Balancing Scripture

I’ve often been interested in how scriptural books relate to each other. As Latter-day Saints, of course, we have multiple books of scripture in our canon: The Bible (which itself is a compilation of books); the Book of Mormon, a record of ancient prophets in the Americas; the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations from the modern era; and the Pearl of Great Price, which is rather a small miscellaneous assortment. How these connect, and the way they draw on each other and shed light on each other, drew my attention enough that I wrote my erstwhile thesis (and now book) on the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible.

Sometimes, however, we can neglect particular parts of our canon. There’s a particularly powerful warning in the Doctrine and Covenants about the Saints neglecting the Book of Mormon:

And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—

Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.

And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.

And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—

That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.

(D&C 84:54-58)

This warning was notably reiterated by Ezra Taft Benson in his first conference address as President of the Church, a message he continued to repeat throughout his presidency. I think that now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one can see many blessings that have come from members heeding that warning and paying more attention to the Book of Mormon, including a greater understanding of Christ’s atonement and the role of his grace, topics about which the Book of Mormon teaches emphatically.

One can neglect the other books too, of course. One conclusion of my own work was that the Book of Mormon prophets saw all scripture as part of one vast, interdependent collection, and that to reject one part is to reject all, as seen in the warning in 2 Nephi 28:29-30:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

Indeed, I believe one can sometimes take a focus on the Book of Mormon too far, if it causes one to neglect completely the Bible, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. To do this is hardly something the Book of Mormon writers would approve of, when one purpose in writing the work was “for the intent that ye may believe that [meaning the Bible]” (Mormon 7:9); nor would it be in keeping with Christ’s instruction to read Isaiah and the other prophets (3 Nephi 23:1, 5). It’s for that very reason – in response to comments that Latter-day Saints didn’t need to read the Old Testament – that I wrote a series of posts about why they should (including that it’d help them understand the Book of Mormon)!

Having said that, however, there does seem to be a particular focus on the Book of Mormon itself, enough to provoke a divine warning in revelation, not to mention the continuing focus by present day Apostles. And I have often pondered why that is the case. It was written with prophetic foresight for our day (Mormon 8:34-35), of course, and wasn’t read by the people of the time, but then again the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants were actually written in our era. There is also the sense in which the Book of Mormon is described as “the keystone of our religion”: it simultaneously bears witness of past scripture, of the prophethood of Joseph Smith, and of the divine authority of the Church today (D&C 20:11). But if one has already received this witness, are there any other reasons to focus on the Book of Mormon in particular?

Two principle reasons suggest themselves to my mind (there are more, but these seem key).

Firstly, the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters. It is noticeable, for instance, that in contrast to the rather loose and expansive way we tend to use the word doctrine (and slather that term on top of everything), in the Book of Mormon it is only used in two senses: doctrines, plural, always referring to false doctrines; and doctrine, singular, always referring to the “doctrine of Christ” or “the gospel”, a term used of the most basic core of the gospel. As seen, for instance, in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, the description of this gospel is succinct (just 8 verses there!), but covers the most important matters: the incarnation of Christ, redemption through his death and resurrection, our resurrection and final judgment and the basic principles of faith, repentance, baptism, and sanctification through the receipt of the Holy Ghost. Likewise, the basic themes announced on the title page – revelation, the restoration of Israel, and the messiah-hood and divinity of Christ – are emphasised again and again (including, as I discovered, in the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible). The Book of Mormon aims like a laser at the things that matter most, while hardly talking at all about some things we tend to think are very important.

This may be seen as part and parcel of its mission to restore “plain and precious things” (1 Nephi 13:40), but I also wonder if it ends up going beyond that. It seems quite easy, from observation, that when people principally read other portions of scripture for them to not see the wood for the trees: that is, to end up focusing and losing perspective on principles that may be true, and may even be necessary, but which are an appendage to more basic things. Likewise, in such circumstances it seems easier for people to over-complicate the gospel, or get focused on overly-speculative matters. But if we are reading the Book of Mormon as well, perhaps its focus can help to keep us focused. By serving as a lens in our reading of other scripture, it may not only restore plain and precious things, but help us to see the plain and precious things in the other books too.

Secondly, there is a power beyond the text itself. I’ve had some powerful experiences with scripture, with a range of different passages, throughout the standard works. But when I look back over my life, I find that in general that it is those periods when I am reading the Book of Mormon regularly (rather than just the other books) that I am spiritually better. On an average basis, I find it has a more powerful devotional effect than almost any other passage, save perhaps for the Gospels (and perhaps even just the Gospel of John). When I am read the Book of Mormon over a prolonged period, I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation.

Part of a reason this comes to mind is a feeling that I have a personal need to refocus a little. Most of my reading of scripture this year has been from other books, particularly the New Testament, and that’s certainly not bad (especially with Come Follow Me), but I have been reading less from the Book of Mormon this year than those immediately prior (especially compared to the thesis years). Everyone is probably in a different place on this front, and would need to judge for themselves where their balance currently is, but personally speaking I feel a need to re-balance in the direction of reading the Book of Mormon more consistently than I have recently. Because there’s a benefit that I feel that comes from it that extends beyond the words themselves.

There’s many things in the gospel, and our experience with God, that cannot be put into words. Indeed, I think that’s part of the key to the book of Job: Job’s questions aren’t answered in the book of Job, but he does learn something that puts him at peace, something he learns from seeing God (Job 42:3-6), something which cannot be put into words, but can only be learned the same way Job did. Likewise, in reading scripture I feel that there is something we can experience that is more than simply taking in the text on the page. There have been times in my life – I found quite often as a missionary, since I’d often have one in my hand – that I could feel the power within the Book of Mormon simply by holding it. That power comes from God, and I believe, and have felt, that when we read the book with a sincere heart and real intent that we receive not only the words that are written into our minds, but also receive that power into our souls. Christ himself taught that God’s word, and his word, has a sanctifying effect upon us (John 15:3, 17:17). And as President Benson said, quoting an earlier apostle:

“But there is another reason why we should read it,” President Romney continued. “By doing so we will fill and refresh our minds with the constant flow of that ‘water’ which Jesus said would be in us—‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14.) We must obtain a continuing supply of this water if we are to resist evil and retain the blessings of being born again. …

“If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by reading the Book of Mormon.”

 

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