A recent discussion with an anti-Mormon has provided me with an opportunity to explore the meaning of the word “scripture” as it is used in LDS discourse. I’ve encountered LDS who have a very broad definition of scripture, considering anything published by the Church’s imprimatur to be “scripture”. I’ve met others with a more narrow definition of scripture, who consider only the four canonized books to be “scripture”. I admit that not that long ago I strongly agreed with the more narrow definition. I’ve seen some contentious debates between faithful Latter-day Saints about whether a particular item (such as an Ensign article or General Conference talk) is “scripture”.
But we don’t need to choose between the two. There can different senses of the word “scripture”. As an analog, it is universally understood by Latter-day Saints that the word “prophet” has both a narrow and a broad definition. The narrow definition includes the prophet of the Church, and perhaps the twelve apostles. These are individuals who have the authority to speak for God in a manner that is binding on the Church as a whole. Their words can potentially be added to the Doctrine and Covenants, or in some other canonized form. The broad definition of “prophet” includes all people who speak under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This can include local priesthood leaders, mothers, fathers, and other individuals with a more limited scope of authority.
We can use this same model in our discussion about “scripture”. Scripture, in the narrow and probably more common sense, refers to the four canonized books that comprise the LDS “standard works”. But in a broader sense “scripture” may refer to any text that is inspired by the Holy Ghost, which can range from the Book of Mormon to patriarchal blessings, from recorded father’s blessings to inspired personal journal entries. This two-fold model of defining “scripture” is recognized by Kent P. Jackson in his article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
For Latter-day Saints, the concept of scripture entails two complementary definitions-a broad definition that embraces all revelation from God as “scripture,” and a narrower view that includes only the standard works as “the scriptures.” Both categories are authoritative, since both are viewed as coming from God.
Because we have a broad and a narrow definition of the word “prophet”, and because “scripture” is the written form of prophecy, it stands to reason that a narrow and a broad definition of “scripture” should exist. When determining whether a thing is “scripture” or not, and what sense of scripture it is, two questions should be asked, and in this order:
1. Was the author acting under the influence of the Holy Ghost? If yes, then the author was prophesying, and it is scripture.
2. For whom was the prophecy authoritative? This will determine what type of scripture it is.
Perhaps in another post someday we should explore what exactly it means for something to be “scripture” in terms of its authority or purity.