Friday, August 10, 2007

Fragmentary Scripture

When we moved here three years ago, our adult Sunday school was reading the New Testament, studying, and discussing the text. We finished up about a year ago and started our reread of the Inspired Version with Genesis. In addition, one of the elders conducts a Book of Mormon class on Sunday afternoons.

One of the recurring themes in the classes is how often a reference is made to a substantiating scripture either in the same book or the other. Often, the cross reference is to the Doctrine and Covenants and frequently the idea is supported by all three books and more than once in each. The classic example is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John where each gives a biography of Christ. Yes, they tell the same story with some variations but the nuts and bolts of His teachings remain pretty much the same. The real differences are His life as seen by four different sets of eyes. As Christians, we are reassured by these men who were so close to the Master and shared so many common experiences.

We have all, at one time or another latched on to a particular bit of scripture and used it as a lamp to guide our way in a very dark world. As a former alcoholic, I treasure the words found in James which assure me that upon repentance, my sins were not only forgiven, but God “remembers them no more”. It resonates with me and I’m sure some other particular bit of wisdom or assurance from our scriptural canon resonates with you. In most of these, the meaning is very clear and more than likely supported by similar passages elsewhere. I love reading the words of Christ in the Book of Mormon which are virtually word for word repetition of his utterances in the Inspired Version. It contributes duplicated testimony and sometimes, further enlightenment, on the message from our Savior. I welcome these additional passages as verification of the pertinence and importance of the subject matter. I take great joy in locating these repetitions.

I have observed that some are willing to isolate a few words or an entire verse and form a life style without regard to the context of the surrounding chapter. So then, would it be possible for me in good conscience, as a recovering alcoholic to “enjoy a little wine for thy stomach’s sake?” I think not! To isolate this verse and use it as a guide would be ridiculous, as well as dangerous for me and for others. To brush off “the appearance of evil” and “moderation in all things” does no service to the first quote. One does not sit down and “read” the bible as you might a page turner novel from Tom Clancy. To extract the true meanings of scripture involves not just reading but study, contemplation and prayer.

It matters who said it. To whom it was addressed. Is it backed by additional scripture? What was taking place in the preceding chapter and the conclusions drawn in the following verses are both important to drawing any conclusions. The Bible is not a series of sound bites. It is a narrative with a beginning and an end. As you follow the early books and the travails of the Jews, how can you not wonder why these folks just didn’t get it. They can hardly wait for God to get out of their sight so they build yet another idol. Their disobedience is astonishing. It’s almost as bad as ours. But, I digress.

One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate taking a few words from one verse and failing to understand its meaning is I Corinthians 15:29. The chapter opens with Paul giving the Church in Corinth a bold testimony of witnessing the resurrection. He is self-deprecating in his role as an apostle but gives God all the credit for being the man he has become. We know from historical investigation that many of those Greeks he addresses are Gnostics of a Coptic cult. They have “come” to Christ but still retain some strange practices. He is trying with all his power to get them to understand the resurrection and the possibilities it offers them. In reasoning for the reality of the resurrection he poses a rhetorical question: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all. Why are they then baptized for the dead?” He is making an argument for understanding the resurrection without which death would hold no future. He is not endorsing the practice but rather, using a logical rhetorical question, to pursue his point. It is clear from the parable in Luke 16:24 through 36 that we are accountable in heaven for those activities which we have engaged in on earth! No baptism after death will separate us from those records.

To search for supporting scriptures of this doctrine throughout the canon is fruitless. The Book of Mormon does not even vaguely hint at it. Section 107 was relegated to Appendix status due to lack of acceptance by the RLDS and finally removed entirely by conference action. This practice is an integral part of the temple rites in the LDS, but for us, absent a temple and any solid scriptural injunction, it would be impossible to perform. And – given the above mentioned parable in Luke – it would be an exercise in futility anyway. It is alleged that Joseph Smith preached to this in a funeral oration shortly before his death. The records of this event were supposedly recorded and were to be included in the Book of Commandments. With the sacking and razing of the print shop, the pages of the Book of Commandments were scattered and mostly destroyed by a mob. One pauses to wonder what ever else might have been intended for print. The remnants were then printed after his death and therefore not subject to review by the prophet.

I choose this example to illustrate the point because it represents a sterling example of following fragmentary scripture to attempt to justify a questionable practice. The contribution made by Joseph Smith toward establishing God’s true church took courage, strength, and the ultimate offering of faith as exemplified by his death. He was a special man for a special time. I do not believe that he was selected at random by the Almighty for the duties he was assigned. He had the God given talents and spiritual condition which were required for the tasks he faced. Does he belong in the company of Moses, Paul, Isaiah, John the Revelator and others? I am easily convinced that he does. Like those saints, was he first a man? Yes! Like all the others he shared faults, foibles and occasional imperfections which mark the separating line between God and man. To deny this is not to study the prophet’s life to any degree. This denial would also imply a lack of understanding of the perfection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith’s inspirational rendering of the story of Enoch isolates that rarest of examples of a man who has achieved that degree of perfection which removed a man to sit at the right hand of the Father.

What this should demonstrate is the futility of hanging one’s hat on fragmentary scripture. Please don’t rely on the opinion of men, but rather pursue our God given resources (the three books) for the redundancy so readily provided to establish the veracity of every position taken. He has given us the tools to expand our knowledge of His will. The entire matter simply underscores the need for further study, contemplation and prayer.

Cecil Moon


Equally Coy said...

Go over to and read a few of the threads and you will find all the fragmentation you can care to stomach.

My favorite soundbite these days goes along this line of thought:
any interpretation or application of scripture is the "arm of flesh" and is inferior to an out of context, situational quotation of a 17th century English translation of a 4th century Latin translation of a 3rd to 4th century copy of untold numbers of copies of a summary of oral tradition and testimony.

Even if scripture is viewed and accepted as a divine product, your fragmentation issue is enough to render its use null and void much of the time.

I think the real problem, though, is the whole notion that scripture is anything other than "an arm of flesh". It, like anything else anyone says or writes, needs to be weighed against the Truth.
In my estimation, Truth is the light of the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God.

This makes reading and understanding scripture a serious task; not something that is the glibly done with search engines and "cliff's notes" summaries. IT means that random quotations that are only literally applied because a word is common to the discussion thread is really a very poor use of scripture.
Such scripture use is rampant in our world. It justifies every atrocity of humankind.
There has to be something wrong with that, no matter how insistent one is in quoting the scripture.


Patricia Ragan said...

I was once convinced of the authority of a certain "cult" within the restoration branch movement because, first, I allowed myself to listen to a man who told me God wanted me there, and second I believed in the bits and pieces of scripture, that had been rearranged to show their version of "the truth."

Scripture twisting has been a popular tool of Satan for a very long time. He was successful with Eve, but failed with Jesus.

I see this in the admonition to "be one." We have heard that we must be one people with one belief. But that's NOT what Jesus tells us in John 17. Each individual is to be ONE IN CHRIST. When we are ONE IN CHRIST, we will be one with others who are ONE WITH CHRIST.

In 2 Corinthians Paul is speaking of the ministry of reconciliation. He is not speaking of reconciling one group of people with another. The reconciliation is between a man and God.

These scripture are used to imply a man to man relationship, when they are actually referring to a God to man, and man to God relationship.