Why we need to be careful with the scriptures.

April 21, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 8:54 pm   Category: Scriptures

We need to be very careful when we read the scriptures and use them to take a stance on issues in the church. It is not wrong to do this, per se, but cherry picking a single line can end up with incorrect conclusions.

For example, In D&C 76, when talking of those who live in the terrestrial world, we are taught:

72 Behold, these are they who died without law;
73 And also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh;
74 Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it.

A plain reading of this notes that those who do not receive the Gospel in this life don’t go to the Celestial Kingdom. This was February 16, 1832. Years later on January 21, 1836, Joseph was given further revelation:

1 THE heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.
2 I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;
3 Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.
4 I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.
5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.

Now we have Joseph receiving a revelation that those who would have received it, had they the opportunity, were celestial kingdom bound, despite what was said in 76.  And not too long ago we have Spencer W. Kimball telling us that:

insofar as eternity is concerned, no soul will be deprived of rich and high and eternal blessings for anything which that person could not help, that the Lord never fails in his promises, and that every righteous person will receive eventually all to which the person is entitled and which he or she has not forfeited through any fault of his or her own (Ensign, Oct. 1979, p. 5).

As you can see, with a little more perspective, the context and message completely changes. So when you share a scripture, be careful how you do it. Please?


  1. Matt, is there a story behind this? Did someone cherry pick and share a scripture with unfortunate results?

    PS I hope you don’t mind I cleaned up some formatting in the post due to mild OCD.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 21, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  2. Thanks!

    Regardless of the history behind this. I really like the concept. I think many people tend to site one verse or one quote and think that is enough to win an argument, never really getting the whole picture. I know I have been guilty of this many times, hopefully all occurrences of this are in my past.

    Comment by Dallas — April 22, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  3. Jacob: Yes, there’s a story behind this. It has to do with chapter 33 of this institute manual.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  4. And thanks for the formatting. I tried to do the same last night, but certain toddlers made that somewhat impossible.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2009 @ 5:29 am

  5. Thank you, Matt. That’s an especially pernicious example because of the way too many teachers tend to turn their classes into judgment-fests: instead of analyzing the principles to understand why there might be a separation between this group and that and how those principles might influence our own lives, they play “assign the soul to a kingdom” games where they present a single behavior, or, worse, names of specific people (generally but not always of the past) and coax you into assigning them to a kingdom. Ugh, I despise that whole approach!

    Your cautions are also valid with historical examples. There’s a Sunday School lesson scheduled later this year based on the rescue of the Martin handcart company. Although the citations are generally to talks given in the ’90s, the horribly distorted version of the rescue told there is ultimately based on the familiar but thoroughly discredited version romanticized by Solomon Kimball. The lesson even misquotes Brigham Young as saying “That act alone [carrying handcarters across the river] will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end,” leaving yet another generation with the doctrinally unsound conclusion a single moment of heroic behavior sets you up for eternal glory no matter what the rest of your life is like — heck, one of those men soon became a murderer! And it doesn’t matter, because he participated in the handcart rescue?!?!?! (That’s not what Brigham Young said anyway.) The lesson writers didn’t bother to take advantage of any of the corrective history that has been widely available for many years, but blindly “cherry pick a single line [and] end up with incorrect conclusions.”

    Thanks, Matt.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 7:25 am

  6. Ardis, amen. Assigning anyone to any kingdom (high or low) seems a lot like usurping God’s authority.

    Comment by BrianJ — April 22, 2009 @ 8:07 am

  7. Excellent point, Matt.

    I am flummoxed regularly on some sites when people insist on focusing on a previous statement or only one possible interpretation and assuming it is Truth unchanging and unfiltered. This is especially galling when it comes to the temple – or to the role of husbands and wives in a marriage.

    It’s like people insist on former leaders being infallible but won’t grant that same status to current leaders. I don’t want it for EITHER, but the irony of clinging tightly to something someone said in the past and ignoring completely the “further light and knowledge” of more recent and current (in a church that claims on-going revelation and evolving understanding) . . .

    All I can do sometimes is shake my head and give up, all the while lamenting the damage being done to others who read such narrow interpretations and accept them as fact.

    Comment by Ray — April 22, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  8. Ardis: Do you attend institute with my wife? That’s not exactly what happened, but close enough…

    Ray: I personally have a bad habit of the whole “Joseph Smith quotes are the ultimate trump card” problem. The issue I guess is when my own personal thinking is more in line with Smith, or say, Widtsoe and Roberts, than McConkie, for example. Later doesn’t always feel better, but in truth, the lesson is that we can’t be dogmatic about using any appeal to a General Authority at all, even the Scriptures. We need to be humble and use these authorities, but also leave room for personal logic and personal revelation and accept that we may be at variance with others, and that’s ok.

    It seems the most important doctrine is to accept that there are other points of view which are equally as likely to be right as our own.

    Of course, the question is then where do we draw the line? How far is too far before we are apostate?

    I dunno.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  9. Ardis,

    That’s an unteresting bit’o’history you presented. I’d love to see the references. Particularly:

    -“the horribly distorted version of the rescue told there is ultimately based on the familiar but thoroughly discredited version romanticized by Solomon Kimball”

    -“The lesson misquotes Brigham Young as saying ‘That act alone [carrying handcarters across the river] will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end'”

    -“heck, one of those men soon became a murderer!”

    My wife’s grandparents served a mission at Martin’s Cove and I want to see the comparison of how they were told to actually teach the story vs what information you have. Sounds intriguing to me.


    Comment by Riley — April 22, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  10. Riley, see Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies, vol. 45, no. 3 (2006): 5–37. His BYU Studies article on Francis Webster here is also relevant.

    The upcoming Sunday School lesson with quotations from the flawed traditional Kimball story is here.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

  11. (That is, the flawed history which traces ultimately to Solomon Kimball, as you’ll see from Chad’s articles, appears in the Sunday School manual via quotations from Kimball as he appears in the Hafens’ handcart book.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  12. Sorry, Im not aware of this Chad you speak of. Do these “Chad’s articles” have a a place where I can find them via the internet by chance?

    I’d really love to see the version you have in mind so I can compare it with the Sunday School Manual version.

    Comment by Riley — April 22, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  13. Yes, there is much to make me sad in chapter 33. I am always impressed to learn that there are still people reading the manuals. They could hide the formula for turning lead into gold in there and I’d still die poor.

    With the description in D&C 76:72-74, it seems we can either:

    1. Read it and say it means something different than it does. In my experience this is a common approach, we just ignore the words and teach what we expected it to say without noticing the discrepancy.

    2. Try to harmonize it in some fashion. For example, we can say that it is referring to people who died without law because they rejected the gospel in this life (a la the people Christ preached to in vs 73 who rejected Noah). This has been a popular approach to these verses if I remember my D&C commentaries.

    3. Account for the discrepancy by the growing understanding of Joseph Smith and allowing for later revelations to contradict, in some respects, points in earlier revelations (as you’ve done above). One problem is that this approach can be employed to support heresies as in this post.

    4. Stop interpreting the descriptions in D&C 76 as being legalistic rules which neatly assign people to kingdoms. It should be obvious that eternal judgment is more complex than can be sketched out with a few vague descriptions. I once mentioned that I think the descriptions are really just a simple taxonomy to replace the even simpler taxonomy of good people / bad people. D&C 76 introduced the idea of multiple heavens so it has to say something to help differentiate and make sense of them. It gives us the taxonomy of pureevil / wicked / good / saintly. That really is helpful, even if (as I suspect) it should not be considered all-there-is-to-know about the degrees of glory.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 22, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  14. Chapter 33 of what Jacob?

    Comment by Geoff J — April 22, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  15. Geoff: see comment #3

    Jacob: I think in order to get to your 4 (See my crazy things list for agreement on that), you have to go through some sort of #3, after all you have to have a reason to expect it to not be legalistic, etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  16. Riley, there are active links to internet publication of the two articles and the Sunday School lesson in my comment at #10.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  17. They must not be showing up since Im on my mobile. My apologies.

    Comment by Riley — April 22, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  18. Matt, you are probably right about that. I was going to say at the end of my other comment that unpalitability of 3. and 4. (for most members) is what I think drives the popularity of 1. and 2. I agree with you and Ardis though.

    Riley, I think #10 was in moderation due to the links for awhile so that is probably why you didn’t see it before.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 23, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  19. Interesting topic. My fellow-bloggers and I have been thinking about delving into opinions expressed in scripture by prophets/apostles and, therefore, the weight that should be attributed thereto. The obvious roadblock is that pesky “canonized” term that we all are aware of. But, does each and every point expressed by every writer in canonized scripture constitute pure doctrine? Or could it maybe entail an opinion from a person in authority?

    A great example is Paul’s comments regarding marriage where he clearly has his opinion, but also declares what the Lord’s mind is. Or how about Alma’s thoughts on life after death in Alma 40? Opinion or doctrine, in the face of other scripture?


    Comment by Jeremy — April 23, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  20. I had to read over this post a few times because I didn’t understand what you were getting at. Then I realized that I was doing the harmonization thing described in Jacob J.’s second point in #13, just like I always have. I’m starting to doubt this reading though because if I recall section 76 has some stuff about the Sons of Perdition not be resurrected or some such, so maybe it was a work-in-progress revelation.

    Comment by Bryan H. — April 23, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  21. Jeremy, I think this verse is relevant to your comment:

    5 Wherefore, for this cause the apostle wrote unto the church, giving unto them a commandment, not of the Lord, but of himself, that a believer should not be united to an unbeliever; except the law of Moses should be done away among them, (D&C 74:5)

    That verse says flat-out that Paul was making up some of his counsel “not of the Lord, but of himself.” I think this gives us some cover to point out the obvious, that scripture are written by prophets and prophets are people. Thus, they inevitably contain ideas founded on limited (and sometimes incorrect) understanding.

    Bryan H,

    The tendency to harmonize is so ingrained we hardly realize we are doing it. I also doubt the harmonized reading. Add to your list of reasons the fact that Joseph says he was surprised that Alvin could be in the celestial kindgom given that Alvin had not heard the restored gospel and been baptized (D&C 137:6). Why would he be surprise? Because he thought this was required in mortality to make it into the celestial kingdom. Was this belief partially due to D&C 76? I suspect so.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 23, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  22. I think we harmonize because to not do so is disconcerting (to put it mildly). Not harmonizing forces us to admit an earlier canonized revelation is at least in part incorrect. That calls into question the reliability of canonized revelations in general and none of us (including me) want to deal with the ramifications of that.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 23, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

  23. Not Harmonizing requires us to recognize that It is, to a certain extent up to us to recognize that it is up to us to have personal revelation and reasoning about what is correct and what isn’t, and on top of that, It requires us to recognize that we could be wrong in that revelation and reasoning. For a latter-day saint, this can be scary indeed.

    Still, I do not think we need to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think it just requires us to be a littler more humble and diligent in our studies.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 24, 2009 @ 7:32 am

  24. I agree with the view that this was an earlier revelation preparing the way for later ones. Note at the conclusion of the revelation how it talks about things they were told not to include and things they couldn’t include. Jacob J hit it right when he mentioned the later revelation for JS about Alvin, and ordinances for the dead in my view.

    Heck, we don’t even really know the fate of the children of perdition. D&C 76 (1832) maintains that no ultimate knowledge of the fate of the sons of perdition will be known to any but the partakers:

    Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—

    And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows; Neither was it revealed, neither is, neither will be revealed unto man, except to them who are made partakers thereof; (D&C 76:44-46).

    Compare that with the following from an 1830 revelation:

    Wherefore I will say unto them—Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And now, behold, I say unto you, never at any time have I declared from mine own mouth that they should return, for where I am they cannot come, for they have no power.

    But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men; and as the words have gone forth out of my mouth even so shall they be fulfilled, that the first shall be last, and that the last shall be first in all things whatsoever I have created by the word of my power, which is the power of my Spirit (D&C 29:29-30).

    Comment by BHodges — April 26, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

  25. There’s no evidence to suggest that any gospel writer is writing anything in preparation for someone to come in and edit their story. Harmonizing is the least probable of truths. Don’t mix your JS version of religion with SWK’s version, just as you shouldn’t mix Matthew with Paul. Each writer stands on their own, otherwise you end up with your own gospel and your own religion.

    Comment by JTJ — April 26, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  26. JTJ: I’m sorry, that doesn’t compute for me. SWK, JS, Matthew and Paul are all inputs into my religion. I can’t take each on his own merits seperately. It isn’t a matter of harmonizing them, it’s a matter of negotiating them in my paradigm of reality.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 27, 2009 @ 7:16 am

  27. Too true! While on my mission, someone once asked me a question about whether children are punished for their parents sins, and I quickly found a scripture in the index, turned to it, and read it:

    Alma 30:25

    25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.

    After reading it, I noticed that it was Korihor that said it… oops. Gratefully they didn’t mark the verse or read on!

    Context is very important!

    – Chas

    Comment by Chas Hathaway — April 27, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  28. Can one of you cats point me to any scholarly look at section 76 in light of section 137?

    Comment by BHodges — April 30, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  29. Nope, but if you find one, pass it on.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 30, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  30. Bhodges, usually you see looks at 137 referencing 76 rather than vice versa, like here.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 2, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  31. I just wanted to add that the idea I expressed here from SWK did not apparently originate with him, see Lorenzo Snow:

    Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) taught, “If a young man or a young woman has no opportunity of getting married, and they live faithful lives up to the time of their death, they will have all the blessings, exaltation, and glory that any man or woman will have who had this opportunity and improved it.”

    The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 138

    Comment by Matt W. — August 23, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  32. Geoff and Matt,
    In your comments in #22 and 23, you both expressed your fears of calling “into question the reliability of canonized revelations”. If it is overly forward of me so say this, I apologize in advance, but I feel it may be worthwhile to remind you both that voluntarily facing fears, when we are ready, brings spiritual growth. If we are willing to dig deep to answer the fearful questions, we grow as a result. If we stop with a superficial answer, we do not. My feeling is that in the long run it is always better to believe a truth, even if it is a painful truth that we would prefer not to exist, than to believe an untruth. The reason may be that subconsciously we already “know” the truth and realize we are living a lie. I think this subconscious knowledge causes our lives to lose meaning if we consciously ignore the truth for too long. But the decision of whether to swallow the red pill or the blue pill is up to each of us. Digging deep requires humility and not throwing the baby out with the bath water—as Matt correctly recommended. It also requires the courage to continue digging, even at the risk of uncovering the discovery that everything we currently believe is false. So, blue pill or red pill gentlemen?

    Comment by Bill B. — November 2, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  33. Bill B.- Sadly, like star wars’s prequals ruined the joy for me, so did the sequals for the Matrix. Anyway, I’ll stick with saying I just think we need to be careful in declaring any ultimacy to truths. There are truths which dictate my life and my testimony of the LDS faith, but there are many details where my reasoning and experience which I bring to the scriptures with me leads me to different points of you than you may receive.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 2, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  34. Matt,
    I understand. In my comment above, I was not championing any point of view regarding the scriptures. I was making a suggestion that you ask yourself whether on this issue you have swallowed the blue pill or the red pill. The reason for my suggestion is that I have noticed that up to this point in my life being willing to search for the answers to the frightening questions has always led to a dissipation of fear, while not examining them has perpetuated it. If you are experiencing fear, you may have swallowed the wrong pill. Good luck. I mean that sincerely.

    Comment by Bill B. — November 3, 2009 @ 7:06 am