What is the Word of God?

By: hawkgrrrl
March 12, 2013

When Joseph Smith was explaining our faith’s beliefs to John Wentworth, he wanted to point out that we believe in the Bible, but that he felt it had errors.  After all, he was working on a new translation of it.  He said:

8 We believe the aBible to be the bword of God as far as it is translated ccorrectly; we also believe the dBook of Mormon to be the word of God.

Literal and historical

But what does this mean exactly?  Given that Mormonism teaches that Christianity has essentially been the same from the dawn of time including before Christ (although under the Law of Moses), there is an inherent historical literalness implied, a belief that the events of ancient Israel are essentially like modern Israel (Mormonism).  The loophole provided in the 8th Article of Faith is explicitly around translation errors.  It also doesn’t include the Book of Mormon, as if the possibility of translation errors (or abridgment errors) wasn’t considered.

God didn’t write it

There are only two stories of God actually authoring something directly:  the ten commandments and the writing on the temple wall.  When it comes to scripture, there is always a human author holding the pen, whether translating, interpreting, abridging, narrating, or authoring.  Where does the word of God begin and the interpretation of the human end?

Is the word of God communicable?

Language is always imprecise because language is used to describe language.  It is circular and self-referential.  It is an implicit agreement between a set of signifiers, each of which is only defined by other signifiers.  It is inherently imprecise and fluid.

Derrida quotes Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.”

If language is problematic enough for human discourse, what are the human limits to express the divine?  We are taught that some of the words that Jesus prayed could not be recorded.  In 3 Nephi 19 we read:

32 And tongue cannot speak the words which he prayed, neither can be awritten by man the words which he prayed.  33 And the multitude did hear and do bear record; and theirahearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed.  34 Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they beauttered by man.

Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth discusses with Bill Moyer the impossibility of expressing the divine:

CAMPBELL:  We want to think about God.  God is a thought.  God is a name.  God is an idea.  But its reference is to something that transcends all thinking.  The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought.  As Kant said, the thing in itself is no thing.  It transcends thingness.  It goes past anything that could be thought.  The best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about.  The third best are what we talk about.  And myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.

MOYERS:  What can’t be known or named except in our feeble attempt to clothe it in language.

CAMPBELL:  The ultimate word in our English language for that which is transcendent is God.  But then you have a concept, don’t you see?  You think of God as the father.  Now in religions where the god or creator is the mother, the whole world is her body.  There is nowhere else.  The male god is usually somewhere else. . .

MOYERS:  But isn’t the only way a human being can try to grope with this immense idea is to assign it a language that he or she understands?  God, he, God, she –

Conclusion

Since God didn’t write it and usually didn’t literally speak it, what do we mean when we say the Word of God?

The word of God is . . . (choose up to 3)

  • Divinely inspired by God and recorded by faithful humans. (59%, 38 Votes)
  • Collections of religious teachings and instructions. A mix of rules and inspiration. (58%, 37 Votes)
  • Man's best guess at what God is thinking. (38%, 24 Votes)
  • God's actual words would be impossible to capture fully as his ways are so much higher than ours. (34%, 22 Votes)
  • Literally what God is saying to us. (13%, 8 Votes)
  • Not really the word of God. It's a variety of other things. (11%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 64

Loading ... Loading ...

Discuss.

Tags: , , ,

15 Responses to What is the Word of God?

  1. log on March 12, 2013 at 1:14 AM

    Who says God didn’t literally speak it? What does literally mean in the context of God speaking?

    On the topic, though, the word of God is just that: the words God speaks to us, either by his own mouth, or by the voice of his sent messenger, the Holy Ghost.

    Scripture consists not of the words on the page, but in what is communicated to the heart and mind when it is read. Scripture is not itself revelation, being merely ink on paper, but a catalyst for revelation.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  2. log on March 12, 2013 at 1:17 AM

    The word “usually” was not present in the post when I began composing my comment.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  3. log on March 12, 2013 at 1:19 AM

    As an addendum to #1, of course angels also speak the words of God.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  4. hawkgrrrl on March 12, 2013 at 2:40 AM

    log #2 – I believe you are mistaken. I pre-wrote this post weeks ago and haven’t altered it since. Check your prescription. :P

    I like the idea of scripture being what happens in the heart and mind of the recipient. Great perspective!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  5. Hedgehog on March 12, 2013 at 3:05 AM

    I was reading recently, that the languages we speak, the words we learn growing up, have an effect on the way we view the world and are able to think about it. It would be difficult to understand that for which we have no words, and no real concept. Language can also get in the way of our understanding of basic concepts. There was a NS article a few years ago now about a study comparing mathematic ability in school children of different countries, and the correlation the names of numbers in those languages.
    I guess anything God wishes to tell us is an approximation constrained by language, and in scripture, as interpreted by the individual writing it down. Throw in that meanings words also change over time, and we really do need the Spirit to dig out what was meant.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  6. Howard on March 12, 2013 at 6:04 AM

    God speaks in telepathy. Many people are uncomfortable with the word telepathy but if you believe your prayer has ever been answered, you actually believe in telepathy. How else could God know your mind?

    The language of telepathy can be either thought words or wordless concepts. Unless you are very meditative and introspective you probably believe you think only in words because you are unaware that below your thought words in your subconscious you think in wordless, language-less concepts. Transcending thought above refers to wordless concepts. Your spirit understands wordless concepts almost immediately upon receiving them but your mind does not, they must be unpacked and converted into thought words for your mind to begin to understand them and they are very, very concept dense like multilevel parables or worse sometimes like un-peeling an onion. So in the beginning your mind’s understanding is a only rough approximation of the original concept nugget because as you unpack more of it your understanding of the entire concept changes and is enhanced to fuller and fuller versions as you go and each new version must be recreated in your mind. In addition you are stuck with the very, very significant inadequacy of language to deal with the nuance of God, words fail. God’s concepts can “blow your mind” meaning you do not have an adequate frame of reference from which to begin to understand them so in some cases you must stop unpacking and stop translating so you can learn basic lessons or contemplate the concept more to bring your frame of reference up to a high enough level to “get it” and once you get it go on with the translation. This is what is meant by Joseph *translated* the Book of Mormon, it was revealed to him in concept nuggets and translated into thought words in his mind not translated in the scholarly sense from the written language of reformed Egyptian to written language of English.

    The best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about. The third best are what we talk about. This refers to the revelatory translation process I described above.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  7. Mike S on March 12, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    I think the biggest issue is what “translation” actually means.

    The Bible we have is based on translations of early manuscripts. Recent versions of the Bible have become even more and more close to the earliest versions of the manuscripts. They can be examined and translations refined to most accurately reflect the original author. This is how the world typically defines “translation”.

    The Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph Smith. At least from the accounts we have, for much (most?) of the time, he wasn’t actually even looking at the plates, but was repeating what he was inspired to say. Not only can we not see the plates now to see how “accurate” the translation was, but Joseph Smith himself didn’t even look at them much. This does not mean that the Book of Mormon doesn’t contain truth or that it isn’t inspired, but to call it “translated” is an entirely different definition all together.

    Perhaps this is why Joseph Smith stated things as he did – the Bible is true as far as it is translated correctly. The Book of Mormon is simply the Word of God – with no translation implied. Perhaps we do a disservice when we, as missionaries, etc., teach that the Book of Mormon was “translated” from the plates. It has been translated from English to many other languages, but was it originally “translated”? I suppose it’s semantics.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  8. Mike S on March 12, 2013 at 8:16 AM

    Interestingly, my very first post on here as a guest was about this issue: The Book of Mormon, Quran and the Holy Ghost

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  9. Jeff Spector on March 12, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    Depends on your perspective. If you are evangelical, the bible is the word of God without an question or reservation.

    From LDS perspective, it is the Bible (as far as it is translated correctly), Book of Mormon, D&C, Pearl of Great Price AND words of the modern Prophets (living or dead, but not always).

    Since the Bible as a collection of books was decided by committee, who is to say whether it is the complete Word of God or not? And the modern Prophets are supposed to fill in the holes. Except for some issues that seem to be more a matter of opinion rather than hard Doctrine.

    Oh, and then there is personal revelation. How does that fit when it might go against a Modern Prophet declaration?

    And where does two earrings, beards, tattoos and other items fall in? Prophetic declaration or generational fashion opinion?(Thought I would get that in there before Mike S did.) :)

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  10. Howard on March 12, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    Given that Mormonism teaches that Christianity has essentially been the same from the dawn of time including before Christ (although under the Law of Moses), there is an inherent historical literalness implied, a belief that the events of ancient Israel are essentially like modern Israel (Mormonism). I disagree that this implies any historical literalness. Christianity is a theology how does a theology imply anything about the historical literalness of mortal events? was Christ crucified twice?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  11. log on March 12, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    log #2 – I believe you are mistaken. I pre-wrote this post weeks ago and haven’t altered it since. Check your prescription.

    Mea culpa! As Moroni says, if I err, even so did they err of old, because of the flesh. :D

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  12. Will on March 12, 2013 at 2:42 PM

    I have always liked the 91st section of the D&C, when Joseph asked if he should translate the Apocrypha. I think the Lords response to Joseph’s prayer is applicable to just about any book or text. In essence, you need thes spirit to get a correct interpretation of what God meant as God and the spirit are one.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  13. Douglas on March 13, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    If this is a discussion of what is canonized scripture, then look to what the Church puts out as the Standard Works and no further.
    As to what is the “Word” of “God”, that’s a larger set. The “Word” can be personal, since we’re entitled to received personal revelation (pertaining to OURSELVES only). It can be family-specific and/or congregation-specific, or the Lord can decide that the whole of the Church (and by inference, the entire human race) needs to hear something. Whether it gets written down and canonized is irrelevant. I see the Canon of scripture as a summary and the “highlights”, but if that were the all to end all, then President Monson is out of a job.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  14. Justin on March 13, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    What’s great about the church of Jesus Christ is that we get to vote on what constitutes the “word of God” that will be binding on us.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  15. Craig on March 24, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    Mark me down for us having the actual words of god, in English, written down by man. I didn’t bother to google the reference, but there is a description of the revelation process by Cowdery or Harris or similar. They say that Joseph spoke slowly enough that the recorder had time to write each individual word without rushing prior to Joseph giving the next word. There was no “stream of consciousness” type recordings. I think I read elsewhere that the actual word would appear on the Urim and thummim. Similar to liahona.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Archives

%d bloggers like this: