On the academic website of the American Academy of Religion, the following review was posted: https://readingreligion.org/9781666716139/mormon-hermeneutics/
Jeffrey S. Krohn’s Mormon Hermeneutics: Five Approaches to the Bible by the LDS Church offers a “brief introduction to Mormon hermeneutics and proposes five LDS approaches to ancient Scripture”: the literal, the allegorical, the sociological, and the emendatory, as well as an approach that relies on “reauthoring” (xix, 49–50). Krohn argues that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focus “on the modern horizon of the interpreter to the neglect of the ancient horizon of the text” (16). Despite his stated intention to “present LDS hermeneutics as a worthwhile object of study” (16), the book largely attempts to disprove Latter-day Saint readings.
The “philosophical framework” Krohn claims to use is critical realism, which will “allow [the author] to view the LDS worldview as a reality that exists independently of [his] perception of it” (14–17). This is a commendable aim, since outsiders to the LDS tradition tend to misunderstand it, but Krohn has not been entirely successful in removing his own perspective from his study of the LDS biblical tradition.
The book makes ample use of LDS writing about the Bible to illustrate each of the five methods stated above. Yet in each method, Krohn seems to have only found things he dislikes or disagrees with in LDS readings. For example, the chapter on literal readings takes James 1:5 as its example. This literal reading, without reference to the communicative effect that the author intended, or the “illocutionary aspect,” demonstrates for Krohn the ignorance of Smith and the church regarding the “ancient horizon” of the biblical text. Whereas Smith read the verse as “an aid for personal decision-making,” Krohn argues that the authorial intent of the verse must be considered to interpret it properly (63). In doing so, he sets the LDS thinkers against “mainstream thinkers” (63).
Even in cases of relative scholarly disagreement, Krohn privileges those “mainstream” voices as correct. His example of “re-authoring” as interpretive method is Isaiah 28:10: “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (NRSVUE). LDS thought and scriptures understand this verse to refer to the delivery of Latter-day revelation: “the receptive are instructed line upon line, as Richard Bushman puts it in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Vintage Books, 2007) (quoted by Krohn on 153).
This verse enjoys wide discussion both in the academy and in devotional contexts. Krohn cites more than a handful of “mainstream” voices, arguing that Smith misunderstood the verse, and the LDS faithful continue to misunderstand it. Admittedly, the Hebrew is muddy, and biblical scholarship is not in agreement on what precisely is meant. Krohn simply declares, though, that “LDS citation of the debated phrase from Isa 28:10 for their doctrine of continuing revelation . . . is ironic at best, excessive at worst. They have taken a suspect translation from the KJV . . . and re-authored it to become a central doctrine” (162). In Krohn’s view, LDS authors have not taken “seriously the intended sense of Isaiah 28:10” (163). Commentators from Rashi to J.J.M. Roberts interpret the verse quite broadly, yet despite its meaning being so unclear, Krohn finds the interpretation that the Church uses incorrect.
Krohn’s work is well-researched and clearly organized, despite occasionally unclear prose. I imagine for some readers the work is highly successful, having proven that LDS interpretative practices make the LDS Church member the “type of believer whose only interest in the Bible is what he gets out of it for himself and his own comfort,” who is “pre-occupied with himself, instead of being occupied with Christ and God’s great, glorious redemptive plan.” (The language, including the emphasis, is from Stuart Allen’s The Interpretation of Scripture [Berean Publishing Trust, 1967] quoted in Krohn xxi.) This quotation reappears in the conclusion of the work, with Krohn adding the last word: “May all Bible believers honor the ancient and modern horizons, live out the biblical text, and be occupied with Christ and God’s glorious plan” (196).
So in the end this is quite a denominational work—that is, one focused on the author’s theological commitments, rather than the LDS Church’s own engagement with their holy text. I anticipate this is a work with somewhat limited appeal to scholars of religion, the LDS faithful, and believing scholars themselves. It provides an outsider’s perspective on LDS biblical interpretation, and not the most generous perspective, either. It does not only describe, but attempts to disprove, LDS readings. The work rather disappointed me in this respect, and it would have benefitted greatly from maintaining the critical distance—and thereby viewing “the LDS worldview as a reality that exists independently of [one’s] perception of it”—the author espoused in the introduction.
Jared Bennett is a graduate student in history at Utah State University.
Date Of Review:
January 23, 2023
Positively, the reviewer identified the main thesis of my book: the LDS neglect the ancient horizon of the biblical text. However, he seems to think I described a “LDS authors vs. mainstream thinkers” debate—and that I “dislike” the former and privilege the latter. This is not correct. The issue in the book is repeatedly referenced: “LDS authors neglect the ancient context.” The issue is not “LDS authors vs. mainstream thinkers.” The mainstream authors that are referenced simply validate and confirm the ancient meaning/horizon/context of the biblical text. The reviewer, unfortunately, did not recognize this nor interact with it (granted, in a book review, it is not always possible to comprehensively know the thrust of a book. On the other hand, I repeated my thesis numerous times).
It is ironic that he seems to accuse me of being biased. I was, apparently, not “entirely successful in removing [my] own perspective” and I did not “maintain…the critical distance.” Numerous times in the book I wrote of the impossibility of being completely objective. In fact, no one is completely objective. For instance,
• “Every biblical text comes from an ancient, historical ‘locatedness.’ Every modern interpreter and community are similarly ‘located’” (Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, p. 10 (paperback), p. 27 (Kindle)).
• When we approach the biblical text, “[w]e can, indeed, apprehend the text—yet only as mediated through our own perspectives and experiences” (Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, 13 (paperback), 30 (Kindle); see the excellent book Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 18).
• “We know through our experiences, and ‘it is inconceivable that sound judgment results from looking “objectively” at the world of experience’” (See Thorsten Moritz, “Critical Realism,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 149, in Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, 13-14 (paperback), 31 (Kindle)).
• “There is a social locatedness of every interpreter, and this always influences understanding” (See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Albany: University of New York Press, 2010), 144-49, in Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, 167 (paperback), 238-239 (Kindle)).
• “We are not blank slates but rather complex individuals with past experiences that help us navigate and interpret every new experience” (Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, 172 (paperback), 244 (Kindle)).
We are all coming from our own “embedded” perspective, and it is naïve to deny this. However, this “embedded” perspective does not automatically negate the possibility of fair, reasoned judgment. Using my judgment, and through my personal “lens” and “embedded perspective,” I described many examples of how the LDS church neglects the ancient meaning of the biblical text. One can still acknowledge “epistemic relativism” (that we are embedded) as well as “judgmental rationality” (an understanding and evaluation of what was observed). Both are important tenets of Critical Realism—a helpful methodological parameter when approaching the complex reality of texts and history (see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 64, in Krohn, Mormon Hermeneutics, 15 (paperback), 31 (Kindle)).
In the end, the reviewer is certainly entitled to his opinion—his “embedded perspective.” However, again, it is ironic that he maintains that I was not “critically distanced”—when the concept of objectivity/subjectivity was repeatedly discussed.
The reviewer seemed to imply that I misunderstood the LDS perspective (“…outsiders to the LDS tradition tend to misunderstand it”). I wish he outlined exactly what I “misunderstood.” This assertion is also ironic considering his misunderstanding of the main thrust of the book. In addition, how was the book “quite the denominational work”? This is not detailed (granted, a short book review cannot include everything). In addition, what are the “theological commitments” that presumably make this a “denominational work”?
The reviewer is to be applauded for including the quote on Bible readers being pre-occupied with themselves. Nonetheless, as the book details, I believe this is what the LDS demonstrate in their reading of the Bible.