Many believe that if Church teachings or emphases changes over time, this is a signal that the Church is no longer being lead by divinely chosen servants, or that obedience to the unchanging will of God is being abandoned for more human purposes. Because they are true, it is argued, the teachings and practices of the Church must remain without internal contradictions of any kind. This sort of absolutism typically stems from the belief that truth is a set of ideas that never changes, and that God can never contradict or alter prior teachings or instructions.

In contrast to this common religious view, Latter-day Saints believe in ongoing revelation. We believe that everything we think we know can be revised in the face of ongoing communications with God. Our doctrines are not the central focus of our faith and loyalty — rather, the living God of Israel Himself is. And so it is of less importance to us whether the massive corpus of sermons from Church leaders contains some internal contradictions, or whether the doctrinal emphasis of Church leaders has changed over time.

The Hidden Assumption: Absolutism

Because truth is absolute and unchangeable, Church teachings must remain the same across all generations.

Absolutism is the belief that once a Church teaching has entered into Church canon, or has been taught by multiple prophets, those beliefs or teachings can never change. All future Church teachings, in this view, must be consistent with all prior Church teaching. The shared beliefs of a religion must remain consistent across time and context; teachings that change over time cannot represent timeless truth. In other places (see our book, Who is Truth?), we have referred to this view of truth as idea-truth. Truth, in this view, is a set of ideas that never change; once we have it clearly in mind and formally articulated, it is no longer open for revision or correction, even by those claiming to speak for God.

For those holding this view, if God communicates different teachings in different dispensations or cultures, then it is assumed that communication with God has been disrupted by what might be called “interfering signals.” If the current prophet contradicts an earlier prophet (or seems to), the authority of both prophets is called into question. It is often assumed that the precepts of men have been, either in the past or in the present, passed off as revelation, but in fact is something else entirely (i.e., personal opinion, cultural bias, misinterpretation of scripture, etc.). When a situation like this arises, the job of the faithful, in this view, is to figure out whether the past prophets or the present prophets are fallen — for it must be at least one of them, since true divine messengers can never contradict each other.

Because of this assumption, many feel threatened when they fear that the Church is de-emphasizing certain teachings or doctrines that were emphasized in prior generations, or when Church leaders appear to contradict what were thought to be established (and, thus, immutable) Church doctrines. Concerned individuals often feel the need to find ways (no matter how sometimes convoluted those ways may be) to reconcile present teachings with prior teachings, as though the possibility of genuine faith in the Restored Gospel depends on such a reconciliation. Unfortunately, for many it does — if contradictions become apparent (and are not easily explained away), they begin to question their trust in those who claim the mantle of prophets, seers, and revelators.

We personally have witnessed friends who have questioned their loyalty to the Church when prophets or apostles have drawn into question political worldviews they thought were given to us by divine revelation through prophets — such as, for example, the quasi-libertarian teachings of President Ezra Taft Benson. For example, some conservative and libertarian members of the Church questioned the Church’s decision to support non-discrimination policies in housing and employment in the State of Utah. These individuals used quotes from past Church leaders (such as President Ezra Taft Benson and others) to show that current Church leaders must be in error.  Similarly, some members of a more progressive political bent have questioned their loyalty to the Church when prophets and apostles have spoken out against same-sex marriage, implemented policies regarding the baptism of the children of same-sex couples, and other such issues.

An Alternative: Ongoing Revelation

Church teaching and emphasis can change, as God (the living Truth) directs us in the here and now.

Robert Millet, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, recounts a story in which a friend of his once exclaimed: “Bob, many of my fellow Christians have noted how hard it is to figure out what Mormons believe. They say it’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall!”[1] This is because doctrines that were emphasized in some decades have been deemphasized in others. The enormous corpus of sermons and literature written by LDS leaders contains (some apparent and some obvious) internal contradictions. To the extent that this is true, it is because doctrine—in the sense of an unchanging, abstract belief system—is not the object of our religious observance. Rather, the object of our faith is the living (and dynamic) God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understanding this fact goes far to explaining why the Church does not have or adhere to any formal creedal statement or catechism.

Furthermore, the God of the Restoration is, above all else, a God who speaks. As God told Moses, “My works are without end, and … my words … never cease” (Moses 1: 4). We have not only records of what God has spoken, we believe that He continually guides His servants today. Joseph Smith wrote in what we now refer to as the Articles of Faith: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (AoF 1:9).

Our belief in an open canon rests on the belief that God has servants on the earth today, through whom he can reveal things that have never before been revealed — and more particularly, God can direct us in our individual circumstances. The God we worship is not a set of abstract ideas, but a living breathing person who communicates with us in our unique place and time. He is a God who is intensely personal, relational, and sensitive to our unfolding context. Elsewhere, we have referred to this view of God as person-Truth. Truth, in this view, is the divine person of God, and reflects His ongoing relationship and communications with us in the here and now, rather than some some abstract, unchangeable set of ideas.

Ongoing revelation means that God’s instructions to us can change over time.

Nearly everything that we know about our Heavenly Father has the potential to change as He continues to reveal Himself to us. Professor James Faulconer wrote, “Since Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation.”[2]

In fact, new revelation “trumping” previous revelation has happened on multiple occasions. For example, in the days following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, Peter had a vision in which God commanded him to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. This new revelation countermanded a lengthy history in which God’s covenant was seen as an exclusive arrangement with the Children of Israel. As Peter explained to Cornelius, a Gentile convert seeking baptism, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Clearly, practices that had been in place for centuries, and which Peter obviously held dear, were cast aside and replaced in light of new revelation, and the continuing unfolding of God’s relationship with his children in the years following the ministry of Christ.

In the early 1990s, President Gordon B. Hinckley embraced the term “Mormon” in General Conference, and encouraged Latter-day Saints to take ownership of the nickname. Under his leadership, and the leadership of his successor, President Monson, the Church launched the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and the Meet the Mormons documentary. This year, President Russell M. Nelson has launched and inspired initiation to emphasize the full name of the Church and to de-emphasize the term “Mormon” as a term used to refer to either the Church or its members.

Under an absolutist paradigm, either President Hinckley was wrong, or President Nelson is wrong — both cannot be representing the will of God. If we believe that God’s instructions are unchangeable, all of this might bewilder us. But under the paradigm we are offering here, both can be acting under divine inspiration. If we believe that God communicates with us within our unique socio-historical contexts, and can adjust His instructions based on the needs of His saints at particular moments, this becomes more sensible.

Because of our belief in ongoing revelation, it simply does not matter much that living prophets teach the exact same things (or in the exact same way) as Joseph Smith or Brigham Young (or even more recent prophets). We have no need to disparage or dismiss the teachings of past prophets as wrong or foolhardy simply because we no longer practice or teach the same things today. God guides His children within their contexts. Joseph Smith taught:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.(Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:134-135.)

In other words, God can change His instructions from time to time. What was prudent for one generation may no longer be prudent for another.

The distinction between doctrine vs. policy only takes us so far

Some have found great value in the distinction between doctrine and policy. Doctrine, we often argue, never changes, while policy sometimes does. This distinction works for a great many of the above examples, and has given many members some comfort when the Church adjusts its policies and practices over time. However, it ignores the fact that the distinction between policy and doctrine is blurry at times, and that not even Church doctrine is exempt from ongoing revelation and clarification.

This is not to say that we should expect core doctrines to change. Jesus will always be our Savior and Redeemer, the Bible and the Book of Mormon contain a historical record of the words of ancient prophets, mankind will rise to be judged before God in the resurrection, hate and enmity will always be sin and charity and compassion will always be Christlike attributes. However, our understanding of what these basics mean may evolve and grow — in ways that we never expect — as God reveals more through His servants over time.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob taught that men should only have one wife (except in cases where God commands). The prophet Joseph Smith taught that God commanded him and others to take multiple wives. Some early Church leaders that polygamy is an eternal principle, perhaps even required for exaltation. President Wilford Woodruff ended the practice of polygamy, and we no longer teach the doctrines related to polygamy today. The idea that polygamy is required is no longer found anywhere in modern Church teaching. This is certainly more than a mere policy change, but a change of teaching itself.

When President Spencer W. Kimball announced that worthy black males would be ordained to the priesthood, contrary to decades of previous Church policy, there were some members of the Church who lost their trust in Church leadership. They felt betrayed because they believed that Church teachings were unchangeable and that the doctrine concerning “the seed of Cain,” so called, were clear and eternal. Elder Bruce R. McConkie was well-known for his controversial attempts to doctrinally justify the old policy. After the President Kimball’s revelation, however, he quickly exhorted the members of the Church to “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.”[3] This represented not merely a shift in policy, but in teaching as well.

Another example might be the continual evolution of the endowment ceremony over the years. Not only have some of the wording and information presented in the drama changed (i.e., practice/policy), but the specific nature of the covenants have changed (i.e., doctrine). The covenants that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents made were not quite the same as those we make today. It would a mistake to take an absolutist stance and conclude that the temple rituals and covenants — as they exist today — must be the same through all dispensations in order to be a legitimate representation of our relationship with God.

Our doctrine of ongoing revelation places emphasis on what God is saying over what He has said.

When the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, they began to criticize Moses and complain about their situation. In response, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Number 21:6). God then instructed Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8-9). Those who looked to the serpent lived, but many chose not to look. Nephi, in the Book of Mormon, tells us that “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. And they did harden their hearts … and they did revile against Moses, and also against God” (1 Nephi 17:41-42).

Why would so many Israelites ignore such a simple instruction? They may have thought Moses was violating commandments that he himself had delivered from God: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. … Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). Perhaps they thought Moses was a fallen prophet, or that he was testing them to see if they would value their own lives over God’s commandments. Either way, the Israelites may have rigidly adhered to what they thought were the unchangeable commandments of God.

In this story, the ancient Israelites may have elevated “the Law” over the Lawgiver (Jehovah). That is, they may have prioritized what God had said before over what God was now saying. Perhaps Moses was teaching the Israelites the need for constant, ongoing communication with God. Perhaps God was teaching the Israelites never to idolize abstract systems of belief over continuing direction from the Living God of Israel. President Oaks warned:

A desire to follow a prophet is surely a great and appropriate strength, but even this has its potentially dangerous manifestations. I have heard of more than one group so intent on following the words of a dead prophet that they have rejected the teachings and counsel of the living ones. Satan has used that corruption from the beginning of the Restoration. You will recall Joseph Smith’s direction for the Saints to gather in Kirtland, Ohio, then in Missouri, and then in Illinois. At each place along the way, a certain number of Saints fell away, crying “fallen prophet” as their excuse for adhering to the earlier words and rejecting the current direction. The same thing happened after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, when some Saints seized upon one statement or another by the deceased Prophet as a basis for sponsoring or joining a new group that rejected the counsel of the living prophets.

Following the prophet is a great strength, but it needs to be consistent and current, lest it lead to the spiritual downfall that comes from rejecting continuous revelation. Under that principle, the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.[4]

Similarly, President Ezra Taft Benson taught:

God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the Ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore the most important prophet so far as you and I are concerned is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each month in our Church Magazines. Our instructions about what we should do for each six months are found in the General Conference addresses which are printed in the Church magazine.

Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.[5]

When we elevate abstract ideas over ongoing revelation, we engage in “ideolatry.”

Faith is much more than a belief in ideas. It is a way of living in faithfulness to God. We have faith in God in the same way we are faithful to our spouses; that is, by making and keeping sacred promises. The vast majority of scripture is not a list of doctrines, but a chronicle of God’s saving, rescuing, and uplifting activities in the world. The scriptures show from past examples that God has been faithful and will continue to be faithful to us, as well as how we can be faithful to Him. They are not intended to compiled a comprehensive or even inerrant list of doctrines and beliefs, but rather to invite us into a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Again, this has roots in ancient thought. Hebrew thought does not place nearly as much emphasis on abstract doctrine as Greek thought. For this reason, it seems sensible to suggest that a Hebrew worldview values orthopraxy (right conduct) over orthodoxy (correct belief). As William Barrett helpfully explains: “The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek.” This does not mean the Israelites did not sometimes expel heretics or care about doctrine at all—rather, Hebrew thinking simply prioritized action over belief. According to biblical scholar Marvin Wilson,

To the [Hebrew], the deed was always more important than the creed. He was not stymied by language that appeared contradictory from a human point of view. Neither did he feel compelled to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable. He believed that God ultimately was greater than any human attempt at systematizing truth.[6]

In other words, there is no guarantee that we will find a universal set of doctrines that makes all prophetic teachings perfectly consistent. And there doesn’t need to be. And when we embrace this fact, the focus of our faith shifts away from analyzing sets of doctrines, and towards our relationship with Christ. Religion becomes a way of life, rather than a set of beliefs or dogmas.

Our covenants with God certainly do entail beliefs. Believing is also an action, after all, it is something we do. For example, we should believe that God has asked us to live the law of chastity, or to compassionately feed and clothe the hungry and naked, or to share the Gospel with our friends and neighbors. Otherwise, we may believe in a god who asks for different sacrifices, and makes different demands of us, than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Loyalty to God means that we steadfastly teach others what He, through His servants, has taught us to do.

However, when we become dogmatic about our particular theological perspective, or hold to them with a fervor that defies correction by God or His servants, we have supplanted the living God with an idea (or set of ideas). This can lead to what we like to call, “ideolatry,” which what happens when we elevate an abstract system of belief (or ideology) to the level of “absolute truth,” and think that it is beyond correction or revision from the most High God. The God of Israel is not an abstract, universal, immutable set of ideas or laws, but a living, dynamic Person who communicates instructions tailored to our specific time and situation. Latter-day Saints can be flexible in matters of abstract belief while being resolute in matters of loyalty to God and his prophets and apostles.

References   [ + ]

1. Robert Millet, “What Is Our Doctrine?” in By Study and by Faith: Selections from the Religious Educator, ed. Richard Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 69-89.
2. James E. Faulconer, “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007), 179.
3. Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God” (address given to Church Educational System religious educators, August 18, 1978).
4. Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, October 1994.
5. Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet,” Liahona, June 1981.
6. Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 153.