Authority is a central concept in Mormon theology and practice. It is an issue that anyone thinking about Mormonism must come to grips with. The well-worn criticism that Mormonism is overly authoritarian or that Mormons place â€œtoo muchâ€? faith in their leaders misses the point. Mormonism is inherently authoritarian. Concepts of authority are part of what define Mormonism. Anyone who believes that they can offer some account or interpretation of Mormon theology while at the same time ducking this issue or reducing it to a few cautionary bromides about individual responsibility and critical thinking is kidding themselves.
Authority, however, turns out to be really complex. Think of the idea of prophetic authority. There are several different senses in which we say that the prophets have authority. They have administrative authority over the institutional church. For example, the First Presidency constitutes a court of final appeal in the Church judicial system. We say that the Apostles and the First Presidency hold all of the keys, by which we mean something like the authority to authorize the use of priesthood power to perform certain ordinances. In a more dramatic form, we claim that they have the sealing power, so that what they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Finally, prophets have some sort of epistemic authority. They have some sort of privileged access to the divine. Counsel and instruction from President Hinkley is simply not the same thing as counsel from Kaimi. At least, it doesnâ€™t seem to me that one can equate the two and still have some concept of the prophetic in the Mormon sense.
Now all of these things are troubling and difficult in one way or another. As an American, I have had the shibboleths of philosophical liberalism pounded into my brain. Authority is an inherently suspect concept for liberalism. The assumption is that we are all free and equal citizens, and any claim to the legitimate exercise of superior power by another must be carefully justified. Enter stories of the state of nature, the social contract, and the like.
Hand-in-hand with philosophical liberalism goes philosophical modernism. By this I mean a certain attitude about knowledge that privileges doubt, personal investigation and verification, and rejects claims to special authority based on experiences not open to all. Enter stories of Descartes lying in his bed and trying to independently reason his way to all knowledge. Enter the myth of Galileo and the heroic intellectual siding with science and reason against religion and authority.
Now it may well be that all of these things can be reconciled in the end. Perhaps I can have liberalism, modernism, and prophetic authority too. But it is going to take some real work to get there. Here are some options that I donâ€™t find especially compelling:
Prophets as CEOs: In this vision, essentially all notions of prophetic authority are collapsed into the notion of administrative authority. There is no special insight into God or special claim to exercise Godâ€™s power. There are simply a bunch of old men (well-meaning or conniving, depending on your preference) who run a large organization. This is a dandy view if one is interested in institutional criticism. It reduces the issues of authority to issues of social design and warrants vigorous criticism. The problem is that one loses any real concept of priesthood or revelation.
Prophets as Charismatic: This view also downplays the notion of special access to divine knowledge or power, and instead focuses on social influence. The nice thing about this approach is that it does seem to provide some sort of an answer as to why I care more about President Hinkleyâ€™s teachings than Kaimiâ€™s. The answer lies in the force of President Hinkleyâ€™s personality. Prophets are people who have the capacity to move, motivate, and transform others. Think Ghandi or Martin Luther King. Charisma thus offers us a neat explanation of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. The problem is that one could argue with equal ease for the charismatic authority of Adolf Hitler. In other words, charisma is ultimately a theory of social interaction rather than of legitimacy.
The Pure Democracy of Revelation: A final possibility is that we say that prophets get revelation but just like the rest of us. In other words, we acknowledge prophetic access to the divine, but we deny that it is in any way unique or privileged. The problem with this view is that it fails to explain authority at all. It cannot explain what it means that an Apostle is a special witness of Jesus Christ and I am not. Note, that my objection here is conceptual rather than normative. I am not arguing that those who take this position are illegitimately undermining the power of the Brethren. Nor do I object to the notion that prophetic revelation is phenomenologically similar to my revelation. Rather, I am arguing that this approach is simply missing a key point. It fails to explain why I should pay more attention to President Hinkley than to Kaimi.
So what are we to do? Well, it seems to me that our answer is something like: â€œProphets have superior access to the divine, but only some of the time.â€? Certainly, this is a model of prophecy that is consistent with scripture and offers the promise of avoiding a fair amount of theological embarrassment. I have a way of dismissing prophetic statements that I find troubling whether they be about Zelph, moonmen, or mothers-in-the-home. But, alas, things are not so easy. The answer isnâ€™t of much use until I have a way of figuring out how to recognize statements representing special access to the divine.
There are a couple of responses to this puzzle:
Truth is the Standard: One could argue in effect that our knowledge of the truth provides us with the criteria. If I know that there are no men on the moon dressed like Quakers, then I know that statement was not inspired. If I just know that the ERA was a good idea, or that drinking coffee is not such a big deal, then I know that prophetic pronouncements against these things donâ€™t represent any special insight into the mind of God. I suspect that this is the approach that most people implicitly take most of the time. However, when you set it out in black and white it has a suspiciously circular look to it. At the very least it suggests that God can never tell you something through a prophet that you donâ€™t already know.
A Rule of Recognition: The idea here is that there is some procedural mechanism that allows you to recognize genuinely prophetic statements. Perhaps those accompanied by â€œthus saith the Lordâ€? or those that are formally canonized. This would be a grand solution to the quandary. The problem is figuring out what the rule of recognition is. I would suggest that our social practice is simply not consistent enough to isolate such a rule as a matter of social fact. (For those law geeks out there the social fact approach was Hartâ€™s solution to the problem of recognizing the rule of recognition. Non-law geeks can ignore this parenthetical.) If one canâ€™t find such a rule as a matter of social practice, then one is left looking for a rule in some authoritative source. The problem of course, is recognizing the authoritative source that gives the rule for recognizing authoritative sources.
Personal Revelation: This was J. Reuben Clarkâ€™s solution. He suggested that prophets do in fact have special access to the divine but we need personal access to the divine in order to recognize those instances of special prophetic access. I like this one. It seems to suffer from less circularity than the other two approaches suggested above. This approach, however, is very demanding. Frankly, I am quite skeptical of those who purport to consistently follow it. Most of us in actual practice, I think, use some other approach.
A Revelation Portfolio: Frank McIntyre has suggested a rather ingenious argument based the idea of risk and uncertainty. To use an analogy different from Frankâ€™s, we argue that picking truly prophetic statements is rather like picking stocks. It is virtually impossible to figure out with certainty in advance which stocks will be winners and which will be losers. The implication of this insight, however, is not that one should never invest in stocks. Rather, the conclusion is that one should invest in lots of stocks and diversify your portfolio. Some stocks will win, some stocks will lose, but so long as the aggregate performance of the portfolio beats out inflation and interest, you are a winner. By the same token, one could simply treat every prophetic statement as representing privileged access to the divine. Sometimes one will be mistaken, but so long as you think that on average the prophets have superior access to the divine than you do you will be a net winner. Hence, prophetic statements are like stocks in a diversified portfolio. Some are winners, some are losers. It doesnâ€™t matter so long as you are beating the alternatives.
The Presumption of Correctness: The law frequent solves difficult empirical questions by creating rules that set up presumptions. The most famous is the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, but there are lots of other presumptions. For example, if a person breaches a contract he or she is assumed to be aware (and therefore responsible) only for the damages that might â€œreasonablyâ€? flow from that breach. However, this presumption can be overcome. A disappointed promisee who because of idiosyncratic circumstances suffered a huge loss may recover her damages if she can show that she communicated the possibility of those damages to the promisor. One could approach prophetic access to the divine the same way. One would assume that prophetic messages are generally resting on some privileged access to the mind of God. However, in the face of unusually compelling evidence to the contrary â€“ e.g. extremely strong moral objections, unusually powerful personal revelation, and the like â€“ one would conclude that prophetic counsel is not inspired. The problem with this solution is that it is a bit mushy and is perpetually in danger of sliding into the circularity of the â€œTruth is the Standardâ€? approach.
The Coherence Solution: Finally, one could argue for a coherence solution to the problem of recognition. Here the idea is that one figures out the status of prophetic statements by seeing how well they fit into an overall understanding of the gospel, history, etc. To borrow a favorite metaphor from legal philosophy, you think of your understanding of the Gospel as a serial novel in which you are composing the latest chapter by interpreting the prophetsâ€™ words. What you want to do is offer an interpretation of those words that makes the novel as a whole the best that it can be. Hence, one understands as inspired those statements that make the story as a whole â€œthe best.â€? For example, one might argue that understanding the 1978 revelation on the priesthood as inspired provides the best â€œplot lineâ€? for Mormonism, while understanding some of Brighamâ€™s statements about the Mark of Cain in the same way does not. The point here is not that one should â€œwhitewashâ€? history. It is not a theory of how one reports the past, but rather of how one interprets particular statements. There are a number of problems with this approach as well. It can easily fall into the trap of circularity ,as interpretation gives way to simply accepting or discarding statements on the basis of oneâ€™s pre-existing beliefs. Also, it requires that oneâ€™s interpretations remain forever tentative because you donâ€™t know the next chapter of the story. An interpretation that you thought provided the best account today may turn out to be entirely mistaken based on what happens tomorrow. Perhaps â€œAdam-God is inspiredâ€? was the best interpretation in 1870. It might not be the best interpretation today.
There are no doubt lots of other options, but this post is already way, way too long. However, I think it provides a framework to start really thinking about these issues. Clearly, one cannot simply say â€œprophets arenâ€™t infallibleâ€? and assume that one has disposed of the issue anymore than one can assume that asserting that prophets are inspired sorts out all of the difficulties.