The writings labeled “scripture” by humans are varied indeed. What makes a writing scripture? When we consider the total writings worldwide that are so labeled, it seems that people apply the name “scripture” in a variety of ways, not the least of which is tradition.
In many cases, particularly with ancient texts, scripture could not become tradition unless it survived – physically. The LDS have a particular interest in this subject, as many believe that the Book of Mormon survived because of the direct providence and interaction of God. They do not, however, believe that God completely protected Hebrew scripture. The Old and New Testaments were subjected to translation revisions by people over many years. An LDS Article of Faith states that they believe that the Bible is the “word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.”
However, the Book of Mormon, protected by God and therefore of supposed superior accuracy than the Old and New Testaments, has been subjected to almost 4,000 English-language changes in its various editions and reprintings since 1830. It would seem that even scripture protected by God is subject to invasion by men.
This is because all scripture was written by men. It was not written by God. Even the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon lists Joseph Smith as its author (one of the first changes was to make Joseph Smith its “translator,” not author, which was an unfortunate change, because “author” is actually correct.)
The writings in scripture have been used for centuries to justify some of the most heinous acts against humanity. This is because the writings in scripture are easily twisted and manipulated to whatever purpose man desires.
God’s communication with men is not conducted through books, though God can be found in all books. God communicates to men by personal revelation. There are times when men are able to write things in books which are inspired; whether or not those reading the inspired words will recognize them as such is entirely dependent upon the reader’s personal revelation with God in relation to the reading.
Therefore, the scripture that people have produced does contain inspiration; the inspiration may or may not be manifest in the mind of the reader. When we read what the world considers canonized scripture there are certainly some parts that do not seem inspired. Some parts are very far from inspiring. Many parts are downright boring. A lot of what is called scripture isn’t even readable, or relevant to us.
As Reform Mormons, we accept all of the scripture of the world as man-made writings, and as such, they contain valuable information and opportunities for study. As agents of personal revelation, however, we reserve to ourselves the right to make individual decisions as to which parts of any particular scripture or writings are inspired or not.
When we read scripture (and any of the world’s texts labeled “scripture” applies) we often experience a communion with God. If we do not, we are only reading words, or we have chosen not to seek revelation from God while reading. When we choose to engage this communion with God, we are questioning God, and receiving answers from God; this is personal revelation. The questions and answers may be related to what we are reading, or sometimes the material we are reading triggers revelation on an entirely different subject. If the material rings true to us as a result of this revelation, we are likely to consider the writings inspired – regardless if it is called “scripture” or not. If we receive no such confirmation, we may consider the writing uninspired, or not make a decision about it for the time being. This process involves the continual collection of knowledge, and revelation from God about that knowledge. We make our decisions based on the result of that process. We are always free to reconsider such decisions; perhaps further knowledge and communion will cause us to develop a deeper understanding than one we held before. That is our desire.
Because so much of what is labeled scripture is historical writing, we also believe that our study of these works is enhanced – and sometimes dramatically changed – when we understand the historical context of the writings, their authors, the intended audience, and how (and why) they have changed over the years.
As Reform Mormons, we relish the opportunity to understand how scripture plays into the doctrines and beliefs of the religions of the world, and contrasting those views often heightens that understanding. We may often feel an affinity or connection with a particular religious view, but we do not believe that any particular view is superior to another.
Here is another important truth about scripture: because of its susceptibility to manipulation, most any religious claim can be backed up or attacked with it. We therefore feel that using scripture to attack a particular religious view is, at best, an inappropriate use of these works, and at worst, something against an individual’s moral code. When you see someone using scripture to attack or defend, it is not likely that it is being used to obtain knowledge and further progression – it is more likely that it is being used to justify behavior.
Now that you have learned this about scripture, you may encounter someone who wants you to use scripture to “defend” a belief you have, or to attack the belief of someone else. This should seem ridiculous to you: using the inspired and uninspired words of people to perform such an attack or defense. You do not have to engage in such futility; you may simply decline to participate. Your declination is not fear of an exchange; you will simply understand that since any religious viewpoint can be supported or attacked with scripture, it is an inappropriate use of these writings to use them to attack or defend. Such attacks and defenses will prove nothing, and based on the environment of such exchanges, can often result in no enhancement to understanding.
Use scripture to enhance your own personal understanding of things, and do not restrict what you call “scripture” to what others tell you to be scripture; decide for yourself what is inspired or not inspired. God’s communion with people has been recorded in many diverse ways, and historical scripture is only one of them.
Read next: A Healthier Perspective of Joseph Smith