Friday, July 6, 2007

Instability in LDS doctrine?

Doctrinal instability?
In his TNR article “The Big Test” Damon Linker wrote about the difficulties he has, and he believes that others will have, with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. He opined, “It is far more likely, however, that as citizens educate themselves about the political implications of Mormon theology, concerns about the possibility of a Mormon president will actually increase. And these apprehensions will be extremely difficult to dispel--because they will be thoroughly justified.” (here, italics original)

One of the issues Linker believes has political implications is instability in the church’s doctrine. “Mormonism opens the door to prophetically inspired acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way,” Linker writes.

In many respects Mormon beliefs differ dramatically from those of mainstream Christianity. It was certainly very new when the first LDS congregation was established in 1830 (D&C 21:1-12). So, to answer the question of doctrinal instability the doctrinal evolution--or more appropriately how the doctrine developed through revelation--should be considered.

Line upon line
There is an important principle that Mormons take for granted: line upon line, precept upon precept. That is, God reveals his will gradually. This idea comes from the book of Isaiah: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10); a concept also repeated by Paul, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Cor. 3:2).

Every new religious movement has its own uniqueness and innovations: from a Roman Catholic view Luther was a radical innovator; when the Arminian view emerged in the early 1600’s it was a new innovation that differed markedly from the prevailing Calvinistic view; Henry the Eighth was radical in his innovations in trying to preserve Catholic ritual and the framework of Protestant doctrine within in the Church of England, and also making himself and his successors head of the English church. So whether one is talking about Shakers, Quakers, Puritans, or Anglicans, at one time or another these were new and innovative. And so it was with Mormonism. However, when compared to the prevailing Christian beliefs of the time its innovations were very different. They were revolutionary. (I shall call them innovations only for the sake of argument, not because of personal conviction; innovations are man-made.)

The first innovations come from what Mormons call the First Vision--Joseph Smith’s first revelatory experience. Religion always had some importance to Joseph, and in early spring of 1820 he went to a secluded place to ask God which denomination he should join. According to his account he “saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description…One of them spake..and said, pointing to the other--This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Joseph was told in this vision that that all the existing denominations were wrong and not to join any of them (JS-History 1:17).

Three radical “innovations” come from this experience. The first is that the Trinitarian view of God is inconsistent with what Joseph saw and heard: the Father and the Son are not “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence.” The second is that Protestant, Roman, and Greek traditions are wrong: while Protestants believe that the primitive church was lost and needed to be reformed; and while the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox religions believe they have continued the true Apostolic tradition; Mormonism holds that all are deviations from the true path. The third is that dramatic revelations of the kind Paul experienced were not confined to Biblical times--and from hindsight that a restoration was in the offing.

On the night of 21 September 1823 Joseph had another experience with the divine. He was visited by an angel named Moroni who told him of the work that God would require him to do. Joseph also learned of a record written on golden plates--The Book of Mormon--and was shown where they were buried. The following day he visited the place and uncovered the plates. Every September he went back to this spot and was visited there by Moroni. Finally, during Joseph’s yearly visit in 1827 he was allowed to take the plates.

The next developments were additions to the corpus of scripture. By the end of June 1829 the translation of the Book of Mormon had been completed; the printer began typesetting in August; and by late March 1830 the Book of Mormon was for sale. During the translation process several revelations were received; many of which are now included in our scriptures as Doctrine and Covenants sections 2-19. On Tuesday 6 April 1830 the church was organized and (within Mormonism) the Bible, the creeds, and Christian tradition were no longer the infallible rule of Christian belief and practice. There are many more innovations, but a comprehensive list would be beside the point. It’s sufficient to say that more revelations were added, and Mormonism experienced “innovation” upon “innovation”.

But these early revelations only meant that Mormonism was new. One of Linker’s concerns is over Mormonism’s doctrinal instability and unpredictability (so called). It is this notion that I intend to pick apart.

Examples posed as doctrinal instability
In a speech given at Saint Anselm College earlier this year (here) Linker illustrates several examples of what he considers instability in doctrine,

You see this in the fact that the Mormons did use to believe in polygamy, but about a hundred years ago the prophet declared that they will no longer believe in polygamy…The fact that this was at the core of their theology, and then, it wasn’t, speaks to the incredible power of prophecy. Once the prophet said no more plural marriage, it was over. Most Mormons within a few years had abandoned the practice. (24:26-25:19)
LDS prophetic declarations since the late nineteenth century have tended to moderate church teaching, moving the community into greater conformity with mainstream American values: abolishing polygamy, as I said, in 1890 for instance; and opening the Mormon priesthood to black members of the church in 1978, only in 1978. (25:19-27:37)
These limitations have lead some leaders of the church to propose that Mormons should look to the current accepted cannon of scriptures, Mormon scriptures, revealed by Smith as the standard by which to evaluate all future revelations. In the words of Joseph Fielding Smith--not Joseph Smith but a later leader of the church, he’s the tenth president of the church--official LDS scriptural text should be used quote “as the measuring sticks or the balances by which we measure every man’s doctrine.” This moderate and moderating view remains a controversial position in the Mormon church however. And for good reason, none other than Joseph Smith (the original) and his successor prophet Brigham Young seemed to take a different stance toward the authority of revelation. Compared with quote “living oracles” Young declared, canonical works of scriptures are nothing because they quote “do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation.” To which Smith replied quote “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord and he has told you the truth.” (29:50-31:28)

Time scales of change
Is it long term unpredictability that Linker finds so unnerving? For example, changes on time scales of 100 years? Probably not. Accurate predictions on the state of religion or politics that far out are not possible. After all, who would have thought in 1907 what 2007 would be like. And who could have predicted the intervening historical events. If unpredictability is the problem then all politics, science, and religion are problematic because they involve “acts and innovations, the content of which cannot be predetermined in any way.” So if unpredictability is bothersome to Linker then it must be unpredictability on smaller time scales. And herein is the flaw of his argument: apart from the revelations during Joseph’s lifetime there were no sudden or significant changes in church doctrine.

For example the polygamy issue. By the 1850’s Mormons (to the disgust of most Americans) were openly practicing polygamy. Congress responded in 1862 with the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (here). This act reads, “every person having a husband or wife living, who shall marry any other person, whether married or single, in a Territory of the United States…, shall,…be adjudged guilty of bigamy, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, and by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.” This act had no real effect on the practice of polygamy. In 1882 the Edmunds act was passed (here). Section eight states “no polygamist, bigamist, or any person cohabiting with more than one woman, and no woman cohabiting with any of the persons described as aforesaid in this section…shall be entitled to vote at any election held in any such Territory or other place.” Section 3 further made cohabiting with more than one woman a misdemeanor; making a misdemeanor cause to revoked one’s right to vote. In 1887 even more pressure was applied with the Edmunds-Tucker Act (here). This law made adultery and fornication a crime (section 3-5) and also stated “it shall not be lawful for any female to vote at any election hereafter held in the Territory of Utah for any public purpose whatever” (sec 20); thus women who hitherto had the right to vote lost it. But passing coercive laws was not restricted to Congress. In 1885 the territory of Idaho passed a law designed to prevent any believing Mormon from voting. Section two says,

No person…who is a bigamist or polygamist, or who teaches, advises, counsels or encourages any person or persons to become bigamists or polygamist,…or to enter into what is known as plural or celestial marriage, or who is a member of any order, organization, or association which teaches, advises, counsels, or encourages its members or devotees, or any other persons, to commit the crime of bigamy or polygamy, or any other crime defined by law, either as a rite or ceremony of such order, organization or association, or otherwise, shall be permitted to vote at any election, or to hold any position or office of honor, trust or profit, within this Territory. (here)

This was upheld as constitutional by the United States Supreme Court. Among many other things the Morrill, Edmunds, and Edmunds-Tucker acts permitted the government to seize large amounts of church property. By the late 1880’s the Church was feeling the pressure and was facing a very real threat of extinction. At this point the president of the church Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal, “I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church” (Comprehensive History, vol. 6, p. 220). And in 1890 polygamy was officially abandoned.

Linker’s statement that “The fact that this was at the core of their theology, and then, [pause] it wasn’t, speaks to the incredible power of prophecy” (listen to his rather dramatic presentation here) reveals that he knows little about the history of Mormon polygamy. It took 28 years, the elimination of women’s suffrage, making adultery and fornication crimes punishable by imprisonment and fine, confiscation of church property, and denying people the right to vote because of their church membership to compel the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to abandon polygamy. This speaks more to the power of the United States Government than to anything else. Further, had the United States not gone to this extreme polygamy would never have been abandoned. So, contrary to Linker’s interpretation, this is evidential of a very deep and abiding resistance to change.

Blacks and the priesthood
It is well known that prior to 1978 the church did not ordain black men to its priesthood. While this might be construed as supporting a here-today-gone-tomorrow view of prophecy, it doesn’t. Naturally there is history behind it. (Read my own thoughts on this issue here.) The purpose of addressing this issue is not to justify it, only to illustrate its evolution.

On this subject the Encyclopedia of Mormonism reads, “Although several blacks were ordained to the priesthood in the 1830s, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith authorized new ordinations in the 1840s, and between 1847 and 1852 Church leaders maintained that blacks should be denied the priesthood because of their lineage” (“Blacks”, Encyclopedia of Mormonism), By the 1850’s it was clearly the policy of the church not to ordain black men to the priesthood. But that this ban was subject to a theoretical possibility of change can be illustrated from these two excerpts from sermons given by Brigham Young,

When all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, and of coming into the kingdom of God, and of being redeemed from the four quarters of the earth, and have received their resurrection from the dead, then it will be time enough to remove the curse from Cain [black people] and his posterity (JD 2:143).

When all the rest of the [Adam’s] children have received their blessings in the Holy Priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to. (JD 11:272)

In the 1950’s President David O. McKay narrowed the priesthood ban to apply only to those of black African descent, thus opening ordination to Fijians, Australian aborigines, and Egyptians. In the 1960’s there was an expectation of change but the position of the Church was that it would take a revelation to do it. This expectation is found in President Kimball’s 1978 Official Declaration which changed the priesthood policy: “[God] has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood” (OD 2:8, italics mine).

The history of this issue is one of gradual change, finally building up to President Kimball’s 1978 revelation. Change occurred over large time intervals and was gradual. In fact, one could argue that the attitude of Mormons toward African Americans evolved coordinate with that of the nations, which would only further invalidate Linker’s concern of sudden changes.

Existing scripture as tradition
Linker mentions a statement by Joseph Fielding Smith that says scriptures should be used to evaluate doctrine. However, “This moderate and moderating view remains a controversial position in the Mormon church,” he says. Actually it isn’t. The compete statement by Joseph Fielding Smith is this,

It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teaching of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. (Doctrines of Salvation, p. 203)

Linker’s counter claim is made by a statement from Joseph Smith (“the original”) and Brigham Young. The complete statement follows.

Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down: and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said, “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day.” “And now,” said he “when compared with the living oracles, those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.” That was the course he pursued. When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation: “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth” (Conference Report, October 1897, pp. 18-19; taken from General Conference 1 October 1963 p. 15, address by Apostle Ezra Taft Benson)

Linker said, “It is impossible to know how Mormons will resolve this significant tension over the coming years.” However, the two statements quoted above are not inconsistent with one another. The statement of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was made early in the history of the church, when new revelations were common. The statement from Joseph Fielding Smith was from the middle of the twentieth century, after tradition and scripture had been established for more than one hundred years. It is true the Mormons believe the living prophet is more important than scripture; and so I agree with Joseph Smith, “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.” Such a statement, however, does not necessitate that future revelations will be inconsistent with past revelations. In fact Joseph Fielding Smith’s statement suggests otherwise. So, in the mind of a Mormon there is no “significant tension” to be overcome.

Extrapolating even a reasonably accurate prediction of the state of any political or religious organization 100 years out is not possible. Therefore, there can be no rational objection to unpredictability on that kind of time scale. The examples Linker posed involve changes on time scales of more than 100 years in the case of the priesthood issue, and at least 28 years in the case of abandoning polygamy which only happened because of enormous government pressure. Linker seems to think that unpredictability means the possibility of contradiction with the past. Reasonable evidence for this notion, however, is lacking. This is illustrated by a closer examination of the examples he posed, which in fact strongly support that evolution in the church is slow and resistance to change is strong.

There is no significant tension in the Mormon community between using the scriptures as “yardsticks…by which we measure every man’s doctrine” and affirming the importance of modern prophets to our day.

Linker said, “Religion matters. It’s important. Examining and evaluating various religious views is a way of treating those views with utmost seriousness” (15:23-16:50). And also, “What we need most of all is hard sober thinking” (03:56-03:42).

I must say, I agree.

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