Here is a casual review of Joe Spencer's An Other Testament: On Typology (Salt Press, 2012). Short summary: I like Salt Press. I like Joe Spencer. I like the book. I don't like typology.
On its website, Salt Press describes itself as "an independent academic press dedicated to publishing books that engage Mormon texts, show familiarity with the best contemporary thinking, remain accessible to non-specialists, and foreground the continuing relevance of Mormon ideas." The editorial board is a mix of prominent LDS bloggers and LDS academics. The publisher promotes "independent and open publishing," notably by making PDF copies of books available for free download. These are the right people doing the right sort of thing to upgrade the quality of scriptural commentary and discussion available to the general LDS audience. And this is a great publishing model; I hope it continues to thrive. Christmas is coming: buy all three of their books for someone you love.
In the Foreword, Adam Miller praises the book for giving "unrivalled attention to the structural, thematic, and literary details of the Book of Mormon" and for doing "Mormon theology as a speculative, scriptural discipline" (p. ix). I agree that sustained close reading is the best feature of the book. Far too often we Mormons, even Mormon scholars, read our scriptures superficially, building a doctrine or an argument on a verse here, a verse there. Would that I could read a text as closely and as productively as Spencer. I see the book as mostly commentary on scriptural interpretation and not much theology, but maybe this just reflects LDS diffidence toward theology. Tell an LDS leader you read and interpret scripture, they smile; tell an LDS leader you do LDS theology, they get nervous.
Here's how Spencer himself describes the focus of the book in the Preface: "Put simply, this book is about how the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the Book of Mormon" (p. xi). The implicit assumption behind that statement is that if some texts in the Book of Mormon show a way of reading other Book of Mormon texts or biblical texts, then we should certainly adopt that as our way of reading the scriptures. I think that's a questionable assumption. Matthew used a variety of verses from the Hebrew Bible to support his depiction of Jesus Christ as the expected Messiah. Often they are taken out of context and plainly impose on the verse or passage a meaning not present in the original text. Should that be a model for how we read, cite, and use scripture? Here's how Enos (one of the good guys) described his estranged "Lamanite" brethren: "[T]hey were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven ..." (Enos 1:20). Should that be a model for how we view or describe the Lamanites or any other ethnic group? If there is a right way or a better way of reading the Book of Mormon, that approach should stand on its own. If there is a right way to go about reading the Book of Mormon, it is so because one can make an independent argument that it is the right way to go about reading the Book of Mormon, not simply because it derives from the text itself.
The bulk of the book explores in detail how two figures in the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Abinidi, conduct typological readings of Isaiah. Spencer shows that Nephi uses Isaiah "as a kind of template for making sense of Israel's actual historical experience," which is then applied to Nephi's people as "a kind of covenant framework for making sense of their own historical experience" (p. xii-xiii). Abinidi, on the other hand, gives "a strictly Christological reading of Isaiah's writings, one that sharply diverges from Nephi's way of reading the prophet" (p. xiii). Finally, "For both, typology is a question of knowing how to read scripture in a uniquely Christian way ..." (p. xiii).
So a key question to address is whether this "unique Christian way" of reading Old Testament texts is, in fact, a valid approach that Mormons ought to follow. It is certainly a popular Christian approach, going all the way back to the New Testament, as noted above for Matthew. Paul used it, as here at Romans 5:14 (NRSV):
Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.For the last phrase, the NIV has "who was a pattern of the one to come." The KJV has "who is the figure of him that was to come." The underlying Greek word translated as type, pattern, or figure is typos. It is also found at 1 Corinthians 10:6 as typoi, translated as "examples," where it refers to the general historical events of the exodus under Moses. Paul uses it rather Christologically in reference to 10:1-5, and rather generically in reference to 10:7-10.
The problem with typological interpretation is that it is retrospective. It only works looking backwards. It is not a meaning or interpretation that resides in the original text as much as it is a meaning or interpretation that resides in the mind of a later reader, in light of later events or beliefs. You could call that interpretation. Or maybe creative interpretation. Or simply misinterpretation. Spencer does allude to the retrospective nature of typological interpretation when noting Alma the Younger's use of the story of the Lehi party:
As Alma develops it, typology is a question of how events — singular, unpredictable experiences with the divine — interrupt the natural flow of history and so allow for the past to be understood in new, redemptive ways. Put in Alma's own words, typology is a question of allowing a new thought to rework memory, so that it becomes possible to advance in the knowledge of God. (p. xii)
Now it is true that history is best understood retrospectively. Historians write about the past, not the present. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, said Hegel, talking about philosophy, not history. So maybe there's a place in the world for the contemporary practice of retrospective typological interpretation. It would have to be defined in such a way that one can distinguish between valid and invalid typological interpretations. [This has always been a problem for typological and, more broadly, allegorical interpretation.] And valid retrospective typological interpretation has to be distinguishable from mere presentism, the historical fallacy whereby "present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past." To me, typological interpretation just seems like a theological variation of presentism. Spencer recognizes something like this danger: "All too often, Abinadite [typological] readings risk disintegrating into just so many individualistic and ultimately idiosyncratic devotional reveries" (p. 174). Exactly.
Conclusion. Standard disclaimer: you'll get more from the book than from my review, so read the book. I obviously don't like typology or how it is so often used and misused in the Church and in the LDS curriculum, but the author obviously covers a lot more detail in 200 pages than I did in twelve paragraphs, so read the book to get the full story. Spencer describes himself as "a believing Mormon theologian hard at work on scripture," a vanishingly small demographic that deserves support from the much larger population of lazy LDS bloggers and blog readers. So if you have ever complained about the Ensign or the contents of your Sunday School manual, you should buy, read, and engage with books like An Other Testament.
I often give an extended quotation from the author at the end of my reviews, giving the author the last word, so to speak. So here is a paragraph from the end of the book in which Spencer presents a general idea of how his detailed argument translates into a better approach to reading the Book of Mormon. He argues that we need to incorporate Nephi's focus on the Abrahamic covenant and its relevance to our religious community into our reading:
What would a Nephite reading of the Book of Mormon look like? At the very least, it would recognize that the eschatological fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant — in which the book itself plays a central part — is the unifying center of the Book of Mormon. ... A Nephi-like approach to the Book of Mormon would see the Book of Mormon as pointing to its own fulfillment, to the eschatological event in which its own fullest significance will be revealed. The Book of Mormon would thus be read not only as a gathering of texts about the covenant, but as a singular text intertwined, in its very material existence, with the actual fulfillment of the covenant. (p. 174-75)