Feast upon the Word Blog

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Canon vs. other “authoritative” statements

Posted by Robert C. on July 14, 2007

On the new (and experimental) “Submit a question” page, Jake W. asks,

What do we do with Joseph Smith’s non-canonized teachings and revelations? Well, not do, but if we read them, will we be judged by them?

I think this is a very good question, and one I don’t have a good answer for. Two thoughts in response come to my mind: first, the notion of common consent by which our canon is determined; second, understanding the background and historical context of the Doctrine and covenants. I don’t have time to elaborate on the second point, so I’ll just say a little about the first to get the discussion going.

“Common consent” is mentioned in three different sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: 26:2; 28:13; and 104:71-72, 85. In order to understand the meaning of “common consent,” it seems, somewhat ironically, we must look beyond the canon itself. I don’t have much time now, and I haven’t studied this much before, so I’m going to draw primarily from The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on “Scripture” as well as an article by Matthew Richardson entitled “The Law of Common Consent” in Doctrine and Covenants, a Book of Answers: The 25th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (links are to GospeLink pages, I think a subscription or institutional access is required…).

Richardson cites the following scriptures as instances of common consent practiced in previous dispensations: Exodus 24:3; Numbers 27:19-22; Acts 1:26; Mosiah 29:25-26. I’m not sure I see the connections very well. Exodus 24 seems to be an illustration of the people in agreement in supporting Moses. I guess the point is that the people themselves seem to take upon them the obligation of supporting Moses: “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.” In Numbers, the key point seems to be 27:22 where Moses sets Joshua before teh congregation. The Acts passage is talking about the casting of lots, which I guess is related in the sense that I think everyone agrees (“by common consent” we might say) before the lots are cast to abide by the result. In Mosiah, it seems we have a discussion of what looks a lot like democracy. I guess the point is that in a democracy we agree to live by the majority will of the people, even if we disagree with that will (or the laws established by a democratic form of government).

I don’t think the process of defining our canon is really described in our canon (again, somewhat ironically…). D&C 28 seems to be the closest thing to a discussion of this (I think this is related to why there was controversy regarding authoriy and leadership after Joseph was killed). In verse 2, we read that “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.” It seems this is one reason given in the canon for us to pay more attention to Joseph Smith’s teachings than anyone else’s. Verses 4-5 make an intriguing distinction between writing and speaking (Joe, I know you’ve been thinking about this a lot, I’m esp. interested in hearing your thoughts on these verses…). Verses 3, 6-7 seem to describe unique keys that Joseph holds (presumably as prophet, though it seems there are certain keys pertaining to this dispensation that only Joseph held; can someone help me understand what “even as Aaron” means—is this referring to Oliver playing the role of Aaron to Joseph/Moses? or is Joseph being likened to Aaron here?). After giving some rather specific instruction to Oliver Cowdery (for preaching the gospel among the Lamanites and establishing Zion) in verses 8-12, Oliver is instructed to tell Hiram Page that, in regard to something Hiram had written, he had been deceived by Satan. Verse 12 elaborate, “For behold these things have not been appointed unto him . . . ” and, finally, verse 13 states “For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.” Note also in verse 10 Joseph is said to “preside over the conference by the voice of it,” which also seems to be related to the notion of common consent.

One thing I can’t help thinking about as I read D&C 28 is our sustaining of our Church leaders during General and ward conferences. It is this act of sustaining that makes it hard for me to differentiate between the authoritative nature of our canon and advice our Church leaders give “over the pulpit.” Perhaps this written-vs.-spoken distinction is important. That is, we are more bound throughout time to that which is written, whereas we are bound only “temporarily” to that which is spoken—what I mean is that perhaps I’m more bound to written scripture than I am to something written by Joseph Fielding Smith because I wasn’t alive to sustain what he spoke over the pulpit (but then, it’s not like we explicitly raise our arm to the square to adopt our written canon, do we? I guess I was alive for the 1978 addition, but I wasn’t of the age of accountability yet and I don’t remember raising my arm to the square, and surely many reading this weren’t alive then…).

Well, I’m losing focus here, confusing myself, and running out time and space. Which is a good incentive for all of you readers out there to help me (and Jake) out—what is our relationship to and obligation regarding canonized scripture vs. words spoken by our General Authorities (past and present, Joseph Smith in particular)?

13 Responses to “Canon vs. other “authoritative” statements”

  1. Robert C. said

    Somewhat tangential, but I’ve recenty been thinking about D&C 102:19 and the way in which councils are said to work:

    19 . . . After the evidences are heard, the councilors, accuser and accused have spoken, the president shall give a decision according to the understanding which he shall have of the case, and call upon the twelve councilors to sanction the same by their vote.

    My thinking is that there is an important principle at work here of submitting one’s own understanding to the understanding of the authority’s decision. This is, stated all too briefly and vaguely, why I am a bit leery to advocate an interpretation of a scriptural passage that runs counter to something that a Church leader has said over the pulpit. I think that alternative interpretations are typically quite acceptable since I don’t believe texts have only one meaning, but it seems there are at least some instances where there is little wriggle room left for interpretation if particular statements are taken as authoritative. Since I’m not sure which statements carry what amount of authority, I tend to err on the side of submitting to a potentially authoritative statement, at least in what I say as a member of the Church community (because I have raised my arm to the square to support the leaders of the Church, and I’m rather fuzzy as to the extent this applies to past authorities…).

  2. J. Stapley said

    I think the “canonization” process of the 1835 D&C is quite important to this discussion (though obviously complicated by the 1876 and 1921 editions).

    I think there are two things at work. Any living prophet can trump canonized literature. However, if these teachings are not themselves canonized and later prophets don’t circulate those teachings, the canon trumps the teachings of the past prophet.

    Now, regarding Joseph Smith, the Church doesn’t accept everything Joseph said or taught as canon. However, there are many “doctrines” in the church that aren’t really canonized. These non-canonical doctrines may be important or not. Regardless, approaching these teachings essentially is an exersize in historiography.

  3. brianj said

    Robert: “I don’t think the process of defining our canon is really described in our canon (again, somewhat ironically…)”

    I don’t see the irony. I don’t expect a thing to describe itself (like a camera taking a picture of itself), and since the canon is “open” then it can’t ever define itself (a variation of Heisenberg uncertainty). Sorry, I realize this comment is totally science geeky.

    J Stapley: “Any living prophet can trump canonized literature…the canon trumps the teachings of the past prophet.”

    Very interesting. That’s a very elegant (in simplicity and usefulness) system of checks and balances (if it is correct—I’m not doubting you, necessarily, but I’d like to think about it more). Thanks!

  4. Kim M. said

    brianj–bring on the geekiness! I get thrills of joy upon hearing about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. One of the reasons I love this site so much–it’s full of wonderfully intelligent people!

    Yet again, I have nothing to add to the conversation, except to note that as far as our “canonized” scriptures go, we weren’t there in 600 BC to “sustain” Nephi’s words, either. So is our sustaining actualized in how much deference we give to the teaching? I respect Joseph Smith a great deal, and thus take his words much more seriously than I would the teachings of certain members of the Seventy. Is this how I sustain Joseph Smith (not comparatively, but in the “faith” I give to his words)?

    Also–I’ve always had a definite love of books (you can ask anyone who knows me well)–so for me I always prefer to read a text; a bound, written text with a cover and a title page and a spine. Something about a BOOK inspires reverence in me; perhaps this is, again, unique to me, but I typically take written material more seriously than spoken.

    Just some thoughts. Excellent topic! I’m thrilled to hear the ideas everyone comes up with!

  5. Robert C. said

    J. Stapley #2, I think you are right about the importance of historiography in answering this question. Can you recommend some books or articles for studying the canonization process of the D&C?

    BrianJ #3, it seems there are many Church practices/rules/laws described in the D&C, so I think it is at least somewhat peculiar that some sort of mention of the canonization process isn’t mentioned. But perhaps I’m too accustomed to the self-describing nature of, say, the U.S. Constitution. I guess this sort of becomes a lifting-yourself-by-your-own-bootstraps problem, in a way that seems to come up frequently in discussion with Evangelical Christians about Bible inerrancy or sufficiency—i.e. a Mormon might ask, “but how do you know the Bible is the word of God? You can know the Book of Mormon is by the same process, and Moroni even tells you this explicitly in the book itself.” Yes, perhaps it’s my pride in the self-contained promise in the Book of Mormon that makes me think of this lack of self-containment about canonization in our canon that makes me view this as ironic.

    Kim M. #4, I think you’re right that there is some sort of implicit sustaining process involved in being part of the church community (or maybe it’s more explicit than I understand it…). It’s rather embarrassing for me to realize that I don’t have a good explanation for how or why it is that the Book of Mormon, Bible, D&C and PoGP are our established canon. That is, I can’t think of a particular official publication that explains this (or even a good historical study that documents this). The Explanatory Introduction of the D&C declares our four accepted standard works to be what they are but, interestingly, does not mention the process by which they became accepted. There is, however, an interesting line explaining the removal of the Lectures on Faith, “because they were not given or presented as revelations to the whole Church,” which seems to be an endorsement of the common consent process.

  6. J. Stapley said

    Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” (Ph.D. diss., BYU, 1974) is the best place to go. Moreover it is on of the finest references we have for this area. BYU published a text searchable dvd (or cd-rom, I can’t remember) last year.

  7. JakeW said

    I guess I’m confused at why there is non-canon in the first place. How can there be revelation from God that isn’t binding? It says common consent is required. That makes good sense, because “a church divided against itself cannot stand,” but if the church doesn’t commonly consent on any given revelation, will they be held accountable for not being ready to receive certain doctrines and principles? Joseph Smith once said that “If men were to hear all the commandments of God, they’d throw half of them out on account of prejudice and ignorance.” Well, that was a very similar paraphrase, but nevertheless, is Joseph excusing men for their infirmities and weakness, or something else?

    mostly I just want to know that if I’m reading non-canonical texts, am I making a covenant with God? Am I saying “damn me if I don’t now follow this text”?

  8. Kim M. said

    As always, I imagine the answer is “read with the Spirit.” I think God will definitely hold us accountable to canon, but I see him as being more lenient with texts that we’re not sure of. If it’s vital to our salvation, won’t the Spirit manifest that to us? Once the Spirit confirms it, then we’re bound to it, I think. But I feel that if the Lord wants us to live by it, he will make it very clear to us, and we will recognize that. As long as we’re being as faithful as we can, I don’t think the Lord will leave us in the dark as to His will.

  9. Robert C. said

    J. Stapley #6, thank you very much for this reference—I think this is the DVD (an 1874-page dissertation?! yikes…), which looks like a great resource for studying the D&C.

    JakeW #7, I think you raise another great set of questions here. I think there is a very prominent set of teachings in LDS scripture regarding sinning against the light we have been given. We touched on this a little in our discussion of “Secrecy in the Gospel of Mark post several months ago, though perhaps this idea played more of a background role in our discussion than anything very explicit. The idea as applied there (again, I think McConkie has prominently advocated this position) is that God doesn’t allow us to receive more light and knowledge in order to protect us from greater condemnation. I don’t by that explanation completely, at least as applied to the various passages cited in that post, but I’m still quite open to this idea as it pertains to the way we think about taking upon ourselves covenants and in thinking about the words we will be judge by.

    Part of the problem also, I think, is that words have different degrees of particularity and generality. I think that the more words we are bound to as an entire Church community, the less “flexibility” there is in a sense. A rather trite but possibly profoundly analogous example is the way that all missionaries Church-wide are bound to follow certain rather specific rules outlined in the White Handbook (e.g. being back in the apartment at a certain time). My sense is that these rules help keep missionaries from being distracted and protected from rationalizations to stay out late without good reason, but in my mission (in Russia) there were times that these rules seemed to impede the work (like when we had a rather distant investigator who typifcally had to work till quite late in the evening).

    Kim M. #8, I think you’re right that ultimately it’s the Spirit that matters, everything else I think is essentially a crutch toward helping us listen to the Spirit better.

  10. JakeW said

    Hey, thanks, Kim. that opens up a new question for me, though; am I held accountable for not recognizing (or discerning, rather) the Spirit? I’ve been told that, in the context of missionary work, once the Holy Ghost witnesses the truth(whether they know it or not?) to an investigator, then they are in the running for cursings and so forth if they reject it. As for myself, I’m cautious to say I’ve ever felt the Spirit. Maybe once or twice. I’ve had plenty of good feelings about lots of things over the years, though. How can one go about discerning spirits? Is it intuitive? It seems to me to be among the most important of the Spiritual gifts, because without it, I don’t see how anybody can be held accountable for anything.

  11. joespencer said

    Woodford’s dissertation is helpful, though it should be said from the outset that it is not a commentary on the D&C. (But praises be to BYU Studies for putting it on DVD and at a reasonable price! I’ve been using it rather constantly over the past few months.)

    I’m not sure I have much more to say about this question than that. Jake’s question, it seems to me, is more a question of what accountability is, rather than about what counts as canon or what the difference between canon and authoritative statements might be. How do we approach that question? How are we accountable and what does that mean? (And that makes me want to get back to reading and critiquing the first chapter of Adam’s book, which I’ll have time, I think, to do tomorrow… At any rate, might Romans 1 be a good place to take up this question?)

  12. J. Stapley said

    mostly I just want to know that if I’m reading non-canonical texts, am I making a covenant with God? Am I saying “damn me if I don’t now follow this text”?

    No offense, but I find this line of thinking quite peculiar and not particularly supportable. Beyond Christ’s gospel I can’t think of anything “canonical” that would be damning if not followed. Moreover, much of our canonical literature isn’t “revelation” in the classical Mormon sense. Say a section of the doctrine and covenants is based on William Clayton’s diary. Does the whole diary become some sort of damning device? I think not.

    I would recommend reading more history.

  13. M. A. Peterson said

    I recently picked up a book entitled ‘Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Vol. 1’ by Fred C. Collier. I am just starting reading it, but it has raised a couple questions in my mind. First, how do I know that the revelations contained in the book are actual and accurate? Second, if they are, why were they not published in the Doctrine and Covenants? Any insight would be appreciated, thanks.

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