Responding to Differing Views:

The Objection from Prophetic Fallibility

Are LDS Church leaders wrong on same-sex marriage?

As Latter-day Saints, we believe that God speaks to modern day prophets and apostles — but this does not mean that these men are always perfect in their understanding of God’s will. They, like the rest of us, are subject to the fall, and part of the conditions of mortality is having our judgment clouded at times by personal and cultural biases and prejudices. In the case of same-sex marriage, some Latter-day Saints argue that prophets are simply in the wrong on the matter, for any number of reasons.

It is absolutely true that the church does not believe that its prophets and apostles are infallible. The prophets are undeniably human beings and subject to human error. However, we cannot use prophetic fallibility to blithely dismiss counsel that has been emphatically an unanimously repeated by all fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators over the course of two decades. Such does not merely invoke prophetic fallibility, it draws into question the idea of prophets in the first place.

Objection

As Latter-day Saints, we believe that God speaks to modern day prophets and apostles — but this does not mean that these men are always perfect in their understanding of God’s will. They, like the rest of us, are subject to the fall, and part of the conditions of mortality is having our judgment clouded at times by personal and cultural biases and prejudices. It is part of our doctrine that prophets can, at times, make mistakes and be mistaken. President Uchtdorf recently stated, “[T]o be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”

For this reason, we must rely on the guidance of the Spirit and sound reasoning as we try to discern the Lord’s will as it is communicated to us through His servants. In the case of same-sex marriage, some Latter-day Saints argue that prophets are simply in the wrong on the matter, for any number of reasons. The Objection from Prophetic Fallibility allows them to explain how they can maintain these objections despite the fact that prophets have strongly encouraged us to support traditional marriage laws.


Introduction

One of the key doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we have living prophets and apostles today who are authorized by God to receive revelations for the church and for the world. It is absolutely true that the church does not believe that its prophets and apostles are infallible. The prophets are undeniably human beings and subject to human error. That fallibility provides a helpful framework for understanding complex facets of the history of the church. However, when some Latter-day Saints use prophetic fallibility to justify their public or vocal dissent from the teachings of prophets and apostles on the issue of marriage, others members rightly respond as if this is an attack on their faith. Let’s explore some of the reasons why.

Prophetic Fallibility Has Natural Limits

The church doesn’t have a doctrine of prophetic infallibility but it does have a doctrine of living prophets and apostles. The whole point of having a prophet in the first place is that a prophet is a metaphorical “watchman on the tower”. While his eyesight may be just as fallible and as subject to mortality as anyone else, the tower upon which he stands provides him with a view superior to those with equally good eyes but who are not situated upon the tower. His view is better not because his eyes are superior but because his location on the tower allows him to see farther and more. This is not because of something inherent or different in his person, but because of something inherent in the position in which he has been placed for the protection and benefit of all.

There is a limit to how fallible a prophet can be and still rightly be called a prophet. While “infallibility” is an upper limit at which point we can no longer call prophets mortal, there is a lower limit at which point we can longer call mortal men prophets. For example, at some point claims of prophetic fallibility make a prophet so fallible that it amounts to saying that that the watchman is not actually on the tower at all! Or otherwise that his fallibility is so great that the natural advantage afforded by the tower is completely nullified. We can no longer call them seers if their eyesight is so dim that they cannot properly warn us of threats from their vantage point on the tower. Those who appeal to prophetic fallibility often ignore this lower boundary, which if crossed makes the doctrine of prophets and apostles incoherent.

Isolated Issues vs. Collective, Repeated Warnings

The leaders of the Church recognize their own fallibility, which is why they rarely ascribe the word “doctrine” to the isolated teachings of one Church leader, or to any isolated talk or sermon. Elder Neil L. Anderson warned, for example, that we should not ascribe the label of doctrine to teachings that have not been confirmed and repeated often by many of the Church’s leaders. He said, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many.” The church is not led by just one watchman on the tower, but by fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators who work in counsel together.

The watchman on the tower metaphor is again instructive here. One watchman has a superior view to those who are not on the tower, but still may make mistakes attributable to normal human error. Those errors can be mitigated and minimized, however, by requiring that what he sees be confirmed by additional watchmen, similarly set on towers of defense. If one raises a warning cry, his warning should not be cavalierly ignored though wrong he may be. If seven of the fifteen raise the same warning, we should be loath to reject their warning simply because we cannot perceive the danger that they profess to see. And if all fifteen of the watchmen raise the warning in unanimity, then it would be a very serious thing indeed to declare to your fellows that you know that they are wrong and that they should be ignored or even resisted.

So appeals to prophetic fallibility must account for whether the thing which is believed to be in error has been taught by just one or two of the prophets or apostles or many of the prophets and apostles; taught repeatedly by past prophets as well as current ones or taught unanimously by the living prophets and apostles. It is far more acceptable to cite fallibility to disagree with an idiosyncratic idea promoted by a singular apostle, or even a couple of apostles or prophets, than it is to disagree with counsel that has been promoted repeatedly by many prophets and apostles or a decision which was made by the prophets and apostles in unanimity. And it is truly a serious matter to publicly contradict or wrest a relatively rare joint proclamation by the First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles, signed in unanimity and offered to the world.

The counsel to support traditional marriage laws has been repeated emphatically and often. There is no evidence whatsoever that there is any dissent on this issue among the fifteen men who lead this Church. While the Church and its leaders have been clear that those who ignore this counsel have full fellowship in the Church and should not face discipline, the same is true of neglecting your home teaching or ignoring the Sabbath day. We should not gauge our faithfulness to prophetic teaching by whether or not our neglect with disqualify us from full fellowship in the Church.

Fallibility of the Critics

The biggest challenge of the Objection from Prophetic Fallibility is this: if God is capable of making his will known to you, then why not to the prophets? And if His power to make His will known is limited by their human frailty, why is it not limited by your own human frailty? In other words, when people appeal to prophetic fallibility to rationalize their vocal disagreement with the prophets, they almost always fail to account for how come that same fallibility principle does not call into question their ability to discern the will of God. Fallibility Boulevard is a two way street. Are we certain that whatever metrics we are using to evaluate the teachings of the prophets is not equally prone to such error? By what measure do we judge? And why is that measure less fallible than the 15 prophets, seers, and revelators who lead the church?

Yet critics who cite prophetic fallibility rarely exhibit a self-awareness of this fundamentally irony. Their confidence that their own view is correct while the prophets are wrong because prophets are fallible is self-contradicting. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you! That is why, while it may be a useful framework for understanding the past, the prophetic fallibility argument is nearly useless as a defense for rejecting prophetic counsel in the present or for the future. It can only ever be employed as an excuse, not a proof, because insofar as it casts doubt on the prophet, it casts an equal amount of doubt on the dissident. It is incapable of resolving the disagreement in favor of one or the other, and is at its root a de facto denial that the prophets have any kind of superior view as watchmen on the tower.

And why is it that the prophets are only fallible when they contradict our cherished political or social views? Could they not just as well be wrong on a host of other issues that we just aren’t as personally passionate or concerned about, or which simply haven’t raised their heads as controversial issues in our current socio-political climate? Given the fact that we are all subject to the fall, and that we are all predisposed by our own biases and prejudices, it would seem like quite the cosmic coincidence if the prophets happened to be wrong on all of the very issues on which dissidents happened to be right — and again, it would call into question the purpose of the prophets in the first place. All we really need in such a world are socially-conscious dissidents, who in such a universe would have a much stronger track record when it comes to relaying truth and divine guidance.

A God Who Speaks

In connection with the appeal to fallibility, some have suggested that while authentic, revelation from God to the prophets is filtered through their fallible human minds and muddled by their personal prejudices, culture, and tradition. To some extent, this is likely true. However, we do not think this is as true as many wish it would be. On closer inspection, saying that the prophets cannot receive clear messages is really saying that God is not powerful enough to make his will known; it is not an expression of doubt in the prophets, but a veiled disbelief in a God who speaks.

The God of the Restoration, who revealed himself to Joseph Smith — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Nephi — is a God who speaks. It is true that he reveals his will line upon line and precept upon precept, but when it is revealed there is little doubt about what he requires at the time, even when the reasons why may not be fully revealed. A God who speaks should at least be able to answer yes-or-no questions, even if the explanation of why is beyond our ken. But if the prophets are unwilling or unable to hear the voice of the Lord, can they still be accurately called prophets? Not with coherence.

In the biblical story of Jonah, who is the archetypal fallible prophet, Jonah never has any confusion about what God wants him to do, even if he rejects the message initially. And when he finally submits, he does not really understand why, or accept that the people of Nineveh will actually repent. His fallibility lies not in knowing God’s will but in resisting it and misapprehending to what end he has been asked to act. Another example of prophetic fallibility from the restoration is the loss of the first 116 pages translated from the gold plates. But even in this case the will of the Lord was not hazy or ambiguous. Martin Harris didn’t accept the clear message received after the first inquiry and he convinced the inexperienced prophet Joseph to pester the Lord until God granted them their desires, to their own condemnation and the detriment of the church (though the Lord had long prepared other means to compensate for the loss).

A close look at the scriptures shows that there few instances of apostasy by the prophets themselves. Individual apostles have apostatized and the Doctrine and Covenants contains provisions for replacing the prophet should he sin. But throughout the scriptures, in nearly every case, it is the members who reject the word of the Lord delivered by His faithful prophets. Do prophets make mistakes in the scriptures? Undeniably. But the clear, overriding theme of the scriptures is that of the people rejecting the prophets. The message for us is clear. We should be far more concerned about us rejecting the prophets because it goes contrary to what we want or what society teaches than we should be about whether the prophets are leading us astray.

Conclusion

For all of these reasons, many orthodox members of the church sense that the way in which prophetic fallibility is often invoked is an attack on their faith — even if they don’t know exactly how or they are not able to articulate it in the detail presented here. Because it sometimes is used as an implicit attack on their faith: not because Latter-day Saints believe that the prophets are infallible, but because they believe, with good reason, that the adjective “prophetic” puts real limits on the word “fallibility”. Prophetic fallibility is real — but so are prophets, seers, and revelators, tasked with a divine mission of teaching, warning, and exhorting us.

It’s certainly possible to have a more nuanced view of the world than one in which we assume that everything prophets and apostles say is 100% true or 100% grounded in revelation. Prophetic fallibility is very useful when dealing with those who struggle with elements of Church history, or when dealing with the isolated opinions of various Church leaders. However, we simply do not believe that “prophetic fallibility” can be used to exonerate those who dissent on the issue of same-sex marriage. If prophetic fallibility can be used against to rationalize dissent on the issue of same-sex marriage — something that all 15 of the prophets and apostles, over multiple decades (so make that many more than 15), have repeatedly warned us about — then it can be used to rationalize dissent on just about any doctrine of the Church.


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