A thorny issue for Mormons is that of authority, and the question of who speaks for the church and who is speaking from their own personal convictions and human viewpoint. This is a very important point because Christians are often accused of misrepresenting the church and its teachings. One way of ensuring that we get it right is by knowing and using reliable sources. Attempts on their part to clarify this issue often include statements similar to the following:
“The only works that are authoritative and binding on the church and its Members are the four books of scripture: the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price (collectively known as the standard works), and official pronouncements from the First Presidency, the church's three-Member governing body.”
On the face of it this is not an unreasonable statement. There has to be a plumb line by which all other claims to truth can be judged. For the Christian it is the Bible, for the Muslim it is the Koran, for the Jew the Torah. The above statement seems reasonable as a final standard by which to judge truth, or at least Mormon truth. It is a clear statement with apparently no equivocation. One Mormon correspondent illustrates this point by reference to the book Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce R McConkie.
“Thousands of books have been written by Latter-day Saints over the last 166 years. Some of them are well-written and accurate, some contain merely the personal theories of the writer. But just because a Latter-day Saint writes something doesn't mean what he writes is correct or speaks for the church.
A case in point is a work widely accepted by Members of the LDS church: Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine. In this encyclopedic work, McConkie attempted to explain in detail what Latter-day Saints believe about more than 1,100 gospel topics. Unfortunately, some of his interpretations and beliefs were not correct, and the second edition of his book had a number of, what were termed in the preface, ‘changes, clarifications, and additions.’ McConkie, as great a man as he was…was imperfect just like the rest of us.”
These two statements seem to clearly define the contrast between "scripture" and those writings, statements, commentaries made by Mormons about scripture and truth. For the Latter-day Saint, however, there is a problem here.
Questioning the Prophets
From the earliest days of Mormonism remarkable claims of revelations, prophecies etc. have been the norm. Even though the LDS church started with a book, nevertheless what was written has always proven insufficient and "the saints" have been encouraged to look to "living prophets" for guidance and direction. In a defining statement Ezra Taft Benson said:
“The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today's instructions from God to us today. God's revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the ark. Every generation has need of the ancient scripture plus the current scripture from the living prophet. Therefore, the most crucial reading and pondering which you should do is of the latest inspired words from the Lord's mouthpiece.”
(Conference Report, Korea Area Conference, 1975, p.52, quoted in 1989 Priesthood Manual, Seek to Obtain My Word)
Essential to Mormon thinking is the belief that the heavens have been opened once more and that God, through his servants the prophets, directs and guides the affairs of his people. Continuous revelation is understood to be the lifeblood of the church. Of course Christians do not believe the heavens are closed and Mormons work from a closed canon as much as Christians.
Nevertheless, Mormons are encouraged to believe that the affairs of the church are guided on a daily basis by revelation through living prophets. This being the case, when the average Latter-day Saint looks to his leaders for guidance and clarity he hardly expects to have to pick carefully through a selection of teachings, comments and pronouncements, weighing each one. He certainly is not encouraged to even consider the possibility that apostles and prophets would be found wanting in clarity and accuracy in bringing the true "interpretation" of church teaching to their congregations. Listen to Mormon apostle Orson Pratt:
“Have we not a right to make up our minds in relation to the things recorded in the word of God, and speak about them, whether the living oracles believe our views or not? We have not the right.”
(Journal of Discourses 7:374-375)
Brigham Young declared:
“I know just as well what to teach this people and just what to say to them and what to do in order to bring them to the celestial kingdom, as I know the road to my office…I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture. Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon, and it is as good Scripture as they deserve.”
(Journal of Discourses, vol.13.p.95. Also see vol.13.p.264)
Joseph Fielding Smith said:
“Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voices of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.
An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voices of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.”
(Ensign, July 1972, p.88)
It has always been understood amongst the Latter-day Saints that "when the prophet speaks all debate is ended". Indeed, if you had to define the seminal message of the Mormon Church it is that men may once again look confidently to prophets and apostles to guide them unerringly in their lives and devotion to God.
“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan - it is God's plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy.”
(Improvement Era June 1945,p.354)
Oracles or Just Men with Opinions?
Contrast this with another quote from Joseph Fielding Smith:
“You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.”
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft), 1956, 3:203-4.)
But surely what makes the "authorities of the Church" authorities at all is their dependability and their insight into the business of God. It is almost a given that their comments, in whatever form, will be "in accord with the revealed word in the standard works". Their humanity will surely show through in tone and presentation, but surely not in content. This is the view Christians take of biblical writers. If this is not the case then they are no "authorities". Of course an individual may hold an opinion that has no bearing on eternal verities, e.g. 'should a Mormon drink Coke?' and this opinion we may choose to ignore. However, when a "prophet" speaks, even as a man, touching gospel principles then, even as a man, his opinion should be in accord with revealed truth. We should be able to trust him.
If we are to sift and check, harbour doubts, speculate and essentially question him then how does he differ from the Dalai Lama, Rajneesh or the Archbishop of Canterbury? How could you square such thinking with statements like this from Spencer W Kimball:
“Apostasy usually begins with question and doubt and criticism…They who garnish the sepulchres of the dead prophets begin now by stoning the living ones…They allege love for the gospel and the Church but charge that leaders are a little 'off beam'...Next they say that while the gospel and the Church are divine, the leaders are fallen.”
(The teachings of Spencer W Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982)
How can we trust a leader whose personal opinions differ from his official pronouncements for God? Surely we have been promised that such a thing would never happen?
Of course the problem here, typically, is that the Mormon Church is trying to hold two mutually exclusive positions simultaneously. The traditional position of the church is that God once again speaks through prophets and that, in contrast to a dead tradition, the "true church" is in a state of growth and development, a state of flux. The Mormon canon of scripture is not a complete canon but a founding canon, clearly identified as the "standard works" of the church, but the whole canon is not fixed since it is purported to include further revelations and announcements up to the present day. Hence the statement, " The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one living in our day and age." This makes Thomas Monson and the rest of the "general authorities" of the church more important to current church members than Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter James and John, or even Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. 'Watch the prophet' is the phrase sometimes used. Spencer W Kimball criticised the practice of some that, "return to the pronouncements of the dead leaders and interpret them to be incompatible with the present programs." The message, clearly, is that one should test the past by the present.
On the other hand, as the church grows more sophisticated, in an increasingly sophisticated world, it is apparent that these prophets are more closely scrutinised by a people who are ever more critical and discerning. Leaders can no longer make pronouncements that are xenophobic, confrontational or overtly triumphalistic in nature, and expect to get away with it. Nor can they any longer make ridiculous claims about archaeology and the Book of Mormon, the imminent fate of the United States Government, or the inhabitants of the moon. The answer is to have a fixed canon of scripture, controlled from the centre, against which everyone, even the prophet, is to be tested. This is the current thinking. The message here is that one should test the present by the past. The position of the church has shifted. Surely, though, in a church that claims continuing revelation, and promises unerring guidance there should be perfect accord between prophets past and present?
Next: The Changing Face of Mormonism