For the past 30 years I have commuted by train into the City of Chicago. After pulling into Union Station, I walk up the steps to Madison Street and cross the Chicago River to get to my office. On Thursday mornings I grab a copy of the Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative paper, to read on the train ride home.

One of the regular features of the Reader is The Straight Dope. Today’s column was on the concept of infallibility. The actual question was as follows:

What’s the deal with papal infallibility? Can the pope modify any church teaching he so desires, and Catholics would have to obey? Can he make abortion ok? What about worshiping Satan?

Cecil talks about the challenge of the Enlightenment to the church. The pope’s authority seemed to be waning and was being challenged on every side. So in hopes of buttressing that authority, the dogma of papal infallibility was formalized and put into writing. Specifically, this was done when Pope Pius IX was facing external political threats and convened the first Vatican Council in the 1860s to shore up the power of his office.

I know from experience that your average Mormon thinks that every utterance of the pope is supposed to be infallible. But that’s not actually the way it works. Infallibility only applies if two conditions are present. First the teaching has to be ex cathedra (“from the chair”), spoken in his role as the church’s supreme leader. Second, the subject matter may only be faith and morals.

The thing is, most popes realize that claiming infallibility for some teaching is sort of a religious nuclear option, to be used only in extremis. In the mid-20th century John XXIII famously said “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”

What counts as infallible teaching is a matter of some debate. The clearest example is probably Mary’s assumption into heaven. Many would also include the Immaculate Conception (another Marian doctrine), although since it preceded Vatican I by a decade, that is not certain. Some consider the concept of infallible statements as retroactive to important statements of the popes through history, and others do not.

Pope Benedict was accused by some of creeping infallibility, for instance by claiming that John Paul II’s rejection of female ordination was infallible, although John Paul did not claim it so at the time. Infallibility became a tool to try to remove certain such hot button issues from the realm of debate.

So anyway, I’m reading all this on the train coming home this evening, and a little light bulb goes on in my brain.

We Mormons scoff at the idea of infallibility. To us it’s all popish foolishness. And I freely confess, I have long had a negative view of claims of infallibility. To me human beings are inherently mortal and subject to error by very definition. I don’t believe any human can truly be “infallible.”

But what suddenly became clear to me while reading the article is that we Mormons do the very same thing in our religious tradition. We don’t use the word “infallibility,” but we believe and teach the same thing conceptually. And here is my Exhibit A:

The November policy changes were slipped into an electronic manual without fanfare or notice. They immediately faced an absolute storm of criticism, beyond any I can recall ever witnessing in my life in the Church. A week later the Church issued a revision to the policy, which didn’t do much to stem the overwhelming criticism.

So last month during a devotional Elder Russell M. Nelson claimed that the new rules were not an administrative policy, but in fact were a revelation from God to his prophet. In part he said:

And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process.

I was struck by the similar strategic effect of this tack to papal infallibility. Where Pope Benedict used infallibility as a tool to avoid extremely controversial hot-button issues like contraception, this claim of revelation seems a clear attempt to do the very same thing vis-a-vis the policy. The claim of revelation is intended to put the policy beyond rational critique and criticism.

As a good Mormon boy, I’m a believer in modern revelation. But I have a tough time swallowing this as such. We don’t usher in revelations by trying to slip them unnoticed into the handbook. The policy read like the sloppy draftsmanship of a Kirton & McConkie first-year associate, not like the mind and will of Almighty God. And which version did the united spiritual confirmation of the Twelve smile upon, the first or the second?

So we Mormons may be turned off by the hoity-toity latinate term of art ‘infallible.” But we believe the very same thing, just under different names and guises. If the prophet can’t lead us astray, that’s the Mormon way of saying he’s infallible. I hereby repent of ever having a disparaging thought concerning the dogma of infallibility. It turns out my own faith practices the same dogma, just using a different lexicon.


  1. Well said, Kevin. My guiding principle is the one articulated by President John Taylor, who said:

    “Do not, brethren, put your trust in a man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone…” (Journal of Discourses 20:264)

  2. I don’t know Catholic practice to make comparisons, but with respect to LDS practice I agree. Not in the use of “infallibility”, which we reject. But in the use of “revelation” as a trump card, to put policy (or declaration or teaching or discipline) beyond rational critique and criticism. The LDS practice is more difficult to manage because less well defined. Almost anything said by a general authority declared with appropriate gravity may be authoritative in some minds.
    My pet theory about Elder Nelson’s “revelation” statement may serve as an example. (“May” because it’s only a pet theory, not ‘truth’.) My theory is that in the days *after* the original policy came to light and was widely criticized, the Quorum and First Presidency met and discussed, in what was probably a lengthy and difficult meeting. And in that meeting President Monson came to a conclusion and declared the revisions that were shortly thereafter (November 13, 2015) issued in a formal way over the signature of the First Presidency.
    A spiritual confirmation in that meeting could be understood as validating the revisions. Or it could be understood as validating the entire process, the original policy as now revised. How is one to know? Without a well-defined process or rule book, such as the Roman Catholic papal infallibility, we are always left to decide and discern for ourselves.

  3. Amen.

    Elder Nelson always had a touch of arrogance about him–it goes with the chest-cutter’s trade–but it takes real chutzpah to proclaim that something is a Revelation from God™ about which you were so sheepish that you didn’t want to announce it publicly. (Pre-1850 polygamy differs in that public acknowledgement of its practice would have resulted in an existential threat to the Church and its leaders. The Policy carries with it no such danger.)

    I almost wonder if he made the statement in his CES speech without prior authorization from the First Presidency. He is President of the Twelve and next in line to the Presidency of the Church, after all; I cannot imagine that the Brethren would risk a public scandal.

    We must never forget that ours is a Church led by men: men who know the will of God, yes, and are authorized to speak on His behalf, but men nonetheless, with all the frailties so implied.

  4. Not to mention that this new “revelation” in addition to being morally bankrupt is directly contrary to the spirit and/or content of several scriptures.

  5. Nice write-up, Kevin. And I liked how you “brought it home.” Thank you.
    P.S. That poor Kirton & McConkie associate!

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Again I think the “not lead astray” is the whole church into apostasy and not that everything is correct along the way.

    That said I confess I’ll always give the brethren the benefit of the doubt – especially when it goes against my political views. After all we’re all passionate about politics which (at least when I think about myself) tends to imply that I’m far less rational there. Many are quick to assume the brethren are led astray by their politics but are loath to apply the same criteria to themselves. While I don’t believe in anything like infallibility I also have come away from my meetings with apostles convinced they’re all much better at feeling and recognizing the spirit than me. So they may make mistakes but probably far fewer than I will in evaluating the data.

  7. Perhaps if Elder Nelson dies in the next few years, it can be seen as the Lord chastening him for taking the Lords name in vain?
    It seems that many members do see the 15as infallable, certainly where I live. Or perhaps it is just the culture of obedience.

  8. Around these parts in recent years on the subject of female ordination there has been an attitude of “we just want the brethren to seriously ask the question”. Which in principle is a worthy desire/request. But I think the reaction to Elder Nelson’s remarks highlights that some may be being disingenuous. That is they don’t just want the brethren to ask the question, they want them to keep asking until they get the answer they want.

    Elder Nelson outlined what I think we all hope the brethren do when faced with a serious/vexing problem – the wrestle with the issue themselves and consider the many implications, they fast, pray, seek revelation in the temple, and they wait for God to speak to the prophet. But when that “revelation” doesn’t fit with our moral biases we can’t accept God would be a part of it. I think that impulse is normal and that we are all guilty of it to some degree. And I think it is right to question the process, e.g. was the prophet receiving inspiration about the original policy change or the “clarified” version? At the same time, I don’t see much value in a prophet who we only follow when we agree with what they say.

  9. In some ways, the papal infallibility doctrine is even more limited than the prophetic fallibility doctrine (though it’s not really a fair comparison because the infallibility doctrine is much more well defined, while the prophetic fallibility doctrine is less developed and more contested): papal infallibility requires both ex cathedra and that it be on the subject of faith or morals–that is, or is limited both by form and by subject matter. But most Mormons would probably say that a prophet is fallible in his personal life, but can not “lead the church astray” when speaking as a prophet, so there is a limitation on form, but not on subject matter. The prophet can speak as a prophet on basically any subject. Of course that’s only one version, but it does seem to be the version that most members hold to.

    Though to be fair, there is maybe an implied subject matter limitation in the “only when speaking as a prophet” in practice. That is, a prophet’s statement for example that a certain kind of food was the best food would probably not be seen as most members as “speaking as a prophet” even if it was said in a formal setting. More cynically, many members appear to think the prophet (or a handful of apostles add the case may be) is infallible when speaking on something like prop 8, but speaking as a man or men when speaking on something like immigration policy.

    In any case, in practice, Mormon notions of the prophet not leading the church astray are in practice basically identical to the papal infallibility doctrine in practice.

  10. Leonard R says:

    Perhaps the fairest and most thorough serious take on the old Catholic/Mormon infallibility joke. We collectively need to think about this matter better, including the way/when the Catholic doctrine originated and the why/when the “Lord won’t let the prophet lead the church astray” doctrine was put forward.

  11. Anon for this says:

    In the Teachings of the Living Prophets student manual it is very much implied that the prophet is pretty much infallible. It quotes heavily from Benson’s ‘Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet’ which caused President Kimball some consternation.

    Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.

    Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to His prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training which they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. How much earthly schooling did Joseph Smith have? Yet he gave revelations on all kinds of subjects. We haven’t yet had a prophet who earned a doctorate in any subject, but as someone said, “A prophet may not have his Ph.D. but he certainly has his LDS.” We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember, if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet, and you’ll be blessed and time will vindicate you.

    Is it any wonder that so many members follow the mantra ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.’

  12. Good thought Kevin. I believe the church also sometimes avoids hot button topics by using the tactic directly opposite of infallibility – stating that the church has no authority to make a change. This was the case with the racial priesthood/temple ban. And it was the primary argument made by Elder Oaks in his 2014 conference address on women and the priesthood. In essence, “don’t bother us because the change is outside our keys.”

  13. Agree completely. You’ve heard this joke before about Roman Catholics and Mormons, right?

    Roman Catholics are told all their lives that the Pope is infallible, but they don’t believe it.
    Mormons are told all their lives that their leaders are human and can make mistakes, but they don’t believe it.

  14. Great insight, Kevin. It’s not the same word, but it’s definitely the same strategy.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Anon (6:14) I confess I don’t see how that implies infallibility. Certainly if we believe there is revelation then a prophet can and ought be able to speak on anything. That doesn’t mean he’s always right. I assume you mean the last sentence as implying it, but again I just don’t read it that way.

    JKC (5:08) I don’t think there is an implies subject matter limitation. The quote from Pres. Benson makes that pretty clear although that idea certainly goes back to Joseph Smith. After all he gave revelations dealing with health, economics, and even forecast an astronomical event.

    James (2:20) I agree completely. It’s far more than merely asking questions.

  16. Yeah, Clark, I could see an argument on both sides. One version would go with President Benson’s formulation. And you could also back that up with Brigham Young quotes about how if you question the prophet in matters of finances, that could lead to questioning in matters of faith and then you’re in trouble. But that’s of course, contested. Another version would say something more like a prophet is only speaking as a prophet when he is speaking about things within the purview of his office. The question is, what is within the purview of his office? I think most members would pretty easily agree that the prophet’s preferences about, say what brand of car he likes to drive, are not within the purview of his office. Maybe that’s just because I have a hard time imagining a prophet invoking the authority of his office to express such opinions, so maybe it’s not an independent subject matter limitation at all. If and independent limitation exists, it is certainly broader than mere “faith or morals.” I mean, a prophet’s preferences about how many earrings are too many apparently counted as speaking as a prophet. But in practice, I think it’s pretty close to infallibility.

  17. Glenn Thigpen says:

    From reading many blogs on the Mormon Archipelago, I get the very opposite feeling, that hardly anyone feels that the prophet is infallible, but just the opposite, feel that the General Authorities hardly ever get anything right.

    Those General Authorities are not hidebound old white demagogues. They are men who have attained their positions of responsibility through years of selfless service and righteous living. They do not make these decisions lightly. They do pray, and discuss, and pray more on the issues at hand. They are not prone to making knee jerk, off the cuff decisions in response to hot button topics. They spend a lot of time in the temple meditating and praying.

    Elder Nelson’s comments were just informing the members of the Church that the policy came from the Lord.

    Kevin, how much time have you spent praying about this subject? How much time have you spent meditating in the temple? Have you received a revelation that Elder Nelson was lying about their experience? Have you received a revelation that they were deceived?

    Look to yourself long and hard before you reply. When I say long, I mean weeks, if not months. Seek the Lord in prayer longer and harder than you have ever done. Work to rid yourself of your cynicism and emotions and seek pure revelation.

    I am not saying you are right or wrong in your assessment. I am only saying that you need to put the time and effort into trying to discern the truth of the matter. You owe the Lord and His chosen prophets that much. On this, and any other announcement from the General Authorities, you, or anyone else, needs to be really sure that they are correct before setting out to lay the charges against the brethren that you have laid.


  18. What charges has Kevin laid out against Church leaders?

  19. Clark Goble says:

    JKC (9:34) It may seem like I’m following the medievals in making subtle distinctions, but I don’t think I am. To me it seems like there is a pretty fundamental difference between making prophets a trump or merely saying there’s a burden of proof. I just don’t see a compelling argument for prophets being an absolute trump in everything they teach. Even people like Jeff over at New Cool Thang who comes closest to treating prophetic statements as a trump allows the caveat that personal revelation can confirm or deny what they say.

    Now I think it’s fair to criticize the more singular focus on confirmation, although that’s changed somewhat in recent years. Although to be fair I think the brethren see that in practice the bigger problem is getting people to listen rather than people listening uncritically. (Seriously – if people really took infallibility seriously as a social belief home teaching and visiting teaching stats wouldn’t be so low)

  20. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I think Glenn’s response represents the nuanced approach to prophetic infallibility that is very common among so many members. If you don’t agree with something one of the General Authorities says you should take all the time necessary to bring yourself in line with their thinking. If you aren’t there yet, you haven’t spent enough time and effort to get there, so keep going. I rarely hear people say that prophets are infallible. Rather it takes a more subtle direction. It’s not that these men aren’t capable of getting it wrong, it’s that they aren’t ever going to get it wrong. They CAN make mistakes, but they won’t.

  21. Clark, you are technically correct that the last sentence from the “Teachings of the Prophets” manual quoted by Anon doesn’t imply that prophets are infallible. Rather, it implies something far worse—that if there is a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you should always stand with the prophet even if you have personally come to the conclusion, through study and prayer, that the prophet is wrong and the “earthly knowledge” is correct.

    Don’t think; just do as you’re told. If Joseph Smith tells you that his Kirkland bank scheme is a winner or that Quakers inhabit the moon, you accept it no matter what your “earthly knowledge” tells you, and you’ll be blessed.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, I don’t think it says that in the least.

  23. Just a thought: revelation has changed a great deal since Joseph Smith. No more grand theological expansions. No more angels appearing. No more theophanies. No more translations of ancient documents. Instead, we have councils that make institutional pronouncements. The big exception was the 1978 priesthood revelation. But even that was very different from what Joseph Smith experienced.

  24. Clark, here are the precise words from the manual: “…but remember, if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet, and you’ll be blessed and time will vindicate you.”

    Please enlighten us as to how this injunction, if followed literally, allows us to pursue a course of action other than the one mandated by the prophet? What does the word “ever” mean in the context of this sentence? Can I take a position inconsistent with a prophet’s admonition and still say that I “stand with him”?

  25. Clark Goble says:

    The issue is what “words of the prophet” means. You are taking it to literally be anything someone who holds the calling says. The more traditional reading is that “words of a prophet” only applies when the person is speaking as a prophet. But how do you tell when they are speaking as a prophet? It’s that step you are assuming Pres. Benson is rejecting.

  26. Not as a thread-jack, but to the overall point of how valid, God-directed, or “infallible” are our GAs. I have a specific reaction to something Thigpen (9:39) wrote… “Those General Authorities are not hidebound old white demagogues. They are men who have attained their positions of responsibility through years of selfless service and righteous living.”

    That is not an untrue characterization of the types of men who rise up through the ranks to become GAs. However, another characterization has relevance. I have had personal experience with many later called to be bishops, and several later called to be stake presidents (the first couple of steps up the hierarchy), and I have listened my whole life to the GA’s conference talks (reiterated endlessly in sacrament meeting talks). The evidence is overwhelming that these men are also among those most rules-based, conservative/traditional, “obedient,” and TBM.

    So, not all are demagogues, but they tend to be hidebound by their conservatism, lack of creativity, lack of openness to seeing new things as of value, etc. And, they are certainly quite old. They tend to still live inside Plato’s cave–which also brings to mind an echo chamber in terms of the likelihood of new thoughts. That doesn’t make them bad men, but it certainly doesn’t augur much progression either.

  27. Clark Goble says:

    fbisit, while that may describe some of them, I’m not sure it describes all of them. Honestly I recall when both Oaks and Holland were called and they most definitely did not have those reputations. I suppose to people who want a massive liberal social and theological change they are very small c conservative. But they simultaneously seem extremely thoughtful, creative and open. (I suspect others will disagree with me on that)

  28. I agree with Wally…I don’t have a problem defining “words of the prophet” down because we as an organization, top to bottom, have defined “prophet” down.

  29. Clark, the nuance you are reading into this passage—that they are words of the prophet only when the prophet is acting as such—is something both you and I agree upon but is totally, and I mean TOTALLY, absent from the context of Brother Benson’s remarks. Such omission seems quite intentional considering the audience for this manual is primarily the youth who historically have been discouraged from ever questioning the decisions of their superiors. (Also, Brother Benson was never one to make too many subtle distinctions on this topic.)

    Further, there have been many instances where a church leader thought he was speaking as prophet but it turned out he wasn’t. For example, the First Presidency in 1969 issued a statement on the subject of the priesthood where they stated: “”The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God…. Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s pre-existent state.” Could I, in 1969 (yes, I was alive then), have publicly stated that I believed David O. McKay was wrong in suggesting that the church’s discrimination against blacks originated with God, not his servants, and still have taken the position that I stood with the prophet?

  30. In the first sentence of my second paragraph, I meant to say: “… where a church leader thought he was speaking as prophet but it turned out he wasn’t or, if he was, what he said, was wrong or untrue.”

  31. Clark, in what way did Holland and Oaks (when called) not have the reputation described by fbisti? Just curious here…because in my memory and observation they very much fit that description.

  32. Clark Goble says:

    Really? Both of them were considered academics, and Holland in particular was known for a certain approach to things that was quite unlike what was associated with say Elder Packer or McConkie. I think Oaks got the conservative label more due to the events of the so-called September Six – especially in terms of the Toscanos and their proposed church court reformations. The main person opposing them was, as I recall, Elder Oaks, who had more of a legal background and was concerned on the issue. Yet even in the 90’s there were plenty of stories (although of unknown accuracy) that Packer and Oaks would butt heads precisely over innovation and such matters.

    I suppose to someone wanting a lot of reform Oaks would seem conservative simply because he didn’t push for as much radical reform. But then we get into a problem of defining our terms. The comment I was responding to was treating conservatism as not been open, creative, or innovative. But that just doesn’t seem to describe Oaks (who apparently was behind a lot of the reforms on homosexual issues in the 90’s and naughts). It’s just that people don’t think he went far enough. In which case it really becomes a matter of degree and is more judged in terms of end points rather than basic character.

  33. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide (11:09) You’re basically making an argument from silence. That is because it’s not explicitly mentioned that Pres. Benson doesn’t believe it and the passage should be read as rejecting it.

    To your point that we sometimes get wrong when a prophet is speaking as such seems true. But so what? Again if we adopt fallibilism that’s fine. So we’re wrong sometimes. I’d note that Pres. Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” presupposes this in his third point where he warns against applying dead prophets against living ones. So to say this is acontextual just seems quite odd to me. Certainly nothing in the talk (or the chapter in the Priesthood manual) invalidates the “a prophet isn’t always a prophet” issue.

    Again one might say they wished it was emphasized more. But I think I already addressed that. Certainly it is taught but it’s probably not emphasized as much because frankly the Church has a much bigger problem following the prophet in what he says rather than a problem of following inappropriately.

  34. “the Church has a much bigger problem following the prophet in what he says rather than a problem of following inappropriately.”

    How do we know that? How *could* we know what is inappropriate following if it’s only retroactively determined?

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Kyle could you clarify? Even if it’s only known later that doesn’t mean it isn’t known. What in the last 30 years would count as inappropriate following given what we know?

  36. Clark, at the risk of stating the obvious, what is omitted often reveals the speaker’s true intent. Benson’s failure to qualify his injunction that we should always stand with the prophet was not because he presumed it wasn’t necessary to remind his audience that sometimes prophets are not acting in a prophetic capacity or that they periodically make mistakes. His sole focus, when read in the context of his entire message, was: follow the prophet under all circumstances.

    His track record clearly suggests that the exceptions to this rule were not something he cared much about or believed were worthy of serious discussion. Subtlety and nuance were not his forte when it came to “obedience with exactness.”

    And the notion that that the third of his fourteen fundamentals constitutes an acknowledgment that prophets sometimes get things wrong is nonsensical. Rather, he was reserving the right to reject anything said by a deceased predecessor—not because it was necessarily wrong but because it didn’t mesh with what he wants to do today.

    The entire myth of prophetic infallibility and its modern iteration—”we will not lead you astray”—is motivated strictly by a desire to ensure reflexive conformity, discourage questions, and stifle dissent. And when the obedience drum is pounded so loudly and so incessantly, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hear the quieter, subtler messages of personal agency, the limits of man’s understanding, and the impulse of those in authority to exercise unrighteous dominion.

    And if the church does have a problem with people not following the prophet enough—something I strenuously disagree with—perhaps the problem lies not exclusively with the membership. After having been misled on matters such as the priesthood ban, the messy evolution of church doctrine, and the truth about our history, no one should be surprised by an elevated level of skepticism.

    Finally, though you may find this difficult to believe, I would not express these views if I didn’t care about the church. If I wasn’t committed to the institution, I wouldn’t waste my time—or my money—trying to improve it. I feel truly sustained in my callings when people point out my mistakes while working with me to fix them. But that’s just me.

  37. I was really struck by the quote that “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” There is an apocryphal quote attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo which says, “Roma locuta, causa finita est,” which means, “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.”

    As a Catholic, I don’t see any signs that Mormons don’t believe that the prophet is infallible. One of my Mormon friends had posted on Facebook her lament for the Church’s policy towards children of same-sex couples. People commented on her status saying, “The prophet has spoken.” “Trust the prophet, be at peace.” There was no possibility that this policy did not come directly from God.

    Moreover, if Mormonism do not hold that a prophet can be misled about what is revelation and what is not, then to my mind, that is prophetic infallibility.

    i suppose the question is, what establishes the parameters of revelation?

  38. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide (2:18) “Clark, at the risk of stating the obvious, what is omitted often reveals the speaker’s true intent.”

    That is not a workable interpretation strategy. It’s find to do crypto-interpretive hermeneutics at time so long as one doesn’t take such readings too seriously. However there’s a reason why argument from silence is considered a fallacy.

    To your attempt to explain away the implications of the third point. Sorry that’s so implausible it’s not even funny. He is explicitly making reference to debates where people quote people like Brigham Young against current teaching. “Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.” The whole context of that was fairly well understood at the time.

  39. Clark Goble says:

    Sorry — that should read “He is implicitly making reference to debate…” He doesn’t actually state an example or reference. Also in the first paragraph it should read “It’s fine to do crypto-interpretive…” Ugh. Sorry.

  40. Clark, to ignore what people emphasize and what they omit and to assume the omissions were inadvertent or unintentional is to employ a simplistic and naive approach to interpreting any text.
    Yes, caution is warranted when ascribing meaning to someone’s decision not to speak to a particular issue. But when read in its full context and considering the author’s rigid, well-documented conservatism, the fifth of his Fourteen Fundamentals can logically be construed as stressing one thing and one thing only: follow the prophet and you will be vindicated, even if he was later found to have been wrong.

    And nowhere does Benson intimate that the reason we should give primacy to living prophets is because the dead ones made mistakes. The living ones are to be given “precedence” not because they are right, but because they are alive.

    Yes, living prophets must be able to depart from their predecessors in order to adapt to changing circumstances. But Benson goes much further than that, conveying the distinct impression that the teachings of a past prophet should never (“beware”) be used to challenge the word of the current occupant of the office. But now that I think about it, there does seem to be precedent for Elder Bensons’s approach. After all, once Joseph was dead Brigham Young chose to reject his predecessor’s practice of ordaining black males to the priesthood.

  41. Clark, just saw your postscript. I did search for some reference to a debate going on, but couldn’t find it. I don’t recall the events of the time that clearly, so I don’t if such a debate was raging, but there is no need to apologize. I sort of figured that is what you meant.

  42. Clark Goble says:

    When Pres. Benson says, “beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence,” he’s clearly not just talking about meshing doctrines. Sorry, he’s just not. Precedence is about the new trumping the older. That implies a contradiction.

    Certainly I agree we can look at what Benson emphasizes as what he finds most important. Guess what. I agree with him. That said you are saying something much stronger. It seems pretty overwhelming clear that Pres. Benson was fine with prophets being mistaken. (I mean he was one, and I think he was quite humble about it) But he strongly felt those who attempted to limits prophetic action, especially for political reasons, were out of line.

  43. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide (3:48) the context in 1980, when the talk was given, were those upset about the revelation on priesthood contradicting a lot of things Brigham Young and others said. It was very much a live controversy at the time. While that talk came out a tad before I was really mature enough to understand much, I reached maturity around the time he was called to be President. As a funny aside he often stayed at a cottage down the street from mine in Alberta. The summer before he replaced Pres. Kimball he was there and the Bishop and Sunday School President kept asking him to speak. When they did it again in Sacarament he said, “one of the great keys of being presidents of the quorum of apostles is being able to pick whomever you want to speak.” At which point he picked others to speak. He was actually a very humble and funny guy. Admittedly I was still just a teenager at the time but he did make a big impression on me. As did Pres. Tanner who also had a cottage in the same village. (I still remember being the opening speaker for Pres. Tanner when I was 13. Very intimidating sitting on the stand beside him, but he make jokes to me all through the sacrament to loosen me up. He died not long after.)

  44. Even certified prophets sometimes mistake their own thoughts for those of God. Take Moses, in Ex. 20:5 when he says that God punishes the children for the sins of their fathers. This is false doctrine that is condemned several times in the Bible (by Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel).
    Or, take Samuel in Samuel 15, where he claims “Thus saith the Lord” and then orders Saul to kill all living Amalekites, including suckling babies, for the actions of their forefathers as many as a dozen generations earlier. If God is just, this is an example of Samuel mistaking his own thoughts for those of God. And the list goes on, into the modern history of the Church. Prophets are human beings who mistake their own thoughts for those of God. The criterion by which we can identify these instances is that they contradict the attributes of God.

  45. Clark, I’ll close by simply observing that while Pres. Benson may have been fine with prophets making mistakes, his Fourteen Fundamentals, as recited in our manuals and from the pulpit today, come across as far more strident—as advocating a fundamentalist, unyielding approach to following the prophet. The concern being voiced today from Salt Lake, as I see it, is not about people trying to limit prophetic action; it’s about people questioning or disagreeing with those actions.

    I’m not sure I get your first point (probably because I’m tired and it’s been a long week). I agree that precedence frequently results in the new trumping the old. Where we part company is that I don’t always believe the new is better than the old, that the old was wrong and the new is right, that the changes the church makes today are always for the better. To me, that clearly is not always the case.

    One the greatest fallacies practiced within church is the appeal to authority, the implicit notion shared by many that a prophet can create truth which, of course, is nonsense. In one sense, we shouldn’t care about whether the words in question were spoken by a dead guy or by one who still alive and kicking. Rather, we should weigh each person’s ideas, one against the other, and then decide which has the ring of truth and which does not. When approached with that attitude, I can see nothing wrong with setting up the words of a dead prophet against the pronouncements of those who are still with us.

    Have a good weekend, my friend. (And my apologies to everyone at BC for monopolizing this discussion.)

  46. Of course we all accept that church leaders are fallible. The problem arises when we realize that no *living* person is authorized to publicly call them out on their mistakes. Basically, We allow that God can tell us different than our mortal leaders, but only within our own stewardships. Thus, fallibility only means anything, practically speaking, within a very private sphere. Within the larger, public sphere, it means precious little.

  47. My concern is not with the question “can prophets be wrong” (short answer: yes) but with the question “can we trust prophets to be right even when they disagree with my already held views on moral issues”? What criteria justify trust in a revelation when it disagrees with my already strongly held views? What is revelation — could it be from God and yet still be couched in terms that are subject to change and clarification? (Short answer: yes).

    I am suspicious of Kevin’s position stated here on important theological grounds (even though he is a dear friend). Kevin’s argument when conjoined with his prior post seems to be: “I grew up in a Democratic state of Illinois and I just cannot bring myself to see gay marriage as anything but morally enlightened and progressive and so any revelation to the contrary is literally something I cannot accept and believe — I even contemplated leaving the church over it.” (At least that was my take away). He has made it clear that just cannot believe that homosexual sexual conduct is sin or contrary to God’s plan or commands.

    Kevin does not make an argument here, he just makes a leap, a jump and an accusation: “I was struck by the similar strategic effect of this tack to papal infallibility. Where Pope Benedict used infallibility as a tool to avoid extremely controversial hot-button issues like contraception, this claim of revelation seems a clear attempt to do the very same thing vis-a-vis the policy. The claim of revelation is intended to put the policy beyond rational critique and criticism.”

    Note how he jumped from “seems a clear attempt [to avoid extremely controversial hot-button issues]” to “the claim of revelation is intended . . .” It may seems that way to him, but what if there really was a revelation that Elder Nelson experienced and the others present expressed that they also experienced such revelation (taking him at his word just for a moment)? If Kevin accepted that much, would it change anything? I propose that it would not because his mind was made up based on his already solidified beliefs about gay marriage. So the issue of whether there was a revelation is literally irrelevant to him.

    How does Kevin know that it was the intent to silence discussion? Elder Nelson never said so. No one has said since that persons cannot differ in “views” about gay marriage. I suggest (with some reservation because I greatly value our friendship) that the issue here is not whether the claim to revelation is a thought-stopper, but whether the implicit claim that “any claim of revelation is always up for grabs” is really the show stopper regarding whether revelation is ever relevant. The result is inevitable: no claim to revelation can be trusted and should never be accepted as answering any issue. The other logical implication, it seems to me, is “revelation can never disagree with what I already believe or accept on moral grounds.” Yet it seems to that one would be hard pressed to make any sense of a world with any inexplicable evils given such a theological commitment.

    Would it be different if it were put in scripture? i doubt it because they too are fallible and the same analysis start again. In the end, one’s own beliefs must be the measure of all things. But such self-absorbed humanism seems to me to be contrary to any belief that God could reveal anything that could be morally incumbent on us.

  48. Glenn Thigpen says:

    @A Turtle Named Mack
    You are misrepresenting what I have said. Please not that I am advocating expending at least as much time and effort in thinking through something and praying about it as the General Authorities do while formulating a new policy or changing an existing one. I did ask Kevin if he had done that. I would ask anyone else the same type of questions if they came out an publicly criticize a policy or pronouncement by the First Presidency.
    Whether a policy is right or wrong, public criticism is not the way to effect a change within the Church. There are avenues that can be pursued if one does have a difference of opinion, avenues that will not invite further criticism or incite or further dissension.
    All too often, though, a difference of opinion concerning a policy, etc. is based upon emotionalism rather than revelation. And once we have an emotional reaction, it becomes all the harder to be open to a revelation which just might be contrary to the way we feel.
    That is why we must always look to ourselves first and foremost when we have a difference of opinion with our church leaders. I have had a lot of disagreements with church leaders, especially on the local level, but I have never voiced my disagreements in a public setting. I have always taken the disagreement to the leader with whom I disagreed.
    Kevin’s reaction to the information by Elder Nelson that the policy came via revelation was to imply that the Brethren were basically making it up after the fact to give the pronouncement the cloak of infallibility. That comes pretty close to saying that Elder nelson was lying.
    I do not think that Kevin’s response was inspired, That it came by revelation. But I did give him the chance to affirm or deny.
    No one will be hurt spiritually by the new policy, but there will and have been some feelings hurt. No one will lose their salvation or exaltation by the new policy.Not according to the LDS theology.


  49. Good news everyone denied baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the new policy, you will not be hurt spiritually! Just your feelings.

  50. Kevin Barney says:

    Blake, I too value our friendship ,and I know we disagree on LGBT topics as they relate to the Church, and realistically that is not going to change. So I’m not going to engage in a drawn out argument about this, but will offer a couple of quick points.

    If prophets can be wrong, then it seems to me there must be some basis on which we can draw that conclusion. It doesn’t do any good to acknowledge they can be wrong if we’re not willing to acknowledge any actual examples of such fallibility. I’m highly skeptical of the claim of revelation for the policy, in part because Elder Nelson’s description of the revelation seems to me patterned after descriptions of President Kimball’s 1978 revelation. That revelation was broadcast as such to the church and the world ab initio. This one was slipped without notice into an online handbook. If this experience actually occurred as he recounts it, why didn’t the Church itself give it the dignity of a true revelation and publicize it as such to its own people? To me it seems far more likely a post hoc attempt to shore up a deeply controversial policy for which the Church was taking, and continues to take, serious heat.

    The Church was wrong on blacks and the priesthood/temple for 126 years, including numerous strong statements of support for that “doctrine.” Given that that was the case, I am obviously more willing to apply my own moral sense as a criterion for my personal evaluation of a supposed revelation (such as this one) than you are. The Church’s doctrines regarding blacks in my view were culturally conditioned, and I similarly see the Church’s positions on LGBT issues today as culturally conditioned.

    Certainly genuine revelation can cause one to reevaluate personally held views. Yes, I’m suspicious of the revelation, but only in part because of my own moral evaluation of it. The other basis for that suspicion is that this revelation just happens to coincide with the cultural commitments of our top leaders. Might I be wrong in my moral sense? Certainly. But might they be wrong in their moral sense of this? Certainly as well. And the alignment of this revelation with their own cultural commitments makes me deeply suspicious of it.

  51. john f asked, what charges has Kevin laid out against Church leaders?
    It sounds like Kevin is saying that Elder Nelson made stuff up.

    It’s one thing to question the validity of a revelation – to in essence say, I believe that what they thought came from God was actually their own thoughts and feelings that they mistook as inspiration (I would imagine that is the universal challenge for anyone trying to discern any kind of revelation). But I think it’s a far more serious thing to suggest Elder Nelson essentially lied about the process they engaged in – the consideration of countless permutations, the fasting and prayers, the time in the temple – so that he could give a sheen of respectability to their own personal preferences.

  52. Kevin Barney says:

    James, you’re right, I don’t find that characterization of the process credible. Sources suggest it all happened very quickly and outside usual channels. If they all unitedly spent countless hours in the temple considering countless permutations and scenarios, they did a poor job of it, as Julie’s T&S post demonstrates.(perfectly obvious scenarios and problems seem never to have occurred to them–in my view because it wasn’t actually given the thorough vetting claimed here.)

    I have to go clean the church and then will be gone the rest of the day, so to avoid a flame war over tjis issue I’m going to go ahead and close comments at this time. Thanks all for participating!

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