Question: How do Mormons understand prophetic revelation?

Table of Contents

Question: How do Mormons understand prophetic revelation?

Mormons do not believe in a doctrine of prophetic infallibility

It is important to realize that the LDS Church does not believe in a doctrine of prophetic inerrancy. Prophets are not fax machines; they do not simply "download" messages from God. Rather, God inspires prophets through a variety of means: the prophet may be given precise words to speak or simply receive information which he is to communicate in any way which suits his listeners. Many critics come from conservative Protestant backgrounds and religious traditions which endorse doctrines of Biblical inerrancy. (Some members of the Church may also have absorbed some 'fundamentalist' ideas about scripture and prophets.) Both groups of people will be troubled by this doctrine because it does not match their preconceptions, but Joseph Smith cannot be faulted for not following a prophetic model which he never endorsed and which the Church does not teach.

Furthermore, revelation is not always an instantaneous event—it may often be a process of studying a matter out, and applying reason and effort to achieve greater clarity and understanding. [1]

Revelation is delivered to a prophet "after the manner of their language"

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

Thus, the Doctrine and Covenants acknowledges the weakness of the prophets through which they came, and insists that the wording is in the manner of their language, not direct, word-for-word divine sound bites.

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 fulness. 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 fulness; 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" version of the revelation. (See DC 124:12-16.)

Notes

  1. See DC 8:1-3 and DC 9:7-10.
  2. Brigham Young, "The Kingdom Of God," (8 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 2:314.