Thursday, February 18, 2016

Determining Doctrinal Authority in Mormonism

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of posts by Dennis Horne, sharing portions of his book, Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth.

Introducing a series of blogs:

Determining Doctrinal Authority in Mormonism

Some fourteen or so years ago I spent a few years researching, collecting, and organizing a substantial compilation of statements from many church leaders (and a few leading scholars) enumerating what constituted doctrinal authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although I later learned that I had missed some items that I should have found and included in the book, I was still able to find most of the best quotations existing on the subject of determining/discerning/identifying true doctrine. (This work took place before the LDS newsroom published their fine statement.)

I was not trying to write another Mormon Doctrine-type explanation of doctrinal topics, but was instead seeking to let the authorities define doctrinal authority themselves. Having noted this, there are many selections in the volume that do explain doctrinal subjects to some extent. In 2005 this compilation was published as Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth. Most of the edition has now been sold, though several dozen or so hardback copies remain available through Eborn Books and Deseret Book.

             I am now sharing selected parts of this compilation with a wider audience as a means of countering, correcting, clarifying, or refuting some of the less-than-enlightening or accurate blogs and comments so often made in the (unorthodox and liberally-inclined) “bloggernacle,” and also the many falsehoods and half-truths posted by critics, dissidents, and activists. One of the truisms that great doctrinal minds like Elder McConkie and President Romney and others commonly counseled (long before the advent of the internet, blogs, and social media) regarding suspect sources of doctrine went like this: “don’t drink below the horses.”

Blogs and newspaper website stories too often amount to drinking the water below the horses and cattle and sheep to about where the sewers start. The Utah-based Salt Lake Tribune’s religion reporter seems to be on a quest (obsession?) to stampede the livestock through the fountain of living water the Church itself produces for its members.

Often the purpose of the items I introduce and post will be to compare or contrast perspectives and views of prominent educators, bloggers, and media members/reporters, with that of modern prophets and apostles and other general authorities and leading orthodox scholars. Others times it will be to ensure correct information is available on some issue or episode or historical matter. Some of the material I use will be familiar to reasonably well-read students of gospel teachings and church history, but much of it will be new to most readers. I trust it will also be informative and interesting.

Those who recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd when they hear and read it should find this series on determining doctrine to be spiritually rewarding. (It is expected that anti-Mormons will disagree, mock and depart; these posts are not meant for them.)

1)      What does it mean to sustain the Prophet?

            I recently encountered a letter on the subject of what it means to sustain the prophet. I had just finished rereading the below quotation from then-Elder Harold B. Lee when I next noticed and read an explanation prepared by a prominent educator posted on a blog. For me the contrast between the two explanations in substance and tone was (unfortunately) striking. Click here to read the educator’s letter first, before reading the segment of Elder Lee’s (and President J. Reuben Clark’s) teachings on the same subject next, as quoted here:

Now, when the Lord says to us in Doctrine and Covenants 21 that we should accept the words and commandments of the prophets as if from his own mouth in patience and faith, suppose he speaks on the matter of politics and he blasts something in which you have a strong feeling. Perhaps you are ardent in the Republican party, and he speaks scathingly about it and it ruffles your feathers.  Perhaps you’re running for Congress.  Perhaps you are running for the state legislature or for county attorney on the Democratic ticket, and he slices out against the Democratic party.  Perhaps he talks boldly about a subject of science, and you say, “what does he know about science?” or, “what does he know about philosophy?”

            In talking about this subject in an address to a similar audience of seminary teachers, President Clark made this comment:

            “I call your attention to the fact that there is no limitation to the matters to be covered by the scriptures on which the Lord speaks.  Having read just what I have read you from the 21st Section and having in mind that this Church is a practical Church and deals with temporal as well as spiritual affairs, I submit that whatever comes from the voices of those who hold that authority and is scripture, no matter of what they speak, that conclusion to me is inevitable.  Anything, and everything that affects the well-being of us Latter-day Saints or that has to do with our religion may become a part of that scripture, and when the servants of God speak to us about such things, speaking under the inspiration of the Lord, then their words become scripture.”

            “How shall we know then,” you may ask, “when they speak by the inspiration of the Lord?”

            Now, get this; this is the crux of it.

            “I cannot tell you how to know, but I can tell you that every man holding the priesthood who is obeying the commandments of the Lord and living righteously, will know without doubt when God’s servants speak under inspiration.  The spirit will bear witness.” (“The Place of the Church,” Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty, Brigham Young University, June 24, 1960, 13.)

            Also these comments from President Gordon B. Hinckley:

            When I was a university student, I said to my father on one occasion that I felt the General Authorities had overstepped their prerogatives when they advocated a certain thing. He was a very wise and good man. He said, “The President of the Church has instructed us, and I sustain him as prophet, seer, and revelator and intend to follow his counsel.” (Conference Report, April 2003, 64.)

            No policy of importance, no action of consequence, is taken without consideration in the highest councils of the Church and without unanimity of feeling on the decision reached.  No such action is taken without earnest and sincere prayer and without a plea to the Almighty for guidance and revelation, and, further, without the approval of the President of the Church.  (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], 81.)

Lastly, President John Taylor:

            We have got through presenting the various quorums comprising the authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, . . . and I believe there has been a unanimous feeling to sustain all those officers presented in their respective positions. . . . And as we are not perfect ourselves, we may have need to come to the throne of mercy and ask for wisdom and support, and we can come to the Lord with faith and full assurance. If we have need to come to the Lord, so have you. Be careful, then, how you judge. We can say to all, with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.—JD, 9:8-9, April 6, 1861. (The Gospel Kingdom: Selections from the Writings and Discourses of John Taylor, ed. G. Homer Durham [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1941], 167.)


  1. These articles sound like they will be interesting and could be enlightening. However I was really turned off when I read, "Those who recognize the voice of the Good Shephard when they hear and read it should find this series on determining doctrine to be spiritually rewarding. (It is expected that critics will disagree, mock and depart; these posts are not meant for them.)" In other words, if we agree with what you say we are enlightened, if not we are not real followers of Christ. Yuck, who needs that kind of teacher. I appreciate your effort in compiling these quotes, etc., but it is possible that there may be contradicting quotes from church leaders and some people may not agree or feel spiritually rewarded by everything you write and still be good people. It makes you come across as really full of yourself and judgmental.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. The word 'critics' has now been changed to 'anti-Mormons' to better reflect what was intended.