Unity and the Power of Scripture
Emeritus Dean of Religious Education, Brigham Young University
The subtitle of this collection of writings is Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars, and while I am honored to be included in such a distinguished group of persons, I have never been of a disposition to call myself a scholar. However, there are things of which I am able and willing to testify. I lay claim to being a believer in the holy scriptures or standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a believer in the principle of divine revelation both in ancient times and in the present day. I also have an unqualified assurance that Jesus is the Christ, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh on this earth, the only Savior of the world. Likewise, by the spirit of revelation I know that this same Jesus has established his church on the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors, and I am completely confident that the church they established is "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (D&C 1:30), having divine priesthood authority and a divine commission to teach the gospel to all nations and administer the ordinances to all who believe and obey.
To be a scholar of the scriptures in the finest sense, one must know that the holy scriptures are true; however, in and of itself that is not enough. One must also become informed about what the scriptures mean and be intimately acquainted with the instruction they contain on the principles of eternal life, as well as the facts of history, culture, and doctrine. It is essential also to experience the feeling, spirit, or particular flavor of the various scriptures. Such familiarity can be obtained only by reading, searching, comparing, praying, meditating thoughtfully, reflecting, and contemplating. To be a scripture scholar and to learn the facts, it is necessary to know the meaning of technical words and phrases, and it is also necessary to be aware of the context in which statements are made. One must apply a little common sense, especially in interpreting symbolic utterances, in order to recognize the intent of a scripture.
Finally, being a true scholar of the scriptures requires not only intellectual activity, but also the interaction of the Holy Spirit with one's natural senses. There must be feeling as well as facts. Feeling is part of knowing. Since the scriptures were written by holy men as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:20–21; see also D&C 68:3–4), inspiration from the same Holy Ghost is required in order for anyone else to perceive the true meaning and intention of a scripture (see Joseph Smith–History 1:73–74).
In every discipline, considerable energy and sustained effort must be expended in order for one to master the literature of that discipline and be able to move with ease through its pages. The same is true with learning the history, doctrinal content, and spirit of each of the books of scripture. It is not to be acquired in a few surface lessons and cannot be obtained without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. In this regard, becoming a scholar of the scriptures may be even more rigorous and demanding than would mastering other fields of learning because in the case of the scriptures, study must be accompanied by personal revelation and obedience to the moral precepts that are taught in the scriptures. One cannot be a true scripture scholar without believing what the scriptures say. The greater light of understanding is dependent on previous acceptance of the primary concepts. Perception in depth cannot come without obedience on the part of the learner, for the things of God can be known only by the Spirit of God and not by the intellect alone (see 1 Corinthians 2:12–14; D&C 76:116). The natural man or woman can read the words but cannot fathom the deeper meaning. Though it is probable that one could master the concepts of other disciplines without a moral and spiritual commitment, this is not possible in the matter of scripture. Nephi's discussion with Laman and Lemuel is a case in point:
And it came to pass that I beheld my brethren, and they were disputing one with another concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them.
For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought. . . .
And . . . I spake unto my brethren, desiring to know of them the cause of their disputations.
And they said: Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken. . . .
And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?
And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.
Behold, I said unto them: How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts? (1 Nephi 15:2–3, 6–10)
This same characteristic is later used to describe other people: "And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God" (Mosiah 26:3). Similar passages from latter-day scriptures also illustrate the special commitment required to become a scripture scholar.
As in all disciplines, the more we learn, the more we are able to learn—and the more quickly that learning will come.
The Unity of Scripture
Four standard works currently compose the basic written documents of canonized scripture in the Church, and it is anticipated that in the future we will be given many additional documents, such as the sealed portion of the gold plates that came out of the Hill Cumorah, the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon that were stolen, the ancient record of the Ten Tribes (2 Nephi 29:13–14), the record of Enoch (D&C 107:57), the record of John (D&C 93:18; Ether 4:16), the plates of brass (1 Nephi 5:18–19; Alma 37:3–4), and numerous other sacred records that are not now available. In addition to the restoration of these ancient records, there will be a multitude of documents containing new revelations and items of instruction that have never been revealed or recorded on earth.
Among the extant records (so far as they are translated correctly), there is a basic unity of purpose and of concept. There are not substantive contradictions of doctrine, although there are numerous variations because some items are dealt with in greater clarity and detail in certain passages than in others.
Since a unity of purpose exists among the extant scriptures (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price), there is ample reason to conclude that the same unity will exist in additional volumes and, that while they will greatly increase our understanding, they will not contradict the scripture we now have. Such unity exists and will continue to exist because there is only one Savior, one plan of salvation, one Lord, one faith, and one remedy for man's fallen condition; therefore, the Lord speaks "the same words unto one nation like unto another" (2 Nephi 29:8).
The unity of scripture can be quickly discovered in the Topical Guide that has been published in the LDS edition of the Bible since 1979. The Topical Guide was compiled by four men (of which I was not one) on assignment from the Scriptures Publications Committee of the Church. This 598-page document contains 3,495 subject entries arranged in alphabetical order, containing many thousands of references from the four standard works. Scripture citations accompanied by the principal words of each passage are arranged for each entry where applicable, beginning with those from the Old Testament, then those found in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Reading the citations of a few entries quickly demonstrates the orderly flow of information from each of the standard works, and the searcher is soon rewarded not only with an abundance of facts, but also with an awareness of the fundamental unity of all the scriptures. Because of the oneness of doctrine, there is a certain amount of duplication among the books of scripture cited within each entry, but each citation contributes something unique. Latter-day revelation is seen to be generally more complete and informative than biblical passages.
In the late summer of 1979, I was scheduled to give a lecture to an Education Week audience on the use of the new LDS edition of the Bible. To demonstrate how the Topical Guide can be used, I randomly selected the subject of prayer. This was just a few days after the "new" edition of the Bible had come from the press.
Although I was already aware that there is a unity and oneness among the standard works, the reality of it was drilled more fully into my consciousness when I analyzed the references under the "Prayer" heading. I did not have the unity aspect uppermost in my mind at the time, but it became very evident as the study progressed.
I began my study by reading each of the scripture references and concordance-like summaries in the Prayer category. (I discovered that there were 174 scriptures in this one topic alone—see the Topical Guide, pp. 380–82.) When I encountered any item that seemed particularly impressive or useful, I recorded that citation on a sheet of paper. By the time I had read all of the 174 citations, I had listed 20 of them. I then proceeded to read the entire text of these 20 passages from the scripture itself. During the reading I made notes of the particular concepts that I wished to present in the lecture. From this final list and the notes I had made, I then formulated in my mind the approach and the facts I would use. The whole process took about three hours.
Several things occurred during this analysis. First, I was treated to a cornucopia of statements about prayer—far more than I could use in one lecture. The Topical Guide proved to be an extremely fruitful source of information. Second, because I was obliged to make a selection of those passages that seemed to be most notable and impressive to me at the time, it was a refining and thought-provoking process. Third, I was impressed over and over with the similarity of ideas in all of the scriptures, which to me was an inescapable evidence of their unity. Fourth, it became evident that in latter-day revelation, concepts are usually more completely expressed than they are in the text of the Bible. Fifth, I felt that in using the Topical Guide I had been exposed to the most extensive collection of facts about prayer in the shortest period of time that I had ever experienced, even though I had studied the gospel all my adult life.
As to the greater clarity of latter-day revelation, the following is an example. In Matthew 18:19, Jesus states: "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven." And in John 14:13–14, Jesus says: "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, . . . If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it." As contained in the New Testament, these promises are given without any qualifications or conditions.
By comparison, we find more complete recitations in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. In 3 Nephi 18:20, Jesus says: "And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you" (emphasis added). In 2 Nephi 4:35, we find Nephi saying: "Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss." In Doctrine and Covenants 8:10, the Lord counsels: "Do not ask for that which you ought not." And in Doctrine and Covenants 50:29–30 the Lord promises: "Ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask" (emphasis added).
Another example of the greater clarity of latter-day revelation as compared to the biblical text is found in the following analysis. In Matthew 6:22 we read of Jesus saying: "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." Luke 11:34 presents essentially the same thought. However, the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 6:22 gives a more complete text: "If therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light" (emphasis added). Likewise, in Doctrine and Covenants 4:5 the Lord speaks of "an eye single to the glory of God" (emphasis added). A similar clarification is found in Doctrine and Covenants 27:2.
The mental accumulation of facts about prayer, the discovery of the unity of scripture, and the wealth of the Topical Guide as a source of spiritual information were all important, but the greatest reward of that afternoon of study was that as I searched the scriptures that spoke of prayer, there welled up within me an intense desire to pray. I wanted to pray like I had never wanted to pray before. I hungered with my heart as well as my head for communication with the Lord. I had known and felt those things before, but I knew it even better and felt it even stronger after a three-hour session with the scriptures concentrating on the subject of prayer alone.
I testify that there is a sacred power in the scriptures that we can draw upon, and that power can and will transform our lives, affect our attitude, and influence our behavior. Becoming scripturally literate is not an optional pursuit. Counsel from the Lord is that all should "treasure up," "feast upon," and "search" the written scriptures (Joseph Smith—Matthew 1:37; 2 Nephi 31:20; John 5:39; 3 Nephi 23:1–3). In so doing we not only come to know eternal spiritual truths from the scripture produced by former prophets, but we also become better prepared to recognize and obey the flow of scripture that emanates from the living prophets. An observation by President George Q. Cannon nearly one hundred years ago is still current:
I have noticed . . . that where the people of God pay attention to the written word, they are always better prepared to hear the oral instructions of the servants of God . . . [and] they have greater interest in seeking to obtain instructions, than they have when they are careless about the written word of God.1
1. George Q. Cannon, in Conference Report, October 1897, 38.