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The Fallibility of Scripture: Blasphemy or A Scripturally Consistent Idea?

After a very long hiatus of not writing any specific blog posts, I am back on this Halloween night to write a short blurb about a topic that has been my theological meat and drink for a little while now. Admittedly, it is a controversial topic, but one I feel can edify and uplift and, ironically, lift our reading of the scriptures to new heights.
For much of the previous decade, it has been popular in some circles to discuss prophetic fallibility. While it is undoubtedly true that prophets are not infallible, but this idea has been over-emphasized by some. My typical and very short response on how to deal with prophetic fallibility was to refer the group or individual to Mormon 9:31, which says:

Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

Verse 30, the whole of chapter 9 for that matter, right before the above verse puts this in a context of Moroni speaking to those of us living in the Latter-Days. In other words, prophetic fallibility isn't a flaw of the Lord's Kingdom, but it is a gift for us to see how the grace of God works in our lives if we simply try our best to follow the Savior.

As I have continually pondered on this verse, another layer or dimension of the doctrinal diamond it teaches has opened up to me. I have realized that this verse is an admission from a prophet of God that scripture is, also, not infallible. What follows is a quick elucidation of some of the themes and insights I have gleaned as I have read the scriptures with this understanding.

The Scriptures Are An Adaptation to Our Weak Understandings

Recently, a plain scripture was brought to my attention that describes this principle:

 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. (D&C 1:24)

Here God explicitly states that he speaks in a manner that will allow us to understand in our weakness and language. What does this look like when God does this? In other words, is there an example in the scriptures of this happening so we can get a better idea?

I believe D&C 19:6-7 is the classic example of this:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.

 In my opinion, we get another example of this in Moses 1:33-35.

33 And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten...

35 But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.

There are other examples (like in Alma 60:33 if one looks carefully and recognizes the context), but in these two examples, we have God using language that, at times, doesn't reflect the exactness of His character. It should be self-evident how this is beneficial for us, but it is fascinating the implications for the scriptures.

One of the interesting implications is how God, perhaps, uses legalistic language in the scriptures to teach about sin and the afterlife when the reality of such things is perhaps much different than what He is saying. That might sound blasphemous to some but consider the context for much of the way ourselves and much of Christianity interprets scripture. Namely, we have a very platonic or Greek way of understanding Christian concepts. What if to get His children started on the straight and narrow path God has to borrow the words of Plato or Saint Augustine? If he taught the things of eternity too plainly, it might be to our detriment. This was especially true in the early days of The Restoration; an example of this is how many members of the early Church left the Church based on the Universalist tone of D&C 76 (more on that can be read here).

The prophet Joseph lamented about trying to teach the things of eternity to the early Saints because of tradition:

"... there has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation; it has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn dodger for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle. Even the Saints are slow to understand. I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to pieces like glass, as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions." (1)

With a loving Heavenly Father who is more patient than the prophet Joseph, he knows when to say things, how to say things, and where to say them all for our benefit. 

For myself, this all underscores the absolute necessity of living oracles: prophets, seers, and revelators. It also underscores the nature of the continuing restoration. A wonderful example of the Lord helping His people evolve past some of the language He uses in the scriptures is the recent changes to discipline within the Church. Below is a summary found in a recent Church News article (2).

With all this said, I want to briefly say that I think this is partly why the Book of Mormon was written for our day. While it still has relics of the Lord teaching his children in this way, it also has hints to push His children onward towards more plain things. In fact, this all might give us a more 'plain' insight into what Nephi means when he uses that word so often in his writings.

For me, this is all thrilling to contemplate. What is the Lord willing to teach us? What other things are hidden from our view because the Lord is taking his time with us?

The Scriptures Point Away From Themselves

As a young teenager and missionary, one of my favorite scriptures to pull on people was 2 Nephi 29. I have some fond memories of sharing this with some great Christian classmates who had that chapter prick them to the heart. This chapter warns against the rigidness of sola scriptura (means "by scripture alone") by warning those who say, "A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible." It profoundly teaches how God's words never cease. 

Over the past several years I have found this warning equally applying to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In some sense, we get in the mode of putting scripture on a pedestal it never claims to be upon. This is one of the main messages of the prophet Jacob in Jacob chapter 4:

8 Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God...

10 Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand...

12 And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come?

13 Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also epake them unto prophets of old.

14 But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble. (Jacob 4:8-14)

The audience for Jacob's words were men of the Nephite covenant community (hence his repetitious use of the word 'brethren' in his teaching). Many of us as Latter-day Saints will wholeheartedly say we believe in prophets and in scripture, but how did the brethren in Jacob's day get to the point that they had to be told to "despise not the revelations of God"? Surely they believed the scriptures, they had just used the scriptures to try to explain away their behavior in the previous two chapters.

It is my belief that Jacob is identifying the principle here that scripture points away from itself. How many of us fall into the trap of valuing scripture, but not allowing it to help us wrestle truths from the grasp of a giving Father in Heaven?

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, while quoting the esteemed Dr. N.T. Wright, has articulated this exact principle:

"In the words of esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, does not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write,’ but [rather] ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.’ ” In other words, “Scripture itself points … away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself.” So the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God. The communication of those gifts comes from God as living, vibrant, divine revelation.This doctrine lies at the very heart of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our message to the world." ("My Words... Never Cease", Elder Holland quoting N. T. Wright, "The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture" (2005), xi & 24)

Can we do an honest self-inventory to see if scripture has become a stumbling block for us at times instead of a stepping stone?

It might be a worthwhile exercise because, as shown in the first principle, it might be the difference in believing the doctrines of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, & Jonathan Edwards (or some mixture of a sort) more so than the Doctrine of Christ. 

With all this said, we also don't want to turn revelation into an idol. It is also my opinion that truth has been scattered abroad across the world and known universe, and the continuing restoration is also about us gathering it in instead of only waiting for a fax machine reply from heaven.


Some might be wondering if this could possibly destroy one's belief in the scriptures. I have thought about that at times as well and I keep coming back to where this all started; namely, Mormon 9:31:

Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

The fallibility of scripture is a gift. It spurs us to the continual discovery of a "God [who] stands revealed or He remains forever unknown" (3). The fallibility of scripture is an opportunity to really discover the grace of God. A God who could redeem men like Peter, Nephi, Moses, Enos, and others despite the weakness and sin that often beset them. It allows us to more fully liken the scriptures unto ourselves; namely, it might just be as full of culture, tradition, and weakness like we are, but still can bring us to fountains eternal.

Some might argue that the word 'fallibility' might be too strong of a word to describe a God who is capacitating His words to our weakness. That is probably a fair argument and if that is how you feel then this article would have accomplished what I hope it would. 

Lastly, getting better acquainted with the fallibility of scripture will allow us to not be so rigid in a world begging for answers. The esteemed Dr. N.T. Wright describes this predicament:

"... though the Western tradition and particularly the Protestant and evangelical traditions have claimed to be based on the Bible and rooted in scripture, they have by and large developed long-lasting and subtle strategies for not listening to what the Bible is in fact saying. We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions.” (Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 437-445). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

In our quest to get to know God and to redeem the world we need the revealed Christ, not the one only found in scripture.


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