Prophetic fallibility/infallibility


MrShorty

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This is a topic that has been on my mind for the last week or so, and I thought I'd make some comments and solicit others' thoughts.

 

It started with this essay by James Faulconer: http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Living-with-Fallibility-James-E-Faulconer-11-21-2014.html In particular, I really noticed his opening couplet:

Mormons have a joke that is so old it has become a cliché: Catholic doctrine is that the pope is infallible, but they don't believe it; Mormon doctrine is that the prophet is fallible, but they don't believe it.
I saw a blog entry by Dan Peterson calling the "doctrine" of prophetic infallibility "heresy". It sometimes seems to me that we as LDS sometimes struggle with the "conflict" between "Follow the Prophet, he knows the way" and our own need to discern when the prophets/apostles are speaking for God and when they are giving their own opinion.

 

In many ways, the "extremes" are the easy positions to maintain. If the prophets are completely infallible, then we need put no effort into building our own testimony, because we simply accept everything they speak/write. At the other extreme, if they are never right, then we can simply reject everything that they teach. It seems that the "truth" lies in the difficult region in between these extremes. They have a calling and ordination that gives them the right to revelation to teach me truth, but these teaching will come amidst their own peculiar life circumstances and experiences that make their teachings potentially biased, and maybe even erroneous.

 

Sometimes I think this is further complicated by the Church's practice of "correlation". Some believe that everything published by the Church must be "truth" because it has "been approved for publication by the 1st Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. I wonder if this really "the truth".

 

I know for me that there are certain topics and teachings that I cannot say that I "have a testimony" of the Church's official position. Some things I see taught in certain publications (such as the Ensign and other magazines, For the Strenght of Youth, lesson manuels, etc.) seem in error to me, and some seem questionable. Others, I choose to follow along hoping that they are more in tune than I am (which would not necessarily be difficult) Maybe these things are examples of "prophetic fallibility", but maybe they are also examples of ways in which I am "leading myself astray". Discernment, and how we approach the process of discernment can become a very important question.

 

That's kind of where my mind is at today. Anyone with thoughts or observations of their own?

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My observation is that those who decry the supposed practice of "prophetic infallibility" almost always want to deny or talk their way out of something important and meaningful. I have recently seen this canard hoisted in talking about homosexual "marriage" and women being "ordained" to the Priesthood.

 

The whining about those silly old Mormons worshiping their prophets is almost always agenda-driven. When I hear such complaints, my guard immediately goes up even before I hear what they're whining about. It's a rare event, not one time in ten, when the thing the complainers are really complaining about has any merit at all.

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This is a topic that has been on my mind for the last week or so, and I thought I'd make some comments and solicit others' thoughts.

 

In many ways, the "extremes" are the easy positions to maintain. If the prophets are completely infallible, then we need put no effort into building our own testimony, because we simply accept everything they speak/write. At the other extreme, if they are never right, then we can simply reject everything that they teach. It seems that the "truth" lies in the difficult region in between these extremes. They have a calling and ordination that gives them the right to revelation to teach me truth, but these teaching will come amidst their own peculiar life circumstances and experiences that make their teachings potentially biased, and maybe even erroneous.

 

Regardless of how dearly we might want to relegate those who disagree with us to one extreme or the other; I really doubt there's a single Mormon who subscribe to either extremist point of view.  The "leftists" (for lack of a better term) pride themselves on their independence, not their disagreement in every instance.  The "TBMs" (again, for lack of a better term; and I include myself in this categroy) may have concluded that the prophets have been pretty much always right (at least on the big stuff) up to now; but that doesn't mean that it was easy for us to reach that conclusion or to come to terms with particular doctrines, policies or practices past and present.  And it certainly doesn't mean we stand ready to practice polygamy, or slaughter Arkansan immigrants, or gas Jews as soon as Tom Monson says so.

Edited by Just_A_Guy
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I am in agreement with Vort and JAG...

 

Most of the time when this topic gets thrown out in a discussion its intent is to try to shut down those that choose to follow.  It a nicer version of calling people Brainwashed, sheeple, kool-aid drinkers, etc.

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How much error is ERROR?

 

"I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught."  (History of the Church, 6:366; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on May 12, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Thomas Bullock..)

 

I think we need to be real careful even in how much we publicly state opinions that even imply our local leaders are in error.  To openly come out in disagreement with leaders on any level, but especially apostles and prophets, is risky at best... VERY thin ice...  The longer we persist and/or continue on that path the more likely we are to set ourselves up as a light and disregard counsel from the Lord's anointed.  It doesn't matter, even if a revelation comes out the next day or two months from now confirming what we have been teaching all along... If we're not appointed to teach such we're still in apostasy... not from what we're teaching so much as for the timing of our teaching...  and for our unwillingness to obey the Lord's timetable.  

 

Grassroots lobbying is viable way to effect change in a democracy.  But....the Kingdom of God is not a democracy.  (The word "kingdom" should be the first clue to those that still might be wondering...)  

Edited by theSQUIDSTER
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Another thought--and this isn't directed towards the OP; but is a reflection on people who take the suggestion that obedience and conformance to Church norms is "easier" and use it as battlespace prep with the intent of introducing secularist practice into the Church--

 

IMHO, it sure takes a lot of chutzpah to suggest that staying celibate until marriage; paying a 10% tithe; staying aloof from a number of social views that happen to be embraced by the opinion-makers in business, politics, academia and entertainment; and being ready to drop everything to fill whatever need your bishop needs filled at the drop of a hat regardless of how inconvenient to you--it takes a lot of chutzpah to suggest that that kind of attitude towards the Gospel is actually "the easy way" of doing things.

Edited by Just_A_Guy
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I think Traveller's suzerain illustration describes it well. The prophet is the Lord's representative. He is accountable to God for what he teaches. If a person embarks on a differing path, then that person bears the full burden of that choice as though a revelation came direct (which is great if God really excuses you from serving a mission or wants you to go into debt for this really important thing; not so great if the blanket rule applies to you too).

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Call me superstitious, but prophets are "big medicine," to put it in Native American parlance. God stands by them in remarkable ways. Miriam, Moses' sister got stricken with leprosy for criticizing him. Dathan, Korah, and Abiram got swallowed up in the earth for challenging Moses' authority. A bunch of children mocked Elijah and 23 of them were eaten by a she bear. Ananias and Saphira lied to Peter about their donations and were struck dead. Korihor defied Alma and was struck dumb. Jacob Haun disregarded Joseph's warning to move the saint at Haun's Mill and a bunch of saints died. I want to honor God's messengers and stick as close to their teachings as I can get. That's the safest path through this life.

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Call me superstitious, but prophets are "big medicine," to put it in Native American parlance. God stands by them in remarkable ways. Miriam, Moses' sister got stricken with leprosy for criticizing him. Dathan, Korah, and Abiram got swallowed up in the earth for challenging Moses' authority. A bunch of children mocked Elijah and 23 of them were eaten by a she bear. Ananias and Saphira lied to Peter about their donations and were struck dead. Korihor defied Alma and was struck dumb. Jacob Haun disregarded Joseph's warning to move the saint at Haun's Mill and a bunch of saints died. I want to honor God's messengers and stick as close to their teachings as I can get. That's the safest path through this life.

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I am an inactive member at the moment, but am working on becoming active. However, when I was active, I always believed that the prophet was just a human who had been called. Of course he is fallible, just like any other human being.

 

However, we all have a responsibility to pray about the things we hear, whether they come from the prophet through to what we hear through talks at our Sabbath meetings. We must pray, we must receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost. This should not be considered disrespectful, because the scriptures tell us to pray always.

 

I have never heard the prophet speak out of line, and I am thankful for the confirmation that the Holy Ghost brings. 

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There is really nothing to fear, that's why we have the wonderful gift of Prayer and the Holy Spirit that can confirm to us the truth of all things.

 

"Every time in my life when I have chosen to delay following inspired counsel or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harm’s way. Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety." (Elder Henry B. Eyring).

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For the sake of discussion: The conundrum for many seems to be prayer and the Holy Spirit. As an example, when missionaries ask an investigator to pray about the veracity of the Book of Mormon, if the answer they receive is a yes, then they are told that the answer came from the Lord. If the investigator says the answer they received was a no, they are told the answer didn't come from God, they are told it came from Satan or their own feelings, etc etc etc.

 

In a few words, as long as the answer received through prayer agrees with Church doctrine then automatically comes from God. So basically yes, use prayer but it needs to agree with the Church. So prayer becomes more as a confirmation tool rather than finding out the truth. NOT saying it is wrong, I am pointing out why some people might have issues with this and I understand.

Edited by Suzie
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In a few words, as long as the answer received through prayer agrees with Church doctrine then automatically comes from God. So basically yes, use prayer but it needs to agree with the Church. So prayer becomes more as a confirmation tool rather than finding out the truth. NOT saying it is wrong, I am pointing out why some people might have issues with this and I understand.

 

Yes, but we could flop this as well--"yes, follow the prophet, but it needs to agree with personal revelation.  So prophetic guidance becomes more as a confirmation tool rather than finding out the truth".

 

I incline towards the idea that the individual revelation/ecclesiastical authority system is a divinely appointed checks and balances system--that prophetic guidance is necessary because as humans we are wont to confuse our own prejudices and desires for "revelation".  But it's interesting to me that in his recent sermon about two lines of divine communication, Elder Oaks seems to eschew this interpretation in favor of an argument that the principal benefit of the priesthood line is communitarian in nature.

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My observation is that those who decry the supposed practice of "prophetic infallibility" almost always want to deny or talk their way out of something important and meaningful. I have recently seen this canard hoisted in talking about homosexual "marriage" and women being "ordained" to the Priesthood.

 

The whining about those silly old Mormons worshiping their prophets is almost always agenda-driven. When I hear such complaints, my guard immediately goes up even before I hear what they're whining about. It's a rare event, not one time in ten, when the thing the complainers are really complaining about has any merit at all.

Vort and MormonGator: This may be true. I personally don't feel that I am anywhere near the camp that wants to attack our chruch leadership. I do sometimes worry and wonder if I am in the "trying to rationalize my own sins away" camp, but in some cases I'm just not sure either way. I'm also not sure this addresses the real question I think I am trying to get at here. Sure there are many who use the idea of fallibility to attack or rationalize away truth. We often say that Satan is quite deft at using partial truths in his biggest lies. I guess what I am really trying to push for here is some discussion around how do we discern truth from error, even in the teachings of our prophets and apostles. I think there is a lot more to the topic than just -- almost all of it is anti-mormon stuff.

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I think Traveller's suzerain illustration describes it well. The prophet is the Lord's representative. He is accountable to God for what he teaches. If a person embarks on a differing path, then that person bears the full burden of that choice as though a revelation came direct (which is great if God really excuses you from serving a mission or wants you to go into debt for this really important thing; not so great if the blanket rule applies to you too).

 

I think this is a key concept here, and I'm not sure it applies solely to those few who feel "led" down different paths. My own extrapolation of the principle King Mosiah taught (Mosiah 29:31-38) is that God wants us to be responsible for our own sins and righteousness rather than putting that "burden" on our leadership (whether political or religious). I think this is part of what I meant when I said it was "easier" to accept everything the prophets/apostles teach as if they were infallible, because it sometimes does not represent the effort needed to take the "burden" of our choices (whether we agree or not) onto our own shoulders.

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For the sake of discussion: The conundrum for many seems to be prayer and the Holy Spirit. As an example, when missionaries ask an investigator to pray about the veracity of the Book of Mormon, if the answer they receive is a yes, then they are told that the answer came from the Lord. If the investigator says the answer they received was a no, they are told the answer didn't come from God, they are told it came from Satan or their own feelings, etc etc etc.

 

In a few words, as long as the answer received through prayer agrees with Church doctrine then automatically comes from God. So basically yes, use prayer but it needs to agree with the Church. So prayer becomes more as a confirmation tool rather than finding out the truth. NOT saying it is wrong, I am pointing out why some people might have issues with this and I understand.

 

I think this is something that came up in an earlier discussion I started: http://lds.net/forums/topic/54163-praying-to-know-the-bible-is-scripture/ How do we know when our own impressions are really in agreement with or contradiction to what the Church and the prophets and apostles teach? Perhaps an insignificant example that was discussed here (http://lds.net/forums/topic/53930-is-april-6th-official-doctrine-as-jesus-birth-day/ ). In a recent conference, Elder Bednar said that we know by revelation that Christ was born on 6 April. To bolster his claim, he referenced several other prophets and apostles (see his Apr 2014 GC talk for references). However, there are many who claim that Elder Bednar and the others are in error on this point. We can argue that it is because this is a small detail that is not really important whether it is right or wrong, or maybe it is not truly part of what "the Church" officially teaches as doctrine. If this is the case, then we have simply moved the goal posts to how do we determine what are the "official" or "important" teachings of the Church/prophets/apostles that we must expect to "confirm" and which ones can we allow ourselves to disagree on and still consider ourselves in harmony with "the Gospel". Maybe this is a better way to frame the question. Rather than "fallible vs. infallible" the question could be, how do we know what are the "essential" teachings that we must work to come in harmony with, and which ones are "optional"? Of course, even drawing those kind of lines could become rather dangerous, if we make the wrong judgement.

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Rather than "fallible vs. infallible" the question could be, how do we know what are the "essential" teachings that we must work to come in harmony with, and which ones are "optional"? Of course, even drawing those kind of lines could become rather dangerous, if we make the wrong judgement.

 

I think a lot of it comes back to the actual text of Woodruff's commentary on OD-1 that is now printed with that declaration:

 

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.

 

[Emphasis added]

 

From this, I gather that:

 

1)  The Church leadership will not do anything that would diminish our ability to receive revelation, either collectively or individually; and

2)  The Church leadership will not lead the Latter-day Saints to actually do anything that is contrary to what God has specifically instructed us to do.

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I think this is something that came up in an earlier discussion I started: http://lds.net/forums/topic/54163-praying-to-know-the-bible-is-scripture/ How do we know when our own impressions are really in agreement with or contradiction to what the Church and the prophets and apostles teach? Perhaps an insignificant example that was discussed here (http://lds.net/forums/topic/53930-is-april-6th-official-doctrine-as-jesus-birth-day/ ). In a recent conference, Elder Bednar said that we know by revelation that Christ was born on 6 April. To bolster his claim, he referenced several other prophets and apostles (see his Apr 2014 GC talk for references). However, there are many who claim that Elder Bednar and the others are in error on this point. We can argue that it is because this is a small detail that is not really important whether it is right or wrong, or maybe it is not truly part of what "the Church" officially teaches as doctrine. If this is the case, then we have simply moved the goal posts to how do we determine what are the "official" or "important" teachings of the Church/prophets/apostles that we must expect to "confirm" and which ones can we allow ourselves to disagree on and still consider ourselves in harmony with "the Gospel". Maybe this is a better way to frame the question. Rather than "fallible vs. infallible" the question could be, how do we know what are the "essential" teachings that we must work to come in harmony with, and which ones are "optional"? Of course, even drawing those kind of lines could become rather dangerous, if we make the wrong judgement.

 

I try to follow this:

 

 

 

“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.

 

“You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.

 

“Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 3:203–4; also cited in Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], p. 609.)

 

https://www.lds.org/manual/teaching-seminary-preservice-readings-religion-370-471-and-475/finding-answers-to-gospel-questions?lang=eng

Edited by Suzie
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We all get hung up on doctrinal things we think are in error or that are just a certain way we think has been revealed to us.  Even apostles are not immune from such.  But when a correction or further light and knowledge comes, what should we do?  Hold to our earlier "revelations" or move forward?  How could we have been wrong?  Didn't the Lord reveal it to us?  If we were wrong about that, how many other things are we potentially wrong about?

 

It's especially difficult to admit publicly that you are in error or have been in error... but even apostles have to do it sometimes.  We have a wonderful example in Elder Bruce R. McConkie, author of the controversial "Mormon Doctrine."

 

Original statements about blacks and the priesthood:

 

"Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.

"The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence. Along with all races and peoples he is receiving here what he merits as a result of the long pre-mortal probation in the presence of the Lord. The principle is the same as will apply when all men are judged according to their mortal works and are awarded varying statuses in the life hereafter."

 

After the 1978 revelation:

 

"Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world."

 

 

What do we learn from this?  What conclusions can we make?  That because one or more prophets, seers and revelators can make doctrinal "mistakes" that we should trust none of them?  Some people conclude that the whole thing is a lie and that God could not possibly work after such a fashion...  Well, that's like throwing out the baby with the bathwater!  The Lord doesn't shield us from our mistakes... he guides us through them... In spite of our errors, we can become perfected and grow in light and knowledge.. but it's a process.

 

So, because Elder McConkie made some mistakes, do we ignore everything he said and did?  That's not the conclusion that I get from this.  I look at Elder McConkie's wonderful example.  When it turns out he was wrong he immediately publicly affirmed his decision to follow the prophet and current light and knowledge and let the other stuff go.  Was it because he was such a push-over?  A weak-minded and weak-willed man?  .... Ahem... Elder McConkie was anything but ...  If ever there was a man with strong opinions and will it was Elder Bruce R. McConkie.  But he also knew when to be humble.

 

Same thing with "Brother Brigham"... when publicly reprimanded by Joseph, Brigham bowed his head and said, "Joseph, what do you want me to do?"

 

I think we all should be ready to follow suit.. We will all be wrong about various things...  Are we able to accept reproof?  Even if it comes through one of our "fallible" leaders?

 

As JAG pointed out, this is by no means an "easy" thing..  It tries and tests most of us to our very core.  It may even go against everything we think we understand and have even been taught by the Lord.

 

Look at Abraham... who had been told he would have numerous seed ... then told to go and sacrifice his son.... It must have gone against EVERYTHING he thought he knew about the Lord's plan... But he exercised faith and did it... and passed the test that the Lord placed before him... was given the ram in the thicket... and an explanation.... but only after the trial of his faith.

Edited by theSQUIDSTER
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Yes, but we could flop this as well--"yes, follow the prophet, but it needs to agree with personal revelation.  So prophetic guidance becomes more as a confirmation tool rather than finding out the truth".

 

I incline towards the idea that the individual revelation/ecclesiastical authority system is a divinely appointed checks and balances system--that prophetic guidance is necessary because as humans we are wont to confuse our own prejudices and desires for "revelation".  But it's interesting to me that in his recent sermon about two lines of divine communication, Elder Oaks seems to eschew this interpretation in favor of an argument that the principal benefit of the priesthood line is communitarian in nature.

 

Thanks for that link JAG. Very interesting talk!

 

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I like Elder McKonkie's essay. I am particularly drawn to points 2 and 3 -- "True" teachings of the apostles and prophets will be in harmony with the standard works. In some ways, this seems to me to lead to an LDS variation of "sola scriptura", but I think there is some truth to it. I also find that many of those issues that I wrestle with have little support or discussion in our standard works, or scripture seems ambiguous on, or otherwise making it difficult for me to come to a conclusion based solely on scripture. I, too, have found that returning to scripture is an important part of discerning truth.

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