In this article, we will explore two different views of authority. Rational authority is the view that someone is a legitimate authority if their truth-claims are based on public observations that contribute to expert consensus, usually involving a merit-based process of peer-review, debate, and academic argument. This view of rational authority includes professional authorities whose techniques and methods constitute accepted “best practices” that have undergone similar scrutiny.

In contrast, priesthood authority assumes that someone is a legitimate authority if they have been commissioned by God. Authority by divine commission involves truth claims that are not always subject to public scrutiny, and which do not always track expert consensus or prevailing professional practice.

The Hidden Assumption: Rational Authority

Authority is grounded in publicly verifiable truth claims that contribute to a consensus of experts.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, an appeal to authority is not always a logical fallacy. After all, we appeal to authorities all the time, and in perfectly legitimate and rationally defensible ways. However, from a modern Western perspective in order to someone to be considered a legitimate authority he/she must meet at least two basic criteria:

  1. He/she must have gained his or her expertise in a way that is publicly demonstrable and replicable by others, such that others are able to obtain the same expertise and arrive at the same conclusions (if they so desire).
  2. The authority must contribute to a consensus of experts. If an expert’s observations are open to public scrutiny, and his or her conclusions are replicable, a consensus of opinion will form. Conclusions that contradict the converging consensus of experts are automatically suspect.

From this perspective, someone is a legitimate authority if their truth-claims are based on public observations — or, at least, things that are publicly observable — and which contribute to the emergence of consensus among experts. Although some claim that science, unlike religion, does not involve appeals to authority, most scholarly dialogue relies on precisely that. Scientists do not individually replicate for themselves every experiment done by their peers. Rather, scholars trust in the process of peer-review and the presumably self-correcting nature of science and assume that errant conclusions will eventually be corrected through replication, critical analysis, and consensus-building by other scholars.

We refer to this understanding of authority as rational authority. It is the assumption that authority is grounded in qualifications, training, and skill (i.e., expertise). In this view of authority, position and influence are earned on the basis of rational merit, not birth, patronage, personality, or divine calling. Becoming an authority, on this model, involves a process of peer-review, debate, and academic argument. Anyone who is brave enough is free to face the intellectual battlegrounds of the academic and scientific world. Furthermore, anyone who is that brave, and have enough wits about them, can become an authority (expert) in their area of research. No ordination, visitation, or special calling from God is required. One simply has to master the methods of scholarship and subject their work to public scrutiny.

From this perspective, prophets and apostles are not considered legitimate authorities, precisely because they do not meet the two criteria listed above. For example, there is no transcript of Joseph Smith’s conversation with the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove, and no known method by which anyone of us could exactly reproduce the sacred event that took place there. The observations Joseph made there, and the experiences he had there, cannot be guaranteed to anyone else simply by employing the method Joseph employed. The same holds true for today’s Church leaders. The general public is seldom privy to their reasoning, their evidence, or their revelatory communications with God. It is for this reason that they are not treated as rational authorities.

In light of this common view of the nature of authority — i.e., that authority is only legitimate if it is rational authority — It is perhaps not terribly surprising that many theologians today seek to defend their sectarian traditions and religious beliefs, not with ongoing revelation, but by means of argument via systematic logic and reason.  Rational argument, logical analysis, and even empirical scientific research is often marshalled by theologians in the attempt to build some sort of expert consensus within their scholarly (or ecclesiastical) communities. Rational authority is take to be the order of the day, and claims to divine communication and divine commission are often thought to weaken — or even contradict and undermine — their scholarly viewpoint.

Indeed, it can be argued that we are even beginning to see a shift towards rational authority even within the Church, as some show a distinct preference for — if not outright reject — priesthood authority in favor of the rational authority of academic scholarship, peer review, scientific discourse, and other means of independently establishing the validity of specific doctrines and truth-claims. At the very least, some seem to want to subject the truth claims and teachings of priesthood authority to the “consensus of experts” before they are willing to accept them.

This also pertains to professional authorities, especially those whose techniques and practices have been subjected to similar forms of public scrutiny.  We often hear about the importance of “trained professionals” who are considered more authoritative, more skilled, and more capable than untrained amateurs. This is because their methods are grounded in what a converging consensus of experts consider to be the “best practices” of their field or discipline. Indeed, it is precisely this reason that mental health professionals of various sorts are increasingly coming to be seen as a more authoritative resource on how to deal with human suffering, emotional pain, and discontent than members of the clergy (i.e., priests, bishops, etc.). As I (Gantt) have written elsewhere:

Indeed, many scholars have argued that psychology has come to compete for and in large measure usurp the cultural and intellectual space once occupied by religion, literature, and moral philosophy … [P]sychologists are often afforded the sort of status and respect that was in earlier times reserved for priests and prophets, sages, and shamans.[1]

We have seen this in action amongst Latter-day Saints who argue that the Church’s untrained lay clergy (primarily Bishops) — no matter their spiritual stewardship or spiritual competence — simply are not equipped to deal with the suffering and heartache experienced by members of their wards because they lack the proper scholarly training or scientific credentials. “I’d be far more likely to trust my child confiding in a school guidance counselor or their doctor than I would in a bishop,” we hear one member state; “People need someone to talk to when they are down, but that person should be way better trained than our bishops,”  we hear from another; “Church leaders are mostly good people, but they are simply not educated enough to discuss sensitive matters with young children or adolescents . . . maybe not even other adults,” we hear from yet another. Indeed, there have been some recent calls from various quarters for ecclesiastical leaders to either undergo professional training before taking up their ministerial mantles, or even to consider only properly trained professionals for ecclesiastical appointments.

The Alternative: Priesthood authority

Spiritual and moral authority is grounded in divine commission by direct revelation.

In contrast to rational authority, Latter-day Saints embrace an understanding of authority that is grounded in divine commission. This does not mean that we reject rational authority, or that we adopt an anti-intellectual attitude that treats the work of scholars with inherent suspicion. To the contrary, Latter-day Saints are well-known for their commitment to education and learning, and we often defer to rational authority in areas where revelation is silent.  Rather, what we mean here is that, as Latter-day Saints, we also treat as authoritative the teachings and directives of men and women who claim direct authority from God — authority that is not grounded in expert consensus or the results of scholarly research. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, quoting President David O. McKay, taught that our most distinguishing feature (as a Church) is “divine authority by direct revelation.” He continued,

[A]cting with divine authority requires more than mere social contract. It cannot be generated by theological training or a commission from the congregation. No, in the authorized work of God there has to be power greater than that already possessed by the people in the pews or in the streets or in the seminaries.[2]

BYU professor James E. Faulconer has noted that, as Latter-day Saints, “We dare to say that God continues to reveal himself authoritatively to human beings through another human being.”[3] Similarly, Elder Holland has taught, “It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it.”[4] God can declare His word through spokesmen chosen at His discretion, usually through no merits of their own — such as, for example, Enoch, Moses, or Saul, each of whom declared that their heavenly commission was not based on merit or expertise.

From this view, someone can be an authority even if they cannot open their methods to public scrutiny, and even if their claims defy scholarly consensus or prevailing professional wisdom. God can visit and converse with specific persons in specific places and at specific times, and in so doing commission them to be His spokesmen and to share His teachings. From this view, while these visitations and conversations may not be open to public scrutiny, scientific replication, or skeptical analysis, prophets and apostles can still be considered authoritative in their witness of God’s ongoing activities within the Church. And further than that, without this claim to divine commission, no man can be considered to be a true authority on the things of God, especially God’s will for us in our day.

From this perspective, to become such an authority requires that we are called of God. In the Articles of Faith, for example, we read:  “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (AoF 1:5). Nothing we do on our own volition can make us such an authority on God and his ways, because it has little to do with scholarly methods (replicable or otherwise). In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord refers to His servants as the “weak things of the world” (D&C 1:19). Unlike rational authority, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves authorities in this way.

In this view, if the consensus of experts is not informed (to some degree) by contemporary messengers from God, it will likely be wrong about at least some important things. The idea of divine authority implies that there are truths that are simply inaccessible through rational authority, and about which rational authority will invariably be in error.  For this reason, Christ’s servants will sometimes contradict expert consensus. From this view of authority, we cannot dismiss the counsel of prophets as just “good advice” to be measured against the conventional wisdom of our times.

As Truman G. Madsen noted, prophets are not merely “fore-tellers,” they are also “‘forth-tellers,’ meaning that they speak forth boldly in judgment and in recommendation as to their own time.”[5] Indeed, the Greek word prophetes (προφήτης) used in the New Testament means “one who speaks forth.” Similarly, the Old Testament Hebrew word nabi (נָבִיא) (translated as “prophet”) means something very much like “spokesman.” Interestingly, both words carry with them the connotation of speaking with authority, with power. We read in the Old Testament that the Lord “testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 17:13).

Again, this does not mean that Latter-day Saints are anti-intellectual; but it does mean that we might be critical of expert consensus that does not align with revealed truths. And we might conclude that some things that are treated as expert consensus are ideologically inflected or do not always meet the highest standards of rational discourse. For example, as Latter-day Saint scholars have scrutinized social science research related to family structure, they have discovered that some research studies that have passed through the peer review process with flying colors are in fact fraught with methodological challenges and rife with hidden ideological bias. Other Latter-day Saints thinkers have explored how the “best practices” of the therapeutic profession carries implicit assumptions that are not always in harmony with the teachings of the Gospel.

In other words, the idea of spiritual authorities who have a divine commission opens up the possibility of a spiritual anchor that can keep us from drifting along with the fads and trends of expert consensus, to whatever extent that those fads and trends depart from divine truth. We might treat rational authorities as vital resources, but we will also treat them as fallible and subject to correction on occasion; we will recognize that rational methods are inextricably human methods, subject to the imperfections and biases that plague all of us. And so we will not see rational authorities as having the final word, especially in spiritual matters or in matters of moral conduct.

Further, we might be open to the possibility that spiritually sensitive but untrained leaders might have tremendous insights in how to address moral issues facing members of their congregations. While drawing on available expert resources when helpful, from this view, we would not dismiss out-of-hand the insights and contributions of men with the mantles of authority that come from their specific spiritual stewardships over their wards and stakes. This does not mean that they will not make mistakes or be clumsy and at times unstudied in their leadership, but it does mean that they should be taken seriously as spiritual resources at times of trial and need.

Of course, this does not mean that professional training won’t be useful to Church leaders as they execute their ministerial duties in their congregations, or that they should not seek this; it only means that professional training is not a prerequisite to being given ministerial stewardship or being a spiritual authority within that stewardship. In addition, none of the means that those who lead this Church are untrained or do not have an immense wealth of experience, knowledge, and scholarship to draw on as they lead the Church. Elder Holland taught,

As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth.[6]

Rather, we are simply arguing that the divine commission of a prophet — or of any priesthood leader — is established differently than the authority of secular scholars and experts. Prophets generally do not have a diploma that establishes their divine stewardship, and there is no (mortal) third-party accrediting agency that verifies their authority. Rather, we must seek personal revelation from God to know whether they are genuine prophets and apostles. The Holy Ghost affirms the stewardship of the person teaching the truths.

The distinction between rational authority and priesthood authority can make a difference in how we understand this process. Rational authority cares less about who is speaking, and more about whether the conclusions can be replicated by competing experts. It does not matter if the person speaking is Stephen Hawking or Matt Damon, so long what is said can be said to reflect the expert consensus. In contrast, priesthood authority does care about who is speaking — at least as much, if not more, than what is being said. The source matters as much as the content. We see this expressed in the temple drama, for example. After being driven out of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not search for “truth” or study out promising lines of research with approved scholarly methods. Rather, they sought and waited for authorized messengers.

Seeking personal revelation from God to confirm the divine stewardship of His servants is a kind of “independent verification” that is vastly different from the peer review processes valued by Western thought. When we engage is such prayer and seek such confirmations, we are not comparing the teachings of the prophets against scholarly consensus, nor are we examining their methods and replicating their reasoning. We are instead asking a simple question of God: “Are these men commissioned by you? Are they indeed prophets and messengers with a divine calling?” The answer to this question grounds their moral and spiritual authority as leaders in of the Kingdom of God.

References   [ + ]

1. Gantt, Edwin E. “Hedonism, suffering, and redemption: The challenge of Christian psychotherapy.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy 24, no. 1 (1999): 8.
2. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Our Most Distinguishing Feature,” Ensign, May 2005.
3. Faulconer, James E. “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse.” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1989–2011 19, no. 1 (2007): 12.
4. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Prophets in the Land Again,” Ensign, November 2006.
5. Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1989), 7.
6. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Prophets in the Land Again,” Ensign, November 2006.