Mormon author Jana Riess continues to receive criticism for her public disagreement with certain statements from Mormon prophets and apostles. In analyzing this criticism on her blog, Dr. Riess recently asked, “When is a Mormon prophet speaking as a prophet? What does it mean to ‘follow the prophet’ in Mormonism?”
Lamenting the fact that some Mormons erroneously “accept on faith that every word that comes from the mouth of an apostle or prophet in a church setting is perfect and immutable truth,” Dr. Riess goes on to express her gratitude for these Church leaders and confirms that she does sustain them in their callings. She writes,
“That does not mean, however, that they cannot be wrong. They are culturally conditioned human beings, just as I am; they are influenced by their time and place in history, just as we all are. Prophets are inspired at times to give great counsel, but they are not infallible…”
She asks, “…how do we know they are speaking because they are moved by the Holy Ghost, and not simply because they are expressing their cultural views…?” Her answer: “Maybe we know because we have a moment of testimony ourselves, a stirring in our own heart that communicates the holiness of what has been said.”
Dr. Riess seems to be suggesting that Mormon prophets and apostles can be wrong about what they think the Holy Ghost is telling them (and is directing them to pass on to the members of the Church via their Church callings), while individual members don’t experience such ambiguity and will correctly understand what the Holy Ghost is telling them via personal testimony.
Think about this for a minute. If this is true, what is the reason for latter-day prophets and apostles? If a Mormon’s personal testimony is more trustworthy than the pronouncements of Mormon prophets and apostles, wouldn’t it be best to cut out the unstable middle-men and stick with one’s own personal revelation?
Dr. Riess’ idea is a highly tenuous one. She gives LDS prophets and apostles a pass because they are culturally conditioned human beings who are influenced by their time and place in history; thus, they are subject to mistaking their cultural views for divine inspiration. Yet, as she has pointed out, so is she. How can she be sure that her personal testimony is not the natural outcome of her own conditioning that she unfortunately mistakes for divine inspiration?
Dr. Riess does not address this question, but she does attempt to provide a solution to the is-he-speaking-as-a-prophet-or-not question for times when a personal testimony is not forthcoming. In those instances, she says, “we lean on the received tradition through scripture and the words of other leaders.” Dr. Riess quotes LDS Apostle Todd Christofferson:
“The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’: and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”
This begs the question. On what basis does Dr. Riess accept Mr. Christofferson’s counsel as true? He is “a culturally conditioned human being.” He is “not infallible.” He could be wrong. And so could “the body of the [Church] members,” as has been demonstrated all throughout the Mormon Church’s history.
Consider Joseph Smith’s failed Kirtland Bank revelation, Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine, John Taylor’s declarations about the never-ending doctrine of plural marriage, and the not-so-long-ago-abandoned racial discrimination that permeated the teachings of multiple Mormon prophets and apostles. The testimony of “the body of the members” in each of these cases (and others) was that these teachings were inspired by God — that the prophets and apostles were, in fact, “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” to say these things. At least, this is what Church members believed for a long time. And in the case of the Mormon teachings on the inferiority of the black race, Church members believed it (and acted on it) for more than a century! Yet “in due time” it was determined that many Church leaders had been merely “voicing their [personal] views” while mistaking them for divine counsel; so the Mormon Church changed course.
Now Mormons cross their fingers and hope that the leaders who jettisoned previously affirmed (official) LDS doctrines did so as moved upon by the Holy Ghost. But if not, in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.
Think about this for a minute. If Dr. Riess is correct, this whole premise taught by Apostle Christofferson, instead of being great, inspired counsel, may be just the product of a fallible man mistaking his culturally-driven views for the voice of God.
If even Mormon prophets and apostles can’t tell whether they are being moved upon by the Holy Ghost, what hope is there that a rank-and-file Mormon will be able to discern the real source of his or her own “testimony”?
The biblical view of a true prophet of God is one that does not allow for these kinds of mistakes. A true prophet of God will not give his own views or popular opinion in place of God’s words (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). That, according to God, is reserved for false prophets (Jeremiah 23:25-32).
I encourage you, friends, to think about this for a minute.