Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mormon Commentaries

We have talked about the much vaunted “open canon” of Mormon Scripture and found it to be a fiction, discovered that, in the absence of official leading, amateur apologists are forming Mormon thinking. Last time we saw that the typical Mormon apologetic is not so much an exposition of Mormon teaching as refutation of Mormon critics.

Now we turn to the fact that Mormonism does not produce the Scripture commentaries and study aids that Christian Bible students take for granted. The Christian has a rich heritage and tradition of Bible commentary and exposition from which to draw.

Typically, the New Bible Commentary is designed to give, “a clear and concise explanation of the meaning of every book and every passage in the Bible…in one volume.”

The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, “are designed to help the reader of the Bible understand what the text actually says and what it means.”

The Bible Speaks Today series is, “characterised by a threefold ideal: to expound the biblical text with accuracy, to relate it to contemporary life, and to be readable.”

The New International Commentary on the New Testament is, “undertaken to provide earnest students of the New Testament with an exposition that is thorough and abreast of modern scholarship and at the same time loyal to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God.”

I am sure Bible students can add their own favourites to this list and testify to their worth in helping them grow in their faith.

It does seem odd then that a church that produces so many extra books of “scripture” and manuals in abundance wouldn’t have a commentary to help their people navigate that substantial library.

The typical Mormon Library

Of course there was a sort of commentary in the Mormon Church and it was a Mormon commentary on Mormonism. Having “modern prophets”, the Mormon Church recorded many of the sermons and talks given by early leaders, notably by Brigham Young,  and collected them into The Journal of Discourses, one of the first commentaries on Mormonism. This seems reasonable since Mormon prophets, as we have seen, are supposed to produce new scripture and we would expect them to be bound into books.

But these days this twenty-six volume work, once regarded as an official source, a “standard work of the church” and essential reading, is more an historical curiosity and contains many of the more embarrassing and long discarded teachings that have come to be identified with Mormonism.

Various leaders since have written and produced books and collections aimed at offering helpful commentary on Mormonism, from Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, the definitive Mormon life of Christ, and Articles of Faith, a commentary on Joseph Smith’s thirteen articles (both pub. early 20th century), through Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph Fielding Smith, a themed collection of sermons and writings the nearest Christian equivalent being the Bible dictionary (1954), to Mormon Doctrine by McConkie (1958/66 - 80% of which was based on Doctrines of Salvation which McConkie edited)

In recent years the Mormon Church has produced the two-volume Encyclopaedia of Mormonism, as well as a series of study manuals based on the Teachings of Presidents of the Church. There are the manuals for different ages and classes in Sunday School etc. but these do not exhaustively comment on scripture (it is alarming to see what they overlook) and they again work on an agenda of themes: marriage, Mormon history, temples etc. rather than offering a systematic Mormon theology.

You can see in this developing picture what was intended. The Journal of Discourses being a record of the sermons of prophets and regarded originally as equal to Scripture, and books from apostles like Talmage and prophets such as Joseph Fielding Smith to act as authoritative writings; a building up of a definitive library on all things Mormon.

Hyperion to a Satyr

A book once popular with Mormons is Marvellous Work and a Wonder, based on writings and sermons of another Mormon apostle Legrand Richards. Long before they were bound into one publication these writings served as a missionary aid at a time when the Mormon Church hadn’t developed the now familiar missionary discussions. People were taught Mormonism from and joined the Mormon Church on the basis of these writings. But, like other publications authoritative in previous generations, it is dismissed today.

Today Mormons look more to Mormon academia, such as it is, to help them form their ideas. Publications from BYU professors and “best selling authors”, unofficial apologetics sites, are now the first port of call for the Mormon anxious to be equipped in understanding, defending and sharing their Mormon faith.

When you consider the beginnings of Mormonism and read the authoritative, prophetic tone in early Mormon sermons and publications, then look at the writings of today’s “popular” Mormon opinion-makers, people like Stephen Robinson, Richard G Grant, Dan Peterson – not a prophet or apostle among them – well I am reminded of Hamlets’ words of scorn to his mother regarding her marriage to his uncle, “So excellent a king; that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr.”

Systematic Mormonism?

There is no Mormon equivalent to Christian study aids such as the Bible Speaks Today series or the Wycliffe Commentary series or the New International Commentary, names we take for granted, authorities that help inform and build our faith. Not even Mormonism’s own “scriptures” are commented upon in the familiar way.

Surely a commentary would make available a systematic comparison of Mormon teachings over Mormonism’s short history. I can’t help but think this omission exists because Mormon leaders don’t want to be pinned down and held to a particular teaching in a religion that changes its teachings so often. The last thing they want is a systematic, authoritative commentary on Mormonism.

It wouldn’t do to have Mormons comparing an early 20th C commentary on the Mormon teaching on Negroes from the Book of Abraham with the post-1978 rehabilitated teaching. Nor would it serve to have Mormons bring down from their shelves a treasured commentary on the teaching of Doctrine and Covenants 132, which teaches polygamy as the order of heaven, and compare it with today’s teaching that it was always and only a social phenomenon.

And what about a commentary on those Bible verses that Mormonism seems to overlook in its teaching manuals: Hebrews 4-10; Romans 5:1-5, 8:1, Romans 9&10. Such passages are either dealt with briefly, just enough to mine the text for Mormon definitions, or overlooked altogether. It is an omission that would shock any serious Bible student.

In a recent conversation a Mormon was stunned to be told that Hebrews 4-10 was specifically about the temple and how the high priests of Israel were types of Christ our great high priest, the holy of holies a picture of the heaven Christ entered triumphantly to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for those who trust him.

He thought the only meaningful New Testament reference to the temple was 1 Cor.15:29 (baptism for the dead) which does not mention the temple or describe a normative Christian practice, and the only mention of priesthood in Hebrews that he saw was Heb.5:1-5

A commentary would have given him the knowledge he was missing but the Mormon Church gave him Mormonism.

Again, this is a viewpoint that the typical Mormon would not relate to and so we must help them see the value of commentaries and Bible aids to us and help them think about what they are and why their church doesn’t produce them. Sharing our faith is more than simply opening texts and battling over interpretations. It is also sharing every dimension of being a Christian and witnessing to how everything about our faith enriches our Christian walk and understanding.


  1. As a Mormon I use the HarperCollins Study Bible. It truly represents the best scholarship, free from Evangelical biases. It points out contradictions and failed prophecies in just about every book. Perfect for someone who considers Biblical inerrancy a form of idolatry.

    For the Book of Mormon, Oxford University Press has come out with a few commentaries. Grant Hardy has producedThe Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition, and the more advanced Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide. Terryl Givens penned The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction. All three are Oxford publications.

  2. All of which underscores the point being made, that is, the Mormon Church does not produce its own scripture commentaries. This puts the Mormon in the position of being able to dismiss any commentaries and statements as "not official" when challenged and when it suits them. Every piece of writing any Mormon is pleased to recommend to an unsuspecting public will come with the ubiquitous disclaimer.

    Your use of the Harper Collins (notably with its Apochryphal/Deuterocanonical books) lends itself to this scheme. It is a scholarly work, worthy of respect but open to interpretation according to the prejudices of the reader. Any Bible comes with its own bias and is more or less open to interpretation, which can again be dismissed as "not official" and, therefore, not something for which the Mormon Church can be held to account.

  3. Why is that a problem? The reason behind the Church's lack of official commentaries you mention are valid. Anti-Mormons will nitpick quotations here and there, take quotations out of context, twist and turn, etc.

    But there are more reasons The Church doesn't produce commentaries in addition to the reason you mention. Harvard MBAs run The modern Church, not theologians. Apostles are concerned mainly with sales and administration. This is due to historical circumstances, but as Roger Olson has documented in The Story of Christian Theology, theology did not appear on the scene until after revelation disappeared.

    And the use of commentaries is disputable too. As Kierkegaard said, reading Bible commentaries is like reading commentaries on love letters from your lover.

    But the LDS system leaves Mormons like myself interested in Biblical studies and such, free to use whatever commentary we wish.

  4. That's a bit timid isn't it? We don't publish commentaries because people might criticise? Don't you think Christian commentaries come in for criticism? What a feeble faith that is unwilling to discuss its own tenets for fear of others.

  5. Mike, perhaps you do not understand that the LDS commentaries on the Bible are the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Mormons accept the as divinely inspired. There are many other commentaries that are more or less accurate and helpful. All of them reflect the knowledge and wisdom of their authors, all of whom are merely human. Your comment that Mormon faith is feeble is a sorry commentary on your own understanding. Let me mention two scriptures to see how you can justify your position in light of them. They are 2 Nephi 4:34 and Moroni 10:4,5. Those passages don't seem feeble to me. If you were writing your own commentary on Mormon scripture, what would you have to say about them?

    1. Michael, Thanks for taking the trouble to comment, although I fail to see how it addresses the issues raised in the post.

      I was a Mormon for many years and am familiar enough with the unbiblical Moroni 10 text. As to the other, what does it show except that Joseph Smith, as with much of his Book of Mormon, was able to ape his betters.

      The real issue here is that trying to pin down a clear, systematic and official understanding of Mormonism is rather like trying to nail Jello to the wall. The Mormon Church likes it that way and so fails to issue any official commentary on Mormon "Scripture." The irony is in the claim that Mormonism brings clarity where "apostate" churches fail. The truth is the very opposite. Mormonism muddies the water of its own doctrine so successfully that one wonders whether "official" Mormonism exists.

      The issue of this deliberate adumbration is the rise of the liberal Mormon to whom private interpretation sits easy where once it was cause enough to deny someone a temple recommend.

      If I was to write my own commentary on Mormon scripture my first task would be to point out how devoid of independent evidence it is, how even the most recent "scripture" of a church that purports to have an open canon is some 100 years old, and how Mormon academics, not Mormon prophets, are making the running in Mormon apologetics. All points I indicate and you fail to address.

      The problem is that, while Christians have an abundance of riches in helps to understanding, all Mormons have is the speculation of unofficial sources and the official message to "keep the faith."

      The question is, which faith? That of Brigham Young, the racist? Perhaps that of Talmage? Or maybe that of Spencer W Kimball? Or maybe we would be better following the teachings of Gordon B Hinckley, who appeared not to understand much of Mormonism at all? Or should we go to the more controversial end of Mormon General Authorities and follow Paul H Dunn, the fabler, or Bruce R McConkie the dogmatist?

      You see, by pretending the Book of Mormon is commentary enough you simply side-step the issue, beg the question, to coin a phrase correctly. It is a depressingly predictable but ultimately disappointingly unsatisfactory response.