Friday, March 30, 2007

Doctrinal Certainty

Levels of Doctrinal Confidence
Damon Linker has tried to paint the picture that, in the Mormon faith, when the prophet speaks everyone falls into line. He made the presumptive assertion that all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are “consummate company [men].” This was done to create an impression of blind obedience among church leaders. And if the prophet made a morally outrageous declaration that it would be enforced and obeyed without question. So that the question non-Mormons would wrestle with is, “How Mormon are the Mormons?”

There’s a point to be made here, and that is to what extent is the word of the prophet taken to be the word of God. Doctrine and Covenants section 1 says, “whether by [God's] own voice or by the voice of [His] servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). And in section 21 “For [the prophet’s] word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:5). This would seem to support Linkers hypothesis; however, in reality the true Mormon experience does not conform to Linker’s simple model. Though no formal doctrine exists, there is what can be called degrees of doctrinal confidence. Not everything the prophet speaks is the word of God. What follows is a general explanation of these various levels.

Revelations of the Prophet Sustained by the Church
The highest level of doctrinal confidence is scripture; and only the president of the church can establish doctrine and receive revelation for the church. A revelation can become part of the cannon of scripture if it goes through the sustaining process. What then is sustaining? When a person is called to a church position, whether in a congregation or to the Apostleship, that person must be sustained. If it is a congregation position then the congregation will sustain that person. If it is an Apostleship then the church as a whole will do the sustaining. It goes like this--using the president of the church as an example. During General Conference one of the Apostles will say, “It is proposed that we sustain Gordon Bitner Hinckley as prophet, seer, and revelator and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those in favor, please manifest it. [Pause] Those opposed may manifest it. [Pause].” (here) Those who are willing to sustain the president will raise their right hand. If any persons object they will raise their hand. In practice objections are exceedingly rare. This is not an election. When we sustain someone we are obligated to sustain that person. In other words we are giving that person our confidence and taking upon ourselves an obligation to help that person succeed. Those who sustain the prophet take upon themselves the obligation to hearken unto his counsel.

Revelation received by the prophet can be brought before the church and sustained. For example, when President Kimball received the revelation to change the church’s policy on priesthood ordination it was submitted to the church for sustaining. On on September 30, 1978 this was read during General Conference: “Recognizing Spencer W. Kimball as the prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is proposed that we as a constituent assembly accept this revelation as the word and will of the Lord. All in favor please signify by raising your right hand. Any opposed by the same sign” (OD 2). Anything accepted by the church in this way is binding upon all its members and is considered scripture.

The tradition surrounding this process is this. The president of the church would fist discuss a new revelation with his counselors in the First Presidency. After they accept it, it would be submitted to the Council of the Twelve Apostles. After the twelve accept it, it would be submitted to all other General Authorities. Then, after the General Authorities accept it, it would be submitted to the church for sustaining. Only then can it become scripture. President Kimball's revelation regarding priesthood ordination is a good illustration of this process. (It is included in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2.) It reads, “[President Kimball] presented it to his counselors, who accepted it and approved it. It was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it, and was subsequently presented to all other General Authorities, who likewise approved it unanimously” (OD 2). Finally during General Conference it was presented to the church and was accepted. If the voting among the Twelve is not unanimous it will never be presented to the church--and the church would never know about it.

Would a revelation become scripture if some of the members objected? Yes. When a person sustains he is primarily taking an obligation upon himself, not granting permission. If a person objects then he is rejecting the council of the prophet. However, I suppose that if half the church rejected a revelation it might not become part of the cannon, though it would still be revelation.

Statements of the First Presidency (not submitted for sustaining)
Often the First Presidency will make official statements. These are usually policy statements, clarification on doctrine, statements of the church’s position on important issues, or instruction to the members regarding something currently important to the church. They are considered inspired and taken very seriously. But, because circumstances change, what was important 100 years ago might not be as important today. Some statements can become dated. Thus what the living prophet says today is more important to the Saints that what Brigham Young said 150 years ago--naturally this does not apply to scripture. If a member does not follow through with something that the First Presidency requested he will not be disciplined. One possible exception would be if a person in a leadership position opposed the prophet. In that case he would be corrected and possibly released from his calling.

The Words of the Prophet
Something said in one context does not have the same force as the same thing said in another context. A statement by the president of the church to a reporter is not binding for the church, though many Mormons would take it seriously. For example, during an interview Mike Wallace asked President Hinckley “No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks...?” President Hinckley responded, “Right.” I know many Mormons who took this as confirmation that the church bans caffeinated soft drinks. Precision cannot be expected in an interview situation where several questions get asked together; however, if he had said the same thing in conference it would be taken very seriously.

In addition to what the prophet says in public he can also write books. This is a different level of doctrinal confidence. Something written in a book is still not as binding as the same thing said in General Conference. However, it would be taken seriously because he would have naturally put a good deal of thought into it. Also, a book written by the prophet when he was a Seventy could be considered less authoritative than a book written when he was the prophet. As far as print goes there are three levels of confidence: books or magazines published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, books printed by Deseret Book (a publishing company owned by the church), and books published by another publisher.

The Apostles
Every member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is considered a prophet, seer, and revelator. The words of the twelve apostles are considered inspired and taken very seriously, but context should be applied to what they say. Apostles also give interviews and write books. The kinds of officialism that apply to the president of the church also apply to them.

Other General Authorities
Twice a year we have General Conference and listen to talks from members of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Seventy, other General Authorities, the Relief Society Presidency, Area Authority Seventies, and others. What General Authorities say in General Conference is taken very seriously. In other circumstances, such as being interviewed by a reporter, they would also be considered authoritative. However, if a Seventy and an Apostle are interviewed together that would give greater emphasis to what they say.

No Especial Preference
In Mormon beliefs anything that is said “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4). I have never gotten the sense that what one person says in conference is doctrinally preferable to what another person says. When it comes to explaining doctrine and scripture they all have equal authority. Each member of the church has his or her favorite sermons, but there isn’t any ranking of importance--unless the prophet is speaking. For example, if someone were preparing a talk for his congregation he would likely favor things said by the prophet or the twelve. But most members would not hesitate to quote a member of the Relief Society Presidency or any General Authority. Anything said in General Conference is very OK.

There is another level of doctrinal certainty, and this one is probably the most important. It is the certainty that comes with repetition. If the prophet says something very different from anything revealed before, and it is never repeated by him or by anyone else, it might last for a while but eventually there would be little sense of obligation toward it. This is especially true if what was said is bizarre. For example, in a sermon given on April 9, 1852 Brigham Young said, “[Adam] is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, pp. 50-51). This is a truly bizarre statement and at face value is not consistent with Mormon teachings--though with some theological gymnastics one could make some sense of it. However, we do not believe that Adam is God the Father, something Brigham Young makes clear in other sermons. (See Adam-God theory.) The quote above is the only one of its kind; I have never heard it from other church leaders; neither have I seen it in any material published by the church--except with reference to what anti-Mormon writes say about it. Personally I don’t feel feel obligated to believe it.

The Relationship of the First Presidency, Twelve, and Seventy
The Doctrine and Covenants states that the quorum of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are equal to each other in power and authority (D&C 107:23-24). The quorum of the Seventy are equal in authority, but not power, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (D&C 107:25-26). The Twelve Apostles act under the direction of the First Presidency (D&C 107:33) and the Seventy act under the direction of the Twelve Apostles (D&C 107:34). For a decision to be binding all decisions respective to these quorums must have a unanimous vote (D&C 107:27).

When Gordon B. Hinckley was First Counselor in the First Presidency he said this,

No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice…I add by way of personal testimony that during the twenty years I served as a member of the Council of the Twelve and during the nearly thirteen years that I have served in the First Presidency, there has never been a major action taken where this procedure was not observed. I have seen differences of opinion presented in these deliberations. Out of this very process of men speaking their minds has come a sifting and winnowing of ideas and concepts. But I have never observed serious discord or personal enmity among my Brethren. I have, rather, observed a beautiful and remarkable thing--the coming together, under the directing influence of the Holy Spirit and under the power of revelation, of divergent views until there is total harmony and full agreement. Only then is implementation made. That, I testify, represents the spirit of revelation manifested again and again in directing this the Lord’s work. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Is at the Helm,” Ensign, May 1994, 53; here)

Succession in the Church
Succession in the church can help to illustrate the relationship between the prophet and the Apostles. When a president of the church dies his presidency is automatically dissolved and the Twelve Apostles then preside over the church. Tradition has dictated that the person who has been in the Apostleship the longest is automatically the next president of the church. The Twelve select this person and he then selects two counselors. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles then ordain this man to be President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Ensign, Nov. 1979, pp. 43–44; here.)

Is There Ever Tension?
I don’t have an insider’s view of tension between General Authorities. But there are a few known cases.

During David O McKay’s tenure as president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith, who was president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and next in line to become president of the church, published a book called Man His Origin and Destiny, which has a strong anti-evolution stance. In it President Smith wrote, “This brings us to the discussion of what I believe to be the most pernicious doctrine ever entering the mind of man: the theory that man evolved from the lower from of life” (p. 133). Apostle Mark E. Peterson wrote the foreword and in it mentions that he and others encouraged Smith to write the book. Since it was supported by some of the Apostles, and because it was published by Deseret Book, it carries with it a sense of authorization. However it does not state the church’s position on evolution. During a meeting with members of the staff of the Institute of Religion at the University of Utah President David O. McKay said, “that book should be treated as merely the views of one man…It is true that [this] one man is President of the Twelve, and [that] makes it more or less authoritative, but it is no more to be taken as the word of the Church than any other unauthorized book” (David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 47).

In 1958 a book called Mormon Doctrine (written by Bruce R. McConkie, then a Seventy) was published. In this book McConkie stated that “The Roman Catholic Church specifically--singled out, set apart, described, and designated as being most abominable above all other churches’” (p. 129, italics original). The First Presidency learned of the book only after it was published. They asked Elder McConkie to remove that reference and change several other things that were not accepted doctrine. Naturally McConkie complied and the changes were made. (Mormon Doctrine is not published by the church or by Deseret Book.)

General Authorities can make statements and write books; they can argue for what they believe is correct; but only the president of the church can establish doctrine.

For a revelation to become part of the cannon of scripture it must come from the president of the church and have the approval of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. But there is nothing that says that the president must submit revelation to them before revealing it to the church. Considering precedent and tradition it seems unlikely that this would happen. However, the prophet is his own person and if inspired he could announce a revelation without first informing the twelve. This was the case with President Joseph F. Smith who, in 1918, received a revelation which eventually became part of the cannon (D&C section 138). The heading to this revelation reads,

A vision, given to President Joseph F. Smith in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 3, 1918. In his opening address at the eighty-ninth Semiannual General Conference of the Church, on October 4, 1918, President Smith declared that he had received several divine communications during the previous months…It was written immediately following the close of the conference; on October 31, 1918, it was submitted to the counselors in the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, and the Patriarch, and it was unanimously accepted by them. (here)

Though President Smith apparently did not reveal the revelation to the other Apostles before he revealed it to the church, it had to be submitted to them before it could be included as part of the LDS cannon of scripture.

Morally Outrageous? And Conclusions
From what Linker has said and written I can identify only two clear cases of what he considers to be morally outrageous: if the prophet commanded the Saints to commit murder (from The Big Test) and the church’s opposition to gay marriage (from his Here and Now interview). The probability of the first happening is vanishingly small and can be dismissed as fantasy. The second is not morally outrageous. And so here is the truth about Linker’s fears, that they are focused on moral and political issues--He can’t seriously believe that the prophet might order the Mormons to commit murder. What Mr. Linker objects to is the church’s conservative stand on moral issues.

If the prophet makes a declaration a Mormon could ask himself these questions. Did it contain the words “thus saith the Lord”? Was it a vision? Was it endorsed by the First Presidency, the Twelve Apostles, and all other General Authorities? What it said in General Conference? Or during an informal gathering of important Mormons? Was it said only once? Was it a speech to college students? Or at a seminary conference? Or some other kind of gathering? To whom was he speaking? Was it something that is binding forever? Or is it intended for present circumstances? Was it sustained by the church? Was it a proclamation? Or an official declaration? If in a book, was it when he was a Seventy, an Apostle, or as president of the church? What it published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Or Deseret Book? Or some other publishing company? Was it published for a specific group, such as the Genealogical Society? If it is something from a past prophet, was it declared publicly or, for example, written in his diary? Was it read by the bishops to their congregations? Was it published on the church’s website? Was it published in the Ensign magazine? If an interview, was the interviewer a member of the Church’s Public Affairs staff or someone unaffiliated with the church?

No matter how the prophet says something it is always taken seriously by the members of the church. Many would take his utterances to be doctrine no matter what the context. However there is no doctrine which states that the president of the church is free from the possibility of error. Which is why the support of the General Authorities is so important.

Some Example of Degrees of Authorization
The Newsroom on the church’s website ( says about embryonic stem cell research: The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position regarding the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes. The absence of a position should not be interpreted as support for or opposition to any other statement made by Church members, whether they are for or against embryonic stem cell research. (here)

This statement was read to General Relief Society Meeting and was published in the Ensign magazine: We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children… (here)

A revelation received thy Joseph Smith begins, VERILY, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am. (here)

On October 3, 1918 President Joseph F. Smith received a revelation: ...the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. (D&C 138:11)

President Hinckley speaking in General Conference: I believe that I am a child of God, endowed with a divine birthright. I believe that there is something of divinity within me and within each of you. I believe that we have a godly inheritance and that it is our responsibility, our obligation, and our opportunity to cultivate and nurture the very best of these qualities within us. (here)

President Hinckley said this at an address delivered at Brigham Young University: We are witnessing in society tremendous business failures to a degree and an extent we have not seen in a long while. Many of these are the fruits of imprudent borrowing, of debts so large they cannot be paid…Reasonable debt for the purchase of an affordable home and perhaps for a few other necessary things is acceptable. But from where I sit, I see in a very vivid way the terrible tragedies of many who have unwisely borrowed for things they really do not need. (here; this was later published in a church magazine.)

An interview about same-gender attraction: The following interview was conducted with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, and Elder Lance B. Wickman, a member of the Seventy. These senior Church leaders responded to questions from two members of the Church’s Public Affairs staff. The transcript of the interview appears below in order to help clarify the Church’s stand on these important, complex and sensitive issues. (here)

The preface to Mormon Doctrine reads, For the work itself, I assume sole and full responsibility. Observant students, however, will note that the standard works of the Church are the chief sources of authority quoted and that literally tens of thousands of scriptural quotations and citations are woven into the test material. (Note: Mormon Doctrine really is a very good source of information.)

McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958.

Prince, Gregory A., and Wright, Robert Wm. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005.

Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith. Man His Origin and Destiny. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954.

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