Publishing another An Other Testament

02.23.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

This guest post is from Joseph M. Spencer, author of the newly released book An Other Testament: On TypologyThe book is the second volume in the Maxwell Institute’s series Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture.
An Other Testament Cover (2015-12-19)An Other Testament is a book about how the Book of Mormon can teach us how to read the Book of Mormon. Between 2004 and 2012 I wrote, scrapped, and rewrote hundreds of pages until the first edition was published by Salt Press. I felt as if I could finally be free of the project. But when 2016 came around I was still wrestling with it, seeing to its republication after Salt Press was acquired by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. They wanted An Other Testament to reach a wider audience. I was tempted to perform a complete rewrite, but decided it would be just as well to clean up the first edition and add a new preface pointing out a few things I might have done differently, then gesture toward things I’m working on now. Two questions have been posed to me most consistently about the book, both regarding method. The first I’ll address only briefly: What is the status of the Book of Mormon’s historicity in my work and in Book of Mormon studies going forward? In many ways, I wish I had been clearer about this problem before I finished the book. In it, I presuppose the Book of Mormon’s historicity, but I do not attend directly to it. The result is that I have faced wor­ries from both those who feel that the historicity of the Book of Mormon must be defended and those who feel that the historicity of the Book of Mormon must be bracketed. On the one hand, some have asked what a “theological reading” of the Book of Mormon like mine is worth if the trustworthiness of the book has not been adequately established. On the other hand, some have asked what a theological reading is worth if its faith commitments are not universally shared. In the end, I am far more sympathetic to the second of these worries than I am to the first. To think that the Book of Mormon must establish its historical bona fides before it can be read profitably is, it seems to me, to get things exactly backwards. By my reading, the Book of Mormon both implicitly and explicitly contests modern secular notions of history, such that it does not make much sense to demand that it be defensible in secular historical terms. Hence, if I were writing the book today, I would do everything I could to make it speak to every potential reader. As it is, I worry that it will speak only to the already-believing. Whether I can find a voice in my future writings that will allow them to speak to both audiences remains to be seen. The second question I have been asked about this book is, I think, more substantive: What makes this book a work of theology? Groundwork fullSome readers seem to have been, as they read, waiting for textual interpretation to end and systematic theology to begin. At no point in my work do I leave texts behind in order to begin sketching a systematic exposition of theological truths, and that has made some worry that there is really very little that is theological about this sort of enterprise. I need to establish first that “systematic theology” is only one sort of theology, and—to be a bit frank—it is in my view the least interesting sort on offer. What I practice here and elsewhere in my work is “scriptural theology.” What makes it scriptural, obviously, is that it keeps itself close to canonical texts. What makes it theological is that it refuses to be satisfied with either the strictly referential meaning or even the more robust communicative sense of scripture. The scriptural theologian is convinced that the text has not been exhausted until its relevance to life has been investigated. And the good scriptural theologian is convinced that that investigation is infinite, that the text will never have been exhausted. The point of An Other Testament is really, then, just to ask about one aspect of the life of faith—namely, concerning what it is to read scripture. There is a good deal more work to do on the Book of Mormon, as much at the level of the text as at the level of theological study, where I attempt to focus my own efforts. Whether this remarkable volume of scripture will receive its due soon enough I cannot predict. If my own work assists to pave the way to such work, published under my name or another’s, I will call what I have done a real success.

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joseph-spencerJoseph M. Spencer earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of New Mexico and has published extensively on Latter-day Saint scripture and theology in BYU Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies where he serves as associate editor. Spencer is co-editor of the book series Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture. His other books include Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah (2nd ed. forthcoming) and For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (2014).