Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Correcting an Errant Perspective on the Restoration

            Some three years ago (2017), retired BYU professor Noel Reynolds gave an interview regarding his research about the authorship of the Lectures on Faith. While not all of his findings were convincing to me, I think the gist of his main thesis, that the Prophet Joseph Smith was not the main author of the lectures, is probably mostly accurate. His notions that they reflect the teachings of Sidney Rigdon who reflected the teachings of Alexander Campbell (an 1830s Protestant reformist), is less convincing to me (nor do I think we should assume Campbell’s teachings were all false). But much of Reynolds’ research seems to have some validity and therefore value, and such contributions, even if partially flawed, are generally welcome.
            However, in one regard, he said some things in the interview that were not accurate and showed that he had not researched at least one portion of his presentation very well. This is not a big deal and I don’t overly fault him for missing the mark, but I have decided to take occasion to do some correcting. (Part of the reason I do so is because in the last year I have heard a couple of prominent names voice criticisms of Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s statements on certain matters where, again, they showed a lack of knowledge.) It is in regards to Elder McConkie’s views that Professor Reynolds showed some ignorance. This becomes more clear almost every time President Russell M. Nelson speaks to the Church about the ongoing status and future of the Restoration.
            The issue at hand relates to what should be defined or categorized as part of the restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; more specifically, written texts. Professor Reynolds said: “He [Elder McConkie] seemed to have an enthusiasm that was fed by having more and more things [inspired writings] be part of the Restoration. I have to admit that I come from a different mentality, which is being skeptical and watching out for people who are trying to import things into the Restoration that really aren’t part of it.”

            Well, to be blunt, who is this normally fine scholar to position himself as the one who does the determining of what texts are part of the restoration and what are not? (Right now, while of a different stripe, we have liberal/progressive semi-believing historians and dissident feminists trying to get section 132 tossed from the Doctrine and Covenants; it won’t happen, and they reveal their true colors as lack-faiths, but they delight in trying to alter church doctrine to reflect modern society’s values).
            For readers who are unaware, Elder McConkie once sought, through proper channels, and as a member of the Scriptures Publications Committee, to have additional inspired texts added to the standard works. He was successful with two items (D&C 137 & 138) but others were not approved for inclusion, although a mock-up Pearl of Great Price with them all in it was created as a review example in the late 1970s. Those writings are named and briefly explained by Elder McConkie:

            We should be aware that there are approved and inspired writings that are not in the standard works. These writings also are true and should be used along with the scriptures themselves in learning and teaching the gospel. Next to the standard works five of the greatest documents in our literature are
            1. The “Wentworth Letter.” (See History of the Church, 4:535–41.) Written by the Prophet Joseph Smith, it contains an account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, of the organization of the Church in this dispensation, and of the persecutions suffered by the early Latter-day Saints. The thirteen Articles of Faith are part of this letter.
            2. Lectures on Faith. These lectures were prepared by and under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith and were taught by him and by others in the School of the Prophets. The Prophet said they embraced “the important doctrine[s] of salvation” (Preface to D&C, 1835 ed.; reprint, Independence, Mo.: Herald House, 1971). [also see here]
            3. The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve. (See James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75], 5:26–34; see also 5:23–25.) This exposition sets forth the status and relationship of the Father and the Son, shows those ways in which Christ is the Father, and through its various recitations lays to rest the false and heretical view that Adam is our Father and our God.
            4. The “King Follett Sermon” and the “Sermon in the Grove.” (See History of the Church, 6:302–17; 6:473–79.) These two sermons, one in thought and content, set forth the doctrine of the plurality of Gods and of becoming joint heirs with Christ. They show that man may become as his Maker and reign in celestial exaltation forever.
            5. “The Origin of Man,” by the First Presidency of the Church. (See Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 4:200–206; see also 4:199.) This inspired writing sets forth the official position of the Church on the origin of man and therefore impinges on the evolutionary fantasies of biologists and their fellow travelers. As might be expected, it arouses great animosity among intellectuals whose testimonies are more ethereal than real.
            [Originally Elder McConkie also included some items from the JST that are now found in the footnotes and appendix of the Bible.]

            On a side note, I include the fact that Elder McConkie desired to add a couple more “articles” to the Articles of Faith, giving them as follows: “[14] We believe that God has restored in these last days the fulness of his everlasting gospel to prepare a people for the coming of the Son of Man, and that this gospel shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all people, and then shall the end come. [15] We believe in a premortal life, in eternal marriage, in salvation for the dead, in the resurrection of the just and of the unjust, in eternal judgment, and in kingdoms of glory in the eternal worlds” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, chap. 2). Some academics and scholars might think preparation of such new articles bold, but to the inspired mind, they are a natural fit and make complete doctrinal sense.
            And on another side note, I point out that Elder McConkie’s fifth item, as given above, in relation to “The Origin of Man” document, is exactly as described and is under attack by BYU biologist evolutionists and others today. There is even a forthcoming (January) number of BYU Studies Quarterly being prepared to specifically marginalize and misinterpret it, in hopes of pushing evolution as the means God used to create Adam and Eve. His explanatory words about such efforts are so very meaningful.
            Professor Reynolds’ skepticism may have had some value in the ancient Council of Nicea, but his desire to guard or wall-up the on-going restoration of the gospel contradict Elder McConkie’s teachings. Our flagship exhibit is the magnificent Proclamation to the World recently created by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and read to the world by President Nelson on the bicentennial of the first vision at the 2020 April Conference. To quote one sentence from therein: “We gladly declare that the promised Restoration goes forward through continuing revelation.” Those following President Nelson’s ministry closely know he has received much written revelation, though the specific wording has not been shared with the Church.
            Let not the skeptic seek to halt the flow of inspiration to the prophets and apostles; instead, let light and knowledge poor down upon the faithful. I can happily join with Reynolds in his desire to keep uninspired apocryphal books (see D&C 91) from entering our open canon, but I take greater pleasure in joining with Elder McConkie in delighting in inspired texts, whether included in the standard works or not: “The gospel we have received is the gospel of God, and in the full and eternal sense it includes all truth, most of which has yet to be revealed or discovered. Providentially we have received the saving truths and ordinances, but an eternal fulness yet remains to come forth as soon as we are able spiritually to receive it.”
            I cannot express how strongly I recommend readers either reading or listening to Elder McConkie’s inspired address “The Doctrinal Restoration,” (or audio version here) given to CES and BYU personnel in 1984, just 10 months or so before he passed away. It is the finest exposition on the subject extant in the Church, period, and frankly, it contradicts Professor Reynolds’ views on this subject. All one need do to compare and conclude such is true for themselves is to listen to each in turn, portions of the interview by one and the address by the other.
            Now, in fairness to Brother Reynolds, we are not averse to further examination of his conclusions, which he has presented in more than one paper[1] and in which he states, as above recited, that Sidney Rigdon is the main author of the Lectures on Faith and that in fact, Joseph Smith was against them:

            I couldn’t find any evidence that Joseph had ever used anything from the lectures. On the contrary, Sidney Rigdon when he left the church in 1844 and went back to Pittsburgh and organized his own church and published the Lectures on Faith, he had a clear sense of ownership and of its value was not shared by Joseph or other church leaders.
            I know some writers have tried to defend the Lectures on Faith saying that they do reflect Joseph Smith’s early teachings. I haven’t found that very convincing. What is striking is the strong correlation with some of the Campbellite doctrine. Sidney Rigdon had been involved with Alexander Campbell before he became a convert to Mormonism. One of the most egregious examples is in lecture number five, which actually says that there are two people in the Godhead, the father and the son, and that Jesus shared the mind of God and that sharing is what the Holy Ghost is, not a separate being. Anybody can look in lecture five and there it is. Historians of American religion call that binitarianism. It’s been argued back and forth.
            The fact that that’s in there has made it easy for anti-Mormon critics to say that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the Godhead evolved considerably and changed over time before it became what we teach in the church today. Joseph very clearly states in Nauvoo … he said, “I have never taught anything but Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” I read that statement by Joseph in Nauvoo as denying that he’s the one that was teaching that binitarian doctrine in Kirtland. But others have tried to find another way around that.

            Such is a quoted summary by Reynolds from the interview. As one might expect, BYU Religion Professor (and son of Elder McConkie) Joseph Fielding McConkie, was one who fully harmonized with his father in the notion that Joseph Smith had great influence in the creation of the Lectures. He wrote:

            Doctrinal works, like doctrinal teachers, never enjoy a shortage of critics. Certainly this has been the case with the Lectures on Faith over the years. Perhaps because the lectures did not enjoy the immunity accorded to scripture— much of which is more difficult to understand or defend than anything in these seven lectures—it was felt best to drop them from inclusion in a book accepted as canon. Given, however, that the purpose of this work is to acquaint the reader with the natural development of Latter- day Saint theology, it would be a serious oversight not to include the lectures here. Indeed, they are a most instructive document, and, in the judgment of the writers, those few matters viewed by some as stumbling stones become, when polished by a thoughtful second or third look, rather bright and precious gems of truth.
            A matter of some moment among particular critics of the lectures is that of authorship. Critics seem to feel that a word, a phrase, a thought, an idea that did not fall directly from the pen or lips of the Prophet cannot be approved by him, nor is it to be trusted by us. This idea is a little strained. It is similar to arguing that only the prophet should address the Saints at conference. From the beginning of the Restoration, Joseph Smith was quick to establish the idea that neither man nor woman was to serve without counselors and that the order of heaven was that the Church be governed by councils. That Joseph Smith was not the sole author of the Lectures on Faith but that they were written by a committee over which he presided seems quite compatible with that order. Let it suffice to say that the doctrinal ideas found in the lectures trace back to Joseph Smith; others helped in their expression; the final approval of all that was written rested with him.
            It has also been argued that the ideas in these lectures are Protestant in tone and that, at least in some instances, they represent a concept of God which Joseph Smith would in the coming years throw off. In fact, each of the lectures centers on one or more basic ideas that are directly offensive to traditional or historical Christian theology. And one of the important roles played by the lectures in the early years of the Church's history was to distance Latter-day Saint theology from doctrines rooted in either Protestantism or Catholicism. (McConkie & Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration, chap. on Lectures on Faith).

            Such is the son’s defense of his father’s teachings about the lectures. Although I have read Reynolds’ papers on the subject, along with other items and the above defense, I am not in a position to put forth some kind of final judgment on the question of authorship. On examining what the Church itself has published about authorship, I find some disagreement and hedging. I can quote Elder McConkie’s view, opposed by Reynolds (in relation to one paragraph in the Lectures): “In my judgment, it is the most comprehensive, intelligent, inspired utterance that now exists in the English language—that exists in one place defining, interpreting, expounding, announcing, and testifying what kind of being God is. It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true.” A powerful statement indeed; one worth pondering—considering who said it.
            This language brings up another issue that is also involved in this whole question of the lectures and of the restoration—even if something didn’t originate with Joseph Smith, is it yet true? Does it convey important inspired truths and knowledge to the receptive heart? Evidently Elder McConkie thought the Lectures on Faith did just that, no matter their authorship. Readers can judge for themselves on this question. (I don’t get too worked up over it, other than to be aware of the issue and able to present some organized thoughts on it.)
            On the larger question, brought up by Professor Reynolds, of whether we should limit the restoration, we now have President Russell M. Nelson answering that question in address after talk after sermon after article. Reynolds must eat his words here; the Prophet has given no leeway for argument—much more revelation is to come and is coming all the time.
            In one of the most inspired articles I have ever been blessed to read in a church magazine, the prophet wrote:

            I cannot speak of the Restoration in tempered tones. This fact of history is absolutely stunning! It is incredible! It is breathtaking! How amazing is it that messengers from heaven came to give authority and power to this work?
            Today, the Lord’s work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is moving forward at an accelerated pace. The Church will have an unprecedented, unparalleled future. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, … the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9; see also Doctrine and Covenants 76:10).
            Remember that the fulness of Christ’s ministry lies in the future. . . .

            Surely inspired texts, whether canonized or not, from the past, present, and future, are part of this marvel we call the restoration. One hopes that even academics and scholars will unite with this doctrine and marvelous future and accept the continuing light that comes to us because of the on-going restoration.

[1] Noel B. Reynolds, “The Authorship Debate concerning Lectures on Faith: Exhumation and Reburial,” in The Disciple as Witness…, eds., Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 35).

No comments:

Post a Comment