Mark E. Petersen, Expertise, Interpretation, and McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine

Many people are aware that Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine was not universally received among Church leadership as a positive thing. That story has been told in a number of places, from a number of perspectives. This, however, was new to me, summarizing from this article and expanding from the McKay diaries, around Jan 14, 1960.

In 1960, the First Presidency assigned Elder Mark E. Petersen— himself a very conservative Apostle and former journalist, who authored the editorials in the Church News— to write a magazine editorial intended to go Church-wide. His assigned topic was the “principle of approval of books on Church doctrine,” which took subtle and not-so-subtle aim at Mormon Doctrine. After President McKay conferenced with Joseph Fielding Smith—McConkie’s father-in-law and the President of the Quorum of the Twelve— it was not published.

But the draft exists in the archives. Note the emphasis on the necessity of expertise and the danger of shallow certainty.

Persons without the necessary background, and far from being expert in their fields at times undertake to make authoritative statements which mislead many, and which too often do not represent the accepted facts.

At times members of the General Authorities of the Church have published such material, some of which has been misunderstood, some being actually inaccurate or speculative…. Those publications should not be accepted by a discriminating public as the official views or doctrines of the Church, nor even as being representative of the Church.

One such book was the recently published “Mormon Doctrine” by Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the First Council of the Seventy. This volume presumes to give the final word on many doctrines of the Church, some of which have never been completely explained even in the revelations. [President McKay suggested removing the reference to Mormon Doctrine]

There’s a bit of historical irony here; Elder Petersen wrote the Foreword to Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny, a broadside against organic evolution. Smith fits Petersen’s description exactly, as “far from expert in the field” and “making authoritative statements which do not represent the accepted facts.” Smith, of course, was “far from expert in the fields” of biology, geology,  zoology, etc. and leaned heavily on Seventh-day Adventist and fundamentalist sources. And he made bluntly  binary authoritative statements, which did not represent accepted facts, which continue to cause problems today.

That irony aside, I have wondered if Elder Paul Johnson (currently the Commissioner of Church Education) had Mormon Doctrine in mind when he said,

Many of us have a difficult time dealing with ambiguity, especially in issues concerning the Church. In fact, we may be drawn to use quotes in our teaching that are definitive because they seem to dispel the ambiguity. But some quotes are definitive on issues where there is no official answer. People who are more tentative on a subject that hasn’t been revealed or resolved don’t get quoted as much, but may be more in line with where our current knowledge is.

The David O. McKay diaries detail the Apostolic review of Mormon Doctrine; many of its criticisms were that McConkie provided authoritative certainties where the Church officially had not.

“Declaration as to ‘Mormon Doctrine’ on Controversial Issues” including: Pre-adamites [tied directly to questions of the age of the earth, death before the fall, and evolution], the status of animals and plants in the garden of eden, and the meaning of the various accounts of creation.

Now, here’s where interpretation comes in. Whatever the text— canonized scripture, historical texts, or earlier teachings of LDS leaders— no one can get away from the fact that we have to interpret them. Interpretation of anything is a human process, dependent upon our own historical, contextual, cultural, and linguistic assumptions and knowledge.

Even the English language and LDS terminology have shifted significantly just since Joseph Smith and the D&C (to say nothing of the KJV), which sometimes leads us to misunderstand while thinking the meaning is clear and obvious. “Plain” language is often neither plain nor sufficient in order to understand what Isaiah or Joseph Smith meant. We need good information to interpret.

This principle was preached by Elder Stephen L. Richards, in April 1932 General Conference and a different talk in the June 1933 Improvement Era  (post).

“The revelations of the new dispensation, as well as those of the Bible, were in the beginning and are now interpreted by men, and men can interpret only in the light of human experience and understanding.”

 

“In the interpretation of scripture and doctrine [Church leaders] are dependent on their knowledge and experience.”
“Old conceptions and traditional interpretations must be influenced by newly discovered evidence. Not that ultimate fact and law change, but our understanding varies with our education and experience.”

Elder Petersen says, in critique of Mormon Doctrine,

This volume presumes to give the final word on many doctrines of the Church, some of which have never been completely explained even in the revelations.

The messy crux here is this: Whereas President McKay (and others) felt revelation and scripture were unclear on a topic, Elder McConkie (and others) felt scripture was simple and clear on topic X and thus felt free to declare such. And they felt differently because they interpreted differently on the basis of differing assumptions, differing experience, and knowledge.

Frequently, those who felt it was “simple and obvious” relied on “plain language” approaches to scripture in which external information was largely irrelevant for understanding; scripture was sufficient for understanding scripture. Moreover, they implicitly denied that they were doing any interpretation; rather they were simply telling you “what scripture said” and you were dodging the “plain meaning,” which is a fundamentalist trope called “naive literalism.” (In general, see my post here)

But returning to the documents, there is some historical irony. Elder Petersen, who, again, had endorsed Man, His Origin and Destiny, critiqued Mormon Doctrine on the basis of McConkie lacking

 the necessary background, and far from being expert in their fields at times undertake to make authoritative statements

According to the Arrington journals, Elder McConkie in turn had potential issues with Curriculum and Correlation around the idea of expertise and training.

“We have to write history. We cannot avoid that responsibility. And as long as we have to do it, we have to get competent professional people. We cannot expect it to be done by an eighth-grade Sunday School teacher or someone not trained.”

Indeed, the Correlation committee, in evaluating historical materials, should not be asked to do something

“they were not prepared by training or knowledge to do.”

Fortunately, I think we have learned, and are learning. Note the strong professionalization and expertise of history and history-writing in the Gospel Topics essays, in Saints, in the Joseph Smith Papers, and the Church History Library. Note also the rhetoric from Elder Ballard (repeatedly) about expertise, and President Nelson’s implicit call for expertise in the statement “good inspiration is based on good information.”

I look forward to the day this move extends into writing our scriptural manuals and not merely our historical ones.

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2 thoughts on “Mark E. Petersen, Expertise, Interpretation, and McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine

  1. “Interpretation of anything is a human process…”

    .All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

    True in both church and politics.

    Like

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