That One Time When I Agreed with the Pope and Disagreed with the First Presidency

Pope Pius XII (1876–1958)

I recently celebrated my birthday. (Being single at 25, I believe I am now officially a “menace to society.”) Per my usual habit whenever I get gift money, I bought myself some books off of my Amazon wish list. One of the books I purchased is Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Boadt, who was Catholic priest (C.S.P.) by vocation before his passing in 2010, approaches the Old Testament from an explicitly Catholic perspective. It was therefore not surprising when I encountered the approving citation of Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in the book’s introduction.

What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. 

For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East. The investigation, carried out, on this point, during the past forty or fifty years with greater care and diligence than ever before, has more clearly shown what forms of expression were used in those far off times, whether in poetic description or in the formulation of laws and rules of life or in recording the facts and events of history. The same inquiry has also shown the special preeminence of the people of Israel among all the other ancient nations of the East in their mode of compiling history, both by reason of its antiquity and by reasons of the faithful record of the events; qualities which may well be attributed to the gift of divine inspiration and to the peculiar religious purpose of biblical history.  

(Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraphs 35–36.)

As both an Ancient Near Eastern Studies graduate and as a Latter-day Saint who accepts the Bible as more than a mundane book but a book of scripture, I heartily endorse these remarks from Pius XII. In fact, I would say that my academic career at BYU was in large part oriented towards trying to strike the kind of position Pius XII advocates here. It’s a position that I believe is wholly in harmony with what’s taught in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 88:78–80, 118; 90:15; 93:53) and what was taught by Brigham Young.

Unfortunately for my inner-ANES nerd, this is not the position that was delineated by the First Presidency (at the time Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson) in a 1992 official statement (which was included with slight variation in the 2010 edition of the Church’s handbook). “Many versions of the Bible are available today,” the statement uncontroversially and straightforwardly reads. “Unfortunately, no original manuscripts of any portion of the Bible are available for comparison to determine the most accurate version. However, the Lord has revealed clearly the doctrines of the gospel in these latter-days. The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations” (emphasis added). As I read it, this statement from the First Presidency essentially dismisses the sort of critical studies Pius XII stressed were at times necessary to uncover the meaning of the Bible. Instead of engaging the Bible critically, the statement appears to say, in order to resolve ambiguities or problems in the biblical text you should just compare the Bible with modern LDS scripture and call it good.

What’s more, the First Presidency goes on to say, “While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations.” I confess that I find this statement truly baffling. What “doctrinal matters” does modern revelation preference in the KJV over other contemporary English translations of the Bible? Perhaps the First Presidency here is hearkening back to President J. Ruben Clark’s objections towards the Revised Standard Version that appeared in his 1956 volume Why the King James Version. Among other things, President Clark objected to the language of the RSV that appeared to deemphasize the divinity of Jesus or gloss over doctrinal matters highly valued by Latter-day Saints (such as the ordination and role of the apostles in the New Testament church). Perhaps this is what the First Presidency meant in 1992 when it said that “latter-day revelation supports the King James Bible,” since we Latter-day Saints draw from the religious vocabulary of the KJV in framing our own theological discourse on a whole bunch of topics.

Even so, I am truly conflicted over the 1992 statement because it appears to run contrary to the paradigm I have formed since even before my formal studies at BYU. There’s no stuffing the exegetical and critical genie back into the bottle when it comes to how I now read the Bible. On one level it would be nice if I could go back to what Philip Barlow called the “hermeneutical Eden” that most Latter-day Saints dwell in, “innocent of a conscious philosophy of interpretation.” It would be nice if I didn’t have to worry about the Documentary Hypothesis, or the Synoptic Problem, or the historicity of the exodus, or the authorship of the pseudo-Pauline epistles. It would also be nice if the ancient authors and redactors of the biblical books were proto-Latter-day Saints in every detail, who believed and thought %100 like we do in the Church today when it comes to doctrinal and moral matters. But I really don’t have a choice anymore. I can’t read the Bible and not have these issues on my mind.

To be fair, I think I agree with what I think is the basic point being made by the First Presidency. It’s true that readers of the Bible can become so bogged down in fretting over critical issues that they miss the forest for the trees. As a book of scripture, the Bible can and should be read primarily as a book of God’s dealings with his children. And not just that, but also as a book of inspired teachings that are relevant and authoritative here and now, and not just in the Iron Age or classical Antiquity. I am nevertheless dismayed at both the framing of the issue in and the reasoning behind the 1992 statement. The reason I really dig Pius XII’s encyclical is because I absolutely believe that Latter-day Saints (and other believing Christians and Jews, for that matter) can engage in a critical or academic study of the Bible while still remaining believers in the Bible as scripture. It’s not an either/or situation. Those committed to belief in the Bible as scripture have no need to fear critical study of the biblical texts. This is, as I read it, basically what Pius XII is getting at. To be sure, this doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be easy reconciling these two (i.e. critical and devotional) approaches to scripture. Nor, on the flip side, does it mean that we’re supposed to automatically surrender our theological positions or faith convictions to whatever trendy fad theory du jour is being bandied about in academia. Rather, what I think the Pope is basically saying is that if we’re going to take the Bible seriously, we owe it to ourselves to engage the Bible not only theologically and from a position of faith but also critically and from a position of reason.

That’s what I was taught to do while studying the Bible at BYU. That’s what I believe is commanded in latter-day scripture. That’s the pattern that has been set for me by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and many other committed and faithful Latter-day Saint disciple-scholars. And that’s what will instill a deep love and appreciation for the Bible. I know it has for me, at least.

14 thoughts on “That One Time When I Agreed with the Pope and Disagreed with the First Presidency”

  1. On the subject of the Church's use of the KJV, I'll make a shameless plug for my BYU Studies piece on the LDS Spanish Bible in their penultimate issue ( The Church's Spanish edition deliberately diverges from the KJV in some significant ways, which may provide you with some new ways to think about the Handbook statement (which I don't completely understand either).

    • Shameless plugs are always welcomed here, Joshua. 🙂 Actually, I saw your article on the BYU Studies website not too long ago and have meant to take a look at it. Now I definitely will. Thanks for reminding me!

  2. I agree with this post!

    I understand the concerns of the First Presidency. I think they could have softened their tone. Maybe they heard some disconcerting information about some members using some of the more awful Bible translations and therefore causing some doctrinal issues ? Who knows.

    I have read LDS scholars say the same as you……We need to read and understand Scriptures in the correct context……where it was written, how long ago, the cultures, the beliefs, what was going on at the time, etc.

    I don't always agree with church leaders, but I do sustain them and will always support them, and I try to understand the position they are coming from. They can and do make mistakes.

    • "I don't always agree with church leaders, but I do sustain them and will always support them, and I try to understand the position they are coming from."

      Well said. This, in my opinion, is what distinguishes one from, say, a John Dehlin or a Kate Kelly.

  3. I think the first Presidency was trying to keep doctrine pure and not have people dispute doctrine based on translations that scholars think are more correct. Sometimes as Latter-Day Saints, we use suspect Biblical scriptures to support our doctrine.

    • And just as often, we cherry pick verses from the bible and quote them out of context to bolster our more unique beliefs. How about we really try to understand and appreciate the Bible on its own terms rather than using it as a bunch of proof texts?

    • Agreed! However, there is a downside of some people overvaluing their biblical knowledge over truths of the restoration. Now in the perfect world we would have both, but I was interpreting the instruction in the most production way I thought

  4. I can't quote verbatim……not easy to look up at this moment, but you will recognize it. Joseph Smith said we are to look for truth where ever it may be, that truth exists in many things, to read good things, etc.

    So I think that you are not wrong to agree with the Pope. I think the First Presidency wanted to reiterate where the church stands regarding Bibles. The First Presidency is not always careful with their tone. They have bad days too.

  5. It is ironic that we teach that the Bible is the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly, a statement made by Joseph Smith when the 1769 Oxford edition of the King James Version was the only version immediately available to the Saints, yet with so many translations today, we hold fast to the King James Version. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, reasons that go far beyond the statements of President Clark. In the late 1800s, when a revised standard version was developed in England, four American clergymen were invited to participate and they returned home condemning the new version and set out producing an American version. That set the stage to producing new translations that served the needs of specific denominations, but which were suspect by others.

    Yes, LDS interpretation of the Bible can be described as cherry picking out of context, that is also true of the New Testament writers quoting of the Old Testament out of context to prove Jesus is the Messiah. That seems to be the prerogative of prophets and apostles to explain the meaning of previous passages in the light of new revelations.

    I think the Church policy in the handbook that Church leaders are only to use the King James Version (in English) when expounding doctrine is to prevent individuals from using the wide variety of versions and then trying to impose interpretations for the various versions on the members. That has torn apart Protestant denominations. The LDS edition of the King James is tightly cross referenced with the rest of the scriptures.

    • Well said. I think it's ironic that our doctrine official disavows any kind of biblical fundamentalism, and yet a sort of fundamentalist attitude is widely prevalent amongst Church members (to say nothing of the standard curriculum) when it comes to the Bible.

      Our fetishizing of the KJV is just a few steps away from the sort of nonsensical "KJV-onlyism" that I've seen on display at Temple Square during General Conference; when fundamentalist Evangelical protesters show up to kindly remind us Mormons that we're bound for hell.

      You're right that the sort of unity and correlational tightness sought by the Church in pushing the use of the Church's own edition of the KJV has its advantages. I just have to wonder if those advantages are worth what I see are some big disadvantages.

  6. Interestingly, the First Presidency statement does not say the KJV is more accurate, just that it is preferred. One reason it might be preferred is that the Joseph Smith Translation is based on the KJV and is not as conducive to being placed into other translations. Another possible reason might be the reverence and beauty of the KJV – which captures doctrine on a whole different level. If the purpose of scripture is ultimately to allow the Spirit to enlighten us with understanding, then perhaps the KJV is the way to go.

    That said, Dallin H. Oaks has noted that there are exceptions to every rule. I believe that going outside the KJV for scholarly reasons, especially in defending the Gospel, is such an exception.

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