This last week in my Religion and Politics in the U.S. class at Georgetown University, my professor illustrated varying approaches to biblical interpretation utilizing the topic of slavery. She explained that especially before and during the Civil War, people justified the existence and perpetuation of slavery with text from the Bible. It’s all over the place. One powerful example is Paul’s slave convert Onesimus. When he ran away from his master, Paul encouraged the human property to return to his master (Philemon 1:10) .
I would be floored if anyone used the Bible today to justify human enslavement.
She described how abolitionists and others prior and during the Civil War employed a thematic reading of the Bible. The Old Testament’s overall theme is justice and the New Testament’s is love. In this topic’s case, love trumps justice, ironically decided by the outcome of the bloodbath we now casually call the Civil War.
She noted briefly that similar interpretation approaches are now happening in Islam.
Also, someone in my class suggested that the same interpretation approaches apply to the current topic of homosexuality and gay marriage. That sent my mind racing about the possible implications of such a suggestion.
But my mind soon turned back to slavery. I thought of Paul’s lack of opposition to slavery when in a modern revelation, it is clear how God feels about it. In describing why He directed that the U.S. Constitution be established, the Lord said through Joseph Smith, “It is not right for one man to be in bondage to another…” (Doctrine & Covenants 101:79) How could Paul as an Apostle not oppose slavery? Because he didn’t, people used his writings to dehumanize others of Heavenly Father’s children.
My best contribution to the discussion was that the potential for innovation seemed infinite. Some forms of innovation could be detrimental for mankind. However, I welcome warmly the innovation in approach regarding slavery and I’m optimistic generally about innovation of scriptures because of my personal experience with the Holy Ghost. Based on precedent, I know that God answers prayers and even if the answers don’t come as I’d like, I usually gain peace through wrestling in the Spirit.
Inspiration, Revelation and This Latter-day Saint
First, I view inspiration as suggestions from God. I receive these almost daily in the form of ideas. There are millions, even billions, of possible ways I can do good in the world. When I’m pondering one topic deeply, I usually have ideas come from left field whose connection are only that they’re part of the process, not necessary the result of a sequential series of my own thoughts. This allows me to use my free will or “agency” as a Latter-day Saint would say, to further explore and work through possibilities.
Revelation is different. I’ve only received revelation on infrequent occasions and most often when I was a missionary. After seeking urgently and exercising a great deal of trust in God, my mind and heart would experience a heightened connection where the will of the Lord pressed heavily on me and I knew what specifically He would have me say. The best description I have for it is becoming an instrument or a messenger. Interestingly enough, I never delivered any new information that I hadn’t studied myself prior to the delivery. Sometimes in the moment, the impression would facilitate the formation of connections, but the pieces were already inside me from prior tutoring sessions with the Holy Ghost in scripture study. Drawing deeply from the Savior’s well of Living Waters in scripture study is key to my spirituality. This revelation process enables me to use my agency too, but it’s usually in the form of whether I choose to obey the message or not.
I accept modern prophets. These men are the today’s equivalent to Abraham, Noah, Moses and the like. They are today’s mouthpieces for God who act as His messengers or instruments for the world. I believe the inspiration and revelation process I’ve described is the same for prophets, too. Sometimes it’s inspiration and sometimes revelation and it’s always according to their understanding. Sometimes they’re teaching according to their own best judgement based on previous revelation or inspiration. This is what I think Paul was doing in this slavery instance.
Revelation can be updated. Peter’s vision to take the gospel to the Gentiles and to eat what was previously considered unclean is an example of an update. (Acts 10:9-20).
Why am I not disillusioned that Paul did not oppose slavery when it grinds against my modern conception of right and wrong and my current understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Was he an Apostle? Yes. Did he receive revelation according to his understanding? Yes. Did he write instructions to various churches and individuals based on his understanding? Yes. How can I know what God thinks of Paul’s teachings?
I ask Him what He thinks about it, expecting He’ll let me know. I’m comfortable with innovation of the scriptures because of my experience with the Holy Ghost. He’s no respecter of persons, as Peter learned by the updated revelation. (Acts 10:34) He’ll make known His will through the Spirit to those who seek to know it.
I’m secure on a personal level. It’s how a broader audience could possibly innovate scripture that makes me anxious.
Tags: God is our loving Heavenly Father, Joseph Smith, mind and heart, Mormonism, personal revelation, scripture study