Monday, April 12, 2010

Debating the role of "official LDS media" in establishing certain teachings as correct

The following is a comment too long to include on R. Gary's blog, since my comments there were already getting a bit long. I thus post a response here:

Gary, I appreciated getting to understand your viewpoint better. It seems, however, that we indeed disagree on the role of "official church media". Take the Bible Dictionary, for example. It is part of "official LDS media", but its introduction states: "It is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth". Therefore, simply because the drafters interpreted a couple of scriptures as teaching that there was no death before the fall, it still isn't an endorsement by the Church on that doctrine.

As an aside, even though I agree with Elder Talmage, I would not prevent other views from being published (whether taught by Woodruff or Lee) because that's what they personally taught. But I also recognize that just teaching something and publishing it doesn't automatically elevate it to "truth" , nor does it canonize one "right" position simply because it gets included in a manual. Of course, this touches upon The Challenges of Defining Mormon Doctrine-another important conversation.

I certainly would not assume, as you seem to imply, that President Eyring in the current First Presidency disagrees with his father's published views about death before the fall simply because President Eyring "could" have prevented teachings to the contrary from being published but did not. If I understand your position correctly, then the lack of statements in church manuals or the inclusion of statements from old church manuals in current church publications demonstrates (according to you) an implicit endorsement by everyone in the current First Presidency and the Twelve on those positions. This makes absolutely no sense to me, and here is why:

1. Not everything published in official LDS media becomes an official LDS position.
2. But even if we take your view, it cuts both ways.

For example, Joseph Smith taught that "God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all" (p. 210 in the printed version of "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith" (2007). It is significant that this was published without any comments, footnotes or clarifications by Harold B. Lee, Joseph Fielding Smith, or Spencer W. Kimball. The manual does not include Joseph Fielding Smith's interpretation in "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith" on how to read Joseph Smith. It is clear that the Church wants people to read Joseph Smith on his own terms. The fact that the First Presidency and the Twelve decided to publish Joseph Smith's teachings without Joseph Fielding Smith's interpretation is evidence that the the First Presidency and the Twelve all agreed and were united that it is better to publish Joseph Smith's teachings without Joseph Fielding Smith's commentary.

Another point. The editors of the Ensign approved an article containing Elder Talmage's words in the Sept. 1987 issue of Ensign. In fact, according to your logic, the First Presidency approved this because they are the ultimate editors of the Ensign: "We can only conclude, as Elder Talmage did, that “the whole series of chalk deposits and many of our deep-sea limestones contain the skeletal remains of animals. These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation."

Now, how could the Apostles and Prophets allow the Ensign issue to go to publication if they disagreed with that statement? Unless you want to admit the fact that not everything published in the Ensign has been unanimously endorsed by the First Presidency and the Twelve. Because according to your logic, the fact that it was published in 1987 without any opposition by the First Presidency or the Twelve shows that they didn't disagree with it. If they disagreed with it, they would not have published it. That article was published twice--Sept 1987 (Ensign) and April 1988 (Tambuli)--which gave the Church two chances to reject the article but instead it was published twice in an official LDS publication.

The Ensign for Sept. 1987 lists the admin and staff as follows:
The First Presidency: Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson
Quorum of the Twelve: Marion G. Romney, Howard W. Hunter, Boyd K. Packer, Marvin J. Ashton, L. Tom Perry, David B. Haight, James E. Faust, Neal A. Maxwell, Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks, M. Russell Ballard, Joseph B. Wirthlin

All of these apostles and prophets allowed this September issue to be published and none of them rejected the article that quoted Talmage, including the current President Monson, as well as Packer, Perry, Nelson, Oaks and Ballard who are still current apostles.


R. Gary said...

Cheap shot straw man argument not appreciated: "Unless you want to admit the fact that not everything published in the Ensign has been unanimously endorsed by the First Presidency and the Twelve."

It's way too easy for you to shoot me down on something I've never even said. Of course, you actually just shot your own straw man.

Here's what I believe: There's a big difference between what the FP/12 say versus what Morris Petersen says in the Ensign. God calls apostles and prophets (the First Presidency and Twelve) to teach His doctrine. He asks the rest of us to say "none other things than that which the prophets and apostles have written" (D&C 52:9). What the apostles and prophets write is much more important that what anyone else writes in the Ensign.

Here's a little rule that works well for me: Take a prophet's words and find the interpretation that fits the largest number of his peers, focusing first on his most recent peers.

Joseph Smith's meaning not obvious: "God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all."

Personal interpretations of Joseph Smith do NOT trump the teachings of his successors, each of whom was called by God to interpret Joseph's words. Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball were all authorized by God to elaborate on Joseph's teachings and tell us what his words mean: "Your spirits were created" (click here) does not contradict Joseph, it clarifies him.

Clean Cut said...

Gary, I was sincerely trying to understand your position and engage your arguments. If you don’t think I articulated it accurately, does that really qualify my response as a "straw man" or a "cheap shot"? I wouldn't say it's either of those things when I’m seeking to clarify what you believe. Innocently misunderstanding your position is one thing but a cheap shot is quite another.

By any means I'm glad to have you clarify that you do not believe that everything published in official LDS media carries with it the endorsement of the First Presidency and the Twelve. Does this also work on the flip side--that just because there is a lack of statements about something does not necessarily mean that they’ve all formed a position against it? That’s what it seemed you were suggesting was going on ever since 1970.

Concerning your clarification, I agree that what the prophets and apostles write carries more weight than "just anybody" else, but this conversation was never about that. That's not the argument. It was about the fact that not everything published, even in “official LDS media” carries an ultimate endorsement one way or the other.

Naturally there is a “difference” in weight between what a BYU professor and the First Presidency/Twelve say. But Peterson wasn’t just writing his own opinion here. He reiterates the teachings of Elder Talmage--who was an apostle--and does so in a church approved magazine. People were actually writing into the Ensign with a question and the editors of the Ensign (the apostles and prophets) actually allowed Petersen to provide an answer that would be read by the total readership of the Ensign, domestic and international (in 1987 by the way).

You again want to make this shift from Talmage (apostle) to Peterson (non-apostle) and say that this is just what Peterson who isn't called as an apostle thinks. Peterson is referring readers to the teachings of an apostle (Talmage) who God called to teach His doctrine. And the editors of a church magazine, the Ensign, who are also prophets and apostles, allowed for Peterson to answer that question.

The point was to use your own logic (ie: President Eyring's "position") to show that if they disagreed with any death before the fall they could have prevented that from being published, but they did not. Just saying that it cuts both ways. You’re of course welcome to adjust your argument.

As per Joseph Smith's teachings about whether spirits were created—I did not insert ANY interpretation, personal or otherwise. To me, his meaning is patently obvious. Spirits are not created, they are uncreated and eternal. It is the actual words of the text. The fact that the current apostles and prophets have chosen in the year 2007 to publish Joseph Smith's words without any "clarification" by anyone else, is evidence that Joseph Smith's words mean exactly what they say. Spirits are not created. "It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it." Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007) p. 210. Doesn't get any clearer than this.

Mitch said...

I don't worry too much about what the church leaders say or don't say. For example, not one church leader in my lifetime has ever written about the two sacrament prayers being written in the subjunctive. Instead they focus on the word "may" instead of the true wording "are willing".

We don't make a covenant each Sunday to keep the commandments. No, instead we renew our covenant to be willing to keep the commandments. Do I worry when I hear the church leaders speak in error? No. I just am thankful that the Holy Ghost has confirmed this truth to me years ago.

I read LDS media materials, but find it silly to believe everything that comes from it. That's what the Holy Ghost is for.

SmallAxe said...

Let me try.

This relates to the post I did a while ago on "imposed openness".

The situation, as it pertains to the issue at hand seems to be as follows: Human beings came about in a certain way. This "way" is a matter of fact, and does not change based on our different understandings. People attempt to come to a knowledge of this fact through a variety of means--biology, direct revelation, etc. These means provide a different interpretation of the fact of human creation. They conflict with each other, and even change internally, but they do not change the "real way" humans were created (what ever this real way is). This is a truth, and as a truth it does not change.

In the history of the Church, authoritative voices have attempted to get hold of this truth, and have come to different answers. If we remain open to the fact that the current authoritative interpretation of this truth ( which does seem to be NDBTF) could change (let's say to some form of evolution), I'm not sure how confident we should be that NDBTF is the truth about the creation of human beings.

IMO, this leaves us in a situation where we must accommodate the plurality of positions. It leaves us in a state of "imposed openness".

Clean Cut said...

Thanks Smallaxe. In fact this conversation DOES very much relate to your Imposed Openness post. I actually had thought about linking to that earlier. Glad to do so now.

At the same time, while acknowledging and allowing room for the imposed openness, I also think it's important to try to persuade people to reject interpretations that seem to fly in the face of reason and accept more supportable positions. I like Henry Eyring's quote here:

"In my judgment, anyone who denies the orderly deposition of sediments with their built-in radioactive clocks places himself in a scientifically untenable position. Actually, the antiquity of the earth was no problem for two of our greatest Latter-day Saint leaders and scientists, John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage. However, there are vast differences in the training and background of members of the Church. Therefore, I am completely content that there is room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were twenty-four hours, one thousand years, or millions of years. I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert others to what he thinks is right." - Henry Eyring, "Reflections of a Scientist", (Bookcraft, 1983) p.56

SmallAxe said...

Good quote.

The problem for R. Gary (and for all LDSs in general) is the relationship between fact (usually referred to as "truth") and interpretation. Most LDSs (and R. Gary is exemplary in this respect) want to hold to both truth and the interpreters of truth (the priesthood leadership of the Church). Most of the time the tension between truth and interpretation is resolved (i.e., the interpretation of priesthood leaders coheres with the truth); however, in situations such as this there is tension. If truth does not change, then why do the authoritative interpretations of Church leaders change?

There are a few ways to deal with the situation (and these aren't mutually exclusive):

1) Accept that such tension cannot be resolved and accept a plurality of opinions. The issue with this approach is whether or not it challenges the authority of Church leaders who now simply offer "opinions" on the matter.

2) Seek after "truth" through some other means, such as science. The problematic implications here are rather obvious from the perspective of those within the Church.

3) Follow the current authoritative interpretation of Church leaders. This requires an attitude of, "They may occasionally be wrong, but they'll get me into Heaven." And/or, "Their interpretations are most definitely better than mine."

There of course may be other approaches. From the perspective of the Church as an institution that has vested interest in maintaining its authority, the third option is obviously the best (although we can also find elements of the first option in Church discourse). This is the option R. Gary seems to take. The issue, however, is whether or not this option truly resolves the tension between truth and interpretation, or if it just glosses over it. My sense is the latter. It puts people in an awkward position of taking a stance on an issue that changes based on the leadership of the Church. It raises the question of whether they are seeking after the truth, or seeking to follow a potentially dated interpretation of the truth. This is why I'm more of a proponent of option 1.

Papa D said...

One of my favorite quotes is:

"If you belief something, no matter what it is, join the LDS Church. More than likely, there is an apostle or Prophet who has taught it."

I know that is an over-statement, and the conflicting opinions of apostles and Prophets over time (and even contemporaneously) has been used as a bludgeon by anti-Mormons ever since the beginning of the Restoration, but I personally LOVE the fact (and I do mean "fact") that there is NO consensus within the Church leadership over time on lots of things.

It's funny to me to listen to people say that Mormons are brain-washed robots or sheep, then to listen to those same people complain that Mormon leaders aren't in perfect harmony with each other on even major theological questions. It's really quite hilarious.

As to the post title, "official LDS media" doesn't establish the correctness of anything, either through direct statements or through silence - and I know this because says so. LOL

Clean Cut said...

Smallaxe, I like where you're going with this. I'm interested in discussing those and other approaches--(maybe even a hybrid between them?)

Papa D, I love you. Ditto.

R. Gary said...



I like your comments. You mention concepts on which we can agree. For example, I agree there are sometimes multiple points of view.

In this case, however, a thorough review of Church produced magazines and manuals for the past 40 years reveals that, in their Church published writings, consensus does exist among the FP/12 on ndbf. They currently articulate a single point of view on that point.

It is true that your third approach appeals to me. My own justification for following "the current authoritative interpretation of Church leaders," includes D&C 1:14, 38; 84:36-37, 44.

I'm glad you joined in this discussion.


Clean Cut,

Blogging can be fun, even when there is disagreement. On the other hand, debating straw man arguments is not fun and takes more time. I'll assume your comment was genuine when you said, "I was sincerely trying to understand your position and engage your arguments." But it's still frustrating when you engage arguments I never made. So let me try again.

A straw man argument is when a debater attacks an easily refuted argument that no one has made in the debate. It is an inferior debate tactic.

For six years, my online point of view about the Bible Dictionary has not changed. It was first stated on the web in 2004 as follows: "The LDS Bible Dictionary is not intended as an official endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal matters set forth therein" (click here). Since then I've posted about the Bible Dictionary on my blog many times (click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) while keeping the same point of view.

But even without reading any of the above, you do know the following statement from your original post does NOT refute anything you heard from me:

-------------- quote --------------
"Take the Bible Dictionary, for example. It is part of  'official LDS media.'  but its introduction states:  ' It is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth.'  Therefore, simply because the drafters interpreted a couple of scriptures as teaching that there was no death before the fall, it still isn't an endorsement by the Church on that doctrine."
-------------- end quote --------------

It's true your statement makes a good argument, but I never said what it refutes. You also repeated in your first response the straw man example I mentioned in my first comment. Both of these arguments were easily refuted by you. But so what? What have you accomplished by disproving arguments that weren't made?

Clean Cut said...

Okay. I engaged one argument you never made. What about the other arguments I've made which you have not engaged?

One thing is becoming more clear to me. You have a highly nuanced (and personally dizzying) rationale for believing what you believe, and for believing things that Church authorities say.

Clean Cut said...

Gary, is the September 1987 Ensign disagreeing with "the Church" or its leaders?

R. Gary said...


Clean Cut,

1. I've never said the Bible Dictionary is an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of anything.

2. I've never said everything published in the Ensign was unanimously endorsed by the FP/12.

3. I've never said teaching something and publishing it automatically elevates it to "truth."

4. I've never said what's in the manual is by that reason alone canonized or the one "right" position.

That's four arguments you've refuted that I never made.

Now let's go on and talk about some of your other points.

5. I disagree with you that a prophet's words (with or without comments, footnotes or clarifications) can be used to show more recent prophets are wrong.

6. If the Church wanted people to read Joseph Smith on his own terms only, the Church would not publish other magazines or manuals. The teachings of prophets and apostles are woven together into one grand tapestry. You can't cut one thread from one prophet and expect it to stand alone.

7. What is patently obvious to you was apparently not so obvious to Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball (click here).

8. The fact that the FP/12 published Joseph Smith's teachings without interpretation does not mean they disagree with other prophets on how to interpret the Prophet Joseph.

9. I agree with you that there is a difference in weight between what a BYU professor writes and what the FP/12 write.

10. The editors of the Ensign did NOT give Morris Petersen's article any more status than they gave my own article (click here) two years later.

11. What apostles Talmage and Widtsoe said about ndbf is unsupported by their peers.

12. No apostle or prophet for the past 40 years has agreed with Talmage or Widtsoe about death before the fall in any Church magazine or manual.

13. At the same time, the apostles and prophets themselves for the past 40 years have repeatedly and continuously taught ndbf in Church publications.

14. How can the apostles and prophets allow an Ensign issue to be published if they disagree with something it contains? Again (see number 2) I've never said everything published in the Ensign was unanimously endorsed by the FP/12.

15. Publication of the Petersen article had no effect on what the FP/12 themselves have written and what they have unanimously approved for publication on the subject of ndbf since 1970.

16. My logic regarding President Eyring does NOT cut the other way as you imply because (as we've already discussed, see number 2) not everything published in the Ensign is unanimously endorsed by the FP/12 but the Woodruff manual was so approved.

Pick a number. Let's talk.

R. Gary said...

Clean Cut,

On Sunday, Aug. 9, 1931, Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve Apostles spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In his sermon, Elder Talmage affirmed his geologist's perspective on earth's early development, with life and death before man's advent. He said:

"According to the conception of geologists,... plants and animals ... lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation." (Pamphlet, "The Earth and Man," LDS Church, 1931, p.4.)

President Heber J. Grant — or, as another account has it, his First Counselor Anthony W. Ivins — authorized publication of the speech as a Church pamphlet, hence some view it as a statement of the Church on the question of death before the fall.

This view disregards the fact that only a few months earlier the First Presidency, as a Presidency, had considered that question and declined to rule one way or the other — which leads to what I believe is another possible (and more probable) explanation as to why the pamphlet was published.

Church leaders had been privately discussing a priesthood manual written by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy. A reading committee consisting of five Apostles had recommended that the manual remained unpublished primarily because its double creation theory asserted death on this earth before the time of Adam.

In April, 1931, after discussions had escalated to include the full Council of Twelve Apostles, the First Presidency ruled in favor of the reading committee regarding publication of the manual, but declined to rule on the question of death before the fall.

Only once had anything appeared in print that was related to these closed-door discussions. In a speech delivered in April 1930 and published six months later, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (without mentioning Roberts, his book, or his double creation theory) had presented scriptural evidence against death before the fall of Adam.

Publication of the Talmage speech the following year (again without mentioning Roberts, his book, or his theory) thus created a more balanced public record of what had otherwise been a private discussion.

Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey Keller point out that "it was not Talmage's intent to assert [the sermon] as the church position on the subject." ("The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair," in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993, 104.)

Elder Talmage died in 1933. The following year, Apostle John A. Widtsoe informed Talmage's son, Sterling, that "there appears to be no evidence on file that your father's splendid article,  ' The Earth and Man,' went out with what is held to be full authoritative approval, that is, the vote of approval of the Presidency and the Twelve." (As quoted by Sherlock and Keller in The Search for Harmony, 106.)

In 1935, the First Presidency (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) told Sterling that his deceased father's 1931 sermon "cannot be regarded as an official expression of the Church." (Ibid., 108-109.)

Responding to the younger Talmage's assertion that his father's speech had been delivered and published "by appointment," the First Presidency said, "These 'appointments' are made merely in order that certain work shall be done ... but that does not mean that the Church must approve everything" that is said or done "by appointment." (Ibid., 109.)

These comments by the 1935 First Presidency support the conclusion that the Church published Talmage's 1931 speech primarily (if not only) to balance the public record with respect to previous non-public discussions about the Roberts manuscript.

R. Gary said...

Clean Cut,

The Ensign article which apparently is so dear to you contains two important words, quoted from Elder Talmage's 1931 speech, which for me turn the article's entire focus:

"Geologists say..."

I don't think anybody can disagree with Talmage, a geologist, telling us what "geologists say." Nor do I think anybody can disagree with Morris Petersen, a geologist, telling us what Talmage and other "geologists say."

As I said above, publication of the Petersen article had no effect on what the apostles and prophets themselves have written and what they have unanimously approved for publication on the subject of ndbf since 1970.

SmallAxe said...

In this case, however, a thorough review of Church produced magazines and manuals for the past 40 years reveals that, in their Church published writings, consensus does exist among the FP/12 on ndbf. They currently articulate a single point of view on that point.

For the sake of discussion, let's say that you're right. How do you reconcile that with the possibility that this might change, and that "truth" does not change?

R. Gary said...


For me, the following statement comes close. I like the approach.

-------------- quote --------------
"There is a great difference between a truth and our understanding of that truth.... God is what He is. But what God is and my conception of what God is are two different things. My knowledge of God is partial and limited, and so is yours." (Lowell L. Bennion, Joseph Smith Memorial, 05 Dec. 1948, p.51.)
-------------- end quote --------------

Clean Cut said...

Gary, I think we're talking past each other now. I was trying to play by your rules and now I think we're both confused.

In the interest of clearing up any confusion, I propose we start over. What implications do you feel are important here? Because I honestly don't care who said what or what position they hold. I'll echo the narrator's comment here:

"My view is that God expects us to actually be free agents who choose for ourselves, and not just expects us to set aside our own God-given abilities to think and let someone else do the thinking for us."

I see evidence in the fossil record that there was life and death (including dinosaurs) before Adam and Eve. As Henry Eyring said, the organized layers of this record would seem to argue against the idea that they come from bits and pieces of other planets. They're very much a part of the story of our earth. What do you make of these fossils?

Also, we know from Genesis 1 that Adam and Eve ate food. For them to eat, wouldn't that imply that something had to die?

It would probably be a lot more productive to have this conversation in person so that we can more easily clear up where we're coming from and not go in circles. Put me on the list of those, like S. Faux, who would like to be in your ward so we could argue with each other and better understand each other's thoughts.

Are we both in agreement that "official LDS media" does not necessarily establish teachings (including your pet doctrine of no death before the fall) as "correct"? Now I concede that they can establish which teachings are most accepted, but that doesn't imply that they are necessarily "true". Do we agree?

You stated on your blog that: “The point of my web site and the point of this blog is not to convert every Mormon to a certain way of thinking about death before the fall. My point is to make clear that you are disagreeing with the Church and its leaders if you don't accept the doctrine of no death before the fall.

 Anyone and everyone is perfectly at liberty to disagree, as long as it is acknowledged that that is what he or she is doing.”

To paraphrase a line from the "Testaments" movie, I feel happy for you that you feel happily supported in this teaching of no death before the fall. But I feel sad because your happiness will not last. :) "The Church" is open to truth no matter what source it comes from. It's a shame that you want to paint the entire "Church" out as having one right or official position (no matter how many people believe it)--especially I see that teaching as untenable. Again, What do you make of these fossils?

There's nothing wrong with disagreeing anyway--we've already established that apostles themselves have shared various opinions on this. You yourself disagree with an apostle's teachings, you just won't bring yourself to say it. PLEASE give up on this "disagreeing with the Church" thing. (What is "the Church" anyway--what you perceive as consensus?)

I, like other faithful LDS, see that there were dinosaurs, that the earth is ancient, and the gospel is true.

R. Gary said...

Clean Cut,

Oh yes, fossils. Yes, fossils are so conclusive, aren't they. But I remain unconvinced and here's one reason why. Regardless of what he believed about death before the fall, Hugh Nibley questioned the assumption that fossils provide "direct knowledge of the past." I like what he said:

-------------- quote --------------
My own children, long before they could read, write, or count, could tell you exactly how things were upon the earth millions and millions of years ago. But did the little scholars really know? "What is our knowledge of the past and how do we obtain it?" asks the eminent archaeologist Stuart Piggott, and answers: "The past no longer exists for us, even the past of yesterday.... This means that we can never have direct knowledge of the past. We have only information or evidence from which we can construct a picture." The fossil or potsherd or photograph that I hold in my hand may be called a fact — it is direct evidence, an immediate experience; but my interpretation of it is not a fact, it is entirely a picture of my own construction. I cannot experience ten thousand or forty million years — I can only imagine, and the fact that my picture is based on facts does not make it a fact, even when I think the evidence is so clear and unequivocal as to allow no other interpretation. (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, vol. 1, ch. 2, 25-27.)
-------------- end quote --------------

Then what do I make of fossils? I am looking for apostles and prophets to teach me about fossils, the same apostles and prophets who teach ndbf. I trust they will tell me what I need to know. Beyond that I personally don't worry much about fossils. Their existence is undeniable, but their meaning is ultimately unknowable at this time.

You are definitely on the list of those for whom I will be saving a seat in priesthood meeting. The next time you visit Utah, please let me take you (and your wife and children) to lunch. That would be fun!

SmallAxe said...

I like the approach.

I too like that approach; but I'm a little confused as to how you apply it. If we accept that there is consensus among the FP/12 in the last 40 years, but that there has not always been consensus, and in the future there may not be consensus (even to the point that there could be consensus against ndbf), what do we make of ndbf? It seems to simply be a "conception" of the truth, and not necessarily the truth. Moreover, it seems to be a conception that is open to being overturned in the future. In that regard, I'm curious about what you see yourself doing as far as ndbf is concerned. Is ndbf the truth? If it is only a conception of the truth, then how should we treat it with regard to other conceptions? What do we do about the fact that another conception could in fact be the truth?

SmallAxe said...

I am looking for apostles and prophets to teach me about fossils, the same apostles and prophets who teach ndbf.

One problem with this position is that, according to your own reasoning, these apostles are teaching "conceptions" or "interpretations" of the truth, but not the truth itself. So I have two questions here: 1) Where does your fidelity lie, with the truth or with interpretations of the truth? 2) Why are their interpretations any better than other interpretations?

R. Gary said...


The best I can come up with is a sort of cosmic version of the story about the blind men and the elephant. The apostles and prophets are mortal men. The "conceptions" or "interpretations" are necessary because no mortal is capable of comprehending the full and complete truth about some things. D&C 101:32-34 names a few such things that will yet be revealed. Until then, "man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (Mosiah 4:9). "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:9). "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!" (Rom. 11:33).

SmallAxe said...

R. Gary,

I hope you do not take anything I have to say in an antagonistic tone. Coincidentally I firmly agree with the Nibley and Bennion quotes; however, I think the implications of those quotes take us in a direction other than the one you seem to be arguing for.

If we take the elephant story seriously, our fidelity is to the elephant and not interpretations of the elephant. Since the elephant does not change, a perfect interpretation of the elephant should not change either. Since FP/12 interpretations of this particular elephant (nbdf) have changed and are open to change, the most it provides is some kind of speculation on the elephant and I'm not sure how dogmatically we should hold to such speculation. This is why I was asking you what you see as your project as far as ndbf is concerned. If you seek after truth, then you probably shouldn't put too much assurance on speculation. If you're simply trying to prove that the Church in the last 40 years has supported ndbf in many different ways, then that's a point I (and I think many others) are willing to concede. But that point alone, even according to your own reasoning, doesn't make it the truth.

Paul said...

There is no surprise that in the past 40 years there is agreement in official publications, as in that period we have lived with priesthood correlation. I don't mean to decry priesthood correlation as it is exceptionally useful in providing a unifid system of teaching to members at various levels of experience around the world.

But that same correlated environment discourages the more public discussion among the brethren that occurred in the first half of the 20th century and earlier.

R. Gary, are you suggesting unanimity among the brethren in these statements, or simply the agreement of the proper correlation committee?

Said another way, does the absence of a public statement to the contrary necessarily mean agreement?

I don't mean to put words in your mouth (or to create an unnecessary straw man), nor in the mouths of the brethren. Nor do I mean to suggest there are silent dissenters. But it is a different thing for me that some have expressed a public view and others simply may not have compared with a unanimity of opinion.

The former argues more in favor of an approach similar to SmallAxe's, which suggests that everything that may be revealed has not yet been revealed. The latter, on the other hand, seems to support your argument.

The fact that the Church endows BYU, and that BYU houses a major paleontology museum suggests to me that we believe there is still more to learn. Apparently the Church News agrees.

Clean Cut said...

Glad to know you’d save a seat for me! It would be a pleasure to meet up in person.

Gary, I really like Smallaxe’s comments, as well as his questions. You seem to want to answer only in a roundabout way. I wish you’d be more straightforward.

"Yes, fossils are so conclusive, aren't they. But I remain unconvinced"

Unconvinced of what? You accept that they exist. So what is your alternative explanation for them?

"I am looking for apostles and prophets to teach me about fossils"

Why? Isn’t their role to testify of Christ? I certainly don’t expect them to teach us about science or speak as experts in any other field of study.

Furthermore, Mormon authorities do not hold a monopoly on truth. I doubt that you mean to come across this way, but it sounds like you’re only willing believe that which comes through [properly correlated] priesthood channels?

President Joseph F. Smith once declared: “We believe in all truth, no matter to what subject it may refer. No sect or religious denomination [or, I may say, no searcher of truth] in the world possesses a single principle of truth that we do not accept or that we will reject. We are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 1.)

I don't think it's very helpful (in fact I think it's damaging) to be dogmatic about interpretations of truth. Truth itself is one thing, but ndbf is one interpretation. I don't believe it's true. But one thing I know for sure is that either way I wouldn't be dogmatic about it.

Paul: "There is no surprise that in the past 40 years there is agreement in official publications, as in that period we have lived with priesthood correlation."


R. Gary said...

Clean Cut, yes, I accept that fossils exist, but remain unconvinced as to their meaning. I believe many of the natural laws and processes used by science to explain the story of fossils did not apply to this earth until Adam fell. I find it reasonable to expect that science can discover truths about earth in its present state. But after Christ returns and earth is renewed to paradisiacal glory, what will science be like then? It will be a wonderful time. Science will have the opportunity to study the earth as it was before the fall of Adam, and some scientific theories will be drastically overhauled.

R. Gary said...

Clean Cut,

Just as you do, I profess a willingness to believe all truth. And just as you decide what is truth for you, I decide what is truth for me.

So let me ask you, who told you that apostles and prophets cannot or do not speak the truth if science disagrees? Who told you they're supposed to avoid certain subjects?

Ezra Taft Benson taught that the prophet may speak on any subject at any time: "I defy any man on earth to point out the path a Prophet of God should walk in, or point out his duty, and just how far he must go, in dictating temporal or spiritual things. Temporal and spiritual things are inseparably connected, and ever will be" (quoting Brigham Young in 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year).

Six months after becoming Prophet, Harold B. Lee wrote the following:

-------------- quote --------------
I was somewhat sorrowed recently to hear someone, a sister who comes from a church family, ask, "What about the pre-Adamic people?" Here was someone who I thought was fully grounded in the faith.

I asked. "What about the pre-Adamic people?"

She replied, "Well, aren't there evidences that people preceded the Adamic period of the earth?"

I said, "Have you forgotten the scripture that says, 'And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also....' " (Moses 3:7.) I asked, "Do you believe that?"

She wondered about the creation because she had read the theories of the scientists, and the question that she was really asking was: How do you reconcile science with religion? The answer must be, If science is not true, you cannot reconcile truth with error. (Ensign, Dec. 1972, p.2.)
-------------- end quote --------------

Do you really think it is "dogmatic" to quote Harold B. Lee in this comment? Remember, I was a young man just starting my family when that Presidency Message was delivered to my home in 1972. That it had an impact on how I think and what I believe is exactly what President Lee wanted.

Clean Cut said...

I agree about deciding what is "truth" for oneself. That's a fair point. I think that still applies even when a prophet speaks. Do you believe everything a prophet says decides what is "truth" or how to interpret a verse of scripture?

Sounds like Harold B Lee was quite the literalist. When one is out of line with one of the brethren, I'd simply ask whether the brethren require you to be in line with them on that particular point. Is it a requirement for temple worship or baptism, etc?

I don't deny anyone their freedom to believe and speak out as they so choose--even the prophets. I only said what I expect. Brigham Young (who you quoted via Elder Benson) can speak about how he believed the sun was inhabited, but that's not truth for me.

Paul said...

R. Gary,

You raise an interesting and valid point that we will learn new things when the Savior comes. And one of those may be what pre-Adamic life on earth was like. (And maybe not. Who am I to dictate what the Lord will teach us when He comes?)

I am reluctant to reject evidence we have out of hand, but I also have great reverence for the prophets who teach us. It is difficult for me, personally, to make a bold declarative statement either way, which is why this is a subject that for me remains "open". I have no misgivings about listening to theories of science (though I'm less pleased to hear them presented as All That Could Be Known), nor am I disturbed by the teachings of President Lee and President Smith and others who favor a more literal reading of the ancient scripture.

That there was no man before Adam is different for me than no death in the world before the fall. Those dinosaurs don't seem to have been part of the biblical record when Adam left the garden, so something must have happened to them. When the clock starts for "our world" I suppose may be one way to sort through that, but I find that difficult for a number of reasons. That said, I read 2 Nephi 2 the other evening, and ndbtf certainly seems consistent with Lehi's testimony. But then again, it's not clear to me whether Lehi speaks of man only or of all creation.

As Alma said to his sons, I do not know all things. (And I dare say, I know a lot less than Alma did.)

Ref: my earlier comment, I am not sure I walk with you on the matter that while some of the brethren have made significant statements and others have made no statements is a signal that there is unanimity. There may be unanimity, but failure to strike a passage which quotes an earlier prophet in a priesthood manual is not, for me, the same as a positive endorsement of that statement.

Again, I'm not trying to put words in the mouths of the brethren.

R. Gary said...



Regarding (a) whether some FP/12 teaching something and the rest saying nothing indicates unanimity, and (b) whether FP/12 approving a manual for publication means approval of what the manual teaches:

-------------- quote --------------
In discussing the counsel of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, President Hinckley said: “As Brethren, we discuss various problems that come before us. Each man is different. We speak from various backgrounds and experiences. We discuss ways to improve and strengthen the work. At the outset of these discussions, there may be various points of view. But before the discussion is ended, there is total unanimity, else no action is taken. The Lord himself declared that such unity is an absolute necessity." (Ensign, Nov. 1992, p.1.)
-------------- end quote --------------

How does that not answer both questions?  Do you think President Hinckley was just joking? Or lying?

Read 2 Ne. 33:11 and imagine that verse having been written by the modern apostle you least trust. I've watched them and followed them for more than half a century, and I'm convinced they are all true servants of the Lord.

Paul said...


I don't mean to split hairs, but I'm not sure the process President Hinckley describes applies here. I interpret his remarks as applying, for instance, to the decision to extend priesthood blessings to all worthy male members of the church, or the building of many small temples instead of more traditional larger ones -- a significant shift in church policy and practice.

You refer to any statement made by any member of the senior quorums (which would suggest they ratify their general and stake conference teaching material) and the publication of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals. I suppose there might have been discussion of those, though I can imagine the decision of which quotations to include in such a work would be rather unwieldy for a committee of 15. I guess I didn't imagine that lesson manual approval fell in the same category as extending priesthood blessings, but I fully admit I could be wrong.

Apart from lesson manual approval, I'm not sure I've seen evidence that the process Pr Hinckley describes applies here. Instead, what I have heard (or rather, read) you and others cite is that certain of the brethren (including presidents of the church) have made statements in public addresses. (I don't in any way mean to diminish the value of that counsel from senior apostles, by the way. No one will fail by following their guidance, to be sure.)

But, as cited earlier in the discussion, the church encouraged publication of Elder Talmage's work expressly without the process you describe (though I don't understand your description of the purpose of its publication).

I really don't intend by my question to cast or even encourage doubt, but rather to seek understanding.

Let me state, however, that I am offended by your implication that I would suggest that President Hinckley might lie. And there are no apostles that I "least trust". I don't understand why you would suggest such a thing since I have tried to maintain a civil tone and explore understanding of the words these men (including President Hinkcley's, which I do not understand in the same way that you do) have spoken.

Paul said...


Sorry I didn't post this comment sooner (and closer to yours). Elder Oaks gave a talk a few years ago that discusses precisely what you mention.

So it's probably not accurate that none of the church leaders have addressed it. But I get your meaning -- because of the complexities of language, and the interpretation thereof, we need to listen with the spirit to understand what is true.

SmallAxe said...

R. Gary,

If you are still following this thread, I am interested to hear how you would respond to my previous questions/comments.

R. Gary said...

SmallAxe, yes I've been following this thread and you'll find my response here.

Paul, I've told you how I feel and you're offended. Sorry. I'm out of gas for now.

Paul said...

R. Gary,

Please accept my apologies for expressing that I took offense at what you wrote.

I appreciate your conviction to your point of view, and you willingness to share it.

SmallAxe said...

R. Gary,

Thank you for the careful response. I appreciate the fact that you've taken our dialogue seriously enough to spend so much time on it. I do want to respond to your comment, but it might take a little while. I'm working on it now, but might not have much time today to finish it.

SmallAxe said...

I am indeed persuaded that the majority of the 12/FP in this dispensation have taught NDBF. The minority opinion is smaller than I thought; but so is the size of the group that actually taught it. I believe that you’ve made a good case that the Church has and does teach NDBF. I’m not sure how we would rank authoritative publications, but it seems that at almost every level of authoritativeness some support of NDBF has been issued. By these measures NDBF does seems to be “doctrine”.

As far as your purposes are concerned, I think you have been quite successful in arguing for them (although I’m not sure what “validity” means in this context; more on this below). At least you’ve persuaded me.

That said, my loyalty is committed to both ultimate truth and authorized mortal interpretations of ultimate truth (the elephant and interpretations of the elephant).

Well said.

I think our biggest point of disagreement is over how “incomplete” an interpretation of ultimate truth is (at least in this case); and what to do in light of this incompleteness. Perhaps another way of expressing the second part of the disagreement is to discuss the kinds of loyalties (I prefer to word ‘obligations’) we have to interpretations that are necessarily open to further modification.

As in your story of the elephant, only God has an all-encompassing perspective. Human beings, by definition, are limited in terms of what they can see/comprehend. That being the case we should always have a certain degree of humility and tentativeness in the claims that we make; and realize that we are simply trying to make sense of things with our limited perspective. At the same time, we should also realize that some interpretations are better than others—it’s not the case that every interpretation is equal to each other.

In this case we’re presented with two incommensurable interpretations of NDBF. As far as I see it, both cannot be right. Your argument for accepting one over the other is because an overwhelming majority of authoritative interpreters have seen things as ‘x’; and it has been 40 years since anyone put position ‘y’ forth. That very well may be the case, but I don’t see how your argument provides any way to adjudicate between the positions in relation to the truth. I believe we would agree here that truth doesn’t change on the basis of more people making a claim, or in the case of someone making the claim more recently than someone else. So, despite the fact that we have a recent majority in agreement, I’m not sure how certain we should be that their interpretation is actually in line with the truth. This is especially the case since the kinds of authorities we are talking about here do not have to logically lay out their reasons for reaching the conclusions they do. They are not scientists where no faith is required in their conclusions because we can reperform their experiments to check their work. Neither have they attempted to silence church members from expressing view ‘y’. They furthermore seem open to the possibility that future authoritative interpreters could hold view ‘y’. As such I think we should remain open to the possibility that view ‘x’ is wrong, while at the same time stress the fact that most authoritative interpreters believe it is right. It is their interpretation of the truth.

Now, I’m not sure if you disagree with any of that.

SmallAxe said...

The next issue is how we handle this situation. Do we, for instance, have an obligation to treat the dominant interpretation of the authoritative interpreters as if it was the truth? Or can we disagree with this dominant view because it is open to being wrong? Personally I feel that the dominant authoritative interpretation should be respected, but is also not immune to criticism or disagreement. “Respecting” this view, IMO, means not belittling those who hold such a view, and remaining sensitive to context (e.g., if one is a SS teacher, one should strive to accurately present this view). It does not mean dismissing out of hand or ignoring alternative explanations or issues (e.g., things such as fossils should still be accounted for). Neither does it mean refraining from expressing one’s own view, as long as it is acknowledged as such (even in cases where one is a SS teacher).

IMO you have elevated “authoritative interpretation” over “the truth”. Your project, as far as I see it, is not about how to ascertain the truth; but about how to respect the interpretation of authority. And I imagine that if you and your interlocutors could come to a consensus about what it means to respect authority (which would require dialogue about what constitutes ‘respect’ and ‘authority’), there would be more headway in the discussion.

SmallAxe said...

It took a while, but there you are. I'll be out of town for the next little while.


R. Gary said...

SmallAxe, I enjoyed your most recent comments. I'll be pondering them while you're gone. You enjoy your trip and we'll talk more when you return.