Richard Whately and Preaching/Teaching the Word in Mormonism

Richard Whately (1787-1863) was an academic churchman. First a Fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, then the Rector of Halesworth, then Principal of St Albans Hall, then Drummond Lecturer on Political Economy at Oxford and last but not least Anglican Archbishop of Dublin.

Whately wanted preachers to teach the nature of scripture.

Whately wanted preachers to teach the nature of scripture.

Whately was a prolific author and had much to say on the subject of preaching, its rhetorical foundations, and the way ministers should approach their duty as instructors in the gospel. Whately was loyal to the church, but not necessarily loyal to received tradition when it came to preaching. Certainly, sola scriptura describes his positions generally, but he was far from accepting Scripture as ahistorical. As minister-in-chief he wrote these guidelines:

1. Scripture should be read as historical matter, not theological dogma.
2. Historical reconstruction should be the hermeneutic guide (it is important firstly to consider the meaning which the text appears to have conveyed to the original hearers — this is the true meaning).
3. Distinguish parables and prophecies which cannot be interpreted literally.
4. Attention should be given to the omissions of Scripture, and the implications of that omission by the inspired writers.
5. Analyzing the implications of the abolition of the Levitical priesthood and its sacrifices under the New Covenant.
6. The role of the church in under the New Covenant.
7. Insisting on the right and duty of private judgement and the implied necessity for education to improve the quality of that judgement.

Whately wanted ministers to foster unity through education. Surely he adhered to the Westminster rule, but not blindly, as he saw it. A good example of some of these positions is found in his Instruction in the Scriptures:

You will be met perhaps by an outcry against the danger of unsettling men’s minds, by allowing them to know that the Scriptures were not originally written in our own language, and that accordingly, what we commonly call the Bible is a translation of the Bible, or that our Translators claimed no infallibility, or that what is called the Authorized Version is not (like the Vulgate, to the Church of Rome) the standard and rule of Faith to which our Articles refer; or that there ever existed any differences of opinions among Scholars as to the true reading or true sense of any passage in the Original . . . Nay, you may even meet with persons who will deprecate your explaining to the People that the divisions into chapters and verses were not the work of the original Writers themselves . . . I have actually known given as a reason . . . for leaving them under [these] errors, the fear of unsettling their minds![1]

I think Whately’s evident disgust for protecting the innocence of ignorant parishioners is mirrored in some quarters of Mormonism. I share it to some degree. I don’t think we really protect the Saints by failing to treat them to things like the “stone in the hat” to use the image as metaphor. Moreover, helping fellow Saints to the knowledge that divergent opinion exists on a wide variety of gospel subjects and narratives is ultimately constructive of faith, rather than destructive. Painting church leaders as infallible–unassailable in a practical sense–in terms of their public preaching or pronouncements–makes the church broadly weaker in important ways. Sometimes I think we are pressing for Nominal Mormonism. Nourished by a kind of universal pablum.

On a related note, if we are less than completely open about historical issues, we leave ourselves open to distrust. Whately:

Supposing even that you could succeed in bringing anyone to lead a life agreeable to every Christian virtue, but without any clear notion of the great doctrines on which our Faith rests, and supposing that you would then have accomplished all that is possible, and all that is desirable, still it could not be said, even then, that you had taught him the Christian religion: no more than you could say of any sick man, who had been restored to health by the skill of his physicians, that he had been taught the art of medicine.

During this year of study in the church’s regular round of scripture instruction, let us vow to reach a little deeper in our consideration of scripture and think about, not just a kind of structured bibliomancy, but scripture as history and the construction of scripture as an historical phenomenon. The Spirit won’t be barred from the precincts of your mind, I promise. And in the bargain, you may be better able to fulfill 1 Pet. 3:15.

—————-
[1] Most of Whately’s data is quoted or paraphrased from Carol Poster’s chapter in A New History of the Sermon: The Nineteenth Century (Leiden, 2010).

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3 Responses to Richard Whately and Preaching/Teaching the Word in Mormonism

  1. ricke says:

    Hear! Hear! However, this would be SO hard for us.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Amen.

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