Inspired Errors

Jared* the scientific guest blogger continues his reign of terror! Earlier posts here and here.

A little over a week ago I was reading Stephen J. Gould’s essay, “Bathybius and Eozoon,” which appears along with others of his essays in The Panda’s Thumb, and came across an interesting passage. The quick background is that bathybius and eozoon were both scientific discoveries that initially appeared to help solve the problem of the origin of life, but were ultimately found to be mistaken and cast into the trash bin of scientific history. As in several of his other essays, Gould shows sympathy for wrong discoveries and their discoverers:

Modern historians have more respect for such inspired errors. They made sense in their own time; that they don’t in ours is irrelevant. Our century is no standard for all ages; science is always an interaction of prevailing culture, individual eccentricity, and empirical constraint. …Errors usually have their good reasons once we penetrate their context properly and avoid judgment according to our current perceptions of “truth.” They are usually more enlightening than embarrassing, for they are signs of changing contexts. The best thinkers have the imagination to create organizing visions, and they are sufficiently adventurous (or egotistical) to float them in a complex world that can never answer “yes” in all detail. The study of inspired error should not engender a homily about the sin of pride; it should lead us to a recognition that the capacity for great insight and great error are opposite sides of the same coin–and that the currency of both is brilliance.

Is there a place for the concept of inspired error in the Church? I doubt anyone would deny such a thing for local leadership, but it gets a little more sticky when we look at prophets and scripture. When we look back at the undertakings in our history that didn’t pan out, or at doctrines that were taught and then reversed, or doctrines taught that are contradicted by solid science, I wonder if the concept of inspired error–with its respect for context–can be useful.


  1. In May, you posted about FARMS and Physics and the question of why God would teach Abraham a false conception of astronomy. The question remains in my mind whether God did teach Abraham a false conception of astronomy. But this might be an example of what you are looking for.

  2. Jared, this is really an interesting concept! Can you flesh it out a little more, give me an idea of how you think it might be used? Are you thinking of hot-button points like polygamy and blacks and the priesthood?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    An interesting example of inspired error is Joseph’s original teaching that babies who die will retain their small stature in the resurrection and to all eternity. Sisters in the Church hated the idea and, lo and behold, Joseph reconsidered and decided that mothers will have the opportunity ro raise their deceased children to maturity in the hereafter.

  4. I really like this quote, Jared, especially since I view basically all scripture and doctrine as the closest approximation of truth societies and cultures as a whole are able to comprehend and practice. Sometimes, societies take steps backward (The Dark Ages, BY and BRM in many instances); sometimes, they glimpse more of eternity and move closer to objective truth (JS – and BRM in some instances); always, they ebb and flow from prophet to prophet and cultural influence to cultural influence – line upon line, precept upon precept.

    For example, I read “the most correct of any book on earth” and can accept it by interpreting it (and that statement) in many, many ways. I see how some teachings from the OT (and NT) still are used to explain our modern beliefs and practices, while others never made it into the teachings of the Restoration – or were modified significantly in order to avoid being ignored completely. I hear apostles quote Confucius and CS Lewis. I love the fluidity of our vision – which I might term as something like “inspired partiality and error” rather than just error. We still see through a glass darkly in so many (if not all) ways, but I love seeing through it with the help of people whose vision is much brighter than mine – even if that means I occasionally have to deal with a circus mirror.

    I do believe firmly that visionaries get some things right and some things wrong – but the same can be said of all of us. The difference, IMO, is that the true visionaries’ wrongs are outweighed by the result of their rights to a degree not possible for those of us who are just average Joes and Janes.

  5. Haha, Kevin, I have never heard that particular doctrinal quandry reconciled as you suggest.

    When I saw the title of the post I thought it was going to be about KJV errors in the BofM. If I remember correctly, Royal Skousen has argued that we have no solid reason to assume God didn’t reveal the Isaiah chapters to match Joseph’s Bible exactly except where a specific change would be important. I don’t actually know much about Isaiah variants in the BofM, but maybe someone who knows about it can comment on whether this might qualify for Jared’s inspired errors.

  6. For a specific example, do we really have a Heavenly Father AND Mother – and, if so, what does than mean about our ability to create spirit children in the hereafter? I accept the teaching without any concern for whether or not it is accurate (or exactly how it will be accomplished), since I believe deeply that what it teaches is inspired – perhaps as inspired as anything else ever pronounced as religious doctrine. I don’t believe it is inspired “error” – but I also have no clue what it really means in practical terms to create spirit children. It is a central part of my faith, what I believe without being able to see.

    The only difficulty, Jared, that I see in narrowing this discussion to inspired “error” is in determining how one concludes that something is error. It seems pretty obvious to many when the Church stops teaching something that its former prophet used to teach, but it could be argued that what used to be taught was truth that simply couldn’t be understood and accepted, so it was replaced by something that could be understood at the time. (10 commandments, Law of Moses and the Law of Christ discussion comes to mind, as well as modern financial contributions and the Law of Consecration.) If the Church has not repudiated (or at least stopped teaching) something, designating it as “error” becomes much more complicated.

  7. I often wonder what cherished notions of today will seem as gross mistakes, and even barbarisms, in the not too distant future. I speculate, but it’s impossible to do. One can never discern one’s own cultural biases. One can question everything, but still miss questioning the things we believe most deeply, because we don’t even realize they can be questioned.

  8. Yes, the devil is certainly in the details. Mormons are rather hesitant to pass (tentative) judgment on past prophets–even if we’re only talking about whether they got something right rather than if they were acceptable to God in their service. Any list will be controversial: God works in mysterious ways, and all of that.

    Some suggestions: Perhaps polygamy–or some of the teachings that surrounded it. Blacks and the priesthood might be another. Other suggestions might be: Adam-God, some portion of the Church’s dealings in Missouri, Zion’s Camp, literal bloodlines, Joseph F. Smith’s teaching that the body grows to the stature of the spirit, Joseph’s seeking to raise money in Canada for the Book of Mormon publication, Zelph, some JST readings or other revelations based on assumptions about the scriptures that do not hold today, the idea that freemasonry represents an ancient priesthood.

    Again, it’s not about retroactively taking out the prophets and shooting them. It’s about recognizing how some of their ideas made sense in their context, even though they may not now (and may not ever again.) And just as discarded scientific ideas sometimes take on new life with further discovery, so might some inspired errors eventually take on new life.

  9. Steve, I’ll have to think more about the application. I’ll check back in again tomorrow and hopefully have something to say about that.

  10. I recall a story I read in one of the older Joseph Smith bios – and forgive me if I mangle the details, it was a while ago – involving a revelation received by the Prophet telling him to send the BoM up to Canada, where the copyright would be sold for a tidy sum of money. Of course, that did not come to pass, which obviously prompted some questioning as to why the revelation failed. Joseph is said to have inquired of the Lord, and received this response: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.” (Google to the rescue on that quote!) I understood this to mean that, for example, if one asks God a question, but consciously or unconsciously already knows the answer they want to hear, that’s the answer they are likely to receive. So that would be my understanding of “inspired error” – a teaching or prophecy or revelation that turns out to be false, but not because of any intent to defraud or deceive.

    In fact, I (unintentionally) caused quite a row with my wife when I suggested that such a situation (asking, but with the answer already in mind) was the only explanation I could buy for the Priesthood ban, and that I could not see myself joining a Church that had not fully refuted such a stance. Of course, I thought I was being charitable in suggesting a circumstance in which my personal view (God does not segregate) could be reconciled with the Church history (like Joseph of old, the question was asked improperly). She interpreted my theory as an accusation that all Prophets past and present were incorrigible racists deep in their hearts. As you can imagine, I generally keep my LDS-related theories to myself these days!

  11. Questions... says:

    This post comes at an interesting time for me, as I just (for my own benefit) wrote a short essay titled “Changes in the Church – Does Revelation Lead or Follow?”

    When I look at a wide variety of doctrines, policies and practices which have changed over the years, it seems to me that the driving force behind these changes has been a combination of science and progress in basic human culture and values. Examples would include Polygamy, Blacks and the Priesthood, and Temple Ceremonies (along with Garment styles), where clear-cut changes have taken place. Other areas, where the dust hasn’t quite settled yet (but in my mind the writing is on the wall), would include Book of Mormon geography, attitudes toward homosexuality, the role of women, and even evolution.

    When I honestly look at the changes that have and are taking place, I am inclined to conclude that revelation is following the lead of science, academic research, and general social progress, belatedly playing ‘catch-up,’ rather than leading the way in receiving new truth and correcting errors.

    I have to confess I find this disappointing relative to what I had expected in the somewhat naïve perspective I had when I first joined the Church. So I can’t really view these areas as “inspired errors” but simply errors. We can certainly learn from them, and they are valuable for that reason, but they do raise questions about the role of ‘continuous revelation’ and inspiration in the Church.

  12. Perhaps mine is a naive perspective, but I am pulled to believe that perhaps GBH and past prophets new things they could not reveal. Nephi saw things he was commanded not to write as where other prophets. Rather than assuming revelation plays catch-up, I like to think that the secrets of God in some cases are known to the prophets but for whatever reason are kept concealed until the future. Mayber naive, but I like that idea better than the idea that revelation simply follows science and culture. I’m not sure that would be revelation at all. After all, the rest of the world follows culture and science without any prophet to lead them.

  13. sorry for the typos, I am a terrible typist

  14. I think that “inspired error” is virtually an oxymoron. To be considered inspired, an error would have to have some ancilliary pragmatic value that considerably outweighed the consequences of its falsity. That either sounds like the Lord manipulating people by telling them half-truths, or prophets stumbling into useful fictions by mistake.

    Prophets make mistakes, of course, but what about any of the putative errors mentioned here makes them inspired?

  15. That either sounds like the Lord manipulating people by telling them half-truths, or prophets stumbling into useful fictions by mistake.

    It needn’t be called manipulation. A lot of people believe that the creation story is just that, a story, designed for our benefit. There could be numerous reasons why the story would be used in place of the full truth (including the Jack Nicholson reason: “you can’t handle the truth!”). None of these reasons would necessarily be categorized as manipulation.

    As for the other possiblity you mention: “prophets stumbling into useful fictions,” the word “useful” in that sentence seems to me to answer your question. If the “fiction” comes from God, or is, in some way, “useful” (even temporarily), then why would it not be correctly characterized as “inspired?” Ain’t no oxymoron about it.

  16. re:11

    From my understanding of the scriptures it seems that when God establishes the gospel on Earth that the church starts out in truth and then gradually slips into apostasy. Has that been reversed in this last dispensation? Did the church start out in a state of apostasy, and then gradually become more perfected? Wouldn’t that also mean that today we should be receiving more revelation than ever before? Could we then compare Joseph Smith as an infant in the gospel, and Gordon B. Hinckley as a spiritual giant amongst prophets? If the early church had so much error then wouldn’t God have been building his church upon a shaky foundation? If the church required so many course corrections then can we really say that the path to God is straight and narrow? It seems that path from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley is anything but straight.

  17. MikeInWeHo says:

    There’s a great old book by Leon Festinger called When Prophecy Fails; it was used in some class I took in Ann Arbor twenty years ago. It has nothing to do with the Church, but might be relevant to this conversation nonetheless. Other groups have certainly struggled through problems like this, with varying degrees of success. The experience of the now-booming Seventh-Day Adventists is particularly interesting. They went through a crisis when it was conclusively shown that many of the writings of their founder (Ellen G White) were plagiarized. I’m not saying the situation with the LDS is precisely analogous, but perhaps the experience of other faith groups is worth considering in a discussion like this.

  18. Jared*,

    Does the way that the work for the dead began fit into the category of inspired errors? I think it is possible to say that Joseph Smith got the broad outline right, but was mistaken on a lot of the details.

    People believed that it was better to be sealed to a high church leader rather than to your spouse, the more children were sealed to you the greater your glory in the afterlife, etc. It is fair to say that we blundered along, getting things as right as it was possible for us to understand at the moment. Then, 70 years later, Joseph F. Smith’s vision changed things again. And who is to say that we have perfect understanding, even now?

  19. I ran across the following quote last night in some old notes, and then looked up the original talk. Pres. Benson was probably talking about evolution and other things he viewed as false doctrines, but the principle involved I think ties directly into the topic of inspired error, and the issue of the priesthood ban in particular:

    “If you see some individual in the Church doing things which disturb you, or you feel the Church is not doing things the way you think they could or should be done, the following principles might be helpful.

    God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the “Samuel principle.” The children of Israel wanted a king, like all the nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying to Samuel, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning, but they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires. Bad experiences are an expensive school that only fools keep going to (see 1 Samuel 8).

    Sometimes in our attempts to mimic the world, contrary to the prophet’s counsel, we run after the world’s false educational, political, musical, and dress ideas. New worldly standards take over, a gradual breakdown occurs, and finally, after much suffering, a humble people are ready to be taught once again a higher law.” (Speech given at BYU, Dec 1974).

    When you look at where we are now as a church in regards to racial and ethnic diversity, we are in a much better place than 30 years ago, and certainly our understanding of the doctrinal principles involved is much the better for the errors of the priesthood ban. Would we be better off if we had never had the ban? Probably, but we are where we are.

  20. I think part of the problem in the Church is there is no distinction made between revelation and theology. Without such a distinction, every crack-pot theory, idea or imagination ever spoken over the pulpit gets lumped into ‘revelation’ and when those theories ultimately turn out to be erroneous, misguided or premature, God is labeled as the author of confusion and inherently unreliable as a source of truth. If our first instinct was to consider what we hear as theology (and subject to human error) and not automatically assume that it is pure revelation, then a lot of theories would be seen for what they are: a human interpretation of a divine impulse.

  21. So are we saying that the God gives his children what they want, right or wrong, if they beg for it long enough?

  22. In response to #21, almost for sure you will get what you ask for. But I don’t necessarily blame God for that as your question implies. Who is to blame for the 116 pages of lost manuscript?

  23. jayspec # 21, some examples:

    Joseph Smith and the lost 116 pages of the BoM manuscript.
    The King Saul experience of Samuel quoted above.
    Abraham and his efforts to get the Lord to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of even 1 righteous.

    These two seem to be trying to teach something. If you look at the priesthood ban in the same light, you can see the church adopting the standards and practices of the world, and then suffering for it many years later, after some humbling has taken place. McConkie’s apologetic speech some days after the revelation was announced is a prime example of someone humbled and admitting they were wrong.

  24. MCQ,

    I used a qualifier for a reason. “Inspired error” is virtually an oxymoron because inspiration has the presumption of truth. Enos and the brother of Jared both claim that God cannot lie. Jacob claims that “the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not.” Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Ether call God a “God of truth”. The D&C says that God is the “Spirit of truth.” And of course, the devil is known as “the father of all lies”.

    If one says that a prophet propagated an error due to limited understanding that is a simple statement of human fallibility. But if one claims the error was “inspired”, that is tantamount to a claim that God is a liar and that the Spirit cannot be trusted.

    It doesn’t matter if the error is a useful fiction in the short run – the long term credibility damage is generally far worse – like a religion that teaches that God wants everyone to be saved while secretly condemning most of them to an eternal hell.

  25. Mark D, “inspired error” in the Jared’s original posting ws used in explaining scientific advances.

    None of the examples in my # 21 could be considered inspired. They do, however seem to be wrong ideas that furthered greater understanding. I should have put “inspired errors” in quotes then. I don’t think any of us are implicating God in playing games with us. He tries to teach us, and sometimes those lessons are only learned by us by making mistakes.

  26. “was” used, sorry….

  27. Kevinf,

    I certainly agree that some errors are serendiptitous. I just think that a truly inspired error would be a rare and strange creature indeed, for the reasons I have outlined.

  28. Mark D:

    No one is talking about lies. If the creation story turns out to be a simple myth used to teach truth to mortals with a simple understanding does that make it a lie? If Job was not literally a living breathing person who had all of the experiences described in the OT, does that make his story a lie?

    To me, the concept of “inspired error” means that something that is not literally 100% dead accurate can still be “inspired” in that it comes from God and serves a useful purpose, even if that purpose is only to get us to the next level.

    We are all familiar with the concept of “line upon line,” but we seem to assume, without thinking about it, that each “line” contains absolute truth. That may not be the case, but it doesn’t mean that God is a liar or a manipulator.

  29. Mark, it depends on how you define “error”. I think those who are saying what I said in my initial comment see “error” as much more of “the best the prophet or people could accept at the time” – rather than “something incorrect God told the prophet or people, for whatever reason”.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be saying that prophets, if they really are prophets, always should see the full, big, perfect picture and present that to their people. If that is your definition, I would argue that there probably haven’t been any prophets in the history of the world – except maybe Enoch, but we have very little of his “teachings” on which to judge him by this standard.

    Finally, when I read the D&C I get a VERY different picture than what you seem to be saying. The one person who is chastised the most in those revelations is Joseph Smith – the prophet who compiled it. I have said numerous times on this blog that I am struck regularly by how many people want our prophets to comment about things that have little if anything to do with the nature of God and our relationship to Him – then turn around and criticize what they say when they do address non-religious ideas.

    Personally, I believe most of the “error” we can observe from former prophets and apostles has occurred when they spoke of opinions that were not revealed (BY and BRM, anyone?). Having said that, I do believe there are cases of inspired error – again, if error is defined more broadly as incomplete understanding that enlightens and inspires and not as “bad” teachings. The idea that the apostles and prophets will never lead us astray, IMO, says nothing about the absolute accuracy of everything they say but rather the belief that nothing they say will keep us from our highest eternal reward. I believe that wholeheartedly.

  30. As you guys weigh the value to be given traditional Mormonism (especially for example what Questions says in #11 and then Amanda and Mike (in West Hollywood) say in #’s 16 and 17), I’m reminded of what I’ve read about Reconstructionist Judaism. What follows is the lede paragraph from the Wikipedia article on the subject (emphasis mine!):

    “Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American-based Jewish movement, based on the ideas of the late Mordecai Kaplan, that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. It originated as the radical left branch of Conservative Judaism before it splintered. There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha is not considered binding, but is treated as a valuable cultural remnant that should be upheld unless there is reason for the contrary. The movement emphasizes positive views towards modernism, and considers religious custom to be subservient to personal autonomy.

    ….Whaddya think?

  31. re: kevinf’s post (#19) – That’s a great quote, and hits exactly what I was on about in my post. I would be perfectly comfortable with a revelation that turns out to be due to the desires of man, rather than those of God. But *only* if the error is acknowledged as such. I found the discussions here regarding the anniversary of the lifting of the Ban very interesting. It seemed that most posters disliked the Ban, and many thought it was an “error.” (Probably because the blog demographic skews young?) But I found it odd that very few people questioned how such an “error” could be supported for so long by people who are supposed to be inspired by the Lord. Then again, I don’t know if there’s ever been an “official” explanation for the Ban. I do know that I don’t buy “we don’t understand the Lord’s plan” at all – perhaps because I’m not accustomed to modern-day prophecy (my wife easily accepts that explanation for just about anything!). To my eyes, the Ban looks like pure racism (a product of the times, to be sure) that had its roots in the prejudices of men. (BTW, I’m not trying to derail this topic into a discussion of the Priesthood Ban – I know that was well covered back when I was lurking. But it is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of “inspired error.”)

  32. “There is substantial theological diversity within the movement…and considers religious custom to be subservient to personal autonomy.

    Interesting. We allow for a lot of personal autonomy, but ultimately, we are trying to lose ourselves so that we can be found through Christ’s atonement.

    Just another one of those paradoxes that make our life so interesting in the church.

  33. Banky,

    Unfortunately, I was in my 20’s when the ban was lifted, so I don’t “skew young”. We are discussing this in my family right now, as my youngest is trying to deal with it. At this point, in light of all available evidence that I have found, it appears to have started under murky circumstances, and a folklore of doctrine came to be built around it so that it was understandable to us, by mostly well-intentioned people. Over the 50’s and 60’s, and on into the 70’s, those incorrect doctrinal underpinnings of the ban went by the wayside, one by one, until after much struggle, Pres. Kimball, the First Presidency, and the Quorum of 12 all united in endorsing Pres. Kimball’s revelation. That it could be an error (the ban in the first place) is supported by a total lack of any definitive doctrinal statements by Joseph Smith on the subject, and the almost perfect bell curve of speculative theology that grew and then dissipated around it over the next 125 years.

    It would appear to me that many of the Presidents of the church did not seek inspiration regarding the ban, and that when serious discussion of the lifting it began during the administration of Pres. McKay, there was not unanimous support for overturning it until 1978. No question in my mind that revelation ended it, but not until after we had suffered the consequences of that century-plus period of bad behavior.

    I know I’m on a little bit of shaky ground here, but this is the bloggernacle, after all.

  34. I think that’s right Ray, and that also answers the questions that Amanda asked in #16, the short answer to each of her questions being “NO” and the longer answer being “it depends upon your perspective.”

    Amanda: IMO, metaphors like the “straight and narrow path” are not meant to apply to the church as a whole (big picture) but rather to our individual lives (small picture).

    My own perspective on the progress of the church and the prophets is nothing so black and white as the one you suggest. I think Joseph experienced a veritable flood of revelation, some of which was more “correct” than others, but clearly the volume of which has yet to be equaled by subsequent prophets; to my knowledge at least.

    I think comparing prophets and revelations received since Joseph is not particularly helpful, however. As you say, the path is not straight, but neither is it accurate to say that there has been steady progression, or that one prophet is an “infant” and another is a “giant.” Such judgments are beyond our poor power to make, I think.

    The big picture of the world dwindling into apostacy, which was an accurate pattern in the past, is also wrong, as applied to the present dispensation. Because this is the “dispensation of the fullness of times” (and therefore the last one) we should not expect that the previous pattern will be repeated. That doesn’t imply steady progression, but at least we can be fairly sure we aren’t dwindling toward another apostacy.

  35. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 30

    Reconstructionist Mormonism. Wow, now there’s an interesting idea. Maybe that’s what’s emerging from the Bloggernacle. I see another post emerging, at the very least.

  36. I think, as I (and others) have stated repeatedly before, the ban is an example of UNinspired error.

    Banky, I know that you, and others, have trouble with those of us who state that baldly yet still believe in the reality of modern revelation and the calling of the prophet, but there is no contradiction to me. We know the prophet is imperfect and fallible and is going to make mistakes. I don’t believe the ban was ever God’s plan. I just believe that he allows us to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. I don’t know if that helps you, but there it is.

  37. My #34 was responding to Ray’s #29.

  38. StillConfused says:

    Can we put the term “petting” in the error category. Any term that mixes intimate activities and things done to animals is just plain wrong.

  39. MCQ (#28),

    If an adult tells a child that the tooth fairy is real, that is definitely a lie. Benign perhaps, but a lie nonetheless. If the creation story is actually mythical in many respects, I would say it is deceptive as well.

    When have people ever been so stupid that it is responsible to feed them with nursery school class distortions of the truth?

    For the reasons I mentioned before, I do not think God engages in such practices, but rather they are the work of over-enthusiastic gap fillers.


    No. I claim that falsehoods have no doctrinal claim to inspiration. Anything propagated by a prophet that is materially false is necessarily uninspired, or God would be a liar. I do not require or expect prophets to have the big picture, just not to claim inspiration for assertions that are not true.

    Of course there are narratives that are partially true and/or partially inspired, but certainly any errors and falsehoods contained therein cannot claim to be either.

  40. Can a prophet always delineate exactly where inspiration ends and his own interpretation begins? I don’t necessarily see an inspired error as a falsehood revealed by God. Rather, I envision it as an error with roots in inspiration. It may seem like such a natural extension of the inspiration that it is difficult to separate the two–such that criticism of the error is seen as criticism of the inspiration.

  41. As, perhaps, another example, consider this passage from Philip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible concerning Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew:

    “But Smith was not really attempting to be a meticulous Hebraist for the sake of scholarship. Rather, as one non-Mormon Hebrew scholar aptly observes, the Prophet commonly “theologized” with his Hebrew. He was not trying necessarily to discover what the original author was saying so much as he was using Hebrew ‘as he chose, as an artist, inside his frame of reference, in accordance with his taste, according to the effect he wanted to produce, as a foundation for theological innovations.'”

  42. I agree with that, Jared. Short answer: No, not always – and, often, neither can we. That’s why I tend to do my best and avoid public condemnation – since I probably am wrong more often than the prophet I believe was wrong in any specific instance.

  43. #41 – I do the same thing when I quote my father to make a point. I almost never worry about what he actually said; instead, I put my own words around the lesson I remember being taught. I don’t try to recite his words; I try to explain what those words taught me. However, quoting him in the process tends to give it more legitimacy. I can see that process as producing “inspired error” – or at least I hop my rendition is inspired.

  44. Jared,

    Perhaps not, but a prophet certainly has a moral responsibility to error on the side of caution.

    In a case of partial inspiration, rather than saying the error is inspired I would say the error is an artifact or interpolation of the inspired portion.

  45. When have people ever been so stupid that it is responsible to feed them with nursery school class distortions of the truth?

    Distortions? Why do you insist on making it negative? Are you saying that all of scripture is word for word literally true? Many people would not be comfortable insisting on such a view.

  46. “…since I probably am wrong more often than the prophet…”

    I find this thought very interesting, if only because I can see no reason to think it true. Unless a prophet claims revelation by some form of “thus sayeth the Lord” why should we suspect that he knows more than we do? Since callings aren’t supposed to matter in the church, and we could surely never ordain somebody as being more right or righteous than we are, why should we take it as a given that the prophet is wrong less often than we are?

    Of course the immediate response is that to assume that we know more than the prophet is rather arrogant. This, however, is to miss my point. Why do we have to assume that any fallible human is smarter or righter than the next at all?

  47. Jeff,

    Just to be clear: The phrase you quoted does NOT apply to how I view comments by prophets and apostles when they speak of things outside the Gospel and accepted revelation – like evolution, nanotechnology, Greek mythology, art, etc. It applies only to Gospel-related, spiritual matters – the arena in which I agreed to sustain them as prophets and apostles.

    With that qualification, I stand by my statement.

  48. MCQ,

    “Error” is a negative term. Random House has it as “a deviation from accuracy or correctness.” In the sense here, “inspired” is “to communicate or suggest by a divine or supernatural influence”, and “accuracy or correctness” is “the truth”.

    So “inspired error” is “a deviation from the truth suggested by divine influence”. How is a deviation from the truth suggested by divine influence not some sort of divine deception?

    I am not making any claims about the prevalence of any other kind of error, including errors in interpretation and understanding. I simply claim that “inspired error”, is doctrinally speaking, a first class oxymoron.

  49. If God is willing to give a society of believers (or individual) what they want, even though those desires are not in harmony with God’s ultimate desires, then we would be safer assuming that any mainstreaming deviation that followed intense social pressure is actually a mistake for which we will ultimately pay dearly. This would include 1978, of course, as well as temple modifications and the modification of the New and Everlasting Covenant of plural marriage. Those changes were inspired; but they were a result of God responding to our whining, rather than our moving toward a higher state. The fact that we view them as progress merely reveals our cultural biases; it does not follow from the 116 pages or Saul/Samuel stories.

  50. Mark D:

    We’re talking past each other. I accept your definitions but I still think your conclusion is wrong.

    God sometimes teaches through stories. Christ certainly did so during his earthly ministry. Those stories are not always literally “true” or “accurate” in the sense that they actually happened exactly that way at some point in the past. Thus, they are “a deviation from accuracy or correctness” in that sense, or as you put it earlier: “nursery school class distortions.”

    Despite such negative characterizations, they are, in fact, “communicated or suggested by a divine or supernatural influence.” They also teach true principles.

    I don’t know if such things fit everyone’s definition of “inspired error” but they certainly could do so, despite the seeming oxymoron.

  51. #49 – Um . . . uh . . . well . . . but . . .

    Everything between is what I want to say but don’t feel would be appropriate. I’ll leave it at that.

  52. I’ll say this Ujlapana: You may be right, but I sure hope not. We need not “assume” anything, about any revelation. We have a mechanism available to us to discover whether such revelations are of God or of man. It’s not a perfect mechanism, but by using it we ought to at least be able to discover for ourselves whether we are as out of whack as you suggest.

  53. Ujlapana,

    I am trying to understand your comment. If your point is that anytime we move more towards the mainstream, it’s an example of the church making an error, then I have to disagree. Most authors who have studied the 1978 revelation and it’s history have pointed out that the worst of the external pressures peaked in the late 60’s (Bush, Mauss, et al). By 1978, the church had already stated support for the civil rights movement, decrying racism of any sort, and was more often than not left alone on the race issue.

    As to the ending of polygamy, it appears that the church and it’s membership were prepared to continue to fight and hold out, and that even the 1890 Manifesto, when presented for sustaining vote, was met with anything but unanimous approval.

    One could wonder from the tone of your post that either you are a) a fundamentalist that is disappointed in these changes, or b) disaffected by the reflection these changes have on us a members trying to find constancy amid change.

    There may be a third possibility, but since I don’t know much about you, I’ll ask you to please explain yourself a little better.

  54. Since kevinf provided two options, I will add a third – with a request that I have no authority to impose.

    you c) believe the justifications for the Priesthood ban that were given by BRM and others and feel that God really does not want Black men to hold the Priesthood and Black women to be endowed.

    If that is the case, please don’t explain yourself further than to acknowledge it. I really do not want to hear the rationale behind it, since you already addressed a foundation rationale in your comment (all change is bad). If that sums it up, please do not elaborate.

  55. Ray: I love you man, but maybe you should back off a bit. I didn’t read the comment that way at all.

  56. MCQ, that’s why I said “If that is the case . . . If that sums it up . . .” I probably didn’t say it very well, but I tried to keep it in that context. I have lived in the Deep South (sorry for that stereotype, but), and I heard too much while I lived there. The examples I could give . . .

    The comment could have meant at least two very different things; I have no idea which one was meant. I just don’t want to hear a justification of the one I laid out – IF that is the case. I also am well aware that if it is the case, and if there is further elaboration, there’s nothing I can do about it – and I won’t comment on it if so.

    Since I love you too, good enough?

  57. good enough.

  58. I consider most (if not all) doctrinal shifts in the last 103 years to be progress. But the consequence of canonizing stories about God “giving in” is that we cannot assert that they were progress based on any absolute moral basis. If God occasionally sanctions deviations from the path, how can we trust that we aren’t on a deviation, especially when changes are toward the mainstream?

    Personal confirmation is a good idea in theory, but we don’t really belive it in this situation. Look no further than the Mormon fundamentalist, who have had spiritual confirmation that the LDS church is in error (due to a “progressive” change made in 1904). We are allowed confirmation of changes through the Spirit, but not refutation of the same. If the Spirit says, “yes, women ought to hold offices in the Priethood, and frankly, everyone up here is embarassed by the leaders’ failure to recognize that,” then you must be misunderstanding the Spirit. At least I would consider that a typical orthodox position.

  59. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”

    The Lord gives the people what they want, right or wrong. From the experiences we read in the scriptures, it’s usually the latter. Of course, we are different than all those that have gone before us. It would be impossible for the church today to slip into apostasy. At least that’s what I’ve been told. It does make you wonder why those earlier prophets gave us all those warnings. Why would they need to warn a people that couldn’t slip into apostasy about the dangers of apostasy?

  60. Ray (#47) said:

    “The phrase … ‘ since I probably am wrong more often than the prophet ‘ … does NOT apply to how I view comments by prophets and apostles when they speak of things … like evolution.”

    Thanks, Ray, for that clarification. Dozens of your comments about evolution now make perfect sense to me.

  61. Wow. Talk about your words coming back to haunt you. It’s like a Ray shrine.

  62. R. Gary, I don’t know if I should feel scared out of my wits. As long as you don’t have them printed and hanging on a wall, I guess I’ll be OK.

    I actually read through them to see what I had said, and at least I was consistent. That was a relief. To reiterate one last time, my whole point was not about evolution, per se; it was about not reading more into a prophet’s words or statements than what they actually say – the exact same thing I said more than once about the most recent firestorm discussion. It all came from that base.

    Now back to being scared.

  63. Does BCC give out annual awards for creepiest comment? If so, I would like to nominate #60.

    Ray, do you have an alarm system in your house?

  64. Webster’s Dictionary – “obsession”:

  65. – “reasons to argue against agency”:

    Ray, I would consider a restraining order if you see the same unfamiliar face in multiple places.

  66. Ray,

    It seems obvious to me now that President Joseph F. Smith’s intended meaning was never the issue in your comments, only the official nature of his 1909 First Presidency statement. Because the most recent 100 years of scientific research was unavailable to him, of course you don’t care about his intent. The only problem (for you) is the fact that his statement is still the official Church position on evolution. So forget about original intent, analyze the words. Viewed that way, all of your comments make perfect sense to me.

  67. R. Gary, I really should have used a smiley-face emoticon after my first paragraph in #62. I really did have a huge smile on my face as I typed.

  68. MCQ (#50),

    Stories yes. Fictions masquerading as literal truths, no, at least if he values his integrity.

    So if there are such stories, either any fictional aspects are uninspired or the scriptures that say that God cannot lie are incorrect. I prefer to believe the former.

  69. and I forgot to add a “Thank you” for the clarification in #66. It really helps understand what you were saying in #60.

  70. OK, Mark D., you’re a literalist! That’s fine.

    I just hope that, if it turns out you’re wrong, and the story of the creation, or the flood, or any other scriptural account happens to be just a story used for a divine teaching opportunity, you don’t call God a liar. I think that would be a mistake and, unlike yours, my philosophy does not require it. Thus, I think my philosophy is safer than yours.

  71. Haven’t you heard?

    Gary is doing blog intelligence gathering for the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. [wink]

  72. MCQ,

    My position does not require me to be a literalist. It simply requires me to believe that anything that is not true is uninspired. Big difference.

  73. Mark D., does that include the parables attributed to Jesus?

  74. Mark D.: How do you determine what is “true” in your world? That is the problem we seem to be circling and never quite getting to.

  75. Ray,

    A parable does not claim to be a literal account of actual events. Its literal truthfulness is never in question.


    In the same way and subject to the same challenges as anyone else. I don’t think epistemology is particularly relevant here. My baseline position is that any (divine) inspiration worthy of the name is consistent with the truth, and anything inconsistent with the truth is not (divine) inspiration, where the truth is the way things really are, were, and will be.

  76. I’d just like to acknowledge post #36 – I absolutely do *not* have a problem with people who believe that the Prophet can be both inspired and fallible. In fact, that’s just about the only position I *could* respect. I take issue with people who dismiss all incidents of apparently erroneous prophecy/revelation with the “we don’t know God’s plan” line. And I think there’s a real problem with Gentiles thinking that all Mormons subscribe to the latter position – that the Prophet (and indeed, almost any LDS leader) is always correct. Of course, I appreciate the issues raised if, say, the Official Doctrine admitted that the Ban was not of God, but of Man. How, then, could we *know* that the Church’s position on gays, women, &c. is absolutely correct? But rest assured, I have all respect for those who are able to see that even God’s chosen representatives on this Earth aren’t right all the time.

  77. Banky: Amen, brother. You say:

    How, then, could we *know* that the Church’s position on gays, women, &c. is absolutely correct?

    How indeed? I only know of one way that we have ever been given to know the truthfulness of any revelation. It’s obviously not infallible, and it’s very subjective, but it’s all we have.

  78. Mark D., one more try.

    When you say:

    My position does not require me to be a literalist. It simply requires me to believe that anything that is not true is uninspired. Big difference.

    It begs the question as to how you determine what is not true and therefore uninspired.

    As I said before, there are many LDS (and other) people who believe that the creation story, the flood story and Job (just to give a few examples) are not literally true.

    When you said:

    So if there are such stories, either any fictional aspects are uninspired or the scriptures that say that God cannot lie are incorrect. I prefer to believe the former.

    I assumed you were a literalist. Fine and dandy. But you reject that label and say you are saying something different. How so?

  79. Mark D., let me also try one more angle.

    I define “inspiration” as a deeper insight gained through the working of the Spirit than that which one was able to comprehend previously or on her own. A classic definition: “a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul”

    Neither of these definitions address truth or error in any way. If an ancient prophet came to a greater understanding than an earlier prophet, but the “new” understanding still was not the full truth, then such an insight would fit both definitions of “inspiration” – even though, from an absolute truth standard, the new understanding still could be seen as “error”.

    Frankly, I don’t think we understand very many, if any, things fully (as God understands them); therefore, we believe things to be “true” (as true as we possibly can conceive), but we also believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Some of those revelations probably will change how we see things now, but I still believe our current understanding of them is “inspired”.

  80. MCQ,

    I said that of (1) believing any fictional aspects are uninspired or (2) believing that God is a liar, I prefer to believe (1).

    That does not require me to be a literalist. Rather it requires me to conclude that any fictional aspects have an origin other than God, i.e. they are the creations, interpolations, or misunderstandings of men.

    Whether and why I might suspect that some account is non-historical or otherwise non-truthful is irrelevant. Such a position merely requires the holder to believe that such inaccuracies, errors, suppositions, etc. are not of divine origin, on the principle that the character of God requires that to be the case.

    That seems like a pretty unremarkable position to me, a rather straightforward consequence of the attributes God must have to be considered divine. First class subterfuge doesn’t seem to be one of them.


    It certainly isn’t a process of inspiration unless
    the concluding position is more true than the one you started with. In any case, however, I suggest that any error is an artifact of the biases and limitations of the truth seeker, not a consequence of novel falsehoods of divine construction.

    Some people may believe that divine dishonesty is acceptable, that the end justifies the means. I disagree. I would rather have something 80% accurate than nothing at all, but I refuse to believe that God is responsible for any any substantial inaccuracy or misdirection that exists in the final product. We see through a glass darkly, right?

  81. MCQ,

    By the way, I think we might have a different idea of what “literalist” means. I understand a biblical literalist to be someone who believes that the Bible is free from any material errors in fact or in doctrine.

    I don’t think that is the case. I do not have any problem with allegories or symbolisms as long as it is clear to the reader that something non-literal is being presented (Jacob 5 for example). If it is not clear that the content is allegorical or symbolic, and the ambiguity was purposeful, I would regard the author to be engaging in manipulative subterfuge.

    However, I suggest that most such material was believed to be literal by the original author. I think that is much more likely than the prospect of prophets telling “nursery school tales”, as Brigham Young suggested.

  82. Mark D, I think semantics was getting in the way of intended meaning. It appears that we don’t disagree about much, if any, of this.

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