long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Repeated teachings

I've been reading the report of the 45th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium at BYU, published in the book titled Foundations of the Restoration (Deseret Book and the Religious Studies Center at BYU, 2016). There's a lot of good material in here. I particularly enjoyed Alex Baugh's chapter on Adam-ondi-Ahman and Bruce Van Orden's chapter on W.W. Phelps.

Chapter 2, "Evaluating Latter-day Saint Doctrine," was written by Anthony R. Sweat, Michael Hubbard MacKay, and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. They propose a hierarchy of LDS doctrine:

1. Core, eternal teachings/doctrine (unchanging truths of salvation)
2. Supporting teachings/doctrine (elaborate, descriptive, timely teachings expanding on core doctrine)
3. Policy teachings/doctrine (timely statements related to applications of supportive and eternal teachings)
4. Esoteric teachings/doctrine (Unknown or only partially revealed or yet to be revealed truths)

They explain that the "model encourages the evaluation of each doctrine and requires careful historical and theological thought to understand the meaning of doctrines past, present and future, rather than basic acceptance of all declarative statements as being eternally binding."

To their credit, the authors recognize a potential drawback to their analysis: "We are not ignorant to the contradictions of our own positions within this paper--that we are encouraging a more flexible and expansive understanding of Latter-day Saint doctrine, all the while drawing circles and lines to confine it."

An example of the lines they draw are these four questions they offer to assess teachings:

1. Is it repeatedly found in the scriptures?
2. Is it proclaimed by the united voice of the current Brethren?
3. Is it consistently taught by current General Authorities and general officers acting in their official capacity?
4. Is it found in recent Church publications or statements?

I was interested in the emphasis on current and recent statements. The examples given pertain mainly to policy teachings/doctrine, such as the age of missionaries. These are essential to the ongoing operations of the Church, of course, but what of doctrine consistently taught by former prophets and apostles that are rarely if ever discussed today?

For example, modern Church leaders rarely, if ever, discuss Adam-ondi-Ahman, but as brother Baugh's chapter points out, the doctrine about that place is important for many reasons. Orson Pratt added D&C 116 to the 1876 edition, but it is not a teaching repeatedly found in the scriptures. The last time it was cited in General Conference was in 1986, by Elder Maxwell. Before that, 1980, by Elder Petersen. Alvin R. Dyer cited it in 1967 and 1968, and that was the first time since 1884, when John Taylor mentioned it.

From this, should we infer that Adam-ondi-Ahman is no longer important?

Or should we infer that the doctrine is so well established that there is no need for the current Brethren to reiterate it?

The latter makes more sense to me.

There is only so much bandwidth. The current Brethren fill that bandwidth with teachings and policies that address current needs, but I think the four question approach makes a mistake in overlooking what previous prophets and apostles have consistently taught.

The authors' point, in my view, would be better served by dropping the emphasis on current and recent. In fact, in their discussion of question 3, they seem to recognize a broader view, emphasizing the importance of cumulative teachings:

"There is safety in the cumulative teachings of general Church officers. Though many doctrines are emphasized, those that have staying power and find their way into the talks and statements delivered to the membership of the Church by numerous authorities can be trusted more than individual statements. As the LDS Newsroom article 'Approaching Mormon Doctrine' reminds, 'a single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding [doctrine] for the whole Church.' As Elder Neil L. Andersen said, "The doctrine of the Church... is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.'"

Because this blog focuses on Book of Mormon geography issues, I encourage readers to consider the number of times Letter VII (the New York Cumorah) has been officially reprinted and quoted, compared with the zero times the non-New York Cumorah has been officially taught.

See the Letter VII blog for examples, here: http://www.lettervii.com/.

I've mentioned that in my experience, many Church leaders take the New York Cumorah for granted, as a well-established teaching. They don't seem to realize how many LDS scholars and educators have rejected that teaching in favor of promoting a two-Cumorahs theory.

The authors quote a relatively obscure sermon by Brigham Young about how the Lord teaches the prophets gradually. It's a useful teaching that I'm inserting here for future reference:

"The Lord can't reveal to you and I that we can't understand; ... for instance when Joseph first received revelation the Lord could not tell him what he was going to do. He didn't tell him he was going to call him to be a prophet, seer, revelator, high priest, and founder of [the] kingdom of God on earth. Joseph would have said... "just what does that mean? You are talking that I can't understand." He could merely reveal to him that the Lord was pleased to bless him and forgive his sins and there was a work for him to perform on the earth and that was about all he could reveal. The first time he sent [an] angel to visit him he could then lead his mind a little further. He could reveal to him there was certain records deposited in the earth to be brought forth for the benefit of [the] inhabitants of the earth. He could reveal after this that Joseph could get them; then he could reveal he should have power to translate the records from the language and characters in which it was written and give it to the people in the English language, but this was not taught him first. ... He could then tell him he was to be called a prophet. He could then reveal to Joseph that he might take Oliver Cowdery into water and baptize him and ordain him to [the] priesthood. After this he could tell him he could receive the high priesthood to organize the church and so on. ... This is the way the Lord has to instruct all people upon the earth. I make mention of this to show you that ... the Lord can't teach all things to people at once. He gives a little here [a] little there, revelation upon revelation, on revelation after revelation, a precept today, tomorrow another, next day another. If the people make good use of it and improve upon what the Lord gives them, then he is ready to bestow more."

[Brigham Young, Discourse, 25 March 1855, Papers of George D. Watt, MS 4534, box 3, disk 1, images 142-53, transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth, punctuation and capitalization added.]

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