Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What is the role of a scripture commentary?

Historically, scripture commentaries are like the red-headed stepchildren among texts in the church.  Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written that on a scale of one to ten, (with ten being “most useful”), scripture commentaries rate about a one or two. (1)

Still, it is worth noting that he included the use of commentaries and dictionaries as part of a list of twelve keys for understanding the Bible.  This shows that even though he rated their value low, he did use them.

Let me quote the part of his talk that relates to commentaries:

Anything to be said under this heading [of commentaries and dictionaries] is more of a warning than an endorsement. On historical and geographical matters, these uninspired writings rate as one or two; on doctrinal matters they drop off the scale to a minus ten, a minus one hundred, a minus one thousand, depending on the doctrine.

The wise and the learned know so infinitesimally little about doctrine that it is almost a waste of time to read them. All their creeds are an abomination in the Lord’s sight. They teach for doctrines the commandments of men. They twist and pervert the scriptures to conform to their traditions; and if they get anything right, it is an accident.

One says Jesus did not walk on the water, for that is impossible; rather, he waded in the surf.

Another says He did not feed the five thousand by multiplying loaves and fishes, for that is contrary to all nature; rather, many in the congregation carried food in their knapsacks but were afraid to take it out lest they would have to share it with others. Jesus merely taught them to share.

Yet another says we need not look for the Second Coming in the literal sense, for surely Christ is no longer a man who can dwell again among men; rather the Second Coming takes place wherever Christ dwells in the heart of a man.

What can the commentaries of the world teach us about the personal nature of God; about the premortal existence, the war in heaven, and the eternal plan of salvation; abut the fall of man with its temporal and spiritual death; about the paradisiacal creation that is to be restored during the Millennium; about the Melchizedek Priesthood and its various offices; about the literal gathering of Israel and the restoration of the ten tribes upon the mountains of Israel; about the preaching to the spirits in prison and the doctrine of salvation for the dead; about temples and celestial marriage and the continuation of the family unit in eternity; about gifts and signs and miracles; about a universal apostasy, a glorious day of restoration, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; about the atonement of Christ, which makes salvation available on conditions of obedience; about the three degrees of glory; about exaltation in the highest heaven of the celestial world where men will be joint heirs with Christ; about almost every basic doctrine of salvation?

My fellow teachers, all these things, and ten thousand more, have come from God in heaven to us in this final dispensation of grace by direct revelation. They are the truths that make salvation available, and they are not to be found in the tomes of the scholars of the world. (ibid, pp127-128)

It may seem like McConkie completely discourages use of commentaries, but actually if we carefully parse what he says, it becomes clear that he gives a qualified endorsement.  If he discouraged them, he would not include them in the list of keys at all.  

What he is disgusted with is those sectarian commentaries that try to give naturalistic explanations of miracles and that deny the future Second Coming of Christ.   He gives those as the most blatant examples of what an uninspired commentary does, so that we can be warned not to swallow those views, or others that are dismissive of important principles, miracles, or prophecies.   McConkie called them "almost a waste time," which means that they weren't completely a waste of time, but they were close because their doctrine was off. 

While he asks, “What can the commentaries of the world teach us about [big list of LDS doctrines]?” this implies that good commentaries (which would necessarily have to be LDS or LDS-friendly) would be ones that throw additional light on those doctrines or reveal them in the Bible where they were not noticed before.

Also, it is worth noting that he appreciates the historical and geographical matters that are explained in commentaries, even if he rated them low.

Since scripture commentaries can be well-done or badly-done, the church understandably prefers to privilege study of the scriptures far over study of derivative works.   This is about going to the source, rather than going downstream for water.

However, we must also think about what resources exist for enabling people to learn more about the scriptures.  Everyone has access to the same spiritual resort of prayer and fasting to learn more.  (“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God”)  

There are more ways of learning than just this, though.  Let’s not forget the great potential for good teachers to influence and mold our perceptions of scripture texts, to draw out meaning for us to see and to help us find personal application.  (“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you”) Books help us gain access to good teachers when we can’t be personally with them. ("Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom")

Sometimes we don’t understand a text because we don’t know how to understand it.  We need guidance.  In this situation, commentaries can become very helpful because they create a frame of reference from which to interpret the text.  Of course, they can’t be considered unbiased—all frames of reference have some sort of bias—but they can be considered at least a starting point for acquiring a better understanding.

There are some texts that are traditionally difficult for us as members to get our minds around.  (Cough.  Isaiah.  Cough.) Part of the difficulty is that our formal discussions of them are hurried because of time constraints in Sunday school classes.   When there isn’t much discussion, it is easy to think that there must not be anything important there if the topic isn’t given much time or space to be covered.

When I first started reading commentaries, I started with the seminary and institute manuals and I considered them to be authoritative and complete.  I thought everything that I might ever need to know would be in them.  I also thought that anything that disagreed with them had to be automatically wrong.

As I continued to study the scriptures and deepen my understanding, I began to have questions about parts of the texts, and when I went to the seminary and institute manuals I couldn’t find anything.  That’s when I discovered they were not as complete as I had initially thought.

Also, I began to see things in the scriptures that I hadn’t seen before and which I hadn’t seen any hints of in scripture commentaries.  I started to look in other commentaries to see if I could find anyone who had written something that noticed what I saw and came to the same conclusions.  (I was seeking validation, you see.) I couldn’t find one who had.  Sometimes I felt they got close, but not close enough.  This meant one of two things—either no one had written about the things I learned because they were wrong and I was totally off base, or no one had written them because they hadn’t thought of them.  (And now I know there was a third possibility too—that what I wrote perhaps was too speculative to be put in a commentary or had too narrow of an application.)  

Well, I chose to believe that the things I found hadn’t been written because no one had thought of them.  So I started writing them, hoping I could make a contribution to interpretive thought about the scriptures.  (I learned in time that people may have had the same thoughts, but they hadn’t written them down, or they hadn’t published them.)

Another thing I noticed was that outside of LDS thought, the sectarian Christian world had oodles and oodles of commentaries about the Bible and that they had quite a variety of thoughts on the same things.  (Not much has changed since Joseph Smith’s day that different religionists understand the same passages of scriptures very differently almost to the point of destroying confidence in settling question or debate with the Bible.)  There was contradiction.  There was sloppy interpretation.  There was denial of restored principles.  But there was also little flecks of gold.  At first this puzzled me, but it didn’t bother me.  Eventually I learned that even the wild variety could actually help me refine my thoughts, much like one is challenged to perform one’s best in order to make up for a bad job someone else has done.  The mind exposed to moral error tends to recoil, and often it recoils toward the truth. (This may have been how McConkie derived benefit as well.)

What is the LDS mind to do when it has questions about the scriptures? First, I believe we should pray to have our eyes opened.  Second, I think we should seek out the words of the prophets.  Then seek out trustworthy commentaries by LDS scholars.   And then.. maybe read other outside commentaries.

We are instructed to seek learning by study and also by faith.  If we are to seek learning by study, then there must be sources to study, and we are told to seek learning out of the best books words of wisdom.  For this to happen, words of wisdom must be made accessible for study.  And of course, it is hoped that members of the church will be able to write some of those best books.

Just keep in mind that in order for there to be books for us to study, there must be people willing to buy them, in order to make it worthwhile for LDS-market publishers to sell them.  (Books of scripture commentary are notoriously low-profit enterprises.)

When I first started reading commentaries I would dream about this ideal book that would be THE COMMENTARY TO END ALL COMMENTARIES, which would have everything in it that could ever possibly be said about a particular passage. 

Eventually I realized that simply isn’t possible because it would have to be endlessly large and incorporate every possible perspective in it.  That would be prohibitively expensive to print and to own.  Instead, a commentary takes a particular perspective or approach and uses that to interpret the scriptures.  And even though it might attempt to be exhaustive, it never will be.

There are also different types of commentaries, each of which have their function.
--Restatements or summaries the scriptures in modern language to make meaning more accessible.
--Presentations of historical background of cultural practices.  This helps us understand how people in those days would have made meaning out of the events as they happened.
--Translations of words and descriptions of their range of meanings.  This helps us get beyond the current connotations of the words themselves and what they mean today so that we can better see what meaning was intended by the writer.
--And of course there are a range of commentaries that use all or some of the above or incorporate the author’s personal experiences, or similar scriptural incidents to compare and contrast. 

The main value I find in commentaries right now is as a jump-start for new avenues of thought about passages I have read often.  A phrase I have passed over may be invested with new significance I never considered.  An alternate meaning might be suggested that opens new dimensions suggesting new applications. 

Do you use commentaries?  Do you have a particular favorite scripture commentary that you like to use?  What does it do that helps you?   In what ways have you found commentaries to be limiting or expanding to your thought about the scriptures?


(1) “The Bible, A Sealed Book”, address by Bruce R. McConkie, from A Symposium on the New Testament in 1984, as quoted by “Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings”, Church Educational System, pp123-132.


Clark Goble said...

It's interesting that he wrote his own commentaries given his comments.

Suzanne Benner said...

Interesting. I think that commentary has value, perhaps obviously because I write it. I don't think that the value is the same as reading the scriptures and being taught by the spirit of course, but just like a talk in church can inspire us, a commentary has that same possibility, right? As it says in Moroni 6:5, part of the reason that we have a church is to meet together and speak with each other concerning the welfare of our souls. Community voices matter, and we are here to help each other and build each other us. Obviously, if something we write is tearing people down instead or leading people *away* from God, then I can see it being inappropriate and perhaps something to avoid. But how could there *ever* be too many things leading us towards Christ, and helping us to love God and serve each other?

Michaela Stephens said...

Clark, that is a very good point. Possibly he saw there was a dearth of LDS commentary and decided to do what he could to remedy that.

Since I write commentary, I can say that I derive great spiritual benefit from the process since it forces me to study more carefully and put into words the nebulous ideas floating around in my head. It also challenges me to live better. I suspect that Elder McConkie noticed that too, so he probably wrote for himself as much as for everybody else.

Suzanne, I agree that commentary and inspire, if it is edifying. That is a good point, to frame it as another form of "speaking with each other concerning the welfare of our souls."

It also makes me think of 2 Nephi 29:11

"For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written."