The Inspired Author’s Intent

Building Our Scholarship to Learn by Study and Also by Faith

Shad Anderson

Shad Anderson, "The Inspired Author's Intent: Building Our Scholarship to Learn by Study and Also by Faith," Religious Educator 23, no. 1 (2022): 12–24.

Shad Anderson ( is a coordinator in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion in Urbana, Illinois.

young woman studying the scripturesWhen we read and interpret what a scripture means to us and use ideas and expressions that would have been completely foreign to the ancient prophet, we many be unintentionally wresting the scriptures. Photo by Carrie Leona Ryan.


In our devotional teaching, we are fairly successful in helping students ask questions about what the scriptures they are studying mean to them. Students asking these types of questions may produce thoughtful insights. But does seeking what a scripture means to a student, devoid of a real understanding of what the ancient author originally intended, do enough to help our students truly engage with and fully access the power of the scriptures in their lives? My purpose with this paper is to make the case that it generally does not. When our students understand the scripture author’s original intent, I believe they are in a better position to have a relevant and revelatory experience with the word of God.

The world in which our students are growing up is different from the world many of us knew in our youth. President M. Russell Ballard has counseled religious educators that “gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church. . . . Today, what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting.” What they need now, “more than at any time in our history, [is] to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony.” He referenced the “timely and timeless counsel” of the Lord that “‘as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith’ [Doctrine and Covenants 88:118].”[1]

Overly simplified accounts of our history have resulted in some negative consequences in the rising generation. Some have found it difficult to cope with some aspects of Church history that they weren’t exposed to in their youth. As former assistant Church historian Richard Turley said, “The problem is not Church history, the problem is not knowing enough Church history. . . . Our problem is getting people to read and understand enough about the history of the Church in order to have the perspective necessary to interpret things.”[2] Thankfully, in addition to prophetic guidance, we now have resources and training from some of the Church’s best scholarship to help us sort through our complicated and nuanced history.[3]

As gospel teachers, are we providing sufficient resources and training to help our students learn by study and faith? Will the rising generation also experience significant faith challenges resulting from misunderstanding scriptures because they didn’t learn how to do the work necessary to understand the inspired author’s intent? Are we preparing them to gain the perspective necessary to interpret the scriptures appropriately?

This paper focuses on assisting students as they seek to understand the intent of an author of a scripture text. As religious educators, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help “youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ” by teaching doctrine and principles in the scriptures “in a way that leads to understanding and edification.”[4] Students can benefit by asking these two questions, often in this order: First, “What did this scripture mean to the inspired author and the original audience?” And second, “What does this scripture mean to me?”

Why Context Matters

First, let’s see what can happen when we do not properly understand an author’s intent. When I was a missionary serving in the Baton Rouge Louisiana Mission, I heard the following story, most likely apocryphal, from two of our district’s missionaries.[5] They had an idea to put their favorite scriptures in the front of a number of copies of the Book of Mormon that they would hand out to potential investigators. They reasoned this would give those individuals a great starting place to begin their study.

They gave one of these copies to a man, taught him a first discussion, and set up a return appointment for later that week. Then they pointed out to him the front cover, where they had placed their favorite scriptures, and invited him to begin there. On their follow-up appointment, the man was very disturbed and hesitant to let the missionaries in again. It took some persuasion for them to get to the bottom of things, and when they did, they discovered a mistake in one of the scripture references. Instead of writing 1 Nephi 3:7, one of the missionaries had written 3 Nephi 3:7.

This is what the man read: “Or in other words, yield yourselves up unto us, and unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works, and become our brethren that ye may be like unto us—not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance” (3 Nephi 3:7).

Confused, he decided to continue to verse 8. “And behold, I swear unto you, if ye will do this, with an oath, ye shall not be destroyed; but if ye will not do this, I swear unto you with an oath, that on the morrow month I will command that my armies shall come down against you, and they shall not stay their hand and shall spare not, but shall slay you, and shall let fall the sword upon you even until ye shall become extinct.”

The missionaries were still chuckling about it when they related the story to me. Although this example is more of a cautionary tale on typos, I relate it simply to illustrate the fact that a scriptural passage, stripped of its context and the author’s intent, can lead to misunderstandings.

Another experience is also illustrative. As a young seminary teacher, I employed the common practice of a daily devotional before the lesson each day, which included a student sharing a scripture and what it meant to them. One day a sophomore shared the following scripture: “And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4).

This student then bore testimony of the gospel and how happy we should all be to know that everyone would be saved. As an inexperienced teacher, I sat puzzling over how I was going to break it to her that she just quoted Nehor, an anti-Christ. Apparently I had not adequately trained my students on how to seek the author’s intent by study and by faith.

Wresting the Scriptures

Repeatedly in the scriptures, we are given a specific warning when it comes to understanding the inspired author’s intent. Peter counseled those who might find the writings of Paul difficult to understand not to “wrest” them “as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). The Greek word used here in Peter’s epistle for “wrest” means to wrench or twist.[6] This seems to be the same sense in which Alma used the word as he spoke to the people of Ammonihah: “The scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction” (Alma 13:20). The priests of Noah had completely misapplied the writings of Isaiah when they questioned Abinadi concerning his prophecies (see Mosiah 12:20). The Lord warned that those who “do wrest the scriptures and do not understand them” can be the cause of “much contention . . . concerning the points of my doctrine” (Doctrine and Covenants 10:63). Wresting the scriptures in these examples seems to be the intentional perversion of the inspired author’s intended meaning.

I am not claiming, however, that the unintentional misunderstanding of scripture coming from a lack of knowing the author’s culture, worldview, or language is the same as wresting the scriptures. I am asserting that the results can be similar. Jacob’s people used the examples of David and Solomon to justify their marital practices (see Jacob 2:23). Oliver Cowdery did “not underst[an]d” when he “took no thought save it was to ask [the Lord]” for the privilege of translating the Book of Mormon (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7). To his son Corianton, Alma explained the misunderstood doctrine of restoration and that “some have wrested the scriptures, and have gone far astray because of this thing” (Alma 41:1). Perhaps even the Pharisees, who honored things like the Sabbath day, might have unintentionally missed the point. This may be why Jesus reminded them that the intent of scripture was to “testify of me” (John 5:39).

Whether it be innocent or on purpose, a misreading or misuse of the inspired author’s intent may become, as Nephi explained, a “stumbling block” (2 Nephi 26:20) that will cause many in the last days to “stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them” (1 Nephi 13:29).

Problematic Premises

“Our objective is to help [our students] understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ.” The primary way we do this is teaching the scriptures “in a way that leads to understanding and edification. We help students fulfill their role in the learning process and prepare them to teach the gospel to others.”[7] Understanding is a prerequisite of edification.

To perform this objective, religious educators are given a learning pattern in Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion.[8] This pattern begins with understanding context and content as the foundation of a learning experience. Following this is the work of identifying, understanding, and feeling the truth and importance of doctrine and principles through analyzing and pondering them, personally experiencing them, and bearing testimony of them. Finally, the pattern concludes with student application of the truths discovered. According to this pattern, a foundational step to our study of the scriptures begins with a proper understanding of what the inspired author intended before we can appropriately move to personal application. Yet too often this crucial first step is misunderstood or misapplied. In my experience, I have witnessed the following false dichotomy:

  1. Understanding context and content is the most important thing we do in the gospel classroom and should therefore take up the greatest amount of lesson time.
  2. Understanding context and content is only a means to the end of identifying, understanding, feeling, and applying principles. Therefore, it should be done as quickly as possible.

I feel a better approach is found somewhere in between these two extreme positions. If we spend the entire learning experience discussing only the world of the inspired author, we may lose most students who are unable to see its relevance in their personal lives. However, if we hurry through the context, we could end up treating the inspired author’s intent like the sand of a metaphorical beach that is the fodder to be cleared away in an effort to discover the real jewels.[9] This can leave many students unable to have a rich and revelatory experience in their own scripture study.

Another difficulty arises from a general assumption about scriptural interpretation. Some have adopted the premise that everything you need to know about the scriptures is found only within the scriptures. This idea may have had its beginnings during the Reformation when Martin Luther issued one of many critiques of the Catholic Church. In an attempt to release Christians from their reliance on a priest to understand the scriptures, he taught the concept of sola scriptura, which basically means that all you need to follow God and achieve salvation is the scriptures.[10]

When it comes to understanding the context and an author’s intent, we can often benefit from scholarship to understand the appropriate worldviews, cultures, and languages involved. As one historian noted, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”[11] Two biblical scholars summarized it this way: “To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs. . . . Yet we hardly notice. . . . We tend to read Scripture in our own when and where.”[12] Our own handbook explains that “to understand [the inspired author’s] writings, teachers and students should mentally ‘step into their world’ as much as possible to see things as the writer saw them.”[13]

As we study the scriptures, we often unknowingly use our own cultures, worldviews, and biases as an interpretive lens. The problem is compounded by the fact that the writers of scripture do not often explain their own worldview and culture themselves. This is because many things about culture “go without saying.” When reading an ancient author who is writing to an ancient audience, using expressions and idioms at home in an ancient setting, and leaving out generally understood details, we as modern readers may completely miss the author’s point.[14] Similarly, when we read and interpret what a scripture means to us and use ideas and expressions that would have been completely foreign to the ancient prophet, we may be unintentionally wresting the scriptures.[15]

A Gospel Teacher Who Seeks Learning by Study and Faith

President Ballard noted the unique challenges our students face in this information age, counseling that “our curriculum at [past] time[s], though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” He also declared that times have changed and that we, as gospel teachers, must be better. His main point in this talk was about preparing students to faithfully acquire spiritual knowledge as they face the faith-threatening information all around them. For the purposes of this paper, the divine strategy he employs for his topic also applies to ours when he says that “the Lord provided this timely and timeless counsel to you teachers: ‘And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; . . . seek learning, even by study and also by faith’ [Doctrine and Covenants 88:118].”[16]

President Ballard later advocated using both prophetic and scriptural sources as well as the work of experts and scholars.[17] He exhorted religious educators to understand both the issues and the current research. He then invited religious educators to “help students by teaching them what it means to combine study and faith as they learn. Teach them by modeling this skill and approach in class.[18] What could this look like in both a teacher’s preparation and student involvement within the classroom setting?

Example: Doctrine and Covenants 123

Recently I was discussing the issue of the author’s intent with a colleague who currently works as a seminary principal in Utah. He brought up Doctrine and Covenants 123 in a conversation with a faculty member. He asked what the faculty member, a veteran teacher, was going to teach from this section, and he excitedly shared that he was going to bring out his old, worn-out pair of mission shoes. The discussion he planned was going to be about wasting and wearing out our lives in sharing the gospel. The principal then raised the question “Is section 123 about missionary work?” A closer reading of the section through the lens of “What did this mean to the original audience?” was enlightening.

The first six verses are clear. The Saints were to catalog their losses and the abuses they suffered in Missouri. Joseph Smith promised in verse 6 that if the Saints would do this and present reports of their experiences to government officials, then the Lord would come out of his hiding place (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:1).

Within verses 7–11 of section 123, the Prophet expressed repeatedly an imperative duty the Saints owed to various persons and groups. Yet, characteristic of Joseph’s writing style, impressively long sentence structures obscure what the imperative duty was.

The reader doesn’t encounter the actual imperative duty until the “therefore” in verse 13. What was the Saints’ duty? To “waste and wear out [their] lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness.” Is that what missionaries do? If we are to understand the author’s intent to his original audience, we must not lose the thought from the first six verses. The “hidden things of darkness” are the abuses and losses the Saints suffered in Missouri. The mention of “many” people who are “kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” in verse 12 refers to the general public who were unaware of what really happened to the Saints in Missouri. The Saints were instructed to attend to the reports of their losses “with great earnestness” (verse 14). The reports would help the good ship Zion be kept “workways with the wind and the waves” (verse 16), and the great things of “futurity, pertaining to the saints,” depended on the reports (verse 15).

Why would making these reports “waste and wear out [their] lives”? (verse 13). Perhaps because it would require them to again open wounds they were trying desperately to heal, to forget things they likely wanted to forget. Why was it such an act of faith to “cheerfully do all things that lie in [their] power” before they would be able to “stand still, with the upmost assurance, to see the salvation of God”? (verse 17). It might be because what happened to them was traumatic. They didn’t have the language to describe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) back then, but almost certainly many of them were experiencing it. And yet here the Lord directs his people to face these difficult things head on, write about them in detail, and then present them to the world. He requires all this before he will help them move on to the next great chapter of Church history.

This new perspective from Joseph’s original intent to his audience was enlightening to the veteran teacher. He was still able to discuss missionary work with his students. This is an obviously relevant way to apply the counsel in verses 12–17. But first asking, “What did this mean to the original audience?” enabled the teacher and his class to explore first the difficult things the Lord asked these early Saints to accomplish before exploring the types of things the Lord may want us to painfully confront as we seek to bring “to light all the hidden things of darkness” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:13). Students can see more clearly that we are to be cheerful as we try to help those who are “kept from the truth” (verse 12) of what we believe, who we are, and what our experience is as Latter-day Saints.

Training Our Students

As a trainer of early-morning seminary teachers, I can hear the questions they might ask in my mind. “Will it ever be possible for our students to discover, through their own study, the context and author’s intent for themselves? Do teachers even have the kind of time required to train students on something like this? Is it important to invest that time toward training students in the first place when it means less coverage in the lesson materials?” My answer to all these questions is an emphatic yes! As President Ballard stated, teaching this process is part of the opportunity and responsibility of a religious educator.[19] So where can a teacher begin?

“The best books”

When the Lord instructed us to teach one another diligently, he directed us to use the “best books” for seeking learning by study and faith (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). What are those “best books”? Naturally, we begin with the scriptures. As in my example above, slowing down the study process and seeking to apply the lens of what the scripture block would have meant to the original audience was enough to provide important insights for further application.

We can also add the Gospel Library app and the official Church website, which provide easy access to the teachings of prophets, correlated curriculum, and gospel scholarship.[20] Additionally, The Joseph Smith Papers are an incredible source for the early history of the Restoration.[21] A little time together in class on these sites may be necessary to familiarize students so they can utilize these tremendous resources.[22]

Other helpful resources that bear mentioning are the Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center,[23] the BYU Studies journal,[24] and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship,[25] all of which could be included in the Lord’s definition of the “best books” we could consult in our search for learning by study and faith. BYU’s Scripture Citation Index[26] and General Conference Corpus[27] are also useful and reputable tools. They help you discover what prophets have taught and how they have used the scriptures over time in their conference addresses. It is the prerogative of the Lord’s anointed prophets, seers, and revelators to reappropriate scripture passages from another setting and prophetic intention and liken them to our own day and situation.[28] There are also additional organizations like the Interpreter Foundation,[29] Book of Mormon Central,[30] Doctrine and Covenants Central,[31] Pearl of Great Price Central,[32] and FAIR (Faithful Answers, Informed Response)[33] that provide possible resources. It is important to realize that not everything contained in these possible sources are of equal value and that teachers and students alike must exercise wisdom both in the sources they use and in their use of those sources. These efforts by dedicated teachers and scholars create numerous potential learning experiences to help students learn scripture-author intent by study and faith.


President Russell M. Nelson has declared that “in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” Earlier in the same talk he stated, “Nothing opens the heavens quite like the combination of increased purity, exact obedience, earnest seeking, [and] daily feasting on the words of Christ.”[34] The prophetic call to hear the voice of Christ includes our earnest seeking and daily feasting in the scriptures. Empowering our students to seek earnestly the scripture author’s intent is part of the revelatory process needed to survive spiritually in these last days.

President Ballard has reminded us that “more than at any time in our history, your students . . . need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ.”[35] Religious educators can be a part of students’ lasting conversion and lifelong commitment to the Savior as they help students seek context and the inspired author’s intent. In an age of ceaseless distraction, incessant noise, and contradicting information, students will benefit from learning what inspired authors and earlier prophets had to say to their people and what the Savior, through these authors, has to say to us and our students today. All of us will be able to cut through the worldly noise and find the Redeemer as we seek learning by study and also by faith.


[1] M. Russell Ballard, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century” (evening with a General Authority, February 26, 2016), 1, 3.

[2] Richard Turley, personal interview with author, March 8, 2021.

[3] Some examples include the Gospel Topics Essays,; Revelations in Context (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016),; and the evening with a General Authority devotionals,

[4] Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), x.

[5] This particular story may have been “borrowed” by these missionaries, since I have since heard it elsewhere. It seems to be another example of mission folklore that tends to get passed around in the Church. See the following link to a Facebook post that highlights the same error:

[6] According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, wrest means “to pull, force, or move by violent wringing or twisting movements.” Merriam-Webster, s.v. “wrest,” accessed January 4, 2022, The Greek word streblo’o means “to wrench,” “to torture,” or “to [figuratively] pervert.” See James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, as found in

[7] Gospel Teaching and Learning, x.

[8] See Gospel Teaching and Learning, 39.

[9] See “Parable of the Gems” (video), 6:47,

[10] “Sola Scriptura meant Scripture was the supreme authority over the church. The Bible ruled reason and tradition because it alone was infallible as God’s word. All other authorities (including church leadership) were fallible and must submit to Scripture.” Marty Foord, “The Real Meaning of Sola Scriptura,” The Gospel Coalition, August 25, 2017,

[11] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (New York: New York Review Books, 2002), 1.

[12] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 11.

[13] Gospel Teaching and Learning, 24.

[14] See Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture, 12.

[15] An example of this can be seen in the following verse from Revelation: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. . . . Because thou art lukewarm, . . . I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15–16). A possible misreading of these verses is to equate “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm” with a particular spiritual condition. Doing so could set up a misunderstanding of God’s preferences—would he really rather have us be one of two extremes instead of in a lukewarm middle? But a quick ancient geography and geology lesson might be helpful. This scriptural injunction was to the Laodicean Saints. To their northwest was a city called Hierapolis, which was known for its natural hot springs still visible today. At about the same distance from Laodicea in the opposite direction was the city Colossae, which boasted a cold freshwater spring. Laodicea had neither of these advantages. In fact, all its water had to be transported via aqueduct, making the water warm and tepid on arrival. No one gets too excited about lukewarm water. And maybe the Lord isn’t too excited about unremarkable discipleship. See Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture, 9–11.

[16] Ballard, “Responsibilities of CES Teachers,” 3, 1.

[17] See Ballard, 3–5. President Ballard said: “This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself. I seek help from my Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and from others with expertise in fields of Church history and doctrine.” Ballard, 3.

[18] Ballard, 2; emphasis mine.

[19] President Ballard asked, “What are your opportunities and responsibilities as CES teachers in the 21st century? Obviously, you must love the Lord, His Church, and your students. You must also bear pure testimony sincerely and often. Additionally, more than at any time in our history, your students also need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ. . . . Through your diligent efforts to learn by study and faith, you will be able to help your students learn the skills and attitudes necessary to distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.” Ballard, “Responsibilities of CES Teachers,” 3.

[20]; and


[22] For a more thorough training on the use of these resources, see chapter 3 of Anthony Sweat, Seekers Wanted: The Skills You Need for the Faith You Want (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019).






[28] See 1 Nephi 19:23 and Doctrine and Covenants 128:18, where both Nephi and Joseph Smith mention using scriptures in a certain way intentionally to fulfill their prophetic roles.






[34] Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” Ensign, May 2018, 96, 95.

[35] Ballard, “Responsibilities of CES Teachers,” 3.