Revelation, Interpretation, and Authoritative Pronouncements

By | March 7, 2014

I was reading a topic on a message board earlier today, and ran across a comment that was made by an anonymous someone who lost their faith and left the Church. A loss of faith is always cause for concern, and for the individual involved it is always traumatic to lose something one once held dear.

When I speak of “leaving the Church,” I mean The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That said, my thoughts on the matter, while specific to the Church, are applicable to anyone’s belief in God and God’s messengers, regardless of the faith tradition they follow. The commenter could just as easily have abandoned Catholicism, Methodism, or one of the Baptist faiths.

Here’s the comment that caught my attention:

You know the whole problem with apologists in general is that they really do not have authority to speak on behalf of the church. Just because some guy with a PHD or whatever says that the papyri served a catalyst for Joseph Smith to translate the BOA doesn’t mean that is what happened. Why should I listen to anything an un-called and un-set apart lay person says when it comes to the hard gospel questions? There are 15 guys who should be telling us the way it is and yet they all remain silent on the topics. Where are the Abinadis of our time?

I found the comment to be interesting, as it struck a chord with me. Some people (this commenter included) want authoritative answers to their questions. They don’t want answers from others, but from someone who can tell them, with certainty, ‘the way it really is.’

By way of explanation, in context, the commenter’s usage of the papyri and the BOA—Book of Abraham—was illustrative, not definitive. It wasn’t the issue with which the commenter found singular fault, but was an example of such issues in his mind. So to run down the tangent of trying to address theories of how the Book of Abraham came to be would not address the real issue—a desire for real answers in a world of doubt.

I think that such a desire, while understandable, is rather naïve. Let me see if I can explain why I believe that.

Let’s say that there is a person who has never heard of the LDS Church. In fact, let’s say that this person lived in the late seventeenth century, during the early years of the Age of Enlightenment. Joseph Smith wouldn’t be born for over a hundred years, so his brand of Christianity was yet to be introduced.

This person reads the bible and reads history. He determines that, based on the historical record, Jesus never lived or, if he did, he died as an enemy to Rome and was never resurrected.

In such a scenario, would receiving a personal letter from the pope have helped convince him of the veracity of Jesus and his divinity? (You can substitute any authoritative religious leader of choice in the place of “the pope”, if you prefer.)

The answer is that it probably wouldn’t have helped. And I doubt it would help the commenter who wanted answers from the “15 guys who should be telling us the way it is.” (The “15 guys” the commenter refers to are members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency—the highest-ranking leaders of the Church whom most members believe to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.”)

You see, the popes have been saying for centuries that Jesus is the Christ, as have hundreds and thousands of other religious leaders. They provide reasons why they believe, and yet there are millions of others who don’t accept those reasons (or that testimony) and go through their lives not believing.

It is the same with Joseph Smith and the divinity of his call. Or Paul and the divinity of his call. Or Peter. Or John. Pick any religious leader you want. Just because Moses descends from the mount with stone tablets doesn’t mean that God gave him the tablets.

prayingThere is only one way you can know, for a surety, that a messenger’s “call” is divine: Revelation. And you don’t get revelation from other people, only from God.

The reason for this is simple. If I have a friend named Betty who says “I have been called by God to do XYZ,” how do I determine whether Betty is telling the truth or not? Betty may have told some whoppers in the past, but does that mean she is not telling the truth about this matter? Others may have problems with Betty and have written some disparaging things about her claims and her character, but does that mean she is not telling the truth?

No, of course not. What it means is that Betty is making a claim about something God said to her. If I want to know whether God really talked to Betty, do I ask someone I know to be fallible for confirmation of that communication? Or do I ask the other party to the communication whom I believe to be infallible? Reason dictates that you ask the other party. When the other party provides an answer, that is revelation. And it is not refutable.

Let me go back for a minute to my earlier example about the Age of Enlightenment person who concluded what he did about Jesus. If the person was asked for his reasons for rejecting faith, he might have brought up evidence such as “it is impossible for someone to go without food for 40 days” or “restoring sight to the sightless is impossible.” He might mention that stories about saviors have been existent in all societies, and the “Jesus myth” is simply another example of the genre. He might bring up that the accounts of unlearned disciples are untrustworthy, especially when they said they abandoned Jesus and (in some cases) denied even knowing him.

In fact, there could be dozens of other evidences cited by the non-believer. Most of these evidences deal with interpretation of the historical record. The fact is, people can read historical records for years and come to wildly divergent conclusions on what those records “show” or “prove.”

abinadi bagTo the original comment that started this post, would having an “authoritative” pronouncement by “15 guys” about a historical interpretation provide an answer beyond a reasonable doubt? Nope. Abinadi (a prophet in the Book of Mormon) gave authoritative pronouncements, but it only caused one person who heard him to believe (Alma). The rest of his audience—and there were many—rejected and killed him.

Similarly, “11 guys” testified of first-hand knowledge that the Book of Mormon was true and put their names on paper to that effect. Did their authoritative pronouncement remove doubt and controversy? Of course not.

The fact is, there will always be room for doubt, and I find no examples of God ever providing revelation about which historical interpretation is true or false. (And even if He did, since revelation is given to individual messengers, would others then believe the messenger?)

What God does provide revelation about is the overall divinity of a person’s message. Want to know if Jesus was the Christ? Ask God for revelation. Want to know if Jesus really fasted for 40 days? Don’t bother asking for revelation, as the answer wouldn’t compel belief of the divinity of Christ’s mission. It may satisfy curiosity, but the last time I checked God wasn’t in the business of satisfying curiosity.

Historical interpretations of thousands of points abound, both pro and con. There may be, for instance, 50 different interpretations of Paul’s character or Joseph’s values. I can memorize all of them and come up with another dozen interpretations, but none of them will get me any closer to understanding if Paul or Joseph were charged by God to do what they did. Only God can answer that.

In the long run, only God is authoritative. And, then, He is only authoritative for the person with whom He chooses to communicate. All the rest is human fallibility.


2 thoughts on “Revelation, Interpretation, and Authoritative Pronouncements

  1. Anteojito

    I enjoyed your blog post and think that it is well thought out. I do have one issue to address. In your scenario of the person in the age of enlightenment, that person was an outsider looking in. In the case of the author of the CES letter (and myself) we were insiders looking in. I had been a member of the church for many many years, I alienated my immediate family when I joined the church and even to this day, those bonds have not been fully repaired. I served a mission, was married in the temple, and served in all of the usual callings to include Branch President and in three different Bishoprics. I paid thousands and thousands of dollars in tithing and offerings. So when I started having issues about the church and gospel, I went to look for answers from those who were called and set apart to answer those questions. Additionally I prayed and prayed. I was sure there were answers out there, because of course the church was true. Without going into all the details, the day came that I had to realize that the church was not what it claims and that those who were the called and set apart as leaders did not have the answers. I never expected my leaders to be perfect and for many years I chalked up a lot of my issues (polygamy, priesthood for the blacks, kinderhook plates, etc) to the fact that Joseph Smith was young and untrained and that just maybe the pressure and power got to him somewhat. I might still be in the church if the those in authority could answer those questions. While I don’t expect them to be perfect, I do expect them to magnify their callings as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. They are not leaders, they are managers. What I do see is a lot of well meaning and educated people twisting themselves into contortions trying to explain away the issues, but since they aren’t called and set apart to speak on behalf of the Church their answers don’t hold any more water to me than the gospel doctrine class know-it-all. I prayed just as hard or harder than I ever had done before to come to some sort of resolution so I could stay a member of the church. Needless to say I never got that answer.

    1. Allen Post author


      Coming to grips with the fact that “things aren’t as I originally thought” can be disquieting and disorienting. I’m sorry you had to go through it. I’m also sorry that your faith didn’t survive intact, but hope that you have found joy in whatever path you’ve chosen.

      I, too, have had questions at various times, of different nuance and intensity. (One question literally rocked my world and sent me back to “ground zero,” so to speak.) While I haven’t walked the same path you’ve walked, I’ve tread the same ground and, no doubt, considered the same questions. I’ve also come to different conclusions than you.

      I don’t expect those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators to answer my questions. It is my job to answer my questions. My relationship with God doesn’t go through them. I read the scriptures and I learn. I learn that men through the ages have had questions and come up with different answers. It is no different today. I can learn from the stories in the scriptures and I can learn from those who are prophets today, but the responsibility for the relationship still lies with me.

      The concept that those we sustain as leaders aren’t responsible to answer our questions is echoed by a statement made by Elder Bednar. Said he, “We cannot expect the Church as an organization to teach or tell us all of the things we need to know and do to become devoted disciples. The ultimate responsibility for developing spiritual strength and stamina rests upon each and every member of the Church.” If we cannot expect the Church to answer everything necessary to become devoted disciples, how can we expect it to answer questions that are ultimately open to historical interpretation to that point that every person’s need is met?

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. I do wish you well. You might also enjoy my thoughts on dealing with doubts, found here.

      My best.

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