As I’ve taught various classes at church, I’ve been struck by the similarities between frustrations expressed by teachers in using the church-approved materials with the frustrations of the Protestant reformers 500 years ago.

One of the fundamental questions of the Protestant reformation was who should be reading and interpreting scripture:  the clergy or the congregation.  In Catholicism, the mass was recited in Latin, and the priests were responsible for instructing the congregation on what the scriptures said.  This gave the church a high degree of message control. Throughout the years, many congregants were illiterate, which is one reason so many of the grand cathedrals use stained glass and other artwork to tell the Bible stories through pictures.

The Tyndale Bible was the first English Bible translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts which presented an interesting challenge to the Catholic church’s authority.  Suddenly, congregants could read for themselves what scripture said rather than just being told by their priests.  And scripture didn’t always say what they had been told it said.

Catholic officials, prominently Thomas More, charged that he had purposely mistranslated the ancient texts in order to promote anti-clericalism and heretical views.

No red pencil.

Tyndale’s views were seen as pro-Luther.

Some radical reformers preached that the true church . . . is wherever true Christians meet together to preach the word of God. To these reformers the structure of the Catholic Church was unnecessary and its very existence proved that it was in fact not the “true” Church. When Tyndale decided that the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) is more accurately translated congregation he was undermining the entire structure of the Catholic Church.

Tyndale was eventually strangled to death and burned at the stake.  If he were a Mormon, it’s more likely someone would have tattled to the bishop that he was introducing information that wasn’t in the manual.  I suppose being released from teaching is better than being actually martyred, but the sentiment, the desire to suppress scholarship and to censor interpretations other than the approved dogma, well, these feelings are still alive and well today.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  This is a human problem, and a fundamental religious question.

As a teacher, I sometimes noted that they can correlate the manual, but they can’t correlate the contents of my head.  I am still interacting with the text, and we are taught to teach with the spirit.  Teaching strictly from the manual can prevent this, particularly when the manual doesn’t line up with the source material.

Today evangelical religions evolve this idea of scripture before dogma[1] into a concept known as sola scriptura.[2] In essence, this means that scripture alone is authoritative and dictates the doctrines; you could say that in Catholicism, the church defines the scriptures, but in evangelicalism, the scriptures define the church.  Setting aside that modern context, the underlying concept is an important question for church members today:  the role of the church in interpreting doctrine.

I’ve taught gospel doctrine before and found the interpretation offered in the lesson manual to be implausible given the context of the scripture being studied, scholarly views on the scripture (e.g. questionable authorship or anachronistic meanings being applied), and plain and simply, the spirit.[3]

Who determines doctrine?

Mormonism puts us in a unique position.  We seem to have one foot in each camp.  On the one hand, we are encouraged to study our scriptures daily, to liken them unto ourselves.  We aren’t supposed to be bogged down by scriptural literalism or the notion that interpretations don’t change over time.  Our founder’s original religious experience was the response of an individual to a scripture he read, and that response resulted in a direct spiritual experience that told him to be wary of the religious orders of the day for their misinterpretation of scripture.  Nearly 200 years later, our CES correlated materials are required for our Sunday School and seminary classes, and they often contradict (or simply ignore) scholarship.  Many teachers, myself included, have been told that outside materials cannot be used in teaching.  In my case, that includes cautions against using the original source materials in a lesson.

Clearly a staged picture. No visible screens.

The idea that revelation can trump scholarship may be a noble principle, but a lot of our materials aren’t based on revealed information, just outdated opinions that have been in prior versions of manuals or General Conference talks that weren’t specifically researched, just given to address specific topics that aren’t related to these particular sets of scripture that we are studying in our lessons.  The more topical our lesson manuals become, the more likely our scriptures are used to proof-text ideas that are currently in vogue in church doctrine.  In other words, scripture study is not a serious endeavor in its own right, but merely a means to indoctrination.  We’ve begun to sound more Catholic and less like the Enlightenment.  Maybe institutional power inevitably erodes personal spiritual insight.

Mark Twain famously said:

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

Clearly, not everyone, literate or not, is going to really read their scriptures with the level of interest that will result in personal insight or new understanding.  Plenty of people simply don’t like to read, and others, despite being functionally literate, have never really learned how to comprehend well.  Lots of people just don’t want to be bothered to engage in the scriptures beyond the standard Sunday School answers. [4]

Cranmer, a one-man CES committee.

Part of making scripture more accessible was creating the Book of Common prayer, a liturgy written in English to make Anglican meetings more accessible and more uniform.  From an article in Christianity Today:

Cranmer wanted the literate to read the Bible thoroughly and faithfully, and for the illiterate to hear it read every day.

This next part will sound familiar to all Mormons who’ve been through the four-year scripture study for Gospel Doctrine:

In making his prayer book, Thomas Cranmer wanted to make sure that the people of England were constantly exposed to Holy Scripture in a language they understood, working through the whole of the Bible regularly and the Psalms every month, while following a calendar that rehearsed in every church year the whole story of salvation starting with the Fall and culminating in Christ’s unique sacrifice

Cranmer sounds like the prototype for a one-man correlation committee:

Thomas Cranmer wanted one book and one liturgical “use” for one country. He wanted English folk to be able to go into any church in England on any given day and experience the same worship service in the same words.


Scripture face palm.

So what started as a way to level the playing field, to encourage individuals to engage with religious texts directly, can quickly evolve into a requirement to come to one uniform conclusion about a text rather than allowing for multiple personalized viewpoints.

Given these inherent tensions, where do you think Mormonism fits in the spectrum?

[poll id=”542″]


[1] texts before sects?

[2] Sola scriptura in our day is a phrase that also connotes total literalism in interpreting the Bible and is one reason that most evangelicals reject the Book of Mormon, as they take Revelation 22:18 as an injunction against adding to the books of scripture:  “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.”

[3] For example, the manual referred to Saul as a “king” in a more modern sense of the word king:  a guy with a crown and a court.  The actual text doesn’t aggrandize or legitimize his kingship in this way, and most historians agree that he barely merits the name “king,” and that “mafia kingpin” or “clan leader” is closer to reality.  Another example, some of the Pauline epistles are likely not written by Paul, and other parts of scripture are demonstrated to be later additions, not part of the books they are currently in.

[4] I mean, ponderizing??  Come on.