[The Crucible of Doubt can be purchased from the FairMormon Bookstore.]
Within the past year, the Church published an article addressing the fact that for a long period in the Church’s history, black men were not allowed to be ordained to the priesthood.[i] The article acknowledged that leaders of the Church gave explanations for the ban that we now recognize as being incorrect. For some people, this article has raised as many questions as it answered. While many have experienced a sense of relief in seeing the Church disavow explanations for the ban that denigrated those of African descent, others have experienced a new sense of anxiety over the question of the extent to which we can rely on the teachings of the prophets and apostles. And to what extent can we be confident that the policies adopted by the Church are ordained of God?
Terryl and Fiona Givens directly addressed the question of prophetic infallibility in their book Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. Terryl Givens has earlier, if only briefly, addressed this question, in his “Letter to a Doubter.”[ii] In their new book, the Givenses expand on this issue. The “Letter to a Doubter” essentially limited itself to a discussion of the fact that prophets are human, and humans make mistakes. However, chapter six of The Crucible of Doubt goes into more depth regarding the principles of delegation of authority and prophets as agents for God.
The concept of God delegating his authority to men on Earth and making them His agents, who act on His behalf, is not a new one. However, the Givenses discuss the concept in a way that may help illuminate the mechanism by which prophets act on God’s behalf and why doing so does not ensure that mistakes will not be made by God’s agents.
The title of chapter six is “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh.” This title is a reference to the story of Joseph of Egypt:
When Joseph of the many-colored coat had gained Pharaoh’s complete trust and confidence, “Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand.” With this gesture, Pharaoh transferred his own power and authority to the former Hebrew slave. “Without your consent,” the Pharaoh told him, “no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”[iii]
Of course, when authority is delegated, it does not mean that the agent will always do precisely what is intended by the one delegating authority. This is obvious in the context of human interactions. However, we sometimes may hope and expect that when God delegates authority to a prophet, that the human in this scenario will somehow rise to the level of perfection inhabited by the one who has delegated the authority; that if one is acting for God, one will act like God. However, the scriptures do not give us this assurance.
In fact, the scriptures provide plenty of examples of prophets making mistakes and acting in ways that could be considered ungodly. For example, Moses disobeyed God’s instruction to speak to the rock and instead hit it. He then attributed the miracle to himself and Aaron, saying, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” He was chastised by the Lord afterward. (Numbers 20.) Nathan told David that the Lord approved of his desire to build a temple, and that he should commence the project. The Lord later told Nathan that such was not His desire, and that he was to tell David that the temple would be built by another. (2 Samuel 7.) And Jonah felt some personal prejudices against Assyrians, to the point of expecting the Lord to give them fewer blessings than to Jews. (Jonah 4.)
So prophets can guide us and direct us, but they can also test our faith, not just in calling us to live on a higher plane, but also in demonstrating that they do not always reach a higher plane themselves. In light of this, the Givenses note:
And if delegation is a real principle—if God really does endow mortals with the authority to act in His place and with His authority, even while He knows they will not act with infallible judgment—then it becomes clearer why God is asking us to receive the words of the prophet “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.”[iv]
Of course, most of us are familiar with the observation made by Joseph Smith that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such” (HC 5:265). We also often hear repeated the scripture, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38.) When these two statements are considered at once, we may tend to think that if we can just determine whether or not a prophet is acting as a prophet, or as God’s “servant,” we will know whether or not we can consider his words to be the infallible words of God. It may seem that if the president of the Church makes a statement that we later learn to be untrue, or enacts a policy that seems to have been mistaken, we can find comfort in the notion that the man may not have been acting on behalf of God on those occasions. This becomes more difficult, however, when a statement is made, or a policy announced, in General Conference, or on Church letterhead along with the signatures or other members of the First Presidency.
But perhaps in thinking this, we have misunderstood the principle of delegation of authority. For example, while there are statements that have been understood to mean that prophets, or God’s servants, cannot err when acting as God’s servants, the scriptures themselves undercut this interpretation. For example, while D&C Section 1 says “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,” a few verses earlier, we read:
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. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
(D&C 1:24-28; emphasis added).
Another commonly quoted statement in support of the concept of prophetic inerrancy is that of Wilford Woodruff, when, speaking of abandoning the practice of polygamy, he said:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. [v]
However, in addition to the aforementioned reasons to doubt that this statement supports the view that prophets cannot make mistakes, Elders Packer and Uchtdorf have given us additional reasons to doubt this conclusion. Elder Uchtdorf said, “This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny.”[vi] Elder Packer added that “…even with the best of intentions, it [the governance of the Church by mortal priesthood holders] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.”[vii] In other words, while leaders can make mistakes, God will not allow the leaders to utterly destroy the work of the latter-day Church or cause the members to lose their opportunity to receive exaltation.
So when God says that the prophet is His agent on Earth, perhaps He is not saying that, when acting as the prophet, the man will always do exactly what God wants any more than by giving Joseph his ring, Pharaoh was assuring the people of Egypt that Joseph would always do exactly what Pharaoh would have done in his place. Right or wrong, the people of Egypt were to consider Joseph’s actions to be the actions of Pharaoh and were to be bound by Joseph’s words and actions as if they were the words and actions of Pharaoh.
Of course, this principle is not limited to the delegation of authority to a prophet. The Givenses ask “If a bishop makes a decision without inspiration, are we bound to sustain the decision?” And what if an apostle makes a mistake in calling a stake president?
The story is told of a Church official who returned from installing a new stake presidency. “Dad, do you Brethren feel confident when you call a man as the stake president that he is the Lord’s man?” the official’s son asked upon his father’s return home. “No, not always,” he replied. “But once we call him, he becomes the Lord’s man.” The answer disconcerts initially. Is this not hubris, to expect God’s sanction for a decision made in error? Perhaps. It is also possible that the reply reveals the only understanding of delegation that is viable.[viii]
The Givenses continue by observing:
If God honored only those decisions made in perfect accord with His perfect wisdom, then His purposes would require leaders who were utterly incapable of misconstruing His intention, who never missed hearing the still small voice, who were unerringly and unfailingly a perfect conduit for heaven’s inspiration. And it would render the principle of delegation inoperative. The Pharaoh didn’t say to Joseph, your authority extends as far as you anticipate perfectly what I would do in every instance. He gave Joseph his ring…. And after calling Joseph Smith to his mission, the Lord didn’t say, I will stand by you as long as you never err in judgment. He said, “Thou wast called and chosen. . . . Devote all thy service in Zion; and . . . lo, I am with thee, even unto the end.”[ix]
In light of all this, what are we to believe, ask the Givenses, when confronted by “faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban).”[x] In response, they quote the Anglican churchman Austin Farrer, who said “Facts are not determined by authority. Authority can make law to be law; authority cannot make facts to be facts.”[xi] To this, they add the words of Henry Eyring, who once quoted his father as saying, “in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”[xii]
Of course, while we may harbor misgivings in our minds regarding some policy, teaching or practice, how are we to act when confronted with doubts about whether or not an agent of God is actually doing God’s will? In response to this issue, Farrer is again quoted: “If Peter and his colleagues make law in applying the Lord’s precepts, . . . their law is the law of Christ’s Church, the best (if you will) that God’s Spirit can make with human instruments there and then, and, as such, to be obeyed as the will of God Himself. But to call Peter infallible in this connection is to misplace an epithet.”[xiii]
To carry the metaphor of agency and delegation further, we can consider the legal realm. What recourse exists against a principle when the agent causes some harm? Under the doctrine of agency law, if a person is injured by an agent who is acting under the authority of the principle, the principle will be liable for the harm and is required to set things right. Of course, while all wrongs and injustices have not yet been set right in this imperfect world, Christ has already paid the price for such wrongs. In other words, the miracle of delegation of divine authority does not ensure that the agent will always act according to God’s will. Rather, it ensures that God will guarantee the actions of the agent, and if the actions are wrong, through Christ’s atonement, all will be made right in the end. Indeed, even those things that can cause fear, doubt and pain can be made to benefit us in the end:
One comfort is to be found in a God whose power is in His magnanimity as well as His wisdom. These two traits mean that His divine energies are spent not in precluding chaos but in reordering it, not in preventing suffering but in alchemizing it, not in disallowing error but in transmuting it into goodness.[xiv]
Even the agents of God, even when acting as God’s agents, can cause fear, pain and confusion in this world. Although this may frustrate us, it does not frustrate God’s plan. In closing, we are reminded that the words of God’s servants can provide comfort and direction, even when counseling us regarding the imperfect words and actions of God’s servants themselves:
“Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with,” reminds Elder Jeffrey Holland. “That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.” Generosity with our own inept attempts to serve and minister to each other in a lay church, charity toward those in leadership who, as President Dieter Uchtdorf noted, have “said or done [things] that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine,” and faith in Christ’s Atonement that makes up the human deficit—these could be the balm of Gilead for which both wounded disciples and striving leaders seek.[xv]
[ii] Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146. An audio version was published on FairMormon Blog.
[iii] Terryl Givens & Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 73, citing Genesis 41:42 & 44, NRSV.
[iv] Givens & Givens, 75, citing D&C 21:5 (emphasis added).
[v] Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, 6 October 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News (11 October 1890): 2; cited in LDS scriptures after Official Declaration 1.
[vi] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join With Us,” general conference, October 2013.
[vii] Boyd K. Packer, “”I Say unto You, Be One,'” in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84, emphasis added.
[viii] Givens & Givens, 75-76, citing a personal conversation reported to authors by Robert L. Millet.
[ix] Ibid., 76, quoting D&C 24:1, 7, 8.
[x] Ibid., 74.
[xi] Ibid., 74, quoting Austin Farrer, “Infallibility and Historical Tradition,” in The Truth-Seeking Heart, ed. Ann Loades and Robert MacSwain (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 83.
[xii] Ibid., 74, quoting Henry J. Eyring, Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 4.
[xiii] Ibid., 74-75, quoting Farrer, “Infallibility,” 83–84.
[xiv] Ibid., 78.
[xv] Ibid., 82, quoting Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013, 94 and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013, 22.
How does one differentiate between a false prophet and a true prophet who is just making mistakes?
Treadmillfan: Great question. This question was addressed in General Conference last weekend by Elders Nelson and Anderson (and perhaps others as well). As you may know, Elder Nelson spoke about the prophetic call of President Monson. Along the lines of what the Givenses have written about delegation of authority, Elder Nelson noted that one way in which we know that President Monson is the prophet is by virtue of the fact that he has been ordained as such through the process that has been established for ordaining a modern prophet:
Elder Anderson spoke about Joseph Smith and provided a number of ways in which we can gain confidence in his calling as a true prophet. First, he noted that there are many character witnesses of Joseph Smith, as well as witnesses of angels and plates. He also explained that we can know that Joseph Smith was a prophet by virtue of the fruits that have come from his work. (“By their fruits ye shall know them.”) Some of these include a world-wide Church and new works of scripture. Nevertheless, these kinds of evidences should not stand alone. Elder Anderson said:
He went on to explain that there are many ways available to us to develop the spiritual knowledge that Joseph Smith (and other Latter-day Church leaders) are called of God:
While I generically like what the Givens write and I was excited about this book, I was disappointed with how they addressed this issue. First, regarding what you called the doctrine of agency law, the freedom from ultimate legal liability does not release one from the moral obligation of raising ones concerns to the principle in charge, especially when it seems as if people are at risk of harm. As a young engineer, I recognize that my limited understanding may contribute to a misunderstanding about potential risks. However, if the project principle tells me to do something that to the best of my knowledge will put others at serious risk of harm, it is my moral obligation to bring my concerns to the principle. If the principle is not willing to discuss my concerns or seems to shrug them off without serious consideration, I do not throw up my hands and accept the fact that he is legally liable. It my moral obligation to continually petition until either my concerns are addressed or my error is clearly pointed out.
Another problem I see is that we often cite the scripture that one can know a prophet by their fruits. However, this explanation seems to say that the fruits of a prophet are largely irrelevant. Instead, it seems to suggest that it is the office that matters and that even if a prophet produces some harmful fruit, the prophet is still a prophet by virtue of the office alone. Not only does this imply that prophets cannot fall from grace, but it also seems to go against the instructions that Christ gave when determining true prophets.
Finally, it seems like you and the Givens acknowledge that the prophets sometimes think they are acting as prophets and think that they are being led by the spirit but are mistaken. However, if the prophet can be mistaken when they think they are being led by the spirit, then that raises questions about the reliability of our ability to interpret or recognize the spirit in the first place. In the LDS paradigm, the reason we believe in a prophet in the first place is because of the spirit. However, if even the prophet cannot be sure when he is being led by the spirit, then it seems just as likely that we too could be mistaken about what we think the spirit is telling us, namely that the leader of the Church is a prophet. While I am okay with the idea that we should have some level of skepticism about our spiritual experiences and how we interpret them, it does on some level undermine the absolute certainty that is expressed by the leaders of the Church when proclaiming what they believe is the will of the Lord.
jerikmccarthy : I am a bit confused by your question about the principle-agent relationship. When I and the Givenses used the analogy, we did so placing God, a perfect being, in the role of principle. It seems that you have shifted the analogy so that the principle is the prophet, an imperfect being. So, while in my analogy, the principle never makes a mistake, in yours, the principle is fallible. Also, you also seem to have misunderstood the law regarding principle and agent liability. The fact that a principle is liable does not release the agent from liability. It’s just that often, it is not very helpful to pursue a remedy against the agent. For example, if the prophet makes a mistake, the prophet may be utterly incapable of correcting the mistake. (The prophet may have passed away, for example.) However, God can correct the prophet’s mistake.
What it seems that you are really asking is what responsibility do we have, as agents, to refuse to do something that the prophet has asked us to do, as a principle, when it will place others at a serious risk of harm. This raises the question: how do you know you are right and God’s prophet is wrong? Do you know because of your study of the scriptures? By personal revelation? By revelation communicated by other modern prophets? By human reasoning? By some combination of all of these? I would have a higher level of confidence in my knowledge if it was a combination of all of these rather than by virtue of one of these alone. And it is hard for me to imagine that all of these would combine to demonstrate that a modern prophet is directing me to act in a way that would harm others in violation of God’s will.
But assuming you somehow know better than the prophet does what God’s will is, I would think that you are correct, that you would have a responsibility to bring your knowledge to the attention of the prophet, or his designated representatives. And if the prophet’s directive to you does not change, I suppose you would have the responsibility to refrain from acting in a way that harms others. Note, however, that I would think this would only apply to you personally. In other words, if what you “know to be true” is that you should be directing the members of the Church to act in a way that is contrary to what the prophet has directed, that is a clear sign that you have misunderstood the guidance you believe you have received from God. The Holy Ghost does not direct individuals to act in ways that are contrary to the voice of His prophet when the prophet’s directions are combined with and supported by the scriptures, human reason, and the combined voices of the other prophets and apostles.
You next ask if it is inconsistent to say that a prophet can make mistakes, but at the same time say that we are to know a true prophet by his fruits. You seem to be saying that either a prophet will always produce good fruit, or he is not a prophet. However, try exploring the “fruits analogy” at bit further. Would you say that a tree that produces an occasional bad fruit is a bad tree, and cut it down? I would think not. So I think the key here is to take the fruits of the tree as a whole and not get too caught up over the occasional sour or worm-ridden apple.
Finally, you state: “In the LDS paradigm, the reason we believe in a prophet in the first place is because of the spirit. However, if even the prophet cannot be sure when he is being led by the spirit, then it seems just as likely that we too could be mistaken about what we think the spirit is telling us, namely that the leader of the Church is a prophet.” In response, let me first point out that in my response to this comment and in my response to the one preceding it, I hope I have clarified that personal revelation is not the sole way in which we come to know that a prophet is a prophet. (Of course, the subject of this blog post also helps to clarify this point.) We also know a prophet is a prophet by virtue of their fruits, by virtue of the way in which their actions and words are consistent with the scriptures and the other modern prophets, by virtue of those who are witnesses and who have borne testimony of their prophetic calling, and by virtue of the fact that they have been called and set apart according to the process that has been ordained as appropriate in the Latter-days for calling a prophet.
With respect to the narrow question of how we can know when we are actually hearing the voice of God, FairMormon has published an article here: http://blog.fairlatterdaysaints.org/2011/08/28/fair-questions-2-recognizing-the-voice-of-the-spirit/
Also, it may help to reconsider what the Givenes have written in chapter six of their book:
Whoops, my bad on the misinterpreting of the analogy. Although I do think my misinterpretation is a closer approximation of the the type of attitude that is taught and believed in the church by the members and leaders– namely that people are not liable for their actions if done under the direction of the leaders of the Church. This comes from the often repeated quote “always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” That being said, the analogy you present is more nuanced, so I apologize for misreading it.
It seems like the core of the disagreement I (and many others) have is this: If one sincerely believes after pray, study, reasoning that certain teachings from the leaders did not come from from the Holy Ghost and that those teachings put people at risk, then one has a moral and spiritual obligation to not just limit the harm on a personal level, but to raise concerns to others who may be at risk or may be causing harm to others. Silencing one’s concerns does not seem like the moral action, and seems to go against the what we as members have been raised to do–proclaim what we believe to be true and let the consequence follow. To imply that one should no longer do that when it is not convenient to the Church seems to be disingenuous at best. The reasoning you provided for this self censorship is that “the Holy Ghost does not direct individuals to act in ways that are contrary to the voice of His prophet when the prophet’s directions are combined with and supported by the scriptures, human reason, and the combined voices of the other prophets and apostles.” However, this litmus test is vague, based on a selective interpretation of scripture, and not historically defensible in my opinion. It seems like a repackaging of the belief that our leaders are infallible, it just adds the asterisk “*when they are in agreement with each other, supported by the scriptures, and it makes sense”. This seems to be a recent, non doctrinal innovation used to explain away some quotes from leaders that do not fit into what we believe today. The easiest counterpoint would be the theological justifications for the priesthood and temple bans, which were taught by many leaders over the course of a few generations, which were confidently based on certain interpretations of scriptures, and which seemed reasonable to the leaders and most members of the church at the time they were taught. These theological teachings were obviously harmful to blacks and they were harmful to others because it cultivated and reinforced dangerous racial attitudes and codified them into the LDS worldview for generations.
If you believe that there is a God and that this is His Church, then I hope you can see how campaigning against God’s Church would be a bad idea for many reasons. I have not said in any fashion that leaders are infallible. But I do wish to be clear that I think that God is infallible. And if His agents make mistakes, He is well-enough able to remedy those mistakes without my stepping in to correct His prophets. Furthermore, if I were to step forward to correct His prophets, not only would it be a sign that I had stepped out of line and gone astray, but there would also be the possibility that people might actually believe me, that God’s prophets were wrong, and I might thereby lead others astray from His Church and from salvation as well.
As you may know, David O. McKay felt at one point that the priesthood ban should be discontinued. As he sought revelation on the matter, he felt that he received the answer that it was not yet time to end the ban. I’m sure it must have been painful for many people to allow the ban to continue. I’m sure David O. McKay realized this. But he also had the wisdom to know that God’s ways are not our ways. There is much pain in this world that cannot be explained simply in terms of mistakes of men. And for some reason, God allows us to experience this pain. While we may not know why, we do know that this life is meant to be a test and that it is meant to help us grow. And we know that God loves us. If God relieved us of all pain in this world, the purposes of this existence would be frustrated. So, I do not think that seeking to relieve pain trumps all other considerations, such as that of following the system God has ordained for the administration of his Church. Again, if you find yourself at odds with the prophet, I would suggest that you should be very careful to consider how it is that you think you know more than the man who was chosen to be the mouthpiece of God.
In recent years I have sought inspiration from outside of mainstream Mormonism, especially from NDE literature and the writings of Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. These have in many ways complimented my LDS beliefs, but I now realize truth is found in many sources and God is using various methods to reach people. I particularly like Swedenborg’s characterisation of the human condition, which describes us as lovers of self and lovers of the natural. He discloses how man has lost the knowledge of the ancient Church, where celestial things were understood by their correspondence with nature. The attribute of a Celestial spirit is to love The Lord first and foremost and to claim nothing good of oneself. This relates to the topic of the post. I believe that all mortals, prophets, or not, suffer from the two sins of loving self and the world, to varying degrees and this will effect the light and knowledge they can receive. Also, the reasoning of man is based on the senses and man based knowledge, or knowledge based on memory, as opposed to celestial wisdom. Many of the LDS teachings we struggle with may have their origins in knowledge we no longer have access to and may not make sense to the reasognin of the natural man. I believe our leaders make mistakes because they are not pure couduits of heavenly wisdom. They sometimes fail to acknowledge this because of the love of self and fear of the loss of reputation, or in other words, love of the world.