Monday, January 4, 2016

The Concept of Infallibility – Part I

There seems to be a really big problem among theorists who go around quoting this leader or that leader of the Church in what they have said over time, especially recently with all the quotes stated here on some blogs that use Oliver Cowdery’s comments to “prove” the hill Cumorah was located in New York. 
One of the things these individuals seem to lack an understanding in is that because someone of prominence in the Church, including a prophet, gives their own opinion on something that it is absolute doctrine. As Joseph Smith said, “A prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such” (Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 5:265).
     A question posed by one of our readers recently asked, “Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?”
     According to Charles W. Penrose, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve (1904-1911), “We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility” ("Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11, September 1912). And this is as true today as it was over 100 years ago.
    Brigham Young said: “I have known many times I have preached wrong,” (Brigham Young, in Thomas Bullock minutes, 8 May 1854, Church Historical Department). He also said, “The great masses of the people neither think nor act for themselves…I see too much of this gross ignorance among this chosen people of God” (Journal of Discourses 9:295), and also: “Ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you to think for yourselves, and read your Bibles for yourselves, get the Holy Spirit for yourselves, and pray for yourselves” (Journal of Discourses 11:107).
    We need to keep in mind that apostles and prophets such as Joseph Smith declare God’s word, but in addition, we believe men and women generally and even children can learn from and be guided by divine inspiration in response to prayer and study of the scriptures. Just as in the days of the ancient Apostles, members of the Church of Jesus Christ are given the gift of the Holy Ghost, which facilitates an ongoing communication with their Heavenly Father, or, in other words, personal revelation (Acts 2:37-38). In this way, the Church becomes a body of committed, spiritually mature individuals whose faith is not blind but seeing—informed and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that every member speaks for the Church or can define its doctrines but that each can receive divine guidance in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of his or her own life.
    The problem arises when people hold inerrantist (error free) beliefs about scriptures or prophets, and assume that the Church has similar views. This leads some (both critics and members) to assume that prophets are infallible. As stated above Joseph Smith himself taught that ‘a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such’ (Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976, p278). The Church has always taught that its leaders are human and subject to failings as are all mortals. Only Jesus was perfect, as explained in this statement from the First Presidency: “The position is not assumed that the men of the New Dispensation —its prophets, apostles, presidencies, and other leaders—are without faults or infallible, rather they are treated as men of like passions with their fellow men.” James R. Clark, quoting B. H. Roberts, Messages of the First Presidency, edited by James R. Clark, Vol. 4, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1970), p. xiv–xv).
Along this line, Brigham Young said: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self–security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” (Journal of Discourses 9:150; 12 January 1862).
    Along this same line, Harold B. Lee stated the same doctrine and quoted Brigham Young’s above comment (Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, pp. 162–63, "The Prophet, Seer, and Revelator," Address delivered to seminary and institute teachers, BYU, 8 July 1964.)
    Lucinda Lee “Lu” Dalton, a plural wife, poet, educator and suffragist writing in the Church's periodical for women, who defends her religion, calls for the expansion of women’s political and economic opportunities and asserts that the elevation of women is crucial to achieving the potential of both sexes, explained: “We consider God, and him alone, infallible; therefore his revealed word to us cannot be doubted, though we may be in doubt some times about the knowledge which we obtain from human sources, and occasionally be obliged to admit that something which we had considered to be a fact, was really only a theory” (Woman's Exponent, Salt Lake City, 15 July 1882, p. 31).
    We understand that the prophets are not perfect, but they are called of God. They may speak as men, but may speak scripture as well. Every person may know for themselves whether they speak the truth through the same power that their revelation is given: the power of the Holy Ghost.
    Dallin H. Oaks explained how the Lord allows all His children to grow through struggling with problems: “Revelations from God…are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. Fortunately, we are never out of our Savior's sight, and if our judgment leads us to actions beyond the limits of what is permissible and if we are listening…the Lord will restrain us by the promptings of his Spirit” (Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, March 1997, p14).
    Unfortunately, some question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many, so that our doctrine is not difficult to find.
    The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father…but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Ether 12:6).
In a sermon preached a little over a month before he was martyred, Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught” (The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 1980, p369).” He warned the Saints against mortal imperfections, he did not raise himself above them, and they loved him for it. He cautioned a group of Saints newly arrived in Nauvoo against the tendency to be dissatisfied if everything was not done perfectly right. “He said he was but a man and they must not expect him to be perfect,” an associate recorded. “If they expected perfection from him, he should expect it from them, but if they would bear with his infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, he would likewise bear with their infirmities” (The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 2, Journal, 1832–1842, ed. Dean C. Jessee [1992], p489).
(See the next post, “The Concept of Infallibility – Part II,” in which more comments are added from Church leaders and doctrine to the point that LDS do not consider their leaders infallible or perfect men)

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