An Approach to Studying the Scriptures
The primary sources for studying our doctrines are the four Standard Works.
Also helpful are inspired commentaries on the scriptures both from prophets of our
dispensation and from credible church scholars.
Each of us studies the scriptures in some fashion from time to time during our
lifetime. I have observed various techniques for scripture study among church
members. I believe some are more effective than others. How might we best take
advantage of the scriptures in our quest to learn the doctrines? How might we most
effectively utilize the time we have available for our study of the scriptures?
The purpose of this chapter is to provide you with suggestions for studying the
scriptures. I have found these to be edifying, effective, and even fun. Perhaps I should
have entitled it, “How to Have More Fun Studying the Scriptures.” I have found the
study of the scriptures to be most exciting, satisfying, and a true blessing in my life.
The Watershed Moment
In 1973 I had a simple and non-dramatic experience that turned out to be a
watershed moment in my life relative to my own scripture study. At the time I was in my
early 30s and deeply involved in a cardiology fellowship. I had completed medical
school, a year of internship, and a residency in the specialty of internal medicine. I was
pursuing subspecialty training in the field of adult cardiology. I was in the habit of
getting up early to study for two or three hours before going to the hospital.
One Sunday, a sacrament meeting speaker challenged the congregation to read
the Book of Mormon. I decided to take him up on his challenge. My plan was to arise
one half hour earlier than usual to read a chapter of the Book of Mormon. Up to that
time, I had often read isolated verses and chapters of the book, but I had read it from
cover to cover only twice, both while I was serving a mission in England.
The next morning, I arose as planned and sat down to start from page one. “I,
Nephi, having been born of goodly parents . . .” I hadn’t even completed the first page
when I was struck by an overwhelming emotion that brought me to a sudden stop. It
was a feeling of disgust.
First, I realized that my understanding of the Book of Mormon was sadly
deficient. Here I was, a professional in one aspect of my life, and a third grader in
another. How could I ever hope to ever teach other adults from and about the Book of
Mormon when I knew so little about it?
I was also struck with the substantial differences between my approach to
studying cardiology and the way I was setting out to study the Book of Mormon. My
studies in cardiology were intense, organized, and focused. They had to be. They were vital to me. As I studied cardiology, I was frequently reminded of the importance of what
I was studying. I was not studying just to pass a test. This knowledge was to become
the essence of my professional identity. It was to become the basic tool by which I
solved the problems of people who needed help. People’s lives were to depend on my
fund of knowledge and my application of it. I would utilize my knowledge of cardiology
to care for patients for the rest of my professional life. With it I would make important - sometimes even life and death — decisions.
My plan for reading the scripture that morning, however, was much different. It
was casual, informal, and even a bit hurried. I felt some pressure to complete my
reading of the one chapter. I just didn’t have time to “dawdle over” the scriptures. I
couldn’t afford to become diverted. I had to finish in thirty minutes. I had other “more
pressing” matters to attend to.
On that very first page of the Book of Mormon, I had encountered such phrases
as “learning of my father,” “mysteries of God,” “a record of my proceedings,” and “the
language of my father.” What did these phrases really mean? I wasn’t sure. I read
about King Zedekiah. Who exactly was he? When did he live? How did he fit in? I
wasn’t even confident I knew what “goodly” meant!
The Re-Reading Technique
I have commented previously on the scripture study technique used by many of
us in the Church, and I have referred to it as the “re-reading” technique. Many of us
begin with the first verse of any given book of scripture and then read, at intervals and
as time permits, through to the end. Our daily reading is often accomplished with
deference to the pressures of that day’s commitments—“a chapter,” or “twenty to thirty
minutes.” In this way, we eventually complete the book. Then, some months or years
later, we repeat the process.
This is not a bad technique for scripture study. But, as applied by many of us, it
has some weaknesses. It does not, for example, lend itself to identifying enigmatic
verses and then exploring for answers and solutions. Also, the urgency to complete the
daily commitment often displaces leisurely, often helpful, pondering.
On that particular morning in 1973, I was at least guilty of the habit of using the
re-reading technique. Moreover, I had added a few unproductive embellishments of my
own. I usually read scripture without any agenda and did so casually, comfortably, and
sometimes even sleepily. My mind often tended to wander. I skipped over the things I
didn’t readily understand. Not only did I not have time to pursue them, but I wouldn’t
have known where to look for answers. I knew I didn’t understand all I was reading, yet
I had stopped asking questions. After all, I was reading mainly to satisfy my daily
commitment and not to master the book.
The Sticky Platform
Surely, I thought, there must be a more effective way to study the Book of
Mormon. The immediate juxtaposition of studying cardiology and studying the
scriptures had precipitated my distress. What was it about my studies in cardiology that
made them so much more interesting, exciting, and effective? I already knew that when
one is presented a new fact, something not previously understood, it often does not
make complete sense. It will not be long remembered and will not become part of one’s
permanent “body of knowledge” unless there is a place to “put” it—a place where it fits.
There must exist in the mind a related body of knowledge that can serve as the
foundation or framework for storing the new concept. The new fact must fit logically into
that established framework. I also knew that any fact I encountered for which I had no
particular background or platform is both uninteresting and evanescent. I simply would
not retain it. It would be of no permanent benefit to me. On the other hand, a new fact
that fits into what I already know is interesting, exciting, and likely to become
permanently mine. It will expand my base of knowledge and understanding.
During my first two years in medical school, I had worked hard to master human
anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. I became conversant with each of the body’s
organs. I knew the normal anatomy of the heart, its muscular chambers, its valves, its
arteries and veins, and its electrical system. When I studied during my cardiology
fellowship, I had to make certain everything I read made sense. It had to fit logically into
the body of knowledge I already had about the heart. It had to fit onto a framework
already established in my mind.
I call these mental frameworks “sticky platforms.” They are sticky because when
they are firmly fixed in one’s mind, additional knowledge readily sticks to them and will
be retained permanently. When one encounters facts closely related to the items
already on the sticky platforms, it is as though one were attracted to these additional
facts like a magnet. They are fascinating, and will readily be added to one’s permanent
store of knowledge.
I have often maintained there is “good news and bad news” about sticky
platforms. The good news is that they are a most effective way to learn and acquire a
truly functional knowledge of a subject. The bad news is that they cannot be firmly
established and firmly fixed in the mind without real effort and work. They require
didactic, repetitive studying, forgetting, and re-studying. They even require memorizing.
The concept of sticky platforms applies equally to secular and scriptural knowledge.
Terms often associated with reading scripture include “study,” “prayer,” “pondering,” and
“feasting.” Perhaps these activities should be applied to our establishing sticky
platforms for the scriptures.
I initially wondered where I might best begin to develop sticky platforms for the
Book of Mormon. After all, it is a complex book. As I wondered, it occurred to me I
didn’t even have a good grasp of the story line of the book, I did not know the basic
history, characters, events, and places. I was fairly comfortable with 1 Nephi and the
early parts of 2 Nephi. My grasp of the book began to slip rapidly as I got into the Isaiah
passages in 2 Nephi 12-24 and beyond. I vaguely remembered that there were lands in
the book: Zarahemla, Nephi, Bountiful, and Desolation. What were their locations
relative to each other? What was the significance of each? Wasn’t there more than
one prophet named Nephi? Were there two? Were there three? Who were they? How
did they fit together? And what about the two Mosiahs, the two Almas, and the two
Helamans? Was I clear on all of these personalities and how they interrelated? Clearly
I was not.
I committed myself that very morning to a “remedial” program. I would try to
recover my dignity and salvage the remains of a previously careless, neglectful
approach. Instead of just reading the book, I would try to accomplish something. I
would not necessarily recommend to others what I did over the subsequent year, but it
was something I badly needed. I decided to catch up on the basics.
I spent that year recording a detailed, hand-written (computers were not in
common usage in that day) sequential account of the characters, places, and events of
the book. I wanted to learn the “story” of the book. This story line could form one type
of sticky platform. When I later transcribed that record, it was over one-hundred typewritten
pages. I still have it today. I’ve read it several times and still refer to it from time
to time. Since that morning, I have tried to study the Book of Mormon and other
scriptures in a manner more akin to the way I study medicine.
Admittedly, we don’t read the Book of Mormon primarily to learn history or to
enjoy a story line. Instead, we study the book for inspiration, for guidance in our lives,
for its saving doctrines, for spiritual enrichment, and for a strengthened testimony. But
the history or story of the book can serve as a practical, useful sticky platform that
provides the student with confidence and makes all the other features of the book easier
For example, the concept of the Lord’s “infinite atonement” is more readily
available to you, and it becomes “yours,” if you are able to recall that Amulek discussed
it while preaching to the apostate Zoramites in Alma 34. If we desire to brush up on the
concept of “agency,” it is helpful to know that we need only to turn to 2 Nephi chapter 2
wherein father Lehi is counseling his son Jacob. And who can forget the powerful
lecture on chastity given to Corianton by his father Alma in Alma 39 following
Corianton’s indiscretion with the harlot Isabel?
The creation of sticky platforms is an ongoing project for me. I would not
necessarily suggest you use the same sticky platforms I have used. Rather, you should
develop your own.
I am certainly no expert in the scriptures. I’ve spent a lifetime in the full-time
practice of medicine. But I have managed to maintain an avocation of scripture study.
This has contributed greatly not only to my understanding of the scriptures but to my
testimony of the restored Gospel. Below, I describe a few “sticky platforms” I have
utilized. I hope they might provide a spark and nucleus for some of your own ideas.
Book of Mormon History Diagram
A relatively simple historical diagram illustrates the parallel chains of events
occurring simultaneously in the lands of Zarahemla and Nephi. This diagram includes
all major events occurring in the Book of Mormon from 1 Nephi 18 through Alma 42. It
can be memorized rather easily. It is surprising to learn how many stories in the Book
of Mormon will “hang” on this sticky platform. See the illustration, Book of Mormon
Hypothetical Map of Book of Mormon Lands
I am a visual learner. As we read the Book of Mormon, it is helpful to be able to
visualize the relative locations of the lands, cities, rivers, and other geographical
features of the book. To help in this I have created a “hypothetical map” based on the
text of the book. It is intended only to provide relative locations of the geographical
features of the Book of Mormon story. See the illustration titled Hypothetical Map of
Book of Mormon Lands.
It is fun to recount two Book of Mormon stories while following along on this
The first occurred just prior to the rescue of the people of Limhi by Ammon and
his party (Mosiah 8:7-11; 21:25-28). Limhi and his people had grown weary living under
the thumb of the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. They wanted to return to Zarahemla.
A practical problem arose when it was learned that no one among Limhi’s people knew
the way back to Zarahemla. Limhi organized an exploration party of 43 men to sneak
out of the land of Nephi and find Zarahemla. Then they were to return and rescue Limhi
and his people. They traveled north, through the narrow strip of wilderness toward the
land of Zarahemla. Instead of finding the city of Zarahemla, however, they became lost
and passed right on by. They traveled across the land of Zarahemla and across the
land Bountiful through the narrow pass that led to the land Desolation. There they
“discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also
covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been
peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel” (Mosiah 8:8).
They also found the twenty-four plates of the prophet Ether. They then returned to
Limhi by the same route. I can just imagine them telling Limhi: “We have good news
and bad news. The good news is that we found the city of Zarahemla. The bad news is
that everyone there is dead.” They had not realized they had passed by Zarahemla,
and instead had reached the land Desolation.
The second story begins with the destruction of the 1,005 Anti-Nephi-Lehies by
the Lamanite army in Alma 24. The sons of Mosiah, Ammon and his brothers, had
succeeded in converting many of the Lamanites. Others of the Lamanites were angry
at both the missionaries and their converted brother Lamanites. An army of these angry
Lamanites attacked the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. This latter group had taken a vow never
again to fight in war. Thus, they laid themselves prone and allowed the attacking army
to kill many of them. The attacking Lamanites were frustrated and furious at themselves
for killing their brothers. In their own perverse way, their anger was directed at the
Nephite people in general. They determined to travel to the Nephite land and make war
on the Nephites. In those days, there were at least two possible routes by which one
might travel from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla. One was the direct route
that Limhi’s expedition had taken, through the narrow strip of wilderness. The other
route was to make a “flank attack” and travel toward the “sea west” and take the narrow
western coastal plain. By this route they would travel north until the natural terrain
would permit their entry into the land of Zarahemla via a mountain pass. This Lamanite
army took this latter route. On entering Zarahemla, they attacked and annihilated the
first Nephite city they encountered which happened to be Ammonihah (Alma 16; 25:2-
3). It is notable that Alma and Amulek had previously pronounced a curse against that
wicked city, warning them they would be destroyed by Lamanites (see Alma 9:18-19).
How are we counseled to study the Book of Mormon?
We are seldom counseled to simply read the book, much less read it casually or
hurriedly. President Benson counseled us repeatedly to “study,” “pray,” and “ponder.”
Nephi himself in the Book of Mormon advised us to “feast” upon the scriptures (2 Nephi
32:3). Is it important to understand everything we read? After all, can’t the Lord allow
us to find pertinent messages in the scriptures without our having to understand
everything? Can’t the Lord provide us the personal revelation we need just because we
are reading in the scriptures? Isn’t it our commitment to read that really counts? Is the
meaning of the scripture itself all that important?
An instructive anecdote was related by Brother Robert J. Matthews. His account
illustrates an important flaw in the apostate view of scripture.
In March 1978, a prominent Lutheran minister participated in a
symposium on the Brigham Young University campus. He had accepted
the task of comparing the Savior’s sermon in 3 Nephi (chapters 12 through
14) with the Sermon on the Mount found in the book of Matthew (chapters
5 through 7). By the tools and procedures of textual criticism, he
discovered several interesting differences between these two sermons.
He gave an astute and perceptive analysis. He said that compared to the
New Testament, 3 Nephi is much clearer, the Savior’s teachings are more
precise; they are stronger, bolder, and offer considerably more information
than can be gained from the New Testament. He found also that the
personality of Jesus is more commanding in 3 Nephi than in the New
Testament. He noted that in the New Testament Jesus speaks as a
teacher, but in 3 Nephi he speaks as a God.
As I listened, I thought it was remarkable that he had recognized
these things, and I supposed that he was speaking with favor toward the
Nephite account. However, as he continued, he tried to discredit the Book
of Mormon by saying that new religions and cults always have an
insatiable thirst for answers and for knowledge, whereas spiritual maturity
brings a more ascetic view. He preferred the New Testament to 3 Nephi
because it was not so definitive and allowed him more choice of
interpretation. He acknowledged that the New Testament was less clear,
and less dramatic, but felt that was the beauty of it. It did not seem to
occur to him that the New Testament had suffered at the hands of
copyists, translators, and textual critics and so was now only a shadow of
its former self (“Jesus the Savior in 3 Nephi” in The Book of Mormon: 3
Nephi 9-30, This is My Gospel, 34-35).
It is apparent that this Lutheran minister regarded the scriptures, less to be
understood in their details, and more to serve as mere “ambiguous catalysts.”
Does the Lord Intend That the Scriptures Be Plainly Understood by Man? Is the “Ambiguous Catalyst” Theory Valid?
The reasons why our current Bible is often interpreted with different meanings
has been frequently discussed. There have obviously been serious difficulties in
precisely defining the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ when the Bible is used as
the primary resource. There is a distressing lack of “plainness” in our Bible.
The prophet Nephi described what would happen to the Bible between the time
of Christ’s mortal ministry and this last dispensation:
And after these plain and precious things were taken away it goeth
forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the
nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast
seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest—
because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out
of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of
men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of
these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an
exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great
power over them (1 Nephi 13:29).
As a result of the ambiguity of the Bible regarding many points of doctrine, a
dangerous, apostate concept has grown up and flourished among some students of the
scriptures. These students have come to believe that the scriptures were never
intended by God to provide plain, simple and absolute explanations. Rather they were
meant to be merely “ambiguous catalysts” to generally stimulate our thinking about
spiritual things. They feel each individual reading the scriptures should seek his own
individual interpretations. Too much concreteness or clear explanation might restrict an
individual’s ability to perceive his own personal interpretations.
Carried to its extreme, this ridiculous concept may be easily shown to be illogical,
even ludicrous. According to the “ambiguous catalyst” theory, for example, an individual
who desires to study the scripture would need no prior preparation. He would require
no knowledge of the historical, geographic, cultural, or linguistic aspects of the biblical
world. Nor would he need to know anything about the writings of the ancient prophets.
He would not even have to study what other authorities have had to say about certain
scriptures. For him a study and interpretation of the scripture is a purely individual
endeavor. If he should come to a verse of scripture, written by the prophet Isaiah, for
example, that makes no sense to him at all; he can stir around in Isaiah’s “word salad”
and garner any meaning that suits him at the moment. He shouldn’t be concerned. If
the Lord wanted to reveal any meaning to him from that group of unintelligible words, he
The Book of Mormon and the other scriptures are not divination tools. They are
intended by the Lord to be understood plainly, without ambiguity. The prophet Nephi
wrote: “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God
work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding;
for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2
Nephi 31:3). Learning something of the life and historical setting of the prophet Isaiah,
for example, can be invaluable in understanding his writings. It may also be helpful to
read the commentary of inspired prophets and scholars who have made a study of the
life, times, and language of Isaiah.
There is another reason the “ambiguous catalyst” theory is potentially hazardous.
The unprepared individual may never become emotionally attached to the scriptures.
He will always regard the study of them as more of an exercise in abstraction. They
cease to become words written by real, feeling, and thinking prophets whom he knows
Additional Tips for Studying the Scriptures
May I offer three additional ideas that may make your study of the scriptures
more fun and productive:
Write articles on topics and keep a permanent record on your computer.
- When you encounter a specific doctrinal topic you desire to study, write yourself an
article that logically summarizes all that you know on the topic. This article may at first
be quite brief and simple. Subsequently, as you encounter scriptural passages or
commentary on that topic, you should read your existing article (to remind yourself what
“you already know” on the topic). Study the scripture or commentary and amend or
update your article to include those new understandings just acquired. Thus your article
constantly reflects your most recent understanding. You may find you need frequently
to add or subtract materials as your understanding increases. Your article becomes an
ongoing, dynamic, renewable, and updatable project.
These articles should be permanently kept and organized on a computer so as to
be always readily accessible to you. Over the months and years, these articles can be
a most valuable resource. The chapters of this book had their origins in precisely this
Utilize supplemental materials. - Have you ever noticed that those scriptural
passages most meaningful to you are ones you have taken extra time to study and
ponder? You may have included them in church talk, for example. In preparation for
your talk, you doubtless searched out commentary or sermons on the passage from
apostles and prophets or from credible church scholars.
It is vital to study the scriptures themselves. It is also enriching to seek out other
good quality materials. One must be selective, but credible supplemental materials may
be found by reading church magazines, conference talks, or books. An organization
that has been especially helpful to me was formerly called the Foundation for Ancient
Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.). It is now called The Neal A. Maxwell
Institute for Religious Scholarship and is closely associated with Brigham Young
University. The books and articles produced by the scholars associated with this
organization are a rich source of credible gospel learning.
Ask questions. -
When one encounters a new concept, it rarely fits perfectly into
one’s existing body of knowledge. There are often rough edges that keep it from fitting
perfectly. The best way to make it fit is to ask questions of someone who knows. The
right questions, once answered, often result in a perfect fit. Then the new concept is
incorporated permanently onto existing body of knowledge, your “sticky platform.” A
close friend recently asked me if I had ever considered using “framework” rather than
“platform.” After all, he reasoned, “platform” is two dimensional and “framework” is
three. I believe this is a valid suggestion.
The beginning of learning is recognition and acknowledgment of ignorance. You
must admit your failure to understand. You must then formulate the question. You
must constantly be on the look out for words, phrases, concepts you do not fully
understand. The individual student who maintains a constant willingness to ask
questions tends to become acutely aware of the line between what he understands and
what he does not. The mental boundary at the edge of what he truly understands
becomes clearer and more sharply defined. It is as though he has already formulated
the questions pertinent to those concepts beyond the limits of his understanding. When
a new idea comes along, he has been waiting for it. He readily asks the questions and
delights in assimilating the new concept into his platform of understanding.
I maintain that if you were to go to any page of our four standard works, you
would find a word, phrase, or concept you do not clearly understand. A most effective
way to learn is to seek a more complete understanding of these items. This can be
sought in cross references, the Topical Guide, the Bible Dictionary, or in outside
materials. There may not be sufficient time remaining in life for you to get through all of
the scriptures in this manner. But, every individual instance of seeking and then finding
a more thorough understanding is a significant victory. It allows you to understand that
one thing. It also will make it easier to understand other things as well.
Each of us needs to be willing to seek the help of someone else with more
experience when we get stumped. You may not receive a clear answer. But, often
simply discussing questions with someone else, regardless of their experience is
helpful. You may facilitate one another. At least two people will be looking for the
answer to your question and not just you alone.
We do not study the Book of Mormon or any other book of scripture to learn of its
history, its geography, or particulars about its origins. We study it to acquire a spiritual
witness that the book is true. We study so that the Spirit might teach us spiritual truths
and witness to us the eternal perspectives of this mortal experience and of the life to
come. Perhaps most importantly, we study it to allow the Spirit to reveal to us our
Savior Jesus Christ. We can come to truly know him only through the influence of the
Spirit received by personal revelation. The Spirit is unwilling or unable to provide us
such a witness out of thin air. He can witness to us more easily when we ourselves are
“studying,” “pondering,” “praying,” and “feasting” in our own personal quest. And when
we come to truly understand the logic of a concept, the Spirit can more easily bear
testimony of it to our soul.
I readily acknowledge there are important implications of the Lord’s command for
us to study the scriptures (John 5:39) that I simply do not fully understand. There are
benefits and blessings that come to those who study the scriptures. These far exceed
those of enhanced mental retention, comprehension, and facility in utilizing them. When
we want to talk with God, we pray. When we want him to talk to us, we study the
scriptures. If you want the Lord to eventually have his way with you, then commit to a
long term habit of studying the scriptures.
it purports to be. I cannot tell you how many times, as I’ve been studying the
book, I’ve unexpectedly been flooded with that feeling I have come to know as the
whispering and confirmation of the Spirit. May I also tell each of you that I have learned
to know my Savior through my study of the Book of Mormon. I love him and long to be
in his presence one day. May each of us commit to never “arrive” at an understanding
of the Book of Mormon, but rather to strive ceaselessly to ever-strengthen our
understanding of it, and hence our spiritual witness of it.
- Michael J. Preece