The One True (Un-Micro-)Cosmic Church of Jesus Christ

What is it that unites the Church of Jesus Christ? Wherein lies our unity? In a recent discussion of baptism on lds-phil, amiable Protestant Joel Wilhelm asked some rather specific questions about the LDS understanding of baptism, and a very involved discussion ensued. After about a week, Joel remarked, ‘thus far what I have seen here seems to be a mirror image of debates within Protestantism or Catholicism about the sacraments, salvation without baptism or outside the church, etc. I am a bit more confused about “what Mormons think” and will try to sort it out more as I have time.’ Mormons thus appear to be a microcosm of the larger Christian world, a community that recreates in miniature the diversity of the larger community. This is sort of, but not quite, right.

In response, Mark Butler observed, ‘The normative doctrine of the Church is broad enough to encompass dozens of traditional sects. The authority of the priesthood is the miracle that makes this latitude possible. e.g. “In essentials let there be unity, in non-essentials harmony, and in everything charity”.’

Here are some of my thoughts on the unity of the Church that have been brewing for the past few weeks in response to Joel’s and Mark’s observations.

Some people think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as one of many Christian sects or denominations (I use the words interchangeably), and so naturally expect us to be distinguished by our beliefs. Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Calvinists have a certain specific conception of how grace works. So one might expect the CJCLDS to be distinguished by a set of distinctive beliefs (e.g. in the Book of Mormon, eternal marriage, etc.) which differentiate it from other sects and unify it as its own sect.

But it is not a sect, to be defined alongside other sects. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one Church of Jesus Christ, restored in these latter days. Thus rather than being analogous to, say, the Calvinists, or the Eastern Rite Catholics, the CJCLDS is analogous to the entire range of non-Restoration groups (Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, all lumped together) who trace their history to the first establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ. We certainly should expect more unity! “If ye are not one, ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27) But this is not a unity primarily in specifics of belief. Rather, it is a unity of fellowship, love, and discipleship, structured by the priesthood ordinances and organization Christ re-established through Joseph Smith. So far as beliefs go, we are unified primarily by our belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the Restoration and its prophets (think of the temple recommend questions).

The size of the Church has made it easy to view it as a sect alongside others. It is also natural to talk about it this way in mixed company because that avoids dispute. The small size of the Church and its being centered primarily in the Western U.S. until quite recently have also limited the extent of diversity to be observed within it. The relative lack, or at least inconspicuousness, of schools of thought on doctrinal matters, especially in the 20th Century, also makes it easy to suppose our unity is more about unity of belief than it really is. Works on our doctrine arranged in encyclopedic fashion also indirectly reinforce the idea that our unity is based on an extensive set of particular beliefs. I suggest that while there are many key truths on which we will remain unified because we are all listening to the same source of truth, it is equally true that we will distinguish ourselves from other sects by remaining unified despite greater differences in some matters of secondary and tertiary belief than are seen among other sects (the realization of this incautious prediction, should it be realized, is largely yet to come, as the Church grows and becomes more fully a world Church). Christ taught that there must be no disputations among us (3 Nephi 11:28), as he established the proper manner of baptism, and proceeded to establish the essentials of his doctrine: faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. We are to be unified on essentials, and we are not to allow ourselves to be divided (as 3 Nephi 11:29-30 informs us the devil would have us be) over differences in non-essentials. Christ’s emphasis in 3 Nephi 11 is sobering, as he repeats again and again what his doctrine is, but (lest we get hung up on words) uses a different phrasing every time!

As I think Clark is trying to say, here, here, and here, what matters is that we are striving for eternal life, which is to “know . . . the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [he has] sent” (John 17:3), and, I dare add, to “be made perfect in one”, “even as [Christ and the Father] are one” (John 17: 23, 22). At any given point along the path of our return to them, the specifics of our beliefs are secondary. Most of what we believe about God and his ways will be superseded, as only partly true, by fuller knowledge if we continue to progress as God intends. “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away . . . For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13: 10, 12)

80 comments for “The One True (Un-Micro-)Cosmic Church of Jesus Christ

  1. An fixation on “doctrine vs. heresy” leads to the idea that God will physically torture us for getting x, y, and z wrong on the big exam. C.S. Lewis said that no one was ever damned for believing God has a beard, but my experience has been that many (if not most) of his Christian admirers disagree with him. I have always thought of unity in theology as a matter of avoiding schism in the true Church rather than avoiding damnation for incorrect beliefs. We “stick to the trunk” as a Church to stay whole as a Church, and as individual members to stay in the Church and thus enjoy the blessings of priesthood ordinances etc.

  2. Interesting. Yeah, Kingsley, there’s a lot to be said for unity of belief as a means of preserving unity of the Church. The problem I see with that is, it unifies people with each other, but interferes with progression toward and unity with God! Unity of belief makes unity easier, but not necessarily in a good way! I think the challenge of remaining unified in love despite differences in belief is part of the distinctive burden of the true Church of Jesus Christ.

  3. While I’m typically anything but a Kantian, the following quote is probably appropriate.

    “[N]either science nor philosophy is needed in order to know what one has to do in order to be honest and good, and even wise and virtuous. We might have conjectured beforehand that the knowledge of what everyone is obliged to do and thus also to know would be within the reach of everyone, even the most ordinary man. Here we cannot but admire the great advantages which the practical faculty of judgment has over the theoretical in the ordinary human understanding.” (Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 20)

  4. A thought: Mormons largely negotiate doctrinal difference by equivocation. We use the same wordds but mean different things. The way around this is by developing a technical language in which words have specific meanings. The problem is that the most common source of authoritative (or semi-authoritative) doctrinal announcements from the hierarchy take the form of sermons, which are a medium sigularlly hostile to technical language. The result is that we are unlikely to develop a public and shared vocabulary that will let us fully articulate our differences. We can only do so in forums such as this or LDS-PHIL were we use more precise vocabularies that are foreign to the dominant lingua franca of the church and especially the church authorities: Homilies.

  5. Hm. You might think of it as equivocation, the use of the same word to mean different things, or you might think of it as ambiguity, where the meaning of a word is broad, leaving room for interpretation. I prefer the latter. It seems to me our public and shared vocabulary should *not* accentuate our differences. The word “atonement”, for example, should remain broad enough so that someone who thinks about the atonement in terms of Christ achieving full commiseration and empathy with us (empathy theory), and someone who thinks about it in terms of Christ bearing a punishment or paying a debt in our place (payment theory), can both use the word “atonement” equally well. If we want to draw attention to (or, more positively, articulate) our differences, it seems right to me that we should have to make up new words and phrases (e.g. “empathy theory of atonement”, “payment theory of atonement”), rather than attaching new or more specific meanings to the words in general use.

  6. Ben: I think that we are more or less on the same wave length here. I think that the imprecision of our language is essentially ambigious (within limits). My point is that I think that the medium of our public discussion is likely to preclude an official version of our theology that will shut down most of this ambiguity. Obviously, there are limitations on this, and I would be the last one to argue that Mormonism is infinitely elastic.

  7. Seems natural that Mormon thought would encompass the debate among other Christians. The Gospel encompasses all truths…therefore the truths found in other faiths are of a necessity also found in ours. Isn’t the restored Gospel basically a synthesis of the Catholic/Protestant traditions…remade as originally intended?

  8. “I think that the medium of our public discussion is likely to preclude an official version of our theology that will shut down most of this ambiguity”

    Good! I hope you’re right! and I think you are, too. I will say that at this or that point of the Church’s history, this or that influential voice sometimes seems to have come close to establishing an official theological position on this or that fine point of doctrine. But it seems to be built into our culture as a church to bounce back from such things (tho I’m not sure how! and think we need to be vigilant). Perhaps it helps that our leaders tend not to be especially trained in theoretical disciplines. Good for them, and good for us!

  9. Ben: Jack proposed the idea (on another thread) that Bro. McConkie came in at a specific time to sort of “shore up” the Church against the free-for-all relativism set loose in the Sixties. So that while the Church is, in a sense, “bouncing back” from a certain rigidness on certain issues, that rigidness kept the Church on course when things got very windy.

  10. Nate, I agree with Ben. I don’t think it is equivocation but vagueness. (Follow the link to an excerpt from Peirce that seems appropriate)

    Kingsley, I tend to agree with you. I think this aim sometimes made McConkie a little duplicitous at times. (i.e. his famous quotes on Brigham Young’s Adam/God) However I think that outside of a few foibles (far fewer than I have!) that he charted a fair course. The fact he was a lawyer probably orients his thought somewhat. What matters isn’t truth in the sense of science or philosophy, but behavior, in the sense of law. He, and many others, felt they were fighting a strong social battle in which traditional values were being submerged into existential angst, relativism, and outright skepticism and atheist. Whether one agrees with him or not, I think we err when we take his comments out of their context. I see him much like an Old Testament prophet, trying to keep Israel faithful.

  11. Then there’s that famous statement of Bro. McConkie’s to Eugene England: “God not only sent us here to see how we would behave, but what we would believe,” or something along those lines (I know I’ve mangled it), in response to England’s public espousal of the God-is-progressing-in-knowledge idea, insinuating (to say the least) that believing x was just as “sinful” as doing y.

  12. However, Kingsley, if we read McConkie as espousing the old faith without works, or belief without behavior issue, then I think it is resolved. We are sent to see what we will believe and not just do, because beliefs entail how we would behave in the situations to which we are not exposed.

    For instance, if I believe that adultery is fine, and desire to do it, but happen to be immobile in a hospital, our behavior may be chaste, but our belief would lead to unchastity were the opportunity to present itself.

  13. Kingsley, I appreciate your point. Though I differ with him on various fine points of doctrine, I believe Elder McConkie was an inspired leader through whom the Lord did much good work. Tho I am sometimes annoyed that so many people take his views as definitive, that doesn’t mean I fault him for expressing them! I wish I had more time to study his work; I feel like I encounter it far too often third-hand. I remember watching a recording of his General Conference talk on the three gardens of salvation several years back and realizing how much deeper what he had to say was than what I often heard attributed to him, second- or third-hand. Certainly he was mistaken on some things; he was man enough to admit it! Unlike some of us who wrap our talents in napkins, he built enthusiastically on the foundation laid for him, and I count that righteousness (1 Cor. 3:11-15) As for books in encyclopedic form, I think they have their purposes despite the danger I mentioned.

  14. In reading Bro. McConkie’s letter to England, I got the impression that simply believing that God is progressing in knowledge is a serious no-no, regardless of whether or not it practically effects behavior (even potentially, as in the case of adulterous thoughts). Three of his Seven Deadly Heresies (Adam-God, God is progressing in knowledge, and organic evolution) seem to be closer to the Evangelical idea of heresy, i.e. if you believe x about Jesus you are believing in the “wrong” Jesus and will therefore be punished in spite of your orthodoxy behavior-wise. Bro. McConkie seems to be saying that the mere mental espousal of organic evolution is equivalent to a sinful act, that it somehow negates true (saving) faith in the Atonement.

  15. Again, I see how it would be important for the Church as the Church to come to some sort of (broad) conclusion on what constitutes heresy so as to avoid schism, but find the idea that God will punish me for believing He’s progressing in knowledge as repugnant as the Evangelical idea that Jesus will reject me for believing He came to the American continent, etc.

  16. That’s not how I read it. However realize that what McConkie means by knowledge and what say Brigham Young means by knowledge or intelligence likely are quite different.

    I take McConkie on this point in the context of the Lectures on Faith. What I think McConkie’s point is that if we can’t have faith that God can save us (because there may be something unknown that can undermine the plan of salvation) then faith itself is impossible. Now as we’ve discussed here and on LDS-Phil before, this is an erroneous argument regarding knowledge on McConkie’s part. I think it arises from a nominalism in which all one can know are particulars and thus knowledge of universals doesn’t happen. Perils of being educated during the period of positivism I suppose. If we allow the kinds of knowledge that I suspect McConkie didn’t think were possible, then the problem resolves itself.

    If my reconstruction is correct (it is admittedly hypothetical) then McConkie’s ultimate point is correct – he is simply wrong due to an erroneous metaphysics of knowledge.

  17. Ben, “wherein lies our unity” is a good question but I don’t get any clear sense of an answer emerging yet. Nate points out that if we use general terms with several meanings we can give general talks that no one objects to. You have pointed out that Christianity’s diverse viewpoints are reproduced in the broad range of LDS opinion. Sounds like our unity is largely corporate and organizational. I’ve argued for some time, in fact, that the Church Handbook of Instructions is the equivalent of an LDS catechism, although that idea doesn’t seem to appeal to anyone else. How else can a non-creedal church maintain unity?

    Don’t forget this earlier post by Nate about “epistemologically-centralized religion,” which offered some other ideas on unity, I think:

  18. Clark: “One faith, one Lord, one Spirit, one baptism” precisely gets to the heart of the matter, somehow. I found myself in the BYU Bookstore the other day, smack dab in the middle of Women’s Conference, and while trying to buy a pack of gum was Hell, the sight of all those sisters from far-flung places with their armfuls of Church books and cheap Liz Lemon Swindle prints was Heaven. They were my sisters; I was their brother; we had come to this intellectual stronghold of Zion for the same purpose, namely to come closer to the faith, Lord, and Spirit that united us. I know I’m waxing corny here, but these things are difficult to describe. Great post on Pre-Adamites, by the way.

  19. “Unity of belief makes unity easier, but not necessarily in a good way! I think the challenge of remaining unified in love despite differences in belief is part of the distinctive burden of the true Church of Jesus Christ.”

    Ben, I’m not convinced that unity in love can be obtained without a foundation of common beliefs on the part of the community. Theoretically, we could at once all receive a full measure of the Savior’s love and have perfect unity. But how do individuals at various levels of preparation work toward unity in a practical sense as a community? I find it interesting that the Savior established the unity of the Nephite community by first, giving them specific doctrine ie; repentence, baptism, the Holy Ghost etc. second, healing them physically and third endowing them with the gift of the Holy Ghost through appointed leaders. I think the order in which these things occured is telling. In my opinion, unity in love cannot be obtained without the influence of the Holy Ghost. However, I think there must first be a foundational belief on the part of the community in the gift(or at least the influence) of the Holy Ghost. An individual may be loved by the community but how will he/she grow with the community if he/she doesn’t believe in it’s basic tenants as prescribed by the Lord? Now, please understand that I’m talking about basic foudational beliefs – not a creed that attempts to cover all the details of what rightous living might be. Does this community believe in God? If so, does He reveal Himself to the community? If so, what has He revealed to the community? Ah! That we should love one another. What if an individual doesn’t believe in God? Can he/she be unified with the community? What if the individual believes in God but doesn’t believe that He reveals Himself? What if he/she believes that He reveals Himself generally but not this particular revelation? (that we should love one another) and so on.

  20. (Dang I’ve written way too much today – sorry to hog the discourse)

    Kingsley there is a phenomena that I think we’ve all experienced that I think gets to the unity. We’ve all been in some strange city or airport and seen people and known they are Mormon. You may not even know why you know – you just know. And the phenomena is one of brotherhood (or sisterhood). There is a connection that you can’t really put into words. You know if you were in trouble you could go to them. There is that sense of recognition that not only transcends our beliefs, but is far, far more important than our beliefs. If anything it is what our beliefs lead us to.

    I’m very confident that the brethren also have divides over beliefs. The debates between Talmage and JFS are famous. Yet I also am convinced that they saw each other as brothers and had that common purpose and disposition in which all their differences were effaced.

    The best way to conceive of it is Paul’s image of the body. We each have a different, limited perspective. Yet we know, deep down, that all of us are functioning together in one organic whole. I’m not sure how else to put it.

  21. Clark: Yes: I remember being in the Denver airport just after leaving the MTC, terribly frightened and unsure of myself, and suddenly seeing a woman across the terminal and recognizing her instantly as a Latter-day Saint. Our eyes met and she smiled and beckoned me (and my companion, of course!) over, and we had a great conversation which did a lot to alleviate my uncertainty, etc.

  22. I’ve had that experience on multiple occasions. ut I’ve wondered whether it was more culturally based than spiritually based (i.e., something like “Utah recognition,” rather than “LDS recognition”). Would I be able to have the same experience in Ghana or Tokyo?

  23. Perhaps. Is it a fairly normal thing for people who share nothing but statehood to meet in a foreign state with something akin to an electric recognition of brotherhood/sisterhood? I know you are speaking of Church culture here (this woman wasn’t from Utah), similar ways of dress, grooming, etc.–but it seems that Church culture in the U.S., at least at the superficial level, is so basically mainstream that that factor might be negated.

  24. Jack, I like how you look at what Christ does when he appears to the Nephites, to set the church in order among them. I would go back a bit earlier, though. Christ comes down out of heaven, at the Father’s introduction, and announces who he is, i.e. our Savior, and the whole multitude falls to the earth. There, they are unified, in worshipping him. He then calls them all to come and feel the prints of the nails, etc., and again they cry, Hosanna, and fall down and worship him. Then Christ calls Nephi and others, gives them authority to baptize, and instructs them in the manner of it. This formalizes the unity of the people: they are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, “for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one” (3 Nephi 27). *Then* he delivers the core doctrine. So faith in Christ, acceptance of his appointed leaders, and priesthood ordinances come even before the most basic doctrines. Now, one could probably read too much into this, but I think it is interesting this is the order.

    It’s impressive that what he does next (3 Nephi 12: 1-2) is reiterate the importance of accepting the leadership of the twelve, believing their words and being baptized; and then he delivers three chapters’ worth of ethical teachings, a version of the Sermon on the Mount.

    That said, though, of course you’re right that we have to agree on some beliefs to be able to work together, to be able to communicate with each other about our spiritual lives, and our shared spiritual life.

  25. Sure, we need some standard as to what constitutes heresy, but equally importantly (and I think we have more work to do on this than on the other), we need to recognize what *doesn’t* constitute heresy. I think we as a people need to get a better sense of this in order to extend our fellowship properly as the Church grows. I’m concerned that the idea we all have to be the same has hampered church growth in recent years (and caused us to lose a lot of our young people), particularly now that so many of us are not living in predominantly Mormon communities.

    I’m surprised I’m not encountering more resistance!

  26. Grasshopper most of my experiences were in Canada with Canadians. So I don’t think it a Utah thing. My Mom had experiences like that in Europe as well. I think it far more than a cultural thing but would hesitate saying it was a spiritual phenomena.

  27. Ben: How would you go about (in a practical way–say, if you were President of the Church) getting the Saints to recognize what doesn’t constitute heresy? (Realize I am very sympathetic to your view here.) To take just one example, that of organic evolution: President Smith and Elder McConkie, our most popular theologians, were not shy in their view that it is, in fact, a heresy, a heresy of the worst kind, a heresy that denies the Atonement of Christ no less. That’s obviously not the official position of the Church, but in my experience most Saints believe (at least vaguely) that it is. And it’s probably the sort of non-heresy-heresy that we’re losing young people over. What should the Church do? If you make a statement of some kind, you’re going to deal with questions of: What about McConkie and Smith, etc.; aren’t the Apostles and Prophets? Or do you not say anything about it, let McConkie et al.’s influence (slowly, slowly) wane, figuring in a number of “acceptable casualties” en route?

  28. First important principle here is a proper distinction between doctrine and teaching. So very many get this wrong, to fatal effect. Teaching is what is actually taught by any given teacher. It need not represent just not contradict the official position (the Doctrine) of the Church. Books by general authorities come with disclaimers, even in the era of correlation, expressly stating that the position expressed is that of the author and not necessarily the Church. Elder Oaks recently pointed out that the doctrinal basis for this qualification is found in D&C 28:1-7:

    “BEHOLD, I say unto thee, Oliver, that it shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given.

    But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses. And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church.

    And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it. But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom; And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church; For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead.”

    By long standing practice, except a book be published by the Church, it is not normative. According to later revelation, it takes a unanimous _consensus_ of the First Presidency, or of the Twelve, or of the Seventy, to make an authoritative change in the doctrine of the Church. (cf. D&C 107:21-24)

    That means that any single member of a quorum has effective veto power over the decisions of that quorum. The idea of course, is that if leaders cannot come to an inspired consensus, something is fundamentally wrong with the proposed course of action. Of course, in the rare event of a conflict between the unanimous will of the two of the presiding quorums (an event that has not ever occured as far as I know), there is a further appeal to the general assembly of the same (cf D&C 107:32).

    We might add a further veto power in the Church – the law of common consent (D&C 26:22) The body of all Saints does not elect their leaders nor establish doctrine. What they actually do, however, is sustain both leaders and doctrines. If the body of Saints has serious problems with or is not prepared for a given tenet, it is impossible for the leaders to preach such without losing the confidence of the membership.

    This acts as an ultimate veto power – we may say, informally, that we doubt, cannot understand, or are not prepared for such teachings, so please give us something we can understand. The reason why the Adam-God theory was not upheld was not because Pratt disagreed with it. He had no authority except as a member of the Twelve, which was split on the matter. The First Presidency was unanimous. The Seventy were missing in action for historical reasons.

    Ultimately, it came down to the fact that a large plurality of the members of the Church could not understand or believe such a doctrine, for reasons similar to those of Pratt. Now of course Brigham Young was quite distressed that the general membership would not trust him the way they had Joseph Smith. But the will of the Saints was prophetic in this case, in accord with the law of common consent. We cannot say on the basis of any such veto, that the doctrine is completely without merit, of course, just definitely not ready for prime time.

    Now of course, since the A-G debacle, Presidents of the Church have seen fit to establish consensus in the Twelve before preaching a new doctrine in General Conference, regardless of the merits. And if is expedient for the President of the Church to submit to Priesthood Correlation, how much more so any other authority.

    From the scriptural perspective, this is a very elaborate procedure for producing unanimity among the spiritual authorities of the Church. Whatever they declare in such consensus, we can safely say is the mind of the Lord, the will of the Lord, and the Power of God unto salvation, notwithstanding the fact that like scripture itself, Doctrine is (to some degree) an approximation tailored to fit our level of collective spiritual maturity.

    Constrained by this discouraging mandate for simplicity, one sees the greatest prophetic art in parables and polyphony. That is another well known story, of course.

  29. Ben, I think I agree with you over all. However, I feel it’s important that we not get the cart before the horse in that we forget to recognize that God initiates our belief. We love Him because He loved us first. He sent angels to Adam and his posterity to declare the gospel that they might repent and turn to Him. Faith comes by hearing the word and how shall we hear the word unless some one is sent by the Lord to preach it to us? (I’m paraphrasing). When the Savior appeared to the Nephites He was first introduced by the Father “this is My Beloved Son…” but they still supposed that He was an angel(I’m guessing that there were varying degrees of disbelief among them). It isn’t until He stretches forth His hand, declares His name and adds “whom the prophets testified shall come into the world…” that they, as one, fall to the ground. Could it be that everything they had been taught to believe previous to the Lord,s appearance Had something to do with this reaction?

  30. Ben, just a reminder that heresy in the early Church referred to anything that created dangerous divisions in the body of the Church. It could be beliefs, but wasn’t necessarily. In the Book of Mormon belief is seldom the source of heresy. It is most frequently, perhaps, forms of pride, such as economic pride, the rejection of the poor. So, for me, the question isn’t
    “what gives us our unity?” but “what might break the unity that God gives us by giving us the Gospel?”

  31. An addendum: Alma seems to me to say exactly what gives us our unity: “Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life–Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:8-10).

  32. Mark, that D&C passage has long been pivotal for my understanding of how authority for teaching works; I’m very interested though to hear what Elder Oaks says about it; where was it he talked about it?

    Kingsley, I think there are limits to what the First Presidency can do in this regard because of their authority in establishing doctrine — they have to be careful because anything they express approval of is in danger of being mistaken for an official doctrine, and they need to preserve the clariity of their own teaching voices by not mucking around too much in “this is okay to believe, but so is this and this, and take your pick”. Or so it seems to me.

    I think in large part what needs to happen for us to get used to tolerating differences among us is to just live with them. FARMS doesn’t represent the official position of the Church with its publications, but it is clear that Church leaders consider the views expressed in FARMS are generally acceptable views for LDS to hold and discuss. When we see people who are definitely within the fold holding a variety of views, we figure out that this is an acceptable variety.

    Those of us who, like the FARMS folk, have views that are not necessarily conventional but are acceptable and even virtuous views for a Church member need to express them in appropriate ways. As more of us learn to do this (rather than, say, just getting frustrated at how many people don’t think like us and making a stink or leaving the church, as sometimes happens), we can *show* (think, “show, don’t tell”) that a range of theological (and, say, political) views are acceptable within the Church.

  33. Ben: So it’s basically just a matter of waiting, then, as the Latter-day Saints become accustomed to, say, the idea that a belief in organic evolution’s not necessarily apostate; and they will more speedily become accustomed to it if they see evolution-enthusiastic Latter-day Saints behaving like Latter-day Saints, e.g. the folks at FARMS.

  34. Forensically speaking, a heresy is that which is contrary to the Doctrine of the Church. Not that which is contrary to the sentiment of any individual member of the Church, however inspired. The whole problem lies in those who take the name of the Lord in vain, having not proper authority:

    “Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ. Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips — For behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority.

    Wherefore, let the church repent of their sins, and I, the Lord, will own them; otherwise they shall be cut off. Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation.” (D&C 63:61).

    Under the standing law of the Church, no mortal has unilateral authority to declare Doctrine. Except to the degree that his position is ratified by the unanimous voice of one of the presiding quorums of the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost – it remains at best venerable opinion, so far as the Doctrine is concerned.

    Whatever the weaknesses of his hermeneutic, Joseph Fielding Smith was a very careful scholar – far and away the most influential gospel scholar of the twentieth century Church. His works read like treatises, logically argued from the Standard Works and the Teachings of Joseph Smith. It is rarely difficult to trace down the reasoning for each and every position he outlines. As long as we do not pre-emptively canonize any mere theology, even one as carefully argued as that of Joseph Fielding Smith, we do well.

  35. Kingsley, uh, well it’s something that will develop with time. But it takes work. For example, I am learning how to be a better Sunday School teacher, to teach in a way that opens up a fresh side of the text for that week, but in a way that reaches everyone, so far as possible. I’m reading for that week and get off on some elaborate train of thought that I follow through the scriptures for three hours . . . then I need to step back and identify what makes sense to bring up with a varied group of people and structure it in a way that people can digest and discuss in 30 minutes, which means for one thing I don’t bring up everything I thought about during those three hours! It is partly a waiting process because it’s a matter of all of us learning to work constructively with each other despite our differences, but I feel like I’m keeping pretty busy too. Discussions like this on T&S are part of the “team-building” process too. And I’ve put a lot of work into the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology this past year, which is a (new) moderate forum for scholarly discussion of theology.

    But yeah, that last phrase is key, “behaving like Latter-day Saints” — Eugene England said people in his ward would listen to his unconventional ideas (tho it’s not just ideas that matter here) because they knew he loved the Church and loved them.

  36. Ben, Elder Oaks comments are in the preface to his book His Holy Name, Bookcraft, 1998.

    Another salient work on Church government is Counseling with our Councils: Learning to Minister Together in the Church and in the Family, M. Russell Ballard, Deseret Book, 1997.

  37. Kingsley, I don’t think it is a matter of waiting at all. I assume that many of my views are unconventional, but I get along well in my mostly blue-collar ward. When I teach, I teach the gospel, not my unconventional views. They are rarely relevant. If some of the issues about which there is controversy come up, I say, “some believe x and some believe y, but we don’t have a doctrine regarding that.” I doubt there are many in my ward who don’t know that some of my views about things are different than most people’s views, but I don’t think anyone cares because neither of us sees it as relevant. So there’s nothing to wait for. I think most members of the Church are already quite willing to accept that there are varying views on many issues.

  38. Jim, I kind of agree but kind of don’t. My experience fitting in is a lot like yours — a lot of stuff just doesn’t come up; at church we pretty much focus on what we share. A couple of years back my stake president confessed to me that he had had doubts about me when I first came out here, since I was studying philosophy (!), but he had never let on before, so I felt everything was fine, and he only brought it up when he felt comfortable saying that although he’d had doubts at first, he didn’t any more. So I don’t feel like I have any problem fitting in; it helps that my ward here in Indiana is very diverse in all sorts of ways.

    But I know not everyone feels that way. I know I belong most of all because I have such a strong loyalty to the Book of Mormon and to the Restoration, and because the gospel is a strong part of my family’s life, which is still important tho I’ve all growed up and left home. But I know not everyone feels there is room for them to be themselves and be in the Church, and I’m thinking especially of some of my friends who felt this way particularly when they were still trying to figure out who they were. The impression that we’re all alike and that’s why we belong together has been a real problem for a number of people I know, who have felt there was no room for them to change and stay part of the Church. The idea that we all know the answers to the questions that matter, and that if you’re not satisfied with the answers you already have you’re lacking in faith, is an idea that has pushed away friends of mine who I think had some legitimate thinking to do. I had my struggle with it too a while back.

    I think part of what Kingsley and I might be hoping for is for the idea to be a little more openly available in the Church community that there’s room for development in one’s spiritual life in ways you don’t have mapped out beforehand. Dunno if that’s realistic.

  39. Jim F. said, “heresy in the early Church referred to anything that created dangerous divisions in the body of the Church”.

    What if we think of McConkie’s views on evolution in this light? I don’t think we see the gospel and evolution as being so mutually exclusive nowadays.(granted, some still do)But, not so long ago the attitude was much more “either-or”. Is it reasonable to assume that there was a legitimate concern with regard to just keeping people in the church? -that too many were being persuaded to embrace a theory that was (as perceived in those days) incompatible with the gospel? I think, in this sense, that the concern for the potencial damage that might have been done to the church(and we’re really speaking of its members) far out weighs the concern for whether or not evolution is actually a viable theory.

  40. Jack, though I’ve said a lot of what I think about wherein our unity lies, part of what I think really is that our unity is based on following our leaders. So if they decide belief X or practice Y is just not acceptable, I’ll accept their decision. That’s their job, to set the standards around which we unify. I’m prepared to accept a scenario like what you’ve described. The statement of just one leader, though, particularly not the President, is not an action of all. There’s a different weight when the Presidency and the Twelve act unanimously. But I’ve only heard about the “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk indirectly, so I don’t pretend to know what was going on there. I haven’t thought too much about it since nowadays there clearly is a place in the Church for people who believe in some kind of evolution.

  41. I think the issue with evolution was misunderstandings about what evolution was. It was especially problematic since at the same time there were people like Elder Romney who not only believed in evolution but believed in pre-Adamites. (And of course a few decades earlier Talmage and others were very pro-evolution)

  42. Ben, one last comment. It is a serious mistake to consider the Catholic Church a traditional sect. The Catholic Church has long allowed theological liberty under the constraints of papal authority and respect for tradition. How else can the Catholic Church jointly hold Augustine and Aquinas to be Saints worthy of veneration when each approached theology from a radically different perspective?

    Pope John Paul’s recent encyclical Veritatis Splendor has enormous merit as a discussion of how much theological liberty a Church can tolerate without losing its identity.

  43. Jim F.: As far as “waiting” goes, I was more referring to the thing Ben mentioned where many members automatically view philosophy etc. as suspect. Joe’s studying philosophy in school, so he has to “prove” his good standing in the Church, whereas Jane, studying business, has to prove nothing because her interests seem more orthodox. I didn’t mean we just sit around hoping for enlightenment to gradually descend, but until it does philosophy majors will certainly do some waiting. I was excited to get a job as a researcher for Noel Reynolds, for example, and the very next day a certain “old school” member of my family approached me brandishing an open Bible and poking her finger at a verse where Paul warns the Saints about the philosophies of men, etc. I didn’t see it as anything more than an goodly intended amusing annoyance, but still it’ll be nice to see the day where that sort of knee-jerk suspicion of “intellectuals” is gone. It seems silly for people to constantly lean on Hugh Nibley and FARMS on the one hand while disparaging “locals” who go after the same disciplines on the other.

  44. Jim F.: Sorry, just to clarify: if “an [sic] goodly intended amusing annoyance” sounded arrogant, I didn’t mean it to be: it’s just that I think I’ve already “proven” my loyalty to the Church to this particular person, so that questioning my motives in so-called secular pursuits (their division, not mine) becomes an irritant after a while. And although my personal experiences don’t constitute evidence for a Church-wide phenomenon, anecdotes like Ben’s and many, many others (from friends and associates, etc.) make it out to be a not-uncommon occurrence.

  45. Kingsley, I understand exactly what you mean. Believe me, in virtue of being older, I’m sure I’ve had the experience you describe far more often than you, including having an apostle ask–half joking, but only half–whether perhaps I should be excommunicated because my beliefs are so different. However, looking back, I don’t think any of those experiences have been more than an irritant, and after a while that irritation goes away. If waiting means waiting for those who irritate us to get over the fact that we are philosophers, etc., then I agree we will have to wait. It took quite a few years before those in my ward lost their suspicion of me. Now they jump to my defense when new people say something exhibiting their suspicion.

    However, I don’t think we have to wait on the _church_ to do anything or to change in some way. Nor do I think we should expect a change in church culture. The changes we are waiting for are changes in the individuals with whom we deal, and those occur over time. I doubt there will ever be a culture in which philosophers aren’t misunderstood by ordinary folks who don’t yet know an LDS philosopher, and it is probably a good thing that they are misunderstood. After all, the ordinary Saint’s misunderstanding of us isn’t without some basis in reality.

  46. Jim F.: I certainly don’t claim to be a philosopher (it must be obvious to anyone who’s bothered to read my posts that I’m out of my depth here), and I certainly don’t have any delusions about changing Church culture, but I doubt I’ll ever really get used to the suspicion, second-guessing, etc. On the other hand, the aggressive kind of Bible-brandishing Saints that are generating these feelings are actually a minority, albeit a very vocal one, so that “I suppose this is my cross”-type language would be pretty ludicrous on my part. But I still don’t want to just lie down to them, because their kind of orthodoxy isn’t orthodox at all.

  47. Kingsley,
    I think Jim F. is saying that it might be healthy for a portion of the church to be suspicious of intellectual endeavors, providing a useful counterweight to the tendency of the intellect to swallow other authorities and values. And if he’s not saying it, I will. :)

    Jim F.,
    I think you underestimate the degree to which Nephite heresies mixed sinful practice with false belief. They almost all started their attack on obedience and duty with an attack on the doctrine of Christ. The Zoramites, for example, justified oppressing the poor by thinking of themselves as elect people who alone had been vouchsafed the knowledge that Christ never as nor would be.

  48. So many people non sequiturs into scriptural terms like “vain philosophy”. The only sensible way to read such a term is “philosophy that has the property of being vain”. All theology is philosophy, and theology is certainly not all vanity. The Apostle Paul, for example, loved theology and wielded it to great effect in all his epistles, perhaps too great an effect in some cases.

  49. That is “so many people read non sequiturs into scriptural terms”. I need to wake up. <smile>

  50. If anything, the Church needs more faithful philosophers, not less, lest we suffer the fate so eloquently described in Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans, 1994 – A deadly schism between faith and reason.

  51. “I think the issue with evolution was misunderstandings about what evolution was. It was especially problematic since at the same time there were people like Elder Romney who not only believed in evolution but believed in pre-Adamites. (And of course a few decades earlier Talmage and others were very pro-evolution)”

    Not to mention that the Church financed Talmage on a series of lectures on evolution to demonstrate that the Church’s official position was that it did not have one and that faithful members could believe in it.


    However, the topic is a good example of people who are pushing their own agendas against the resistance of the Spirit.

  52. Ethesis: Have those lectures been published? If so, where can one find them?

    Adam Greenwood: I would rather the Saints as a whole be skeptical (if not disdainful) of the veneration, deification, etc., of intellectuals & intellectualism which has always proved destructive to the prophets, than a portion of the Saints be skeptical of intellectual endeavors. Skeptical seems hardly the word for it, actually, when it comes to the latter group: I would use hostile. I know that intellectuals are heartily to blame for this in many respects, but the fact that one disgruntled hard-liner can, for instance, shut down a Sunday School discussion that the rest of the class is enjoying & being edified by is sad. The problem is that these heresy-hunters have a razor-thin definition of intellectual endeavors, so that anything that seems “out of the ordinary” is instantly suspect &, guilty by suspicion, instantly killed.

  53. Ben, I agree that inspired leadership is vital to unifying a community. However, (another “however” – I hope I’m not too much of a thorn in your side. I love this post!) At what point does the community risk running a’muck because of second guessing its leaders? How much latitude can there be in our personal interpretation of inspired council before the unified fabric begins to unravel? Now don’t get me wrong! I believe there is a wide latitude of interpretation possible with the “non-essentials” as you’ve mentioned above – and even a little wiggling room with some of the essentials. Some, however, are fixed (and these are few) i.e. ” Believe in God. Believe that He is.” etc.

    That said – I’m confident that we both agree that belief in the Savior (at least in the most general terms) is vital to salvation. If then, we have a character like Korihor enter the scene preaching that there is no Christ, would this not threaten the unity of the group if some begin to espouse his beliefs? Taking the example of Korihor a little further – “And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.” (Alma 30:17). Servival of the fittist! the guy’s a darwinist. Wait! hold the hatchet. I only mean it in the narrow old classic sense that – ahah! now we can get rid of that nasty creationism (and everything else that goes with it including the Creator). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pursuing further study in organic evolution. Indeed, I think even the most liberal minded members might be shocked at its findings if they could peer into the future 100 years from now. But I think there’s a huge problem if it causes its adherents to reject the need for a redeemer (as was more the case in McConkies days).

    Now lets say that he (McConkie) was dead wrong on the particulars of organic evolution as a viable theory (let alone the other six “heresies”) would it be going too far to suggest that he might have been right in a sort of counter intuitive sense? One wintery day, my brother parked his car near the corner of an intersection. His wife suggested that he move it for fear of a car making a turn and sliding into it because of the ice (he didn’t of course). As fate would have it, it was a car backing out of a driveway across the street that slid into my brother’s car. So while his wife’s “hunch” was correct in a general sense (that the car might be damaged), it was not realized specifically as she had imagined. Therefore, laying the particulars aside, the whole thing would have been avoided if he had just moved the car!

    Can the Lord not work with his servants in this way?(and try our hearts in the process) In a limited sense McConkie was right to label certain beliefs as “heresy” if they were driving too many members toward rejecting the foundational teachings of the church. Finally (and too long windedly I’m afraid, forgive me) Ben, you suggested that what McConkie did was “not an action of all”. You may be right but, I can’t help but believe that President Kimball would merely have had to say “Bruce, I think we need to lighten up a little on that one” and he would have done it.

  54. Jack: Bro. McConkie was a controversialist from the get-go, famously raising Pres. McKay’s ire with Mormon Doctrine & never looking back. The thing that Pres. McKay objected to was a GA pronouncing dogmatically on matters for which the Church held no dogma, e.g. Catholics, communists, evolution, evolutionists(!), Sunday activities, Pre-Adamites, etc. etc. etc. Pres. Romney, in an assessment of the book, particularly objected to “repeated use of the word ‘apostate’ and related terms in a way which to many seems discourteous and to others gives offense.” These Brethren kindly refrained from embarrassing Bro. McConkie publicly, but I think their basic objections to his style, if you will, were sound. When Mormons cry foul at the rhetoric of anti-Mormons, anti-Mormons find justifying consolation in the rhetoric of Bro. McConkie (& now his son at BYU). & while it’s obvious the anti-Mormons are stretching things a bit, I still wish that Bro. McConkie, as a young GA, had taken the advice of his leaders a little closer to heart. Do you really believe that labeling organic evolution as a “heresy” (in spite of the Church’s historical effort specifically not to do so) would help those struggling to reconcile it with their gospel beliefs? Most likely it would have the opposite effect. Rather than clearing up confusion, his Evangelical-style Thus saith the Lord-ing added to it: Brigham Young & other early leaders being consigned to “premordial slime” for teaching that God is progressing in knowledge, etc.

    The basic objections of Pres. McKay et al. to Mormon Doctrine make a handy précis of what was basically objectionable in Bro. McConkie’s ministry as a whole. It is interesting that the criticisms found in Pres. Romney’s assessment could be applied to the Seven Deadly Heresies talk without missing a beat.

    That being said, it is crystal clear that Bro. McConkie’s ministry, as a whole, was a marvelous one, that he wore out his life in the service of the Lord, that the Lord, by calling him to the Twelve, trusted & loved him, & that he inspired millions of Saints to more fully devote themselves to the Kingdom & to more fully appreciate the scriptures & teachings of the Restoration. I was deeply moved & humbled by his last public testimony, & felt then & feel now that he knew Christ as intimately as Peter, James & John knew Christ. But we learn from Peter’s weaknesses & his strengths: the first so as not to repeate them, if possible, the second so as to repeat them, if possible.

  55. Kingsley, I think it is profoundly unfair to suggest that Joseph Fielding McKonkie has not learned anything from his father’s mistakes. While some subtlety is certainly in order, there are enough theological problems with the dominant theories of evolution to occupy us indefinitely.

    The problem with the theory of organic evolution is not that it lacks merit, but rather that its leading exponents preach it with religious fervor, behaving more like a cult than a science. The hostility to organic evolution you see in the Church is the nearly inevitable consequence of the philosophical immaturity of modern biology.

    Two eyes, ten fingers – accident or destiny? If natural selection, then accident. If destiny then Nature is God by another name. Theologically speaking, the Lord created the heavens and the earth, the heavens and the earth did not create the Lord.

  56. Kingsley – I will say, personally, that I much more prefere the “softer” McKay approach. (I would ask though – did McConkie ever raise Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith’s ire?) I think what I’m really suggesting is that despite his rather bombastic approach (which probably did offend some unnecessarily) McConkie’s overall contribution was positive – maybe even crucial in someways considering the timing of his call. (Whew! I write, trembling, knowing that I’m out of my legue going up against you, Ben H. and others)

  57. Mark: Have you taken a class with Prof. McConkie lately? The battle against “apostate” views (free will theism, Sidney Rigdon as primary author of the Lectures on Faith, literary approaches to Scripture, etc.) continues: never mind that the views in question are held by colleagues of fine standing in the Church. I think Pres. Romney’s assessment, “repeated use of the word ‘apostate’ and related terms in a way which to many seems discourteous and to others gives offense,” holds for the son as well as the father. This, at least, is a common perception amongst students who are pursuing philosophy, theology, Church history, etc., outside the CES pail. Many of the FARMS reviews of his Book of Mormon commentaries point to the same tendencies. & it interesting that Evangelicals such as Craig Blomberg go to him when they need an example of uncharitable LDS rhetoric.

    My keying in on evolution had to do with Jack’s post above.

  58. Jack writes: “I think what I’m really suggesting is that despite his rather bombastic approach (which probably did offend some unnecessarily) McConkie’s overall contribution was positive – maybe even crucial in someways considering the timing of his call.:

    Kingsley writes: Agreed.

    I know that Joseph Fielding Smith “sided” with Pres. McKay et al. in the original furor over Mormon Doctrine, or at least that he agreed that certain passages needed softening, certain entries deleting, etc. But you are right in implying that in many ways Bro. McConkie was a man after his own heart.

  59. Otherwise I completely agree with you, Kingsley. The Lord has said:

    Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips — For behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority.

    Wherefore, let the church repent of their sins, and I, the Lord, will own them; otherwise they shall be cut off. Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation (D&C 63:61-64).

    Theology is one of the fastest ways to kill the Spirit known to man. It must be done with great care and trepidation, under the constraint of the Spirit. Theology is leveled by improper claim to authority. Authority is leveled by improper claim to perfection. The ninth article of faith is there for a reason.

  60. Mark: Thanks for pointing that scripture out. I particularly like its use of the word “constraint.” What is your reaction to my impressions of Prof. Joseph McConkie’s current style?

  61. If Joseph Fielding McConkie has not learned from the experience of his father, that is a sad, sad story indeed.

  62. Kingsley, it sounds like McConkie has Calvinist leanings. That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if coupled with scholarship comparable to that of Jonathan Edwards. However, I think it is safe to say the center of gravity of the LDS tradition is neo-Arminian. The doctrine of the Church is much closer to John Wesley than Jonathan Edwards, and closer still to Campbell and Rigdon, restorationist Arminians both. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff were each proto-Open Theists, neo-Arminian in spades.

    There is not much Calvinism to be found in the teachings of Joseph Smith. It seems LDS Calvinism does not make a real appearance until the emergence of LDS Pauline studies after World War II. Like many of the Hebrew prophets, Paul is easy to read as a proto-Calvinist, so much so that Paul had to make constant clarifications so that the members of the early Church didn’t get the wrong idea.

    LDS doctrine on human nature is generally Thomist rather than Protestant. Grace is the fulfilment, not the end of nature. The natural man is a conditional, not an unconditional enemy of God. This all turned sharply in the Protestant direction in the mid-to-late twentieth century, with ample justification. Look at what happened in the Catholic Church in the U.S. during the same period. They went off the liberal deep end (Canon law? what canon law?) and are only now recovering. Richard John Neuhaus has much to say about that.

  63. As far as teaching style, I think the use of canon forensic terms like heresy and apostate had better be grounded in a compelling argument from the normative doctrine of the Church. Otherwise, such usage is essentially invoking the name of the Lord without proper authority – swearing, as it were, a form of unrighteous judgment. Justifiably strong sentiments can be expressed in innumerable ways short of donning the mantle of the presiding Judge in Israel.

  64. Mark: I am glad to hear you say the Catholic Church is recovering from its plunge into the liberal deep end. Most of my experience with Catholic teaching & practice comes through Catholic novelists & writers like Waugh, Chesterton, Green, Hopkins, Buckley, etc. Waugh & Buckley especially seem to lament the direction that Rome has taken. What evidence is there that Rome is turning back? Perhaps you could point me toward the relevant literature. I recently subscribed to First Things, but my (cursory) on-line reading gave me the impression that Neuhaus takes a sort of Tolkienian “the long defeat” approach.

  65. Wow, somehow I tuned out on this thread for a couple of days and missed a really interesting interchange. Most of what I might want to say has already been said better by others, but I just want to say Jack, I think there is a place for condemning a belief that leads to heresy even if it is not itself heretical — there may be times when this is what a good leader needs to do, and if the Spirit so moves, so be it. But as others have noted, these matters of “If you think X, you’re likely to end up thinking Y” can be pretty subtle, so strong statements on heresy require great care and prayer, and it seems safe to say that a number of these by Elder McConkie went too far. I incline toward thinking too few hard-line statements on doctrine is better than too many, so long as the basics are very clear (divinity of Christ, faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost obviously are part of the non-negotiable core). The reason is that using the Lord’s name in vain cripples the credibility of the divine message. Making a strong statement that turns out to be wrong is generally a lot harder to recover from than being silent on something you should have an opinion on, when you’re acting as an authority. False or misguided statements made authoritatively drive people away who know them to be false or misguided, and it’s really hard to blame people who are driven away in that fashion. That said, I certainly don’t think GAs should be expected to only say things they are ready to stake their authority on! Last summer we had a raging debate on LDS-PHIL about divine foreknowledge and human freedom, in response to a talk by Elder Maxwell. I agree with Maxwell on this, but I don’t think faithful members are bound to agree with him, nor do I think the fact that faithful members are not bound to agree with him (and may have sensible reasons for disagreeing with him) means he shouldn’t speak on the topic. GAs have to have room to express their sincere views; Elder Maxwell I think did this very gracefully, in a reasoned and confident way, but still a gentle one on this topic where the same belief about foreknowledge may be reassuring to one Latter-day Saint but disturbing to another.

  66. I wonder why it is that Bro. Maxwell, though he’s famous for his intelligence & way with words & has published book after book, hasn’t even come close to having the kind of staus, doctrinally speaking, of Bro. McConkie? Is it because he doesn’t arrange by subject, doesn’t preach like a preacher, isn’t smashingly assertive etc.? Does anyone know which of the Twelve’s books sell best now?

  67. It is interesting to think of the excitement etc. at the first publication of Mormon Doctrine, going all the way up to the highest councils of the Church, & to wonder if a similar book by a current relatively obscure GA (as McConkie was at the time) would have the same impact today. Of course, if it published bad doctrine the First Presidency would get involved, esp. if it had political implications–but would it fly off the shelves like MD did? Were the Saints simply hungry for a more systematic gospel treatise back then?

  68. Ben, I love your last comment. The only thing that I’m hesitant about is the implication that a GA might take the Lord’s name in vain. It’s not that it can’t happen, it’s that I just don’t know how to qualify it. We usually don’t know everything that’s behind what they do (speaking of the Lord’s will). Please understand that I’m talking about what happens in a formal church setting, not something like “Mormon Doctrine” which was a private endeavor.

  69. Kingsley, General Authorities are not allowed to publish unreviewed (read un-correlated) books any more. This policy was a direct consequence of bruce R. McKonkie’s unannouced publication of Mormon Doctrine, something that blind-sided the First Presidency and the Twelve, causing an extensive internal review process and a chorus of complaints both inside and out. Under current practice, the Church gives not an endorsement, but an imprimatur to general authority books, the same way the Catholic Church used to do with all books. The pre-publication controversy over Alexander B. Morrison’s recent book on mental illness, as reported in the Deseret News, is a good example.

    On my view, no one should ever aspire to the kind of relatively untempered influence Brigham Young or Bruce R. McConkie had over a generation of Saints, or even a generation of Apostles, lest the Lord spend the next generation making your folly manifest, as a matter of critical necessity. Consensus in doctrine is a categorical imperative.

  70. Mark: Is there anything to the timing of MD, as far as its basically instant (& lingering) popularity goes? Were the Saints at that time more interested for whatever reason in a systematic approach to theology?

  71. I mean, it’s just hard for me to imagine today’s Saints rushing out to buy, say, LDS Theology by, say, Neal A. Maxwell.

  72. Clearly Mormon Doctrine matched the views of a very large number of Saints, I would tend to say the Calvinist heritage in the Church. Most of the early converts in England and America were Methodist, Wesleyan, Free-will Baptists, and Neo-Arminian Restorationist, descended from earlier Calvinist (Puritan) roots.

    It seems that the later converts from England, Scotland, and Northern Europe brought in an incredible Calvinist and Lutheran heritage into the Church. By 1850 or thereabouts there were more members of the Europe than in the United States, from countries that were overwhelmingly Calvinist / Lutheran in heritage, where Arminianism was a radical fringe.

    I understand that the bulk of European converts came from “low” (popular, fundamentalist) Protestant traditions, not high Anglicanism, high Presbyterianism, high Methodism, or high Lutheranism. Rather the same people that provided the strength of the Puritan, Baptist, Pietist, and Presbyterian movements, low not high. More like Oliver Cromwell less like King James.

    The Jewish and Book of Mormon peoples were no different. They could not take the higher law as a general rule, so everything tended to be cast in the stark proto-Calvinist post-Deuteronomic plainness we see in Isaiah and Jeremiah while yet demonstrating their fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

    One of the great strengths of the Book of Mormon is that it spans a far greater range than the New Testament, showing the logical progression from the law of Moses to Jesus Christ, filling the void between the Old and New Testaments in a manner considerably plainer (and less susceptible to misinterpretation) than Paul.

    Mormon Doctrine tends to mirror the stark Book of Mormon perspective more than the higher principles one finds in the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants (e.g. redemption from hell). Doctrines of Salvation, equally stark, is _much_ more subtle.

  73. Of course, by the time Elder McConkie becomes an apostle fourteen years later, it is almost impossible to distinguish his theology from that of his father-in-law, moving beyond it in a near transparent logical progression. By 1972 it seems the difference between the two were small. McConkie is with Young on the nature of intelligences, for example, where Joseph Fielding was in the Smith / Roberts self-existent “soul” tradition. Joseph Fielding, following Joseph Smith, is willing to speak of “all wisdom” as a possible clarification of “all knowledge”. Joseph Fielding seems more Smith oriented and McConkie more Pratt / Young oriented as a general rule.

  74. In the end, of course, Elder McConkie moves far beyond his father-in-law into a considerably more systematic theology. A pretty compelling one, apparently, if a bit on the extreme side. I strongly suspect Elder McConkie could have written a book far more comprehensive and revealing than Doctrines of Salvation, but was constrained by discretion. Beneath the confidence beyond belief is almost surely a systematic theology that would make Pratt (if not Calvin) proud. That is what I read between the lines of Joseph Fielding McConkie, anyway.

  75. How adout MD as a reference guide? Was there anything as comprehensive before? (I really don’t know. Kingsley, Ben, do you?) If not, maybe this was part of the craze.

  76. Doctrines of Salvation (1954), which McConkie edited, is a much better reference guide than Mormon Doctrine (1958), though not an encyclopedia. Doctrines of Salvation is a well developed treatise much more closely argued than The Truth, The Way, and the Life, for example, though within a conservative Protestant hermeneutic. Doctrines of Salvation is _still_ the standard secondary reference on LDS theology, fifty years later. McConkie’s works generally just elaborate on the DS world view.

  77. Whenever I “go after” Bro.’s McConkie and Smith for anything, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s description of Brigham Young, who, after Twain attempted to “draw him out” on a political issue, “merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, somewhat as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail.”

  78. P.S.: Mark: Thanks for your responses. Who are our theologian GAs now? (Among the 15 there don’t seem to be any besides Bro. Maxwell, & he doesn’t seem to be in the McConkie/Smith/Roberts/Talmage/etc. vein.) Are there any in the 70 you’re aware of?

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