By Aaron Shafovaloff (Mormon Research Ministry, www.mrm.org)
Christians who attempt to engage in meaningful dialog with their Mormon friends are often frustrated by the way teachings and beliefs can be obfuscated and downplayed. When a question is posed by a Christian they are many times told that a particular teaching “is not official.” Behind this are the assumptions that that the religion of Mormonism is immune to any fatal criticism if it involves anything outside the scope of officiality, and that evangelical engagement should be limited to that which is binding upon Mormon members.
One problem with this is that the Mormon Church has no binding and official position on what con-stitutes a binding and official position. Mormon leaders and thinkers have proposed a variety of approaches to defining what constitutes official doctrine, not one being settled upon. Multiple things must be taken into account. First, and most important, Mormons have been taught that they enjoy a continual stream of prophetic counsel and revelation, and that their leaders will never lead them astray. They have also been taught that “The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” 1980). A sense has been fostered that the living leadership is for members a more direct line to God than ancient scripture. But Mormonism also attempts to esteem its scriptures and ensure some stability. When leaders have gone especially awry, subsequent generations of leaders have downplayed prior teachings by appealing to the boundaries of scriptures (that the previous leaders failed to stay within). In short, Mormonism teeters between maximalism and minimalism.
In my study I have so far identified three general Mormon approaches to the standard of officiality:
sola scriptura – The Standard Works are the final and alone binding source of authority. If it is not in scripture, or if it is not inferred by scripture, it is not doctrinal and it is not binding.
prima scriptura – Scripture is the highest, most final binding source of authority, but it is not the only source of that which is binding and doctrinal. Other sources, such as current church leadership (considered lesser because they are compared with scripture and discarded if in contradiction with scripture) are also binding.
prima ecclesia – Modern church leadership is the highest, most final binding source of authority and doctrine, and may override other sources of authority and doctrine, like scripture, if there is contradiction. This is rarely done by direct repudiation and instead is done by re-interpreting, making obsolete, or questioning the preservation of a particular text. When addressing the question of whether living leaders trump scripture, or vice versa, BYU professor Robert Millet admits with refreshing honesty:
“I think most Latter-day Saints would be prone to answer this by pointing out the value and significance of living oracles, or continuing revelation, or ongoing divine direction through modern apostles and prophets, and thus to conclude that living prophets take precedence over canonized scripture” (Claiming Christ, p.31).
Rather than endorsing this mainstream approach, Millet goes on in the book to promote an approach much like prima scriptura.
There are nuances and ambiguities to the above three models, but you get the basic idea. My contention is that Mormonism oscillates between varying models to keep alive the theme of the “continuing revelation” as well as enforce some regulatory sanity.
BYU professors who promote the need for modern prophets to understand ancient prophets often violate their own stated principles in their interpretation of the watershed passage 2 Nephi 25:23 (“…for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”). They obstinately reject the usage and interpretation from general conference and modern church publications, preferring instead their own personal interpretations. Minimalists like Millet say that we need modern leaders to understand ancient scripture, but seem to only selectively apply the principle.
Here are some issues Christians need to take into consideration:
1. We care about what the Mormon mainstream people and individual persons actually believe. When they believe something the institution doesn't strictly, officially bless (according to some particular model of doctrine and authority), it still matters with regard to the spiritual condition of their individual heart.
2. The institution, regardless of the lack of formal approval, still ought to bear responsibility for acquiescing to unrepudiated longstanding beliefs that were initiated or at least fostered by Mormon leadership or by the implications of the traditional Mormon worldview.
3. Regardless of whether a particular Mormon individual agrees or doesn't agree with important teachings that have been recently been promoted from institutional Mormon channels of influence, that Mormon's spiritual heart condition is also related to his or her willingness to be a part of such an institution that tolerates and/or teaches such things.
4. Regardless of how old a particular Mormon teaching is, it can still have bearing on whether a person today should choose to become or remain Mormon. There are plenty of old teachings that have been abandoned by Mormonism that still call into question the reliability and integrity of the historic succession of alleged prophets and apostles. Remember, it only takes one false prophecy or one public heresy about the nature of God—especially one not repented over—to make a prophet false.