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Despite All We Can Do with Daniel O. McClellan

Daniel O. McClellan



About the Interview: Daniel O. McClellan won the Best Student Paper Award at the 2nd Annual Book of Mormon Studies Association conference for his paper on the linguistic and rhetorical contexts of 2 Nephi 25:23.

In his work as a translation coordinator for the Church, he noticed that there were inconsistencies in the translation of this verse that led to misunderstandings. This finding led him to get to the roots of the phrase by studying the historical context of the reading. His research provides persuasive arguments to an interpretation of grace that clears up common misunderstandings of Restoration theology.

In her interview, Laura Harris Hales also discusses “As Far As It Is Translated Correctly” published in the Religious Educator and “The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament” from Lincoln Blumell’s anthology on the New Testament, which provide valuable contexts and insights into the translation process.

About Our Guest: Daniel O. McClellan received his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in ancient Near Eastern studies, where he focused on Biblical Hebrew and minored in Classical Greek. He completed a master of studies in Jewish studies at the University of Oxford in July of 2010 and a master of arts in biblical studies at Trinity Western University just outside of Vancouver, BC. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. His areas of specialization are Second Temple Judaism, early Israelite religion, textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, and cognitive interpretation of scripture.


Transcript: The following has been provided by LDS Perspectives and is an unedited computer-generated transcript — and thus errors are to be expected.

Laura Harris Hales: This is Laura Harris Hales and I’m here today with Daniel O McClellan. I’m going to introduce you to the topic of our interview a little bit differently this time. A little bit of mystery here just for fun, but first I want to tell you a little bit about Daniel’s educational background. He received his bachelor’s degree from Brigham young university in ancient near Eastern studies where he focused on biblical Hebrew and minored in classical Greek. He completed a master of studies and Jewish studies at the university of Oxford in July of 2010 and a master of arts in biblical studies at Trinity Western university just outside of Vancouver, BC. Dan is currently a PhD candidate at the university of Exeter. His areas of specialization are second temple Judaism, early Israelite religion and textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Currently he’s working on a dissertation on the cognitive science of religion. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, Daniel, tell us a little bit about what you do professionally. Of course.
Daniel O McClellan: So for about the last seven years now, I’ve been working as a scripture translation supervisor here at the church and that’s in the sacred materials translation section. And so we’re responsible for all the translation of temple materials of scripture and of what we call core music, which is a hymn books and children’s song books. So not the, the songs that come out in the, in the friend or the Leah Hona, but the hymns and children’s songs. And my responsibility is basically to go out and find once a translation project has been approved, I go out and find a translators, I interview them, I pick my team, go out and train them. And then I supervise the project, which for a scripture project, a book of Mormon takes about four and a half years to translate. Uh, and if we’re doing the whole triple combination of the scriptures, a can be as much as twice that. And we’re also working on some, uh, updates to Bibles now so that we can produce more Bibles like we did with the Spanish and the Portuguese. In 2009 we published a church edition of the Bible in Spanish. And in 2015 we published one in Portuguese and that was my project, one that I was very proud of. Uh, and so we’re trying to find ways to, to extend the blessings of, uh, of having a church Bible published in other languages as well.
Laura Harris Hales: That’s fascinating. I’ve spoken with you just casually about your job quite a bit and the exciting opportunities you have to travel all over the world, like to Reykjavik and you said and Iowa, so it’s all over the place that you’re traveling with this project. Some locations more glamorous than others.
Daniel O McClellan: Yeah, I get a lot of, uh, I get a lot of offers to carry my luggage for me. When I say I’m headed to the South Pacific, which sounds a lot more glamorous than than it is because while, while I have been to places like Tahiti, uh, normally when I’m going to the South Pacific, it’s to an Island like yap or pawn pay, which I didn’t even know existed before. They said book a flight. And so these are, are much smaller out of the way places where there aren’t a lot of tourists and they’re, they’re not there for a reason. Uh, but there are wonderful people. They’re wonderful members of the church. I, I find out about new languages when I go out there. Uh, I find out about, uh, how the church functions in, in these tiny little places. And then when I get to go to places like Des Moines and, uh, st Paul, uh, for those projects, I was working in a language called [inaudible], which is spoken by refugees from Myanmar. And so while I am, uh, in a, a familiar place, a town in the United States, I’m working with a refugee community speaking a language that is very unique, that has a, it borrows the Burmese script, which is quite difficult to learn and uh, and pretty intimidating. And so it is, it’s still a unique experience. Even if I do stop at taco bell for dinner,
Laura Harris Hales: a lot of times when I interview people, they’re either full time academics or they’re, they have a full time job and just do academics on the side. Today. It’s kind of interesting cause we’re going to talk about how your academic life intersected with your day job and produce some really wonderful scholarship. I was privileged to hear a presentation you gave at the second annual book of Mormon studies association conference in Logan, Utah where you congratulations, won the best student paper award. The subject of the paper is the topic of this podcast, but also we’re going to talk about some background material that’s contained in two other articles that you published. One is called as far as it is translated correctly [inaudible] and that was published in the religious educator in 2019 and the other is a book chapter from Lincoln blue males anthology on the new Testament entitled the of the old Testament in the new Testament. We will start our discussion today with your article from the religious educator as far as it is translated correctly, Bible translation and the church. In that you talked about the linguistic context of the King James version as it relates to our understanding of biblical writings. I want to start with this quote from the beginning of your article. If the book of Mormon is the Keystone of our religion, the King James version of the Bible is certainly it’s linguistic cornerstone. What did you mean by that statement?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, there I was trying to address the fact that a lot of the book of Mormon, a lot of the writings that come out of that period by the prophet and by others are couched in KJ V type language. And this is a product of a long historical development. Uh, this, I think the second great awakening took place primarily in, in regions around where Joseph Smith was growing up. Uh, I think in fact, Pao Myra is in one of what they called the burned over districts because of this resurgence of spiritualism and, uh, the restoration movement. And as a result of that resurgence, there was also increased interest in antiquarian aneurysm in older things. And so the King James version of the Bible being a, a very old, uh, very venerable, uh, document was, uh, became more popular. Uh, and the language that was found in it became a part of the lexicon, uh, for people in that time period. And so Joseph Smith would have grown up using a lot of the terms and hearing a lot of the terms in his community that came from the King James version and so his couching of the book of Mormon and other revelations and other writings with based on the kind of a linguistic environment of that place in that time period, which was very much based on the King James version.
Laura Harris Hales: I think sometimes we’ve failed to appreciate how much the Bible infused itself into the culture of 19th century America. I was reading a book where it said that the parents would even talk to their children and that type of very formal language, get the body out of bed and take myself to school where we would just say, get out of bed now. Get to school.
Daniel O McClellan: Yeah. Most people these days didn’t grow up in a situation like the one Joseph Smith grew up in and a lot of that has to do with the fact that English has changed quite a bit since then. It’s, there’s a lot more variability in the language and some of that has to do with the fact that books like the King James version don’t exercise as much authority as they used to. Uh, the 20th century saw an explosion in new of the Bible. And so there are a lot more options out there. There are a lot of people using other translations of the Bible and as a result, we don’t have near as many people using the King James version to frame all the, all these discussions. And we also have much, the, our communities have changed quite a bit as well. There are large cities all over the place. We have suburban communities now. It’s not quite the same makeup that, uh, it was in the early 19th century.
Laura Harris Hales: So as you go about doing your business of making available translations of the Bible and the book of Mormon and languages for a worldwide church, this is not just an academic endeavor to say, Hey, this language is throughout this book of Mormon. This reliance creates problems for you and your translation teams as you try to translate materials. What kind of problems does that create?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, right off the bat we have a about, I want to S I haven’t looked at the numbers in a while, but I think we have about 96 or 97 what we call preferred translations of the Bible. And what that means is that we’ve evaluated available Bibles in a given language and we’ve designated one is the one that we prefer. Meaning that’s what we’ll use when we translate, uh, quotations of the Bible in general conference or things like that. And right now we actually have on our estimations, have more people accessing the Bible in a language other than English in the church than are accessing the Bible in English in the church. And so as you can imagine, that’s a lot of different translations of the Bible. But most of the material that we produce, we produce in English and we produce based on the King James version.
Daniel O McClellan: So when it goes out to be translated and some documents are translated in only a couple of languages, summer are translated into dozens of languages. Immediately, we’re going to run into issues where other translations are going to say different things. And we have a process in place that helps translators know what to do normally. For instance, if, if the message we’re trying to get across isn’t communicated by their preferred translation of the Bible, they’re instructed to translate the English and then either remove the quotation marks or in parentheses comment that this is according to the English translation of the Bible or something like that. Uh, but sometimes things happen where, uh, they don’t have any guidance and they’re on their own. And so there’s quite a bit of variability if you compared all of the different translations of a given document that the church sent out from headquarters. Uh, there’s going to be a lot of variability in the messages that the members are hearing. And so that’s one of the concerns that we have for consistency, uh, across, uh, the different languages in which the church operates.
Laura Harris Hales: So would you say the point of tension is really not in a certain piece of educational material that’s written in modern English, but rather when they refer to a scripture from the King James version, you’re not going to translate that word for word and to the next language. You’re going to take that out of that languages preferred translation of the Bible, put it in there and then maybe it’ll have a little bit different meaning. Is that what you’re telling me?
Daniel O McClellan: So the, the first option, the, the preferred option is to go to that other translation of the Bible and pluck that, that a verse out of there and, and use it. Obviously it has to work in order for us to use it. And so if the translation says something different than the translators or are faced with some of these other options, uh, either just translating the English of their source text straight across, uh, and sometimes they will identify this as a translation from the King James version. Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they will remove the quotation marks. So it’s not even clear that it’s a quotation from the Bible. There are a variety of options that they have. But yeah, it does. It does. Uh, sometimes create confusion cause sometimes they will just pull it right out of their preferred translation and use it as it stands even though it may not support the message that’s being communicated. And that causes confusion as well.
Laura Harris Hales: Now when you go about translating materials, there is pedagogy and a science to this, like all translators. You need to make choices based on your audience because conveying the thoughts of one language into the words of another is not a seamless process. We all know that some things just don’t translate the same, especially when you’re trying to do word for word. Will you share a time when this obstacle created missed understandings and conflict and translated church materials? Sure.
Daniel O McClellan: Like I said, we have a process to try to minimize the, those misunderstandings and conflicts, but they still pop up from time to time. Uh, and in the article I share an example from a 2018 ministering principles article that’s quoted Jude one 22 from the new Testament. And the, the, the ministering principle article was about ministering with compassion, uh, and it opened up by saying as you minister as a savior would with compassion, you will find that you can make a difference in other’s lives. And then quotes Jude one 22 which says of some have compassion making a difference. And so it’s understanding making a difference here to mean exercising a positive influence on someone’s life. And it’s a direct quote from the King James version of Jude one 22. The problem is that there are two problems with, with that use of that quotation.
Daniel O McClellan: The first is that that’s not what the King James version means because it’s using that phrase, making a difference to mean exercising discernment. That’s what the phrase meant in the 17th century when the Bible was published, it did not mean having a positive influence until the early 20th century. And so other translations of the Bible that follow the King James versions understanding of the text are going to say something different. They’re going to say of some have compassion but exercise discernment or something like that. There’s going to be misunderstanding in that regard. The other issue is that there is some, some, a textual problem with the source texts that the King James version went with. And the tech should actually say something, uh, more like have some ha or have compassion on those who doubt. So a lot of contemporary Bible translations are going to use that rendering.
Daniel O McClellan: So when this went out to the dozens of translators who were responsible for translating this message, they all open their preferred Bibles and it said something entirely different. And so unfortunately, normally we would provide a translation guide note when there is potential for misunderstanding. But this was something that escaped everyone’s notice because the people who write those notes are, are usually not experts in Greek and textual criticism and things. And so they don’t pick up on stuff like that. So there were no guidance for the translators regarding what to do. And so everybody did whatever they thought was best. And so if you look at the many different translations of that ministering principles article, some people said according to the King James version, which is problematic in my opinion because it signals to people who are in the church, speaking of the languages that the King won, the King James version is best and to the English is preferred.
Daniel O McClellan: And that kind of creates a two tiered membership. And I have seen this inaction. It’s, it’s not just for English speakers. This is something that’s, that’s kind of hypothetical and philosophical, but I’ve seen people in tears because they don’t feel like, uh, that is appropriate. And so it would be great if we can produce the same experience for everybody, but there are just some obstacles when we’re producing our materials in English. And then as well there, there are a number of times when different people writing different materials for the church understand the text differently. So, uh, another example is from the DNC, a doctrine and covenants student. Now teacher manual for, uh, the gospel doctrine. Several years old, I think it was in the 80s that it was published. Uh, when you get to doctrine and covenants, one 21, verse 43, reproving betimes of sharpness when moved upon, um, and were moved upon by the Holy ghost.
Daniel O McClellan: Uh, in that manual, it says, the word sharpness does not mean severity, it clarity or specificity. The problem is we have instructions in our translation guys to have the translators understand it to mean severity. And so the manual, if it, when it gets translated into other languages, uh, teachers are going to say, okay, now class, we’re reading this in doctrine covenants, in whatever language. And it doesn’t mean severity, it means clarity, even though their translation very clearly has, it means severity. Uh, and so there just some, some complications that, um, that arise because of a number of these factors. It’s a very large organization. Uh, there are a lot of people doing very good work that don’t all collaborate. They don’t know. Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Uh, and then going into many different languages just creates lots of complications.
Laura Harris Hales: Oh, I don’t even know how you would manage that. It’s such a bureaucratic, um, just huge undertaking considering all the different languages. I’m going to turn now to the chapter you wrote for Lincoln blue mal on the old Testament in the new Testament. And basically in that article you were looking at how the new Testament authors used familiar scripture to present their point to their audience. Correct. In there you mentioned what you thought the function of scripture was, which might sound like a really basic question, but I don’t think we sit down and think about it. We think, Oh, it’s the word of God, but you, uh, in your academic life it’s very crucial to have a definition of that.
Daniel O McClellan: Uh, yeah, that’s absolutely true. And I think that we don’t talk enough about what it means for things to be scripture and how scripture is supposed to function. Uh, we kind of engage with it just with some kind of intuitive understanding of how to do it and I think we’d be much more effective at it if we took the time to talk about what it means for things to be scripture and what the function of scripture is. Uh, there, there is not really a definition anywhere in, in that article. I, um, riffing off of the notion that a remember is the most important word in the dictionary, which I think is, uh, some expensive. W Kimball said, uh, I’ve, I’ve heard it taught before that remembers the most important word in the scriptures. And I think there’s a great deal of truth to that. Uh, but I say that if that’s the case, then one of the most important functions of scripture is to serve as a repository for social memory, uh, which is the shared understanding a group has of its collective past and its identity.
Daniel O McClellan: And what I was trying to strike out there was the, the fact that scripture is primarily a serves a communal function. It helps to bring a social group together and it helps to forge a shared identity, a shared understanding of our past, a shared understanding of our responsibilities to each other now and our responsibilities to God. And then a shared understanding of where things are going. Uh, and I talk a little bit about social memory. I think that’s a, that’s a very important approach to literature and particularly scripture that’s, uh, a lot of people have been working with for the last a few decades. And really this is about how groups negotiate between their past and their needs in the present. Because no one, no one understands their past, completely divorced from where they are now and what needs they have now. Uh, and because those needs and contexts are always changing, we’re always having to renegotiate between the two.
Daniel O McClellan: And I think scripture does that in a lot of ways. Uh, and the new Testament is looking back on the old Testament. So every time the new Testament interprets the old Testament, it’s engaging in that renegotiation. It’s saying this is how this text brings meaning to our identities now. Uh, and so I think if we, if we can look at scripture that way, it might help us better understand why it is that we apply scripture the way we do today. Uh, it might help us, uh, apply it better. Um, and I think it will help us be better students of the scriptures and find a lot more insight. And a lot more inspiration, um, in them. Some people think of it as kind of a naturalistic approach that it robs it of, uh, of the spirit of scripture. But, uh, I don’t think that’s true at all. I think we should be using all the tools, uh, that are available to us in order to get a better understanding of what it is that, uh, that God wants from us.
Laura Harris Hales: And we see the use, um, of, of mythmaking and our secular lives as well as a common reference point. I was reading a newspaper the other day and there was this question that said, what would the founders have done? And I thought, Oh my gosh, the founders died how many years ago? And we still care, but, but this is what your article is about. So what would the old Testament prophets have done? That’s what the new Testament writers are saying. Okay, this happened in the past. How do we apply it to our present? How do we bring that social memory together?
Daniel O McClellan: Yeah. I, and I think a good example is in, is in Matthew 13, when, uh, the scribes come to try to challenge Jesus, uh, and he responds to them, go you and learn what that mean, if I will have mercy and not sacrifice. And so he’s, uh, he’s quoting Hosea six, six, and he’s kind of throwing it in the face of the people who are the professional interpreters of scripture and saying, you don’t understand your own scriptures. Go learn what this means because he was talking about you. Uh, and so there are a number of examples of that. And I, I think we tend to think of the, the scriptures as something that was meant directly for us when usually it’s primarily meant for other readers who are, are long gone. And so we do have to apply our own lenses anytime that we try to apply it to our own day. Not that that’s a bad thing. Um, it’s inevitable. We can’t get away from that, but I think we should be aware of it.
Laura Harris Hales: What we’re talking about is scripture fulfilling rhetorical goals. It wants to teach. It wants to argue a concept. How does scripture use language to fulfill rhetorical goals?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, that’s an interesting question. There’s a cause it has so many dimensions. For instance, uh, uh, language develop not primarily as a means of conveying information but primarily as a means of forging social relationships. Uh, and what, uh, some anthropologists will call pro sociality, uh, or producing cohesion in a soap social group. So it doesn’t break up. When you think about the, the basic fundamental function of language as producing social cohesion. Well it makes it interesting to think about how does do the rhetorical functions of scripture serve that goal. And I think a lot of scripture is precisely aimed at trying to bring groups together, trying to make people more faithful members of that group, trying to advance the interests of that group. Uh, trying to forge a shared identity and, and all these things that, um, we talked about earlier and it does so by using conventions that people are familiar with, largely making the text resonates with people, making them feel like they’re a part of this.
Daniel O McClellan: And so if it brings up experiences that they’ve had before, they can identify with it. If it uses terminology and, and phrase ology that they are specifically familiar with and used to hearing, it will make it feel like this is, this is meant for me. Uh, and so there, there are a lot of the imagery that the scriptures use, uh, generally try to forge this kind of link between the sacred past and us and it invites the reader to become a part of that grand macro narrative to find their place within the narrative that’s being unfolded in the scriptures.
Laura Harris Hales: You take this concept to the book of Mormon and you refer to a very familiar scripture in first new fi where he talks about likening scriptures. How is likening like Niffin structs an ongoing process for generations of scripture readers.
Daniel O McClellan: Like I said, I think one of the things that the scriptures do is invite us to find our place in this narrative. And so likening the scriptures under us is one of the more explicit ways that, uh, the scriptures invite us to do that. I also said every engagement with the scriptures is a renegotiation between the sacred past and the needs of the present. And so because those needs change from day to day and from person to person, everyone is going to like it in a different way and every generation is going to like it in a different way. So a good example of this, it’s not uniquely related to the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints is probably the use of the Bible by both sides of the slavery argument during the civil war, both abolitionists and pro slavery, uh, dogmatists appealed to the Bible to defend their side. And so what they were both doing was taking this text and thinking, how am I going to apply this to the rhetorical need that I have right now? And you can find arguments from both sides. Um, if you are applying that lens. And so every generation is going to have different needs and every generation is going to approach the scriptures differently.
Laura Harris Hales: With that very brief background and the hatchet job that I just did on revealing those two articles, let’s talk about the subject of your dress at the book of Mormon studies association. Your paper centered on the linguistic and rhetorical contexts of toony Phi 25 23 which is very familiar to all of us. But again, before we discuss your research, I want to talk about the motivations behind your study. Let’s go back to what you do as a day job, which is a translation coordinator for the church. What problem arose that prompted you to look closer at possible meanings for this verse in the book of Mormon,
Daniel O McClellan: so 25 25 23 says, for we labored diligently to write, to persuade our children and also our brethren, to believe in Christ and to be reconciled to God for we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do.
Daniel O McClellan: What usually happens in instances like this is we have translators working closely on the text and they’ll have a question and our translation guide may not address it or they may not feel it addresses it adequately. And so we spend a lot of time addressing these questions. It may be a word that could mean two different things and in their language they have one word for one thing and one for the other and they can’t preserve both meanings. And so they come and say, which of these two meanings should I give priority to? Uh, in this instance there is, there is note that explains that people should understand after all, we can do two main following in time. And we had a number of translators, not just translators I was supervising, but translators that uh, other supervisors were in charge of who were uncomfortable with that because it didn’t make sense to them in the context. And that’s not how they understood the English. But as non native speakers of English, they generally defer to us. So I decided I would do some, some deeper research to see if I could shed any additional light on the meaning of this passage, either to help the translators have more confidence in what the translation guide notes said or to suggest that maybe we revise this translation guide note, which happens from time to time.
Laura Harris Hales: You began your paper with a thought provoking statement that I’m going to read to you and then have you comment on texts after all have no inherent meaning. Meaning is created as readers impose interpretive frameworks based on their own experiences with an understandings of the conventions and patterns of language. First, as an English teacher and an editor, I have to ask you, what was your use of after all intentional? It was intentional because it was brilliant. I’m glad somebody picked up on that. Second, do you think this concept is a general Lee held belief in the church? I don’t think it is.
Daniel O McClellan: I’ve tried to share it, uh, on a number of different occasions and I’m generally met with deer in the headlights kind of look or people who disagree entirely. But the fact is that there, there is no meaning that inhabits the ink that sits on a page or the pixels on a screen. Uh, it all is inside our heads. And our job is to try to take what we know about the conventions of language, about the context, about the person with whom we’re speaking or the person that wrote the text and try to, uh, reconstitute that meaning in our heads. And this is precisely why people misunderstand each other. My wife and I misunderstand each other all the time, even when we’re using very simple words. And that’s because the words of the language are not exact matches to the concepts that are in our heads.
Daniel O McClellan: They are approximations sometimes close, sometimes not very close approximations, but they’re the tools that we use to try to take something that is a morphous and unseeable that’s inside our head and try to communicate it. And it is not an exact science, which is why people constantly are fumbling over how to say what they need to say. And, uh, and, and I think that’s a concept that is challenging for some people because it’s not incredibly intuitive and it’s not how we think and talk about language and it’s, and so it’s difficult. I think the better we understand that principle, uh, the better communicators we can become and hopefully the better interpreters of texts like the scriptures.
Laura Harris Hales: So as you sat down, okay, you realize there’s a problem here with this scripture, it’s not the first time that you encountered that scripture and realized that she had a different interpretation. Probably even the person sitting next to you, did it intimidate you at all that you were looking at this scripture that is probably the single most influential scripture in creating tension between us and other Protestants in the United States as far as our beliefs and our consideration of being Christians. It’s, I mean, this is a lofty goal. You’re like, I’m going to look at this phrase and like make a cogent argument with an open mind. I’m going to take an academic approach and see once and for all, what does this phrase mean?
Daniel O McClellan: Yeah. And that’s, and you know, what does this phrase mean is a question that sometimes is, is just simply impossible to answer. And so I recognize that that’s a possibility, but it’s what I’ve been doing, uh, for a living for several years now. And so, uh, I don’t, I wouldn’t say I was intimidated. I was actually kind of excited because I, it was a question that has always been kind of pinned on the board that I had never taken down before and really look closely at. But now I had an opportunity to, uh, and an excuse to, and so, uh, I would say I was more excited than anything else. I’m familiar with the, the long debate about grace versus works and I would like latter day saints to be more informed and more engaged participants in that debate because I think we tend to tow a rather dogmatic line without thinking hard about, about the issues and without taking seriously what we’re hearing from the other side.
Laura Harris Hales: Going back to what you said where I said what does this phrase mean in your article? You do break out different meanings for the phrase. And you start, before you even talk about the linguistic and rhetorical elements of that phrase, you look at it’s historical and theological analysis in the church. Can you briefly summarize what you found for us before we go on?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, I think, uh, it wasn’t, it’s not an incredibly complex history. Uh, we have long used the, uh, the passage as a kind of proof text for the notion that we do have work to do in this question of salvation. It’s not arbitrary, it’s not free grace. And, uh, I think this is primarily been a part of our identity politics are competition, uh, with other faith communities that feel differently about this. And as I went back and looked in the record, I couldn’t find any direct engagement with this passage and that reading of this passage in, uh, the writings of the prophet Joseph Smith or Brigham young, I think addresses it briefly, but, but not very thoroughly. But I was able to find discussions as we move into the 20th century. And as I think the church began to engage a lot more directly with Protestantism and particularly evangelical Protestantism, and it became more of a, an ideological battleground that we start to see more explicit discussions.
Daniel O McClellan: And for the most part, leaders in the church sided with, uh, the traditional reading that we are saved by grace after we have done everything that we can. And I think that that started to change, uh, in the late 20th century. I know Spencer Flaman, uh, attribute to that, to Ezra Taft Benson’s emphasis on the book of Mormon. If you spend more time in the book of Mormon, you can’t help but grapple with the concept of grace that is all over the book. And so he says that, uh, that, uh, president Benson, uh, kind of a woke concern for grace and that forced us to, to address these things and then we get, uh, into the 1980s and nineties, and we have some, not necessarily leaders at first, but scholars in the church, Stephen Robinson and others who begin to challenge the traditional reading. Uh, and then we have a president Oop Dorf later on, uh, in his famous general conference address on grace, uh, softening, uh, the, the churches, uh, interpretation of the passage in a way that I think opened the door for people to look at it a new and reconsider what it means.
Laura Harris Hales: Oh, I loved what you said about some really recent research by Jared Ludlow as well that helped maybe to steer the discussion a little bit away from contemporary views of the scripture to contextual within the book of Mormon taxed. What did, what did, uh, dr Ludlow say?
Daniel O McClellan: So, uh, yeah, Jared tries to understand this in the context of the book of Mormon and I think what he’s doing here is trying to remove it from the context of what does this mean in regards to our competition with, with evangelical Christianity. And so trying to pull some of the identity politics out of his examination, uh, and he understands all we can do to refer to all the commandments of the law of Moses who refer, uh, that [inaudible] is using that phrase to refer to obedience to the law of Moses. While it in effect and there is some discussion elsewhere about this law of Moses and he uses that as the antecedent to, to understand this passage, which I think is a creative reading. And I don’t say that negatively. Sometimes I say somethings creative as a witness, you’re, you’re dreaming. But I’m, no, I think that’s, that’s a very good use of the scripture to try and understand something difficult contextually rather than how, what does this mean to our group today in relation to other groups?
Laura Harris Hales: Theological analysis does a certain job for a community and that job is to maybe set itself apart or define beliefs, set parameters. How does a literary rhetorical and historical analysis fulfill a different job?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, similar to [inaudible] dr Ludlow did. Uh, I think when we look at it literarily or rhetorically, we’re trying to move away from some of those other contexts that that might influence us in a different direction and try to ask different questions of the texts. Questions about what is the literary genre, for instance, that this text is appealing to all texts, how the genre and they help us understand them. And if we don’t pay attention to the genre, we may lose what the intended meaning is. A rhetorical examination wants to find out what was the intended function of this text? How did the author want or, or even publisher for that matter, uh, want this text to function. Uh, we’re asking different questions and I think we only come to better understand a text by asking questions of it and then going and finding answers. Uh, and for some people, certain questions are gonna, uh, produce better answers than others
Laura Harris Hales: because of the unique nature of the authorship of a book of Mormon. And that’s kind of an understatement. It poses an exceptional challenge to analysis of its writing style. So how do you deal with that situation in your study?
Daniel O McClellan: In the work that I do, we try to help translators preserve some of these elements of Hebraic structures and things like that that are considered evidences of antiquity in the texts so that a reader reading in another language can still have that same experience and still recognize the source of the text. But at the same time it’s not Hebraic all the way through. A lot of it is a thoroughly, thoroughly 19th century English and in reality if anybody is going to understand the English translation, that translation has to reflect their contemporary contexts. If we bracket the question of the source of the source texts that Joseph Smith translated, Joseph Smith’s translation has to function in a specific context and if it is native to that context that maximizes its functionality. In other words, if you take Shakespeare and you put it in a middle school classroom or even even a college classroom, there are going to be a lot of misunderstandings and we already talked about that just in the King James version, Jude one 22 there was a phrase making a difference that was misunderstood because we were applying a 20th century understanding of that phrase.
Daniel O McClellan: If you take Shakespeare out of its native context and you put it somewhere else, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding and so my assumption is that whatever the ultimate source of the rendering that we have and the 1830 edition of the book of Mormon, it was intended for an 1830 audience. Primarily. There can be other intended audiences as well, but it is primarily intended for that audience and so I have to assume that whatever is in there is going to follow the conventions of that time period and this has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the source text is ancient or modern. So I’m not even addressing that question. I’m just saying if I want to understand what this English text that was written down in 1830 means I have to understand how texts in that time period function it. I think it would be nonsense for a phrase that was common in a given time period to be translated into a text in that time period, but in with an opposite meaning or a different meaning intended. In other words, the translation was intended to be understood by the audience into which it was published. And so, and that requires that they apply the conventions and the literary, uh, tropes and all of the, uh, imagery and all of the symbols that were in common use in that time period.
Laura Harris Hales: So you went about looking at the writings of the time period. The first place you looked at was the contemporary dictionary. What did you find?
Daniel O McClellan: Not much help. So, uh, you can find after, and you can find the phrase after all and after all has a related sense but not the exact same sense as this phrase. After all we can do. And so dictionaries were of limited help. But also I’m not a huge fan of dictionaries because they take terms that can mean all kinds of different things and try to reduce them to the smallest set of necessary and sufficient features. And that’s just not how language works. And there are a number of other dynamics associated with why they pick the, the lists of features that they pick that just make dictionaries a starting point but not a, a terminating point. Every time I get into an argument with somebody on Twitter and they say, the dictionary says this, I remind them, dictionaries do not adjudicate meaning it’s just a starting point.
Laura Harris Hales: They don’t, and actually, um, we were having a discussion just within our household. Okay. We do have strange discussions at the dinner table, but from a linguistical point of view, if people are using a word a certain way, it doesn’t matter what the dictionary says. If five years later people are using it a different way, then that is a legitimate way to use that word. Yeah.
Daniel O McClellan: Yeah. And this is why codes work because you can say, I assign this semantic value to this letter, this word, this color, the shape, and you have communication and that’s all that that language does. Uh, but I think in our, in our modernist world, and by modernist, I mean, uh, more enlightenment era than, than 21st century era. We tend to think in binary, black and white terms about meaning and it’s just not how language works.
Laura Harris Hales: You next turn to the new Testament and also intertextual usage in the book of Mormon, of the concept of the unprofitable servant. How did that usage provide insight into the use of after all by Nifae?
Daniel O McClellan: Well, it actually, uh, I w I began to look into some of the contemporary literature from the 18th and 19th century where I could find this phrase after all we can do and variations on it. After all you can do, after all he can do, after all we can do, after all that we can do. Um, and I started to find this phrase unprofitable servant turning up, uh, in a couple of the places where it was used. And so I went back to, uh, it was most familiar to me from Moziah. And I imagine it’s most familiar to most latter day saints from Moziah to where the author says, I say unto you that if you should serve him who was created you from the beginning and is preserving you from day to day by lending you breath, that you may live and move and do according to your own will and even supporting you from one moment to another.
Daniel O McClellan: I say, if you should serve him with all your whole souls, yet he would be unprofitable servants. Now, these texts from the 18th century were not drawing from Mosiah too, though they were drawing from Luke 1710, which says, so likewise ye when he shall have done all those things which are commanded, you say, we are unprofitable servants. We have done that, which was our duty to do. And so I, I recognize that there’s a, uh, a relationship here. Masiah two agrees with, uh, the author of Luke 1710. Basically in this idea that even if we did everything we could possibly do, we are unprofitable servants. We’re not worthy. And this was what these texts that I was finding from the 18th and early 19th century were saying as well, but they were also using this phrase after all we can do in relation to it and so it just kind of light bulb went off that after all we can do seems to have a specific relationship with this concept of grace. And so I realized that there was a linguistic context that this came from. It was not just an incidental use of this phrase in the, in the context of grace,
Laura Harris Hales: after looking at the dictionary and scriptures, you turn to publications. This is where it became super interesting. You looked at people who are read widely, like the most widely read, people like Thomas Paine. What did you find?
Daniel O McClellan: What I found was that these authors were frequently using this phrase after all we can do or after all you can do or they can do in the context of discussions about grace and particularly defending the concept of grace against groups that they perceive to discount grace. So in the earliest literature there was a lot of anti deist rhetoric talking about how the [inaudible] thinks that they can work their way to salvation and all this and it would always come down to something along the lines of, but after all they can do, grace is still the answer. Something like that. And then into the 19th century, there was more anti-Catholic sentiment in these writings, but the, the concept always seemed to be that grace is what saves us. And then there was this phrase that kept turning up after all we can do, but I knew it does not mean that the way that we have traditionally understood it to mean because these are very, very Protestant authors writing very polemical texts aimed at precisely the kind of people that we are accused of being. And so I realized there was a disconnect between how they were using the phrase and how we traditionally understand it.
Laura Harris Hales: I always thought that it was really interesting. You looked at texts that weren’t even religious to see how after all was Yoast and it was clear there that it didn’t mean that you had to do something for something else to occur. Yeah,
Daniel O McClellan: so I pulled one of the examples from uh, an 18, 29 French grammar where it talks about how it labels a different nouns either with S, M or S, F and it reads the former means substantive or noun masculine and the latter substantive or noun feminine. And this, after all that grammarians can do after all the rules that they can give us is the only sure way of learning from books the gender of the French nouns. Now clearly what the author is trying to say is that there is no systematic way to learn the nouns. You just have to memorize this noun is masculine, this noun is feminine. And so the phrase after all that grammarians can do means in spite of all that grammarians can do after all the rules that they can give us or in spite of all the rules they can give us, the only sure way of learning is by memorization. And so I think this is a clear example of a non religious context where this phrase is being used to mean in spite of or despite,
Laura Harris Hales: okay we’re going to do a symbolic drum roll here now. So what did you say decide would be a appropriate synonym for the term after all in the context literarily and rhetorically that it’s used in second new fi.
Daniel O McClellan: I couldn’t find a single example in all the literature I looked at that had the phrase after all X can do that didn’t seem to mean or have to mean despite all X can do. And so I think that has to be the way this phrase would have been understood by someone living in the 18th century or the early 19th century. And I think the inescapable conclusion is that wherever that phrase came from, that was the intended meaning. In other words, second [inaudible] 25 23 ought to be understood to say four, we know that it is by grace that we are saved despite all we can do. In other words, I think it is, it is a pro grace statement. It is saying that grace is the only way, no matter what else you could ever possibly do
Laura Harris Hales: in coming to your conclusion, you favored literary usage over past the logical analysis saying our phrase can only be accurately interpreted according to its usage in those contexts, which is the clear and consistent interpretation to which early informed readers would have appealed. Why?
Daniel O McClellan: I think when we let theological analysis have priority, we’re often more concerned about the outcomes of the argument than about the, than about the merits of the argument. Uh, and so I prioritize literary analysis to just set everything else aside and just say from a purely literary linguistic point of view, how would this have been understood by someone who was completely unaware of all of the theological implications of their readings? Somebody in 1830 picks this up and reads this text and they have some literary chops. They’ve read stuff, they know what’s going on, how are they going to understand it? And I think this is the only way that they could understand it.
Laura Harris Hales: I’ve had quite a while to process your study and think about its implications. I wonder if you would be willing to venture into the speculation with me. Your argument is totally convincing, but so with Stephen Robinson’s, he sold 600,000 copies of believing Christ and Brad Wilcox has sold, I don’t know how many copies of his books on grace, very well written, very convincing. They’ve tackled the topic of the relationship of grace to salvation. Yet we still cannot in our social culture, dissolve the almost magnetic attraction of works to the discussion of salvation. We always need to tack on that, but you need the ordinances, but you need to endure to the end. It is the cautionary disclaimer attached to gospel packaging. I believe personally, I think this is because of the confusion between the concepts of salvation and Xcel. Tation within church pedagogy. What is your take?
Daniel O McClellan: We often talk about salvation, uh, including both justification and sanctification. But if we parse those apart, I think we get closer to what [inaudible] was talking about where he talks about reconciliation to God, which, which I believe is consonant with the biblical notion of justification, that this gets us through the gate and onto the path. And then exaltation is the end result of the rest of that life and that living. And I think because we are concerned with how does this sound in maybe a BYU classroom or how does this sound in a discussion with with an evangelical Christian or how does this sound in a gospel doctrine classroom. There are a lot of other dynamics that influence the words that we use in how we talk about them. But I think one of the benefits of trying to break it down and just ask how would this have been understood is to kind of cut through the, the Gordian knot of all these identity politics, uh, and all these vagaries of the language that we use. I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the question of the relationship of, of works to exaltation slash salvation, but I think if we can give more earnest heed to how people understood this when it was first published in 1830 how Joseph Smith would have understood it when people asked him questions about it. I think that is the best foundation on which to build a soteriology that we can carry with us through the context of the 21st century
Laura Harris Hales: and so teary ology is a doctrine of salvation, right? Correct. Thank you. Thank you for your time, Daniel. This has been a fascinating discussion. I love to all your articles. Are we ever going to see this paper and print? It is with the journal book of Mormon studies right now, so hopefully sometime before the millennium. Excellent. Hopefully in the 2020 issue it comes out about once a year, so we will look for it and I will put links to those other articles in the show notes. Thanks for your time. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Bye.

This podcast is cross-posted with the permission of LDS Perspectives Podcast.

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