Last week's furor over a BYU professor's racist comments prompted the LDS Church to strongly condemn racism, but its statement fell short of specifically naming what was wrong about its own racist past. Today on Patheos, history blogger Ben Park explores the nature of Mormon belief in continuing revelation, including the sticky issue of what the protocol is if new revelation comes into direct conflict with the revelations or statements of past church leaders.
Park points out that "while modern-day prophets and an open canon promise sacred continuity and a collapse of distance between the Bible and modernity, it also theoretically implies instability through the potential for change. How can one know if present practices are God's will when the future could bring something drastically different, and how does one contextualize different beliefs of the past when they were voiced by prophetic leaders?"
Great question. It's not one that Mormons have done the best job addressing; in fact, it is a question that's usually ignored. And the belief in modern revelation is not always as dramatic as LDS rhetoric would suggest:
Sure, Mormons have a new book of ancient scripture and over a hundred new revelations . . . but nearly all of those new scriptural texts came within the first decade and the church has maintained a "functionally closed" canon ever since. Decisions and pronouncements since the middle of the 19th century have primarily come from councils discussing, praying over, and interpreting the texts already present, and while current statements are somewhat granted "canon" status, they still don't carry as much weight as those found within the leather covers of the books of scripture.
There is a lurking question here about the changing use of the language of "revelation." In Mormon history, the drama of revelation appears to have been downgraded; we've gone from "revelation" to "declaration" (1890, 1978) to "proclamation" (1995) and are now hovering somewhere near "press release" as the Public Affairs Department consistently offers the most lucid, timely clarifications of what the LDS Church actually believes and teaches.
So: what is the difference between a revelation, a declaration, a proclamation, and a press release? And why does it matter?
I can't answer the first, but I hold up the second as a fruitful line of future inquiry. Mormonism seems to have adopted the idea that revelation is revelation and cannot be changed, forever and ever, world without end, amen. I don't believe this is very biblical -- for example, has anyone read Isaiah 56 lately? It's pretty clear that God changes God's mind wonderfully often, like rescinding a previous decision to slaughter an entire city after being impressed by Moses' skills as the Priceline Negotiator. (See also God's similar wavering after being talked down from a murderous ledge by Abraham, or the aforementioned Isaiah 56 passage which opens the family of Israel to eunuchs and foreigners after God had been appallingly clear that they were anathema.)
But for our purposes here let's take the conservative idea that "revelation is revelation and cannot be changed" at face value. In that scenario, a trajectory that moves from "revelation" to "declaration" to "proclamation" may not be a declension at all. In fact, it may be a surprisingly postmodern nod to the idea that declarations and proclamations are meant to serve the moment, not necessarily the eternities.
"Change" image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Used with permission.