The Mormon Quadrilateral: Or, the Problem With “Speaking as a Man”

In the comment section of various Utah news websites, on the Church’s social media feeds across the Internet, a phenomenon is manifest. Usually confined to agonized supporters of lefty social politics, it is now the vax-suspicious and anti-maskers who are crying out that Russell M. Nelson, sustained as a prophet by Church members, is “speaking as a man.”

That slightly awkward phrase has a long history. Ezra Taft Benson actually used it in “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” his defiantly anti-modern sermon that asserted that prophecy is the ultimate trump card over all other forms of knowledge. J. Reuben Clark explored the idea in his own 1954 BYU address. Its usage probably goes back to a line in the 1838-1856 “History of the Church.” Written by scribes in the voice of Joseph Smith, the 8 February 1843 entry reads; “This morning I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan who thought that “a Prophet is always a Prophet”, but I told them that a Prophet was a Prophet only, when he was acting as such.”

This is simultaneously a useful but also frustrating acknowledgement. It’s useful because it acknowledges that prophetic leadership cannot and is not the only lodestar for guiding the Church and its members. That would be a practical impossibility, of course, and as we’ll see momentarily is not an accurate description of how the Church works.

It’s frustrating, though, because it means that absent the most solemn acts of ex cathedra canonization of a Church leader’s words in formal proclamation or even scripturalization, there’s no way to find agreement as to whether, for instance, the August 12, 2021 letter urging vaccination to Church members is a case of “speaking as a man” or not.

This is evident in any disputes over a Church leader’s statement. Those who like it will inevitably attack those who are claiming that the Church leader is “speaking as a man” as hypocrites or disloyal; those who don’t like it will seek authoritative snippets of scripture and past Conference talks for disregarding it, of which, of course, there are plenty.

That means that simply relying on prophetic leadership alone will inevitably, irrevocably tear the Church apart. This is happening already.


***

What to do?

I think that rather than seeking old General Authority statements as a means for asserting that one has authoritative sanction for accepting or dismissing whatever a current prophet might say, we might back up and think more about how Church members use the Church to decide what’s true or what’s not true.

That is to say: what paths to getting knowledge does the Church offer its members? 

This is a particularly important discussion to have right now, because what sources of knowledge are valid is an incredibly relevant topic of discussion in American society at the moment.  There are many religious people—conservative Protestants and some “rad-trad” Catholics, and sad to say, some members of the Church—who take rejecting modern ways of knowing (particularly, for instance, science and other academic work) as a sign of loyalty to God, as though not getting a vaccine is showing faith.  This is silly.

There are others for whom the rallying cry “Believe science” means that religious ways of knowing must be necessarily subordinate. I think some of this is due to the proud ignorance of that first group.

Over the past couple of centuries Methodist theologians have synthesized what’s called the “Methodist quadrilateral” out of the writings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  Wesley thought that his religious movement found a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism; that it could take the best from both.  Thus, he rejected the Protestant idea that the Bible alone was the source of knowledge, as well as the Catholic idea that the Pope held final authority.

Instead, the quadrilateral states that human beings learn about God through four paths:

Scripture—the Bible, God’s self-revelation to humanity

Tradition—human history and the Church community; the store of human knowledge and those we love around us

Reason—the human mind, individual discernment and the results of our own education

Experience—God’s interaction with individual believers; our spiritual and emotional lives


We must, Methodists say, combine all of these to learn and to grow. 

And, critically—sometimes one will fail.  Sometimes we will find that what our congregation is doing might run counter to what our own experience says. Sometimes our solution to a problem might not be what the advice of our friends and family say.

But the fact of the quadrilateral is its own solution. It means that we don’t need scripture to be right every single time. It also means that scripture will be right some of the time.

It means that in every moral situation, we can consider what each side of the quadrilateral might say, and give each honor, and learn from each as we make decisions


***


What would a Mormon quadrilateral look like?

The authority of Church leaders, prophets and apostles, for one. Their ecclesiastical position, insight and unique perspective.

Individual revelation. One’s own conscience, mind, and dialogue with God.

Scripture, probably.  The gathered wisdom of the standard works.

And, I’d like to say tradition. Human history; the sentiments of the Church as a whole, the collected knowledge of a congregation.


The beauty of the quadrilateral idea is that there is no need to argue that one of these always trumps the others. Rather than closing doors and binding us to a single eternally correct source of knowledge, the quadrilateral gives us multiple paths to truth, and a way to wrestle with hard problems.

In every situation, the gathered wisdom of three sources might bend against the fourth; we might find that one has nothing to say while the others have much to say.

In sum: the quadrilateral requires us to think hard and critically about exactly what we believe and why we believe it.  It should force the angry people in the Church’s Instagram feed to think about from where their ideas about truth come from, and what sources they are trusting.

Comments

  1. The problem: critical thinking is -hard-. Much easier to let others (leader, crowd, etc.) choose for you. Any disagreements with what you chose is an attack on you personally.

    I think a lot of people use the quadrilateral (or acute triangle or pentagon) without really thinking about it. But it does take a bit of work to shift your thinking to wondering occasionally if you may be wrong. No one likes being wrong.

  2. nobody, really says:

    There’s only two sides of the Mormon quadrilateral. The first is “correlated publications”. A lesson manual, a magazine, or a conference talk can be used to override any personal revelation, any scripture, and certainly any tradition or knowledge. Things that have been “done” for a hundred years can be wiped out in thirty seconds. For instance, I’ve seen wards that make a big deal over the list of Eagle Scouts engraved on tiny metal plaques hanging outside the Bishop’s office – the future leaders running back to the 1950s or before. Now, they have been tossed out (and I think that’s a good thing).

    The second side is leadership. The pandemic has shown just how arbitrary it can be – different areas get diametrically opposed instruction from “The Brethren” passed down. Some areas are now being told to “mask up”. We’ve been instructed “back to normal as quickly as possible”. A local leader extending a calling will discount or ignore “personal revelation” every single time.

    These two “sides” form a circle. There’s an inside and an outside. Members can be inside or outside.

  3. I’m out! Thank goodness! says:

    I’ve held my tongue so many times in church classes as members defensively proclaimed, “Of course we don’t follow blindly; we’re encouraged to pray to get our own confirmation.” “Our leaders are not infallible!’ I’ve wanted to ask which of the living fifteen they’ve ever questioned. In my experience, the only leaders whose teachings can be openly refuted are the dead ones.
    Any people that will remove a second set of earrings or shame the girls/women who don’t—looking at you, Bednar—don’t have it in them to question any of their leaders’ pronouncements, not even a 90 year old man’s personal pet peeve.

    But a vaccine to return the world to normal after an 18 month nightmare? That’ll do it.

  4. Kirkstall says:

    I notice the proposed quadrilateral lacks a side for science or the scientific method or the conclusions of experts and their body of research. And if we as a people disregard science, well…

  5. #1 Love the Church but trust the science.

    #2 We, Church & county, are in a period of temporary political insanity. In my long life I’ve seen madnesses come and go. This cycle has been magnified by social media and the vast amount of misinformation this particular medium is so adept at disseminating. We’ll eventually fix this or develop effective work-arounds. As for Church messaging, I’m not so optimistic, though in the Brethren’s defense they’re between a rock & hard spot w/ Trumpistas.

  6. I know it’s a crazy idea, but how about if everybody would take a long time out before rushing to proclaim the prophet is wrong? This site does it frequently with post-conference Monday-morning quarterbacking (if it waits even that long). Today other people are doing it on on the issue of vaccination. How about you all just listen to the prophet on all the issues?

    Because there aren’t, as you say, just two sides. There are plenty of people in the habit of listening to the prophet and taking his words seriously on all the issues, whether they’re spoken over the pulpit or not.

    I like the idea of a Mormon quadrilateral. I think the idea has a lot to offer. But in the hands of people who are in the habit of dismissing the words of the prophet and scripture whenever they’re inconvenient – like this site does all the time – it’s just one more way to prove yourself right after all and ignore the apostles. If you want everybody to be more mature and sophisticated in moral reasoning, start by taking all sides of the quadrilateral seriously and stop dismissing the one (or two, or three) that you disagree with.

  7. Michael H. says:

    Excellent post, and excellent comments.

    Active Mormons with political concerns believe their gospel understanding and testimony generate their politics. I.e., their understanding and testimony come first, and their politics, however passionate, are incidental. Church members with different politics obviously have an inferior understanding of the gospel and/or an inferior testimony. Period. Can’t tell them otherwise. We’ve all been there, countless times, in Sunday school and priesthood and Relief Society, right? “We’re so very, very sorry for you [or other offending partisan].”

    The church gradually tipped Republican across the Red Scare, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements (and the mortifying free-love bearded long-haired hippy moment), the rise of the Religious Right, and the Reagan years. Add to all that what Frank mentions above: Many religious folks (most? by nature of being drawn to institutionalized religion in the first place?) are congenitally authoritarian, violently allergic to study and critical thinking, addicted to being “right,” as validated by authority figures.

    Across the first 150 years or so of the Restoration era, the bulk of Mormons could fluctuate or evolve politically, or swing back and forth, for a generation or two: more or less authoritarian here, more or less politically lefty or righty there. But after we swung Republican across the 1950s through ‘80s, that (Dis)Information Age wall got built. There was never anything like that in the first 150 years. It’s just too dang huge, and growing taller and thicker and denser all the time. 80-90% of U.S. Mormons may slide back and forth on a Reagan-to-Trump spectrum (and they may slide to the right of Donnie, but they’re never gonna slide to the left of Ronnie). The rest of us can hope for a miracle—a young, charismatic, sleeper apostle who one day becomes church president and opens up a “quadrilateral”-like paradigm, and convincingly presents it as revelation. But I’m afraid that’s whistling “Dixie.” No one like that gets in the pipeline these days.

  8. I really wish the Prophet would have said not getting vaccinated is a victory for Satan. Or called it a revelation. Not much wiggle room in the “speaking as a man” realm there.

  9. The other chad says:

    A quad approach to discerning truth was taught in Sunday School for several years beginning in the mid-‘50s in Lowell Bennion’s “An Introduction to the Gospel” manual.

    He proposed balancing scriptures, prophets, practical (scientific) knowledge and prayer (personal revelation).

    But… scriptures and prophets sometimes contradict one another and need to be personally verified. Science evolves and relies on faith in your own senses.

    So … it all comes down to personal revelation and your connection to the Spirit.

  10. Thanks. It seems to me that any quad- or tri- or multi- theory of knowing can work. So long as it incorporates the idea of balance and interpretation and of no one sure trump card. On the other hand, if you turn a quadrilateral into a formula with weights and hierarchies, you return to dilemmas about knowing. I think we ultimately have to choose between outsourcing theology to a person or system, or doing the hard work ourselves.

    In other words, yes and thank you most of all for the last paragraph.

    (Side note: So far as I understand Catholic thinking, the Protestant stereotype of Catholics–including Methodist and Mormon–is distorted and strawman-ish. The Catholic church is not necessarily right, but it is certainly not naive.)

  11. I suspect what too many Mormons use as their items they use to judge truth are #1 the Republican Party #2 Fox News talking heads #3 the LDS prophet and #4 Mormon tradition. I don’t think many of them really read their scriptures but just take what Sunday lessons have told them scripture says as gospel truth, so we can’t say that they really use scripture in determining truth. This is the first time in my 69 years of Mormonism that the prophet has done a departure from the Republican Party. And apparently many Mormons are shocked. (And for those who object to me calling people Mormons, well some of them are just not “saints,” latter day or not and so I lack another word that applies.)

  12. When Covid closed down our ward meetings, and area authority insisted our ward could not meet remotely, I began attending the virtual Lenten services of various local congregations and discovered a real affinity for the local United Methodist Church. While I have never attended in person, I now attend virtually pretty much every week. But it was only about a month ago in a sermon that I first heard the quadrilateral described and I was impressed by the way it gives Methodists real power to deal with modern issues, unlike Mormonism which seems so afraid of officially recognizing that some past decisions simply were wrong or inadequate. One thing the pastor mentioned about church tradition, which I found insightful, was the notion that church tradition represented solutions worked out over time to problems of that time. So that if new challenges or new solutions present themselves, we can use the past as a guide for how to meet the challenge, but that doesn’t mean that the previous solution was the only or best solution or that nuances to that problem that had revealed themselves might not require somewhat different solutions. It seemed like such a more humble and practical way to deal with past tradition than we have in Mormonism. Since they don’t have to pretend church tradition was revealed directly from God, they can honor tradition without having to worship it. That made it much easier for st least the American UMC to pivot on issues like LGBTQ rights and women clergy.

  13. Roger Hansen says:

    Members need to use their best judgement on social and medical issues. Church officials have preached against birth control, advocated for large families, said terrible things about women’s sexuality, made statements about blacks in the preexistence, mocked evolution, POX, etc. The leaders have also given wise advice: have compassion toward refugees, all are alike unto God, get vaccinated, wear masks, emulate Christ, etc. It is important for each member to discern which counsel is important for themselves. The problem is when some members believe the advice of witch doctors over competent medical professionals. By doing so, they endanger the lives of other members (and themselves).

  14. By Common Consent friends, how could we leave off “tradition” (the closest pillar to the principle of common consent)? So much of our belief is based on the importance of our communal testimony, witness, and worship. (E.g. two or more witnesses, testimony meetings, the spirit being present when two or more people gather in his name, etc.) Even the Beehive, our symbol, is a social/communal entity. It ties into our theology of families, our cohesion as a people, and commitment to the second greatest commandment.

    We really need a pentagon:

    1. scriptures
    2. prophets
    3. practical (scientific) knowledge
    4. prayer (personal revelation)
    5. Tradition/ common consent

    When the POX was announced, common consent was missing. Roughly (just a stab) about 70–80% of the saints were uncomfortable with it- siding with the children and the second article of faith- or individual determination. The church tried to explain it away but ended up revoking it in < 3 years (enough time to save face and attempt a quiet exit).

    There’s a good 40-50% (again, a rough guess) of saints that aren’t on board w the vaccine ask. There’s a vocal minority of people who are throwing stones at the Prophet now, and then a larger group that are just quietly ignoring it- connected instead to the anti-vaccine rhetoric.

    The question becomes- when is Common Consent a righteous pillar, an empowering tool for our important work and direction, and when does it flag a fallen/rebellious people dead to Prophetic light and God’s Will?

    The scriptures are full of examples of fallen peoples who shun the voice of the prophets, but there are a few examples of what could be interpreted as common consent. I read the D&C’s description of common consent being something of a check and balance, but President Nelson’ recent conference talk about sustaining church leaders poised sustaining the brethren as “you’re either in the bus or off the bus” (that is to say that the leaders are always right- your sustaining vote is a sign of your alignment with truth.)

  15. I like this idea, if only because it jives with my general approach to seeking out most “truth”: it’s to be found all over the place, and we only need the ears to hear / eyes to see / humility to accept it. I found this article to be simultaneously thought-provoking and concise. A rare treat in the blogosphere.

    Here’s where I’d poke and push a little bit:

    “The beauty of the quadrilateral idea is that there is no need to argue that one of these always trumps the others. Rather than closing doors and binding us to a single eternally correct source of knowledge, the quadrilateral gives us multiple paths to truth, and a way to wrestle with hard problems.”

    Not all of the four avenues outlined are created equal. A living, breathing prophet should always be more important in discerning truth than, say, human tradition or ‘collective experience.’ And while there might be multiple paths in arriving at a particular truth, one would hope the truth being arrived at is an objective one and not simplistically subjective. If push comes to shove – as it often does in today’s world – one of the four ‘laterals’ will need to hold primacy.

    I’m of the mind generally that those who try to game out the precise timing of the Second Coming are wasting brainpower in a fruitless exercise. With that caveat in place, many parables (10 virgins, wheat and tares, etc) conclude with a binary separation of believers and non-believers. While we rightly champion the broad spectrum of belief in our Church that is hopefully coming closer and closer to the unity of Zion, at some point we each have to choose whether we’re in the boat or not. Gaining – and keeping – a testimony of the current prophet’s calling and necessity is, in my mind, the paramount necessity, as it invokes both the need for personal revelation and the understanding that such revelation, by itself, is insufficient.

  16. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: *Creates Quadrilateral*

    LDS Antivaxxers: *Distrust Quadrilateral just as much as Pres. Nelson, the entire 1st Presidency, the Quorum of 12, all the world’s top infectious disease specialists, decades of mRNA research, all the clinical trials for every vaccines, and all of observable reality*

    There’s no rational approach to overcome irrational beliefs.

    We’re all currently able to use all those recommended sources and more to arrive at both rational understanding and personal confirmations by the spirit despite Paul’s “seeing through the glass darkly” conundrum. Still, as Paul and other canon witnesses attest even prophecy fails.

    LDS Antivaxxers began and remain under the veil of their decision to reject objective reality. Arming them with untenable false equivalency helps no one. President Nelson isn’t expressing the personal opinion of a layperson. He and his 1st Presidency have not delivered personal “off the cuff” remarks in support of the COVID-19 vaccine, wearing masks, and trusting public health officials. The Quorum of the Twelve didn’t merely make a public show of their vaccination against COVID, masking, and trusting scientific and medical experts in regards to the Pandemic. As one unified body they have explained both as professionals in fields of science and laypeople that these are the measures to defeat a deadly plague, which includes misinformation on the topic.

    However, even overwhelming Prophetic & Apostolic agreement on an issue doesn’t make it true. ​

    The process of canonization, which strongly relies on common consent is our best imperfect check on failures of Prophets and prophecy. We don’t need more creeds or correlation committees. We need Saints to be adults and do their job, which in this case should have been using reliable sources about vaccination rather than YouTube or partisan Infotainment.

    The post’s mentions “lefty social politics” as examples of others trying to ‘steady the ark’. Historically, those pressures changed ‘doctrine’, which is clear when reading white supremacist General Conference sermons pre-1978. It’s a great example of the body of Saints persuading reluctant heads of the church to reconsider primitive superstition posing as faith.

    In any case another Church Committee is no substitute for the existing pattern of unbiased personal study, consideration, & discernment. The fact that many fail to arrive at tenable answers is an indictment of their efforts rather than the process.

  17. Along with what Roger Hansen said, one issue that needs mention here is that there has been enough attacks on various parts of Science over the decades by Leaders & members of the Church, as to undermine trust that Science can do anything right.

  18. Kirkstall, I think science would fall under the fourth corner of collective knowledge of the congregation.

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