Specific works/DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography (DVD)/Hierarchy of doctrinal authority

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Hierarchy of doctrinal authority

A FairMormon Analysis of: DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography (DVD); Introduction to Book of Mormon Evidences (Seminar):, a work by author: The FIRM Foundation

Is there a "hierarchical" criteria for how to perform research on LDS doctrine?

In the seminar "Introduction to Book of Mormon Evidences," the presenter states that there exists a "research hierarchy" by which something can be determined:

  1. Scripture
  2. Statements of Joseph Smith
  3. Statements of the current prophet only while he is called as a prophet.
  4. Everything that does not fit into these three categories is to be considered opinion.

In order to demonstrate the proposed hierarchical order, the presenter notes that “prophets themselves are held accountable to the scriptures.” Citations that are used to back up this claim are:

  • Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 3:203
  • Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, pp. 109-110.
  • Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, pp. 162-163.

It should also be noted that this "hierarchy" matches exactly the first testimonial on the "DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography" web site:

...In working for the Church I was told to use for research only: 1) the scriptures 2) Joseph Smith and 3) the words of the Prophets, while they were prophets. All else was to be considered opinion. This is why I couldn't go along with the traditional sites of Book of Mormon Lands, as well as numerous textual evidences within the Book itself... (03.02.08 Name withheld) DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography—Testimonials off-site

Problems with the "hierarchy"

There are some serious problems with the "hierarchy" as it is presented:

  • It does not allow prophetic statements of Joseph Smith to be distinguished from his opinion.
  • It assumes a distinction between words spoken by the same Church leader before and after they are called as a prophet.
  • The “hierarchy” is designed to lead to the conclusion that the "statements of Joseph Smith" supersede the "statements of the current prophet while he is a prophet."

Setting up the hierarchy in this manner sets the stage for the presenter to apply prophetic weight to any statement made by Joseph Smith that deals with Book of Mormon geography. Ironically, a number of geographical statements made by Joseph that contradict the Heartland model are ignored. (To view statements made by Joseph Smith which contradict the Heartland model, see Joseph Smith's statements regarding Book of Mormon geography) One must therefore assume that only selected geographical statements from Joseph Smith are to be given prophetic weight.

In contrast to the claim that Joseph revealed a geography, the First Presidency has stated that Book of Mormon geography has not been revealed:

The First Presidency has often been asked to prepare some suggestive map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information they are not prepared even to suggest [a map]. The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure.
—George Q. Cannon, "Editorial Thoughts: The Book of Mormon Geography," The Juvenile Instructor 25/1 (1 January 1890): 18–19.

President James E. Faust recalled the words of George Q. Cannon in 2004.

It is important to know what the Book of Mormon is not...President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, stated: “The Book of Mormon is not a geographical primer. It was not written to teach geographical truths. What is told us of the situation of the various lands or cities … is usually simply an incidental remark connected with the doctrinal or historical portions of the work.”
—James E. Faust, “First Presidency Message: The Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign, Jan 2004, 2–6

The First Presidency Message for January 2004 is clear: the First Presidency has not changed its position regarding the location of a Book of Mormon geography. Attempts to formulate a Book of Mormon geography from Joseph Smith's statements are not the problem—the real issue is assuming that one can definitively say that Joseph claimed a revealed geography in contradiction to claims of current Church leaders. Attempting to create a "hierarchy" that in essence demotes the words of the living prophets below those of Joseph Smith is charting dangerous ground. To borrow the terms employed by the DVD and presentation, to do such a thing "discounts and disparages" the words of the living prophets.

On May 4, 2007 the First Presidency made a significant statement which it published on the Church Website. They clarified what is meant by official Church "doctrine". Church doctrine is only something that is:

  1. proclaimed under inspiration by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
  2. when the above individuals authorize it in Church publications.
  3. it is in the four Standard Works
  4. official declarations and proclamations
  5. the Articles of Faith

The First Presidency went on to say:

"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."

The presentation and DVD therefore place what they claim are Joseph Smith's prophetic utterances against the words of later prophets. This places Church members in the untenable situation of having to choose to either accept the statements of modern prophets or to instead accept the presenter's interpretation of the words of Joseph Smith.

Living prophets have precedence

Scripture remains, as President Harold B. Lee taught, the standard for doctrine in the Church:

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church, were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth.[1]

But, even this statement has a caveat—scripture trumps private expression of prophets, but prophets united as the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve may amend, add to, or authoritatively interpret scripture in novel ways. This has no application to the current discussion, since there is no LDS scripture which affirms a revealed Book of Mormon geography.

With regards to the question of modern prophets versus part prophets (such as Joseph Smith), we must investigate further. While President of the Quorum of the Twelve, Ezra Taft Benson taught:

The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet....Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence (italics in original) (emphasis added).[2]

Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff

This matches what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught, as President Benson went on to illustrate:

The living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works.
President Wilford Woodruff tells of an interesting incident that occurred in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“I will refer to a certain meeting I attended in the town of Kirtland in my early days. At that meeting some remarks were made that have been made here today, with regard to the living prophets and with regard to the written word of God. The same principle was presented, although not as extensively as it has been here, when a leading man in the Church got up and talked upon the subject, and said: ‘You have got the word of God before you here in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants; you have the written word of God, and you who give revelations should give revelations according to those books, as what is written in those books is the word of God. We should confine ourselves to them.’
“When he concluded, Brother Joseph turned to Brother Brigham Young and said, ‘Brother Brigham I want you to go to the podium and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.’ Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.’ That was the course he pursued. When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation; ‘Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.’ ” (Conference Report, October 1897, pp. 18–19.)[2]

Contrary to the claims made by the DVD, it has long been taught by Joseph Smith and others that official statements from the living prophet are given precedence to those of past prophets.

Conclusion on the "hierarchy" claims

Past and president leaders of the Church have all insisted that there is no revealed Book of Mormon geography. It is therefore inappropriate for lay members like the FIRM Foundation (or FAIR or anyone else) to declare that Joseph Smith did give revelation on the topic. If Joseph's revelation or another is to be announced or taught, this will be done by the present leaders of the Church and no one else.

Notes

  1. Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24–26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ezra Taft Benson, "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet," devotional address at Brigham Young University, 26 February 1980.

Further reading