I heard a lesson on Isaiah in Sunday school and the manual gave what was to me a surprising interpretation of a scripture. I'm trying to understand the scriptures in Isaiah, (praying included). Having someone actually tell me exactly what it means (assuming the excerpt from the manual is approved by the apostles) like that is a dream come true.

I remember hearing in seminary that one of the roles of the apostles is to interpret the scriptures. Is that right? Are they the final authority? If so, is there some book or reference guide that I could have? Especially, where can I get their authoritative interpretation of Isaiah (because the Sunday school manual only has a little excerpt)?

  • 2
    @Matt Actually sometimes it's better to specify that in the title. It should definitely be in the question too! Because for all the non-Mormons it's a question that doesn't make much sense!
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 15 '15 at 2:30
  • Keep in mind that Isaiah and other symbolism-rich passages can sometimes have multiple meanings and interpretations that are correct. See the last few paragraphs in this chapter of the Old Testament seminary manual: lds.org/manual/old-testament-seminary-teacher-manual/… Sep 26 '16 at 5:22
  • The official Sunday School manuals actually are approved by the apostles. My understanding is that least one member of the Quorum of the Twelve must be on the committee. However, I'm not certain if all changes must be approved by the First Presidency like they must with Church policy.
    – devinbost
    Feb 6 '20 at 18:02

In a nutshell, yes.

20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

The interpretation of scripture is the number one reason why there are multiple sects and denominations of christianity instead of just one.

Isaiah is particularly notorious for being the source of many personal interpretations, as Isaiah delivered his words much in the same manner as Christ delivered the parables–the message is hidden from those that are not spiritually prepared to receive it.

It's my opinion that your teacher erred in one of two ways: either he offered his personal interpretation of the scripture, or he revealed doctrines that were too "meaty" (see D&C 19:22) to a class without first weening them off the milk.

Regardless of whichever one it was, as with all teachings and direction we receive, it is up to us to take the matter to thoughtful study and prayer to discover the truth of all things. If you find that the words of the prophets conflict with what was shared with you, then you can rest assured that your teacher was merely sharing his personal interpretation.

Read Lesson 8 from the Scripture Study-The Power of the Word Teacher Manual: Prophets Interpret Scripture for more about interpreting scripture.

  • Thanks for the link! In that lesson I found this, "material [containing interpretations of scripture] could include conference addresses, Church News, and messages of the First Presidency from the Ensign." Still, no single compilation of interpretations of Isaiah.
    – user18670
    Feb 15 '15 at 18:23
  • Next time I need an authoritative interpretation of Isaiah, I'll search the scripture reference in lds.org. It worked pretty well for me with Isaiah 6. I found a link to the seminary teachers manual, which was super helpful.
    – user18670
    Feb 15 '15 at 18:38
  • All of the institute manuals are on lds.org as well. They typically go deeper into the scriptures.
    – ShemSeger
    Feb 15 '15 at 20:20

I came across this question while Googling associated research and despite (a) having chosen to eschew active participation on Stack Exchange since the debacle with Monica Ciello and (b) the OP having never registered and likely never to benefit from my answer, I nevertheless found Shem's answer somewhat wanting and felt the need to expand on it. My sincere apologies, Shem, I hope you'll forgive me.

First, to get one small issue of the OP's out of the way... No, there is no body of writing (by Apostles or anyone else) that interprets once-and-for-all all scripture. There are many reasons for this, but the most germane is that an interpretation of one verse for a newcomer to the Church may of necessity be incomplete compared to a fuller understanding after wisdom and maturity permits that same person to attend LDS Temples — and that may yet be incomplete compared to someone who has studies, prayed, fasted, meditated, and gained wisdom through experience for many, many years. If this doesn't make sense, bear in mind there's a reason that Calculus isn't taught to most 5th graders... they simply don't have enough experience to understand the world is much more complex than 1+1=2.

Now to the meat of the OP's question.

The fundamental problem with scriptural interpretation (which expands into a veritable forest of problems) is that the perfect understanding of our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ, must (with rare exception) be filtered through one or more mortal people. Therefore, in the world of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are some rules that govern the process of interpretation.

The first rule, as stated by Shem, is that the prophecy of scripture is not for private interpretation. In the LDS context, "private" means "unauthoritative." Whenever a worthy member of the Church applies for or renews their Recommend (authorization) for Temple attendance, they're asked if they agree that the current Prophet and President of the Church is a prophet, seer, and revelator and the only person on Earth who holds all priesthood keys (meaning all authority insofar as a mortal can obtain it). Therefore, the Prophet of the Lord, embodied by the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the ultimate authority for scriptural interpretation. (D&C 107:21-22)

But members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not subscribe to the idea that their leaders are infallible. Please allow me to paraphrase Joseph Fielding Smith, who once taught that a person who teaches anything that is contrary to scripture, even if that person is the Prophet, is wrong.1

For this reason there are levels of "understanding" and methods for accepting canonization. For example, nothing can be brought into Canon (scripture) without the consent of the membership of the Church (D&C 26:3) Modern examples of this process are the inclusion of section 138 and official declarations 1 and 2 into Church's Doctrine & Covenants. However, simple interpretation does not require this level of complexity.

Prophets throughout the ages have clarified (revealed or expounded upon) scripture and dogma. One of the most famous examples is when Spencer W. Kimball abrogated Brigham Young's "Adam-God" teaching.2 Once a prophet has spoken, so long as they are supported by scripture (either extant or through modification as mentioned above), the interpretation is closed.

Individual Apostles do not enjoy that authority. They only enjoy that authority when speaking unanimously as a quorum (D&C 107:23-24, 28-29). When an individual Apostle speaks, it is his opinion - not Church Dogma. An example of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles acting in unity to close an interpretation (in this case in concert with the First Presidency) is the official proclamation "The Family: A Proclamation to the World".

Similarly, though to my knowledge it's never been done, the Quorum of the Seventy is also a quorum equal in authority with the First Presidency (D&C 107:25-29) and could therefore — as a quorum in unity — publish an authorized interpretation. As I said, I know of no example of the Seventy having done this.

With the sole exception of the Prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no individual may express an authoritative interpretation of scripture.

But, what does this mean? Think of it this way.

  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be defined as the works, behavior, actions, words, commandments and teachings (in their entirety) of Jesus Christ, His prophets, apostles and disciples as recorded in Canon.

  • Canon, a mortal construct, is the authoritative collection of approved sacred books containing the Gospel.

  • Doctrine is a single aspect of the Gospel as recorded in Canon.

  • Dogma (a word rarely used in the LDS Church) describes Church teachings and policies that are inspired and built upon doctrine but are not Canon. These are official works such as the Church Handbooks, information found on the Church's website, the contents of Church-published study manuals, etc. Church Dogma is created in many ways (often by virtue of the Correlation Committee) but is overseen (if not necessarily reviewed in every detail) by General Authorities.3

  • And that brings us to Opinion. An unauthoritative belief. Even prophets can express opinions. Joseph Smith taught “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (HC 5:265). Latter-day prophets have expressed opinions on many subjects: from hunting (Kimball, CR Oct 1978) to space flight (Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:190–191 and Elder statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark, 498). An opinion is neither automatically right (until substantiated by doctrine or officially accepted as Dogma), nor automatically wrong (until dismissed as heresy by proper authority).

In conclusion, let me leave you with a quote from LDS lecturer Ben Spackman.

Each of us has in our head, a black box full of presuppositions, cultural assumptions, and worldview. Into this black box goes the text of scripture, where it interacts with these unconscious things in our head, and out comes “what scripture says.” The contents of that black box vary from person to person, so people with different presuppositions and worldviews will read the exact same text, and come away with very different understandings of what the text means.

Even prophets must work to avoid this problem. It's very human.

So, all in all, this was a lengthy way of answering all the OP's questions: No, no, and no.

1Here I must apologize. I once had the citation for the original quote of that paraphrase. It was lost some years ago when a virus wiped out my hard drive. Yeah, yeah, yeah... "backups!"

2Spencer W. Kimball, "Our Own Liahona," Conference Report (Oct 1976).

3People frequently forget that there's one Prophet with two councilors and twelve Apostles — fifteen men. The unfortunately popular belief that one or more of these fifteen men review every piece of printed material published by the Church is most certainly wrong. If only when you consider the many languages Church materials are translated into. Even if we include the First Quorum of the Seventy (all other quorums of the Seventy are not General Authorities), that's only 65 people to review literally mountains of material. There's good reason the Lord taught Oliver Cowdery to study things out in his mind (D&C 9:8-9).


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