Through the course of my life I have met Latter-day Saints who believe some version of prophetic infallibility, despite the fact that most Latter-day Saints and leaders agree that prophetic infallibility is not an official teaching of the LDS Church. In other words, based on scriptures like D&C 1:38, they believe that everything that the LDS Prophet says, does, and decides in any capacity, and by extension, everything that the LDS Church says, does, and decides, is the pure, unfiltered, and literal Will of God in every particular.

I have also met Latter-day Saints who believe that LDS Prophets are called of God and inspired in their decisions, but due to human imperfections, cognitive biases, and the biases and prejudices that accompany all of us in this life, sometimes their words and actions reflect those biases and imperfections to one degree or another. Nonetheless, we “support and sustain” the Prophet as the mouthpiece of God on Earth in good faith and patience.

I have met other active and faithful Latter-day Saints who believe that LDS Prophets are well-intentioned and kindly older men who of course do the best they can but for the most part are operating by the light that they have with occasional bursts of divine inspiration to influence their decision-making.

Which is it? Theoretically they can’t all be correct because they are mutually exclusive to some extent. So which best describes the nature of prophetic revelation in an LDS context?

I submit ten possible “models” of LDS prophetic revelation, ranging from 1 to 10, in order of “most direct/inspired” to “least direct/inspired”:

 

  1. Everything that the LDS Prophet explicitly says a literal rearticulation of direct divine revelation, word for word identical. Everything that the Prophet does is 100% in accordance with divine will as articulated to the Prophet by direct and unfiltered revelation. Thus every decision that the Prophet makes, every priority, every suggestion, every piece of counsel, every calling extended, etc. is nothing but divine will purely manifest.

 

  1. Everything that the Prophet explicitly teaches or decides while acting in official capacity as the Prophet is a literal and undistorted rearticulation of direct divine revelation. When not acting in an official capacity, the Prophet is mostly left to his best judgment and does the best he can with the light that he has, often reflecting the imperfections and biases that are the common lot of humanity.

 

  1. The Prophet is of course God’s mouthpiece on Earth, but as a human being he is subject to the same cognitive biases as the rest of us which can tend to occasionally distort the original intention of divine revelations. In other words, as the divine communication enters into the Prophet’s consciousness, it is distorted to some extent by the preconceptions, biases, understandings, language, and worldview that he has accumulated through his life’s experience, including the culture and time he has lived in. As a result, his teachings and decisions more or less reflect the will of God, but as interpreted by and somewhat distorted through the Prophet’s language and understanding.

 

  1. The Prophet reveals the word of God, but each Prophet exists in a particular historical and cultural context which can tend to distort the revelation to one degree or another. While in broad strokes the words and actions of the Prophet reflect God’s will, they can also occasionally (or even frequently) reflect the biases and prejudices of time, communities, and contexts in which the Prophet lives.

 

  1. Prophetic words and actions are a mix of divine inspiration and limited human wisdom to one degree or another. Nonetheless, the Prophet generally “gets it right” in terms of discerning divine will more often than not, especially on important issues and topics.

 

  1. The Prophet is of course divinely inspired, but in many things God has no strong opinion and allows the Prophet to use his best judgment. Alternatively, there may be things that God does have a strong opinion about, but selectively chooses to intervene through the Prophet to bring about his decisions or actions as part of free agency/the growing process. We can trust that the Prophet’s words and actions usually reflect the will of God, while much of the “day to day” might be his own best judgment, which is subject to distortion, biases, and flaws like all the rest of us. Because of cognitive biases and cultural prejudices, the Prophet can even “get it wrong” from time to time, even on important topics.

 

  1. Prophetic words and actions are a mix of divine inspiration and limited human wisdom to one degree or another. Often the divine element is able to “break through” the clouds of the Prophet’s human wisdom, but more often than not the Prophet’s actions and decisions are more a reflection of his own best judgment and cultural context instead of a direct, unfiltered message from God.

 

  1. In general, the Prophet’s words and actions reflect his own personality, culture, education, experience, cognitive biases, worldviews, opinions, etc. He does the best he can with the light and knowledge he has, but God lets his Prophets more or less act on their own and intervenes with direct revelation only when absolutely necessary. In those rare occasions, the words and actions of the Prophet more closely align with God’s will but are rarely if ever representative of the pure and unfiltered will of God in every particular.

 

  1. The Prophet “sees through a glass, darkly” like any of the rest of us. He is doing the best he can with the light that he has, and occasionally bursts of divine light and knowledge are able to break through the dark cloud of culture, context, and cognitive biases to influence the words and actions of the Prophet to a moderate degree, pushing those words and actions in the direction of divine will, more so than they would have been otherwise.

 

  1. The Prophet is a well-intentioned individual who understands himself to be divinely inspired, but in reality there is no divine inspiration or intervention in any of his words, decisions, priorities, or actions. Thus, the Prophet’s actions and teachings reflect merely his best efforts to understand divine will but ultimately are his own particular opinions which have been shaped by his upbringing, culture, worldview, biases, etc.

 

 

PROFOUND QUESTIONS:

  1. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches scriptural teachings from the Bible? Why? Give specific examples.
  2. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches scriptural teachings from the Book of Mormon? Why? Give specific examples.
  3. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches scriptural teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants? Why? Give specific examples.
  4. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches the teachings of contemporary LDS General Authorities? Why? Give specific examples.
  5. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches the “data points” that we have available to us from LDS Church history regarding the words, teachings, and decisions of LDS Prophets? Why? Give specific examples.
  6. Which model of prophetic revelation best matches the “data points” that we have available to us from contemporary examples from LDS Church governance?
  7. What other aspects of prophetic revelation are not accounted for in the models that I provide above?
  8. Based on the answers to Questions 1-7, which model(s) of prophetic revelation has the most evidence in its favor? Why?
  9. How would our answer to this question affect the way we interpret and understand pronouncements, decisions, and policies that come from LDS prophets?
  10. How would our answer to this question affect what it means for Latter-day Saints to “sustain and support” the LDS prophet?

 

Discuss.

 

 

Benjamin Knoll

Benjamin Knoll is a political science professor at a liberal arts college in central Kentucky. He is a seventh-generation Mormon (on his mother's side) who finds meaningful religious and spiritual expression in a variety of traditions, practices, and contexts. He's a married father of three girls.

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