A recent article in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture has me scratching my head. Yesterday, Part 1 of Duane Boyce’s “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?” was released online. The 48-page article (and this is just the first part?!) highlights what Boyce sees as incorrect doctrines espoused in the works of newer apologists Terryl Givens and Patrick Mason (he’ll tackle Grant Hardy in the forthcoming Part 2). It seems Boyce is of the same opinion as MormonLeaks’ Ryan McKnight in viewing progressive Mormon views as detrimental to the church.
First of all, let us ponder on one apologist attacking other apologists who are writing publications aimed at persuading people to stay in the church…
Okay, now that we’ve swallowed that premise, let’s get to the article. Boyce explains the central issue,
Do significant errors regarding prophets and revelation occur, and are they becoming both common, and commonly accepted, in the rhetoric of LDS scholars?
He believes both Givens and Mason (and others like them) are promoting erroneous views of prophets and revelation which are becoming more widely accepted in Mormon literature. Specifically, he takes church leader statements that Givens and Mason use to back up their positions, and suggests the interpretations are incorrect. As I’ve shown previously, I’m totally okay with the idea of reevaluating original evidence people claim to back up their positions (see here and here). The problem, as I see it, is his implication that in misinterpreting those particular statements they have ultimately come up with arguments that cannot be supported in any way. And that’s what I disagree with. For example, in my Vernal Holley post, I worked hard to discredit faulty evidence, but I also worked hard to present other evidence that backed up the original claims.
The first argument Boyce examines is in regard to a particular interpretation of D&C 41:4-5.
To begin, consider a single paragraph by Terryl Givens.5 In it he desires to show that we should not expect moral superiority from men called as prophets — they are not “infallible specimens of virtue and perfection.” As partial support for the obviousness of this claim, Givens draws attention to the Lord’s statement to the infant Church, regarding Joseph Smith, that “thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments” and that “his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4–5). Givens quotes only the phrase “in all patience and faith” in this passage, however, remarking that “God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say ‘in all patience and faith’ if their words were always sage and inspired.”6 Givens thus interprets this passage to indicate that we are to have patience and faith toward the Brethren since they are not always “sage and inspired.”
Boyce agrees with the claim that the Brethren are not “infallible specimens of virtue and perfection,” but doesn’t like the implication that we need to be patient with the brethren because leaders might not be inspired in a given situation. If what they say is what God would say (per that scripture), they are obviously always inspired. So we must reinterpret what it means to endure what they say with “patience and faith.”
If the Lord is telling us to receive prophets’ words as if from his own mouth, it is not likely that he is simultaneously telling us to have patience and faith because those words might not be “sage and inspired.” Such an interpretation reduces to the claim that the Saints should recognize that the Lord’s own words are not always sage and inspired and therefore that members should be patient with him….
The Lord’s instruction to consider Joseph Smith’s words “as if from mine own mouth,” and to do so “in all patience and faith,” would more naturally be interpreted to mean something like: “Follow my servant Joseph even though you will suffer all manner of persecution and hardship by doing so”….
Far from suggesting we need to be patient with prophets, the passage tells us we need to be patient in enduring the worldly consequences of following prophets.
Umm… okay. I guess I can see that interpretation. So nothing supports the claim that we need to be patient with the fallibility of prophets, because they may not always be 100% saying exactly what God would say? Because there’s this by Elder Holland:
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all.10 Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
And (you knew this was coming) President Uchtdorf’s famous 2014 statement:
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
Another point Boyce disagrees with is Patrick Mason’s argument that the Brethren are only occasionally receiving revelation for church government. In his mind, the argument is both implausible and contradicts many church leaders statements. With implausibility, he argues that because a leader shares an account of receiving a powerful spiritual experience earlier in his life, it obviously proves a consistent closeness to the spirit. But… according to the scriptures and church history, powerful spiritual experiences aren’t actually evidence of consistent closeness to the spirit.
As far as contradicting statements by the Brethren, I don’t really mind his large section compiling statements saying the church works under constant inspiration and revelation. I’ve heard many of those types of statements in the last few years. (I’m amused he chose to include the obligation apostles have to seek a personal manifestation of Jesus Christ given Elder Oaks’ effort to downplay that one in the Boise Rescue.) My problem came in his attempt to disprove Givens’ interpretation of a B.H. Roberts statement. B. H. Roberts said,
Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.62
Givens argued this proves the brethren only occasionally receive revelation from God to govern the affairs of the church. Boyce thinks this is an understandable, yet incorrect, interpretation.
After all, from the fact that prophets are not inspired “at all times and in all things” it hardly follows that revelation is therefore only occasional.
Um, except for the fact that B. H. Roberts actually said the word “occasionally,” which would imply “occasional.” But Boyce says we’re forgetting the “at need” phrase.
[S]ince [the Brethren] do not report receiving revelation “at all times and in all things,” but do report receiving it far more frequently than “occasionally,” the need for guidance would therefore itself seem to be more than occasional.
This makes my head hurt. Here’s the deal: Givens’ interpretation makes sense. Boyce’s interpretation, while I guess might be valid, is created by circular reasoning. “Here’s a statement by one church leader that on the surface doesn’t seem to agree with other church leaders. You can’t have church leaders disagree with one another,” (even though it’s completely expected with over a century of different personalities leading the church), “so I must figure out a way to make them agree.”
But, more importantly, Boyce is in agreement that revelation is not being received for administrative decisions 100% of the time. This seems to match what Elder Uchtdorf said,
As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and as one who has seen firsthand the councils and workings of this Church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father.
He didn’t say no decisions were made without seeking inspiration, he specified no decisions of significance. Clearly, God leaves some things up to the Brethren, which then undermines Boyce’s first point where he argued that all statements and actions by prophets are inspired.
Finally, Boyce is irritated that both Mason and Givens suggest the possibility that the priesthood and temple ban was a “mistake.”
In the course of discussing the imperfection and fallibility of Church leaders, Givens tells us that Spencer W. Kimball, as an apostle, “referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a ‘possible error’ for which he asked forgiveness.”69 He is referring to this statement by Elder Kimball in a letter: “I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”70
Again, Boyce suggests Givens is misinterpreting Kimball’s statement. Since Kimball referred to the policy as belonging to the Lord, he cannot have suggested that it was in error (because the Lord cannot be in error!). So Boyce looks around for another use of “possible error” and finds one in the now disavowed teaching of President Joseph Fielding Smith regarding premortal actions disqualifying blacks from priesthood in mortality. According to Boyce,
[Kimball] seems to be saying something like this: “The priesthood ban is the Lord’s policy, but he could change it. If the restriction is due, as Joseph Fielding Smith (and some others) have thought, to error committed in the pre-earth existence, perhaps the Lord could forgive that error and release the restriction.”
Also, because Kimball felt advocating for the change of policy was showing contempt for “the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority,” Boyce argues that obviously President Kimball felt the priesthood ban was revelation and given by divine authority. This is where I’d take a page from Boyce’s book and submit an alternate interpretation. Activism from the ground up would be considered itself a violation of the rule of stewardship/authority, where only church leaders are allowed revelation to change policy affecting the membership as a whole. In my opinion, that statement doesn’t actually prove Kimball believed that the policy was inspired (even though he likely preferred that belief).
The biggest problem I have with this section is when Boyce talks about whether the church accepts the priesthood and temple ban as inspired (in spite of disavowing racist justifications). He points to a statement by Elder Oaks and concludes,
Here Elder Oaks relies on the distinction between instructions and explanations, accepting the priesthood-temple restriction itself as the correct action but simultaneously rejecting the various explanations that had been offered for it. The same distinction is evident in the Church essay regarding the priesthood. That essay disavows past explanations for the restriction, but (though it sets out at length the historical setting of the time) it does not disavow the restriction itself. 104
So, here’s the thing. While Boyce is correct that the Race and Priesthood essay does not disavow the restriction, it also does not say, as Oaks did, that the restriction was the “correct action.” The essay, approved by church leaders, doesn’t say the ban was inspired and it doesn’t say it was uninspired. In fact, when new Doctrinal Mastery curriculum materials were put out recently, they referred to the priesthood ban as an inspired policy. Within a few months that section was removed. Church leaders are being careful not to come down either side. Mason and Givens’ suggestion that the policy was a mistake is not outside the realm of possibility. Boyce’s opinion that the policy was inspired is also not out of the realm of possibility. Just because prior leaders viewed the policy as inspired, it doesn’t mean that is the official position of current leadership.
What did you think of Boyce’s article and arguments?