How reading a text theologically can be similar to reading historically

09.11.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Robin Scott Jensen is associate managing historian and project archivist of The Joseph Smith Papers for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This post is part of a series of reflections about the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. See the rest here

I was a bit nervous attending a theological seminar. As a historian, I was keenly aware of my own lack of training in theology and felt intimidated by the kinds of discussions that would take place about the text of the 1830 revelation to Emma Smith. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with a deep reading of a text. With about fifteen years of experience on the Joseph Smith Papers, I know how to carefully read a text. I simply felt that my historical reading was vastly different than a theological reading.

Ultimately, I was both correct and incorrect. Seeing how my own experience might be of some use to others who are afraid to dip their toe in interdisciplinary waters, let me reassure you that my experience at the Latter-day Saint theological seminar was full of insight, education, and spiritual discussions.

I quickly found out that reading a text theologically can be very similar to reading it historically. Both professions are concerned about what the actual text states. Theological and historical readings are quite concerned about the original intent of the revelation. What was the setting that prompted the dictation of this text? What was the earliest interpretation of this text? How did other early attitudes towards Joseph Smith, revelation, or the developing religion affect the way the text was dictated or received? Both historians and theologians are comfortable asking these and other questions.

It was also reinforced to me that both theology and history are reconstructive endeavors. Because there are only a very small set of facts about original intent, a close reading of the text requires speculation. We don’t know what Emma was feeling the day the revelation was dictated. We assume—although we don’t know—that she was present when her husband dictated the text. Historically and theologically speaking, the text of the revelation offers some information but not everything.

A theologian looks to the text of the revelation and envisions a meaning of that text for their own spiritual edification. They look to the words and place themselves in the text—reading into the revelation a meaning that speaks truth to how they see the dual interaction of God and those who seek him. Today, people of faith read historic texts and find meaning for their current situations and modern faith.

I’ve been in enough conversations with historians, however, to know that historians often eschew this approach, feeling a sense of discomfort in making the text something that it never was to the original creators or recipients. But such attitudes ignore the role historians play in reconstructing the past. They often find contemporary meaning in the historic texts in which they study—frequently discovering parallels or commonalities in human nature across generations. Texts are never neutral; the bias of the observer adds meaning to the text being observed.

The revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants are often masked by generation after generation of context layered over the original meaning of their dictation, reception, and meaning. As a historian I have often found this added interpretation frustrating or even damaging to the original view of the religious texts. But as one who reads them theologically, I find the layers of interpretation signify what these texts truly are: scripture held sacred by millions of church members who find deep personal meaning to them.

The Latter-day Saint Theological Seminar thus pushed me to begin to think a bit more like a theologian—which, I discovered, was not all that different from my historical mindset.