The last couple days, I’ve been thinking about intertemporality in the church. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how we see the value of current revelation vis-à-vis both past and future revelation.
Partly, I think, this interests me as an expansion of my professional interests. In my world, we think a lot about the time value of money. In a nutshell, the time value of money holds that, as long as you can earn a positive rate of interest, a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar a year from now, so if you have a choice between earning a dollar today and earning a dollar in a year, you should choose the dollar today.[fn1]
Why is a money more valuable today in a year? Basically, because if I have a $100 today, and interest rates are at 2%,[fn2] I can stick my money in the bank and, a year from now, I will have $102. $100 in a year, then, is worth less than $100 today.[fn3]
In the church, though, these temporal preferences seem to reverse: later revelation is more valuable than earlier revelation.
Why is that? In part, the idea has become an oft-repeated statement of the value of modern prophets. President Woodruff famously told the story of Brigham Young showing an assembled congregation the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants, and proceeding to tell them that
when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.[fn4]
Whatever we think of the Fourteen Fundamentals talk, moreover, the idea of modern revelation being more valuable than prior revelation matches our lived experience. Later revelation does, in fact, trump earlier revelation, changing the terms partially or completely. For example, look at Peter’s vision of the unclean animals, Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto, or Spencer Kimball’s termination of racial restrictions on priesthood and temple. By coming later, these revelations reversed earlier rules.
If later revelation is more valuable than earlier revelation, though, that makes problematic a common practice among church leaders: the practice of declaring a doctrine or policy of the church unchangeable.[fn5] Examples include polygamy,[fn6] chastity,[fn7] the Ten Commandments,[fn8] same-sex marriage,[fn9] racial restrictions on priesthood and temple,[fn10] and the male-only priesthood.[fn11]
Declaring that certain practices are unchangeable, or even that the prophet does not have the authority to change some practices, seems to distrust the validity of future revelation at the same time we consider that future revelation more valuable than what we have today; it also feels a lot like an attempt by the current generation of church leaders to tie the hands of future leaders. So why has it been so common, pretty much since the beginnings of the Restoration?
I mean, clearly the church is conservative (in a Burkean sense). Church leaders value and respect precedent, and, even when they break with it, often work to contextualize the break in a way that minimizes its apparent difference with the past. But this Burkean conservatism reduces the need for statements of immutability: even without asserting the unchanging nature of one or another teaching, current leaders’ impulse will be not to change it.
Frankly, I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to propose one possibility: it’s a reasonable and sensible strategy to raise the cost of future revelation.
See, receiving revelation is not costless. Oliver Cowdery found that out when he tried to translate the golden plates; it was not enough, he learned, merely to ask—his responsibility was to study it out. Similarly, Sidney Rigdon (allegedly, at least) learned that visions could be physically exhausting.
Why does that matter? Because we want revelation. And we want revelation today, if at all possible. But it today’s revelation can be easily reversed tomorrow, maybe it’s not worth the effort of seeking today’s revelation. Tomorrow’s, after all, is better and is more valid.
And if that’s the case, maybe doing things today to raise the cost of future revelation is the right answer, because it changes the cost-benefit calculus. Note that the raised cost does not preclude future revelation; in spite of their purported immutability, both polygamy and racial restrictions on priesthood and temple went away.
But the revelation enacting change only happened after signficant work by the prophet at the time. And maybe it was worth the costs of doing that work because he knew that he had ways to make his revelation stickier.
Which is to say: maybe these anchoring statements, which seem to preclude future change, make current revelation more plausible by virtue of making future revelation more costly.
(N.b.: that the church has, in the past, changed things that earlier leaders said would never change does not mean (a) that every doctrine, policy, or teaching will change, or (b) that any particular doctrine, policy, or teaching will change. Though change has happened, and will likely happen again,[fn12] we cannot project any particular change from the data points we have.)
[fn1] Actually, more applicably to my specific interests, a deduction is worth more today (because it reduces the amount of current tax you have to pay), while an income inclusion costs more today. Therefore, taxpayers have incentives to accelerate their deductions and defer their income where possible.
[fn2] Yes, I know, I wish, too.
[fn3] So for me to be indifferent between receiving money today and a year from now, the payor has to offer me $100 today or $102 a year from now. In some cases, of course, I should wait to take the money. For example, if I’m convinced that the interest rate is 2%, and I’m offered $100 today or $105 in a year, I should take the $105 (which has a present value of about $102.94).
[fn4] Conference Report, Oct. 1897, pp. 22-23.
[fn5] Quick aside: I don’t want to go down the rabbit-hole of doctrine versus policy; I don’t find it a tremendously valuable exercise. In English, the word “doctrine” merely means a teaching or body of teachings that are laid out as true. And even if Mormonism creates an idiosyncratic overlay of immutability on the word’s definition, that makes the word doctrine far less valuable as a positive descriptor: because we cannot know what will and what will not change, we cannot say, in advance, that some church teaching is doctrine (=unchanginge); we can only say in retrospect that some teaching was not doctrine after it changes.
[fn6] “I heard the revelation on polygamy, and I believed it with all my heart, and I know it is from God—I know that he revealed it from heaven; I know that it is true, and understand the bearings of it and why it is. “Do you think that we shall ever be admitted as a State into the Union without denying the principle of polygamy?” If we are not admitted until then, we shall never be admitted.” Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (“JoD”) 11:269; “If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right. We just can’t do that, for God has commanded us to build up His kingdom and to bear our testimony to the nations of the earth, and we are going to do it, come life or come death. He has told us to do thus, and we shall obey Him in days to come as we have in days past.” Wilford Woodruff, JoD 13:166.
[fn7] “Our doctrine—not just belief, but doctrine—that sexual relations are only appropriate and lawful in the Lord’s eyes between man and woman legally and lawfully married is unchanged and will never change.” Elder Christofferson.
[fn8] “Although the world has changed, the laws of God remain constant. They have not changed; they will not change. The Ten Commandments are just that—commandments. They are not suggestions. They are every bit as requisite today as they were when God gave them to the children of Israel.” President Monson.
[fn9] “The Court’s decision does not alter the Lord’s doctrine that marriage is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God. While showing respect for those who think differently, the Church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.” Newsroom (because the recent letter is like the only thing in the Google search returns, and I don’t feel like spending the time to search deeper).
[fn10] “How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. Until the last ones of the residue of Adam’s children are brought up to that favorable position, the children of Cain cannot receive the first ordinances of the Priesthood. They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse will be removed. When the residue of the family of Adam come up and receive their blessings, then the curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will receive blessings in like proportion.” Brigham Young, JoD 7:290-91.
[fn11] ” But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” Elder Oaks.
[fn12] In fact, the belief that change will happen again is enshrined in our scriptures.