Bible Theology

How Do Latter-day Saints Approach Biblical Theology?

A first wave of Latter-day Saint biblical theology has come and gone.

Biblical theology is both ancient and new as an academic field. In recent years, there has been a blossoming of theological work among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the Old Testament, New Testament, and Restoration scripture. This interview with Joseph M. Spencer discusses the relationship between church members and biblical theology.

Read more about biblical theology in The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition.

Table of Contents

What is the academic subdiscipline of biblical theology?

In a lot of ways, biblical theology is the oldest of disciplines in the study of the Bible. Long before modern biblical scholarship took its rise, the vast majority of readers of the Bible approached it theologically. But during the past three centuries or so, its influence has ebbed and flowed—at times disappearing almost entirely, and at times finding its way back into favor.

The basic idea behind biblical theology is simple: to read the Bible carefully while foregrounding theological questions. What this looks like in practice is a bit more complicated, of course.

Especially important for biblical theologians is working to understand the whole Bible:

  • Are there unifying themes that make sense of the book as a whole, despite the fact that it’s a library of writings by very different authors working at very different times in response to very different circumstances?
  • Is there a unified witness to God in the Bible?
  • Is there a unified witness to how God works in history in the Bible?

These are the kinds of questions biblical theologians ask and try to answer.

How does academic biblical theology differ from other approaches?

Christian theologians have always paid serious attention to scripture, taking it to be one of the chief authoritative sources for theological reflection. Often, though, this just means that theologians believe that their proposals and ideas shouldn’t contradict what’s said in the Bible. They’re free to speculate about all kinds of matters, taking their orientation from non-scriptural things and using methods foreign to scripture—just so long as the end result is compelling while remaining within the bounds set by the Bible.

Biblical theology, however, takes scripture as its primary object of inquiry, asking what might be said theologically beginning from the Bible and ultimately drawing conclusions about the Bible’s specific witness of God.

It tends to pay a great deal more attention to biblical studies as an academic discipline, drawing from the work of historians, and to exhibit a stronger sense for biblical authority than other approaches.

Watch to learn more about Biblical theology compared to other approaches to theology.

How is the lack of Latter-day Saint engagement a missed opportunity?

Biblical studies has been a particularly divisive cultural phenomenon in modernity, raising questions and drawing conclusions that many lay believers find distressing or distracting.

As a result, biblical scholars often find themselves at odds with their specific religious traditions, pushing against the boundaries of orthodoxy or pressing for change in the name of intellectual rigor.

Biblical theologians insist that such conflict is unnecessary, not because churches simply need to bow before the impeccable results of biblical scholarship, but because serious academic inquiry into the meaning of the Bible might be done in conversation with specific religious traditions. Theology, which is always confessional in nature, provides a helpful occasion for pursuing just such a conversation.

Things took an interesting new turn.

Biblical theologians reflect on the findings of other biblical scholars in ways that might make them of real use for the churches. They also keep the relevance of the churches’ lived faith alive for those studying the Bible with serious rigor.

Latter-day Saints have too often fallen into the dichotomous approach mentioned above, but they might have brought their own theological resources to bear from the beginning and created much more space for thinking carefully about the Bible in the Latter-day Saint context.

In what ways does theological interpretation take place within the Bible?

Since biblical theology involves a close investigation of the possible meanings of specific passages of the Bible, drawing out their potential significances in always new situations, it’s actually possible to see something like biblical theology going on right within the Bible.

When one passage in the Bible draws on another, resituating it and reflecting on its ongoing significance, it’s doing the kind of thing that biblical theologians like to do.

The most obvious examples of this kind of thing appear in the New Testament, which as a whole volume draws out the relevance of the Old Testament and gives it fresh meaning. But this sort of thing can be found in much simpler ways as well, such as when one Old Testament source quotes another and comments on it.

Even the editorial shape given to a few words once spoken by a prophet, however, is the product of a kind of theologically oriented process. In all kinds of ways, it’s scripture that models this kind of interpretation for us.

What are some landmarks in the history of biblical theology?

In a lot of ways, biblical theology had been pushed out of mainstream biblical scholarship by the beginning of the twentieth century. The remarkable advances in understanding made over the course of two centuries by text critics and historical critics had drawn so much attention (both positive and negative) that biblical theology looked largely antiquated.

No one did more to persuade everyday Latter-day Saints.

But then, in the wake of the first world war—in the context of a real spirit of pessimism regarding the possibilities of modern civilization—things took an interesting new turn. Serious academics (and not simply everyday believers) began to wonder whether something hadn’t been lost in the abandonment of theology in biblical studies, and there arose a new era of rich biblical theology.

There followed a rich flowering of biblical theology—a first period that’s often regarded as a bit methodologically naive today (running through the 1960s), and then a second period that’s more grounded in terms of method and that’s still alive and moving today.

(It’s generally agreed that Brevard Childs marked the turning point, methodologically, for the continuation of the project into the present.)

What are some of the unresolved aspects of Biblical theology?

Any number of challenges face the field today. A major one is simply that biblical theology depends today on major theoretical and methodological developments from the second half of the twentieth century, and these are things with which much of the rest of the biblical studies world is less familiar.

This creates a gap between kinds of biblical scholarship, so that, while biblical theologians tend to be deeply familiar with the work of non-theological scholars of the Bible, non-theological scholars of the Bible tend to ignore (if not, too often, to disparage) the work of biblical theologians.

He set the tone.

A further challenge is that rising awareness of and commitment to questions of social and political justice in biblical and religious studies, due to the sense of urgency and immediacy that such questions carry with them, often crowd out traditional theological questions.

Questions of identity in many ways become the new form of theological reflection on the Bible, but without any binding sense of responsibility for the theological questions that once drove the conversation.

How did B. H. Roberts influence Latter-day Saint approaches to biblical criticism?

B. H. Roberts really was the first Latter-day Saint to try to engage seriously with the new things happening in biblical criticism in the modern context. He faced down the findings of biblical critics as these became more widely known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He alternated, really, between exhibiting real respect for biblical critics and demonstrating real antipathy toward their approaches.

In so many ways, then, he set the tone for the conversation that has prevailed among Latter-day Saint intellectuals. They tend, still today, to divide into:

  • (a) those who think that modern biblical criticism is unproblematic and of immense value, and;
  • (b) those who think that modern biblical criticism is fundamentally wrongheaded and of little or no value at all.

One wonders how the Saints’ relationship to the Bible might have been different had Roberts stumbled onto biblical theology as an alternative to criticism.

Might he have paved the way for a serious engagement with the larger world of biblical studies by tempering some of his conclusions regarding the intentions of scholars?

What is the influence of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie?

Latter-day Saint scholars who focus on scripture often speak as if Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie jointly foreclosed the possibility of there being a rich scholarly engagement with the Bible among Latter-day Saints. The two certainly were shaped by their reading of extremely conservative Christian responses to biblical criticism, and they came to represent an astonishing intellectual force for the Saints by the middle of the twentieth century.

At the same time, it has to be said that no one did more than those two men to persuade everyday Latter-day Saints that they ought to give serious attention to scripture—and, in Bruce R. McConkie’s case, to the New Testament in particular.

They also had a theologian’s native sense for why it might matter to read the Bible thoughtfully and carefully while attending to the needs of believing readers (and not merely to the interests of historians). Whatever space there is in the Latter-day Saint context today for reading the Bible carefully—whether critically or theologically—it’s arguably space that they created.

Why are Latter-day Saint philosophers so engaged?

This is a marvelously peculiar dimension of the way things have developed over the past few decades, in my view. Latter-day Saint scholars with training in biblical studies (or in fields adjacent to biblical studies) tend to remain squarely focused on the dominant question of reconstructing ancient history.

But a handful of Latter-day Saints trained in the field of philosophy—and specifically in the continental tradition of philosophy—have ended up deeply interested in the very idea of scriptural interpretation (hermeneutics) and so have begun to produce work in scriptural theology.

Currently, there’s a whole generation of even younger Latter-day Saint scholars receiving training in theology departments, and it remains to be seen how they might come at these same questions even more directly.

But it would seem that what was needed to draw biblical theology into the Latter-day Saint intellectual world was a set of thinkers who were worried about how meaning is constituted, and who wondered what that might mean about scripture, rather than scholars trained directly in biblical studies.

This is something that I hope receives a lot more attention in coming years.

How are Latter-day Saint scholars engaged in biblical theology today?

In a lot of ways, it’s probably best to say that a first wave of Latter-day Saint biblical theology has come and gone, and we’re waiting to see what happens when that’s followed up.

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, James Faulconer (just recently retired from the philosophy department at Brigham Young University) led the way with work on the Letter to the Romans.

Soon, Adam Miller and myself followed suit, contributing works of our own on Romans and other biblical texts.

But all three of us have turned our attention more strictly to texts and ideas from the Restoration itself. That is, we’re all still doing scriptural theology, but we’re doing it mostly by refocusing the same kinds of methods deployed in biblical theology on the unique scriptures of the Restoration.

The fact is that the scriptures of the Restoration are so dramatically understudied that one finds too much to do in just that context, and so the Bible is receiving less theological attention from Latter-day Saints than it was just a few years ago. But it’s to be hoped that others will join in the conversation and continue to do uniquely Latter-day Saint work on the theological resources of the Bible.

What is the significance of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar?

A few of us involved in doing theological work on scripture founded the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar (originally under the name of the Mormon Theology Seminar) in the hopes of gathering scholars from various backgrounds to the task of reading scripture theologically.

The first seminar took place in 2008, and it’s still going quite strong. Today, there are about a dozen volumes of the Seminar in print, with contributions from a wide range of readers. For a variety of reasons, the past handful of years have featured seminars focused almost exclusively on the Book of Mormon, but there have been—and we hope there will again soon be—seminars focused on texts from the Bible.

If nothing else, the Seminar has proven to be a context in which the methods of scriptural theology can be developed, sharpened, and put to work, so that there’s a way forward for doing theological work on the Bible, and on other Latter-day Saint scripture.

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About the interview participant

Joseph M. Spencer is a philosopher and an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. His work focuses on philosophy, theology, and scripture. Professor Spencer serves as the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, as the associate director of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar, and as a coeditor for two different book series, Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture (published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute) and Introductions to Mormon Thought (published by the University of Illinois Press).

Further Reading

Biblical Theology Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “How Do Latter-day Saints Approach Biblical Theology?”

Latter-day Saints interested in a solid sound orthodox overview of prophetic approaches to Biblical scholarship might study the below sources:

Hear Elder McConkie discuss the standard works, especially the JST:
or read:

Read Elder McConkie’s discussion of the Bible to Religious Educators:

Read Pres. Marion G. Romney’s general conference talk that discusses how the Book of Mormon sustains and supports the Bible against the attacks of Bible scholars:

Read a warning against heresies by Pres. J. Reuben Clark; this might be considered a forerunner of Elder McConkie’s Seven Deadly Heresies BYU devotional address:

Here, again in general conference, Pres. Clark gives a technical discussion of New Testament translations and texts:

A discussion of higher biblical criticism from Pres. Clark, indicating how these Bible scholars’ criticisms (false Christs) destroy the foundation of Christian doctrine:

A great discourse on Jesus by Pres. Clark from conference:

Many of Pres. Clark’s conference addresses are some of the finest New Testament and supporting scriptural commentary available in the Church:

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