Inerrancy: a Followup

My post on inerrancy generated… a large amount of traffic and conversation. I read a great number of comments on Facebook, Twitter, and forums and message boards, across the spectrum of LDS commitment and faith. I want to take this opportunity to revisit, clarify, and add. I can’t do it all here; some will require another post.

The original conversation which prompted my post took place in a public Facebook group (don’t ask me to specify) and was deleted by a group admin. Neither of the men I argued with currently write manuals or work for Correlation.

Some people wondered why I was making “such a big deal about an internet argument” (because isn’t that what the internet is for?) And yes, usually when I hear this kind of thing, my reaction is simply

 

However… two points.

First, this is not the first time I have seen de facto inerrancy. I hear it with some frequency. I’ve seen those two men do it before on Facebook, and seen it from other Church employees at various ranks and levels, as well as laypeople who have absorbed it. I know first-hand accounts of junior faculty at BYU being rebuked by mid-level admins because “we’re not trying to disabuse students of their myths about Church leadership.” (Sidenote, um, why not? Shouldn’t BYU, Institute, and Seminary be the ideal places to counteract false ideas and promote correct ones about the nature of Church leadership? Places of faith and intellect where we can tackle hard questions together, in constructive ways that build faith?)

I often write from a place of deep frustration, even anger at times. Crafting careful, argumentative logical language of faith is cathartic for me, like a good run. But.

But.

I have a personal policy not to post such things in their raw form; I don’t gripe for the sake of griping. I hold onto my gripes until a) I have edited out any tonal issues and b) I become confident that I can raise the issue and discuss in a constructive, non-adversarial way. I turn my gripes into non-gripes, my swords into plow-shares. I am profoundly a believer, a committed Latter-day Saint, and one who cares deeply about loss of faith in others. I write in order to build faith, typically by trying to help people gain more mature perspectives, more robust frameworks and paradigms that can handle grey, complexity, and ambiguity.

But in this case, because I perceive the culture of inerrancy to be so widespread and so damaging, I very consciously took the gloves off. This topic needs to be nuked from orbit. I do not cry wolf, in order that when I do sound the alarm, it’s taken seriously. One commenter noticed this (thank you, Eric), who felt that I

frequently let the church off too easy when evaluating the manner in which it approaches our Standard Works via the manuals and other sources. That is certainly not the case, however, with this post. Here, now you have taken the gloves off, for which you are to be thanked and applauded.

Your words today actually carry more force and power because of the restraint you have exhibited in the past.

Second, I would wager that if you took all those people encouraging inerrancy, and asked them bluntly “do you accept or teach inerrancy?” they’d say “Of course not!”… and then they’d turn around, and promote inerrancy, just not in so few words. The manuals must be correct, don’t you know who reviews them? 

That’s… inerrancy.

I received a number of private responses thanking me for calling attention to this, because they too have seen a culture of inerrancy and its negative effects on faith in the Church and don’t know what to do about it. These came from a variety of people, including some Church employees and S&I professionals. I know of one who even assigned the post to a class for discussion purposes. Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of private comments I received from Church employees, BYU professors and S&I were supportive.

Here I post two private comments, by permission and edited.

First, from a therapist who finds my words helpful with LDS patients struggling with doctrinal issues.

I wanted to thank you for your Fairmormon talk about the composite nature of revelation and your post about the blunder with the Come Follow Me manual. I am a therapist and I have forwarded them on to several patients. You are helping so many people. Your posts have helped me so much! I know you sacrifice by speaking up and you get backlash, but what you are doing is exactly what our church needs!

I think what we need is more faithful Latter-day Saints who read deeply, think carefully, and talk/write publicly about the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, interpretation, authority, and history. I could name, among others, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Julie Smith, Joseph Spencer, Rosalynde Welch, Nathan Oman, Steven Harper, Spencer Fluhman, Patrick Mason…

As President Hinckley said,

It is imperative that we as teachers in the seminary and institute of religion program of the Church read constantly the scriptures and other books related directly to the history, the doctrine, and the practices of the Church. But we ought also to be reading secular history, the great literature that has survived the ages, and the writings of contemporary thinkers and doers. In so doing we will find inspiration to pass on to our students who will need all the balanced strength they can get as they face the world into which they move.

Indeed, said President Lee,

The future of the [LDS] Church depends on those who are both faithful and learned.

It’s one thing to think in simplistic binary terms as a kid. But inerrancy is as simplistic and binary as it comes, which is what makes it so dangerously fragile. As adults, we should progress beyond aside simplistic binaries (in most cases) or we are at serious spiritual risk.

From an African woman who immigrated to the US as a young child  moved within Africa as a child, and immigrated to the US in her twenties-

I don’t know if you fully understand this, but you are starting conversations about prophets and scripture that members like me want to have, but people won’t listen to us. There are many minorities in the Church, specifically black members, who have been hurt by members who don’t want to admit prophets make mistakes. They don’t like when people talk about prophets as if they’re human and they get uneasy whenever someone insinuates that the scriptures didn’t come directly from God. Problems like our interpretation of 2 Nephi 5 haven’t gone away for the exact reasons you are talking about on your blog and other places. The culture we have of treating everything adjacent to the Church Office Building as infallible is perpetuating a lot of racist ideas that hurt me and my black brothers and sisters every day. People want me to be quiet about the problems I see. They shame me into being quiet because they won’t accept the kind of framework you are talking about. Thank you for fighting for us.

Inerrancy is not to be written off as an arcane, academic concern, or irrelevant bit of pseudo-doctrine; its presence has real effects on real people, as the comment above illustrates.

Now, there were a few reactions like this, of course, but I’m thick-skinned.

Now, why is inerrancy so important, and what’s my motive?

I’m aware that some people pushing the errancy/humanity of prophets are doing so for the (apparent) motive of creating wiggle room for current orthopraxy. That is, they’re motived to argue “prophets can make mistakes” (which is not my framing) to justify their own decisions which are not consistent with Church standards or counsel.

My take, by contrast, is historical/theological/apologetic;  That is, people who approach issues of church history or doctrine while committed to inerrancy very quickly find that prophets don’t measure up to the expectations created by inerrancy. If you teach that prophets acting as prophets always know the ultimate truth, then there should be no disagreement between prophets even at different times (complete consistency throughout history) and no disagreement between prophets and well-established knowledge… which we might call science.  Particularly when it comes to biological evolution, inerrancy creates a very hard dichotomy, and people often choose science. (Which isn’t a surprise, given the hegemony of science as a way of knowing today.) And so people raised with inerrancy quickly lose faith when those ideas are undermined; they leave the Church and take their inerrancy with them.

So I come at the topic of inerrancy very much from a theological/apologetic “preserve faith” perspective, not a orthopraxy/libertine perspective. I tend to emphasize the humanity of prophets when it comes to what prophets know; the authority of apostles and prophets in the Church is not dependent on them having God-like knowledge. Rather, it’s that God has chosen them to have authority in the Church. (In technical terms, I think their authority is primarily ecclesiastical, not epistemological.) So I draw a distinction between what prophets know or teach, on the one hand, and what they instruct us to do and how to act (morals and behavior) on the other.

And what is the nature of prophetic knowledge? It’s quite different than people think. I’ve got a good essay on it here, and a follow-up here, plus my FAIRMormon talk from 2019. There’s plenty to chew on and think about there.

Inerrancy is false: it’s fragile, it leads to loss of faith, it’s harmful to real people, and it seems to be pervasive in our LDS culture. In order to talk about it productively and counter it, we need to think and read more deeply about the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, interpretation, and authority. Prophets are real! But they aren’t all-knowing, even when acting as prophets. That fact doesn’t get us off the hook and let us do whatever we want; it just means our discipleship requires more mind, more heart, and more complexity.

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16 thoughts on “Inerrancy: a Followup

  1. I’m in the grateful camp. Thank you for your scholarship, your faithfulness and your boldness in teaching/sharing. My husband left the Church, 20 years ago. I can’t help but feel that if he could have (or could now) had influences like you, I wouldn’t be alone in the Gospel.

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  2. I’d also like to articulate another side of the coin articulated below:

    “And so people raised with inerrancy quickly lose faith when those ideas are undermined; they leave the Church and take their inerrancy with them.”

    Although it is true that inerrancy leads to fragile faith, it is also true that the fundamentalism of inerrancy is often used to draw harsh identity boundaries and to shun others who cannot conform to those boundaries. That has been pretty typical throughout the history of the restoration. And it is often the leadership paradigm that takes the lead in those types of activities.

    So, it is not just that inerrancy leads to fragile faith, but that it also leads to conflict and various forms of shunning activities.

    As your previous blog post highlighted, the move toward inerrancy and fundamentalism was a conscious leadership shift during the correlation program. And it was often this particular leadership paradigm that lead to a rough and tumble approach to the relationship between priesthood and congregation. As correlation led to greater consolidation of power it also lead to an increasingly corporate theocratic forms of church governance. Why ask the congregation if the priesthood is always right? The lopsidedness of the relationship between priesthood and congregation has damaged many in our faith. It can be a very fine line between benevolent dictatorship and tyranny.

    I suspect that this lopsided relationship between priesthood and congregation was part of the reason many of the protestant denominations separated the sovereignty of these domains, in order to better respect the dignity of each.

    LDS Mormonism really hasn’t had that moment in their history yet, but I believe it is sorely needed to rebalance this relationship.

    In certain cases, I believe it is completely appropriate for a faithful LDS member or family to leave the faith if their leadership hierarchy is actively targeting them for shunning activities. No one likes to be abused that way, but in our tradition there really isn’t any recourse or oversight within the faith to advocate for the needs of the congregation, or to recognize that God may be revealing as much through the body (congregation) as he is through the head (priesthood). Folks can’t really even self-select into congregations of choice and intention because of strict geographic attendance requirements regulated by the priesthood.

    So, in the absence of a healthy governance balance between priesthood and congregation, I believe leaving can be the best option (if one is being targeted for shunning activity and doesn’t wish to continue the fight).

    Since inerrancy has so often been used as the intellectual enforcement tool of priesthood authority and has informed the centralization of our governance model, there is a lot to unpack in its deconstruction. I hope one day we can get to a place where we not only recognize the ill effects it’s had on faith, but also on relationship as well.

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    1. Thanks for your words! I appreciated them!

      Great article and please let me say this topic needs MORE discussing.

      Another thing I would love discussed is why has the manner in which prophets have been called changed? I see throughout the OT, NT, BOM, and in the case of JS, a very real and glorious vision is often utilized to call the prophet to be the prophet. Today it just like someone has to die and the next oldest Q12 member gets the mantle. That seems odd to me given that God is a God of patterns.

      I would welcome a post on that topic, most warmly. TY Benjamin.

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  3. On my mission 1996-98, I read the “one like unto God” in Abraham. I turned to the OT manual that said Michael means One like unto God. I looked in the POGP manual and it said this passage refers to Jesus.

    That told me that these manuals are reviewed by two different sets of people and should be used as a scholarly reference (meaning using peoples best understanding study and reasoning), not doctrinal (scripture)

    Even scripture can have its own problems. That’s why we have the spirit. The scriptures are there to give us teachings and that sparks the spirit to really show you what’s going on and how to use the instructions.

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  4. I appreciate your work, Ben. I have for many years but controversy finally moves me to the “pay my tuition” box, which I have been eyeing but not moving on for also many years. So that’s a kind of endorsement for the gloves-off approach.

    In my taxonomy there more reasons to challenge inerrancy than your “preserve faith” perspective and the so-called orthopraxy/libertine perspective. The one that moves me is an adverse reaction to the outsourcing of moral judgment that underlies some of the inerrancy claims. Most easily seen in the “not lead them astray” argument that even if they are wrong we will be justified if we follow anyway. Since I believe we each work our own journey, I also believe outsourcing moral judgment is vain. Having come to see inerrancy as a false promise of safe passage, I have to reject it for my own good and argue that others should do the same. (Also logically and doctrinally and all the rest, of course.)

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  5. I have read and re-read your first post on ‘inerrancy’ and even discussed it with my wife.

    I know of no doctrinal support for ‘inerrancy’ and I find it a fabrication of those that are lazy in their faith.

    I say lazy not because they don’t serve others, because many of them do and do so constantly. I say lazy not because they don’t support their leaders because they tend to wholeheartedly.

    I say lazy because to consider more than the manuals have taught requires thought, and questions that don’t always have easy answers or perhaps no answers at all. That is painful work. it requires us to look within and understand why we believe what we believe and perhaps to change.

    It is far easier to say that if it is not in a manual then it must not matter.

    I read your posts and they challenge me, they challenge my understanding of the doctrine, but they do not undermine it. Your posts do nothing in and of themselves to strengthen my faith, but because I read them and I then question what I believe and examine it, then search for further understanding my faith is strengthened. Your work prompts me to extend and strengthen my spiritual foundation.

    For that I thank you.

    Not all will do so.

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  6. I tried to read one of your posts during SS last week at church – couldn’t access your website because it was blocked by the church wifi. However, LDSMag was not blocked. Go figure. Must be from the inerrancy of the church’s restrictive access to the internet.

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    1. In all seriousness, there are workarounds for accessing restricted sites at church, such as:
      * Load blocked pages in browser tabs before connecting to the meetinghouse’s Wi-Fi.
      * Connect with cellular data instead of Wi-Fi (individually enable/disable each).
      * Use a VPN (I don’t know if any are blocked but I know one that definitely works).

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  7. Hi Ben, I have appreciated these two posts, and would like to add two cents. I’m pretty immersed in the Catholic world, which does have a doctrine of inerrancy, or rather infallibility. Whenever I see people indulging in the temptation to believe such things in Mormonism it creates a sense of alarm for me because I see the principle of infallibility as being close to the heart of the worst problems going on in the Catholic Church, including the sex abuse crisis. When the laity indulge it, they fail to hold the clergy accountable for their abuse of power, and they use it as an instrument to emotionally/spiritually abuse each other. It also motivates the kind of cover-ups that took (take?) place. Church leaders have a false image of perfection they need to constantly protect, even at the cost of allowing children to be raped. I’m not trying to claim that we are at that point, but situations that bad are at the end of a road that embraces infallibility. It’s not just individual’s testimonies that become brittle. The identity of the church does as well, which makes it harder to adapt to a changing world, or make course corrections in anything like an effort to establish Zion.

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  8. Thank you so much for your blog Ben! I was wondering if there is a way that I could bring this to the attention of someone in my ward before the lesson is taught without looking like I am criticizing the church? I have to tread very carefully in my ward as I am known to be outspoken 🙂 I have read both the SL Tribune’s articles about it but there were several things in there that might seem “over the top” to my VERY conservative leadership. Or should I button my lip the Sunday they have this lesson?

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  9. I will leave you the same comment that I left for Marvin Perkins after he expressed frustration with the inerrancy problem, specifically the manual “error” and the lack of response: Trusting in the arm of “flesh” or “approved material” has become the golden calf, the idol of surety we rely on to know that we are doing everything right [and therefore less accountable]. The problem is that the idol always fails. “Approved” material was how we got into this mess in the first place and why it has perpetuated. The golden calf is sure, concrete, infallible and invulnerable. It is used as a cudgel to beat back truth that hasn’t been taught already, and consistently ignored when convenient by those who trumpet it most. I sincerely thank you for your courage and patience. The Body of Christ desperately needs your voice.

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