Disclaimer: If you’re struggling just to get into the habit of doing scripture study regularly, this article isn’t for you. Some scripture study is better than no scripture study, and I don’t want the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
This article is for those faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are in the habit of reading their scriptures daily, but feel like you’re not getting as much out of your experience with the Word of God as you would like. You needn’t be living below your privileges.
Bumper Sticker Study
For too many of us, scripture study goes something like this:
Brother Brown yawns. He was up late last night, and he hasn’t quite escaped the last clutches of his insufficient sleep. He cracks open the Book of Mormon to the spot he left off yesterday morning. He can’t remember what was happening. Oh right–the war chapters.
“Blah, blah blah, Lehonti, blah blah Antipas, pitched their tents, Amalakiah’s the bad guy, Lehonti doesn’t want to come down off the summit…ooh! Here we go! I found a golden nugget:
And it came to pass that when Lehonti had come down with his guards to Amalickiah … Amalickiah caused that one of his servants should administer poison by degrees to Lehonti, that he died.(Alma 47:13, 18)
“Okay so now I’m supposed to find the principle and liken the scripture to myself, right? Well, I have it written in the margins from my last time through: Satan wants me to compromise and let down my guard, but if I leave the safety of the gospel, he can poison my spirit.”
Brother Brown shuts the book. “Good thought. Good study. Time for a prayer and then I’m off to work. I need to try to remember not to compromise my standards today.”
Does that sound familiar? You might even be thinking, Well what’s wrong with that? He read the scriptures, he found a principle, he likened it to himself, he committed to apply it–I don’t see the problem here.
And you’d be right. There’s nothing wrong with what Brother Brown found in his study. The problem is not that his takeaway was wrong; the problem is that his methodology at best cheats him of additional spiritual insight, and at worst can lead him to glean incorrect doctrine.
Brother Brown is wading ankle-deep through the scriptural narrative, but his eyes are open for pithy-sounding verses that would go well on a bumper sticker, or maybe in a stylized font in front of a photograph of a pretty sunset that he could share on Facebook. My friend Gary Miller calls this type of reading “devotionalitis.” I call it bumper sticker scripture reading.
The Danger of Bumper Sticker Study
Let’s apply Brother Brown’s methodology to another place in scripture to better illustrate the problem.
Brother Brown cracks open his quad and picks up reading where he left off yesterday.
“Okay, the Israelites are screwing around again. No surprise there. Something about Midianites and Amalekites and Gaza. Blah blah blah Gideon is threshing wheat. Now he’s cooking or something. Now there’s an angel for some reason, and the people are worshiping Baal. Oh! This part is interesting:
And Gideon said unto God, “If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.”
And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.(Judges 6:36-38)
“Okay, so, if I want to know whether the Lord is really promising what he’s promising, I can use this technique to divine the Lord’s will. That’s neat! I’m going to try that tonight!”
Well what’s wrong with that? Brother Brown read the scriptures, he found a principle, he likened it to himself, and he committed to apply it.
Except that the principle he identified is the precise opposite of the point that this story is making.
If Brother Brown had taken the time to understand the context of this passage, he’d have noticed that the Lord just delivered Israel from the hands of the Canaanites two chapters ago. Gideon really ought to have had all the evidence he needed that the Lord could make good on his promises to deliver Israel, the Midianites’ current hegemony notwithstanding. Further, he’d have noticed that a few verses ago, a prophet recounted the miracle of the Red Sea and of Joshua’s providential conquest, and explained exactly why the Israelites were being afflicted by their once-allies. And, Gideon saw an angel!
Yet despite all of these evidences of God’s power, Gideon still has the gaul to tell the angel “If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? And where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of?” (Judges 6:13). The angel ignores his question, and calls Gideon to save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Gideon continues to argue with the angel, in a manner very reminiscent of Moses on Mt. Sinai. The author of Judges is deliberately calling our attention to that parallel.
Then begins the sequence of signs. The Lord miraculously consumes Gideon’s sacrifice to demonstrate that He really does mean that this is Gideon’s mission. But Gideon isn’t convinced, so he concocts this little fleece and dew trick. The Lord again obliges. But Gideon still isn’t convinced, so he comes up with an even more absurd variation of the fleece and dew trick, and again, a very patient Lord obliges. Out of excuses, Gideon finally puts an army together and frees Israel.
In context, the scripture is not advising us to use Gideon’s fleece trick to seek for signs from God; it’s telling us that we really ought to take God at his word, because he’s already provided us with so much evidence of his power and faithfulness! After all, it is “A wicked and adulterous generation [that] seeketh after a sign” (Matthew 16:4).
The Gateway to False Doctrine
Is that example a little absurd? Yeah, that example is a little absurd. The Holy Ghost and common sense will generally be enough to steer us away from thinking that we can learn the will of God by leaving our wool socks out on the porch (although apparently The Lord is pretty darn patient with us if that’s what we resort to in our unbelief).
But ignoring the contextual meaning of scripture can lead and has led to some serious doctrinal misunderstandings. Bumper sticker study is how hardcore reformers came to the blatantly unbiblical belief that salvation has nothing to do with your personal moral conduct. They waded ankle deep through Paul’s more difficult prose, and then suddenly stumbled onto:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.(Ephesians 2:8-9)
Now we have a whole theology based off of this one verse, taken out of context, that says that God is arbitrarily picking who is saved and who is damned based on whatever mood he’s in that day, and that he’s creating countless hosts of people just to doom them to eternal misery. Not only is the God of that theology a deeply unpleasant fellow, but in order to make that theology work, we have to do some pretty complex mental and philosophical gymnastics to get rid of Psalm 62:12, Matthew 5:20, Matthew 7:21, Acts 10:34-35, 1 John 2:3, Revelation 20:12, the entire book of James and perhaps hundreds more inconvenient scriptures.
But don’t think that other Christians are the only practitioners of bumper sticker study. Latter-day Saints are not immune from bad scriptural takes just because we have an expanded canon. We fall into the same fallacies for the same reasons. Here’s a bad take on scripture resulting from Bumper Sticker study that you’ve almost certainly heard:
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.(3 Nephi 11:29)
Okay, so we’re not supposed to get angry or argue in the church, or really at all. “If ye are not one ye are not mine,” right? (D&C 38:27). So it’s best to just never disagree out loud. If someone says something wrong in Sunday school we should let it slide, so that unity is preserved and the spirit of contention doesn’t have a chance to enter the conversation. Under no circumstances should we call out or reprove others for believing or preaching false doctrine. We’re not their ecclesiastical leaders, after all.
Except that’s precisely the opposite of what that verse means. If you read the verse in context, you realize that the contention Christ is condemning is a result of certain preachers of false doctrine in the church promoting a form of baptism that was not authorized. As my friend Dustin has said, “Christ is addressing the disputations of false doctrine. That was of the devil. He made His Gospel clear so there would no longer be confusion. The devil loves confusion and he loves to sow discord. Is contending against false doctrine of the devil? Of course not! There are too many scriptural examples to the contrary. Preaching false doctrine is the contention Christ is teaching against, not the correction of it!”
The unity that Christ is calling for in 3 Nephi 11 is to be achieved not by permitting false doctrines to be promulgated in the Church–that’s what caused the problem in the first place! Rather, unity comes from embracing the doctrine of Christ as it is revealed to us though prophets and apostles. Unity is the promised result of following the prophet:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith.(Ephesians 4:11-13)
Not only is this perspective in better harmony with 3 Nephi 11, but with the entire rest of scripture. Did Christ ever reprove wickedness and false doctrine? It’s hard to find two consecutive pages in the gospels where he doesn’t. Paul advises the Ephesians to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11), as Gary Miller has recently taught. Paul isn’t speaking to “ecclesiastical leaders” in that verse, at least not exclusively; he’s talking to the lay membership. Jesus’ brother Jude was speaking to the entire Church when he exhorted “that ye should earnestly contend for the faith,” (Jude 1:3), another verse that Brother Miller has expounded to us.
Of course, the Holy Ghost is a reliable bulwark against the misunderstandings that can result from bumper sticker study. But he’s there to supplement your brain, not replace it. We can study better than this, and I’m convinced that we need to study better than this.
How to Read Contextually
The opposite of bumper sticker study is contextual study. While it is true that all scripture was written for us (2 Tim. 3:16), almost no scripture was written to us. And yes, the Holy Spirit had a hand in inspiring the author, but the author is a very human individual with very human strengths and weaknesses that they’re bringing to the composition of the document (see Moroni’s introduction to the Book of Mormon on the Title Page).
Understanding who wrote a passage of scripture, who they were writing to, and why they were writing to them will help us avoid reading erroneous ideas into scripture, and rather read out of scripture what the Lord would have us understand, believe, and apply.
Contextual study means being cognizant of four distinct layers of context that couch every verse and every word of scripture:
The Gospel Context
Where in the gospel story are we? Which of the priesthood dispensations produced this section of scripture, and how does that inform how the author thinks about his role and the audience’s role in this covenant history? Or are we in a period of apostasy, partial or total? What portions of scripture were readily available to the author and the audience?
Are the ancient antediluvian patriarchs looking forward to the promised “seed of the woman” that will crush the head of the serpent? Are the children of Israel struggling to live according to the Mosaic law? Is the branch of Joseph trying to retain their national covenant of liberty in the new world? Has Christ come and inaugurated the gathering of Israel? We need to orient ourselves in the millennia-long history of Jehovah dispensing His gospel to His children.
The Cultural Context
Similarly, where are we in the story of civilization? Who’s the “big kid on the block,” geopolitically speaking? Is it Chaldea? Egypt? Canaan? Assyria? Babylonia? Persia? Greece? Rome? The Lamanites? The Gadianton Robbers? Or is it in one of those rare moments where God’s people actually have some geopolitical weight to throw around, such as during the reign of Solomon? What’s the dominant religion or philosophical school in that cultural moment?
What are the economic conditions? Do most people have enough to eat, or are we in the midst of famine or depression? Is there any degree of socioeconomic mobility? How rigid is the class system? Modern westerners–especially Americans–tend to think of ourselves ruggedly individualistic, not caring much at all about how others perceive us. Historically, almost no other culture has viewed itself that way. In most cultures, your reputation (or “honor” or “glory”) was the single most important resource you had at your disposal.
The point is that the authors of scripture and their original audience thought very differently about the world and how they related to it than we do. Understanding some of those differences will help clarify passages of scripture that are difficult to understand–or difficult to understand correctly–if we read anachronistically.
The Situational Context
Even more precisely, what is the specific situation into which this passage of scripture was originally speaking? Who’s the author? Who is their audience? What is the situation that prompted the composition of this psalm/discourse/letter? What point are they trying to make to their audience, and to what extent is the Holy Ghost trying to make the same point to us? In what way is our situation today (or your situation personally) similar or different to that ancient situation?
The Literary Context
What is the thesis of this book of scripture? How does the author structure their writing to support that thesis? What are the rhetorical tools they are using? Are they making use of previous scripture, and if so, how?
Not only are these ancient books inspired, but they are also masterpieces of literary genius! Producing written works was astronomically expensive and time-consuming before the age of the printing press, so these prophetic authors weren’t at home scribbling out religious jargon stream-of-consciousness; the structure of scripture is extremely intentional and sophisticated, and can be every bit as theologically significant as the words themselves.
You might be wondering at this point, aren’t we commanded to liken scripture to ourselves? Shouldn’t I be trying to understand how the scriptures apply to me in my cultural context? Why should I care about an ancient context that isn’t mine?
Of course we should be likening scripture! The ultimate goal of scripture study is not to become an expert in ancient cultures and languages, but rather to be uplifted, inspired, and edified by the Word of God, eventually culminating in faithful action, strengthened testimony, and deepened conversion. But here’s my challenge: will that process occur more readily or less readily if you know the scriptures better?
I’m not just throwing around my pet theory here; this is how I try to study the scriptures. And I can testify without hesitation that contextual study will revolutionize the way you receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit. You will “hear him” more effectively and more often. It will open the scriptures to you in new and profound ways, deepening your love of gospel study and your testimony of the Savior and his Atonement.
Try it. Experiment on my word, and see if it bares fruit.