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Secular and Spiritual: bridging the gap

As I was preparing my Priesthood lesson today, I came across a passage in the manual that was surprising to me, even though it shouldn't have been.

The following quotation is long and it is from the Pres. McKay manual (pp. 62-64). I'm including the whole thing (with occasional emphasis added) as I think the context of the important bits is important.

Nearness to the event [of Jesus’ Resurrection] gives increased value to the evidence given by the Apostles. A deeper value of their testimony lies in the fact that with Jesus’ death the Apostles were stricken with discouragement and gloom. For two and a half years they had been upheld and inspired by Christ’s presence. But now he was gone. They were left alone, and they seemed confused and helpless. …

“What was it that suddenly changed these disciples to confident, fearless, heroic preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? It was the revelation that Christ had risen from the grave. His promises had been kept, his Messianic mission fulfilled.” …

Mark does not himself recount any appearance of the risen Lord; but he testifies that the angel at the tomb announced the resurrection, and promised that the Lord would meet his disciples. From Mark we hear the glorious proclamation of the first empty tomb in all the world. For the first time in the history of man the words “Here lies” were supplanted by the divine message “He is risen.” No one can doubt that Mark was not convinced in his soul of the reality of the empty tomb. To him the resurrection was not questionable—it was real; and the appearance of his Lord and Master among men was a fact established in his mind beyond the shadow of a doubt. To the proclaiming of this truth he devoted his life, and if tradition can be relied upon, he sealed his testimony with his blood.

Another who records the testimony of eye witnesses was Luke, a Gentile, or, as some think, a proselyte of Antioch in Syria, where he followed the profession of physician. (Col. 4:14.) Even some of his most severe modern critics have placed him in the first rank of an historian, and his personal contact with early apostles makes his statements of inestimable value.

What he wrote was the result of personal inquiry and investigation, and was drawn from all available sources. Particularly he interviewed and recorded the declarations of those “who from the beginning were [eye] witnesses and ministers of the Word.” He avers that he “accurately traced all things from the very first,” so that he might “write them in order.” [See Luke 1:1–4.] This means that Luke obtained the testimony of these “eye witnesses” directly from themselves and not from previous narratives.

According to all trustworthy testimony, we have the Gospel of Luke as it came from his hand. In chapter 24, Luke testifies to the divine message: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” [Luke 24:5–6.]

With equal assurance as to their accuracy we can accept his statements and witness in regard to Peter’s and Paul’s and other apostles’ testimony regarding the resurrection. “To whom also Christ showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” [See Acts 1:3.] Who can doubt Luke’s absolute confidence in the reality of the resurrection?

It is true that neither Mark nor Luke testifies to having personally seen the risen Lord, and therefore, some urge that their recorded testimonies cannot be taken as first hand evidence. That they do not so testify, and yet were convinced that others did see Him, shows how incontrovertible was the evidence among the apostles and other disciples that the resurrection was a reality.

Fortunately, however, there is a document which does give the personal testimony of an eye witness to an appearance of Jesus after his death and burial. This personal witness also corroborates the testimony not only of the two men whom I have quoted but of others also. I refer to Saul, a Jew of Tarsus, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, a strict Pharisee, and before his conversion a bitter persecutor of all who believed in Jesus of Nazareth as having risen from the dead. And now in the oldest authentic document in existence relating or testifying to the resurrection of Christ, we find Paul saying this to the Corinthians:

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures; and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the Twelve. After that he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” [1 Corinthians 15:3–8.]

Okay, the most surprising thing was that Pres. McKay clearly reads United Brethren. Jokes aside, much of what Pres. McKay says here is informed by modern secular research into the New Testament (the true ending of Mark, Luke's approach to history). Of particular interest to me is Pres. McKay's statement that 1st Corinthians is the "oldest authentic document in existence" that bears a testimony of the resurrected Christ. This statements bears on modern debates regarding NT chronology and the authenticity of various Pauline epistles (2 Thess, we are looking at you). If the prophet today was to make a similar statement, there might even be an uproar amongst LDS religious scholars.

In fact, Pres. Hinckley did make a similar (though less striking statement) about the value of secular scholarship in the April Conference. He said:

The Christian world accepts the Bible as the word of God. Most have no idea of how it came to us.

I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar. It is apparent from information which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion. In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe. One is led to ask, "Is the Bible true? Is it really the word of God?"

We reply that it is, insofar as it is translated correctly. The hand of the Lord was in its making. But it now does not stand alone. There is another witness of the significant and important truths found therein.

As a LDS religiologist, a statement that Pres. Hinckley uses non-LDS scholarship and acknowledges some of the problems with using the Bible is tantamount to legitimizing my existence. My ultimate question here is why, if (then-Elder) McKay is using it in 1939, should my approach to scripture have to be legitimized? If my approach does need to be legitimized, does Pres. Hinckley's statement do it? Finally, how does all of this apply to how we approach the scriptures?

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Clark Goble said ... (April 10, 2005 7:35 PM) 

That's a great quote by Pres. Hinkely, both regarding the nature of scripture, the meaning of "as far as it is translated correctly," as well as our approach to scholarship.


Ronan said ... (April 10, 2005 7:59 PM) 

Considering our claim that the Bible is not a perfect repository of truth, I have always been amazed at Biblical conservatism in the Church. I for one will be posting Hinckley's quote on my noticeboard! Perhaps I will memorise it so as to confound every LDS Bible Nazi who gives me a hard time for my scholarship.


John C. said ... (April 10, 2005 8:14 PM) 

I think we might be reading too much into Pres. Hinckley's comment, which could be taken as a way of pointing out why secular approaches aren't all that great (they lead to confusion). However, the way Pres. McKay uses secular scholarship seems (to me) to be much more straightforward and powerful. So, why are we relying on Pres. Hinckley's quote for justification when Pres. McKay's has been around for so much longer? Shouldn't the issue have been long resolved by now?


Ronan said ... (April 10, 2005 8:22 PM) 

Because between McKay and Hinckley stand Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

You're right, it was not a rousing endorsement of academia. But at least he reads scholarly books and did not sneer at them.


John C. said ... (April 10, 2005 10:25 PM) 

Because between McKay and Hinckley stand Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

I know this is the standard answer, but doesn't it seem a tad simplistic. Even if all the ill-will toward secular approaches that has been attributed to them was extant, shouldn't that have been mitigated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and David McKay, who seem to have pushed education?


RoastedTomatoes said ... (April 12, 2005 10:04 AM) 


You know that, in the face of contradiction among leaders, Latter-day Saints tend to accept the most recent statement. If it makes standard LDS folks uncomfortable, a quote from between a quarter and half a century ago can be dismissed as incompatible with what has been revealed since then.

So I think there's surprisingly great value in the quote from President Hinckley. It is unfortunately possible to read it ambiguously, but it's also possible to read it at face value: President Hinckley read (some unnamed book of) modern Biblical scholarship, seems to have accepted the conclusions at an intellectual level, and didn't feel a prophetic need to denounce the stuff he read. It's not the same as openly declaring that critical biblical scholarship will form the backbone of the next Sunday School manuals--but it could be worse!


RoastedTomatoes said ... (April 12, 2005 10:08 AM) 

By the way, John C. and I have been discussing this same topic in another forum:

Readers of the discussion here might be interested in the parallel but somewhat different content there.


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