Understanding revelation

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Understanding revelation


Purpose of Revelation

Revelation for Latter-day Saints is given for the purpose of drawing all mankind into a community of believers, united by special promises made between them and God called covenants, and guided into one heart and mind to becoming like God. All scriptures, from the Holy Bible to the Book of Mormon, from the Doctrine and Covenants to the Pearl of Great Price, have testified that all mankind may be gathered together into Zion, the community of believers as said before, and unite them in a common purpose to make themselves become more like God by emulating his attributes and inviting others to do the same. God knew that not all people would be able to fulfill these demands. Latter-day Saints believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ effectuated the means by which a person could repent of their sins and be brought back to the covenant people in full fellowship. All revelation is given to show people what God's attributes are, invite them to live according to who God is, to invite those people to invite others to live by who God is, to bring people into that group, and to thus stand in one heart and mind in indwelling love and unity one with another by virtue of having one purpose and means of bringing about that purpose.

Revelation comes through a variety of means or methods.

As expressed in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

TYPES OF REVELATION. A dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a series of personal revelations from God. These revelations may be direct manifestations from God, as in the following typical cases:

1. theophanies (seeing God face-to-face), as in the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which came at the beginning of the present dispensation (JS-H 1:15-20)

2. revealed knowledge from the Father that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:13-17; see also Spirit of Prophecy)

3. visitations of angelic persons, such as the appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:30-32)

4. revelations through the Urim and Thummim, by which means Joseph Smith translated the book of mormon

5. open visions, as when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were shown the kingdoms of the hereafter (see Doctrine and Covenants: Section 76)

6. physically hearing the voice of God, as is recorded in 3 Nephi 11

7. receiving the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, as in the experience of Elijah (1 Kgs. 19);

8. receiving the gifts of the spirit (D&C 46)

9. having a burning in the bosom as an indication of the will of God, as in the explanation given to Oliver Cowdery (D&C 9:8)

10. dreams (1 Ne. 8:2-32)

11. manifestations of the Light of Christ, by which all men know good from evil (Alma 12:31-32; D&C 84:46-48).

Such direct manifestations of the mind and will of God are known as gifts and are contrasted with signs. Gifts always have a spiritual component, even when they have a physical aspect. Signs are physical manifestations of the power of God and are a form of revelation from God, though they may be counterfeited and misinterpreted. Signs may show that God is at work, but spiritual gifts are required to know how one should respond.[1]

Revelation through natural means

Revelation is inextricably tied to the human processes we all possess as children of God. This includes our ability to hear, see, feel, and understand. Revelation is given by the power of the Holy Ghost (Alma 5:46; Moroni 10:8, 13-14, 17-18).

Recording and expanding on revelation

Revelation can be given for the first time and then, after its initial dispensation, be added to or expanded, revised, rescinded, clarified, or synthesized via additional revelation. In this way, revelation is like a dialogue between God and mankind. The best way to understand what revelation from God is trying to communicate to us is to read revelation recorded in scripture contextually and holistically so we can carefully take note of the additions, revisions, clarifications, etc. and thus come to accurate conclusions about what God's message is to us today.

Revelation for Latter-day Saints can be recorded on or otherwise be present in a variety of documents. For Latter-day Saints, a variety of genres of documents are contained in the scriptures. These include letters, journal/diary or notebook extracts, meeting minutes, dictated revelations, histories, genealogies, poetry, proclamations or official declarations, news releases/public statements, and more. Even more kinds of documents in which revelation may be present are book chapters or whole books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, general conference addresses, patriarchal blessings, sacrament meeting talks, and more. The duty of every Latter-day Saint is to defend those documents and particularly those parts deemed to have their origins in divine revelation as true as much as humanly possible.

Revelation is given in a particular historical context.

No revelation occurs in a vacuum. That is, no revelation is given to a prophet without a historical context, and by the same token a particular set of needs, concerns, and pressing events on the prophet leading his people at any given time. This context is either described by the text (as with the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Pearl of Great Price) or by historical research (as it is generally in the Doctrine and Covenants). This historical context is crucial to understand since the authority of a particular revelation may have only been necessary during the historical context in question. Perhaps this is what is the Lord meant in D&C 46:15 when he states that he "[suits] his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men." This is why we can have doctrines that are revealed yet not ideal (i.e. something to be updated later) such as the legal systems of the Old Testament.

Since every revelation has a historical context and a particular language with which it is expressed , it is helpful to be familiar with the culture and language in which that revelation was produced (a specific injunction for which is found in D&C 88:77-79).

Revelation is also accommodated to the particular needs and immediate concerns of the agent receiving it as discussed before. As such the Lord has worked through diverse means to bring about particular outcomes. This means that some things that have been revealed have only been provisional or implemented in case of contingency (see below under "What can change through revelation?" for a fuller discussion of this). This does not mean that prophets cannot overcome their historical circumstances through revelation in at least some regards. They logically have to in order to provide us soteriological or eschatological knowledge. But the point is that even that revelation comes in a historical context.

As the Lord states in Doctrine and Covenants 56:4:

"Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good...".

Latter-day Saint doctrine states that it is a spiritual gift to understand the "diversity of operations" of the Lord D&C 46:16

The language of revelation

Every revelation is provided using the language of the person receiving it, which is why we have Hebrew influence in the Old Testament, Hebrew and Egyptian influence in the Book of Mormon, and Jacobean, 19th century English in the Doctrine and Covenants (2 Nephi 31:3).

Because revelation is trying to describe a perfect being with fallen language, revelation is also accommodated to the languagof the agent receiving it as well as that agent's current understanding of God. For instance, we learn that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5), yet how can he be jealous and perfect? The Doctrine and Covenants tells us to strip ourselves from jealousies (D&C 67:10).

This isn't to say that either scripture is "more correct" in how they portray God—only that they are expressing the character, will, and acts of a perfect being through imperfect language so that we can approach an understanding of him.

Another example is the Battle of Gideon in the tenth chapter of the Book of Joshua, Joshua asks God to stop the sun so that the day was lengthened and Israelites won the battle. Read literally, this story implies that the sun was moving and God made it stop moving. Today, we know that the earth orbits around the sun rather than the other way around. So what's going on? God is accommodating the Israelites geocentric view of our solar system to communicate a divine message/miracle. This is important: culture indeed is embedded into all revelation; but it does not fundamentally override the divine origin of that revelation nor the ability that revelation has to communicate accurate truths about God and the world around us.

A final example might be how Scripture consistently uses the word "man" to refer to "male and female"— typical of ordinary conversation then and now. This has understandably drawn some discomfort from female readers of the scriptures—feeling that this might be an example of soft sexism in Scripture. Of course, the scriptures do mean to include both males and females in their messages when saying "man" or "mankind", but typical linguistic conventions were used to communicate that divine message.

The Doctrine and Covenants itself announces that:

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.DC 1:24

So since people can't learn all that there is to know about God in one revelation, God simply seeks to bring knowledge about himself to that person seeking revelation while not revealing all at once. He reveals himself "line upon line." Just as a teacher teaching 101 students cannot teach them 405 concepts without the 101 students being confused, so God must accommodate learning about him to the cultural context of the agent seeking knowledge about him through revelation.

There is no one perfect way to express revelation

Brigham Young (who authored one of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants—DC 136:) described the process in similar terms:

I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities...

The laws that the Lord has given are not fully perfect, because the people could not receive them in their perfect fullness; but they can receive a little here and a little there, a little today and a little to-morrow, a little more next week, and a little more in advance of that next year, if they make a wise improvement upon every little they receive... [2]

And, there were even times when others besides Joseph were assigned to collaborate in writing the revelations—clear evidence that there was not "only one true" way of expressing a revelation. (See DC 124:12-16.)

Revelation is sometimes given "from the top, down."

Revelation is sometimes given "from the top, down." God reveals things suddenly, out of the blue, indepedent of our own cognition. These things generally overcome our present knowledge to give us knowledge about the future or knowledge about individuals that we wouldn’t otherwise have. He gives us gifts, he reveals sacred information through prayers or blessings, he gives miracles. This may properly be referred to as "top-down revelation" where the Lord is placing the agent receiving the revelation in the mental state that he/or she needs to be to accomplish a particular task. This type of revelation is most sacred to Latter-day Saints. It increases our confidence that revelation is not "all in our heads" so to speak.

If revelation like this didn't exist, nothing would be "revealed" in any traditional sense and could easily be construed as self-delusion or deception. It would make it so that no law could be given that could then be subsequently subverted with claims that revelation is simply men following the dictates of their own bias. It would undermine any type of authority from revelation which we need for crucial practices and doctrines such as commandments, obedience, and repentance.

Revelation is sometimes a matter of going "from the bottom, up".

Often revelation does require that we first study something out in our mind (D&C 9:8). As President Russell M. Nelson has recently stated

. . .I know that good inspiration is based upon good information. . .[3]

Once we have studied an issue out in our mind, it is then up to the spirit to decide which will be the best for the future. Sometimes it will confirm what we have studied out and sometimes it will cause a "stupor of thought" (D&C 9:9)

Preserving revelation

How successful revelation is depends entirely on the agent who receives it and how willing they are to receive, interpret, and record/transmit that revelation as faithfully as possible. Such is why the Book of Mormon so strongly emphasizes the need to keep good records of God's dealings with his children. Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints that:

9 It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of—a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?

Thus, how authoritatively the Bible reads may be read differently than how, say, the Doctrine and Covenants reads — where the former relies primarily on oral tradition, memory, and preserved written records to do history that approaches the original revelation and the latter relies primarily on Joseph Smith simply dictating the words that he feels impressed to dictate and having a scribe record it in real-time. This does not mean that the Doctrine and Covenants constitutes "fax-from-God" revelation (i.e. infallibilism), but simply that it is read more authoritatively than the Bible. One will readily see, however, that the emendations to the Doctrine and Covenants do not change the core integrity/idea of the first revelation. If they do, then they remove knowledge that wouldn't be relevant to future Latter-day Saints.

Keep in mind as well that just because a revelation is not recorded nor included in the canon of scripture of the Latter-day Saints, that a revelation was not received. For example, the teachings of Alma to his son Corianton are not expressed in Alma 40 as a dictated revelation from God. Rather, it is clearly just items of instruction from Alma to his son. Just because a revelation is not recorded here nor included in the Book of Mormon, does not necessarily mean that Alma's teachings did not come from revelation. We thus need to be careful of not making the mistake that just because something is not expressed as a revelation that a revelation isn't behind those teachings. There may be no revelation behind such teachings but there may be one.

Revelation is given to prophets "line upon line; precept upon precept"

"Line upon line" has two features:

  1. It reveals core truths over time directly to the prophet.
  2. It makes small addenda to a few previous revelations without threatening the core integrity of the first revelation—immediately suggesting its sometimes corrective nature—and the original revelation being an accommodation to the first people receiving it. This is perhaps what the Lord meant to express in D&C 46:15 when he states that he "[suits] his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men."

An example of this is found in Doctrine and Covenants 19. It states:

6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my glory.

[. . .]

10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore

11 Eternal punishment is God's punishment.

12 Endless punishment is God's punishment.

What can change through revelation?

It becomes the question of some from time to time how we can know what is subject to change and what is not subject to change. The Lord tells us in Doctrine and Covenants 56:4:

4 Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.

Some are concerned by this scripture as it seems to indicate that there is no stable, objective conception of morality that the Lord conforms his commandments to—suggesting that morality may be relative or arbitrary. But this is not the case for a few reasons. The first of these is that there are many different ways to fulfill the same moral end or good. One can, for example, buy flowers or chocolates for their significant other on valentine's day and, in either case, fulfill the moral end or good of making their significant other feel happy, loved, and appreciated. The second is that different commandments and ways of structuring our behavior can emphasize the fulfillment of different moral goods/ends that hold more urgency at a given moment in time given a set of circumstances. We all face moments in time—individually, at the group level, and collectively—where we are unsure of what the greater good is. Do we go outside and play ball with our son who has asked us to play with him and fulfill the moral good of bonding with our children? Or do we stay inside to finish a book manuscript that will help put food on the table and fulfill the moral good of providing for our family? These are the type of question that, at different times, require revelation to answer. Such is why the Lord must sometimes change commandments.

Prepare to receive revelation

We are commanded to treasure up the words of God in our minds. He promises us that they will tell us all things we might do or say in the moment of need (see 2 Nephi 32:3 and D&C 84:85). He promises also that as we study issues out in our mind and ask for confirmation that he will give it (D&C 9:7-9)

As taught in the Doctrine and Covenants "And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed." (D&C 1:26) We must all be active in our search for revelation on any given matter. God does intervene frequently however. The best way to understand under what circumstances is to read the scriptures and the words of the prophets themselves and judge the matter for ourselves. It does seem that God is revealing new knowledge on a very frequent basis from reading their words.

However, we should not seek revelation on every single issue we have to decide. The Lord said in Doctrine and Covenants 58:27:

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

What will be revealed

States the Apostle Paul: "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 Cor 13:12).

Elder David A. Bednar compares this pattern of light to walking through fog on a sunny day (and also reveals other patterns of light), where we have just enough light to press into the darkness but not so much as to know exactly where we are going. Eventually, as the Doctrine of Covenants teaches, all will be revealed at the second coming (Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34)--the light will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24).

Revelation always comes at a time of common necessity and not common demand. We may demand that a particular thing bend to our political view or whim, however that is not how the Lord operates. As Alma teaches:

21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?

Some believe that if they put enough pressure on the Church that it will change its doctrines regarding things which do not conform to their particular political agenda. If such people actually wanted to build a Zion of "one heart and one mind" (Moses 7:18; Doctrine and Covenants 38:27) they would not seek to build strife in the kingdom and seek more compromise, more patience, and deeper study. They would not seek to subvert authority to follow the God of their own image (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).

We act in doctrine (D&C 101:78). We accept the light we have received now and receive whatever additional future light is given with gladness. If one does not act in accordance to the commandments of God, such is sin.


Notes

  1. Chauncey R. Riddle, "Revelation," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 6 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992; 2007), 3:1225.
  2. Brigham Young, "The Kingdom Of God," (8 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 2:314.
  3. Russell M. Nelson, "Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives," Ensign 48, no. 4 (April 2018): 94.