The Epistemological Tensions of Mormonism

Now how is that for a pretentious blog-post title? What the [explitive deleted] am I talking about? In a nutshell, I am talking about the way in which Mormonism deals with how we gain knowledge and how that ability is socially situated. Here is my basic idea: Mormonism has a radically decentralized and democratic epistemology which is balanced by a highly centralized institutional structure.

What do I mean when I say things like “decentralized and democratic epistemology”? When Moroni first appeared in Joseph Smith’s bedroom, Joseph tells us that he quoted from the second chapter of Joel. We don’t usually read these verses, but they are worth reading. It says:

    And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

Moroni then told Joseph that this was a prophesy that was about to be fulfilled.

Mormonism insists on the primacy of revelation in knowing God. The Lectures on Faith go so far as to insist that the only way that we even have a concept of God is because at some point in the past God revealed himself. None of this inherent knowledge of God, Cartesian ontological argument stuff. No sirree! We know about God because he appeared to Adam one day and people have been talking about him ever since. The scripture from Joel – and the pride of place that Moroni insisted it was to have in the Restoration – points to the fact that God’s revelations are not confined to elites. Sons, daughters, old, young, master, and servant are all going to get into the act. We all get to talk to God and he talks to all of us. This is heady, radically egalitarian stuff.

Contrast the Mormon approach to an epistemologically centralized religion, for example Judaism or Islam. In these religions (if we bracket their mystical manifestations) there is one way in which you understand God: You read and interpret his revealed word. Knowledge is entirely centered in scripture and exegesis. Many western scholars of Islam have noted that the Qu’ran is not like the Bible. It is like Christ. For Muslims it is God’s incarnate Word. It – not Christ – is the logos. So great is the reverence for the Qu’ranic text that one of the great theological schisms of Islamic history centered on the question of whether the Qu’ran was created in time or whether it is an eternal, uncreated emanation from God. The Talmud contains a wonderful story suggesting a similar kind of reverence for sacred text. Some deeply learned rabbis are arguing over the interpretation of the Torah. One rabbi becomes so frustrated by his interlocutor’s unwillingness to concede a point of exegesis that he calls upon God to sanction his interpretation. God performs miracles (notably the bending of the walls of the house of learning) testifying to the correctness of the rabbi’s reading and finally a voice from heaven declares “The interpretation of rabbi so-and-so is correct!” The other rabbi is unphased. “Show it to me in the text!” he insists. At which point the voice of God laughs and says, “You have beaten me my sons, you have beaten me.” An uncreated divine text and a God who admits that he too must reason form the scriptures?! That is what I call epistemic centralization.

The problem with the egalitarian approach is that, as many a modern prophet has come to learn, when we take seriously the pouring out of the spirit on to all flesh, there is a tendency for things to fly apart. Hiram Page, James Strange, Joseph Morris, William Godbe, Cody Judy, Paul Toscanoe, and all of the returned missionaries at BYU receiving revelations that “You will be my wife!” There is a definite anarchic side to the democratization of revelation. Judaism and Islam solve the problem by centering all knowledge on one source. My feeling is that the overarching authority of the text provides ballast and keeps their communities from flying apart. In Mormonism we solve the problem institutionally. We have prophets, leaders, jurisdictions, and stewardships. It is the theology of stewardship and institutional authority that explains why Cody Judy doesn’t present a major theological crisis to most of us. Without it, we are left at the mercy of our anarchic side, buffeted about by the winds of personal revelation around us.

Hence, the Mormon doctrine of prophecy depends on a carefully calibrated tension. It is both the spirit poured out upon all flesh, and a living prophet, the living prophet who creates boundaries and limits for personal revelation. We live on the strength and vitality of both approaches.

38 comments for “The Epistemological Tensions of Mormonism

  1. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 2:14 pm

    This is very wise. My I suggest a few other ways the institutional structure interacts with the desired democracy of revelation? First, by giving respect and authority to prophets it underscrores the desirability of being a prophet. That’s why I think the idea of revering the office, not the man, can be taken too far. Second, it models what it means to be a prophet and how its done. Finally, because the institution is lay, it puts people in a position where they ‘have to’ learn prophecy and revelatory gifts.

  2. Gary Cooper
    May 6, 2004 at 2:27 pm


    Excellent post. Very well put. I wonder if anyone has ever written any books or essays on this topic (Nibley? Maxwell? etc.)?? I think most, or at least a significant number of the conflicts that occur between the Church and various intellectuals in the Church hinge on this problem, although you almost never here one of the intellectuals say, “I know the Church says X, but God has told me Y.” The reason for this is that, by definition, such a statement would appear to be apostasy. Yet, isn’t this really what intellectuals like Quinn and Toscano and others are saying, by their actions? That they’ve prayed about their particular issue, and that they are doing what *they* think God wants?

    Interesting. I don’t think there’s any way, in mortality, for this tension not to exist. Is the tension itself a benefit—forcing humilty on both the membership general as well as the centralized leadership? I think so. I remember years ago when a then current General Relief Society President made the statement, “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” Right after she said that, President Kimball, the prophet at the time, called her up and said, (I’m paraphrasing from memory, from the sister’s account: “Sister, I think many members of the Church will not like that statement.” The sister replied, “But isn’t it true?” President Kimball replied, “Yes, but I think that stating it that way may offend some members needlessly.” Hmmm…If Church leaders are careful about respecting everyone’s feelings (within reason), and every member were to likewise may equally respectful of others in what they say and write, would not all be edified? Food for thought…

  3. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 2:54 pm

    Am I to assume that ‘explitive’ is the expurgated, Utah-County version of ‘expletive’? I’ll have to add it to my repertoire.

  4. May 6, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    Adam: Nope. Just bad spelling…

  5. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    James J. Strang may have been “strange,” Nate, but he was still only Mr. Strang.


    Aaron B

  6. May 6, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    Gary’s post seems to imply that this tension may be resolved in the next life. I wonder… in the parable of the vineyard in Jacob 5, the Lord’s servant persuades the Lord of the vineyard to do other than he had initially determined. There are other scriptural examples of this; e.g., Moses and Abraham debating with the Lord. (And the humorous Talmud story illustrates this further.)

    Does God ultimately want us to be yes-men (and -women), or is he looking for peers who can actually influence him? Will a similar “tension” (in a *positive* sense) eventually exist in post-mortality?

  7. May 6, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    “Contrast the Mormon approach to an epistemologically centralized religion, for example Judaism or Islam. In these religions (if we bracket their mystical manifestations) there is one way in which you understand God: You read and interpret his revealed word. Knowledge is entirely centered in scripture and exegesis.”

    But is it fair to make that bracketing? What was so surprising to me in studying medieval Judaism was just how widespread mystic influences were. Even when there seems little mysticism one can see that studying the scriptures is seen as an opening to an experience of the divine. Not that unlike the traditional Mormon approach.

    When one considers all the faith promoting rumors, especially in medieval Judaism, one can’t help but notice the strong parallels to Mormon urband legends. There really are strong parallels. Even those without strong religious experiences can experience them secondhand via these stories. Just as many Mormons without having “big” stories can listen with excitement to the stories of Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the founding fathers, various healings, stories of battles with sons of perdition, genealogical miracles and so forth.

  8. May 6, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Nate, I agree that the prophecy by Joel is a statement with immense implications, which should effect all people, regardless of class or age.

    I wanted to point out, too, that recently, President Hinckley authoritatively declared this prophecy to have been fulfilled. If you read the entire scripture, the fact that it’s been fulfilled is quite remarkable. (See “Living in the Fulness of Times” October, 2001 Conference, Saturday Morning Session). (Sorry…couldn’t figure out how to post the link in a comment.)

  9. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 3:47 pm


    You said:
    “Hence, the Mormon doctrine of prophecy depends on a carefully calibrated tension. It is both the spirit poured out upon all flesh, and a living prophet, the living prophet who creates boundaries and limits for personal revelation.”

    I wonder how “carefully calibrated” it really is, though. We sometimes talk as if the boundaries and limits of which you speak are crystal clear, although I think that’s doubtful.

    Of course, it is easy to posit an authoritative epistemological hierarchy in which “prophetic revelation trumps personal revelation,” particularly with respect to revelations that have broad (even Church-wide) application. So, for example, if Kristine says she has received a spiritual confirmation that contradicts the Church’s view on some homosexuality-related question, Brent can point out that her “spiritual” experience must have been received in error, since it bucks the understood relationship between the Prophet’s revelations and Kristine’s.

    The problem, as I see it, is not that such a system is unimaginable. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to square real well with Mormonism in the real world. A few brief thoughts:

    1. Mormon thought contains both “prophets trump scriptures” and “scriptures trump prophets” precedents. Expediency often seems to dictate invocation of the one or the other. Keeping in mind, as you once said elsewhere, that we generally use “church doctrine” as a way of adjudicating between competing scriptural interpretations – and further keeping in mind that various 20th Century Church leaders have used their own “inspired” views (couched as “church doctrine”) to contradict certain claims of those in the 19th – I wonder if the boundaries on “personal revelation” are really clear at all.

    2. There are occasional admonitions in Church history that members shouldn’t assume their leaders are necessarily inspired, but should confirm for themselves whether or not they really are. I realize this admonition often gets interpreted as if it is consistent with robust claims of Church leaders “never leading the Church astray” (thereby rendering the admonition a mere formality), but for a variety of reasons I don’t think this works. Assuming I’m right, how does the members’ need to “spirit-check” the prophet complicate the “tension” to which you refer?

    3. Hypothetical question: If I were a regular Church member living in 1850, and I sought spiritual confirmation of something taught by Brigham Young that we now know in 2004 wasn’t “inspired,” could I have possibly received a relevation from God in 1850 letting me know that Young was in error? If not, why not? If so, what does that mean for the “strength and vitality” of both approaches?

    Aaron B

  10. May 6, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    Aaron: I agree with you about he fuzziness of the boarders. We like to talk as though we have a clearly defined set of rules and doctrines, when generally we do not. My point is not that we have everything carefully worked out. (In which case, “calibrated” was probably a poor word choice) Rather, my point is that the tension is real and productive. The democratic elements and the authoritarian elements ultimately compliment each other, even if working out the concrete interactions is complicated and ambigious.

    As for your 1850 hypothetical, I don’t know. I see no reason per se that you couldn’t get a revelation repudiating Adam-God. (Perhaps John Taylor did get such a revelation and just kept quiet about it. _Mediation and Atonement_ seems in part to be an anti-Adam God piece). My point, however, is that the system is set up so that the influence of your revelation would be balanced by the influence of BY’s authority, just as his authority is balanced by your revelation. Sometimes the balance breaks down and things fall apart — Morrisites and Godbeites under BY. What is really phenomenal, to my mind, is that it doesn’t happen more often.

    As you can see, I am in a the glass is half full kind of mood today.

  11. May 6, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Clark: I fully agree with you that the interpretation that I have presented of Judaism is highly over simplified and that mysticism has been wide spread in Jewish history. What is equally significant, in my (admittedly uninformed) opinion, is the extent to which mysticism consistently created rabbinic anxiety and hostility.

  12. May 6, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    I agree there is a tension. Further, despite the mysticism in Judaism, Mormons clearly place a much higher value in direct inspiration than we typically find in Judaism. I also definitely agree on the tension in Judaism between vertical and horizontal modes of ‘inspiration’ to use Nibley’s approach. However I think this tension exists within Mormonism a fair bit as well. As you say, we’ve all known (and perhaps experienced) the pitfalls of relying on personal intuition over a more textual approach.

  13. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    Well, Aaron, you’ll have to do a lot more drumming into someone’s thick skull (mine)before I’m convinced that we need to recieve our own personal confirmation of the truth only because or necessarily because the the prophets can be mistaken. I really don’t think I believe that any more than I believe that the Church telling people to pray about the Book of Mormon is evidence that we have our doubts about it.

    Nate points out that we define boundaries through the rough tension of prophetic authority and personal inspiration. It’s also true that personal inspiration itself provides its own rough tensions and boundaries. A democratic epistemology means that I can get revelation, true, but it also means that all my fellow members can too so I have to give some sort of significance to their views. In this way the ‘sense of the Saints’, if you want to call it that, is a sort of naturally emerging counter to the indefiniteness of things. And of course, one can always get personal inspiration that the prophet is inspired, even if one hasn’t recieved revelation that tracks all of his yet, etc.

  14. May 6, 2004 at 4:36 pm

    Adam, I agree with your comments, if the focus is on *only*. I think the primary issue is developing a personal relationship with God so we can live in the spirit. However I also think fallibilism plays a part – although not as significant a part as some suggest.

    I do think that problems with revelation tend to arise when people have revelations others don’t. i.e. some unique revelation such as “I ought to marry this person.” (Of course I think the bigger problem in those cases tends to be idiots acting inappropriately on revelation – which is probably why God often doesn’t give a lot of answers)

    Anyway, the nice thing about the democratization of revelation is that there are so many people around that it allows us to judge (or at least be skeptical) about our own personal revelations. While I personally think most people get vague general revelations and then read far too much into them, by and large there is a lot we can compare to. Those who have revelations pushing them out of harmony with the main body of the saints ought to have a heavy dose of skepticism towards such revelations.

  15. Gary Cooper
    May 6, 2004 at 5:07 pm


    You have accurately pointed out one of the key issues with regards to the tension Nate describes. I’ve thought about this a lot, because I have seen some situations (very few, thankfully) in my own life where Church leaders have made statements that I had some difficulty with (for example, the recent Ensign article by Elder Nelson on God’s love being conditional). It’s not happened with any President of the Church, but with apostles and seventies.

    Perhaps a little church history can help focus the problem you have alerted us to. BYU Studies had an interesting paper years ago about the conflict amongst the Brethren, during President Grant’s administration, over U.S. entry into the League of Nations. All of the First Presidency and all but three of the Twelve were for the League, and even openly said so from the pulpit (this was back in the days when the G.A’s regularly gave opinions in conference, and didn’t label them as such). David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Reed Smoot were the three exceptions. Elders’ McKay and Smith could keep their opinions to themselves, but Reed Smoot had no choice but to speak up, as he was one of Utah’s US senators, and had to vote on the measure. Going through Bro. Smoot’s diaries, the article shows how tortured he felt, going against most of his brethren, but being convinced he was right. At one point, he asked Pres. Grant to go to the Lord, and he would accept whatever revelation God gave Pres. Grant on the matter. Pres. Grant refused, saying his feelings on the League were just his own opinion, and that he couldn’t understand why Smoot and B.H. Roberts (who was very vocally in favor of the League) were making such a big deal about it! One can only wonder how tense the situation would be, say, with “Adam-God” and Brigham Young (the experiences of the Bunker family are interesting in this regard).

    This may be going out on a limb, but I suspect, based on my own personal experience, that when God speaks to us, due to all the “static interference” in our lives, we may not only *not* hear Him, but often we *do* hear, but misunderstand (like only hearing what we want to, or not hearing ALL that the Spirit says, etc.) So, for example, is it possible that a person in 1850, hearing Brugham Young talk about Adam, could go to the Lord in prayer, ask for confirmation of the “doctrine”, and when the Spirit says, “Don’t worry about it. He is the Lord’s prophet and he won’t lead you astray on the really important stuff,” that person then says to himself, “It’s true! The spirit confirmed to me Pres. Young’s calling and that this really important new doctrine is true!” Now, that’s not quite what the Spirit said, is it?

    This really opens a pandora’s box, because on the one hand, while it would seem to underline the need to follow the Prophet, since we as individuals can misunderstand revelation, on the other hand is it possible the Prophet could misunderstand? My personal understanding of the “never lead us astray” statements is pretty straight forward. The Lord has enough foreknowledge of us to select only men to be prophet who are just and true, and he intervenes when He needs to to keep them straight on anything really important, but if they sometimes make mistakes, and the Lord can see the mistake will not destroy the Church, He lets it slide. We won’t be harmed in the afterlife for following a prophet’s mistaken counsel. Now, the good news is that I honestly feel that such “mistakes” were far more likely to happen in President Young’s day than in Pres. Hinckley’s. President Hinckley benefits from being raised through several generations of righteous leaders who have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes, and who are much more grounded in the Scriptures. Still, the tension Nate describes, and which you have further illuminated, is quite real, but only seems to be a serious, crisis-inducing problem for righteous people when *they make their objections public*. There’s the rub—do I keep my objections to myself? IMHO, I doubt the Lord really told folks like Quinn and Toscano, etc., to go ahead and publish and speak openly about the things they did which got them in trouble, especially in those situations where they may have been told to stop. Quinn’s stating that, when told that the Brethren were displeased with the tone and content of some of what he was saying and publishing, he had told his stake president, “I can not be intimidated!”, doesn’t strike me as the same attitude Abraham had when told to sacrifice his only son, or Heber C. Kimball’s when told to give up his wife to Joseph Smith. I’d much rather follow the example of Abraham and Heber.

  16. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 5:32 pm


    There’s so much to respond to in your post, that I don’t think I can possibly do it all in one sitting. I’ll try to post my responses from time to time throughout the day. One quick question:

    You said:
    “One can only wonder how tense the situation would be, say, with “Adam-God” and Brigham Young (the experiences of the Bunker family are interesting in this regard).”

    What does this mean? Who is the Bunker family?

    Aaron B

  17. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 5:57 pm


    I agree with you that the answer to my hypothetical is probably “yes, such a revelation could be received by an average member.” That is, I don’t see any structural or institutional arguments that would necessarily preclude such a spiritual confirmation (if the answer were “no,” this would raise a whole host of other interesting questions …).

    This is interesting to me because it suggests, at least in theory, that President Hinkley could be doctrinally mistaken and that an average member of the Church might receive a more correct interpretation upon seeking one from the Lord. This seems to be the straightforward implication of a “yes” answer to my hypothetical. Before everyone screams and yells about this, do understand that I’m not trying to advocate some new pet doctrinal understanding of mine. I certainly am not personally claiming to be that hypothetical regular member. But I think my conclusion is theoretically possible and cannot be definitively foreclosed. This has implications for how we view modern prophets, never mind how unfortunate some might find those implications to be.

    Gary suggests:
    “the good news is that I honestly feel that such “mistakes” were far more likely to happen in President Young’s day than in Pres. Hinckley’s. President Hinckley benefits from being raised through several generations of righteous leaders who have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes, and who are much more grounded in the Scriptures.”

    This really gets at the heart of the matter, for me. Is there a way to distinguish the “authority” of 19th Century Church leaders from that of current Church leaders? Gary suggests that current leaders use the scriptures better and have learned from the experiences of those that preceded them. However, I think that all we can really say is that current Church leaders are less willing to go out on a limb, speculate, etc. than the prior century’s leaders were. Neither Gary nor anyone else (that I know of) has provided a qualitative distinction between 19th Century “prophetic authority and inspiration” and the 20th Century kind. (In fact, we often proclaim quite fervently in the Church that there is NO DISTINCTION between them.)

    In short, I think we should stop sitting on the fence. We should either (1) posit a formal distinction between the nature of 19th Century prophetic authority and the nature of 20th Century prophetic authority, or (2) concede that whatever can happen to President Young could also happen to President Hinkley. I obviously favor option #2.

    Aaron B

  18. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 6:03 pm


    In a prior thread, Julie asked what we are to make of the “never lead us astray” statements. My own view is very similar to your own. That is, I think the only way to make sense of it, in light of other more modest claims about Mormon prophets (and the historical record that bears them out), is to read it rather narrowly, and assume that the “leading” that prophets will “never” do refers only to “really important” matters (though we’re still faced with figuring out what does and doesn’t fit into that category).

    Aaron B

  19. Adam Greenwood
    May 6, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    Granted that there’s no categorical distinction how is it that the current unwillingness of church leaders to speculate and go out on a limb doesn’t improve their reliability? If we don’t think that the Church can learn and grow, and the prophets too, then whats the point of prophecy and revelation?

  20. Gary Cooper
    May 6, 2004 at 6:05 pm


    Here is a link to quite detailed information on the experiences of the Bunker family, vs. the “Adam-God” Theory:

  21. Gary Cooper
    May 6, 2004 at 6:19 pm


    You said, “In short, I think we should stop sitting on the fence. We should either (1) posit a formal distinction between the nature of 19th Century prophetic authority and the nature of 20th Century prophetic authority, or (2) concede that whatever can happen to President Young could also happen to President Hinkley. I obviously favor option #2.”

    I would favor option #2 also; it’s just that I’m not as worried about the implications of that with President Hinckley as I would be if I lived under Brigham Young, for the reasons I stated earlier, and also those which Adam just made.

    By the way, with regard to the link on the Bunkers, it’s quite detailed reading. I do not agree with the conclusions of the some of the writers. For those not acquainted with the story, the Bunker family were steadfast, faithful LDS, holding numerous calings including serving in bishoprics, etc. They challenged the prevailing view during the Woodruff administration, and actually stated in the then current temple endowment, on “Adam-God”, arguing from the Scriptures an alternative view which is, in fact, the current doctrinal view today. A church court was called and while not disciplined, were asked to keep their views to themselves. A few decades later, their view became the church’s view (and the correct one, I and most of us here would agree). An interesting case of a courageous family, not trying to stir up trouble, actually being *ahead* of the Church, but remaining faithful when others didn;t see it this way, even Church leaders.

  22. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Thanks for the link, Gary. This is really interesting.

    Adam — I’ll respond to some of your comments later, when I have a minute.

    Aaron B

  23. May 6, 2004 at 6:49 pm

    Gary: Thanks for the link. In addition to the Bunkers, it looks like there is quite a bit of interesting stuff on that site.

  24. Gary Cooper
    May 6, 2004 at 6:52 pm


    Yep, I’ve found a lot of old discourses and articles there, as well as links to other good sources. For those interested, the sie itself is:

  25. May 6, 2004 at 8:49 pm

    Nate, interesting thoughts and comments. I think it really does clarify how the Church approaches doctrinal issues. Of course, imposing institutional centralization without epistemological/doctrinal centralization gives a scenario where LDS leaders tell members what to believe but can’t tell them why. Or change doctrines or policies without really explaining why the change, why now, and what are the implications of the change for doctrine or history.

    A real example helps, maybe. The 1978 revelation was such a welcome development that few people asked many questions, but in retrospect there was little context or explanation provided to permit reconsideration or correction of the underlying doctrine, history, or scriptural references. It was a centralized institutional change without centralized doctrinal explanation. So scattered members and those who feel impelled to flesh out needed doctrinal/historical implications (such as Armand Mauss, who addressed the doctrinal uncertainty in the wake of the 1978 revelation in questions 8 and 9 in his interview here at T&S) were left with questions but no answers: What is one to do with various Book of Abraham passages? With related Book of Mormon passages? With Mormon folk doctrines relating the Preexistence, the pre-1978 priesthood ban, and the post-1978 policy?

    Perhaps we would be well served by a bit more epistemological/doctrinal centralization.

  26. Aaron Brown
    May 6, 2004 at 9:34 pm


    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but I don’t think the examples you’ve given really illustrate the lack of “epistemological/doctrinal centralization” that Nate was pointing to. I took Nate to be showcasing the range of revelatory possibilities — from “Prophets” to the common member — and the “tension” that exists from having potentially competing sources of inspired authority. The problem with your examples is that many of them DID come from the then-current prophet, or were at least endorsed by him. So the “centralized” nature of the provenance of the problematic teachings was the problem, not some “lack of centralization.”

    If only we could pawn off troubling 19th Century teachings as the fault/creation of the humble Mormon masses, rather than the leadership, you’re point might hold. But we can’t, so it doesn’t.

    I suspect the issues that concern you have very little to do with centralization or lack of centralization of Mormon authority. Church leaders could address all the issues you listed quite quickly and definitively, were they so inclined. The interesting issue, for me, is to ask why they AREN’T so inclined. In my opinion, this has as much to do with –(1) not wanting to focus attention on historical problems that are unknown to most members and that will probably fade over time anyway; and (2) not wanting to create any more wave-making precedents for our understandings of the “timelessness” of Mormon truth claims — than it does anything else.

    Aaron B

  27. Juliann Reynolds
    May 7, 2004 at 4:01 am

    Nate said: “Hence, the Mormon doctrine of prophecy depends on a carefully calibrated tension. It is both the spirit poured out upon all flesh, and a living prophet, the living prophet who creates boundaries and limits for personal revelation. We live on the strength and vitality of both approaches.”

    I missed the part where prophet/prophecy has been defined. There is not a discussion–friendly or otherwise–of Mormonism that does not eventually boil down to prophecy, yet everyone talks as if we all know what “it” is and agree upon it.

    “Treatises on revelation did not begin to be written until the Enlightenment period, in controversies with the Deists. But since that time theologians have recognized that an implicit doctrine of revelation underlies every major theological undertaking. The great theological disputes turn out, upon reflection, to rest on different understandings of revelation, often simply taken for granted. The controversies that have raged in our own century about the divinity of Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible, the infallibility of the Church, secular and political theology, and the value of other religions would be unintelligible apart from the varying convictions about revelation.”

    Avery Dulles, S.J., _Models of Revelation_, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p xix.

  28. Mark Butler
    May 7, 2004 at 5:19 am

    Joseph Smith was a promoter of the idea that each member should seek after gospel knowledge, even mysteries, line upon line, precept upon precept. However he also outlined a number of rules that govern that process. You can see them throughout his writings, as well as in the scriptures themselves.

    On questions like this, it is always best to start with the scriptures. Such as this one: “And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.” (Alma 12:9-10)

    There are many other scriptures suggesting ordinary members may know the mysteries of God. However, there are several relevant constraints. The most obvious is not to publish one’s knowledge abroad without proper authority. Since the Lord teaches us according to our understanding, what we think of as a full and complete understanding of a principle may fall short of what others, notably Church leaders, have. Even if we think we know better, it is contrary to the order of heaven for one to “command him who is at thy head” (D&C 28:6), let alone spread disorder in the Church by pretending to authority one does not have.

    Jesus said: “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.” (3 Ne 11:40).

    The sin lies not in knowledge of a gospel mystery, but in attempting to establish one’s knowledge as doctrine, without proper authority. The Standard Works are the the shared basis for the Doctrine. The _consensus_ of the First Presidency and the Twelve establish the normative Doctrine as an interpretation of the Standard Works. The actual practice in the Church is the interpretation of the Doctrine. (See D&C 107)

    So Doctrine is a concept much like Law – not only a law for behavior, but also a law for teaching. Everyone can have their own opinion, sometimes even inspiration, on what the scriptures mean. But the Doctrine sets sharp limits on any claim to authority outside of the regularly established channels. In cases of controversy, there is a common law appeals system for doctrine, that ends on this earth with the First Presidency as the court of last resort. Any decision of the Church as regards what is and what is not Doctrine does not necessarily establish that the proposition before it has no merit, but rather that for any number of reasons, it should not be taught in the Church. Gospel mysteries, by definition, are both true and not suitable for doctrine – likely to be doctrine some day, in some form, but unclear and divisive in the context of common understanding, whether in the Church or in the world at large.

    Even if we make no claim to authority, some principles are so sensitive, that the Lord will only reveal them to us to the degree we keep them secret. Joseph Smith taught: “The reason we do not have the secrets of the Lord revealed unto us, is because we do not keep them but reveal them; we do not keep our own secrets, but reveal our difficulties to the world, even to our enemies, then how would we keep the secrets of the Lord? I can keep a secret till Doomsday.” (HC 4:479).

    We might therefore conclude that anyone who is promoting a detailed explication of the mysteries has lost the confidence of the Lord, if he ever had it in the first place. Knowledge of the mysteries rests on keys that are given in confidence to those the Lord knows he can trust, under the strict command to impart “only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him”.

  29. Mark Butler
    May 7, 2004 at 6:13 am

    Here is a relevant statement from Brigham Young:

    “Here let me give you one lesson that may be profitable to many. If the Lord Almighty should reveal to a High Priest, or to any other than the head, things that are, or that have been and will be, and show to him the destiny of this people twenty-five years from now, or a new doctrine that will in five, ten, or twenty years hence become the doctrine of this Church and kingdom, but which has not yet been revealed to this people, and reveal it to him by the same Spirit, the same messenger, the same voice, and the same power that gave revelations to Joseph when he was living, it would be a blessing to that High Priest, or individual; but he must rarely divulge it to a second person on the face of the earth, until God reveals it through the proper source to become the property of the people at large. Therefore when you hear Elders, High Priests, Seventies, or the Twelve, (though you cannot catch any of the Twelve there, but you may the High Priests, Seventies, and Elders) say that God does not reveal through the President of the Church that which they know, and tell wonderful things, you may generally set it down as a God’s truth that the revelation they have had, is from the devil, and not from God. If they had received from the proper source, the same power that revealed to them would have shown them that they must keep the things revealed in their own bosoms, and they seldom would have a desire to disclose them to the second person. That is a general rule, but will it apply in every case, and to the people called the kingdom of God at all times? No, not in the strictest sense, but the Spirit which reveals will impart the proper discretion” (JD 3:318).

  30. Gary Cooper
    May 7, 2004 at 11:20 am


    You have made some excellent points. I fully agree. Nicely done.

  31. Adam Greenwood
    May 7, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    Excellent comments, Mark. I especially enjoyed the extended quotation from Brigham Young.

    His remark about inspiration from the Devil reminds me of a point I meant to make: I think Mormonism’s democratic epistemology makes believing in the devil more necessary for us than for others. If everyone can get revelation and spiritual gifts, but the revelation and spiritual gifts differ markedly, than one has to look for some supernatural source outside God, viz., the devil.

    (Alternatively, now that I come to think of it, one could argue that God lets angels and resurrected beings, as part of their continued growth, exercise some stewardship over our revelations and spiritual gifts and that these angels and resurrected beings, being as yet imperfected, have different approaches from each other.)

  32. Juliann Reynolds
    May 7, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    Very good analysis of community prophecy. Something our critics have never understood is the element of confidence, i.e., being a trusted friend to God. But we draw a semantic line by referring to what we do as “revelation” while reserving “prophecy” for the titled leader. Nate’s premise included clerical as well as community: “It is both the spirit poured out upon all flesh, **and a living prophet, the living prophet who creates boundaries and limits** for personal revelation. We live on the strength and vitality of both approaches.”

    The misunderstandings always occur over clerical prophecy where there seems to be an outsider (fundamentalistic) expectation that God is being channeled through the man and there can never be deviation or change. As LDS we never seem to elaborate on what we imply by saying “the prophet” and our critics are more than happy to fill in the blanks for us.

    I personally think that the prophet, in the LDS community, functions more as interpreter
    and _martyrein_ than “foreteller” but few hear this when the term “prophet” is thrown out.

  33. Gary Cooper
    May 7, 2004 at 2:09 pm


    Maybe it would be better if we used the term “SEER” more than we do. I’ve always thought the word better described what the Church President does than the term “prophet”, as “seer” is more all-inclusive. I’m not going to hold my breath on seeing such a change, though. We have a hard enough time explaining to the world what we mean when we say we believe in a living prophet—can you imagine explaining, “We believe in a living seer?”

  34. Matt J
    May 7, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    Mark, another thanks for the Brigham Young quote. While it helps and reminds us to be careful, it certainly doesn’t solve the problem, because Brigham has only given us a general rule that does not apply in every case. Do we need to worry about the exceptions? Or is it not worth the risk?

  35. Mark Butler
    May 8, 2004 at 2:57 am

    Matt, I think the answer to this question is the same as what the Lord said regarding the Apocrypha in D&C 91:

    “VERILY, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated. Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.” (D&C 91)

    Whenever we study, we need the Spirit to distinguish truth from error. If we are not willing to do the spiritual heavy lifting – pondering and praying about the merits – it is probably better to leave questionable sources alone. That is my view.

  36. May 9, 2004 at 5:51 am

    Perhaps discussion time has passed, but I want to respond to a couple of Adam’s comments. Better late than never?

    Adam said:
    “Well, Aaron, you’ll have to do a lot more drumming into someone’s thick skull (mine)before I’m convinced that we need to recieve our own personal confirmation of the truth only because or necessarily because the the prophets can be mistaken. I really don’t think I believe that any more than I believe that the Church telling people to pray about the Book of Mormon is evidence that we have our doubts about it.”

    I don’t think this analogy works. I agree that the Church’s admonition to each of us to seek spiritual confirmation that the Book of Mormon is true is NOT evidence of the Church’s insecurity as to the book’s truthfulness. If I’m understanding you correctly, you are saying that in similar fashion, admonitions to seek spiritual confirmation as to the correctness of Church leaders’ proclamations are NOT to be read as admissions that the proclamations might potentially be erroneous.

    Here’s the problem. We CAN analogize the Church’s invitation to pray about the Book of Mormon to the Church’s encouragement to pray about whether, say, Joseph Smith or Gordon B. Hinkley is a “Prophet” (in the sense that they have been called by God to serve that role). But just as my receiving spiritual confirmation that the Book of Mormon is “true” doesn’t tell me whether I should adopt a Meso-American Book of Mormon geographical model (a la John Sorenson) or a hemispheric model (a la the Book of Mormon Title Page), my receiving spiritual confirmation that a modern prophet is “the Prophet” doesn’t necessarily tell me whether the Proclamation on the Family’s gender discussion is inspired, or whether Ezra Taft Benson’s instruction for women to stay home is timeless. I am not necessarily quarreling with these tenets per se; I merely maintain that the question of their truthfulness and inspiration is a SEPARATE QUESTION from that of whether their authors are “Prophets.” And it is separate precisely because of the possibility that prophets can be mistaken.

    This does not mean that because Brigham Young said some funky stuff back in the day, “all is chaos” (to quote Steve E. at BCC). You could probably make various probabilistic arguments that the Prophet is right about this or that issue, and maybe you’d have a point. But as long as Young can utter real doozies without being struck by lightning, it is surely possible for Hinkley to do the same, and that’s where spiritual confirmation of specific prophetic statements becomes valuable. Although I don’t have the citations handy (I’ll post them at BCC when I do), I maintain that there are occasional acknowledgments by Church leaders of the need to seek personal spiritual confirmation of their claims because of the specific possibility of error. These acknowledgments are much more than analogous to Moroni’s invitation to pray about the Book of Mormon.

    Adam said:
    “Granted that there’s no categorical distinction how is it that the current unwillingness of church leaders to speculate and go out on a limb doesn’t improve their reliability? If we don’t think that the Church can learn and grow, and the prophets too, then whats the point of prophecy and revelation?”

    I agree that with the passage of time, the Church can “learn and grow.” I agree that the Church, as an institution, can learn from its past leaders’ free-wheeling doctrinal “speculations,” and in an effort to avoid the unsavory consequences that followed, implement a more conservative policy regarding leaders’ public pronouncements. I believe that the Church has probably implemented such a policy, and that your average Church leader’s “reliability” may have improved as a result. But this doesn’t really change my point. I’m not making a claim that relies on any particular threshold “probability of error.” I merely maintain that spiritual confirmation of prophetic pronouncements serves a valuable function, over and above merely helping an individual come to terms with what we already “know” must be true by definition, as long as the probability or error is more than negligible. And LDS history suggests it is.

    A word about “speculation” is in order. It is easy to look back at LDS history with 100 years of hindsight, and pronounce whatever hasn’t stood the test of time as “speculation.” It is fashionable in the Church to talk about 19th Century “speculations” as if those leaders doing the speculating were consciously doing so – fully cognizant that their statements were less than doctrinally kosher. But I see no evidence to support this view of the matter, and quite a bit to contradict it. Try reading Brigham Young’s doctrinal discourses, or the First Presidency minutes during his tenure, or journal accounts of those who talked with him or heard him speak. Young wasn’t just shooting the breeze. He BELIEVED in the “speculations” he taught quite fervently. He often accompanied his “speculations” with superlative language as to their inspiration and doctrinal soundness. That we currently dismiss some of his teachings as mere “speculations” doesn’t change the fact that Young missed the boat on issues he thought were pretty important and central (I’m obviously thinking of the Adam-God Theory here). It actually serves to highlight this fact.

    The lesson in all this is that a Prophet called of God can believe fervently in a teaching – even one about the “nature of God,” no less – and still get it wrong. This is what really counts, and the fact that modern Church leaders are now more close-to-the-vest in their public doctrinal commentary matters far less. The Church as an institution may have evolved in a variety of ways, surely for the better, but it doesn’t follow that our 21st Century prophets, as individuals, are qualitatively superior to their 19th Century forbearers in their abilities to access and properly interpret divine communications (of whatever sort). If anyone wants to argue otherwise, that’s fine, but doing so successfully will require positing a qualitative distinction between the mantle of Young and the mantle of Hinkley. I remain skeptical as to whether such an argument can be made.

    Aaron B

  37. May 11, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    Everyone has probably lost interest in this thread, but there is something that I found just a tad disorienting about this discussion, and I think that I put my finger on it.

    When I wrote that democratized revelation had a tendency to fly appart what I had in mind was where non-authorities claim to get a revelation that is authoritative for others. The examples that I cited from Hiram Page to Paul Toscano all more or less fit into this category. The problem is the line of reasoning that goes like this: 1. God told me X. 2. God has authority over everything. 3. Therefore, I have divine authority to tell you to do X. To my mind that church neatly gets around this problem by saying that you are only entitled to revelation for those over whom you have been granted stewardship. The strong version of this doctrine says that any such revelations must be false or from the devil, the weak version is something like you got a revelation but you misinterpreted it.

    Aaron’s comments pointed toward what is really a seperate issue. What happens when the Prophet teaches X and you get a revelation not-X. Strictly speaking, I don’t know that the theology of institutional centralization provides an answer to this, since it makes and exclusive claim (you won’t get revelation for the whole church) rather than an inclusive claim (the person who gets revelation for the whole church is always inspired). Thus, Aaron suggests that the anarchic possibility of democratized revelation is that we will decide the prophet is wrong and go off on our own, rather than that we will start ordering each other around on the basis of our revelations.

  38. May 15, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    Hey…anybody ever tell you guys not to use Cody Judy’s name in vain because he might hear you? :)
    I just finished reading your on going discussion and thought it very interesting. As pertaining to the discussion somewhat I recalled Brigham Young’s sentiments that “Truth” could not be held from the members of the church regarding so many members coming to him with “spiritual revelations” of a trip out west after that had come to his knowledge but before he had declared.

    In the leaders efforts not to panic the whole population and to come to a “strategy” of employing the revelation, Brigham made the remark as if the Lord was telling on him and couldn’t keep a “good secret” very long from the members.

    A brief comment on the #1 and #2 issues regarding the strength of revelation in the 19th century and the 20th. In consideration of history to sum up the scriptures entirely haven’t we seen the story of “A Peculiar People” who it was recorded about fall away from the “standard” and then were called back to it?

    As “chosen” as you want to be called may predict the “intelligence” of God being greater then your own and his complimenting you on the “great example you were to the world”….by falling away so he could call you back. The “magic” is that he can actually close the eyes and ears less they see and hear and believe and the plan be frustrated.

    Thank you for your participation and your volunteering for a “plan” which is so honored and carried out here on Earth. LDS Pres. Herald B. Lee had some choice words to the affect ..”Where ere thou art act well thy part.

    In our “intellectual prowess” of the modern day, how easily it is to make the low high and the high low. Look at the Corporations falling with loud crashes…Enron, the mistake of 160 Billion on the advice that Sadamn had WMD by the President and the CIA, and the cashing out of America by so many taking jobs over seas and importing at the very risk of America’s future. WE see ourselves foreign powers acting upon gas prices linked to hiking food, housing, and our lifestyles without a resolution to keep our wages on scale of the upstep. The pinch is a “force” to topple and cripple and to humble America by those of which have the incentive to do that.

    I’m reminded of the time when President Kennedy gave his speech on the Steel Manufactures who hiked prices up ridiculously at a time every American was sacrificing. Nothing brought more contempt in his speeches then a ” bully” pushing the foot in the neck in a time of vulnerability.
    Now, America has no steel mills left that can make steel from ore. Geneva is being disassembled and shipped over to China and reassembled because they can still make a profit in doing it, but we can’t? It would take evan with modern advances about 7 years to make a comparable plant.

    My point is the comparison of the centuries can so easily come together in a very relevant way very fast. Our modern conveniences lost like a rug pulled out from underneath us and presto we are back in the 19th Century. This procuring possibility has been the wisdom of the prophets to be prepared. Oh that we could have changed it before it happened…but we didn’t.

    Bon Jovi has a song in which the relevancy of the ages are brought together as one. The words…”It’s all the same…only the names have changed”. My dismay is to think that our current modern generation has come to think so highly about itself as to believe our “time” is not included and the “mind” of man so historically predictable yet so blind. I believe the Theocracy of Israel and others who we see were “chastised” or “told off” somewhat throughout the ages is ever bit as capable of deserving the same treatment for the same reasons.

    Thank you for including Ezra Taft Bensons wisdom of “pride” being the stumbling block of the whole lot of us.

    Please excuse my interruption of the discussion, and just delete this if you can. I certainly wouldn’t want to “crash” anyone’s party. :) Have a great day and may I pass on my admiration of you all.
    Surprisingly..or maybe not.. a Democrat. (With humor please).
    Cody Robert Judy
    U.S.Senate 2004
    The Senate Looking Good Campaign

    2459 S. Main (Hwy 89) Suite 6
    Bountiful , UT. 84010
    Please excuse spelling and grammar errors of which I am very humble about.

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