46).

A breakdown of the excellent resources found on a typical page of the LDS edition of the KJV Bible.

In 1983, the First presidency issued a statement concerning the intent behind the creation of such a volume. In that statement, “the First Presidency highlighted the role and value of the Bible in the lives of individuals. They observed that when "read reverently and prayerfully, the Holy Bible becomes a priceless volume, converting the soul to righteousness. Principal among its virtues is the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, through whom eternal salvation may come to all." They continued with the promise that "as we read the scripture, we avail ourselves of the better part of this world's literature" and they encouraged all to "go to the fountain of truth, searching the scriptures, reading them in our homes, and teaching our families what the Lord has said through the inspired and inspiring passages of the Holy Bible…We commend to all people everywhere the daily reading, pondering and heeding of the divine truths of the Holy Bible." (Victor L. Ludlow, The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Statement of the First Presidency," p. 3).

In the same statement the First Presidency also reiterated the official policy of the church concerning the Holy Bible when they said "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts the Holy Bible as essential to faith and doctrine…Moreover, the Holy Bible is the textbook for adult, youth and children's classes throughout the Church each year."

More recently, Elder M. Russell Ballard has reiterated the Church's teachings that the Bible is divine in origin and central to our faith:

"I bear solemn witness that we are true and full believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His revealed word through the Holy Bible. We not only believe the Bible—we strive to follow its precepts and to teach its message. The message of our missionaries is Christ and His gospel and His Atonement, and the scriptures are the text of that message. We say to all people, “We extend our love to you and invite you to come. Let us share all that God has revealed” (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

The Church clearly endorses the Bible as one of the great sources to which we can prayerfully turn to obtain the inspired word of God. It is therefore deeply puzzling to me to find that there seems to be general lack of Bible knowledge among many of the young people of the Church. I believe that this is because we as members rely too much on the excellent educational resources provided by the Church to teach our children what they need to know about the scriptures, when these volumes were provided to us with the intention that we ourselves would take the initiative to “go to the fountain of truth, searching the scriptures, reading them in our homes, and teaching our families what the Lord has said through the inspired and inspiring passages of the Holy Bible” ("Statement of the First Presidency," p. 3). If we neglect to obey this council to teach and read the scriptures to our families, then no amount of outside religious instruction will compensate for that failure on our part in the lives of our children.

ALL Scripture is Given by God

I can only speculate that this occasional neglect of the Bible by the members may have its roots in a misunderstanding of one of our own articles of faith:

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God."

Unfortunately, some members may place too much emphasis on the phrase "as far as it is translated correctly," while simultaneously forgetting that one of our central teachings and beliefs is that "We believe the Bible to be the word of God."  I have noticed that this has caused some to view the Bible as suspect because of possible errors in translation, or changes to the text.  I am here to tell you that these changes, such as they are, are fairly minor, and are more than compensated for by the clarifying light of modern revelation and restoration scripture.  There is no reason whatsoever to view the Bible as anything else but what it is, namely "the word of God."

I have also wondered if this neglect of the Bible among some members may have been perpetuated as an unintended byproduct of the relatively recent (and oft-repeated) mandate by the leadership of the Church for every member to read the Book of Mormon. I have no problem whatsoever with this counsel. Quite the contrary, in fact I sustain and support it, and if you were to ask me where to start in your personal study of the scriptures, I personally would strongly recommend beginning with the Book of Mormon. The problem arises because some of the members enthusiastically take this counsel, but then apparently run out of steam when it comes to reading and studying any of the other books of scripture. Perhaps they feel that they have done their duty by reading the Book of Mormon, and that no more is required of them. Having said that, I suspect that most members have a sincere desire to read and study all and each of the standard works in turn, but for some reason many members find it difficult to approach the Bible.

I think it is true that many people (not just members of the Church) feel intimidated by the Bible, but I feel that this is unfortunate, because as Joseph Smith declared in the eighth Article of Faith, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God”.  I am  therefore saddened to consider the undeniable fact that so many members of the Church, especially those who are under thirty, have failed to learn to love the Bible. It is a book of great value, and is an irreplaceable part of scripture. “Latter-day saints and all other Christians for that matter, ought to highly prize the [Bible]…The information in those books and the lessons we can learn from them could become a towering source of peace and power in coping with life’s challenges in our times.” (D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, Verse by Verse: Acts through Revelation, ix).

I have personally found the Bible to be a source of great personal comfort, and small wonder, because the Bible contains sacred truths which are witnessed by the power of the spirit to those who are willing to receive it.

"The Bible literally contains within its pages the converting, healing Spirit of Christ, which has turned men’s hearts for centuries, leading them to pray, to choose right paths, and to search to find their Savior.  The Holy Bible is well named. It is holy because it teaches truth, holy because it warms us with its spirit, holy because it teaches us to know God and understand His dealings with men, and holy because it testifies throughout its pages of the Lord Jesus Christ. " (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

Joseph Smith loved the Bible, he read and studied and treasured and taught from the words contained in it. In fact it was while reading the Bible that Joseph Smith was inspired to seek the answers that led to the restoration of Christ’s Church on the earth. I feel that one cannot have a complete understanding of Christ himself and his atonement unless one has read and studied the accounts of his ministry and the testimonies of his divine mission and sacrifice that one can only find in the Bible. This opinion piece is in no way intended to diminish the importance of the Book of Mormon, but instead I hope to call all of my fellow saints to a renewed appreciation of the Bible and the treasures contained therein, to the end that both books will become one in our hands. The Book of Mormon may be the keystone of our religion, but The Bible is part of the foundation upon which the Church of Jesus Christ is built.

"Abraham Lincoln said of the Bible: “This Great Book … is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong” (Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865 [1989], 628).

“How grateful we should be for the Holy Bible. In it we learn not only of the life and teachings and doctrines of Christ, we learn of His Church and of His priesthood and of the organization which He established and named the Church of Jesus Christ in those former days. We believe in that Church, and we believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that same Church, restored to earth, complete, with the same organization and the same priesthood.

Without the Bible, we would not know of His Church then, nor would we have the fulness of His gospel now" (M. Russell Ballard, “The Miracle of the Holy Bible,” Conference Report, April 2007, lds.org).

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