Monday, March 28, 2011

Is the Prophet Infallible?

Last Saturday, Peggy Fletcher Stack did what she always does in the run up to General Conference. She writes a story for the Salt Lake Tribune that is provocative to get members of the Church all stirred up and buzzing among themselves over some quasi-doctrinal topic of her choosing. Her writing genius is that she manages to make it critical and embarrassing enough to satisfy her readership in the “alternative” newspaper in Salt Lake City. She seems to delight in coming up with good fodder for conversation and controversy. Let’s be honest – controversy sells well in the public marketplace these days.
President Thomas S. Monson

I had three people send me e-mails asking for my comments about the article. See? It works. We’re talking about it. That’s good marketing strategy, and it’s bound to sell newspapers. However, (deep breath now), I don't remember ever consulting the Deseret Morning News or the Salt Lake Tribune as my source of truth even once in my entire life, and I’m not likely to begin at this late date.

The real underlying issue here has nothing to do with what I believe about whether or not the prophet is infallible. Rather, it has everything to do with our doctrine as a Church.

Ask yourselves, in all your lives as members of the Church, having attended your meetings, gone to Seminary and Institute classes, sat in as many gospel doctrine classes as I have, taught the gospel principles as missionaries and teachers, have you ever once – just one time, ever – heard anyone assert in this Church that the prophet, the prophet, seer and revelator, the president of the high priesthood, the president of the Church was infallible and that everything, every single word he speaks, or every word he writes, and I mean EVERYTHING was beyond even the possibility of error or revision?

Has anyone ever taught you the prophet was infallible, couldn’t make a mistake, couldn’t teach a false doctrine, or couldn’t misspeak on matters of doctrine? EVER?

Just ponder that question for a moment and let’s review some fundamental principles and truths. At least it is possible theoretically the prophet could speak falsely since all prophets are mortal. But if you'll allow me in what follows, I'll give you seven things to think about why practically speaking infallibility isn't even a meaningful topic of conversation. It's what investment brokers refer to as a red herring.

First, the Church as an institution, duly and legally organized on April 6, 1830, under the laws of the state of New York, is a legal corporate entity. It is not, however, the way members are governed. Instead, the keys of the priesthood have been transmitted to modern men, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, from heavenly messengers who held authority anciently, namely John the Baptist and Peter, James and John. We are not governed in the Church by a written canon of legalisms, creeds or even a written constitution of any kind.

Rather, the keys of the priesthood were transmitted by heavenly messengers by hand to head ordinations by legal administrators. It was so with Joseph and Oliver, and that pattern has been perpetuated ever since that day. To me, that fact suggests the only governing authority in the Church has always been the voice of the living prophet. "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (Article of Faith 9). There is only one man on earth at a time through whom the Lord gives ongoing revelation from time to time as needed. (See D&C 132:7). That man is always the living prophet.

Second, revelation to the Church comes from only one source to the living prophet – from the Father in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost. In reverse, that is exactly how prayer works. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Holy Ghost. It is a pure channel of revelation. When it applies to the whole Church, that revelation comes through the living prophet. When it comes to each individual, it is the same pure channel provided we are worthy to receive it, walking in obedience to the best of our ability.

Everything we receive has only one pure and true source; otherwise there is deception and the possibility for error. Pure doctrine, true doctrine, must and can only be taught and learned by the spirit of truth and revelation, and all doctrine is subject to the principle of revelation. When doctrine is pure, those who teach it and those who receive it are both edified together, and the source is always God. True doctrine is never based upon someone’s opinion of the way things are or ought to be. Christ was the first to point out this distinction, identifying His Father as the source: "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me." (John 7:16). Speaking of doctrine, not plants, He also declared: "Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up." (Matthew 15:13). Among the Nephites, the resurrected Christ affirmed: "This is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father." (3 Nephi 11:35).

There is an even more compelling discussion about this doctrinal truth than in any other source document:

Let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face.
Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.
Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question — unto what were ye ordained?
To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.
And then received ye spirits which ye could not understand, and received them to be of God; and in this are ye justified?
Behold ye shall answer this question yourselves; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto you; he that is weak among you hereafter shall be made strong.
Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
If it be some other way it is not of God.
Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?
Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. (D&C 50:11-22).

Third, if it is pure doctrine it will always come through the only channel the Lord has authorized. If He established the pattern once, why would He deviate and knowingly invite confusion among His children? "This greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God." (D&C 84:19). Joseph Smith explained: "[The] Melchizedek Priesthood. . . is the channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation and every important matter is revealed from heaven." (TPJS,166-67).

Every splinter group that broke off from the restored Church in this dispensation makes a claim to revelation that separates them from Joseph Smith as the conduit to heaven, contrary to the pattern the Lord set in place. I don’t know of one single exception. It’s so counterintuitive it defies description. If you claim Joseph was a fallen prophet and you have the right to dissent and break away, then why wouldn’t someone else do the same – make the same claim against you – and establish their own conduit to revelation? That, my friends, is exactly why there are so many so-called “fundamentalist Mormon” groups. One of the true earmarks of the true Church is that it promotes unity, not division. Sustaining those who are called to preside in the Church is the key to unity.

Fourth, at the heart of all true doctrine is the plan of salvation. “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Article of Faith 4). The Savior taught the Nephites: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them." (3 Nephi 11:39-40).

And in fine, wo unto all those who tremble, and are angry because of the truth of God! For behold, he that is built upon the rock receiveth it with gladness; and he that is built upon a sandy foundation trembleth lest he shall fall.
Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:27-30).

We are commanded to seek truth, and when we do we may rest assured the source of all truth, our Father in Heaven, will reveal it consistently, constantly and cogently to everyone who seeks it. It’s not a question about what we believe when this or that president of the Church presides. True doctrine is what it is – true, unchanging and unalterable. Thus, it is not subject to the whims of political correctness or the opinions of this or that writer in this or that newspaper. All truth may be judged against the standard taught by Christ and the Apostles. Is it in harmony with all other laws and ordinances of the gospel? Does it edify? Does it sanctify? Does it purify? Does it lead us closer to God? Every word by every living prophet, seer and revelator may be thus judged and discerned. Knowing the truth, seeking the truth, loving the truth aligns us with heaven.

Fifth, true doctrine will always edify. The Spirit of the Lord is positive and uplifting, never negative or pessimistic. It inspires, motivates, lifts and builds. "That which doth not edify is not of God." (D&C 50:23). When you read Stack’s article, ask, “Does it edify me, does it inspire me to live better, to love the Lord and His servants more?” Or, are you agitated and angered by her words? What spirit is speaking to you as you read? 

Originally, the verb "to edify" meant to build sacred edifices, for instance, the temple. Now we use it to suggest the process of improving character or building spirituality. Everything from God edifies — it builds our bodies and spirits, our souls, and makes of us a holy tabernacle, a temple to God. Any doctrine that does not lead to this end is not of God. I have never once known a missionary who asked a prospective convert to surrender any positive habit or practice when they encouraged them to join the Church. Rather, “I will also bring to light my gospel which was ministered unto them, and, behold, they shall not deny that which you have received, but they shall build it up, and shall bring to light the true points of my doctrine, yea, and the only doctrine which is in me." (D&C 10:62). Remember what Christ said to the Twelve? They were admonished to "seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness." (JST Matthew 6:33).

President Joseph Fielding Smith
Sixth, the standard works of the Church set the standard measurement for judging truth. President Joseph Fielding Smith stated, "It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine.
"You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.
"Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted." (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:203-4).

President Harold B. Lee
Echoing his predecessor, President Harold B. Lee said: "It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they [speak] and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don't care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator — please note that one exception — you may immediately say, `Well, that is his own idea.' And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works (I think that is why we call them `standard' — it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it." (Stand Ye In Holy Places, "The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer and Revelator," Chapter 15).

Seventh, all true doctrine centers in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the instrument of salvation. "Behold, Jesus Christ is the name which is given of the Father, and there is none other name given whereby man can be saved; wherefore, all men must take upon them the name which is given of the Father, for in that name shall they be called at the last day; wherefore, if they know not the name by which they are called, they cannot have place in the kingdom of my Father." (D&C 18:23-25). All true doctrine testifies of Jesus Christ. No doctrine of salvation can stand independent of Him.


President Boyd K. Packer
One may know by the spirit of revelation that the words of the prophet are from God. His teachings will meet all the criteria for true doctrine cited above. He will edify. He will inspire. He will urge his listeners to seek the Christ, embrace the plan of salvation. He will warn in advance of future calamities. He will counsel consistently with the revelations we already have. His peers, the living prophets, seers and revelators will bear independent witnesses of what he teaches. He will always be someone like President Thomas S. Monson and President Boyd K. Packer, whose lengthy lives as living Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ epitomize the principles and truths they teach. There will always be more than one or two, sometimes three or more, so the law of witnesses may always remain in place as a safeguard against deception by one man.

There is one infallible principle that will never change: Truth is absolute and will always stand the test of time against all its critics:

And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.
The Spirit of truth is of God. I am the Spirit of truth, and John bore record of me, saying: He received a fulness of truth, yea, even of all truth;
And no man receiveth a fulness unless he keepeth his commandments.
He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.
Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. (D&C 93:24-31).

It is impossible for a person to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost and at the same time deny that Jesus is the Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:3; TPJS, 223).

It is by extension impossible for anyone to enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost and simultaneously deny Joseph Smith is the great prophet of the Restoration, his successors are also prophets of God, or The Book of Mormon is true. . .

And I intentionally use that word impossible infallibly.

No comments:

Post a Comment