10 Rules for Effective Scripture Study

Likening the scriptures means to read what the Lord intends for us, not to search for what we wish the Lord would say.

We’re three weeks into a new year and a new round of Come, Follow Me. Personally, I couldn’t be more excited! I love the scriptures and I love that I get to spend this year feasting upon the words of Christ!

Not everyone is as enthusiastic, though. I get it! The scriptures are harder to comprehend than we like to admit. “Read your scriptures” is the answer to so many Sunday School questions! It’s an easy answer, so it must be easy to execute, right? And if it isn’t, maybe I’m just not as smart as all those other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But of course that’s not true! Scriptures aren’t going to flop open and present their lessons to you in perfect clarity–at least not without some effort on your part first. The standard works are a vault full of treasure, but vaults aren’t easy to break into.

Luckily, I’ve collected some rules for reading scriptures that have helped me crack that vault door. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve put these into practice and they’ve dramatically enhanced my experience with the scriptures! I recommend them to you with an enthusiastic endorsement!

Rule 1: Reading is Better Than Not Reading

Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

All of these rules will help you get more out your scripture study than you currently are, unless they’re going to distract or demotivate you from doing your scripture study at all.

Rule 2: Use the Pattern of Revelation

This pattern is derived from the teachings of Elder Richard G. Scott, especially the talk, “To Acquire Spiritual Guidance.”

  1. Pray for understanding
  2. Read with a question in mind
  3. Write feelings and impressions that come to your mind and heart
  4. Pray to know if God has more He wants you to learn
  5. Re-read the passage and/or what you wrote
  6. Write additional feelings and impressions
  7. Pray to know if what you wrote is true and complete

Rule 3: The Word is Both Human and Divine

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Articles of Faith 1:8

Some good-hearted believers think of God as the author of scripture. But this is not at all the picture painted by the scriptural authors. While the scripture is certainly inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), it comes to us through very human mouthpieces.

The “humanness” of scriptural composition should not undermine our faith in the veracity of scripture! In fact, Moroni strongly warns us against condemning or dismissing scripture because of its human authorship. But understanding that the scriptural authors are human allows us to consider the cultural influences, literary traditions, rhetorical techniques, and authorial idiosyncrasies that influenced the composition. Such considerations enrich our understanding of and appreciation for scripture, even as we venerate it as canonical, authoritative, and revelatory.

Rule 4: Everything is On Purpose

The authors of scripture were not backward, illiterate hicks living in an age of ignorance. These were incredibly sophisticated literary geniuses–not to mention inspired!

We take for granted that writing and publication are cheap and easy. Not so in the ancient world! Before the invention of Gutenberg’s press, a single book might easily cost more than a year’s salary for the average worker. And that’s if the book you wanted had already been written and only needed to be copied; the cost of composing new content was even more expensive!

Composition often required the aid of a scribe, such as the Baruch who assisted Jeremiah, or Tertius who scribed for Paul. These scribes were not merely stenographers scribbling down the words of prophets as they uttered them stream of consciousness; scribes were one-man publishing houses! A scribe would advise the author on phraseology and structure to maximize the rhetorical impact of the text. Composition was labor intensive, and the materials were hard to come by. It was a very, very expensive process, even before they started engraving on metal plates!

Given all that, do you think these texts contain a single word that wasn’t put there on purpose?

What does the genius of the scriptural authors and the difficulty of composition mean for you as the reader? It means you should expect to find an astonishing complexity of structure and design in the text. It means you should expect the text to continue to yield spiritual insights to you inexhaustibly!

The genius of the authors means that the connections you discern between one book of scripture and another were probably placed there intentionally by a prophet trying to get your attention. Resist the temptation to dismiss intertextual connections as mere coincidence. Resist the temptation to regard literary design as dull or unsophisticated.

Assume that every chapter, every verse, and every turn of phrase were chosen on purpose by a sophisticated scriptorian with something important to say. You’ll usually be right.

Rule 5: Scripture is Written For Us, Not (Usually) To Us

Almost all scripture was composed thousands of years ago, thousands of miles away. Each book of scripture was composed by an inspired author addressing an audience living in his own country in his own time. There are exceptions of course; Mormon and Moroni specifically addressed their books to the gentiles and Lamanites in the last days. But for the most part, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and even Nephi and Jacob had contemporary audiences in mind when writing their books and epistles.

None of that means the scriptures were not written for us. Paul taught, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” President Ezra Taft Benson taught unambiguously that the scriptures–especially the Book of Mormon–were written “for our day.”

The scriptures contain immeasurable value just waiting to be extracted through prayerful, spirit-guided study. We will be far more successful in extracting that value if we understand that most scriptural authors had a specific audience with a specific challenge in mind. Understanding who the author was and who their original intended audience was can only help us in our study.

Rule 6: Liken The Scriptures To Yourself

But don’t read anachronistically.

The past is a foreign country in which we are guests. We shouldn’t impose our current cultural values, assumptions, or conventions onto the text of scripture. If we do, we certainly shouldn’t be surprised when scripture doesn’t speak to that baggage as directly as we would like.

If we try to shoehorn our current cultural context into the scriptures, we run the risk of putting words in God’s mouth. Likening the scriptures should be an exercise in reading out of the scriptures the messages that the Lord intends us to learn, not reading into the scriptures the things we wished they said.

Anachronistic readings can be spiritually dangerous! Consider, for example, this statement from The Family: A Proclamation to the World: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” When that statement was penned and published by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1995, the word “gender” meant exactly the same thing as biological sex. The two words were synonyms–interchangeable terms. I could provide documentation to prove that claim, but if you were born before 2006 you’re probably old enough to remember it being used that way.

Because of incoherent distortions by progressive activists and deranged academics, we now typically distinguish between gender (whether someone identifies as a man or a woman) and biological sex (whether someone is equipped as a biological male or biological female).

Whether the modern distinction is useful or even coherent is a discussion for another article. My purpose in raising the issue is to point out what might happen if we applied today’s conventions to this document composed a mere 25 years ago.

A young person, unaware that the word “gender” was used differently in 1995 than it is used today, might misinterpret The Family Proclamation. They might conclude that the proclamation claims that a person’s identified gender identity is an expression of an eternal spiritual reality. They might conclude that a biological female who believes herself to be a man was indeed a man in premortality, has a man’s spirit housed in her mortal body, and will be a man in eternity. Properly understood, The Family Proclamation teaches precisely the opposite truth!

If reading anachronistically can cause this much distortion for us, reading it in the original language, after only 25 years of cultural and linguistic drift, how much more might an anachronistic approach corrupt our understanding after thousands of years and multiple translations?

So how do we liken the scriptures to ourselves without wresting the scriptures into unrecognizable contortions?

Start by trying to understand the scriptures on their own terms first (see Rule 5: Scripture is Written For Us, Not To Us). Once we understand the original meaning in the original context, then we can try to apply the scripture’s teachings to ourselves. Before attempting to liken the scriptures to yourself, ask:

  1. Who is the original author?
  2. Who was the original audience?
  3. What circumstance prompted the author to compose the work?
  4. What was the author trying to communicate to his audience?
  5. What was God trying to communicate to the audience through the author?
  6. How does God want me to apply that principle in my circumstances today?

Asking these questions in this order will help us to read out of scripture what God is trying to tell us, rather than reading into scripture strange or ill-advised private interpretations.

Of course, prayer and spiritual guidance will also erect essential guardrails on our understanding. Remember Rule 2: Use the Pattern of Revelation.

Rule 7: These Are Biographies, Not Morality Tales

Don’t assume that every action taken by a character in scripture is intended to be an example we should emulate. Don’t get bent out of shape when the protagonist of a story behaves in a questionable or even morally reprehensible way.

The scriptural authors recorded real events of real peoples’ lives, warts and all. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught, “Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. This must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it.

The shortcomings of imperfect scriptural protagonists–and the way a perfect God redeems their mistakes–is part what we are supposed to learn from these stories. When we see Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, Alma, or Captain Moroni make decisions that make us uncomfortable, consider that such discomfort may be exactly the point the author is making.

And remember not to judge these people too harshly, even when the text does. If my mistakes on judgment day look a lot like Peter’s mistakes, which are catalogued in painful detail throughout the New Testament, I’ll be pretty happy with my performance in mortality!

Rule 8: Every Stumbling Block is a Stepping Stone

Have you ever been reading the scriptures, possibly in Leviticus, and encountered something that seemed weird to you? Have you ever “tripped” on an apparent contradiction or a confusing passage?

If you haven’t yet, you will, and not just in Leviticus. From Genesis to Maps, the scriptures are full of mind-bending complexity. When you inevitably “trip” on a challenging passage, I would urge you not to shrug, say “ancient people were weird,” and blow past the passage.

Instead, pause. Investigate.

Consider that the author may have put that passage in there knowing it would challenge you in exactly the way it did. Remember Rule 4: Everything is on Purpose!

These stumbling blocks are not designed to remain stumbling blocks; they’re designed to invite the reader to dig deeper.

Define the question. Dig into the cross-references. Use the study helps. Keep digging until you find an answer to the question.

There is profound spiritual truth available anyone willing to expend the time and effort necessary to uncover it. Challenging passages are invitations to do just that.

Rule 9: Prophets are Artists, not Architects

An architectural blueprint is a symbolic representation of a corresponding external reality. This line represents this building’s outer south wall, this little rectangle represents the bathroom door, which swings inwards, as indicated by this little arc. Everything is to scale. The blueprint is detailed and precise.

Precision and attention to detail is how western civilization has been able to produce some of the most beautiful and structurally robust architectural achievements in human history. If the contractor fails to find a 1:1 correspondence between the blueprint and the building it represents, the building will collapse, or fail to ever manifest itself as a building at all. That’s why westerners think like architects.

Apocalyptic passages like Daniel 7, Jacob 5, and Revelation 13 are also symbolic representations of a corresponding external reality. Unlike blueprints, however, the details do not have a 1:1 correspondence with the reality they point to. Rather, they have a 1:many correspondence, wherein a particular symbol, image, or prophecy may point to several related manifestations in the external world.

The prophetic authors are not as concerned with depicting every detail in precisely the correct configuration relative to every other detail; they’re more concerned with painting a compelling picture that helps us to frame our current moment in dispensational history.

It’s important to make this distinction because as westerners, we prefer architects to artists. We like the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lion represents Jesus, the witch represents Satan, Edmund represents the redeemed sinner, etc.

But when we approach the scriptures expecting this type of 1:1 relationship between symbol and reality, we limit the scope of the truth we might otherwise perceive, at best. At worst, we can’t wrap our minds around the scriptures at all.

So prophets have an artistic disposition, and we have an architectural disposition. Fine! What does that mean for us in practice?

For starters, prophets’ artistic disposition informs the way they reveal the future. Most often, ancient prophets are less interested in predicting events and more interested in predicting patterns. A few examples will illustrate:

Isaiah constantly warns that Israel’s wickedness will result in exile and oppression under a foreign tyranny, accompanied by divine manifestation of Jehovah’s continuing love and mercy, culminating in an exodus from oppression, a gathering and return to the land of promise, and a restoration of covenant blessings. But this pattern is repeated over and over again throughout dispensational history!

An exile happens when the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers lands the whole family in Egypt, which turns oppressive and necessitates the Exodus under Moses.

Another exile happens again in Isaiah’s day when Assyria invades Israel and scatters the ten northern tribes. The gathering of those scattered ten tribes remains in our future.

Another exile happened when Babylon invaded and carried the Jews into captivity, necessitating the return under Ezra and Nehemiah.

It happened again under Rome, and that gathering only hit high gear in the 20th century.

It happened again when the Saints were expelled from Jackson County, and we have yet to gather back, although we will.

But which of these cycles of exile and gathering was Isaiah referring to? Well, he might have had one in mind in one chapter and another in mind in another chapter. But he seems to describe several of them, often at the same time. Isaiah appears to be using imagery from his own day to describe a historical, covenantal pattern that recurs again and again throughout the covenantal history of the House of Israel. Understanding the pattern that Isaiah is trying to teach us will help us frame our place in Israel’s covenant story.

Another example of prophetic pattern prediction comes from Revelation chapter 13, which depicts a terrifying future in which two beasts rise from the earth and the sea, respectively.

The first beast has seven heads and ten horns and, according to D&C 77, represents the kingdoms of the earth. It behaves as a political superpower which exercises hegemony over the nations and persecutes the Saints of the Lamb. In a later chapter, John depicts the whore of Babylon riding atop the beast, arrayed like a queen, drunk on the blood of the saints.

The second beast has the appearance of a lamb but speaks like a dragon. John later describes this beast as the “false prophet.” Like the first beast, this beast is given power by the Dragon (Lucifer) to perform miracles and deceive the world. With its newfound religious influence, the second beast convinces the world to worship the first beast, and anyone who fails to comply is excluded from the economy and society. These persecutions preface the eventual return of Christ to rescue the Saints.

Some have interpreted this chapter as a description of the persecution of the first-century Christians by Rome and by emperor-worshipping pagans during John’s lifetime. It’s even likely that the mark of the beast “666” is a gematrical code for Nero, the emperor at the time and a famously sadistic adversary of Christians. This interpretation of Revelation 13 was certainly favored by first-century Christians themselves.

But the persecutions of Nero came and went without Christ’s return. 1,742 years later, the Lord revealed D&C 77 to Joseph Smith, which pointed to a yet future fulfillment of the events of the seventh seal.

In the 1980s, most scripturally literate church members–including some in senior leadership–interpreted Revelation 13 as a description of their day. The first beast represented communism, localized in the USSR. The second beast, the false prophet who convinces the world to worship the beast, was obviously Karl Marx! Marx had a thirst for the blood of Christians, and even saw himself as an antichrist figure (see “The Devil and Karl Marx” by Paul Kengor). The USSR certainly persecuted Christians in horrifying ways. Excluding them from the economy was the least of communism’s crimes against believers! To anyone with eyes to see in 1985, communism was the obvious interpretation of Revelation 13. Revelation even describes the first beast as red!

But contrary to everyone’s expectations, the west’s conflict with the USSR did not culminate in a world-ending nuclear catastrophe. Anticlimactically, the USSR collapsed, and with it the last remaining iota of communism’s credibility. The experiment had been run, the results were in: Marxism was evil and could be confidently and universally rejected. The Saints had been rescued from Stalin and Marx, but not by the Second Coming.

In our day, we have to interpret Revelation 13 anew. Classical communism is hardly the global threat that it used to be–it’s on life support in Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. But communism’s ugly stepsister, Critical Theory, is alive and well right here and in every nation throughout the west, and the whore of cultural Babylon is riding it all the way to the bank! Critical theory was partially inspired by Marx, the real prophets of its degenerate doctrines are the perverts of the Frankfurt School. That gives us a plausible interpretation of Revelation 13 for 2021.

Proponents of Critical Theory (self-styled “Social Justice Warriors”) have succeeded in persecuting saints only in isolated, relatively toothless ways–by historical standards anyway. But it doesn’t take a prophet to see that persecution heating up as the many horny heads of critical theory consolidate political power and the woke priesthood demand we literally kneel in worship.

Don’t be too discouraged. Both beasts end up in a lake of fire by chapter 20, and the Saints get a New Jerusalem made of gold and gemstones wherein they can live with and worship Christ forever.

The point is this: were the Saints in 1980 wrong for seeing the two beasts in Gorbachev and Marx? Were the Saints in 90 AD wrong for seeing the beasts in Nero and Simon Magus? If critical theory evaporates and a new satanic system moves in tomorrow, are we wrong to see the two beasts in AOC and Friedrich Pollock? (editors note: the 2 beasts are Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci)

I would suggest that none of these interpretations are wrong, because Revelation 13 is revealing an inspired pattern that can accurately describe multiple manifestations throughout history. In fact, past iterations of the pattern may give us additional clues about present and future iterations, eventually culminating in the final iteration before our Lord comes again.

Like Isaiah, John used imagery from his own day to paint a picture that we can use to help frame our current moment in history. These and other patterns are depicted in striking artistic imagery. Don’t assume that every prophecy is fulfilled once and only once! A valid interpretation of prophetic scripture does not preclude the possibility of additional, equally valid interpretations in the future.

Rule 10: Study For Conversion, Not Just Understanding

Scripture can be understood on shallow levels and on deep levels. It can be understood as ancient literature and prudent wisdom, or it can be understood as the birthplace of testimony and life-transforming conversion.

To the extent possible, we should aim for deep conversion when we interact with the scriptures. Skimming the surface of the scriptures is better than failing to interact with them at all (see Rule 1: Reading is Better Than Not Reading), but whenever we can go deeper, we should.

Consider the following levels at which we can interact with the scriptures, and the processes that get us to those levels.

  1. The process of translation allows us to interact with the text of scripture
  2. Exegesis (the process of figuring out what the text means) allows us to interact with the meaning of scripture
  3. Hermeneutics (the process of deriving applicable principles from scripture) allows us to interact with the general application of scripture
  4. The process of likening scripture to ourselves (Rule 6) allows us to interact with the individual application of scripture
  5. The process of acting and experimenting upon the word (Alma 32) allows us to have personal experiences with scripture
  6. The process of revelation through the Holy Ghost allows us to experience a testimony of the truth of scripture
  7. The transformative process of Christ’s grace enables conversion to the gospel contained in scripture

Text, meaning, and application of scripture are important (see rules 5 & 6). But testimony and conversion are far more important! Structure your scripture study to move down deep through these layers as often as possible. Lasting conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ is (or at least should be) the goal of scripture study and just about everything else we do in the Church!

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Ezra on Twitter @DezNatKingCole.

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