Intertemporal Mormonism

J. Wellington Wimpy understood the time value of money

J. Wellington Wimpy understood the time value of money

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]

In 1980, then-Elder Benson reiterated both the story and precedence of modern over past revelation, and in 2010, two members of the Quorums of the Seventies again reiterated it.

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.


  1. “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.”

    Yeah, but only if you don’t care what God says about usury.

  2. lastlemming says:

    I think the time value of money is the wrong way to think about the issue. Revelations should be viewed as intangible assets, which depreciate over time. The “cost” involved is an investment analogous to R&D expenses. (I know, the tax code does not treat R&D as an investment, but BEA now does, and when serious tax reform hits the agenda, the tax code likely will too–see for a Democratic proposal and for a Republican proposal).

    The Brethren maintain the value of the assets by (a) canonizing certain revelations, thereby giving them a more permanent and widely distributed platform, (b) emphasizing them in handbooks and curricular materials that are used over a multi-year period, and (c) performing “repairs” by repeating them at semiannual conferences. Declaring a revelation unchangeable is just another technique for maintaining asset value, although it puts the value of another intangible asset, goodwill toward the institution, at risk. Hence the many investments in protecting that asset too.

  3. lastlemming, totally fair. Like I said, I think this is the opposite of time value of money, but they both deal with intertemporal decisions.

    Also, in the tax—as opposed to financial accounting—world, businesses don’t try to maintain the value of assets, because current depreciation is more valuable than future depreciation, precisely for time value of money reasons, so, while I like your idea of shoring up the value of current assets, it doesn’t fit in the metaphorical world I’m setting up.

    Still, I’m not saying that raising the costs of future revelation is the only reason church leaders declare certain doctrines unchangeable; I’m just trying to explore what the motivation might be. And I can totally buy your explanation, too.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    I like this Sam. I also love fn5.

  5. Sam, I agree or at least have entertained some of the same thoughts about intertemporal decisions. I don’t go to time value, nor to depreciation, but to half-life (as in time over which radiation or any other active property falls to half its original value).
    However . . . while I think these are all interesting ways to think about what God may be doing, they do not explain what church leaders are doing. I don’t believe church leaders are consciously managing a time value, depreciation, or half-life interpretation (even though some may speculate in similar or different ways). Instead, when they say “unchangeable” what they mean is that the revelation in question did not come with footnotes, did not have any qualifications, did not come with rules about time frame or situation. That it came as an absolute, as a truth for all time and in all places.
    We poor humans, seeing through the glass darkly, are left to puzzle out what’s happening and why, especially when an “absolute” revelation changes, as obviously does happen. Why does God work this way? But the revelation itself is no particular help in the puzzlement.

  6. Well-written and thoughtful post. However, one underlying premise is challenged by all the “changes.” That is the premise that God is “speaking” to these men.

    While most of them are and were well-meaning and righteous, another conclusion that can be reached is that all the changes were a function of changing circumstances/environment/needs and younger men having been raised in different eras with different views. God did not intervene to fix their errors.

    Yet another conclusion is that God is also “evolving” or that He didn’t think we/the church were yet ready for further light and knowledge. For example, prior to 1978 too many of us couldn’t handle the truth that blacks are no different from “whites” in the eyes of God–trapped as we were in our multi-millenia racist past.

    IMO, I lean toward the first conclusion.

  7. It seems to me that resorting to physics might be more appropriate… I seem to recall there is a property of matter that resists pressure. Anyway, we seem to hear more in the way of “never change” when there’s pressure for it to change. A sort of revelatory inertia.

  8. I may be cynical, but my strong hunch as to why church leaders maintain so firmly that their key teachings are firm and unchangeable (even when historical evidence has clearly shown this NOT to be the case) goes something like this: if church leaders were to admit to their followers that their teachings/revelations were contingent, tentative, or open to revision, it may serve to decrease faith/confidence in the leaders on the part of the followers. The followers may then start to question other teachings, policies, procedures, etc. and feel less obligated to obey directives or internalize institutional priorities. That could potentially lead less sacrifice on the part of the followers to fulfill lay callings, serve missions, etc., donate fewer tithes and offerings, and give less deference to the teachings and priorities of the leaders. This, in turn, would ultimately serve to decrease the power, prestige, and influence of both the institution and its leadership. Thus, leadership has a strong incentive to project to its followers that its teachings and priorities are reliable, trustworthy, and “eternal and unchanging.”

    I am confident that this is not the *only* explanation (or even an entirely correct explanation), but I’m also fairly confident that this explanation factors somehow into the equation…

  9. There’s a risk in placing TOO high a value on future revelation, when it devalues current/past revelation. Some members become so convinced that future revelation will come to overturn past revelation that they are reluctant to accept the current state of doctrine. There’s an even greater danger when members convince themselves that such future revelation will certainly be [fill in the blank], and they begin acting on that presumed future revelation, condemning current teachings and declaring their vision of the future inevitable.

  10. Ardis, absolutely, which is what I tried to get at with the italicized paragraph at the end. Just because things will change doesn’t mean we know what will change, or how it will look in the future; even assuming future revelation is more valuable than current revelation, we live in the present, not the future.

  11. I know there are a bit of disaffected types that talk about the lack of current revelation. That if the heavens are open the only new thing God wanted us to know is that girls should go on missions earlier. I like this way of explaining how our situation has come about.

    And I like ardis’ point as well, I try to stay in just not knowing what we don’t know and not knowing what that is. What I’m certain of us that we shouldn’t be so certain about knowing everything.

  12. Geoff - Aus says:

    I think there must be eternal truths, as taught by the Saviour, but mostly the law he taught was to Love God and Love your fellow man, and respect for agency, and equality. All are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female, gay and straight.

    I also think that many of the leaders are so sure of their own/political views that the Lord would have to strike them dumb to get a word in. And that certainty allows them to teach these views as if they are Gospel. The list you have in the original blog of Polygamy, racism, opposition to birth control, opposition to inter racial marriage, opposition to gays, and gay marriage, patriarchy, and I would add obedience is the first law of heaven, the leaders will not lead you astray, and follow the Prophet unquestioningly, are all examples of people teaching their own views as if they are Gospel.

    To me it is very obvious , if teachings do not include loving someone on their own terms, respecting their agency, and equality, then that teaching is not consistent with the Gospel. I am somewhat confused as to why the spirit seems to confirm support for both sides of an argument.

    These same men can at other times teach the Gospel.
    We do hear claims that the teachings on Gays, are from God but we don’t hear about the revelation where God conveyed this. It is what they believe so it must be from God.

    I think some introspection on the part of some of the brethren would be healthy and enlightening, but perhaps once you get past 80 that becomes more difficult.