I recall while on my mission in southern California being told at one door “You don’t know what you believe; let me tell you what you believe.” Stephen E. Robinson wrote in 1997:
I am very happy to discuss my beliefs with anyone, but it is absurd—and a sure sign of bad faith—to argue with me that I do not really believe what I think I believe! Any religious group, whether Jewish, Mormon, Baptist or whatever, ought to be able to define itself rather than be defined by its antagonists. (Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide?[Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997], p. 12)
I believe one can extend this principle to not merely include a “religious group” but the members of that religious group as well. Every individual Jew, Mormon, Baptist, etc. “ought to be able to define” his/her beliefs rather than have such defined by antagonists.
Of course there are indeed at least two non-negotiable quotients to the restored Gospel which J. Reuben Clark stated “may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded.” These he said were applicable to “each and all of its members”:
First—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Creator of the world, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Atoner for Adam’s transgression; that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died; that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being, a perfect Being, the First Fruits of the Resurrection; that He later ascended to the Father; and that because of His death and by and through His resurrection every man born into the world since the beginning will be likewise literally resurrected.
The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is that the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others; that the gospel and the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God were in truth and fact restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the primitive Church; that the Lord again set up His Church, through the agency of Joseph Smith; that the Book of Mormon is just what it professes to be; that to the Prophet came numerous revelations for the guidance, upbuilding, organization, and encouragement of the Church and its members; that the Prophet’s successors, likewise called of God, have received revelations as the needs of the Church have required, and that they will continue to receive revelations as the Church and its members, living the truth they already have, shall stand in need of more; that this is in truth The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and that its foundation beliefs are the laws and principles laid down in the Articles of Faith. These facts also, and each of them, together with all things necessarily implied therein or flowing therefrom, must stand, unchanged, unmodified, without dilution, excuse, apology, or avoidance; they may not be explained away or submerged. Without these two great beliefs the Church would cease to be the Church. (J. Reuben Clark, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Leaders, 8 August 1938, p. 2 [PDF])
Of course, one is still free to define the confines of their beliefs so as to exclude these “two prime things” but I am in complete agreement with President Clark that “Any individual who does not accept the fulness of these doctrines as to Jesus of Nazareth or as to the restoration of the gospel and holy priesthood is not a Latter-day Saint.” (Ibid.)
Accepting that one must accept at least these “two prime things” there is a great deal upon which one can hold an opinion which may be at variance, even extreme variance, from the Latter-day Saints next to one in sacrament meeting. The statement that “Pure LDS orthodoxy can be a moving target, depending on which Mormon one talks to” (HWTD, p. 14) is indeed quite correct as many a member might define “Pure LDS orthodoxy” differently, adding to President Clark’s “two prime things” several others which they believe are incumbent upon those who profess membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yet over and over again in conversation with those who are critical of the faith of the Latter-day Saints—whether in consequence of their affiliation with another faith or as a result of their separation from the Saints for one or another reason—I see attempts to define what the Saints believe, often in direct opposition to how the Saints themselves, individually and collectively, would define themselves. In some instances they attempt to define what is speculative and in others they attack the very core of LDS belief—the “two prime things”—redefining them in ways that render them far easier to assault.
Those familiar with informal fallacies of logic—with flaws in good reasoning—will recognize such as the straw man fallacy, “presenting an opponent’s position is as weak or misrepresented a version as possible so that it can easily be refuted.” (Peter A. Angeles, The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition [New York, NY: HarperResource, 1992] p. 109) S. Morris Engel expands upon this basic definition:
it consists of imputing to one’s adversaries opinions a good deal more extreme than those they have set out and are willing to defend. Distorting the position in this way makes it appear ridiculous and thus easily overthrow. If the adversaries are tricked into defending a position that is more extreme that their original one, they are in all likelihood destined to fail. Although this is a popular trick in debating, it is a dishonest one. (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, Sixth Edition [Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000] p. 191)
In the legal arena, especially in relation to health insurance, it is common when defining the limits of a contract to include a “notice of discretionary authority” wherein the right to intepret the contract and the scope of its provisions is left to only one party, especially where the contract may be open to interpretation. This certainly seems applicable to LDS belief wherein individually and collectively we assert at least “two prime things” claiming “the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” (Article of Faith 1:11)
God even uses this principle in relation to Church government for in section 28 of the Doctrine and Covenants he makes certain to note in relation to the pretentions to revelation by Hiram Page that “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses… For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead.” (vs. 2, 7) No one may receive revelation outside of the scope of his appointed influence; their discretionary authority extending no further than the capacity in which they are called to serve.
Therefore, we can be bold in declaring our discretionary authority, that in matters pertaining to the Church overall the Prophet and President of the Church retains sole discretionary authority to interpret and apply the revelations and further to receive additional revelation. And in matters where the Prophet, or those appointed to speak in such a capacity, have not defined a specific position we are the ultimate authority on what we believe.