An Unnecessary Attack on Faithful LDS Scholars: Does Prophetic Fallibility Matter?

A faithful call to respect the prophets and take them more seriously is the intent of Duane Boyce’s article just published at the Interpreter. See Duane Boyce, “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation? Part One,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 1-49. While I agree with much of Boyce’s intent and likewise affirm the reality of divine revelation given through living prophets and apostles, I feel some tempering is needed. Indeed, I feel more respect for the men he targets may be due. I also feel they may have been seriously misunderstood. Some of the mistakes he labels as egregious blunders may be much more plausible or even acceptable than he realizes, and may reflect a faithful and reasonable reading of the scriptures as well as of history and the human condition. The problems are serious enough that I feel the article should be revised at a minimum.

Boyce is concerned with the teachings of LDS scholars on the issue of prophets and revelation, where he bemoans “a general deterioration of thought … in LDS scholarly discourse.” He warns that some LDS scholars, even though they may be widely considered to be highly faithful, are making grave errors in what they teach. In his article, he focuses on Terryl Givens and Patrick Mason, who have gone dangerously afoul and undercut the faith and trust we need to have in prophetic words, actions, and policies. His main target in Part 1 is Givens:

To begin, consider a single paragraph by Terryl Givens [citing Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146]. 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.” 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.”

Givens has made this claim more than once… [here he cites Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2014), Kindle location 1396, which is inside Chapter 6, “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh”].

Boyce’s lengthy article would only be slightly longer and more fair if it reproduced the “single paragraph” that Boyce mentions and condemns. That paragraph provides important context and examples that undercut some aspects of Boyce’s stance. Here it is (Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146; quotation from 134–136):

1. The Prophetic Mantle

Abraham deceived Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah. Isaac deceived Esau and stole both his birthright and his blessing (but maybe that’s okay because he is a patriarch and not a prophet, strictly speaking). Moses took glory unto himself at the waters of Meribah and lost his ticket to the promised land as a result. He was also guilty of manslaughter and covered up his crime. Jonah ignored the Lord’s call, then later whined and complained because God didn’t burn Nineveh to the ground as He had threatened. It doesn’t get a lot better in the New Testament. Paul rebuked Peter sharply for what he called cowardice and hypocrisy in his refusal to embrace the gentiles as equals. Then Paul got into a sharp argument with fellow apostle Barnabas, and they parted company. So where on earth do we get the notion that modern-day prophets are infallible specimens of virtue and perfection? Joseph said emphatically, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.” To remove any possibility of doubts, he canonized those scriptures in which he is rebuked for his inconstancy and weakness. Most telling of all is section 124:1, in which this pervasive pattern is acknowledged and explained: “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D & C 124:1; emphasis added). Air-brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels so that we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s. Most crippling, however, are the false expectations this paradigm sets up: When Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that statement to mean that the prophets will not teach us any soul-destroying doctrine—not that they will never err. President Kimball himself condemned Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings as heresy; and as an apostle he referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a “possible error” for which he asked forgiveness. The mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. 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 (D&C 21:5).

In context, Givens’ statement seems well supported and points to obvious difficulties from assuming infallibility in Church leaders. Dealing with mortal leaders clearly requires “patience and faith.” But Boyce will make a seemingly plausible argument that Givens’ neglects a key part of the verse he cites, the phrase
“as if from mine own mouth,” thereby leading to grave error and an absurd, egregious reading of scripture. This, perhaps the most crucial argument of Boyce’s paper, will be addressed below.

Boyce goes on to give a firm rebuke to those who question the consistent accuracy of prophetic utterances or who think that the Lord only “occasionally” offers direct revelation to guide the leaders of the Church instead of constantly or continually guiding them, although the practical difference between “occasionally” and “continually” is rather vague and hardly a reasonable metric for discerning scholarly apostasy (could revelation, say, once or even twice a day be considered within the scope of a scholar’s “occasionally” and yet register as “continually” for another faithful member?). Boyce buttresses  his argument with declarations from scripture, statements from various leaders about the frequent revelation they experience, and anecdotes showing examples of the Lord’s ability to give specific and precise revelation. These teachings and examples are things which many faithful Latter-day Saints will and should generally accept. Revelation to our leaders, in addition to personal revelation in our lives, is a core element of the LDS faith. But Boyce’s collage of faithful clippings does not adequately cover the argument from Givens.

Indeed, Boyce, takes these widely accepted teachings regarding revelation and arguably takes them too far in his effort to criticize the thinking of some LDS writers seeking to cope with the occasional gaps between theory (the theory that prophets consistently speak for God) and practice. Some readers will think Boyce is advocating infallibility, but it is not exactly that. He recognizes that leaders are mortal and that error can occur, but only in relatively minor ways (see his footnote 60, where areas such as details for “activity days for Primary children or the awards to be earned by Priests or Laurels” or the length of missionary service are said to be obvious examples of the minor things where human error would not “lead the Church astray” and thus could plausibly occur).

The gap between theory and practice in dealing with prophets and revelation comes from the limitations of imperfect mortals when they act as divinely appointed but still mortal delegates for the perfect and glorious God of heaven and earth. Boyce seems to brush over these gaps without addressing, recognizing, and empathizing with the pain that can come human weakness. This pain is explained well in Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt:

Mormons frequently describe priesthood as the authority to act in God’s name. But they often fail to plumb the potentially vexing implications of that principle. Authority is the source of delegation, delegation involves humans, humans entail error, and error in the context of authority creates conflict and tension. These stresses, which involve fallibility in conduct as well as in words, can be a challenge to the most faithful. Imperfect actions can be personally devastating. Knowing in theory that even those in authority over us will succumb to the same flaws and weaknesses under which we also labor does little to mitigate the pain when we suffer from poor judgment or downright unrighteousness. Teachings that seem to bear the stamp of divine authority and are later declared to be in error are even more challenging to faith.

Austin Farrer, the great Anglican churchman beloved of C. S. Lewis and often quoted by Elder Neal Maxwell, wrote an essay on “Infallibility and the Historical Tradition.” Farrer’s effort to balance God’s divine purposes with the imperfection of His human instruments suggests one way Mormons might think about faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban). Practices, in other words, that challenge and try one’s faith; teachings whose status as eternal truth is either disconcerting, questionable, or now denied. Here is what Farrer said: “Facts are not determined by authority. Authority can make law to be law; authority cannot make facts to be facts.” (Or, as Henry Eyring once quoted his father as saying, “in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”)

What does it mean for us if God’s anointed leader propounds what is an error? What does this mean for the truthfulness of the Church, for our duty as members and as Christian disciples? Farrer continues his meditation on the subject with a discussion of the Lord’s meaning when He promised Peter that whatsoever he would bind on earth would be bound in heaven. Though he doesn’t use the kind of vocabulary Mormons often employ, we might think of what Farrer says in terms of the principle of priesthood delegation of authority: “If Peter and his colleagues make law in applying the Lord’s precepts, . . . their law is the law of Christ’s Church, the best (if you will) that God’s Spirit can make with human instruments there and then, and, as such, to be obeyed as the will of God Himself. But to call Peter infallible in this connection is to misplace an epithet” (Kindle edition, Chapter 6, Kindle location 1343).

The divine appointment and mortal fallibility of modern LDS prophets and apostles is much like what we learn from earliest Christianity. A fallible Peter who can even (temporarily) deny Christ after receiving the keys of the kingdom is still the Lord’s chosen servant and leader of the Church. But surely the various flaws among the early apostles were the source of confusion and pain at times for some of the Saints, and some degree of disappointment for us generations later.

Boyce never recognizes the sincerity with which Givens and many others can ask, “What does it mean for us if God’s anointed leader propounds what is an error?” This is not a nonsense question that can only come from critics or renegades in the faith. Boyce quotes various leaders to assure us that God will not allow men to lead His Church significantly astray, which many Latter-day Saints accept, but a gargantuan deviation from the purposes of the Church is not necessarily what Givens and others are addressing. Rather, they consider specific challenges from the past that continue to cause pain. Issues such as Brigham Young teaching puzzling and sometimes contradictory doctrines that are now called the Adam-God theory, a concept that has been officially repudiated by later prophets. One can argue that those teachings were Brigham’s personal opinions and not commandments or policies of any real import, and that may be right, but there were many who heard and read such things taught as doctrine resulting in confusion and pain, and that pain was not simply erased for all eternity when later prophets explained that Brigham was wrong.

Much greater pain derives from teachings regarding the previous race-related restrictions on the Priesthood. The very existence of that policy was painful enough, but his was exacerbated with the natural attempt of well-intentioned leaders attempting to fill in their knowledge gap with attempts at explaining the policy, resulting in more pain from speculative and harmful teachings. When revelation came in 1978 that did away with the previous policy, and when the Church officially renounced previous attempts to justify the old policy, the pain from that era and from the misguided human teachings was not erased. Part of that pain comes from the inescapable recognition that however constant and continuous revelation may be in the Church, it did not prevent erroneous and harmful speculation about the premortal worthiness of blacks from being espoused from the pulpit. What some leaders once taught as inspired doctrine was now renounced. Surely this experience must teach us something meaningful about the limitations inherent to having mortal leaders acts as God’s delegates on earth. Surely the pain and confusion from that episode in Church history needs to be recognized as a legitimate topic for scholars and laymen alike to discuss in understanding that the fallibility of mortal leaders is not just limited to theory but can have serious practical consequences beyond the trivial issues that Boyce would impose for its scope.

Boyce fails to acknowledge, much less empathize with, Givens’ well articulated sources of pain from the fallibility of divinely appointed leaders. Givens’ response is not one of an apostate a questionable scholar teaching radical, egregious, and absurd false conclusions that threaten to contaminate thinking in the Church, but of a believer who insists that the leaders in the Lord’s church are truly given authority from God and that revelation from God to men is real and offers insights drawn from scripture and history to guide the faithful in sustaining their leaders. He recognizes, wisely, that delegation is a terrible burden, one that imposes great challenges on those who receive it as well as those affected by it (Crucible of Doubt, Chapter 6). Before citing Givens’ teachings on delegation, it is time to again take up the primary and most pointed attack Boyce makes on Givens, that of abusing scripture in a way that results in absurd propositions and egregious, deceptive error.

Givens’ Alleged Abuse and Neglect of Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5:

When Terryl Givens cites Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5 to suggest we need “patience and faith” to follow the prophets since sometimes they will make human errors, Boyce finds this a nonsensical proposition based on an egregious misreading of scripture:

Misreading and Absurdity

Unfortunately, the interpretation Givens and Mason offer of this verse is untenable. After all, immediately prior to telling us to receive prophets’ word in patience and faith,9 the Lord tells us to receive that word “as if from mine own mouth.” But this creates an obvious problem. 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. This absurdity is not what Givens and Mason intend, but it is what their interpretation of the verse logically entails.

Boyce states that when Givens makes his argument by citing Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5, he only quotes one phrase, “in all patience and faith,” as if he is neglecting the key “as if from mine own mouth.” Boyce asks if patience and faith are needed to accept the words of prophets because of their fallibility, then why does the Lord tell us to accept those words “as if from mine own mouth”? Boyce insists that Givens’ reading would require us to likewise require faith and patience to receive words of the Lord directly from His own mouth because He, too, is not always reliable. Without the context that Givens supposedly has stripped out or overlooked, Givens misreads the verse to argue that it is because prophets are fallible that we need faith and patience to follow them. Not so, Boyce explains, for since their words are “as if” from God’s own mouth, the need for faith and patience is obviously not because God’s words are unreliable, but because of the sacrifices and trouble that may follow from the opposition of the world when we follow God. Thus, Givens makes a horrific blunder in misreading scripture and threatens to lead believers into doubting God’s words. Givens’ reading of Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5 is thus said to result in the absurdity of God Himself being unreliable, speaking words from His own mouth that cannot be trusted.

It’s an argument that can be made plausibly, but the next step, rather than condemnation of Givens and other scholars and a declaration of victory in defending the faith, should be to at least conduct the thought experiment of asking how Givens might respond to such a critique. Is it remotely possible that Givens thinks the Lord God is not reliable? Of course not. So must we assume that Givens has simply taken “faith and patience” out of context, as Boyce implies, and blindly missed or deliberately concealed the all-important statement about receiving the prophet’s words “as if from mine own mouth,” a statement that anyone can see leaves only one possible reading for the verse Givens distorts? Is Givens the scholar really this clumsy, building huge misleading arguments out of a catchphrase ripped from context and easily exploded by simple analysis of the text? Boyce says yes: “Unfortunately, Givens and Mason quote only a portion of the passage they cite, and this leads them into error.” Those two men are said to present a view of the prophets that “has had influence among the Saints, even though it is the near-opposite what the verse actually says and even though it entails a conclusion about the Lord that is logically absurd.”

Here Boyce’s warnings regarding inadequate scholarship might well be considered and applied to yield a more gracious argument. Yes, it is true that Boyce has found a paragraph form Givens that only directly quotes “faith and patience” from Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5. But are there vital other passages in Givens’ writings that show a serious awareness of the allegedly overlooked passage that might guide us in understanding what Givens actually means and how he might response to Boyce’s critique?

Beside Givens’ lone paragraph from a short article that Boyce has targeted, Boyce also is aware of a longer, more recent work of Givens that addresses this topic, as we see in his footnote 7 citing Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt. The citation is to Kindle location 1396, which is early in Chapter 6, “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh,” a carefully considered discussion of God’s delegation of authority and leadership to mortals where Givens also discusses Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5, including the issue of prophetic fallibility and the proper response of the faithful. A relevant excerpt follows:

Delegation is a sobering, even terrifying gesture on God’s part. To delegate or to deputize, both mean that the person receiving that authority has something like God’s power of attorney; the person’s acts, within circumscribed limits, carry the weight and efficacy of God’s own acts. But surely no human can act with the wisdom, the perfect judgment, the infallibility of God. Precisely so. And if delegation is a real principle — if God really does endow mortals with the authority to act in His place and with His authority, even while He knows they will not act with infallible judgment — then it becomes clearer why God is asking us to receive the words of the prophet “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” Indeed, this counsel was part of the very first revelation God gave to the newly organized Church in this dispensation, which should give the warning particular primacy among God’s many counsels. Clearly, the Lord can delegate His authority to a human without any assumption that said human will always exercise that authority in perfect conformity with God’s intentions. From Sunday School teachers to prophets, those with God’s authority to act in His name will, even with the best of intentions and efforts, make mistakes. God has already anticipated the need to overlook His prophets’ human weaknesses; hence His admonition on the day of the Church’s very founding. And so did Joseph himself remind his people: “if they would bear with my infirmities . . . I would likewise bear with their infirmities,” he said.

However, a different question emerges when it is the action, not the person, that is imperfect. If a bishop makes a decision without inspiration, are we bound to sustain the decision? The story is told of a Church official who returned from installing a new stake presidency. “Dad, do you Brethren feel confident when you call a man as the stake president that he is the Lord’s man?” the official’s son asked upon his father’s return home. “No, not always,” he replied. “But once we call him, he becomes the Lord’s man.” The answer disconcerts initially. Is this not hubris, to expect God’s sanction for a decision made in error? Perhaps. It is also possible that the reply reveals the only understanding of delegation that is viable.

If God honored only those decisions made in perfect accord with His perfect wisdom, then His purposes would require leaders who were utterly incapable of misconstruing His intention, who never missed hearing the still small voice, who were unerringly and unfailingly a perfect conduit for heaven’s inspiration. And it would render the principle of delegation inoperative. The Pharaoh didn’t say to Joseph, your authority extends as far as you anticipate perfectly what I would do in every instance. He gave Joseph his ring. The king of Spain didn’t say, I will honor your judgments and directives insofar as they accord with my precise conclusions at such a time as I second-guess your every word and act. He signed the viceroy’s royal commission. And after calling Joseph Smith to his mission, the Lord didn’t say, I will stand by you as long as you never err in judgment. He said, “Thou wast called and chosen. . . . Devote all thy service in Zion; and . . . lo, I am with thee, even unto the end.” [Doctrine & Covenants 24: 1, 7, 8]

So, what does this mean for us devoted disciples of the Loving God? In Farrer’s opinion, God “does not promise [Peter, or Joseph] infallible correctness in reproducing on earth the eternal decrees of heaven. He promises him that the decisions he makes below will be sanctioned from above.” In that view, if delegation has any meaning at all, then God is as good as His word. He honors the words and actions of His servants, sincerely executed on His behalf. Here Farrer gives an interesting reading of Christ’s words to Peter, that what His servant binds on earth, will (then and therefore) be bound in heaven. The words are God’s promise to give His divine weight of authority to the principle of delegation, to stand surety for the leaders He entrusts. (Givens, Crucible of Doubt, Kindle location 1363)

Givens’ teachings here should do much to strengthen the ability of Latter-day Saints to sustain not just the President of the Church but their leaders throughout the organization, even when we see human imperfection or suspect human error in a decision or policy. We may sincerely disagree, but there is a need to respect the divine commission of the Lord’s mortal delegates. There are other hard questions that still need to be taken up, and Givens does so, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Boyce and other faithful Latter-day Saints should welcome Givens’ thoughtful and faithful analysis of divine delegation in Chapter 6 of The Crucible of Doubt and not denounce it as heresy for suggestion that human imperfection may have practical and painful implications for the rest of us mortals in and out of the Church.

There can be no doubt that Givens has considered the import of the phrase “as if from mine own mouth.” There can be no suggestion that he has overlooked or deliberately neglected the key phrase in The Crucible of Doubt. We can see Givens’ thinking more fully and see how he weighs it. In my opinion, in light of the extensive discussion in Chapter 6 and even in light of the brief excerpt above, Givens’ reading becomes not only plausible but superior to Boyce’s.

Also note that the words “as if” can indicate that a non-existent, hypothetical, imaginary or even impossible situation is being described, as in “he acted as if the world were ending.” The world is not necessarily actually ending in that sentence. In the verse in question, the words we receive are not actually from the Lord’s own mouth. That would be a much different experience that what we actually have when a mortal speaks. Even though we are told to receive them as if they were from the Lord’s own mouth, there is a range of differences between the “as if” and the reality that can color the experience and our response. From the mortal prophet, we do not see the Lord’s glory nor feel the impressive surround-sound rumbling with intense bass and other incontrovertible soecial effects that some might expect were the Lord speaking to us directly with His own mouth. Rather, we may encounter a frail elderly man with a raspy voice addressing a topic which we might think he can’t possibly understand fully. This is the moment that requires faith and patience to also hear and accept the voice of the Lord.

One of those differences between hearing God speak directly versus God speaking to a fallible delegate is that mistakes are possible.

If the meaning of Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5 is that prophetic declarations are essentially as infallible as God Himself, and that faith and patience is needed only because of the future trouble that will come to those in the world who do God’s will, then why does the Lord continue in the next verse to speak of the miracles and success that will come to those who obey? By obeying the prophet, the powers of darkness will be dispersed, the gates of hell will not prevail against them, and heaven will shake for their good. These are glorious promises of success, a promise of powerful evidences and confirmations for the faith they exercised in obedience, not a warning of opposition that will try their faith and demand future faith and patience. The faith and patience seem to be needed now. The trial seems to be a present one.

Boyce also criticizes Givens for for his use of a 1963 letter from Spencer W. Kimball. Kimball, as an Apostle pondering the priesthood ban for blacks and the desire of many to change it, wrote “I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.” Givens cites this in the “single paragraph” above that draws the initial attention of Boyce and uses it to show that Elder Kimball could entertain the possibility that the priesthood policy arose through possible human error. Boyce is incredulous and accuses Given and Mason of radical error in once again misreading a simple sentence. Boyce states that since Kimball recognizes the policy as “the Lord’s policy,” it cannot possibly be in error, and therefor the “possible error” must refer to something else. Boyce argues that it refers to the possibility of “error committed in the pre-earth existence” that Kimball might have been considering (erroneously considering, that is). This might have been Kimball’s intent, but were it so, it is puzzling that he would use the singular “error” to describe the (hypothetical and now disavowed) errors of many individuals leading to their loss of priesthood rights. Such collective error/sins/mistakes of some kind are plural and that would be the most natural way to describe them. The use of the singular “error” would seem to more likely point to a human error in establishing the policy. How, then, could it be the Lord’s policy? Precisely because of the principle of delegation, in which error-prone humans act with the Lord’s authority to create policies in the Lord’s Church. It is the Lord’s Church, and to those who understand authority and delegation, or at least who accept the concept as neatly described by Givens, it is possible to recognize the policies in the Lord’s Church can be “the Lord’s” and yet be the result of human action and occasionally even some degree of human error. The argument can be made either way, actually, leaving no space to assume that a different plausible reading necessarily represents dangerous apostasy and radical error. Boyce is consistently too confident in his readings and in the assumptions he applies, and too harsh in criticizing those who differ.

Overall, while I agree with the importance of revelation and authority among our leaders, the “long shadow” of scholarly error condemned so strongly by Boyce looks much less fearsome in light of what the LDS scholars are actually saying, the historical realities that they must contend with, and the likely meanings of the verses or other passages they allegedly have abused. I hope Boyce will reconsider, for example, what Given has written about Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-5 and more fully consider the practical issues that beset and pain faithful members when human limitations come into play among Church leaders. Human fallibility is not just limited to low-pain impact on minor issues like the scheduling of Activity Days, but can have lasting impact on the Church.

Examples of lasting impact from human weakness can be cited from the areas that concern Givens (the past priesthood ban, the Adam-God theory, and the difficulties and implications of polygamy), but one that might be easier to consider involves Joseph Smith’s obvious mistakes leading to the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon. This problem, of course, was anticipated by the Lord and compensated for in part with the small plates of Nephi. However, I think one cannot reasonably deny that we as a Church have suffered loss as a result and would have had a stronger, larger, more data-rich text if we still had the 116 pages along with the rest of the Book of Mormon. You can say that we have all we need, all the Lord sees fit for us to have, etc., but those pages were there and were part of the sacred record written and preserved by ancient prophets at great cost to benefit us in our day, and through a modern prophet’s mistake we temporarily do not have them. Call that minor, but it matters to many of us. Prophetic fallibility matters, just as the fallibility of Apostles, stake presidents, bishops, and deacons quorum presidents can matter. Yet the Lord has called and authorized these leaders, whom we should sustain and support, in all patience and faith.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

31 thoughts on “An Unnecessary Attack on Faithful LDS Scholars: Does Prophetic Fallibility Matter?

  1. I see this is a problem with, say, the papacy. The Roman Catholic Church covered themselves by making things only infallible "ex cathedra." I am not sure of the mechanisms that prophecy is done. Yet, a fallible leader seems to be used in finger-pointing mostly.

  2. "I've inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone."–David O. McKay

    Are prophets so fallible that President McKay didn't receive this revelation that he thought he received?

  3. Something I respect the church for is its insistence on personal revelation. This however, is something that many believers in the church have laid aside in favor of blind faith. Blind faith requires much less work spiritually and is much more comfortable since it allows no room for doubt.

    If one reads the Doctrine & Covenants closely, it soon becomes apparent that any doctrine brought forth, whether it be by the Prophet or others, is something that should be ratified personally by each church member. Though it has become something of a formality in the church, the call for a sustaining vote is each person's chance to agree or disagree with leadership and their decisions. It is not a vote of fallibility or infallibility.

    So in the end, you don't have to agree with the church's stand on all details. If you haven't received your own personal revelation about a subject, you don't have to agree with it, and the church is pretty good about accepting divergent points of view, to a point.

  4. "If you haven't received your own personal revelation about a subject, you don't have to agree with it"

    And you teach ideas that imply the revelation of leadership is or was in error, you can fairly expect detailed pushback. Once Givens goes from his own private interpretation that the prophet truly meant the priesthood restriction was in error to publishing it in the context of other prophets committing egregious errors, it's fair for those who disagree to do so.

    Boyce approached Givens work in the most respectful way someone who strongly disagrees with it should do. He didn't call him an apostate as the author here implies he did. Those are the harsh words that should be retracted, not Boyce's. He simply said that our notable scholars are all missing something in how they approach the prophets in some cases, and here are some examples with detailed explanations. I think this is fair and true.

    The long quotation cited here on in patience and faith, does nothing to undermine Boyce's piece in my view. It's still clear that Givens is calling for us to have patience and faith with those sometimes errant prophets, and the context of the verse is completely opposite in that it's expecting us to have patience and faith in our circumstances as we try to implement those words of the prophets.

    But even so, about Joseph, the Lord said he will justify him and it's not our job to call him to the carpet for any of his transgressions. I think the same applies here. It's not our job to pick and choose where they may be wrong if we are covenanted to receive their words as if from the Lord's mouth.

    That doesn't mean blindly follow to a true latter-day saint, because we have the promise we can also receive those words from the Lord's mouth. In my adult years, I've never had the experience otherwise.

  5. Anon, you are right, Boyce does not explicitly call Givens or his teachings "apostate," and that word is admittedly a harsh interpolation on my part. I have accepted your advice and withdrawn that word (it is how shown as stricken out to let the public know of my change and my error). Instead, I have used more accurate language following Boyce's. Instead of "Givens’ response is not one of an apostate," I have: "Givens’ response is not one of a questionable scholar teaching radical, egregious, and absurd false conclusions that threaten to contaminate thinking in the Church." I hope that's more acceptable.

  6. Can you explain why you say that the context of D&C 21:4-5 is "expecting us to have patience and faith in our circumstances as we try to implement those words of the prophets" instead of having patience and faith in following the Lord's mortal agent who, necessarily, is not as perfect as the Lord? The following verse speaks of victory and vindication, not of future trouble to come that will try their faith in those days. The trial seems to be more present.

  7. I feel good when I read Givens' thoughts and ideas. I don't feel the same about Boyce. Inspiration perhaps?

  8. I agree with Boyce's interpretation of President Kimball's statement regarding "possible error." Speaking for a group, the singular would be used, but it is somewhat beside the point. Nowhere does President Kimball elsewhere suggest the policy was not the Lord's that I'm aware of (especially in light of official First Presidency statements to the contrary), and to employ an ambiguous statement on behalf of one's personal views (especially if done without, as you say, an overview of all that contradicts it) regarding the policy on blacks and the priesthood, does smack of scholarly (and nonscholarly, for that matter) misuse. I think the honest approach is to simply leave such outliers alone and not to eisegete one's personal views into the passage as apparently Givens does.

    (And for the record, I would have preferred an approach by Boyce where he keeps his discussion general, and any references to individuals in the footnotes when he cites their works.)

  9. I read Boyce's article and my thoughts were similar. I think it is a necessary perspective, but done a bit uncharitably.

    I feel like the church needs some doctrinal closure on the race/priesthood issue.

    Even an acknowledgement that "we don't know" may be helpful.

    I also wonder what the future holds. Trends in moral thinking change and I wonder if something will be really big in the future and will be used as a cudgel against prophets.

    For example, what if veganism becomes super fashionable? Will people say, "How could the prophets eat meat? Such barbarians!" And the word "barbarian" will be as socially damaging at the word "bigot" is today.


  10. I think it's helpful and healthy for there to be a discussion among apologists of different views. We might all be aiming for the same thing yet need that type of feedback of a faithful perspective rather than just hearing from critics. Yet as the task is worthy the execution seems lacking. (I've not finished reading it all, but for the parts I have read I concur with Jeff) I wish there was a discussion of the dangers of going a bit too far down liberal theology while engaging with our fellow apologists in a charitable loving fashion.

  11. "Can you explain why you say that the context of D&C 21:4-5 is "expecting us to have patience and faith in our circumstances as we try to implement those words of the prophets" instead of having patience and faith in following the Lord's mortal agent who, necessarily, is not as perfect as the Lord?"

    Boyce spends many words doing just that.

    Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
    5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
    6 For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you..

    Really, I'm not sure how we get from those verses to: patiently and faithfully receive the racist motivated multigenerational colossal screwup from every prophet, and if you do that you'll be protected from the gates of hell.

    Really, I think the idea of there being hell on earth, but if you look to the prophets words in faith and have patience in this life, you won't be overcome by the he'll around you.

    Have some patience and faith when you're being encircled by the agents of hell. Look to the my servant as if he were speaking my words, because he is. Do this and hell will not prevail against you.

    The other view that suggests this world can be he'll, and your prophet isn't perfect and will teach false doctorine, but have patience and treat that false doctrine as my own words and you'll be protected; is a bizarre concept. Sure anything is possible, but there's nothing like that in all if he scripture or apostolic teaching. To suggest that's a new gold standard up-ends so much of our teaching. And still doesn't get you anywhere, when the admonition is to view the mistakes in patience and faith as though God did it.

    Ok, so the priesthood restriction was wrong, but it's from God's mouth anyway?

  12. My thoughts actually spring from a couple of conversations I have had with people here in the past. In particular, I'm thinking about a conversation I had about the nature of God and how this person couldn't believe in a God that would order a genocide of the people who inhabited Palestine. Ethnic cleansing, etc. This reason is the same one given to justify same sex marriage and every other sin: it's basically Corianton's argument that God wouldn't punish people for sin. More broadly, God is not a God of justice, in other words.

    It struck me: this is what Boyce's article is about. Too many people just automatically assume that the ban on blacks and the priesthood was racist; put there by racists, etc. It's the same with polygamy: a regrettable practice that we are well served by not having today.

    Really? While I'm glad I don't have to live that commandment; I know of another commandment the Lord has revoked to our condemnation: that of the full law of consecration. We are missing out on great blessings because we cannot handle the law of consecration. And yet many people deride the early saints who tried to live it; who sacrificed amidst great persecutions for the practice of polygamy; the people who walked with angels pushing handcarts. These same people are "racists" and "sexists" for the priesthood ban as well as polygamy. Yet I would say that they were likely far closer to God than most of us are today. Who are we to judge them?

    I think Boyce is right that there is too much of the "we are better people now, more advanced and more moral than those bigoted early Saints." This is from all sides. And many of the same voices calling the Church racist and sexist for the past also call the Church bigoted on the same sex issue.

    If we admit the "racist past" of the Church and concede it was due to bigotry, we are almost all the way there to calling the Church and the Lord bigoted over same sex stuff too. The Lord has His reasons for things, and we don't know them. Boyce may have been a bit harsh, but the fundamental point he is making that the Lord does not make mistakes needs to be defended.

    The Lord's ways are not our ways, and I think people really forget that sometimes. The Gospel was instituted in very, very different societies than what we have now. Societies that in many ways were more barbaric, we would say. Yet these same societies had far better faith and far less sinning than ours. Are we really better than they?
    The Lord has answered that: our society is worse than them all. This in spite of our mighty technological advances and the giants of spirit saved for the last days.

    I agree that perhaps Givens was not fully represented by Boyce. But the need to defend the Lord is great as well. So perhaps don't be so hard on Boyce, even as you defend Givens.


  13. If past prophets taught hurtful marginalizing false doctrine in the past and those prophets and the members of that day knew by the Holy Ghost they were teaching true doctrine when the weren't, how can we have any confidence in what we believe is the Holy Ghost testifying of current beliefs to us today?

    IOW if the Holy Ghost is ineffective, at least at times,for a prophet to discern God's will from false doctrine and the Holy Ghost is ineffective for membership to discern if said prophet has attained God's will, and said false doctrine affects people's access to saving ordinances or distorts the very nature of God…… then what?

    "I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality. I repeat: Brigham Young erred in some of his statements on the nature and kind of being that God is and as to the position of Adam in the plan of salvation" – Bruce R McConkie

    Duane Boyce seems to perceive the conundrum and is doing his part to avoid the rabbit hole.

    Whereas Givens and Mason are walking us right into the question I have posed. They seemingly have a more realistic approach to our history and yet it also opens a can of worms to questions above that lack a good answer.

    – Bill Reel

  14. Bruce R. McConkie retracted his statement on Brigham Young teaching false doctrine to Elden Watson (in a personal communication according to Watson) when presented with an alternative theory as to what Brigham Young was actually trying to teach (his comments as we have them on Adam-God are contradictory without this particular explanation), so I'm willing to give BY the benefit of the doubt on that till we know more (i.e., the next life). But even Brigham Young knew the key to getting official doctrine right; when it is approved unanimously by the top quorums of the Church as he specifically taught.

    I personally feel under no obligation to accept everything the brethren say as being infallible (neither does Boyce). But no prophet is so fallible as to be able to be ignorant of the will of God when he wants to make it known, even a recalcitrant one such as with Joseph Smith and polygamy. There's always the angel with a flaming sword option, which is why on policies as impactful as that of limiting access to the priesthood, I give the prophets the benefit of any doubts I might have. I'm glad for God to correct me on the matter in the next life. The point is that I have a sure testimony of the recipients of the mantle and the role of prophets in this life, which is enough for me.

  15. This is all nonsense that leads away from living a fruitful and truly happy life outside the Mormon church.

  16. It feels like a lot of issues people have with the Church stem from the presumption of prophetic infallibility. To quote Michael Ash in "Bamboozled by the 'CES Letter:'"

    "We’ve all heard the 'milk before meat' and 'line upon line' idioms, but for some reason a number of members and critics seem to think that prophets have a USB port in the back of their spiritual heads through which God should be able to [upload] all advanced spiritual knowledge. These robo-prophets should then be able to dispense pure doctrine to their followers in words that make perfect sense to all those who listen to their voice or read their words, regardless of native language, culture, or period in which they live."

    And then when critics/antis can find one contradiction between so-called "doctrines," they claim victory. Blacks banned from having the Priesthood? Racism and bigotry!! Polygamy? Selfish sexual gratification!! Adam-God theory? Complete nonsense!! Too many critics and antis insist that the premise of prophetic infallibility proves the Church false, without stopping to consider that maybe the premise is false.

  17. John M. Said
    "There's always the angel with a flaming sword option"

    Which means God doesn't apparently care much for our free agency. If we decide we can't do something he forces us. I'll let you decide who's plan that was as I was taught for decades growing up in the church. Thinking this through, God Himself….mind you God HIMSELF told Joseph to live it and he wouldn't, so it takes a mere angel with a flaming sword to persuade him? That doesn't show me Joseph was all that impressed with God's commandment. Does it? This whole flaming sword wielding angel idea is ludicrous. God gives us our free agency until we say no then he forces the issue. That dog don't hunt.

  18. Kerry, there being consequences to our decisions, proportionate to our knowledge of God and the office of the priesthood we have agreed to act as stewards in, and to be subject to the custodian of that position, is not an abrogation of our agency. The conditions of holding the office are known before one takes the mantle upon themselves. I am convinced we gave God our full permission to make decisions regarding life, death, etc., in this life, and the decision to defy is always available. Our agency is intact. Avoidance of the consequences is not.

    A simple removal of the prophet from office through death without the necessity of an angel is perfectly acceptable as well, of course (and more likely), if that is the result the Lord intends (death). He knew Joseph's character before ever sending an angel to make sure Joseph understood his duty towards God as a holder of the prophetic office and head of the dispensation of the fullness of times. God's free to deal with me however he sees fit. That's the agreement we have with him.

    1. If God offers us a choice knowing beforehand what we're going to choose, is that agency or manipulation?

  19. Like I said John M. If we make our choice, God doesn't respect it, as in the case of the angel forcing Joseph Smith on pain of death to live his commandment. That is not free agency and we all know it. No amount of honeyed words and desperate apologetics will change the fact that Joseph Smith, based on that story of the angel, was forced into doing something against his will, with physical harm and death. That is not love. That is not free agency. That is coercion.

    And for Jeff Lindsay and your response to Boyce's article, you wrote the response well and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for doing so. It gives us all food for thought, which is always a good thing.

  20. If my 4-year-old hits me, he gets a time out. He knows that if he hits he gets a time out, but sometimes he does it anyway. Have I revoked his agency by setting a rule that says "No hitting, or else you get a time out"? I don't think so- he can choose whether or not to break the rule, but if he breaks it he gets in trouble.

    Sometimes I give him a choice such as "you can help me clean up this mess and then we can play your game, or you can let me clean it myself and we won't play your game." I know him well enough to know he will often choose not to help me clean up, even if I bend over backwards to make it easy for him to help me. Am I revoking his agency by giving him a choice when I know which one he's most likely to make? No- he is free to choose either way. But one choice leads to him getting to play his game, and the other does not. I will note that this is a choice involving two people. I have already chosen to clean up, but I could have chosen not to. That choice is independent of whether my son chooses to help, and he could choose to clean up without me if he wanted. It is the consequence (play game or not) that depends on both of us, not the initial decision.

  21. Kerry, how great to hear from you! Thanks for the helpful input. FWIW, I'll be in Salt Lake soon for a few days. Would be interested to learn about your latest discoveries in science or whatever.

  22. In my experience, those who like to emphasize or dwell on the imperfections of the brethren often take issue with some position or teaching of the Church that they don't like. Most recently, I have progressive friends who don't like the Church's position on homosexuality. I frequently hear them emphasize the humanity or fallibility of the brethren, but never hear them speak of the divinity of the Church or apostolic callings. The impetus of their recognizing the fallibility of the brethren is not to better understand the Church or revelation or doctrine, but rather to provide a basis to reject a teaching or position of the Church. Not surprisingly, a number of these friends have left the Church or are admittedly on the fringes of faith. I don't know what others' experiences are, but because of my experiences I'm always a bit leery of those who make it a point to dwell on the imperfections of the brethren. I think it is important to recognize that the brethren are imperfect, but there seems to be both a faith promoting and faith destroying way of doing such.

  23. When the brethren make a mistake, we shouldn't let that destroy our faith as though the church is suddenly not Christ's true, restored church as it proclaims to be.

    That's how we ought to approach the Brethren.

    How we should not do it, is to analyze publicly and privately past or present mistakes; especially not if we're going to use that as an rationale for how this or that which they teach or taught might be wrong.

    What does this mean in all practical difference? It clearly means you're doing it wrong if you want to spend time discussing their mistakes. Clearly the quotes from scripture above support this with either interpretation. It mattereth not…

  24. So your approach would be to recognize that there's a problem but ignore it? Pretend it doesn't exist? Where would you be if Joseph Smith hadn't questioned the religious leadership of his day?

  25. If the point is that Givens if questioning the false creeds and doctrines of the church and revealing truth to the members than it's worse than Byoce suggests.

  26. Part Two by Boyce is very well written and frankly I agree with his analysis. I was uncomfortable with several portions of Grant Hardy's book Understanding the Book of Mormon in which he spoke in negative terms regarding Nephi. Boyce is masterful in his critic of Hardy's book. I was surprised by the negative reaction Boyce received from Part One (although much of it was warranted) and yet to date not one positive comments found on the Interperter in his defense of the prophet Nephi. Thank-you Bro. Boyce for your defense as found in Part Two. And may the comments be civil.

  27. Grant Hardy has taken Nephi's words and turned them on him to show Nephi's alleged weaknesses and to paint him in a negative light. One could also do that using the words of Jesus to turn them on Him and paint Him in a negative manner. This is what the 2nd Century Greek philosopher did to the words and actions of Christ and the Apostles. I enjoyed reading Hardy's book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, but felt uncomfortable with his what I consider his manufactured criticism of Nephi. I think it is unhealthy to try to find weaknesses in the Lord's prophets. If we are looking for weaknesses we will find them. Finding rational to justify these weaknesses are not hard to find. This is a slippery slope. I am surprised that many apologists are more concerned about protecting the reputation of their fellow apologists than Nephi for example.

  28. Hardy purports to write his book as one being neutral as to the historicity or truth of the Book of Mormon. However he demonstrates throughout the book that it is unlikely that Joseph Smith was it author. He himself said, "Under close scrutiny it appears to be a carefully crafted, integrated work, with multiple narrative levels, an intricate organization, and extensive intratextual phrasal allusions and borrowings. None of this is foreign to fiction, but the circumstances of the book's production are awkward: the more complicated and interconnected the text, the less likely it is that Joseph Smith made it up spontaneously as he dictated the words to his scribes, one time through."

    My final comment. At my sacrament meeting today the young woman based her powerful talk on the follows words of Nephi:

    "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

    Show Cross-References

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.