….when acting as such.
Well now that’s a fascinating tidbit of information concerning what a prophet is. (I wonder what Isaiah would have thought about it?)
Those of us familiar with this quotation from Joseph Smith are likely accustomed to seeing it deployed in defense of the view that those holding the calling of “prophet” do not always speak in an official capacity, thereby staving off criticism that everything a prophet says must be official and binding church doctrine. Further, this statement is said to illustrate that prophets are fallible human beings, “just like the rest of us.”
The problem, of course, is that there are no explicit criteria that help us determine when a prophet is “acting like a prophet” and when a prophet is “not acting like a prophet.” When was the last time we can all agree that President Monson was not acting or speaking like a prophet? When he was at his last Utah Jazz game, politely yelling at Raja Bell to shoot another 3? What if he had been in the locker room with the players before the game and offered a prayer on their behalf, Notre Dame-style? Was he acting like a prophet then or just like a good praying man? Can the mantle be switched on and off at will? In other words, whatever we might say about this familiar quotation, whatever ways we deploy it as a defense against having to impossibly systematize our theology according to every word that comes out of a prophet’s mouth, and, finally, against the notion of prophetic infallibility, in practice we (or at least the vast majority of Mormons) automatically default to “a prophet is ALWAYS a prophet and his words are seen as non-binding or unofficial at our own peril. (If that’s not the case I couldn’t begin to decide which words I won’t listen to).” This is essentially the well-worn joke that papal infallibility is Catholic doctrine that no Catholic takes seriously and prophetic fallibility is Mormon doctrine that no Mormon takes seriously.
It is essentially impossible to suggest such distinguishing criteria because such criteria simply do not exist . No prophet of which I am aware has offered the necessary clues. And virtually everything written on the subject is essentially a gloss on the above statement from Joseph Smith, itself not an official statement or scriptural in nature. Further, all of these glosses apportion the men who are called as prophets in somewhat artificial, non-human divisions: when a prophet makes an official statement undersigned by all the apostles or speaks by the Holy Ghost in an official capacity–in other words, when he is behaving in a non-human manner–he is a prophet. When he is acting like a human being (laughing, playing with his kids, relaxing, taking in a basketball game) he’s not a prophet. Such distinctions invite unnecessary and trifling efforts that essentially equate to absurdly trying to figure out what taxonomic genus of human President Monson can ultimately be classified as.
I’ll suggest here that a slight shift of emphasis in Joseph Smith’s statement might make more sense of what a Mormon prophet could be (Isaiah, I think, might be more than a little puzzled by our latter-day prophets; just the lack of prophetesses alone might be a dealbreaker). Instead of playing an impossible and nonsensical game of trying to figure out when prophets are not prophets, or of being disingenuous by claiming that prophets are flawed and human but treating them as semi-deities in public and private discourse, we instead should insist that if a prophet is in fact a prophet he is always a prophet. Well, yeah. Isn’t that what we basically already think? However, this almost trivially obvious proposition in fact suggests that we broaden our notion of what the word “prophet” could mean. Thus, a prophet is a prophet only when acting as such, but what being a Mormon prophet means (or could mean) is that part of what it means to be human is to prophesy. Mormon theology and cosmology somewhat famously, in fact, refuses to make distinctions that ontologically divide and subdivide. Heaven is not ontologically or qualitatively different from mortality. It is a continuum of eternal presences, the collapsing of the sacred into the mundane and vice versa. The very earth on which we stand abides the law of heaven, of a celestial kingdom (D$C 88:25). A prophet, then, is not one who is simply charismatically overtaken by the Spirit and, helpless under the hypnotic will of God, makes pronouncements and declarations. A prophet is (or could be), in modern times, an ordinary person who testifies and prophesies like other “ordinary” (“ordinary” meaning no special or distinctive features, not that the average person prophesies or testifies like Mormons) people, one of whom it can be said, as it can be said of others, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). Mormonism, then, could be seen to take seriously Moses’ desire that that “all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). The meaning of the word “prophet,” then, for Mormons, could mean that being a prophet means to be fully human in some way. To play with one’s children, revere a spouse, teach one’s children the gospel, be the best mother or father one can be, serve one’s neighbor, feed the poor, lift up the hands that hang down (as well as testify of Christ as a witness, perform saving ordinances, etc) all become the things that prophets do, not simply the mundane everyday activities of “ordinary” people, in comparison with which there is a Prophet who makes official doctrinal statements. This doesn’t preclude the importance for Mormons of there being a “head” Prophet, one who is called to lead the Church and still make official statements and speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and officially administer the Church with other Head Prophets. But no longer would a prophet need to be subdivided and classified. No longer would his Jazz game attendance be seen as a “non-prophetic” activity, engaged in only when he takes off his mantle and places it on the mantle-rack for the evening before he goes out with his wife for dinner. Instead, being a prophet could mean to value certain very human ideals and to point, as authentically as possible, to what it means to be human for a particular people.
One of the tasks of Mormon theology, as I see it, is to re-interpret and broaden certain concepts and ideals that have come down as traditionally Christian. Mormonism is, in crucial ways, a critique of a given culture and also one of the means to reinterpret (and thereby redeem) that culture for the modern world. It doesn’t always do this, and has often not been very good at it. But the resources and the mandate to do so, in my opinion, are there. Re-defining what a prophet could be in the modern world is one of these hermeneutic tasks. Interestingly, in that light, Joseph’s Smith’s original famous quotation includes a key epilogue, just one sentence later and in the same journal entry that is almost never quoted: “At four in the afternoon, I went out with my little Frederick, to exercise myself by sliding on the ice.” (History of the Church 5: 265).
Prophetic words, indeed.
 Certain authoritative voices like John Widtsoe (Evidences and Reconciliations) and J. Reuben Clark (“When Are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?” Church News, July 31, 1954) are among those church leaders who have offered their own criteria for distinguishing prophetically binding discourse, but of course their words are nevertheless offered as opinion and personal judgment only, as the contexts of their limited audiences and self-referential caveats make clear.