Authoritative Primacy

Most of us are familiar with this story, related by Wilford Woodruff:

I will refer to a certain meeting I attended in the town of Kirtland in my early days. At that meeting some remarks were made that have been made here today, with regard to the living oracles and with regard to the written word of God. The same principle was presented … when a leading man in the Church got up and talked upon the subject, and said: “You have got the word of God before you here in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants; you have the written word of God, and you who give revelation should give revelations according to those books, as what is written in those books is the word of God. We should confine ourselves to them.”

When he concluded, Brother Joseph turned to Brother Brigham Young and said, “Brother Brigham, I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.” Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the word of God from the beginning of the world, almost to our day.” “And now,” said he, “when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.” That was the course he pursued. When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation: “Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.” (Conference Report, October 1897, pp. 22-23.)

This lays out the principle that revelation to current prophets has authoritative primacy over the scriptures. However, in our day, the general authorities seem to have disclaimed that primacy:

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they write. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator-please note that one exception-you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea.” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works, you may know by the same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it. (Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, pp. 162-63.)

It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.

You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.

Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3, pp. 203-4)

How do we reconcile these statements with those of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff? Do the standard works have primacy over the words of living prophets or the other way around?

6 thoughts on “Authoritative Primacy

  1. I’m not sure one always takes precedence over the other.

    Let me throw in a few more citations.

    The Latter-day Saints do not do things because they happen to be printed in a book. They do not do things because God told the Jews to do them; nor do they do or leave undone anything because of the instructions that Christ gave to the Nephites. Whatever is done by this Church is because God, speaking from heaven in our day, has commanded this Church to do it. No book presides over this Church, and no book lies at its foundation. You cannot pile up books enough to take the place of God’s priesthood, inspired by the power of the Holy Ghost. That is the constitution of the Church of Christ. … Divine revelation adapts itself to the circumstances and conditions of men, and change upon change ensues as God’s progressive work goes on to its destiny. There is no book big enough or good enough to preside over this Church.

    - Elder Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, October 1916, p. 55. Quoted by Loren C. Dunn, in General conference, Ensign May 1976, p.65-66

    …we believe, from the Scriptures of truth, that to every church in the past ages, which the Lord recognized to be his, he gave revelations wisely calculated to govern them in the peculiar situation and circumstances under which they were placed, and to enable them by authority to do the peculiar work which they were to perform. The Bible contains revelations given at different times to different people, under different circumstances, as will be seen by editorial articles in this paper. The old world was destroyed for rejecting the revelations of God, given to them through Noah. The Israelites were destroyed in the wilderness for despising the revelations given to them through Moses; and Christ said that the world, in the days of the apostles, should be condemned for not receiving the word of god through them: thus we see that the judgments of God in the past ages have come upon the people, not so much for neglecting the revelations given to their forefathers, as for rejecting those given immediately to themselves. Of the blessings of heaven it may be said, they have always rested upon the heads of those to whom they were promised: Therefore, seeing that it not only was, but as long as God remains the same, always will be the privilege of the true church to receive revelations, containing blessings and cursings, peculiarly adapted to itself as a church.

    - The Evening and the Morning Star- July 1832, 13.

    God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted-by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

    - TPJS, 256. From JS’ letter to Nancy Rigdon.

    We are not based on the Bible. We are based on what the Bible is based on. [That is, revelation to living prophets.]

    -Ross Baron.

    There is certainly some tension between the two principles.

    If we strictly follow the scriptures as we have them, then we take a static, fundamentalist view of the gospel, and run the risk of being cut off from the living Church when revelation changes it, as it surely will. (Cf. David Whitmer’s Address to All Believers in Christ.) This, I believe, was also the problem of some of the groups in the NT, who believed that once God says it, it must always apply (ie. circumcision, etc.) In essence, this denies that there is continuing revelation in the Church which is surely one of our fundamental principles.

    If we are willing to toss out anything in the scriptures for revelation (whether personal or prophetic), then we have no baseline to follow and run the risk of going off the deep end (plenty of examples there too.)

    I have discovered that there are some good Sunstone articles (such a thing is not necessarily an oxymoron, as these articles come from the “early years” and take very orthodox points-of-view) on the topic of revelation, scriptures, and Church leaders.

    How General the Authority? Sunstone, August 1984 (scroll down about half-way.)

    The Limits of Revelation (Kent Dunford, who at the time of the article was professional CES) Sunstone, November 1982. (Scroll down about half-way)

    It seems to me that we could distill the issue into a few questions.

    Is the priority of our leaders words over the standard works dependant on the revelatory nature of those words? “Yes” in my mind. Modern revelation, if I judge it to be such (ay, there’s the rub), trumps that in the standard works.

    Is the priority of our leaders’ words over the standard works dependant on the type of thing they are advocating? Again, I answer “yes,” if we can make a distinction between policies, practices, and doctrines. In terms of the first two, I think the modern prophets always take priority, regardless of whether I know if they are revelatory. In terms of doctrinal pronouncements, I return to the first question.

  2. Very good ideas, Christopher and Ben. Ben, some of your quotes are really interesting. I think Joseph’s letter to Nancy Rigdon is well put– we will always find contradictions if we seek a complete uniformity in God’s commands.

    I wonder if the two positions (prophetic primacy and scriptural primacy) can’t be reconciled with reference to the epochs in which they were promulgated. For example, we seem to have some (fuzzy, at best) doctrines stating that the dispensation head stands supreme over his dispensation, as the lawgiver and primary prophet of those times, with all successor prophets left to fill in the gaps. Thus, perhaps in the time of Joseph and his immediate associates, prophecy was meant to be the major means of disseminating God’s word. However, now we may rely on 1) old scripture, 2) new scripture, and 3) scripture containing the revelations of our dispensation head. Thus, contemporary prophecy may simply be less necessary, so the prophets have shifted their emphasis to promote reliance on the works and words of the prophet that ushered in our dispensation.

    These are the fulness of times, after all.

  3. Christopher, this is an excellent post, and reading your post carefully and Ben’s response allows you to gain a much greater understanding of what it means to truly be a Latter-day Saint. What is one of the primary messages of the latter days? That God has spoken to the Earth and help set up his true church with his true prophets in preparation for the final scene that will involve an end of the Earth as we know it. The relationship is completely vertical from God to prophets to the rest of the earth. Unfortunately, all other religions are horizontal — from men to other men with mingling of scriptures. So, why does the Bible tell the people of Israel to do things that are completely different than the saints are told to do today? Because God was speaking different messages to different prophets during those times. Every time an unbeliever says that he must support same-sex marriage because we cannot use the Bible, a contradictory document, as a guide, he is correct in one sense. The Bible is filled with page after page of guidelines on animal sacrifice, for example, that are not applicable to our day, not to mention different punishments for different transgressions. So, if the Bible’s guidelines were only correct for that time, how do we know what is correct for OUR time? Three words: “Follow the prophet.”

    So, you can turn to the scriptures for argument over different church-related issues, but in my opinion, the statements of the prophets trump the good books, just as BY said.

  4. Geoff B, would that include the statements of Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee?

  5. The qualification in Pres. Lee’s statement is the key. He said that every General Authority is subject to the doctrinal domain defined by the scriptures, *except* the prophet. President Packer can not reveal new, or change existing, doctrine. Neither can Presidents Monson or Faust. Only President Hinckley has that authority. That fact that we sustain the counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators notwithstanding, their ability to exercise the key of prophecy is dormant, just as every other key they hold.

    The Seventy don’t even figure into the equation.

    Every sermon, address, talk, or article by anyone in the Church is subject to the Standard Works, except for the Prophet. They are called the Standard Works because they set the standard. But, if Pres. Hinckley announces tomorrow that polygamy is reinstated, then Official Declaration 1 will be immediately thrown out, and my wife and I are going to have a long, long talk.

    Nevertheless, I think it is interesting that in most cases, even the Prophet confines himself to the Scriptures, frequently referring to them in his talks. Furthermore, when he wants to say something really important, he does not do it alone, but offers such pronouncements as a group, the First Presidency and the Twelve united.

  6. I have noticed that even Jesus Christ quotes scripture, especially Isaiah.

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