A couple of weeks ago we had stake conference, and among other things the visiting authority talked about “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Among many good and true things, he said that we ought to treat the Proclamation as scripture and that the only reason it was not added to the Doctrine & Covenants is because President Hinckley didn’t want us to all have to go out and buy new scriptures. I don’t want to read too much into what was clearly an off the cuff remark, but this struck me as a rather facile attempt to explain the status of the Proclamation. It did get me thinking, however, about the status of such texts.
I think that the best analogy for the Proclamation is a 1916 document entitled “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve.” Few people read the Doctrinal Exposition any more, but it has been a tremendously influential document in Mormon theology. Essentially, it marks a winnowing down and synthesis of nineteenth-century Mormon thinking on the nature the godhead. In part it was meant as a final repudiation of Adam-God thinking, but it was also meant to stabilize interpretations of Mormon scripture, providing a reconciliation of apparently discordant texts. When modern Mormons explain the relationship between God and Jesus Christ they are generally relying, whether they know it or not, on the Doctrinal Exposition’s interpretation of the scriptures.
If I am right, the Proclamation, like the Doctrinal Exposition, is not a revelation but an authoritative interpretation. (The nature of its authority is open to question.) This makes it different, however, than a revelation. Compare the Doctrinal Exposition with another important addition to Mormon literature from the same time: Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, now included in the Doctrine & Covenants as section 138. Joseph F. Smith’s vision also began as an interpretation of scripture — “my mind reverted to the writings of the Apostle Peter” — but in the end the document is not about stabilizing scriptural interpretation. Rather, it adds a text with which future interpretations must cope. It opens up interpretation rather than closing it down.
Our political and intellectual culture trains us to react to phrases like “opening up” as good, while phrases like “stabilizing” or “closing down” are bad. I actually think that this is a mistake. Community is not simply constituted by a set of shared texts, but by certain (admittedly fuzzy) interpretive boundaries on those texts. Canonization, it seems to me, is about creating the possibility of shared interpretations by providing us something to interpret. Authoritative interpretative documents like the Proclamation or the Doctrinal Exposition, on the other hand, serve to orient us collectively toward interpretation (in the end they can’t really close interpretation down). It is not simply that one set of texts make it into the leather bound books — and therefore survive longer — while another set of texts does not. It is that the texts themselves perform different tasks.
Hence, I think that the Proclamation is not scripture. It could always become scripture, of course, if it were canonized, in which case it would perform the task of scripture rather than that of interpretative guide. This possibility, however, suggests something else about the distinction between scripture and interpretation: the difference does not necessarily lie in any inherent difference in the texts. Proclamations can, after all, be inspired, and scriptures can contain the errors and weaknesses of men. Rather, the difference lies in the particular tasks that we collectively assign to the texts.
[If past is a predictor of future, I suspect that at some point any discussion on this thread will dissolve into a slug-fest about gender essentialism. If you can, however, I plead with you to control your gender-war urges and try talking about authority, canon, and interpretation. Of course, in the end, you have to do what you have to do, and if gender demons must be exorcised (or at least exercised) once more, so be it.]