A friend of mine recently started a discussion on Facebook about having modern-day prophets and historical change. Specifically, he asked whether “continuing revelation” in a Mormon context resembles “historical change?” I thought it was a great question and opened up a lot of the concerns I have about what prophets and apostles do in Mormonism. I will discuss this principle through a discussion between a hypothetical Mormon and a hypothetical Orthodox interlocutor, partly because I needed an excuse to throw around the word “interlocutor.”
Mormon: Mormonism is a restoration of Christ’s original church, which had a prophet (Peter) and apostles who received direct revelations from God to direct the church. Christ intended his church to always have apostles and prophets, receiving revelation, as its foundation.
Orthodox: No, the era of revelation has ended, but that was all the revelation that was necessary to found the church. Bishops continued the traditions of the apostles, and, though the Orthodox church has had to adapt in some cases to new circumstances, a new revelation by a prophet – as you understand that term – has never been necessary.
Mormon: But don’t you see that your “adaptations” and “changes” are precisely the sorts of things that you need a prophet for? You can’t change the church without permission from God, in the form of revelation.
Orthodox: What is the difference between “revelations” in a Mormon context and regular historical changes in any other context? Take your Priesthood Ban, for instance. When your prophets received the “revelation” to lift the Priesthood Ban in 1978, it was at least a decade behind American society. And the Orthodox church had churches built in black Africa almost two millenia ago. It would seem that having a prophet delayed the positive developments that were already enjoyed in society and in other churches, like Orthodoxy.
Mormon: That’s only one example. There are other examples of things that our prophets got right way ahead of the curve, in a way that is distinct from normal societal development and change in Orthodoxy.
Orthodox: Such as?
Mormon: For instance, the Word of Wisdom conferred lots of health benefits on the Mormons and continues to protect them from substances that weren’t even known to be harmful at the time the Word of Wisdom was instituted.
Orthodox: The Seventh-Day Adventists have had a health code even stricter than the Word of Wisdom, that confers quantifiably better health advantages on their adherents (and has even led to the development of a bunch of awesome breakfast cereals made by Mr. Kellogg, an Adventist, that benefit society). While theirs was introduced later (in the 1860s), an argument could be made that Mormons didn’t actually follow the WoW reliably until the 1900s. So I’m wondering, how would you explain to an Adventist that your health code was instituted by God through revelation, and theirs was just a good idea by some slightly inspired people? What’s the difference?
Mormon: That’s just one example in a million. There are other examples.
Orthodox: Such as? Polygamy was negative from beginning to end, and brought much misery and hardship on the Mormons, until it was rescinded. Your prophets said lots of things about the nature of God, such as that God was once a man and that we may become Gods, that are now de-emphasized in the church as non-doctrinal (and even that those things never were doctrinal). It would seem that the only advantage that prophets confer on the Mormon church is to correct the mistakes of previous prophets.
Mormon: If you’re asking for some kind of empirical way to verify that the prophets are indeed making their decisions due to revelation and not just regular old ideas and change, I can’t give it to you. We have faith that the little decisions that prophets make day-to-day are inspired, and this is based on personal revelation in our hearts, not on some way of “proving” it empirically. Revelation is an interactive process, which includes prophets just acting on what they know at the time, plus inspiration. And I can’t quantify the latter.
And at this point I would end the imaginary conversation by saying that I don’t think this is a good answer. It’s not one that I would accept, anyway, if I weren’t a Mormon. I think it’s slightly unfair for the Orthodox to say that polygamy, and its subsequent adversity, was completely bad in every way, for instance. It’s hard to see the consequences of such big systemic changes on balance in the long run. However, I do find myself at a loss for trying to find an unambiguous, clear example of a revolutionary change that ended up being right in the long-term that sets Mormonism apart from other “non-revelatory” organizations. I can’t find anything. And I don’t like falling back on fideistic arguments that beg the question. When Peter received the revelation to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, that was a huge game-changer, it was totally right, it was clear and unambiguously positive all-around, and no Jew really thought to do things that way at the time (so it was a revolutionary idea). I am having a hard time coming up with analogues in Mormonism.
So in conclusion, I would like to know exactly:
- What concrete advantages does having a prophet confer upon the Mormon church that makes it so much different from the inspiration given to leaders of other churches (such as the Ecumenical Councils of Orthodoxy)?
- Does the actual, historical track record of Mormon prophets support Question #1? In other words, it is nice to think that Mormons have “watchmen on the tower” that warn and direct the people under their stewardship. But does the record bear this out?
If the Mormon can’t offer specifics, I can’t help but think he is at a disadvantage at this point in the discussion.