Mormonism and doctrine/Establishing new doctrine/Procedures

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Procedures to establish or modify Mormon doctrine

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"Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS Newsroom (May 2007): "Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine"

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted. —(Click here to continue) [1]


Question: How does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints establish new doctrine?

Establishing new doctrine

Brigham Young taught:

In trying all matters of doctrine, to make a decision valid, it is necessary to obtain a unanimous voice, faith and decision. In the capacity of a Quorum, the three First Presidents must be one in their voice; the Twelve Apostles must be unanimous in their voice, to obtain a righteous decision upon any matter that may come before them, as you may read in the Doctrine and Covenants. Whenever you see these Quorums unanimous in their declaration, you may set it down as true. Let the Elders get together, being faithful and true; and when they agree upon any point, you may know that it is true.[2]

Later, B.H. Roberts wrote:

It is not sufficient to quote sayings purported to come from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young upon matters of doctrine. Our own people also need instruction and correction in respect of this. It is common to hear some of our older brethren say, ‘But I heard Brother Joseph myself say so,’ or ‘Brother Brigham preached it; I heard him.’ But that is not the question. The question is has God said it? Was the prophet speaking officially? . . . As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is—What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine.[3]

Leaders of the Church even spoke out against those who might try to think that some other standard applied for ‘official’ Church doctrine:

[The Seer, a magazine published by a Church leader] contain[s] doctrines which we cannot sanction, and which we have felt impressed to disown, so that the Saints who now live, and who may live hereafter, may not be misled by our silence, or be left to misinterpret it…It ought to have been known, years ago, by every person in the Church—for ample teachings have been given on the point—that no member of the Church has the right to publish any doctrines, as the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, without first submitting them for examination and approval to the First Presidency and the Twelve. There is but one man upon the earth, at one time, who holds the keys to receive commandments and revelations for the Church, and who has the authority to write doctrines by way of commandment unto the Church. And any man who so far forgets the order instituted by the Lord as to write and publish what may be termed new doctrines, without consulting with the First Presidency of the Church respecting them, places himself in a false position, and exposes himself to the power of darkness by violating his Priesthood. While upon this subject, we wish to warn all the Elders of the Church, and to have it clearly understood by the members, that, in the future, whoever publishes any new doctrines without first taking this course, will be liable to lose his Priesthood.[4]

Later leaders of the Church have continued to teach this principle. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

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 man¹s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of 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.[5]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."

I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[6]

Elder Bruce R. McConkie, whose writings some critics attempt to elevate to "official status," despite the fact that he explicitly states that he writes only on his own behalf said:[7]

With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their own problems without inspiration in many instances. Joseph Smith recorded that he "visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that 'a prophet is always a prophet'; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such." (Teachings, p. 278.) Thus the opinions and views even of prophets may contain error unless those opinions and views are inspired by the Spirit. Inspired statements are scripture and should be accepted as such. (D. & C. 68:4.).

Since "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor. 14:32), whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the Church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost.[8]


Question: Is "Mormon doctrine" constantly changing?

Each prophet who has lived was called to teach and guide the people of their specific time

Apostles and prophets are human, fallible and subject to their own opinions and emotions just like the rest of humanity. This does not, however, diminish their capacity to speak in the name of the Lord on issues which affect our eternal salvation. We pay heed to the words of the living prophet who has been called to guide the church in our time, while relying upon the standard works to help us understand and confirm these teachings.

It is claimed by some that the Church frequently changes its doctrine. They point to teachings of early church leaders such as Brigham Young (often quoting from the Journal of Discourses) and criticize modern church leaders for not accepting or implementing every pronouncement recorded by these early leaders.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by a living prophet, who is authorized to speak on the Lord’s behalf to the Church to address the issues of our day. We value the words and teachings of prophets who have lived in the past. We are encouraged to study the scriptures in order to apply the lessons taught by these great individuals to our present lives. Each prophet who has lived was called to teach and guide the people of their specific time. The situations which we face in today’s society are unique to us, and dealing with them requires the ongoing guidance of a living prophet.

It is not reasonable to expect that everything taught by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young applies to us today

We are fortunate to have so many detailed teachings of the early prophets of the restoration. There is much wisdom to be gained by studying their counsel. It is not, however, reasonable to expect that everything taught by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young applies to us today. Many things that these men taught were relevant to the 19th century church. In order to help us determine how to apply the teachings of past prophets to our present lives, we have a living prophet.

In 1981, Ezra Taft Benson said:

The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.

God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the Ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore the most important prophet so far as you and I are concerned is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each month in our Church Magazines. Our instructions about what we should do for each six months are found in the General Conference addresses which are printed in the Church magazine.

Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.[9]

Prophets are not scientists: Their views of science tend to reflect the prevailing views of the time

Prophets are not scientists: Their views of science tend to reflect the prevailing views of the time. For example, Brigham Young expressed a number of opinions regarding science that one would consider very humorous or even outlandish today, such as the suggestion that the moon and the sun were inhabited.

Modern day prophets are no more immune to the current thinking of their day. On May 14, 1961, Apostle (and future Church president) Joseph Fielding Smith declared that “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.” As much as critics would like to declare this a “failed prophecy,” would it be reasonable to expect the Church to teach such a thing in light of current knowledge?

The Apostle (and future leader of Christ’s church) Peter denied Christ three times. Applying the same standard to Peter’s statement that the Church’s critics apply to 19th century prophets, one would have to interpret this to mean that future church leaders would be forced to teach that Christ was not actually the Son of God! After all, Peter went on to become the head of Christ’s church, and was therefore a prophet.

Church members need to compare what church leaders teach to the standard works

Joseph Fielding Smith clarifies how members need to compare what church leaders teach to the standard works:

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.[10]

Notes

  1. "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS Newsroom (May 2007)
  2. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:91-92.
  3. B.H. Roberts, Deseret News (23 July 1921) sec. 4:7.
  4. Proclamation of the First Presidency and Twelve, dated 21 October 1865, re: The Seer. Printed in Messages of the First Presidency, edited by James R. Clark, Vol. 2, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 238–39. GL direct link
  5. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56),203–204.
  6. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  7. See, for example, Elder McConkie's "Preface" from the first edition of Mormon Doctrine, where he writes "For the work itself, I assume sole and full responsibility." This comment is reprinted in the second edition.
  8. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 608. GL direct link
  9. Ezra Taft Benson, "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet," Ensign (June 1981).
  10. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 203.