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The Literal Bible: A Viable Interpretation
BY Kerry A. Shirts
Christians have asked me now what about the Bible being taken literally? Why is this not being done anymore? Or was it ever done? So I wish to explore this a little bit. Brigham Young spoke rather plainly about this in the mid 1800s. He said the key is to use the Bible as the ancients and then you will receive the gifts, visions and wonderful blessings of the ancients:
"I ask you, Brother Brigham, how I must believe the Bible, and how shall you and every other follower of the Lord Jesus Christ believe it? "Brother Mormon, how do you believe it?" I believe it just as it is. I do not believe in putting any man's interpretation upon it whatever, unless it should be directed by the Lord himself in some way. I do not believe we need interpreters and expounders of the Scriptures, to wrest them from their literal, plain, simple meaning.
There is one idea entertained by the "Mormons" which is somewhat of a stumbling-block to the people, and apostates handle it to suit their purpose. It is, that we consider the Bible merely as a guide or fingerboard, pointing to a certain destination. This is a true doctrine, which we boldly advance. If you will follow the doctrines, and be guided by the precepts of that book, it will direct you where you may see as you are seen, where you may converse with Jesus Christ, have the visitation of angels, have dreams, visions, and revelations, and understand and know God for yourselves. Is it not a stay and a staff to you? Yes; it will prove to you that you are following in the footsteps of the ancients. You can see what they saw, understand what they enjoyed."1
Matthias Cowley discussed some Bible verses which he believed ought to be taken literally. That is, after all, in many instances in the Bible, the very easiest way to understand its meaning.
"Abraham was designated "the father of the faithful, the friend of God." Of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the Lord has said, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." To them He made glorious promises and entered into everlasting covenants extending into eternity. He promised that their seed should be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as countless as the sands upon the seashore. To the thoughtful person who reads the Scriptures in the spirit of truth, it must be apparent that our Heavenly Father foreknew the unchanging integrity of these men, and because of this gave them such great promises and made them, by His visits to them, living witnesses of His existence and personality.
Moses is another witness to the personality of God. "And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God." (Ex. iii :6.) On another occasion there were over seventy witnesses that God is a personal being. "Then went up Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in His clearness." (Ex. xxiv: 9, 10.) He said to the prophet Moses: "Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock; and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by; and I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen." (Ex. xxxiii: 20-23.) Again it is written: "My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even [p.76] apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold." (Num. xii :7. 8. )
These quotations respecting the prophet Moses show that on some occasions he had personal visits from the Lord. In one instance he was accompanied by over seventy associates, and once he was permitted to see the back parts only. These statements are so much in detail and in such direct language that they are not susceptible of any private interpretation, but must be taken in a literal sense. How any one can profess to believe in the Bible and read these statements, yet deny the personality of God, is a matter of wonder and astonishment, and can only be accounted for in the fact that people have been taught to accept the precepts of men without taking the natural and reasonable conclusions which a personal reading of the Scriptures would establish in their own minds."2
In other words, the Mormons are usually the ones who take the Bible far more literally than the Bible believing Christians. The approach to the Bible has come from many angles, even in ancient times. With so many varying approaches, it is no wonder there is so much discussion as to just what the Bible means.
"What meaneth these things? When Nephi had finished reading, his brothers desired to know the true meaning of the words they had heard. Are they to be understood spiritually and not literally? This question may not appear to be important today, but it is one that has come down to us through many centuries. Is the Bible to be read literally, as any other book, or, has it a mystic sense, understood only by the initiated?
Philo, (20 B.C. to 40 A.D.) the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher, a contemporary of our Lord, was the great advocate in his day of the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, and he exerted an altogether remarkable influence upon the early church fathers and, through them, on the whole church. His philosophy was the Platonic, according to which all the things which our senses tell us exist are mere passing shadows, while the ideas in our minds are the realities. That is to say, an individual man, a horse, a book, etc. are only ephemeral phenomena, while the genus man or horse, or the class of objects we call books are the lasting things in the universe.
But Plato was also a Jew, and he believed in the literal inspiration of the Scriptures. How could this theory of the Bible be reconciled with his platonic philosophy? He found his solution in the "allegorical" interpretation of the Bible, which, by the way, is no interpretation at all but a re-writing of the text.
Clement of Alexandria (Circa 150215 A.D.), recognized four ways of interpreting the Scriptures, viz., The literal, the mystical, the moral and the prophetic. In his mystical system, the various details of the uniform of the high priest, for instance, had each a special meaning. The mitre signified the royal authority of our Lord. The breastplate of the ephod was a symbol of good works. The 360 bells on the priestly robe signified a year, viz., "the acceptable year of our Lord," and so on.
Origen, the most famous of the Alexandrian church fathers (185253 A.D.), undertook the impossible task of harmonizing the Platonian philosophy of Philo with Christianity, as this great Jew had endeavored to do for said philosophy and Judahism. He, therefore, found in the words of the Scriptures a three-fold meaning, corresponding to the body, soul, and spirit of man. To him the letter was the "body." But, in addition to the literal sense, there was a moral and also a spiritual sense. In speaking of the Mosaic story of the creation, for instance, he asked if anyone can believe that the first three days were without sun, moon and stars, and the first day without a sky, even. These things, he suggests, are said figuratively by means of history, which is not to be understood literally, but as significant of certain "mysteries."
Some of these church fathers were so anxious to get a standing among the worldly wise of their day that they willingly reconstructed their theology in order to get room in it for pagan philosophy."3
Various scholars have discussed just what allegory means as opposed to literalism, or a spiritual interpretation of the scriptures. It is most instructive to see the explanations and then compare what Christians today say the Bible means. I think that one key point to remember is that instead of seeing various interpretations as either right or wrong, we can now appreciate the almost incredibly creative, if not downright amusing way people have approached the scriptures. Not that we have to accept their view, but it is a wise thing to become acquainted with how various people have learned to read and understand the Bible. I believe only in this way can we come to have charity for others, even though they disagree with our particular understanding, whatever that may be.
"So the teachings of the schools were completely dominated by rhetoric. Anciently, they were the schools of rhetoric. Success schools, business schools, is what they all turned out to be. That's another story, but it's a very important one. Now the first casualty of this loss, of course, was literalism, given rights in the decline and fall. This is the situation. The most learned of the fathers by a very singular condescension have imprudently admitted the sophistry of the Gnostics, acknowledging that the literal sense is repugnant for every principle of faith as well as reason. You must never take anything literally in the Bible. They deem themselves secure and invulnerable behind the ample veil of allegory. You say a thing one way, you mean it another way. Allegory is different meanings. The classic example from the scriptures is where they speak of God coming and going. It can't possibly mean that. It's given another interpretation. It doesn't mean that he has eyes; it just means there's an awareness there. He can't be like us in any sense. When it says we are in His image, they would say that's allegorical. The very first of the fathers that started this, were men like Origen and Irenaeus Their favorite term was the "visible image of the invisible God." He is in the image of man, but he is invisible. Of course, an image is something that you can see. But an invisible image is [p.2] what God is, they claimed. It's like saying soundless music or odorless perfume. It's a contradiction of terms to say an invisible image. Behind the veil of allegory is where they have lived ever since. Joseph Smith came along and gave us a very different story. He says he really saw the angel and gives us a clinical account, how he looked, where he stood, etc., just like the first chapter of Luke.
Well, there was a limit here. Allegory could not explain what we have mentioned before, the terrible questions. We go to the first volume of the Patrologia for that. What made them terrible was the insistence on a literal answer. You have to give me a straight, literal answer to this. Allegory can mean what you say it means. We started with the story of Clement in Rome when he was a young fellow. He was the first and oldest writer after the New Testament. We mentioned before there's this great collection, the Patrologia. We have them all, along with the Oriental Patrologia and others. It's over a thousand volumes. It's all the writings of the early church in chronological order, and number one is our friend Clement. He's going to be very important here. He tells us his story. And we mentioned that it was a recognition. This was a very common theme and reflects the conditions of the world. We have this today. It began with the new comedy, second and third centuries B.C., with Menander and was picked up by the Romans who made a big thing of it (Plautus and Terence). It was the story of families that had been broken up, and then they recognized each other. Recognition is a big tear-jerker, as you know. The breaking up is interesting, how kids were constantly being kidnapped, little children in crowds at festivals. The new comedy was picked up by Shakespeare. That's The Comedy of Errors. It was simply taken from Plautus. It's the two twins separated at different times. Shipwreck was a common one. There were lots of merchants in it, lots of traveling, the recognition by the locket. This was all through the Middle Ages, these tokens of recognition. It was the standard theme of the blood and thunder operas. A spoof by Gilbert and Sullivan makes a big thing of the recognition. The babies got mixed up at birth, and as a result the captain should have been Jack Tarr, and Jack Tarr should have been the captain. But they were twins and the nurse got them mixed up. They were separated, and you recognize them by the letter, or the token, or the wrappings, or things like that. It gives a picture of a restless world. We talked about theatromania. They were always having these big shows, big markets, etc., and children were always getting swiped. Just as people were always getting assassinated, as we mentioned last time Varro's Re rustica.
A child in a crowd might easily disappear, and it happened all the time. They were sold as slaves or in the thriving international sex business. It was very much like today, and it got worse and worse. Finally, the whole thing collapsed. But this was a recognition of a family that was broken up and the way they found themselves together. We have stories of this in our church history. Sooner or later they all joined the church, and that brought them all together. They never would have found each other if they hadn't independently joined the church. So he starts out telling his story, and it's a very important one because this tells us what the terrible questions are that only our Pearl of Great Price can answer.
So he starts out like, "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents." He writes, "Ego Clemens in urba Roma natus. I, Clement, born in the city of Rome, from my earliest age was a studious child and constantly concerned with certain questions. From my boyhood, I could not break myself away from thinking about these things."
It's quite common. Questionnaires show that the part of the population that worries most about nuclear war is small children. Children six, seven and eight years old worry all the time about it, which surprised the experts. Well, Clement was always worried about the big things. He says, "I don't know exactly where I started doing that or where the idea came from, but I worried about it all the time. My mortal condition bothered me." And these were the questions. First of all the big one: "whether I would have any life after death at all." If you have answered that, you have answered an awful lot, and if you can't, then you are "in the soup." You have nothing much to look forward to, and it becomes very discouraging. But this is the big question we find that nobody can escape from. You think you can, but you can't.
Well, that led to another question, a corollary of that. Well, if I live after death, will I remember? Will I be myself after death, or would I turn into some other creature? Transmigration. What's the point of living after death if you cease to be yourself and start to be somebody else? That is part of many religions, as you know, and that wouldn't satisfy him at all. So whether there is any life for me at all after death; and secondly, after I leave will I be the same person? Well, Clement plainly and simply says, "Would I have any memory of this life after, or would I turn into another person entirely?" And the third one was, "or would I forget absolutely everything? Would I simply be going into complete oblivion?" Shakespeare's last stage of all is "second childishness and mere oblivion. "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." The last of the seven ages of man is "his second childhood and mere oblivion." Well, the next step from that is into nothing at all, you see. Shakespeare dwells morbidly on that in As You Like It. But this worries him, oblivion and silence to look forward to. Or would I probably remember something of this life?
Well, along with this are the conditions which continued existence implies and requires; namely, you have to have a physical substratum, cosmology. So the next question he asks is the normal one: "quando factus hic mundus. When was the earth created?" Was it created? And what existed before that? Was there anything before the earth? Notice he goes into questions of cosmology from questions that seem to be theology. But if you are going to live hereafter, this is literalism. It has to be literal, first of all. He is going to tell us that the doctors of the church could give him beautiful allegories, but that didn't mean a thing. As the first apologist of the church says, "You use these things, but to us Christians they mean nothing. A thing is either what you say it is, or it isn't."4
Whether one chooses to understand the Bible literally or symbolically can definitely affect ones understanding of the creation in Genesis, not to mention the Pearl of Great Price. Whether trying to learn about the Big Bang, or Geology, or even Evolution, how one approaches the subject in relation to the Bible, makes a difference.
There's also the physical reality we must consider. Now the pope has taken refuge in the "Big Bang" for example. In 1955 he did that. That's a singularity. That's not satisfactory. Remember, the singularity had to begin with the Big Bang. I was just reading in someone who said "the hateful word 'singularity' because you can't explain it." What was there before the Big Bang? All matter, all space was contained in one point that had no dimensions whatever. Well, that's absurd; to say the least it's singular. So they call it singularity, and it gives people a headache. They don't like it at all. But you begin with a singularity, and then comes the Big Bang. But the earth doesn't show up for a long time. It doesn't belong to that particular phase. You have to go through a photon phase when there's nothing but light. Then you go through a hydron phase and get hydrogen, helium. Then you're back to lepton phase again. Then things go together. You go through various phases. You go through a galactic phase, then a stellar phase, then supposedly a bio-phase some people suggest. But the thing is the earth didn't come along for a long time, and it's part of a very long process. There must have been something before the singularity. This is the thing that Henry Eyring, a great chemist up at the University of Utah, talked a good deal about. If all that stuff was compacted together, what jammed it together and where did it come from? We haven't answered a thing that way.
The pope wants singularity because it looks like creation out of nothing. Nothing there and then all of a sudden the big bang. You know how things happen there. But the earth isn't part of that show, nor the stars nor the galaxies. There may have been an incomprehensibly long and varied background, but there was a background. They used to put it at four and a half billion years. Within the last ten years they have changed it to fifteen and a half. Now they have more than doubled that because they can see farther out now with the new telescopes and techniques. So now they have it down to almost thirty billion years. They have almost doubled it, and it goes on doubling all the time.
We have been told about some of it in our scriptures, etc. Where do we find it? We have found it in the Doctrina Arcana, the ancient teachings handed down. What testifies to them? What kind of proof and support do you have to those ancient teachings handed down? Well, the best thing you have is using a comparative method and using a statistical method. How come Joseph Smith hits it on the head so often? Because he came just at the right time. In the middle of the nineteenth century everything took a new course. Science took over completely in everythingin humanities, geology, geography, astronomy and everything else. You get a different ball game. Joseph Smith came before that, and he gave us the whole thing before he could have drawn on any of that stuff. If he had come just twenty years later, you could have said again and again, "Ha, he lifted that from this, or he got that from this." Just as they say today that he got "it came to pass" from the Bible because you will find that in the Bible too. But of course. In fact every word in the Book of Mormon you will find in the dictionary. But that doesn't explain anything. But there was the council in the beginning and the plan, and that's what we have been talking about. We've been talking about the old documents. But there are scientific questions to be answered. We're not going to linger on them. If we get trapped in them, there are two disadvantages. One, I don't know anything about it. Two, it gets so interesting. You get involved and you never get off, and the time is limited. That's not our concern right now, but these we have to consider because we do talk about the creation. We have accepted the literal interpretation. We have accepted a multiplicity of worlds. We have accepted all the things that bind us to pay some attention to science. Now, granted all the answers of science are, as Popper tells us, so very clearly hypotheses, and they are all tentative leading to other tentative explanations. Nevertheless, we are prompted by data, and that data must be taken into consideration. What about it? You say, "Well now, we don't know how many other worlds, etc." We do know something basic. There are other things out there. So we have then the cosmological problem, the geological problem, the biological problem, and the historical problem. Those are the main ones that concern us in the creation business in which we need not linger. But they are all treated very nicely in the Pearl of Great Price. That's why we mention them.5
The trick is interpretation. One does it one way, another says it means this. All is confusion, and the explanation for why this is so is quite enlightening.
"But who's to interpret it? Do I have a right to interpret the scriptures as much as anyone else?" Of course. You may remember that the wars of the Reformation were fought on that issue: "Does the ordinary person have the right to read the scriptures?" We regard that as a definite step forward in the Lord's work on the earth, and in the Church every individual is commanded to read the scriptures for himself. Of course, the story of the last dispensation begins with the Prophet Joseph, as a young boy, reading the scriptures very much for himself, putting the most literal interpretation on them, belonging to no church at the time, without asking for anybody's permission. So we do that also. As far as official interpretation of the scriptures is concerned, the Latter-day Saints scoff at the idea that one must study special courses and get a special degree--"training for the ministry"--and thus interpret the Bible for others. Joseph Smith noted many times that interpreters of the scriptures like William W. Phelps and Frederick G. Williams read the scriptures quite differently than he, but he didn't order them to stop or to change. He said we should try to use reason and testimony, but that's all we can do. The Brethren are instructed to stick to the scriptures in all their teachings: "No man's opinion is worth a straw: advance no principle but what you can prove, for one scriptural proof is worth ten thousand opinions."6
If it can make us feel, perhaps, any better, even Brigham Young was accused of not believing the Bible when he would profess he was a Latter Day Saint. His story is worth reading, if nothing else, than for its instructive humor!
Suppose we now notice that part of the world called Christians, that profess to believe the Old and New Testament, King James's translation. They say they believe this Bible, yet if you are in France, Germany, England, in the United States, in the Canadas, in the islands of the sea, or no matter where among the Christian nations, the moment you make it known that you have embraced the Book of Mormon, and that you believe Joseph Smith is a Prophet, they will at once accuse you of throwing away the Bible, they will publish abroad that you have become a "Latter-day Saint," "a Mormon," and consequently have denied the Bible you formerly believed, and have cast it entirely away. What is the reason of this, which I need not undertake to substantiate, for it is a fact that almost every person knows? Now, we ARE believers in the Bible, and in consequence of our unshaken faith in its precepts, doctrine, and prophecy, may be attributed "the strangeness of our course," and the unwarrantable conduct of many towards this people.
Come, my brother Presbyterian; come, my brother professors of every persuasion of long standing and popular distinction in the world, who are dubbed with the word "ORTHODOX;" come, we are all good Christians; I find no fault with you--why should you find fault with me? But you reply, "I cannot be a Latter-day Saint, consequently we must be separated, and we cannot be brethren any longer."
Come, my good brother Methodist, and my good brother Baptist, you are free and open in your views and feelings, for you hold forth a free salvation. This is a favorite doctrine of the Methodists. They say salvation is handed out to all the human family, without money and without price, and invite them to come and partake of the waters of life freely. I declare the same. I am a believer in Jesus Christ, in God the Father, and in the doctrines of salvation as they are taught in the Old and New Testaments, though not so pointedly in the Old as in the New. Yet the same principles of life and salvation are set forth in both of these books, and I believe them. Come, my brother B, do you believe them? You reply, "Yes, and have for these thirty years, twenty-seven of which I have been a preacher of the Gospel. I believe in the Son of God, and in the Old and New Testaments." Well, then, what in the world do you want to quarrel with me for? "Because you are not a believer, you have thrown away the Bible." You are mistaken, Mr. B.; for instead of that, I have learned wisdom, got light, knowledge, and understanding, so that I know how to believe the Bible. I ask you, brother B, how I must believe the Bible, and how shall you and every other follower of the Lord Jesus Christ believe it? "Brother Mormon, how do you believe it?" I believe it just as it is. I do not believe in putting any man's interpretation upon it, whatever, unless it should be directed by the Lord Himself in some way. I do not believe we need interpreters and expounders of the Scriptures, to wrest them from their literal, plain, simple meaning.
Let us take up a point of Scripture, and we will try to agree with Mr. B, and take him along with us a few moments, and find out where we disagree. We read in the Bible many things pertaining to life and salvation. We first begin to read that Jesus came in the flesh. Now to touch that point, which I do not purpose to do but slightly this morning, I am sure we shall disagree at the commencement. But suppose I examine that, a moment. The New Testament tells me that the Father gave His only-begotten Son a ransom for the sins of the world. Do you believe that, brother B.? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father? "Yes." Do you believe the Son was begotten by the Father, as the Apostles said he was? Here I shall have to disagree with you, to begin with; for I believe the Father came down from heaven, as the Apostles said he did, and begat the Saviour of the world; for he is the ONLY-begotten of the Father, which could not be if the Father did not actually beget him in person.
"I cannot believe that, for he is a God without body, parts, or passions; He has no person, therefore, I must disagree with you, brother Mormon." I believe the Father came down in His tabernacle and begat Jesus Christ. Mr. B. believes He has no tabernacle. I believe He has a tabernacle, and begat Jesus Christ in His express image and likeness, because the Bible expressly declares it. You disbelieve it, because your priest and your mother have taught you it is not so. When your mothers first read this Scripture, it was so plain to their understandings and to their children, that they understood it as an angel would, but deacon Jones must be called in to explain, and he explained it away. So I disagree with you, Mr. B., in the first point we have noticed, for you believe that God is without body and parts, while the Bible declares He has a corporeal body; that in His likeness, precisely, He created Adam. The priests of this age declare it is not so. The God Mr. B. believes in, is without body, parts, and passions. The God that his "brother Mormon" believes in, is described in the Bible as being a personage of tabernacle, having eyes to see, for he that made the eye shall he not see? Having ears to hear, for his ear are open to hear the prayers of the righteous. He has limbs that he can walk, for the Lord God walked in the garden in the cool of the day. He conversed with His children, as in the case of Moses at the fiery bush, and with Abraham on the plains of Mamre. He also ate and drank with Abraham and others. That is the God the "Mormons" believe in, but their very religious Christian brethren do not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is the God the Bible sets forth, as an organized corporeal being. In this one point, you can now clearly see wherein we disagree.
You say, I have thrown away the New Testament. I say, I have not. You say, I have sacrificed it for the Book of Mormon. I say, I have not. I have acknowledged the Bible from the time I could be taught by my parents to revere it. They taught me that it was the sacred word of God. And as far as it could be translated correctly from the Hebrew and Greek languages, it is given to us as pure as it possibly could be given. The Bible is mine, and I am not prepared to have you rob me of it, without my consent. The doctrine in it is mine, which I firmly believe. I believe the Father begat the Son, and gave him to be a propitiation for the sins of the world. I believe he died for the redemption of man, and rose again the third day.7
Wilford Woodruff was also among the early Saints who accepted the Bible truths in a rather literal fashion. Understanding the Bible literally, made God real, made Jesus real, the reasons and experiences of his life real, for him and for us.
I can truly say as the Apostle Paul said, "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." I am not ashamed of what the world is pleased to call "Mormonism;" I am not ashamed of any revelation that God has given unto the Latter-day Saints, through the mouth of modern Prophets; I am not ashamed to acknowledge myself a firm believer in the literal fulfilment of the Bible, as well as every communication of God to man, although I am well aware that the Scriptures have been more or less spiritualized by the whole Christian world, especially during the last hundred years. I believe that holy men of old wrote and spoke as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and that they meant what they said and said what they meant, and that the Apostle Paul spoke truly when he said, "that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation." The Lord has taught us in a modern revelation contained in this book, the "Doctrine and Covenants," that it matters not whether he speaks from heaven by his own voice, or by the ministration of angels, or by the mouth of his servants when they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, it is all the same the mind and will of God; and although the heavens and the earth pass away, my words would not fall unfulfilled.8
One thing that most all Christians and Mormons are turning to now is the literalism of the fulfillment of prophecy. Perhaps it is the difficulties of our day. Perhaps it is the widespread unbelief of the people in the earth. Regardless, the Mormons have usually taken things in the Bible and the scriptures as literal. Using specific Bible verses, Woodruff shows how Mormons have interpreted them in their literal sense, actually believing in the Biblical Angels, and Gospel, and ordinances which Jesus himself is said to have undertaken in his own mortal lifetime. The connection, the organic connection of Mormonism and the Bible has always been the understanding of it in a quite literal sense. This gives a basis of solid reality to the beliefs, hope, and prayers of the Mormon people. This literal understanding has always gotten the Mormons in trouble. But the confort is surely the Lord' words, "As they have done it unto me, they will do it unto you."
It required an angel from heaven "to fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting Gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue and people," and to prepare them for the great judgments of our God, before the winding-up scene. The angel has come: that Gospel has been delivered. It was delivered to Joseph Smith. He did not receive his power from man, but from the revelations of Jesus Christ. What did that Gospel teach? Why, faith in Jesus Christ. "Yes, oh yes," say the Methodist, "we believe in Jesus Christ." All right. Then the next principle was repentance of our sins. "But," say the sectarian world, "we also believe in repentance." Well, what is next? The revivalists who visited this city, (Messrs. Sankey & Moody) believed in Jesus Christ, and they said that if a person only came to Christ, he did not require to be a Methodist, Baptist, Mormon, or anything else. Prophets and Apostles were not required; all that was required was to come to Christ. But we say there is something more required besides believing. A man has to be baptized for the remission of his sins in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. That law of baptism has never been altered. Many believe in baptism even by immersion, but not particularly for remission of sins. What next? Having repented of our sins and been baptized for a remission of them, we must have hands laid upon for the reception of the Holy Ghost, and when we have received the Holy Ghost, it will be unto us as a principle of revelation, a testimony of the Father and of the Son.
Well, what kind of a church are you going to have? Paul, in speaking of the Corinthians, goes on to represent the Church of Christ as the body of man. He shows that every part of the body must act in unison; the head, the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the feet, must all work together in order that the body may be perfect, and that there may be no schism. We are also told that God set in the Church Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers, for the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Now, we have had independence of mind enough to believe this doctrine. This is "Mormonism." It is faith in Christ, repentance of our sins, baptism for the remission of our sins, and the reception of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. These are the principles which we as Latter-day Saints believe in. We do not believe that God ever had a church on the earth without Apostles and Prophets in it, without inspiration in it. To do away with any of the principles of the Gospel would cause a schism in the Church of Christ. When you cut the head off a man he will die. Precisely so with the Church of Christ. We believe in the Bible; we believe in all the prophecies; we believe God meant just what he said and said just what he meant; we believe that the prophecies of the scriptures are of no private interpretation; we believe in the second coming of Christ; we believe that the judgments of Almighty God will be poured out upon this generation. All the unbelief of the world will not stay the fulfilment of the decrees of the Almighty. The unbelief of the inhabitants of the antediluvian world in the days of Noah did not stay the deluge. The unbelief of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah did not avert the destruction of Jerusalem. We look for a literal fulfilment of the decrees of God. We know as a people that he has set his hand to establish his Church. He has set his hand to warn all nations. The Holy Priesthood has been restored, not by the power of man, but by the power of Almighty God.
When Pilate was ready to release Jesus because he found no fault in him, the Pharisees and high priests, being filled with prejudice, would not have it. They cried out "Crucify him, crucify him, and let his blood be upon us and our children." The prediction of Jesus has been verified, and its fulfillment is before the world to-day. The Jews have been trampled under the feet of the Gentiles for 1800 years, and they are to-day being persecuted in European nations. Why? Because that curse of God rests upon them and will rest upon them until Shiloh comes, until they are regathered to Jerusalem and re-build the city in un-belief. You cannot convert a Jew. They will never believe in Jesus Christ until he comes to them in Jerusalem, until these fleeing Jews take back their gold and silver to Jerusalem and re-build their city and temple, and they will do this as the Lord lives. Then the gentiles will say, "Come let us go up to Jerusalem; let us go up and spoil her. The Jews have taken our gold and silver from the nations of the earth--come let us go up and fight against Jerusalem." Then will the prophecies that are before you be fulfilled. The Gospel was preached first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. The Jews rejected the message: the Gentiles received it, and unto them was given all the gifts and blessings of the Gospel. But Paul told them to take heed lest they fell through the same example of unbelief. Yet in time, we Gentiles, departed from the kingdom of God, and the church went into the wilderness. There has not been an organization of the church of Christ on the earth from the days of the ancient Apostles, until the days of Joseph Smith, who came forth in this great and last dispensation, and who by inspiration and power from on high again restored the Gospel. The world do not believe this. We cannot help that. The unbelief of the world does not make the work of the Lord of non-effect. The Lord has set his hand to establish his church and kingdom, and the warning voice is to all men. He has called his servant to bear record of this to all nations. This is what the Lord is doing with these despised Mormons. And already the members of nearly every sect under heaven have embraced this work, though our numbers are small compared with the christian world. We expect this. As it was in the days of Noah and Lot so shall it be at the coming of the Son of Man. These principles are true. The world does not know what awaits them no more than they did in the days of Noah, or in the days of the Jews
We, the Latter-day Saints, are called out of the world. We have received the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord Almighty has raised up Prophets and Apostles in this our day, and has set his hand to establish the kingdom that Daniel saw in fulfilment of revelation and prophecy. We have been gathered out from the nations of the earth to these valleys of the mountains.9
James E. Talmage, in 1916, on the other hand, described some of the problems the saints were having because of the literal approach to the Bible. The twist is a most instructive one. Is literal actually literal? Or is literal just literal? Read on, youll see what I mean. This makes for some fun reading.
Many of us are prone to think that the day of His coming, the day of the setting up of the Kingdom of Heaven in its power and glory is yet far distant. I take it that that assumption is based, perhaps, upon our wish, none the less real, because we hesitate to frame it in words. How would you feel if authoritative proclamation were made here today that on the literal morrow, when the sun shall rise again in the east, the Lord would appear in His glory to take vengeance upon the wicked, and to establish His Kingdom upon the earth? Who amongst you would rejoice? The pure in heart would, the righteous in soul would, but many of us would wish to have the event put off. We are very much in the frame of mind, or we may allow ourselves to fall in the frame of mind of the rule bound Pharisees and the casuistical Sadducees in the days of the Christ in the flesh. They were intent upon keeping the people's interest alive in a future Messiah, in a Christ who was to come, but not one who was amongst them. We are very loath to accept and believe that which we do not want to believe, and the world today does not wish to believe that the coming of the Christ is near at hand, and consequently all kinds of subterfuges are invented for explaining away the plain words of scripture. We rejoice in simplicity. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is won-fully simple. We as a people value, I believe, scholastic attainments at their full worth. While we foster and encourage the training and development of the mind, I was about to say to the full limit, certainly almost to the limit, of our material ability, as witness the unceasing effort and continuous expenditure of vast sums in the maintenance of church schools, and the willingness with which the Latter-day Saints as members of the community impose upon themselves, in common with their fellow citizens, taxes for the support of schools under state control and direction, we nevertheless hold that scholastic attainments are not essential to a full understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not believe that a diploma from a theological seminary is an essential part of the credentials of a teacher or preacher of the word of God. Nevertheless we endeavor to encourage and aid in a material way the training of the mind and the development of all the faculties that shall be conducive to educational advancement in the truest sense of the term, but we hold the Gospel is simple that all may understand it who will. It is the proud and they who do wickedly who close their eyes and their ears and their hearts to the signs of the times, to the word of the Gospel and to the testimony of the Christ. It has long been a favorite excuse of men who were not ready for the advent of the Lord, to say, "The Lord delayeth His coming." Don't attach too much importance to the fact that He has thus far delayed His coming, for He has repeatedly told us that the day of His coming is very, very near, even at our doors. There is a tendency among men to explain away what they don't wish to understand in literal simplicity, and we, as Latter-day Saints are not entirely free from the taint of that tendency. Prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled are by many of us made the subjects of hypothesis and theory and strained interpretation. We read that one of the characteristic signs to precede the second advent of Christ shall be the bringing forth of the tribes that have been lost to history, led away where men have not yet found them, and we are told that they shall be brought forth with a strong hand by the power of God and shall come unto Zion and receive their blessings at the hands of Ephraim. But some people say that prediction is to be explained in this way: A gathering is in progress, and has been in progress from the early days of this Church; and thus the "Lost Tribes" are now being gathered; but that we are not to look for the return of any body of people now unknown as to their whereabouts. True, the gathering is in progress, this is a gathering dispensation; but the prophecy stands that the tribes shall be brought forth from their hiding place bringing their scriptures with them, which scriptures shall become one with the scriptures of the Jews, the holy Bible, and with the scriptures of the Nephites, the Book of Mormon, and with the scriptures of the Latter-day Saints as embodied in the volumes of modern revelation.
The Lord has said it. I am just simple-minded enough, my brethren and sisters, to stand upon the rock of assurance that not one jot or tittle of the word of the Lord shall fail. Do not allow yourselves to think that the coming of the Christ means merely the spread of different or more advanced ideas among men, or simply the progress and advancement of society as an institution. These shall be but incidents of the great consummation, the consummation of this particular stage or epoch of the Lord's work. The Lord Jesus Christ shall come in the clouds of heaven, accompanied by the heavenly hosts, and His advent shall be marked by a great extension of the resurrection of the just, which has been in progress since that resurrection Sunday on which He came forth from the tomb and took up the wounded, pierced body which He had laid down; and those who are not able to bear the glory of His coming because of their wickedness, their foulness, and wilful state of sin, shall, by natural means, perish. A strong current of electricity passes safely through a pure conductor, but where resistance is encountered it becomes a destructive power. It was necessary that the work for the dead be undertaken by the living, that temples be reared and this vicarious labor be performed, that the hearts of the departed fathers might be turned toward their yet mortal descendants, and the hearts of mortal children be turned to their dead ancestors, lest the earth be smitten with a curse at the time of the Lord's coming.
The Bible is very simple to those who read it with earnest and honest intent, as are all the scriptures, but it is very puzzling to the theologians, very puzzling, sometimes to Biblical scholars and interpreters who seek to apply to it only those tests that are common among men. I rejoice in the testimony of the Savior that He is verily the Christ and we proclaim Him as such. Great interest is manifest at this time in the work and ministry of Jesus Christ, not only among the Latter-day Saints but in the world in general; and He has been analyzed and measured and written about from many points of view, and as viewed from many different angles. There are volumes of recent publication dealing with the Christ of literature, the Christ of history, the Christ of reason, the Christ of experience. Never lived a man of whom more has been said or sung; and there is none to whom is devoted a greater share of the world's literature. But the tendency is to view Him from this angle or that and not to look with direct vision. I am thankful that the Church to which I belong preaches Christ and Him crucified, and resurrected, the Christ that ascended into heaven, the Christ that shall come again, the Christ that was the offspring in the flesh, as well as in the spirit, of the very Eternal Father, the Christ who is the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, beside whom there is none, beside whose name there is no name under heaven, whereby mankind may be saved. 10
The editorial in the Times & Seasons, emphatically discusses several Bible events in a literal sense showing how the Mormons understood the Bible, trying to be sane and rational, yet at the same time, having faith and belief in the ancient ways of life of the Patriarchs and other peoples in the Bible times.
In the days of Noah the inhabitants of the earth were very wicked, and the Lord in his just wrath resolved to destroy them, if they would not repent and forsake their evil ways. Therefore, He prophecied to Noah that He would bring a flood of waters upon the earth and destroy all flesh: He also commanded Noah to build an ark for the saving of himself and family. -- Now if Noah had considered this any thing else than a literal relation of facts, and considered it the figure of some spiritual event, and the ark a spiritual one, he most certainly would have perished with the Antediluvians. He had no knowledge of the modern spiritualizing system, therefore he moved forward and prepared the ark to the saving of himself and family. The next prediction we will notice is the Lord's to Abraham, telling him that his seed shall remain in bondage four hundred years. (See Gen. xv. 13, 14.) Moses says, the children of Israel were in bondage four hundred years. (See Ex. xii. 40.) Indeed, Joseph's interpretation of Pharoah's dream, and prediction of the seven years' famine; and Moses predictions to the children of Israel in the wilderness, were all literally fulfilled. Isaiah's prophecy to Hesekiah that his days should be lengthened fifteen years, and also his prophecy concerning the destruction of Babylon were literally fulfilled. Also Jeremiah's prophecy that the Jews should be taken to Babylon and there remain in bondage seventy years, which was literally fulfilled. We might cite the reader to passages of this kind and their literal fulfilment, till he would be weary reading them; but we forbear knowing that the honest in heart are willing to accept of a few as a sample of the literal fulfilment, of prophecy. It sufficeth, to say that all true prophecies, when the prophets said thus and thus saith the Lord, were literally fulfilled. For instance the predictions concerning the first coming of Christ, and the important events connected with the history of his life, were all fulfilled to the very letter: and the fact that the apostles whenever, they quoted a prophecy from the Old Testament, applied it as a literal relation of facts without making any comments upon it whatever, is sufficient proof that the predictions of the prophets generally, were designed as literal relations of facts not to be spiritualized. I always take it for granted when I hear any person spiritualizing the scriptures, that is an unbeliever, and is trying to modify, or convert them unto something else to suit his notions or tenets. At the same time he professes to be a believer; but when we sum up the whole of his spiritualizing, we discover that he disbelieves what the prophets and apostles said, but believes what they meant. The infidels would be willing to believe the bible if they could have the privilege of manufacturing it over to suit themselves. And I conclude by saying that it is time that this evil practice of spiritualizing the scriptures, which is so closely connected with priestcraft, was done away, that the nobel and the ignoble, the learned and the unlearned, may read the sacred book and understand it, and no longer trust to others to interpret for them. "Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm."
And it is precisely in this literal understanding that has caused the Saints so much harm in the world. They have been despised and outcast (who among us these days has not heard the silly chant, You arent even Christians!), but this is the essential and literal way of Israel in the Bible! Israel has always been despised and outcast, and that quite literally. The Eschatalogical, (that is, the End Times) and literal view of what the ancients saw and did, what they prophecied and envisioned with God's Glory has usually been anathema to Christianity since the Fourth Century when revelation and real prophecy was replaced with philosophical syllogisms, and analogies.
If the saints were taught to think of themselves as outcasts in a hostile world, it just so happened that they were outcasts in a hostile world; one had only to look around to see that the pitfalls and dangers were real and physical as well as "spiritual." The faithful actually have found themselves more often than not holing up in the desert places of the world--E. Kacscmann's "Wandernde Gottesvolk," and when they talked of being gathered out of the world and taking leave of it, they were thinking in the most factual and spatial terms. Even those learned doctors of the Church who utterly deplored the old-fashioned literalistic ways of thinking constantly slip back to those ways themselves, especially in times of crisis; and the spiritual miracles, spiritual parousia, spiritual pilgrimage, spiritual Temple, and spiritual Jerusalem, etc., of the schoolmen never proved very satisfying to the Christian mind which displays a constant tendency to revert to the tangible article whenever possible--even the great doctors prefer the dinner to the menu, when they can get it!
Today a return to literalism is part of the expanding Gospel.
But there is ambiguity here. Take for example the business of light and darkness. In the thousands of passages contrasting the two they are most of the time quite plainly figurative. Yet the shining garments of heavenly beings, as of Jesus at the Tranfiguration, are real; ans so is the darkness: "As every man's nature in this life is dark," says Enoch, "so are also his conception, birth, and departure from life." (Secrets of Enoch 68:4.) When in the Power of Heaven the Church is described as a tower built above the water, we are told that the tower is a symbol, but that the water is very real, no one can enter the typological tower without passing through real water. (Pastor of Hermas, Vis. III iii-v. In the same way the hero stands "sentry duty" not only symbolically but literally, Simil. V, i.)
From this we see that rites and ordinances present an ambiguous situation, with some things to be taken literally and done literally and others figuratively. But in our ancient texts the reader is rarely left in doubt as to which is which; it is only the doctors of the Church, all men of the schools, who insist on minimizing the literal at the expense of the allegorical. Once one comes to understand, Origen assures us, that the historical parts of the Bible are to be understood symbolically, the historical interpretation of the whole becomes not only expendable but actually misleading, and should be abandoned altogether!" (J. Danielou, Origen (N.Y., Sheed and Ward, 1955), pp. 155-7, cf. 119, 141-4, 152.)
The mixing of types and images with reality is of the very essence of our life upon the earth, where we see through a glass but darkly. In the scriptures and the apocrypha we are told of things that are real and yet too wonderful for us even to imagine here, let alone describe; we simply can't conceive them: "Eye hath not seen not ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared "( I Cor. 2:9). Consequently, if these things are to be mentioned at all, it must be in terms of types and images which are not real. Yet the types and images are not for that reason to be despised. A valuable commentary on this theme is supplied in the newly discovered Gospel of Philip: "Truth did not come into the world naked, but she came clothed in types and images. One cannot receive the truth in any other way." (115:10-12) The solid reality behind the images can only be known by apocatastasis, or restoration to a former state. (115:15-18) If people do not receive the ordinances here, we are told, they will not enjoy the real thing hereafter (121:1-8). Marriage, for example, has a different form in the next world to what it has here (124:6-9); but only by entering it here will one be allowed to enter it there: "If anyone does not receive it while he is in this world, he will not receive it in the other place" (134:6-7). So it is with all the ordinances: he who has not mastered "the places" here "will not be able to be master of that place. . . (121:33-36). "The mysteries of the truth are revealed as types and images" here, while "the veil conceals how God really governs the physical creation" (132:20-25). The rending of the veil is not the abolition but the revelation of what is behind it, "in order that we might enter into the truth of it. . . .12
Grant Underwood has discussed various aspects and ramifications of literalism in Latter Day Saint thinking. This was one of the strong emotional, if not spiritual ties which Mormons had with the ancient Biblical Patriarchs and Prophets. It is a stronger bond than other ways of thinking, and literally welds modern Israel with Ancient Israel in a spiritual grouping, perhaps not felt near as keenly in other religions, as in Mormonism.
It is not surprising that people weaned on the Bible and steeped in its literal interpretation would feel there were simply too many graphic passages predicting "wo" upon unbelievers to have the notion "spiritualized" or "explained away." Time and again in early Mormon periodicals and pamphlets one encounters references to Moses' prophecy that all who will not hearken to Christ will be cut off form among the people or to Paul's portrayal of a Savior descending in flaming fire to take vengeance "on them that know not God, and obey not the gospel." No Bible verse, however, more effectively bolstered the saved-destroyed dichotomy that Luke 17:26: "And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man." This scripture told the Saints two things. First, the majority of mankind in their day would reject the message; and second, such people would therefore be destroyed. "Just precisely as it was then," wrote the editors of the Times and Seasons," 'so shall it be at the coming of the Son of Man.' Revelation shall precede his coming, the whole world shall ridicule them and cast them off, for so it was in the days of Noah, and the consequences were, inevitable destruction; and so it will be with this generation, the righteous only, will be saved." That this would leave few men to enjoy the Millennium merely accorded with their understanding of Isaiah's prophecy that "the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left.""This destruction," explained Parley P. Pratt in his Voice of Warning, "is to come by fire as literally as the flood in the days of Noah; and it will consume both priests and people from the earth . . . or else we must get a new edition of the Bible, leaving out the 24th of Isaiah." For literalist Latter-day Saints, it was no more difficult to conceive of the earth being swept clean of every single non-Mormon at the Second Coming than it was to accept the fact the the Flood had destroyed all but the eight believers then in existence. As Parley P. Pratt explained to Queen Victoria, "As Noah was a survivor of a world destroyed, and himself and family the sole proprietors of the earth, so will the saints of the Most High possess the earth, and its whole dominion, and tread upon the ashes of the wicked."13
I believe that a literal understanding of the Bible brings a concrete reality to not only history, but prophecy and sociology in Ancient Israel. These were real people. In some ways, archaeology has forced us to reckon with the reality of Ancient Israel.The way they lived their lives does, indeed matter to us in our day. We are commanded to do the works of Abraham for instance. That assumes a literal reality to the ancient Patriarch. The Abrahamic Covenant is accepted as a valid relationship with him and God, as well as the adoption into the covenant which Mormons take literally, which fulfills literal prophecy of Abrahams seed becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 17). It is, to say the least, a quite remarkably exciting way to view the Bible.