Combating Poor Biblical Exegesis: The Putting-Verses-Back-Into-their-Context Approach

By Eric Johnson

Summary

While the Bible is a part of the official canon of the LDS Church, many verses are badly mishandled by some Mormons when making their case. By understanding these verses in context, the Christian can provide an intelligent response to help the Mormon see that the Bible, when properly interpreted, does not support the Mormon religion.

 

Introduction

Although the Bible was written anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, its words still have meaning for the reader today. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [1] Unfortunately, too many Mormons have interpreted passages wrongly in order to get them to coincide with their presuppositions. Hence, injustice is rendered to the meaning. Too many Christians can become confused when these verses are brought up by the Mormons in support of their interpretation.

Doing proper interpretation takes time and effort and is certainly not an easy task. As Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart explain:

The first task of the interpreter is called exegesis. Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible[2]

The authors explain that there are two types of context, historical and literary. The historical context deals with issues such as the time and culture, the political background, and the occasion (reason) for the book. Meanwhile, the literary context is the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the particular book we are considering. The next part to proper hermeneutics (interpretation) is understanding what it means for the reader today. It is important that this is not done backwards. As Fee and Stuart write,

The reason one must not begin with the here and now is that the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text. As noted earlier in this chapter, this is the “plain meaning” one is after. Otherwise biblical texts can be made to mean whatever they mean to any given reader. But such hermeneutics becomes pure subjectivity, and who then is to say that one person’s interpretation is right, and another’s is wrong? Anything goes. [3]

Three Verses Often Used Badly

With that short lesson as a background, let’s take a closer look at three common verses used by Mormons to support unique teachings propagated by LDS Church leaders.

  1. James 1:5: Praying about Truth?

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

This is the verse that Joseph Smith said inspired him to pray in 1820 in the “Sacred Grove” to see which of the Christian churches in his area was true. He explained in Joseph Smith-History 1:12-13, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. . . At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness or confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.” He later reported that God the Father and Jesus appeared to him and saying that all of the churches were wrong and their creeds were an abomination in God’s sight. [4]

Using this verse in James along with the Book of Mormon, LDS missionaries often exhort prospective converts to “pray about the Book of Mormon” and see for themselves if Mormonism is true. In fact, according to Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, “This single verse of scripture [James 1:5] has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age.”[5] According to Moroni 10:4 in the Book of Mormon, if a person prays with a “sincere heart” and “true intent,” then the truth of the Book of Mormon (and Mormonism as a whole) will become obvious. Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 talks about the good feelings that should follow and confirm its truthfulness:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

While prayer is important in many aspects of the Christian’s life, this powerful tool was never meant to supersede facts or the truth already revealed in scripture. Suppose someone says that he prayed about stealing his neighbor’s car because God “told” him to do so. Didn’t God made it very clear in the Ten Commandments that “Thou shalt not steal”? Could a “personal revelation” trump this command? (In other words, was God merely giving a suggestion that needed personal confirmation by any individual?) Absolutely not!

According to the LDS worldview, feelings take precedence over rational thoughts when determining the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. In an LDS magazine, layperson Rachel Nielsen explained that one way to test a personal experience is to “ask yourself if the thought or the feeling is inviting you to do good. If it is, you can be assured that it is from God.”[6] Such a simplistic test becomes useless. After all, the gurus in India, the imams in Saudi Arabia, and the monks in Thailand all sincerely feel their beliefs guide them to “do good,” though they all reject the tenets of Mormonism. Even those with no belief at all (i.e., atheists) have beliefs and even feelings that their views are correct and live accordingly.

James 1:5 is used in a way the biblical author never intended. The context specifically speaks about gaining wisdom, not knowledge. Wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. James tells his Christian audience that wisdom can be sought when undergoing trials and temptations. While Christians should certainly pray for guidance, abandoning logic and biblical discernment is not the answer. Good feelings do not replace facts. A person on an aircraft with failed engines may sincerely desire for gravity to be suspended, yet wishing the situation away cannot counteract reality. In the same way, all the good feelings in the world cannot override false LDS teachings, which include the beliefs that God was once a human being, personal efforts must be added to grace for a chance to enter the celestial kingdom, and getting married in an LDS temple for “time and eternity” is a requirement for personal exaltation, or godhood.

  1. 1 Corinthians 15:29: Baptism for the Dead?

“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”

President David O. McKay wrote, “Not a few commentators have tried to explain away [this passage’s] true significance; but its context proves plainly that in the days of the apostles there existed the practice of baptism for the dead; that is, living persons were immersed in water for and in behalf of those who were dead—not who were ‘dead to sin’ but who had ‘passed to the other side.’”[7] When verse 29 is dissected, though, it can be seen that Paul purposely did not use the first person pronoun we in this verse. As BYU professor Charles R. Harrell explains, “It should be noted that the voice changes from ‘we’ to ‘they’ for this verse only: Else what shall ‘they’ do? And why are ‘they’ baptized for the dead? Then the shift is back to ‘we’—why stand ‘we’ in jeopardy? Could Paul be alluding to a practice that only ‘they’ (not ‘we’) were participating in?”[8]

Christian theologian D. A. Carson explained why McKay’s assumption is wrong:

The most plausible interpretation is that some in Corinth were getting baptized vicariously for the dead. Several factors, however, put this into perspective. Although Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice, neither does he endorse it. Several writers have offered the following analogy. Imagine a Protestant writing, “Why do they then pray for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all?” No one would take this as an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead; it is a criticism of the inconsistency of praying for the dead while holding that the dead do not rise. To make this rhetorical question an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead, one would expect, “Why do we then pray for the dead?” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul preserves the more distant they. After all, his primary concern in 1 Corinthians 15 is the defense of the Christian doctrine of resurrection. His rhetorical question in verse 29 may simply be pointing out the inconsistency of those who deny the final resurrection, granted their rather strange baptismal practices.

And they were strange. There is no good evidence for vicarious baptism anywhere in the New Testament or among the earliest apostolic fathers. By the same token, there is no hint that this vicarious baptism (if that is what it was) was intended by the Corinthian believers to cover as many deceased people as could be named. If the practice existed at all, it may have been tied to a few people or special cases—for example, when a relative died after trusting the gospel but before being baptized. We really do not know. If it were something like that, one could understand why Paul does not make a federal case of it. In any case, Paul’s clear emphasis is that people are justified by grace through faith. [9]

Indeed, Christian baptism is a personal response to that freely-given justification, a declaration of a commitment to live for Christ. Mormonism’s doctrine of baptism for the dead is quite far removed from Paul’s thoughts expressed in 1 Corinthians. Meanwhile, Carson suggests that the reason the 1 Corinthians passage is difficult to interpret is that this is the only passage in the Bible specifically mentioning “baptism for the dead.” He writes,

The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding. The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied. When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake. That is why the famous “baptism for the dead” passage (1 Cor. 15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church. Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative. [10]

When the historical context is considered, it reveals that baptism for the dead was not a regular practice of the Christian church. If Doctrine and Covenants 128:17 is true when it says that baptism for the dead is the most “glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel,” then it should be expected that the New Testament would have spoken much more about it.

At several LDS temple open house events where the public is invited to visit a newly built or recently remodeled temple, I have asked, “Is there a reference from the Book of Mormon suggesting that it’s possible to do work on behalf of those already dead?” After all, Joseph Smith said that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” [11] If there is any scriptural book that ought to support baptism for the dead, this ought to be it. However, there are no verses referenced in the Book of Mormon to support this teaching. In fact, Alma 34:32-35 contradicts the idea that says any work for salvation can be done after death. [12] It says in part,

For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. . . . do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. . . . if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.

This is in agreement with 2 Corinthians 6:2 and Hebrews 9:27.

  1. James 2:20: Are works necessary for salvation?

“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

Every religion asks the question, “What must I do to get right with God?” while Christianity asks a much different question: “What did God do for me?” When it comes to grace and works, there is a blurring of the lines in Mormonism. Mormon leaders have talked about two aspects of salvation: general and individual. Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith put it this way:

Salvation is twofold: General—that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ– and, Individual—that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. [13]

Second Nephi 25:23 says that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Thus, according to Mormonism, grace (and the “atonement” is often mentioned here) provides (general) salvation so that everyone who is born on earth receives one of three kingdoms of glory. James 2:20 is cited by Mormons to show how grace, by itself, is not enough to exalt a person. Hence, Mormonism’s eternal life, or “individual salvation,” comes through one’s good works.

The Christian needs to separate the nuances of “justification” and “sanctification.” Justification is receiving a right standing before God, based completely on God’s grace and mercy, and not by one’s works (e.g.. Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5). In Romans 3:28, Paul writes “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” At the same time, works are the result of a genuine faith. This is sanctification. Philippians 2:12 says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Notice, it doesn’t say “for” your own salvation but rather “work out” your own salvation. There is a difference.

The context of James clearly shows this interpretation to be correct. In verse 14, James asks the question, “Can faith save him?” by providing the example of a person who needs food and clothes. Instead of being told to be “warm and filled,” action must be taken. Indeed, the person who offers only words rather than tangible objects to meet these needs is doing nothing beneficial. Faith, James says in verse 17, must have actions to show its authenticity.

Showing that James is not advocating a “works righteousness,” Christian pastor John MacArthur notes that the verbs in these verses are present tense. He states:

They describe someone who routinely claims to be a believer yet continuously lacks any external evidence of faith. The question “Can that faith save him?” employs the Greek negative particle me, indicating that a negative reply is assumed. It might literally be rendered, “That faith cannot save him, can it?” James, like the apostle John, challenges the authenticity of a profession of faith that produces no fruit (cf. 1 John 2:4, 6, 9). The context indicates that the “works he speaks of are not anyone’s bid to earn eternal life. These are acts of compassion. . . . Real faith inevitably produces faith-works.” [14]

After showing that mere belief is inadequate—consider the type of belief held by demons who believe intellectually that there is no God but who are no more “Christian” than the Devil himself—James gives the famous admonition in 2:20, which again says that “faith without works is dead.” It is obvious that James is admonishing the Jewish Christians to make their faith come alive through works. To merely assent to being a Christian in an intellectual sense and then declare that works are not important is akin to a leopard saying he doesn’t need any spots. “What do you mean, a Christian who says that he has faith and therefore doesn’t have any works?” James is asking. “This is ridiculous and should be rejected.”

After all of this is said, James 2:10 needs to be taken into consideration. It says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Commenting on this verse, Mormon commentators D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner write,

Joseph Smith said, “Any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 331). To be exalted we must be cleansed from all sin (D&C 50:28-29). One sin can damn a person.[15]

For the Mormon to truly hold to a righteousness that is based on works, the Christian should ask, “How are you doing at keeping God’s law?” Most likely you will be told, “I’m trying” or “I’m doing the best I can.” However, the person who fails in even one point is guilty of breaking all of the laws! Who can stand up to such a demand? The answer: Nobody.

Conclusion

There are many other verses wrongly used by Mormons to support their unique teachings. Rather than try to cover them all in this chapter, I will provide links below to some of the more common passages. By studying the Bible in its original setting and context, the one who hopes to be the “workman rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) can understand the meaning and see that these do not support the Mormon worldview.


Eric Johnson (Sandy, Utah) ministers full time with Mormonism Research Ministry (www.mrm.org). He has coauthored Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2012) and Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2015) with Bill McKeever. He has also penned Mormonism 101 for Teens (MRM, 2016). Eric received his MDiv from Bethel Seminary San Diego in 1991 and spent nearly two decades in secondary and college education.

NEW TESTAMENT

Besides these references, we highly recommend purchasing two books on this topic:

 

[1] Hebrews 4:12.

[2] Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 19-20. Italics in original.

[3] Ibid., 25. Italics in original.

[4] Joseph Smith-History 1:19 in the LDS scripture the Pearl of Great Price.

[5] Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 2002), 3:246-247.

[6] Rachel Nielsen, “What If I Don’t Feel a Burning in the Bosom?” New Era, June 2014, 19.

[7] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 129.

[8] This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Sandy, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 355.

[9] “Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?” Christianity Today, August 19, 1998. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/august10/8t9063.html

[10]  “Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” Modern Reformation 5:3 (May/June 1996), 18-22.

[11] History of the Church 4:461.

[12] Consider 2 Corinthians 6:2 and Hebrews 9:27 in the New Testament as well.

[13] Doctrines of Salvation 1:134. Italics in original.

[14] Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1993), 149.

[15] Verse by Verse: Acts through Revelation (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1998), 268.