Scriptures: Doctrine and Covenants

In its section on the Doctrine and Covenants, the manual says that it

contains the revelations regarding the Church of Jesus Christ as it has been restored in these last days. Several sections of the book explain the organization of the Church and define the offices of the priesthood and their functions. Other sections … contain glorious truths that were lost to the world for hundreds of years. Still others … shed light on teachings in the Bible. In addition, some sections … contain prophecies of events to come. [examples removed — find the original quote here]

One of the things that made a lot of sense to me about Mormonism in my more believing years is this idea that God continues to speak to us. The Doctrine and Covenants, as the description above makes clear is basically just a collection of questions that Joseph had and answers he received.

The idea of an open canon is lovely. It doesn’t make sense to confine ourselves to a few books that could be agreed upon by a committee that met more than 1500 years ago. Why shouldn’t God speak to us as She/He/They did in ancient times?

The problem of history

The Doctrine and Covenants has almost the opposite problem of the Hebrew Canon and the Gospels. We have an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to the history of the Church. Ours is a history that is (sometimes–oftentimes?–troublingly) knowable if we make the effort.

Unfortunately almost none of the actual historical context makes it into the book itself (it isn’t even arranged in chronological order!). I don’t believe that this is a problem unique to Mormons, but we certainly are guilty of divorcing our scripture from its context. The process of breaking the text into numbered verses facilitates study in important ways, but it also discourages holistic reading. In the Doctrine and Covenants, this tendency toward atomizing scripture is magnified by the total lack of coherent narrative. The references to the History of the Church in the headings of the D&C are precious little to go from for the lay member.

The lack of context contributes, I think, to a misunderstanding about the relationship between God, the prophet, and the people. Because we have so little recent experience with revelation the way it was practiced in Joseph’s day, we might get the impression that the prophet sits at the head of the Church and relays God’s word to the people. The reality seems to be considerably more complex.

Is our canon really open?

It has been nearly 100 years since the last real revelation was recorded in the D&C. Now, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the pace of revelation would slow a bit now that the church is fully institutionalized, but the extreme caution modern prophets appear to exercise in publicizing their prophecies seems to be entirely new.

Take Official Declaration 2. It is essentially a press release  announcing that a revelation had been received. There is no “Thus saith the Lord” or similar language revealing the ‘mind and will’ of God concerning the matter. The closest it comes is the concluding paragraph which notes,

We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.

But we are left to speculate as to what precisely the will of God in this matter is (especially concerning the rightness or wrongness of the ban in the first place). Our contemporary prophets seem to have delegated their prophetic responsibility to the PR department of the Church.

A more recent example is found in the family proclamation — perhaps the most important statement to come from the First Presidency in recent memory. A less-noticed edit to Boyd Packer’s infamous October 2010 general conference talk walked back his assertion that the proclamation was a revelation. The original said,

Fifteen years ago, with the world in turmoil, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” the fifth proclamation in the history of the Church. It qualifies according to the definition as a revelation and would do well that members of the church to read and follow it.

Packer’s anonymous editor replaced the last sentence with, “It is a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and follow” (see this post for a full documentation of the changes made).

A silent witness

The Doctrine and Covenants stands as a silent (silenced?) reminder of a church that once had the confidence to claim special and direct access to the will of God.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, this is not altogether a bad thing. There are several examples in our history of prophets saying terrible things in the name of God. Through Joseph, God threatened Emma with destruction in Section 132. God, through Brigham, said any number of crazy things. Caution is certainly in order when we claim to speak for God.

But it feels disingenuous to me when the church goes to such great lengths in making the case that it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I can’t help but get the feeling that the Brethren have worked themselves into a tricky corner. They are complicit in inflating the expectations of the membership to unhealthy heights, but now that they’ve got most of us here, they don’t seem to be sure what to do.

I think we would do well as a people to have a serious, open, and on-going discussion about the nature of revelation and the role of prophets.

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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