Can prophets make mistakes?
Can truths change?
Should some things not be discussed?
Pilate therefore said unto him,
- John 18:38
This page represents my own understanding, and as such is open to error. I will let you be the judge.
Issues covered on this page:
See also: Knowledge and answers to prayer.
Speculation and truth
A few years ago, I considered starting my own business. I wondered if the Lord would bless me with success. So I turned to the scriptures. I kept coming back to the famous statement given in the sermon on the mount, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God... and all these things shall be added unto you" (in Matthew 5). But did this apply to me? It certainly applied to the ancient apostles. It may even have applied to the multitude that was following Jesus (was he speaking to them as well? Matthew 5:1-2 is ambiguous). Even if he was speaking to the ordinary disciples, does this apply to a modern businessman? And if so, does "all these things" mean the riches of the world (hence the reference to Solomon) or plain basic needs (hence the reference to the lilies)? I needed to know, but there were a lot of "ifs."
Clearly, even the plainest scripture involves speculation. So how can we ever be sure? Where is certainty? What is truth?
Perhaps the root of the problem is this: each of us only sees a small fraction of the information we feel we need. Worse still, we each have only a limited ability to appreciate or understand (because our intelligence and our experience are both limited). So, what is the answer?
In summary, it's all about wisdom.
In this life, all knowledge is incomplete.
So every decision is an act of faith.
True wisdom means choosing those "facts" that need to be acted on, and having patience with the rest.
A mystery is a "hidden thing, secret, mystery; generally mysteries, religious secrets, confided only to the initiated and not to ordinary mortals" (Strong's Greek lexicon). On this page I am not discussing religious mysteries, but mysteries of a general sense: ideas that may seem wrong at first, but make more sense when we think about the nature of truth.
All truth is relative?
This might be a good time to make some obvious comments on absolute and relative truths. Put simply, the distinction is meaningless for the human mind.
The human mind is limited. There is always the possibility that we misunderstand something. It is always possible that we might learn some new thing that will change our understanding of a truth. For example, it used to be an absolute truth that humans cannot fly under their own power. But with new materials, that is no longer strictly true (there are super-light man-powered planes). As another example, someone might be a member of a Protestant Church and be convinced of its truth. When they discover the restored gospel, they do not reject the things that are true - salvation by grace, respect for the Bible, etc. They simply see things in more light.
Usually, changing an absolute truth to a relative truth does not mean rejecting the existing truth, but seeing it in a bigger context. In other words, the nature of the truth appears to change according to its surroundings. (In reality of course only our understanding of it changes). In this sense, all truth is relative. But since the big context is often bigger than all humanity, or bigger than the whole world and all history, then to all intents and purposes it is effectively absolute. For example, it is an absolute truth that people need love. This is probably a result of being alive. (We are surrounded by others, we need help, we have drives and needs, we need to grow and achieve, to do good, etc.). It is absolute for everyone who is alive. But if some being is not alive (e.g. they are a machine) then they would not need love. So, in that respect it is relative.
The classic example of absolute and relative truth is in the field of physics. Newton's laws were once seen as absolute. Now they are seen as relative. But that does not mean that we can reject the law of gravity and all start levitating. In the same way, if we discover that a true prophet appears to have said or done something against the rules we are used to (such as when Jesus said not to sell some expensive ointment for the poor), then maybe we have seen a glimpse of a bigger picture.
But most of all, truth is relative to our understanding of it. Two people can know the same "fact," but have an entirely different appreciation of it, depending on their experience (among other things). This will always be true until we all see things as Jesus sees them (hence the need for obedience and humility).
" Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. "
- 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.
The Biblical solution to the problem of truth
- We need the Holy Spirit to bring ideas into a form we can feel, AND to provide new revelations.
- We need a living prophet, for times when we are not as "in tune" as we think we are.
- We have parables - teachings that mean different things to different people.
- And most of all, we need humility! When something seems wrong, if possible we withhold judgment. "Judge not, that ye be not judged!"
- And of course for this we need wisdom to see the big picture and not be bothered by less important details, and to know when to judge and when to wait and see.
Why are five books of the Bible devoted to wisdom, as opposed to history or prophecy? It seems to me that, without wisdom, prophecy is as pearls before swine. Women tend to have more wisdom than men in my experience - they are less likely to be concerned with arguments as long as the big picture is right. As far as critics are concerned, Gamaliel (Acts chapter 5) was our model of wisdom. He disagreed with the Christians, but he could see the big picture.
Orthodoxy, speculation, and faith
If all truth is in some sense relative, how do we know what is most reliable?
The answer, to me, shows the real genius of Mormonism, of revealed truth, and of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer is that we must follow the spirit and find out for ourselves, but also listen to the living prophet.
To the outsider, the church must be a mass of rules and doctrines. But if you look closely, very little is actually specified. The only official books are the scriptures (other manuals and publications are for guidance only). As the church gets bigger, the manuals get thinner. For example, I once heard a controversy over whether we sit or stand for the intermediate hymn in a Sacrament meeting. But when I first had to organize a Sacrament Meeting myself, I was amazed to discover that the official handbook specified almost nothing. It did not even say when to have hymns, what kind, or how many. Apart from the obvious points (e.g. start with a prayer and include the sacrament) and some wise advice (e.g. have announcements and church business), meetings should be pretty much run by the spirit.
Paradoxically, this great freedom can only be achieved through a respect for authority (see below).
Of course, most church members are happy to go along with church programs and suggested guidelines. This is not because they are slaves, but because they are wise and sensible. If you have found the true church, why not just go with the flow and enjoy it? Analyzing everything is much more work, less rewarding (if you know something works from experience, what more do you need?) and less fun.
There is room or a variety of opinions on most subjects (e.g. evolution, politics, tithing, etc.). Doctrinal questions sent to Church Headquarters are routinely referred back to local leadership. So, how does the church not decay into anarchy? Or just become bland and stop growing? Because of the emphasis on (a) personal revelation, and (b) obedience. Put crudely, the church allows a lot of flexibility, on condition that when an authority does say something, we do it. (And even then there is plenty of patience and compassion - you have to really work hard to get excommunicated for apostasy these days). That is how Jesus taught - "he that is not against me is for me" - but his final wish before the crucifixion was for unity.
So the issue is not of orthodoxy versus speculation (where do you draw the line?) but of obedience versus anarchy, and the spirit versus the letter.
An example of partial knowledge is what happens after death.
Think it through. How long is this life? About 70 years? And how long is eternity? Millions and billions of years.
What are we going to do for that time? Play harps on clouds? Take up knitting? Of course, time won't exist as we know it, but that just increases the problem. Faced with unlimited potential, what do you do? The standard Christian answer is that we enjoy paradise. But isn't that going to get a little boring after the first thousand years, let alone the first ten thousand? The same garden. Again. And again. And again. So what else do we do? We worship God, of course. But how? With just words? That could also get a little hollow and pointless very quickly. What kind of a being wants nothing better than to be surrounded by millions of creations whose only purpose is to tell him how wonderful he is?
We worship God best by following him. The true disciple wants to become more like God. And what does God do? He is our God, our Father, our Creator. He leads, He enjoys His children, He creates.
Imagine being with God for eternity. Imagine wanting nothing more than to be like him (albeit on a smaller scale). Imagine watching him create, and create more. Imagine being given the capacity to do just that but on a smaller scale. Wouldn't you want to? What else is worthwhile, given eternity, than to create? But imagine being forbidden to create anything significant. Sounds like hell to me. Remember the Greek myths of Sisyphus and Tantalus? They were tormented in hell by having something they desperately wanted, but it was always just out of their reach.
A disciple of Christ wants to be more like Christ, both here and in the eternities. The Bible teaches that this is just how it should be. Christ gives us his glory. We are to be one with him just as he is one with God. We are joint heirs with Christ. Our goal is to sit on his throne with him, being crowned kings and priests, having the name of God written on us. This is all taught in the Bible.
Yet Mormons are condemned for teaching that we will ultimately want to create - and populate - worlds.
If there is not eternal progression, there is eternal stagnation. I, for one, prefer the Bible's teachings on the subject to those of traditional Christianity.
Do prophets ever make mistakes?
What a silly question. Prophets are humans - and therefore sinners - with limited minds like the rest of us. Prophets are human beings - if you have the testimony of Jesus then YOU have the spirit of prophecy. YOU may be a prophet without realizing it! You make mistakes, don't you?
"No, I mean THE prophet."
The one we call "The" prophet (at the time of writing it is Gordon B. Hinckley) is simply president of the church. That makes him prophet over the whole church, whereas you or I are only prophet over ourselves, possibly our families (if we are head of the home), and over whatever church calling we may have. He is not more of a prophet than you or I, he just has a calling that involves more people.
He is not entitled to special secrets: "God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.149).
He does not have an easier, fast-track to revelation - he has to exercise faith just like the rest of us.
The same goes for the apostles. An apostle is a special witness for Jesus Christ. His job is to bear testimony, but that does not give him any specially hidden knowledge.
For a list of mistakes and errors made by Bible prophets, see the FAIR web site at http://www.fair-lds.org/Questions/Answers/AN01005.html.
"Why should I follow a prophet who might make a mistake?"
Because Jesus told us to. He put Moses in charge, even though he made some mistakes. He put Peter in charge even though he also made mistakes. Modern day "Christians" often act like the rebellious Israelites - they feel cannot possibly follow a mortal. But what is the alternative? The Bible is open to too many alternatives. Modern Christians like to believe they are following the Holy Spirit, but how do they know? Satan is very crafty. it is the easiest thing in the world to think you are right when you are wrong. That is why prophets and apostles are essential.
Imagine you were in the Sinai desert following Moses. When you found out that Moses had been disobedient when he struck the rock at Horeb, would you have stopped following Moses? Imagine that you had been in the New Testament church. Would you have stopped listening to Peter when you discovered he had denied knowing Christ? We have to be mature and adult about this. Real prophets are real people. We follow them because (a) the spirit says so, and (b) Jesus said we must be united, not divided like the Protestant sects.
But what if he leads me astray?
This is, as I have noted, extremely unlikely. But let us take a worst case scenario. Let us say that the prophet is about to do something monstrously evil. Then the Lord has a very quick and efficient way of releasing him from his calling. It is called death.
O.K., that example is a bit extreme. What if the prophet makes a bad judgment call (highly unlikely, but conceivable). Let us assume that it is winter on the prairies in 1847, and the prophet says "take a handcart company and walk barefoot through the blizzards!" And most of the people die. So what? What, after all, is the purpose of life? To be tested. In that scenario, you have passed the test. You are safe. The prophet in this case might have some explaining to do come the day of judgment, but that is his problem, not yours.
God is testing you.
This life is the ultimate test (literally the ultimate). Question: are you smart enough to follow someone who is wiser than yourself? Or, will you set up an impossible standard that no mortal could reach?
Do you hunger and thirst after righteousness? Or do you only want it if it's packaged to suit your tastes?
Are you seeking for more light, even if it means working with other mortals, or are you waiting for Christ himself to come? If you choose to stay in the darkness instead of taking advantage of such light as is available, I think you'll find his glorious light too hard on the eyes.
Examples of prophets getting it wrong
For more examples, visit http://www.fair-lds.org/Questions/Answers/AN01005.html.
When Abraham went to Egypt, he said that Sarah, his wife, was his sister (see Genesis 12:11-19). That may have been true, but it was deliberately misleading. He could have come up with a better solution, but he didn't. But, taken as a whole, Abraham was still the right man to follow.
Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. But he was still the chief apostle; and after the resurrection, Jesus came to him to say "feed my sheep."
When Paul began his first missionary journey, he fell out with one of his companions, also an apostle. Plainly, one of them was right and one of them was wrong. But, taken as a whole, either of them could lead you to heaven despite the odd minor "hiccup."
Bear in mind that these examples are in the scriptures. Goodness knows how many teachings and events were left out because they were not considered faith-promoting.
So where is certainty?
In this life we walk by faith. We know nothing for certain (not even that we exist - ask the philosophers). But we can gain enough evidence to have reason to hope for salvation (see the discussion on faith). This is as near to certainty as we can get with anything.
For example, I know that the church is true, but only to the same extent that know that I have two hands to type at this keyboard. Occasionally, I have evidence that seems to contradict this - for example, if I put my hand behind my back it is gone! I can no longer see it! Oh no! But (sigh of relief) I can pull it back and it is still there. Evidence against the church is of the same level - if you look at anything that looks bad (like the disappearance of my hand), you soon see that it wasn't quite as bad as you thought. And when compared with the mass of positive evidence (e.g. I can usually see both hands) it is not worth worrying over.
How revelation is like conventional science
Revelation is as reliable as scientific discovery, in that our understanding of a truth may develop and even occasionally change. In that respect, no interpretation can be set in stone. However, it is misleading to say that this makes revelation unreliable, any more than it makes science unreliable. It may be helpful to make a comparison:
|based on experience (e.g. experimental data)||based on experience (e.g. of the spirit)|
|some things are pretty certain (e.g. Newton's laws)||some things are pretty certain (e.g. Book of Mormon principles)|
|some things seem to work for now (e.g. current thinking)||some things seem to work for now (e.g. generally held interpretations)|
|we need to be open to new ideas (a new discovery could change some established views)||we need to be open to new ideas (a new revelation could change some established views)|
|in general: extremely reliable, but don't stop thinking||in general: extremely reliable, but don't stop thinking|
It may be surprising or uncomfortable to think of revelation as analogous to science - it is common (and usually quite successful) to treat revelation as absolute truth and be done with it. But if we do that, we are liable to (1) treat revelation as a special kind of knowledge, a mysterious kind that we cannot really understand, and (2) be distressed when revealed knowledge behaves the same as other kinds of knowledge - e.g. when it becomes subject to new insights.
Bruce R. McConkie's "Mormon Doctrine"
An example of this issue is the well known book "Mormon Doctrine." It is common among well-informed church members to ignore this book, because it appears to have a number of weaknesses (there is good evidence for this). However, it is my experience that the Lord will not allow us to be led too far astray by any General Authority, as long as we approach these things with our eyes open. Whenever I try to plot a course that agrees as much as possible with ALL General Authority quotations, I always seem to find new insights, and I believe that my gospel understanding is improved because of this. So, I have deliberately quoted from Mormon Doctrine on the topics where it is controversial - for example, on the pages about Evolution.
Testing the strength of the Mormon position
One way to test whether a position is strong is to look for the weakest link, the worst example. The worst thing I ever heard about the church was called the "Adam-God theory." It sounded bad at first, but then I read my Bible. Now, I can see that if this is the worst problem the church has had, we are on very safe ground indeed.
The truths of the gospel do not change. For example, Adam was the first man. That was true 4000 BC and it is true today. But our understanding of truth changes.
In contrast, practices and procedures can, do, and must change. But only to a certain extent. Since mankind has not fundamentally changed since Adam, we should expect church teachings and procedures to be broadly similar in every dispensation, even if this or that method or symbol changes. A good example is temple work, but that is a whole other topic so I will leave it for now.
The Mormon light bulb joke
Here is the full version of the Mormon light bulb joke. Please don't get offended. I think it's funny, and it perhaps refers to what many memers think. But all church members are not the same. It's from a 'fundamentalist' website at http://website.lineone.net/~mahonri/Joke_lesson.html:
How many Mormons does it take to change a lightbulb?
- At least six: One to change the lightbulb;
- One to deny that there was any change made;
- One to say that we shouldnt focus on the change only the need for light;
- One to say we dont teach that the light bulb needed changing in the first place;
- One to say that the changer was acting for himself and not as an official changer;
- And one to say, Who cares who changed the bulb, dont you feel the burning of the light?
It does illustrate the point that conventional explanations for changes are not satisfactory. The solution offered by some "Fundamentalists" (e.g. polygamists) is that nothing can ever change. In that, they are like the ancient Pharisees, or the Protestant "Brethren" (see below). Like them, they have great problems with missionary work.
Thankfully, most informed church members do not have a problem with changes. That is probably because, if you try to live the gospel, you will find that the Holy Spirit makes everything clear. Not only does the church change, change is a sign of truth. All living things change. If something does not change, it is dead, or was never alive.
Does the gospel change?
The gospel is quite simple. (See the page about "the fullness of the gospel".) It was developed long ago, as part of the plan that involved creating this world. The atonement, for example, was not needed before there was sin. Eventually (according to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), some things like knowledge (as we know it) will pass away. So, to this extent, the gospel is temporary and changeable. But it exists, unchanged, from Adam to the Last Judgment. So, for our purposes it is eternal, absolute, and unchangeable.
While the gospel does not change, the application of the gospel depends on our needs, and hence changes. For example:
Who is given the priesthood? First (before Moses), it went to the Patriarch, then to the firstborn, then to the Levites, though not to certain sub-groups, later to both Jews and Gentiles, and so on.
The best known change was the Law of Moses - bringing it in, and over a thousand years later saying it is fulfilled.
Note that some changes happened even after Jesus had ascended to heaven - for example, giving the priesthood to non-Jews.
So, in summary, change is normal. It was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who demanded that everything be based on prior authority. Jesus' church is a living church.
More light bulb jokes
For those of you who liked the earlier light bulb joke, here are some more, most (but not all) from http://graceland.gentle.org/bag/lightb.html:
- How many charismatics does it take to change a light bulb? One, since his/her hands are in the air anyway.
- How many Calvinists does it take to change a lightbulb? None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.
- How many liberals does it take to change a light bulb? 10, as they need to hold a debate into whether or not the lightbulb exists. Even if they can agree upon the existence of the lightbulb, they may not go ahead and change it for fear of alienating those who use fluorescent tubes.
- How many Anglo-Catholics does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They always use candles instead.
- How many born-again Christians does it take to change a lightbulb? None, for they have already seen the light.
- How many evangelicals does it take to change a light bulb? Evangelicals do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and hope the light bulb will decide to change itself.
- How many Atheists does it take to change a lightbulb? One. But they are still in darkness.
- How many Brethren does it take to change a light bulb? ...Change?????
- How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb? 10, one to change it and 9 others to pray against the spirit of darkness.
- How many TV evangelists does it take to change a lightbulb? One. But for the message of hope to continue to go forth, send in your donation today.
- How many campfire worship leaders does it take to change a lightbulb? One. But soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.
- How many independent Baptist's does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, anymore than that would be considered ecumenical.
- How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? One to actually change the bulb and 9 to say how much they like the old one.
PS If you're a programmer, there are some great light bulb jokes at http://www.cs.bgu.ac.il/~omri/Humor/lightbulb.html or http://www.crc.ricoh.com/~marcush/lightbulb.html
|Reasons for changes|
Adapted to our capacity
Acceptance of the truth is a fragile thing. If you present meat before milk, people are liable to reject it all. So, truth has to be revealed line upon line. The obvious result is that, at any one time, we still accept some falsehoods because we are not yet strong enough to accept the truth in that area.
Some teachings, such as the Word of Wisdom, are "adapted to the capacity of the weak and weakest of saints." It is better to have a whole church that is progressing together, rather than a tiny minority living a much higher law and effectively becoming a church within a church.
The price of unity
Jesus changed in order to become like us. He became mortal, he limited his knowledge (hence he could grow in wisdom and stature, as Luke says). This was the only way to draw men to him. Without that, he would have been very lonely in heaven.
Paul said that he would not eat meat offered to idols, just in case he offended someone who was weak in the faith. He effectively made this a law in the church. No doubt when this was not a problem, this law was changed.
According to the Comprehensive History of the church, one key reason why the United Order (a form of consecration) was ended was that it threatened to split the church. (Some parts of the church were in the United Order, others were not.)
The purpose of life
This life is a test - to see if we will have faith. One way to test this would be to ask something which is difficult. Changing something we thought was unchangeable, for example. So, for example, Jonah believed that God said Ninevah would be destroyed. But Ninevah repented and was not destroyed. This was as much a test for Jonah as for Ninevah.
Sometimes, things must be changed in order to teach us in a way we can accept. The law of Moses was instituted because, without it, the backsliding Israelites would never have accepted the gospel in any form.
Job must have wondered why God had apparently changed his methods - Job did everything right, yet God punished him. This was a change to God's previous practice. But it was all for the good. This life is not about gaining riches and position, but about humility.
A classic example of this is the case of blacks and the priesthood, which rests on the fact that authority is NOT the same as power.
The real problem is a naive view of religion:
- That the true church must have every truth revealed from the very start.
- That church members are willing to live every possible commandment right from the start.
- That members don't have any cultural baggage.
- That what is most important to the world is also most important to the Lord.
- That we can fairly judge other times and places according to our own standards.
None of these things are true. Wisdom requires that we accept a realistic view of what God can do. He has set himself potentially conflicting goals - to save as many people as possible, to get us as good as possible as quickly as possible, and to allow us complete freedom. Therefore even God must strike a balance. I happen to think that, from an eternal perspective, he gets the balance right.
the bottom line
the key to the so-called deep doctrines is wisdom.