On Authority

Authority is a central concept in Mormon theology and practice. It is an issue that anyone thinking about Mormonism must come to grips with. The well-worn criticism that Mormonism is overly authoritarian or that Mormons place “too much� faith in their leaders misses the point. Mormonism is inherently authoritarian. Concepts of authority are part of what define Mormonism. Anyone who believes that they can offer some account or interpretation of Mormon theology while at the same time ducking this issue or reducing it to a few cautionary bromides about individual responsibility and critical thinking is kidding themselves.

Authority, however, turns out to be really complex. Think of the idea of prophetic authority. There are several different senses in which we say that the prophets have authority. They have administrative authority over the institutional church. For example, the First Presidency constitutes a court of final appeal in the Church judicial system. We say that the Apostles and the First Presidency hold all of the keys, by which we mean something like the authority to authorize the use of priesthood power to perform certain ordinances. In a more dramatic form, we claim that they have the sealing power, so that what they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Finally, prophets have some sort of epistemic authority. They have some sort of privileged access to the divine. Counsel and instruction from President Hinkley is simply not the same thing as counsel from Kaimi. At least, it doesn’t seem to me that one can equate the two and still have some concept of the prophetic in the Mormon sense.

Now all of these things are troubling and difficult in one way or another. As an American, I have had the shibboleths of philosophical liberalism pounded into my brain. Authority is an inherently suspect concept for liberalism. The assumption is that we are all free and equal citizens, and any claim to the legitimate exercise of superior power by another must be carefully justified. Enter stories of the state of nature, the social contract, and the like.

Hand-in-hand with philosophical liberalism goes philosophical modernism. By this I mean a certain attitude about knowledge that privileges doubt, personal investigation and verification, and rejects claims to special authority based on experiences not open to all. Enter stories of Descartes lying in his bed and trying to independently reason his way to all knowledge. Enter the myth of Galileo and the heroic intellectual siding with science and reason against religion and authority.

Now it may well be that all of these things can be reconciled in the end. Perhaps I can have liberalism, modernism, and prophetic authority too. But it is going to take some real work to get there. Here are some options that I don’t find especially compelling:

Prophets as CEOs: In this vision, essentially all notions of prophetic authority are collapsed into the notion of administrative authority. There is no special insight into God or special claim to exercise God’s power. There are simply a bunch of old men (well-meaning or conniving, depending on your preference) who run a large organization. This is a dandy view if one is interested in institutional criticism. It reduces the issues of authority to issues of social design and warrants vigorous criticism. The problem is that one loses any real concept of priesthood or revelation.

Prophets as Charismatic: This view also downplays the notion of special access to divine knowledge or power, and instead focuses on social influence. The nice thing about this approach is that it does seem to provide some sort of an answer as to why I care more about President Hinkley’s teachings than Kaimi’s. The answer lies in the force of President Hinkley’s personality. Prophets are people who have the capacity to move, motivate, and transform others. Think Ghandi or Martin Luther King. Charisma thus offers us a neat explanation of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. The problem is that one could argue with equal ease for the charismatic authority of Adolf Hitler. In other words, charisma is ultimately a theory of social interaction rather than of legitimacy.

The Pure Democracy of Revelation: A final possibility is that we say that prophets get revelation but just like the rest of us. In other words, we acknowledge prophetic access to the divine, but we deny that it is in any way unique or privileged. The problem with this view is that it fails to explain authority at all. It cannot explain what it means that an Apostle is a special witness of Jesus Christ and I am not. Note, that my objection here is conceptual rather than normative. I am not arguing that those who take this position are illegitimately undermining the power of the Brethren. Nor do I object to the notion that prophetic revelation is phenomenologically similar to my revelation. Rather, I am arguing that this approach is simply missing a key point. It fails to explain why I should pay more attention to President Hinkley than to Kaimi.

So what are we to do? Well, it seems to me that our answer is something like: “Prophets have superior access to the divine, but only some of the time.� Certainly, this is a model of prophecy that is consistent with scripture and offers the promise of avoiding a fair amount of theological embarrassment. I have a way of dismissing prophetic statements that I find troubling whether they be about Zelph, moonmen, or mothers-in-the-home. But, alas, things are not so easy. The answer isn’t of much use until I have a way of figuring out how to recognize statements representing special access to the divine.

There are a couple of responses to this puzzle:

Truth is the Standard: One could argue in effect that our knowledge of the truth provides us with the criteria. If I know that there are no men on the moon dressed like Quakers, then I know that statement was not inspired. If I just know that the ERA was a good idea, or that drinking coffee is not such a big deal, then I know that prophetic pronouncements against these things don’t represent any special insight into the mind of God. I suspect that this is the approach that most people implicitly take most of the time. However, when you set it out in black and white it has a suspiciously circular look to it. At the very least it suggests that God can never tell you something through a prophet that you don’t already know.

A Rule of Recognition: The idea here is that there is some procedural mechanism that allows you to recognize genuinely prophetic statements. Perhaps those accompanied by “thus saith the Lord� or those that are formally canonized. This would be a grand solution to the quandary. The problem is figuring out what the rule of recognition is. I would suggest that our social practice is simply not consistent enough to isolate such a rule as a matter of social fact. (For those law geeks out there the social fact approach was Hart’s solution to the problem of recognizing the rule of recognition. Non-law geeks can ignore this parenthetical.) If one can’t find such a rule as a matter of social practice, then one is left looking for a rule in some authoritative source. The problem of course, is recognizing the authoritative source that gives the rule for recognizing authoritative sources.

Personal Revelation: This was J. Reuben Clark’s solution. He suggested that prophets do in fact have special access to the divine but we need personal access to the divine in order to recognize those instances of special prophetic access. I like this one. It seems to suffer from less circularity than the other two approaches suggested above. This approach, however, is very demanding. Frankly, I am quite skeptical of those who purport to consistently follow it. Most of us in actual practice, I think, use some other approach.

A Revelation Portfolio: Frank McIntyre has suggested a rather ingenious argument based the idea of risk and uncertainty. To use an analogy different from Frank’s, we argue that picking truly prophetic statements is rather like picking stocks. It is virtually impossible to figure out with certainty in advance which stocks will be winners and which will be losers. The implication of this insight, however, is not that one should never invest in stocks. Rather, the conclusion is that one should invest in lots of stocks and diversify your portfolio. Some stocks will win, some stocks will lose, but so long as the aggregate performance of the portfolio beats out inflation and interest, you are a winner. By the same token, one could simply treat every prophetic statement as representing privileged access to the divine. Sometimes one will be mistaken, but so long as you think that on average the prophets have superior access to the divine than you do you will be a net winner. Hence, prophetic statements are like stocks in a diversified portfolio. Some are winners, some are losers. It doesn’t matter so long as you are beating the alternatives.

The Presumption of Correctness: The law frequent solves difficult empirical questions by creating rules that set up presumptions. The most famous is the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, but there are lots of other presumptions. For example, if a person breaches a contract he or she is assumed to be aware (and therefore responsible) only for the damages that might “reasonably� flow from that breach. However, this presumption can be overcome. A disappointed promisee who because of idiosyncratic circumstances suffered a huge loss may recover her damages if she can show that she communicated the possibility of those damages to the promisor. One could approach prophetic access to the divine the same way. One would assume that prophetic messages are generally resting on some privileged access to the mind of God. However, in the face of unusually compelling evidence to the contrary – e.g. extremely strong moral objections, unusually powerful personal revelation, and the like – one would conclude that prophetic counsel is not inspired. The problem with this solution is that it is a bit mushy and is perpetually in danger of sliding into the circularity of the “Truth is the Standard� approach.

The Coherence Solution: Finally, one could argue for a coherence solution to the problem of recognition. Here the idea is that one figures out the status of prophetic statements by seeing how well they fit into an overall understanding of the gospel, history, etc. To borrow a favorite metaphor from legal philosophy, you think of your understanding of the Gospel as a serial novel in which you are composing the latest chapter by interpreting the prophets’ words. What you want to do is offer an interpretation of those words that makes the novel as a whole the best that it can be. Hence, one understands as inspired those statements that make the story as a whole “the best.� For example, one might argue that understanding the 1978 revelation on the priesthood as inspired provides the best “plot line� for Mormonism, while understanding some of Brigham’s statements about the Mark of Cain in the same way does not. The point here is not that one should “whitewash� history. It is not a theory of how one reports the past, but rather of how one interprets particular statements. There are a number of problems with this approach as well. It can easily fall into the trap of circularity ,as interpretation gives way to simply accepting or discarding statements on the basis of one’s pre-existing beliefs. Also, it requires that one’s interpretations remain forever tentative because you don’t know the next chapter of the story. An interpretation that you thought provided the best account today may turn out to be entirely mistaken based on what happens tomorrow. Perhaps “Adam-God is inspired� was the best interpretation in 1870. It might not be the best interpretation today.

There are no doubt lots of other options, but this post is already way, way too long. However, I think it provides a framework to start really thinking about these issues. Clearly, one cannot simply say “prophets aren’t infallible� and assume that one has disposed of the issue anymore than one can assume that asserting that prophets are inspired sorts out all of the difficulties.

44 comments for “On Authority

  1. greenfrog
    September 30, 2004 at 10:24 am

    Still thinking about several of these postures.

    One note about the CEO alternative — this description may overlook a pretty important part of this analysis: even if the CEO and I both have the same access to the same divine source of information, we do not have identical sources of mundane information. The questions we ask depend on the information we have before us. It’s easy for me to look at my ward and conclude that wards should be allowed to combine their youth programs with adjoining wards in order to create a larger mass of youth than my individual ward can supply. But, (speculating) there may be lots of good reasons why such a practice would confound a lot of other organizational issues that I don’t see from my perspective.

    That fact makes it easier for me to accept the guidance and instruction of the “CEO,” even if, at times, I may disagree quite strongly with the conclusion. If I want to be a part of an organization as large as the LDS Church, I should want strong, insightful, and perceptive leadership that can reach better decisions than I, even if that is merely as a function of a difference in access to information.

    This posture toward authority makes it easier for me to accept the basic instructions about hierarchical leadership within the organization — i.e., that leaders are the only ones “authorized” to receive revelation for their designated units of responsibility. This is not because they are the only ones with access to divine truth and understandings relevant to such units, but a two-fold reason: they are the ones with access to the organizational information that enables informed decisions, and in order to have an organization rather than something not organized, such a structure is necessary.

  2. September 30, 2004 at 10:35 am

    Nate, excellent synthesis of ideas. I’m glad you summarized Frank’s model, because I have no memory of it, which probably means that he infused it with enough economic jargon that I just didn’t understand it at all. Anyway, that one gets my vote. It’s actually just an extension of Paschal’s gamble– if you pick the one side, even though you risk losing a few, your overall risks are minimal compared to not taking that side.

    Theoretically, I understand why it’s important to discriminate between false and true counsel from prophets. But personally, I’ve never really seen the need. Seems like following the prophets is pretty much always a good idea. Maybe someone could offer some examples from the last thirty years where the ‘revelation portfolio’ followers took a hit, finding that one of the ‘stocks’ they bought was a loser? Have there been any ‘crashes’ in the market in recent times?

  3. September 30, 2004 at 10:51 am

    Great post, Nate; you can synthesize and structure information as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I’ve just one comment (which, of course, you knew was coming):

    “Perhaps I can have liberalism, modernism, and prophetic authority too.”

    Or you could ditch philosophical liberalism. (And perhaps modernism too, though I think there’s more to modernity than many of its critics suppose.) Get rid of, or at least profoundly complicate, the idea that we are all “free and equal”; instead, accept that we are unequally, differentially, unevenly, bounded and constrained by roles and responsibilities that are not of our own choosing or even of our own thinking. We are, in short, fundamentally dependent upon authority, and all meaningful, authentic–even “authoritative”–action flows from the recognition of one’s situatedness in a community or hierarchy.

    This approach doesn’t make the conundrum of prophetic authority easy, of course; there still remains the slight matter of knowing exactly which community one is part of, and exactly where one’s role places oneself within that community. Still, it would have the advantage of making at least a few of your rather perplexingly attractive alternatives moot.

  4. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 10:55 am

    Russell: Thank you for always making a good charge whenever I wave a red liberal cape. It is what makes me love you ;->. I am curious, however, as to which of the attractive alternatives you believe are rendered moot by the rejection of philosophical liberalism.

  5. September 30, 2004 at 11:03 am

    The “pure democracy of revelation” for one, and it’s concomitant complications. (I don’t think communitarian perspectives necessarily undermine the possibility of thinking in terms of CEOs or charisma.)

  6. Sheldon
    September 30, 2004 at 11:39 am

    What about the pure empiricism advocated in Alma 32? Experiment on the word. Give it a good, honest try, then observe the results. I believe that God expects us to eventually have purely rational, experiential knowlege of everything. There will come a day when we won’t have to take anyone’s word for anything. In the meantime, however, we must use faith to engage in honest, wholehearted experiments.

  7. CB
    September 30, 2004 at 11:44 am

    While the portfolio approach initially has some appeal, doesn’t it ultimately limit my own ability to receive revelation?

    To stay with the analogy, If I buy a mutual fund that tracks the market, I am not developing my ability as a stock analyst.

  8. JWL
    September 30, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    When I have time I will reread Nate’s post in detail, and maybe this comment will seem inane. However, every time I see one of these “when is a prophet a prophet” discussions, I have to make this interjection. It is a basic understanding in religious studies to distinguish between the “priestly” and the “prophetic” role. The priest leads the day-to-day ritual and administrative affairs of the faithful. The prophet is the voice of God crying in the wilderness with some new relvelation from Deity.

    In the LDS Church, the president of the Church theoretically combines these roles. Clearly they were both active in Joseph Smith, and sometimes in such successors as Spencer W. Kimball. However, in general in the modern Church, the president functions primarily in the priestly role rather than the prophetic. Although we sustain the president of the Church as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” and casually refer to him as the “Prophet,” this is not his actual title nor his primary role. He is the “Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood” (see D&C 107:64-67). It seems that 99.999% of what a president of the Church does is to fulfill this priestly and related administrative roles. He may or may not be specifically inspired with regard to his every action. The question is whether he has the authority to fulfill these functions (in conjunction with the other presiding councils). I think that if we recognized that most of what the Church president does is not specifically inspired, but rather that he and the councils with whom he presides collegially are making good faith human decisions — which we have agreed to sustain — that we could be considerably less vexed about whether some jot or tittle is the absolute word of God. And if that is in issue, we test it through personal revelation as per J. Reuben Clark. The rest is sustaining a Presiding High Priest as chief adminstrator of the Kingdom on earth to whom the Lord gives wide discretion in the fulfillment of his priestly stewardship.

  9. Jack
    September 30, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    Russell said “…authentic–even “authoritative”–action flows from the recognition of one’s situatedness in a community or hierarchy.”

    This rings true to me. I find it useful to think of the community of the church as a living organism – much like a tree or a vine. though the essence which flows through the trunk permeates all of the outer limbs, it is only at the trunk that a fulness – quantitatively speaking – of essence is experienced. However, a fulness – qualitatively speaking – may be experienced by the outer-most limb as it is the same essence that flows from the trunk to the limb.

    I agree somewhat with greenfrog’s thought about “access to information” working in this way, but would add that there are elements which are “other worldy” that come into play or that constitute, in part, the essence (counsel, revelation, spirit, life giving substance etc) which flow through the community and that the essence originates from a source that is unseen to which the trunk is connected directly. Therefore we may conclude that the trunk, as it is directly connected to the roots, may claim a special kind of knowlegde as to the source of the essence.

    This is getting a little wacky, but if I think of the priesthood as that which binds the community into one organism then it becomes obvious to me that my duty is to do what I can to maintain the localized connections of which I’m a part so that the essence will flow unobstructed. And, the more essence that flows the more I become familiar with it, thereby aquiring the ability to descerne the true life giving essence from that which may contain poisons which may infiltrate the system at any point along the way. I do believe however, that the organism has a pretty good filtering system by which toxins can by identified because of the many hierarchical constituents who are simaltaneously on the alert.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    September 30, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    It would probably be less wacky if you used some word beside ‘essence.’ :)

  11. Mike
    September 30, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    While on the topic of authority I am wondering if anyone has read either of Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy books. I was considering trying to work my way through one or both, but want to know others’ opinions on them.

  12. John H
    September 30, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Nate.

    Not surprisingly, I like combining “Prophets as CEO’s” with “the Pure Democracy of Revelation” approach, despite its limitations. I think one can synthesize this with JWL’s leaders in priestly capacities fairly well, and it does leave open the possibility that leaders do have access to the divine that they need to share with us. While it doesn’t, as you pointed out, explain why prophets have more authority than Kaimi, it follows the model President Hinckley has laid out for revelation – the still small voice gently inspiring.

    I think part of the dilemma with determining the authority of prophets lies in separating cultural myths from facts. I often hear people insist that President Hinckley has personally seen Jesus, despite the fact that he himself has never said so, and at least on one occassion endorsed the idea that he has *not* seen God or Jesus.

    Members insist that prophets have access to the divine all the time, but the reality is their own statements implying this aren’t all that numerous. Certainly they exist, and I think we’d be foolish to ignore them. But members often act as if just about every word that flows from a leaders mouth is scripture, especially in General Conference. Yet to my knowledge, no Church leader has ever endorsed this view.

  13. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    John H.: As you no doubt expected, I disagree with you. I don’t think that the Big Issue is disentangling fact from cultural myth. To be right honest with you, I think that endeavor is largely an intellectual distraction. Sure it is annoying to listen to someone talk about how Elder Haight was caught up to the seventh heaven prior to his final conference address to recieve personal instruction from on high about which particular story from his youth to share. Frankly, however, I think that obsessing over this sort of thing gets rather pointless after a while and does very little to illuminate what I think are the genuinely difficult questions.

    I agree with you and JWL that the notion of priestly authority can do a great deal for our understanding of the authority of church leaders. Two points in response, however. First, we will still need a theory of epistemic authority at some point. Second, we are going to need a theory of priesthood, which is itself fully of tricky problems. Furthermore, I seems that focusing on the winnowing of fact from cultural myth is even LESS useful in formulating a theory of priesthood authority than it is in terms of epistemic authority.

    That said, I think that you are correct to point out that Church leaders actually claim revelation less frequently than Church members often ascribe it to them. (As I recall Elder Oaks has a good sermon address this.) Furthermore, I agree with you that the experience of prophetic revelation is probably mainly like my own experience of revelation. (Although Elijah has yet to appear to me.) However, this also misses the point. Even if the experience of revelation is similar, it does not follow that the content is. Hence, I could affirm that Kaimi and President Hinkley experience revelation through essentially the same sorts of experiences and still believe that President Hinkley’s revelations have greater authority than do Kaimi’s. In other words, phenomenology does not solve or even overtly respond to the issue of authority.

  14. John H
    September 30, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    “I am wondering if anyone has read either of Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy books.”

    At the risk of derailing the discussion into a Michael Quinn bashing session, I’ve read and enjoyed both. I do think on occasion Mike overstates his case, and misinterprets some evidence. But overall they really are wonderful books.

    His discussion of succession in the Church is considered brilliant by many, and I’d agree. He marshals the evidence for a summer 1830 date for the Melckizedek priesthood restoration very well, and I think his arguments are more persuasive than those who continue to hold to the 1829 date.

    Klaus Hansen, one of the true experts on the Council of Fifty, praised Quinn’s assessment of the council at the most recent John Whitmer Historical Association meeting last week.

    In Extensions of Power, the lack of focus and sort of randomness of the discussion are made up for by great anecdotes and information about more current Church leaders and events. I do think the discussion of post-1844 theocracy and his “culture of violence” is quite lacking. The simple reality is, there probably was violence on the Mormon frontier, but the evidence does not exist to make the case that Quinn and Will Bagley want to make. If it turns out that Quinn is right and there was a “culture of violence,” I won’t have the least bit of a problem with that. (Quite the contrary, it’d make Mormon history all the more fascinating.) But in the meantime, I don’t think the evidence leads us there just yet.

    Much, much better is his discussion of Ezra Taft Benson and his conflicts with other leaders, the Church and partisan politics, and the Church’s anti-ERA campaign. I do think he goes overboard with Benson and conflicts from time to time, but I do think he captured the overall flavor of what was going on very well.

    The appendicies are very valuable reference tools – I only wish he had notes explaining where he got all the information. The chronology, while random, is a blast to read.

  15. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 1:34 pm


    How about the “wake” approach. Prophetic statements are like the wake on a boat. We can connect the dots in reverse, and say that the boat turned to the left or to the right or went straight or whatever. But the wake itself has no predictive value of the future path of the boat.

    (I’m borrowing this metaphor from a poem by Antonio Machado, by the way. It’s my conception of how stare decisis actually works; I plan to eventually write that up. I’m not 100% convinced that it works for prophetic authority as well, but I think it helps.).

    The boat will be guided, but the past trail of statements is just an indication of where the boat has been guided in the past, and is not an indication of a future path. Any prophetic statement drops into the wake immediately after it is spoken.

    We don’t need to worry about whether or not they’re correct, because they’re just statements in the wake. We move along with the boat.

  16. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    By the way, the poem text is this:

    Caminante, son tus huellas
    el camino y nada más;
    Caminante, no hay camino,
    se hace camino al andar.
    Al andar se hace el camino,
    y al volver la vista atrás
    se ve la senda que nunca
    se ha de volver a pisar.
    Caminante, no hay camino
    sino estelas en la mar.

  17. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    Shockingly, I find that I almost exactly agree with John H.’s assessment of Quinn’s books. Not surprisingly, I would be a little harsher. I think that in some places Quinn’s treatment of the sources is bizarre. In addition to not making a great case for an omni-present, Bagley-esque Utah culture of violence, I think that his argument that Joseph rejected polygamy, human deification, and the temple rituals is pretty thin. Despite his obsession with sources, Quinn frequently makes rather exagerated claims on the basis of rather thin evidence.

    At the end of the day, Quinn is not best read for his analysis of history, which is frequently nigh on incomprehensible. (No great writer he.) Rather, he should be read as a kind of vast bibliographic essay of varrying quality that nevertheless provides pointers to a vast host of interesting stories, sources, and events. (Even though Quinn’s interpretation of the same is not always reliable.)

  18. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    Caminante, son tus huellas
    el camino y nada más;
    Caminante, no hay camino,
    se hace camino al andar.
    Al andar se hace el camino,
    y al volver la vista atrás
    se ve la senda que nunca
    se ha de volver a pisar.
    Caminante, no hay camino
    sino estelas en la mar.

    That clears up everything!

  19. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    I don’t know that there is an accepted English translation. I would translate it (I think; this is pretty quick-and-dirty) as follows:

    Wanderer, the path is your footprints, nothing more
    Wanderer, there is no path, the path is made by walking
    When you walk you make the path, and when you turn to look back
    You see the pathway that you will never return to walk on again
    Wanderer, there is no path, just wakes across the sea.

  20. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 1:47 pm

    Kaimi: I don’t think that this works as either a theory of revelation or of stare dicisis. First, as to revelation it seems to drive a wedge between prophetic statements and prophet direction. How do they direct except through statements? Second, as to stare discisis, only a law professor could think that past case law cannot be used to usefully predict future case outcomes. You have obviously spend too much time on SEC regulation. I can be fairly certain that claims of promissory estoppel will not be good in Virginia and that California will follow the rule of Hadley v. Baxendale. This is the fact that must be explained.

  21. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    I found another potential translation (via google) here:

    Traveller, the path is your tracks
    And nothing more.
    Traveller, there is no path
    The path is made by walking.
    By walking you make a path
    And turning, you look back
    At a way you will never tread again
    Traveller, there is no road
    Only wakes in the sea.

    Perhaps John Fowles can provide another one. Anyway, you get the idea. . .

  22. Carl Youngblood
    September 30, 2004 at 1:50 pm


    Traveller, your footsteps are
    the path and nothing more;
    Traveller, there is no path,
    A path is made by walking.
    In walking is the path made,
    and upon looking back
    one sees the path that
    never will be trodden on again.
    Traveller, there is no path
    but rather wakes upon the sea.

    This is a poor literal un-rhyming translation, but it’ll have to do until I come up with a better one.

  23. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 1:53 pm


    You’re underestimating what you can learn from a wake. Wakes don’t bind for the future. They can provide a pretty good sense of where a ship has been. A very straight wake can be an indication that the ship will likely continue in a straight line. But it is only that, an indication.

    The wake theory is at its most salient when important policy decisions are being made. Look at the 1978 revelation, and McConkie’s statement that everying everyone had said previously meant nothing. It was all in the wake. The wake provides an indication of the ship’s path, but the ship’s captain can choose to turn, and when he does so, the wake has no power to stop him.

    Similarly, the only way to make sense of some rapidly changing Supreme Court decisions is to look at stare decisis as a wake.

  24. Kaimi
    September 30, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    (By the way, just to follow up with a few obvious points of how this interacts as applied to Stare Decisis —

    I think that Holmes snookered us all with his great metaphor “the path of the law.” I think law is emphatically _not_

    a path. The most important line of the poem is “there is no path.” There is no path in the law, it’s a wake.

    Again, I’m not 100% sure how much of this I’m willing to apply to the prophetic authority question).

  25. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Kaimi: Holmes snookered us all in the “Path of the Law” in many more ways than this. ;-> The man was a genius. An evil genius, perhaps, but a genius.

  26. Adam Greenwood
    September 30, 2004 at 3:24 pm

    I still don’t think your wake metaphor illuminates much here, Kaimi. If we were having a discussion about how to predict future revelation, it might be useful. But we’re trying to figure out when and if what the prophets say is from God. We’re trying to figure out if there is a wake at all (I and most every Mormon believes there is) and how to distinguish that wake from rough seas (I don’t know).

  27. greenfrog
    September 30, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    There is no path in the law, it’s a wake.

    Are we?

  28. Matt Jacobsen
    September 30, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the post, Nate, and to everyone else for the comments. It’s nice to see so many options laid out and described, but unfortunately there’s nothing magical here that completely solves the issue of authority for me. I would put myself in the Prophet as CEO camp. The prophet definitely runs the show (through inspiration) and I don’t argue much with how the Church is run as a whole. However, I don’t really fear doing things on a local level that do not always conform with correlation and how things have been done before. I feel that local leaders are allowed to bend but not break within the Church’s structure.

    Prophets are definitely more than CEOs and more than inspired CEOs. I believe there is something real about the keys of the priesthood that they hold. When they are going about their duties (using the keys) with charity and humility, the fact that they have the keys somehow brings with it increased enlightment to them and those that work with and listen to them. There’s got to be something otherworldly and hard-to-classify about this work. I know I’ve felt it and I assume that our prophets, seers, and revelators feel it more often than I (but not necessarily more than all, even outside the church).

    Additionally, I have found myself using a mixture of Personal Revelation, Alma’s Trial, Portfolio, and Coherence in determining when trying to figure out the authority of revelations that don’t relate to Church policy. It’s nice when all these methods agree, but when they don’t I think I rely on them in about the order that I have listed them. I’d agree with Nate that, though, Personal Revelation is risky if you’re not willing to be humble and really listen to the Lord and allow your entire perspective to be changed. Given my pride, I’d probably be better off using the Portfolio or Coherence or Presumption of Correctness strategies more often.

  29. September 30, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    Getting back to Quinn’s Power books. I think the first one is good up to the point where he claims Joseph was getting rid of the temple endowment. The main quote upon which his argument rested was a bit about burying the garments. However the source of the quote, John Taylor, in the preceding paragraph to the one Quinn quotes explicitly denies the reading Quinn gives it. I thought that was more than a little dishonest on Quinn’s part without there being further evidence for the point. I know that the date of the priesthood restoration was the big controversy in that book. But I didn’t think that too big a deal.

    The second book I have only dim memories of. Like John I recall it being very unfocused and largely just a collection of different essays. The one on Pres. Benson I recall being the most interesting but I also recall there being some specific objections to that one. Unfortunately its been so long since I read it that I can’t recall in the least the counterarguments. I’d totally forgotten about the “culture of violence” essay, so that tells you how well I remember it.

  30. Matt Jacobsen
    September 30, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    I also wanted to echo the thought made by a couple people that members often assume the prophets have a stronger connection to the divine than the prophets themselves are willing to admit. I’ve done this and I’ll tell you why.

    As I was growing up, the most exciting part about our church (as opposed to other Christianities and religions) was the wonderful assortment of divine experiences that Joseph Smith had. Not only the first vision and Moroni, but additional appearances of Christ, the Father, Elijah, Moses, plus many others. That just blew my mind, and it became a very important part of the role of Joseph Smith being a prophet. Even today, we use the first vision as a means to demonstrate Joseph’s prophetic calling.

    In my mind, if these visions and visitations were important to Joseph being a prophet, and since we still have a prophet today and God doesn’t change, then the prophet today must be having similar experiences. Maybe not as much as Joseph, because he was a special. I literally believed that when the twelve got together in the temple that the Savior was a regular attendee, if not every week then at least once a month or so. Why wouldn’t Jesus want to attend to His own church personally and make sure everything is run the way it should?

    Well, the leaders of the church don’t really talk about these kinds of experiences. I’ve been in discussions aimed at figuring out all the reasons why these types of experiences aren’t mentioned. The underlying thought is that we all know they are happening, so there must be a good reason for the silence. The discussions even go so far as to claim that it would be a bad thing if these experiences were shared — one outspoken visionary prophet is enough for our dispensation.

    After years of listening to the silence, and instead hearing about how the apostles discuss and pray and vote and do the best they can unless someone gets a strong impression to change course, I’ve changed my view of the divine access that our leaders have. One example came with the announcement of the Perpetual Education Fund (a great idea by the way). For some reason President Hinckley’s words that this is ‘a plan which we believe is inspired by the Lord’ really stuck with me. I think there were similar statements about the building of the Conference Center. A prophet under my original plan would have said things with a little bit more, uh, conviction. I mean, I made my last job choice because I believed I was inspired by the Lord. Is that all there is to running the Church?

    This evolution has been a bit disappointing, simply because now I have to realize that, yeah, the leaders do what I would probably do if I had to run a Church and the Savior wasn’t there to personally answer every question I had. In a way, it endears the apostles to me to know that they might have similar inspiration experiences, and yet look at the good that they accomplish. I am still very willing to listen to the leaders based on reasons discussed in this post and my previous comment. But I have stopped putting words in their mouths about their special access to the divine.

  31. Jack
    September 30, 2004 at 7:29 pm

    Adam, looking back at my comment I realize that its probably not even worth discussing. But I’m curious as to what word you would use in a like example instead of “essence” to discribe the almost indiscernable substance that animates and gives life. Clearly we’re talking about something of which we have little or no comprehension and therefore can only identify the essence of what it is rather than what it really is.

    Or has a joke flown right over my head?

    By the way, when ever a comment is posted by “Jack” let it be understood that spelling and grammatical errors (of which there’s always an abundance) are a matter of style and in no way reflect my sleeping my way through highschool. :>

  32. David
    September 30, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    The “perpetual education fund” was first proposed, to my knowledge, in a letter to the editor of Sunstone published in 1994. We speak sometimes of grass roots revelation (after all, the primary and sunday school started that way). I think many of the general Church leaders are more aware of and receptive to grass roots suggestions (even from Sunstone) than we might suspect. Alternatively, this may have been an instance when the Lord independently sent the same inspiration to a rank and file member that he would send a few years later to general Church leadership. Who knows what suggestions made on this very blog might eventually find their way into Church policy or practice.

  33. XON
    September 30, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    I’m reluctant to hold this up next to Nate’s profound observations, but I’ve got an alternative that may or may not be slightly different than those thus far presented. That is a model of Revelation as Artifact. (I’ve made this proposal before, but can’t find it in the archives. . .)

    Any revelation would be, necessarily, the interjection of the divine into this mortal sphere. The ability of any mortal, prophet or scoundrel, to fully comprehend it on its terms is essentially nil. This would explain the references of “No man can see God and live”. Absent a mediation, any revelation of heaven to us would be incomprehensible. I guess one question is whether the Prophet, or the High Priest, necessarily priviledged to know the meaning of revelations beyond the capacity of any others, especially those posessed of the Gift of the Holy Ghost?

    We do know, I think, that even Joseph Smith struggled with the meanings of some of the revelations that he received. I also recall, and really appreciate, the statements that the Lord has not revealed anything to [Joseph Smith] that He will not reveal to any member of the church if they seek diligently enough. So, I guess I tend toward J. Reuben Clark, difficulties notwithstanding.

    I think, though, that it goes farther than that. I like the Priestly/Prophetic distinction. Could it be possible that even the prophet, strictly defined as conduit, receives revelations that even he comprehends only dimly? Much like the archaeologist who unearths some unexplained ancient ruin? Of course, based on his/her study he might have a better chance of understanding what it means, and almost certainly has better access to channels through which to express his opinion (Priestly). But does that require that his interpretation of it is any more correct than someone elses (Prophetic)? Or preclude that someone else, differently situated, might not have an immeasurably greater ability to comprehend even?

  34. Nate Oman
    September 30, 2004 at 9:24 pm

    David: I like your faith promoting rumor about Sunstone and the Perpetual Education Fund, but it is — alas — not true. In reality, through out its history that Church has operated various rotating funds to provide education for members. Around 1900 there was such a fund that financed (in part)the education of David O. McKay among others. My understanding is that these attempts were sporadic and none of them were as ambitious as the current PEF. That is not to say that there might not be grass roots ideas that end up having a big influence on the Church and the Brethren. It is simply that a rotating fund for education long predates any mid-1990s letter to the editor in Sunstone.

  35. David
    September 30, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    The letter from Merlyn Clark in the February 1994 Sunstone proposed raising tuition at BYU to the going rate for private universities, thus freeing up tithing revenues to establish a PEF as follows:

    Sunstone 16:8/5 (Feb 94)
    “Third, this higher tuition opens a way for the Church to do a wonderful thing for all young Mormons worldwide: establish a kind of “perpetual education fund” from which low interest, tithing-sensitive loans could be made to deserving Mormons to go to the school of their choice, for the right reasons; that is, to get the best possible education in their discipline. The Brethren often express concern about the lack of testimony exhibited by our youth. Church-sponsored education loans would dramatically affect young people’s attitudes about the Church. The youth would believe that the Church had a real interest in their welfare, as opposed to simply being objects of indoctrination.”

    The PEF subsequently established is different from that suggested by Brother Clark in that it is not funded from tithing revenues (of course, the tuition at BYU has not been raised dramatically either), and it is not yet available to all young “deserving Mormons.” Nate is correct that other revolving loan funds had existed from time to time before the PEF. But none had that name (that I have found), and none were promoted as actively as the PEF–while tithing funds are not directly used, PEF appears on our donation slips.

    My post, of course, was largely tongue in cheek. But inasmuch as I have not located a usage of the term “perpetual education fund” before the 1994 Sunstone letter, it would not surprise me that, when the Brethren were discussing the notion of a reinvigorated revolving loan program, one among them who surreptitiously read Sunstone may have remembered Brother Clark’s suggestion.

  36. Last_lemming
    October 1, 2004 at 9:27 am

    Keeping in mind that the title of this thread is “On Authority,” not revelation per se, wouldn’t applying portfolio theory involve accepting authoritative statements by not just President Hinckley but also the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the reigning Ayatollah, etc., just in case they were right and we were wrong? If we can dismiss them as obviously wrong, why cannot we apply the same method used to identify their wrongness to discern the correctness of specific LDS revalations?

  37. Nate Oman
    October 1, 2004 at 9:36 am

    Last_Lemming: I think that you are misunderstanding the argument. The portfolio approach assumes that one has some indepedent reason for thinking that LDS authorities have superior access to the divine, but (1) their access is imperfect; and, (2) you don’t have a reliable way of recognizing which statements are divine and which are not.

    Let’s put it this way: In order for a stock portfolio to make sense you need to know that the stock market (or some subsection of it) is going to outperform other investment alternatives. One diversifies away the risk of imperfectly picking particular stocks, but one cannot use a stock portfolio to diversify the away the risk of the stock market as a whole.

  38. Jack
    October 1, 2004 at 11:07 am

    I think the most telling point of this whole thread is that authority in the church works for reasons that we can’t really put our finger on. Sure there are the more “ostensible” reasons as to why authority seems to hold the church together – some of which is true IMO. But over all, the power that binds the church together comes from a loyalty to God born of a spiritual witness recieved on the part of individuals of the reality of God and His work – something totally unseen. Thus, loyalty to authority in the church is an extention of the primal loyalty one has to God because it is viewed as an extention of His work. We therefore honor the man or woman in authority because we honor the office and/or calling. That said, no doubt there are problems with over and under-zealousness as it relates to our response to authority. But even so, by and large, the element that qualifies and sustains authority in the church is revelation recieved on the part of all – great or small – that the current authority structure in place (generally speaking at least) is in accordance with the design and will of God. This IMO cannot be completely reduced to fit the organiztional or mannagement schemes of the world. Certainly those schemes may be scrutinized be the church to glean ideas for improvements in the efficiency of the “machine” so to speak, but the real strength of the organization is found in the principle of revelation which ideally ought to resonate in the heart and mind of every individual therein.

  39. Last_lemming
    October 1, 2004 at 11:15 am

    In the case of stocks, the “independent reason” for thinking they will outperform other investments is that they have a long historical record of having done so. In spite of that evidence, however, financial advisors (at least the responsible ones) never suggest a portfolio of 100% stocks, no matter how diversified. You analogy only works if we are talking about a 100% stock portfolio; to diversify away the risk of the stock market as a whole, we would have to hold “bonds,” like the Pope, etc.

    So what independent reason would be sufficient to confidently hold a 100% stock portfolio? It just seems to me that if you can be sufficiently confident in the stock market to hold nothing but stocks, that the insight you use to justify that confidence could also be used to successfully pick some individual stocks.

    If I am getting too obscure here, let it be understood that I am arguing in favor of the personal revelation model.

  40. Nate Oman
    October 1, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Last_Lemming: I just think that you are addressing a different question than the one that I was posting about. You are asking how we know whether or not LDS leaders have special access to the divine and how we cope with the risk that they do not. I am asking the question of what it means to say that they have some sort of privileged access and how me manage our uncertainty about that meaning. I am not really interested (at least in this post) about how is is that we know that the Brethren are prophets or how we react to religious uncertainty general. Rather, I want to know what prophecy means within Mormon theology and how one copes with that meaning, again from within Mormon theology.

  41. October 3, 2004 at 10:37 am

    What legitimately separates the Brethern from the general church membership? I think the answer has something to do with experience. I am not referring to their experience in the octogenarian sense, but rather to the experience of being called and subsequently serving. Relevant this week in the literal definition of an apostle—one sent forth.

    This is obviously somewhat circular, in that I am not offering any explanation as to why they are called. I am perhaps addressing it more as a question of fact, and not as question of law. Part of their legitimacy flows from the divine nature of the structure and organization of the kingdom.

    The “they are because they are� experience theory is congruent with the fact that apostolic succession is also based on seniority of experience. What sets them apart from each other may have to do with what sets them apart from us.

    I guess I am arguing that by doing and being, they become. This concept certainly has resonance in other applications of the Gospel of Christ.

    If we were to include the Prophet Joseph Smith into our inquiry, I think we might conclude that it was experience that set him apart. Indeed, his “calling� is what many find so powerful and inspiring. The authority of Christ is also in part due to his experience and calling. Walking the path of being “the anointed one� combined with his experience in Gethsemane definitely have something to do with his authority.

    The legitimacy of a leader is sustained and engendered when that leader leads, and when the people follow. The necessity of followers dovetails well with the personal revelation model.

  42. R. M.
    May 12, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    At Ricks in 1998, Marcus Martins (the first black missionary and son of first (and only) black General Authority Helvicio Martins) told us as a class about his paper read at a BYU symposium which suggested building smaller more utilitarian temples.

    His father told him, “An interesting idea, but it will never happen.”

    About this time, it did come to pass.

    He told us, “Now I feel vindicated!”

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