On Mormon Inquiry, Dave has a post on The Evangelical Mind that refers to an article on pointing to “built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking” found in typical evangelical movements. This issue came to mind again this morning when I read a story about the Seventh Day Adventists insisting that the earth was made in six 24-hour days (“literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week,” according to a recent Adventist decree). I respect the Adventists, but feel that they are locking themselves into an untenable position on this issue. While we must take the Bible seriously, if we mistake it as the source of all revelation and see it as the final authority rather than our living God, then we shut out the possibility of further revelation, limit the scope of future knowledge, and create a paradigm in which intellectual inflexibility often ensues. Sadly, mental rigor mortis can be mistaken for firmness in the faith.
On the above-mentioned post at Mormon Inquiry, Dave asks if we Latter-day Saints have the same challenge. Comments from Clark Goble and myself on that post identify the LDS belief in continuing revelation as a key factor that frees us from the barriers that may keep some of our fellow Christians from being able to deal effectively with scientific progress or with other intellectual developments outside their religion. In practice, of course, it is natural and comfortable for us humans to build our own barriers against thought (LDS examples are not hard to find–myself included), but that is not what our religion and our God ask of us. And naturally, our critics will assume that we have abandoned thought simply by virtue of being LDS or Christian or non-atheist, but this is an unthinking assumption on their part. True LDS religion opens up the doors of intellectual progress, challenges us to look forward to further revelation, calls us to learn from the best books, urges us to get all the intelligence we can, tells us to see true religion and all other true knowledge as compatible, and teaches us that the Spirit works not just on our hearts but also our minds (see D&C 8:2-3 and 9:7-9).
Latter-day Saints, do you understand how radical and intellectually liberating our concept of continuing revelation is in today’s world? The Ninth Article of Faith, which we tend to take for granted and not contemplate nearly enough, has momentous importance: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” This means, of course, that we do not have all truth. We do not know it all (and do not have a monopoly on truth). Further, taken with the Eighth Article of Faith, we can understand that no text written by inspired humans, copied and edited by humans, translated by humans, and printed by humans can possibly represent God in perfect accuracy, but even if it did contain all that God had revealed with no loss, no error, no human influence of any kind, and no limitation in language, it would still be incomplete. It would not be the final authority on all matters, for that authority resides in God the Father, not in any physical object made with the hands of man (can the Bible be an idol? Bibliolaters, beware!).
God has not finished speaking – nothing in the Bible says He has, and Revelation and other books of the Bible indicate that there will yet be more prophecy and more revelation. (Here’s a tip to our critics from Paul: “Despise not prophesyings” (1 Thessalonians 5:20).) We don’t know it all – and that is a remarkably liberating thought. It inspires us to continue learning, to revise old assumptions when they appear to have been wrong, to assimilate new data, but not in a way that lets us be tossed about by every sleight of man: see Ephesians 4, which shows that it is the divine guidance provided by prophets and apostles – continuing revelation – that helps us avoid such deception, coupled with the anchor of a testimony of God and the revelations of the standard works (knowing, however, that they may not be perfect due to human influence and that they are not yet complete).
If there are conflicts or great unresolved matters, we can look to further revelation and information to provide clarity. Thus, when faced with new knowledge that seems to challenge our preconceived notions, we do not need to flee or build walls to keep the new knowledge away. We can examine it and move on. We keep our trust in God, and look to Him as the ultimate authority, knowing that when previously revealed information does not provide what we need, we know He can and does reveal more.
This dynamic is illustrated in our approach to science. I believe that Latter-day Saints once commonly assumed that the earth was created in six 24-hour days and was 6,000 years old. When scientific data contradicted those claims, the intellectual flexibility of our religion allowed us to go back to the text and realize that the word “day” in Hebrew can refer to an era, not just 24-hours. Nothing in LDS scripture actually required a young-earth view of Creation. In fact, LDS scriptures tell us specifically that God has not yet revealed the details of the Creation, and that significant future revelations await us on this matter. Here is Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-35:
32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things-
33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof-
34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.
This implicitly warns us to avoid thinking that we know all there is to be known about the Creation, and also warns us about the limitations of science, for even after all the advances man can make, we will rely on God to give the correct answer: Here is how the earth was made.
Our flexibility on the Creation is paralleled by our flexibility on understanding the reality behind the Book of Mormon. Early LDS leaders tended to assume that Book of Mormon told us everything about the origins of ancient Americans for all of North and South America. In the past century, LDS scholars and leaders have increasingly recognized that other migrations were possible, and when information came out pointing to heavy Asian origins for many of the ancient peoples of the Americas, it was easy to recognize that many nineteenth-century assumptions were not required by or even compatible with the text itself. Thus, to our critics chagrin, when they point to evidence that Asian genetic influence is dominant among Native Americans, it did not cause our testimonies to fly to pieces. In fact, the DNA evidence poses no serious trouble for the Book of Mormon, but may require some of us to discard old assumptions about the text and read the book more carefully.
Part of the healthy LDS approach to matters of the intellect also comes from recognizing the limitations of our leaders, including the prophets. Just as no text that passes through human hands is infallible, no human leader, whoever inspired, is infallible. The Bible shows that prophets can and do make mistakes. We revere our prophets, but recognize that they may have biases and other shortcomings, and do not demand that every opinion and every sermon is something we have to accept. By the same token, we should recognize that some of our own views may be incorrect and may need to be corrected.
Let us rejoice in the restored doctrine of continuing revelation. Surely if there is a true Church of Jesus Christ on the earth, it will be one that He leads as He led His original Church: through continuing revelation to living prophets and apostles that He calls and authorizes. Surely if there is a Church of Jesus Christ that He recognizes as His Church, it will be one that accepts continuing revelation from Him. We don’t need the faith-promoting urban legend about the “17 Points of the True Church” (if the story is really reliable, let me know, but I don’t think so). To get started, one should consider this one point first: a true church of Jesus Christ, IF such exists at all, will be one that is open to continuing revelation from Him. And I’m so grateful that such a church is on the earth today.
Latter-day Saints, do you appreciate how significant, how expansive, and how intellectually exciting the doctrine of continuing revelation from God is? We should rejoice in this matter and look forward with great earnestness to receiving yet more from Him. But we hold back the flood of revelation, I fear, in not fully accepting, using, and living what has already been revealed. Now get out those scriptures and study – and take time to learn from the other “best books” that came from sources outside our religion as well. The more we open and fill our minds, the more God can add.