A hierarchy of scripture

As I see it, we have a hierarchy of belief in scripture. In other words, we give more authority to certain types of scripture than to others.

Here is how I think we rank it, from most authoritative to least authoritative:
1. Statements acknowledged as directly from the Lord made over the pulpit in General Conference by the current President of the Church
2. Statements made over the pulpit in General Conference by current members of the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve
3. Statements made by Joseph Smith in a church setting
4. The Standard Works
5. Statements made over the pulpit in General Conference
6. Statements made by the current First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve in a church setting
7. Statements made by Joseph Smith
8. Statements made by former general authorities in general conference
9. Church-related statements made by current general authorities in a non-church setting
10. Books written by general authorities, intended for church audiences
11. Books discussing scripture written by non-ecclesiastically authoritative Mormons (eg. Hugh Nibley, Sidney Sperry, etc.)

What do you think? Are there categories here that shouldn’t be? Are there categories that I missed? Did I get the ordering messed up?

24 Replies to “A hierarchy of scripture”

  1. #2 more authoritative than #4??!! Not a chance.I would tend to put the Standard Works as pretty much the highest, though #1, #3, and #4 may all be approximately the same.Even if Joseph Smith or the current prophet says something “thus saith the Lord,” it’s hard to argue that this has more authoritative weight than statements of the Lord himself in the Book of Mormon, D&C, & (correctly translated parts of the) New Testament. Remember, the prophets still tell us to read the scriptures daily as individuals and families—no such counsel has been given regarding the 1st Presidency Ensign messages or the Conference Ensign. Posted by Steve

  2. For a while there, I think a good portion of the church followed something like:1. Mormon Doctrine  and Doctrines of Salvation2. Prophet or 12 at any time/venue since 19783. Standard WorksAnd that is pretty much it. The reality is that this is what many were limited to.Now, what do I believe is a correct prioritization:1. Any revelation accepted by the church as binding2. Any first presidency message as long as it hasn’t been contridicted by later pronouncement.3. Council at the most recent General conference.4. The beliefs of prophets and apostles as reflected in their discourses and writtings. Posted by J. Stapley

  3. Jonathan:  Regarding your #2, I wonder if you accept this First Presidency message (click here  to see the signatures).It hasn’t been contridicted by later pronouncement. It says: “”Joseph Fielding Smith has been an able and fearless defender of the Church [and] a learned exponent of its doctrine…. [As] a member of the Council of the Twelve … during more than half a century … his devotion to the work of the Master has been an example to the entire Church. … Few, if any, have possessed a broader and deeper knowledge of the Church and its doctrine. He has been a scholar with scarcely a peer, and his writings have strengthened the faith of many throughout the world. His loyalty to the leadership of the Church has been uncompromising. He has supported his brethren in every endeavor. No man has ever been more loyal to the President of the Church.” (The First Presidency, Improvement Era, vol. 69, no. 7, July 1966, p. 613.) Posted by Gary

  4. Gary, Where there does it say that Joseph Fielding Smith was correct in every detail of his exegesis? That his notions of scripture were 100% gospel truth? I’m guessing that that is what you are implying.J,Thanks, I forgot to mention 1st presidency messages, although they may be grouped in with my #6 (in which case I should switch it with my #5).Steve,I stand by my placing of the Standard Works at #4. It is because modern revelation is more clearly directed to us, the result of modern events, and also Brigham said something about it trumping older revelation. Also, as demonstrated here , there is always a question of how far you can trust what you get in the standard works. Posted by HP

  5. Gary – I guess I’m not sure what you are getting at or how it effects the prioritization.I definately accept that first presidency message, especially for the time at which it was given. Now, I don’t know if it is fair to project the comparative assertions on the future, but for the time I think it is unequivical. Moreover, I think the estimation of his comparative Gospel knowledge was for his day (hard to beat Joseph Smith!). For the record: I would hope that we could all accept a similar pronouncement made about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the rest of our Prophets. Posted by J. Stapley

  6. HP:  I did not say that “Joseph Fielding Smith was correct in every detail of his exegesis”  and I did not intend to imply that “his notions of scripture were 100% gospel truth.”But consider this: In an article in the Ensign, Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Seventy and Managing Director of Curriculum Resources answered the question, “Should that which is written in Church publications and lesson manuals be taken as official doctrine?” (Ensign, Aug. 1977, 38). His answer includes this paragraph:”Over the years a careful selection of these hardbound, independently published books has been made and approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve for placement in Church meetinghouse libraries. They are to serve as approved resource materials for priesthood leaders, teachers, and the general membership. Any additions to this ‘authorized list’ of hardbound books must be approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve. The number of books on this list is small.””According to Teaching: No Greater Call (1978 edition, Unit C, Topic 5), Joseph Fielding Smith’s three volume set Doctrines of Salvation is on the “authorized list.”While it may be a stretch to say Doctrines of Salvation is 100% gospel truth, it would not have been “approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve” if it weren’t extremely close to that ideal.Also, there is a vast chasm between unqualified acceptance of everything Joseph Fielding Smith ever said and accusing him of being conniving and manipulative as some have done (see ndbf.net/sse  for an example) and I just wanted to keep the conversation from going anywhere near the latter. Posted by Gary

  7. Jonathan said:  “I guess I’m not sure what you are getting at.” I’m getting at this: Why are you are so sensitive about Church members using Doctrines of Salvation as a resource for gospel study? And how would you know what the personal scripture study priorities of “a good portion of the church” were anyway? Posted by Gary

  8. I stated that the list was what “I think” many “followed” (past tense), “for a while there.” I was simply making an emperical assertion about what I percieved as the historical ranking of sources for doctrine among the members. I fully recognize that I may be mistaken (though I think I am not). I also made no assertion as to the study habits of the members of the Church. I also think things have changed in the last 20 years.Now, I myself use Doctrines of Savlation  in my study. I think it is a good book. There are definately better, in my oppinion, but it is good. I do have a problem with people taking the book as official church doctrine. I also think there is a problem if one stops there and doesn’t read both earlier and later literature and discourse.Does that authorized list still exist? I’ve been in many new chaples that don’t have those books in the library. I’d be amazed if it was still in existance. As a side not, the Missionary Library was just changed (no more LeGrand).Sorry for the tangent HP Posted by J. Stapley

  9. HP, I think if you did a poll of members, 90% would say that the account of Jesus’ visitation in 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon is more important than the latest message by President Hinckley in the Ensign.Canonization is still important to this Church, and I believe you are underestimating most members’ opinion of its importance. This is evident by the frequent talk of “when will the Family Proclamation be canonized?” It’s clear that adding the Proclamation to the standard works would add a higher level of legitimacy to what is already a powerfully authoritative statement made by all 15 prophets, seers and revelators. Posted by Steve

  10. Gary – I have looked high and low and I can’t find the Improvement Era  from 1955 to 1977. I got thinking about that quote you gave up there. I just wanted to make sure I was explicit in my delineation. I suspect that quote was from a member of the First Presidency who wrote in the magazine much as we have in the Ensign today a section entitled “First Presidency Message.” This is a completely diferent set of communications than Official letters from the First Presidency that contain all their signatures and are intended to intruct the Saints. While the former is good, I would equate it to a conferance talk. The latter holds much more weight and are what I consider to be cited in my little heirarchy of Church doctrine. Posted by J. Stapley

  11. Over the many years that I have been discussing LDS doctrine, primarily in email at LDS-Doctrine , Zionsbest and Mormon-L, I have noticed a strong trend among online saints to denigrate the teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. It almost seems as if a great many saints feel the Church took a wrong turn during the years that these two prophets were at the apex of their influence in the Church. I don’t understand why this should be when I see no similar trend in official Church publications or for that matter, towards other doctrinal writers among the General Authorities such as Brigham H. Roberts and James E. Talmage. Can anyone suggest a reason this? Posted by John W. Redelfs

  12. Jonathan:  Regarding the Improvement Era  quoted above , there is a link in that comment to a scanned image of the page that contains the statement (complete with signatures).The first pararaph in HP’s opener says we’re talking about the amount of “authority” assigned to various gospel sources and John’s #10 is “Books written by general authorities, intended for church audiences.” Within these parameters, I proceed.A statement of realityStudy habits are not the same as study priorities (the topic of this post). And it was priorities that you clearly did identify, with Smith and McConkie being ranked #1 ahead of the standard works #3 for “a good portion of the church.” You did not say, “I think this is what many were limited to.” You said, “The reality is that this is what many were limited to.”Based on your empirical data, can you name even one member who was thus prioritized and limited?Authorized listsSuppose you construct a hierarchy of your all-time top ten favorite movies. (Note: this is still about “priorities.”) What happens if you are asked to name your top five? What happens to the other five? Nothing. They are still on your top ten list.Now construct a list of your favorite movies without limiting the list to any particular number and in no particular order. Each movie on this list has been approved by you.If someone asks, “What’s your favorite movie?” and you name one movie, have you thereby withdrawn your approval of every other movie on the list? Of course not!!In exactly the same way, a decision to put fewer books in meetinghouse libraries doesn’t change the fact that Doctrines of Salvation has been approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve as a resource “for priesthood leaders, teachers, and the general membership.”Would it be okay to suggest that John C. add specificity to his #10 category by creating two groups of #10 books, with #10a being books approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve and #10b being books not so approved? Or do you think the #10a books might belong higher than #10 in the list? Posted by Gary

  13. hmmm…I think we fundamentally disagree on the subject of the post. I took it to be an inquiry as to our ranking of sources as a function of their authoritativeness (if that is a word). My empericism is based on my experiences (by definition), so yes I can name pleanty of people that did and still do weight sources as I delineated them. They probably wouldn’t say they do, but in practice they do (i.e., accepting their interpretation of the standard works).Thanks for the link (and clarification), I had missed it. It is a nice tribute. I still can’t figure out where to get those 22 years of the magazine.As far as the approval of books go, I see the church as living and changing. I would say that approval of a book 150 years ago or 30 years ago reflect the period. Focus and emphasis change and the church reflects this. So yes I see dated approval as significant, but not eternally binding. Posted by J. Stapley

  14. Jonathan said, speaking of Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith: “In practice,… people … did and still do weight sources as I delineated  them … [by] accepting their interpretation of the standard works.” Thank you for helping me understand your first comment given above. It appears to be your view that by accepting any interpretation of the standard works which in your view originated with Bruce R. McConkie or Joseph Fielding Smith, members are guilty of weighting #1 their respective publications (Mormon Doctrine and Doctrines of Salvation), ahead of #3 the standard works, as shown in your first list given above.You must be talking about the CES and Correlation curriculum departments and the Church magazines editorial staff. And for the time period you’re talking about and because they gave official approval to Doctrines of Salvation, you must also be talking about the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Well count me in, my friend, I’m in good company.Just by “accepting their interpretation of the standard works” we expose ourselves as provincial and unsophisticated. Good point, Jonathan. Posted by Gary

  15. Gary, I never got the impression that J thought anything but highly about Elder McConkie and Pres. Smith. He may agree or disagree with their opinions on given doctrinal issues but, if the Twelve can disagree on occasion, surely we can too. I think that what J was referring to is some people’s tendancy to assume that if a given church authority has written something on the subject, then all we have to do is look it up and the matter is closed. Perhaps Elder McConkie and Pres. Smith wrote everything that they wrote under the influence of inspiration, perhaps not. We cannot say. If you are going to use the model of official church sanction to judge how authoritative a given text should be, does this mean that you are willing to elevate Hugh Nibley’s writings to the level of Elder McConkie’s and Pres. Smith’s? He wrote books that were distributed as Elder’s Quorum manuals and he is often quoted Church documents. I am interested in your 10a/10b division. First of all, do you think I am correct when I set it at 10? Second, I have been told by someone that I trust that at least one member of the twelve really likes Robinson’s Believing Christ . Is that sufficient evidence to put it into category 10a? Third, how would you go about divising the list? Are there other First Presidency messages that mention specific books? Or would it be simply a matter of choosing the authors that they approved of for church membership? Would it be appropriate to include readings from the older “Missionary Reference Library” along with the new? Posted by HP

  16. HP:  I appreciated one of the above comments . It pointed to a Times and Seasons post where I found one sentence that I particularly like: “It seems much more acceptable to constantly berate McConkie in ways that people don’t do with Talmage, Roberts, Widstoe or others, despite those other figures having at least as many failings as McConkie.”I confess, I’m a long-time fan of Bruce R. McConkie even though on two occasions I took the opportunity to bring inaccuracies to his personal attention (both times with surprisingly satisfactory results). I don’t know of any “all-we-have-to-do-is-look-it-up-and-the-matter-is-closed”  authorities in the Church—although, as your list suggests, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors might come close.Then there is the other side of the coin. It does not take a Ph.D. to recognize the sarcasm in the second comment you received on this post which describes imaginary Church members who own and use only two titles as their book sources for Church doctrine. The actual number of books those members own and use isn’t considered important if they follow “a JFS/McConkie style of orthodoxy,” as it’s been called.It seems I myself have been placed in that group, even though my own personal gospel library is large and includes certain magazines that I regularly use which aren’t widely available. This whole thing goes far beyond what you perceive as merely “disagree[ing] with their opinions on given doctrinal issues” when members are accused of having “small libraries for small minds” just because they do agree with McConkie and Smith on those same doctrinal issues.Back to your list—I like it. Although I, with others, would make additions and change the order of some items, nevertheless it is a good list. I also agree that the first nine items all belong above #10 and #11.In my library Mormon Doctrine is a #10b, not a #10a. I have not—because the First Presidency and Twelve have not—elevated Mormon Doctrine to the same level as Doctrines of Salvation. However, I was present inside the Tabernacle when Bruce R. McConkie was first sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. It was during that same session of conference that heard him read what has since become Hymn #134. On that day, Mormon Doctrine was elevated in my view above its previous status in my personl library.Hugh Nibley’s book, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, was the course of study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums in 1957. It was published by the Council of the Twelve Apostles. Joseph Fielding Smith as President of the Twelve wrote, in its Preface, that the book “should be studied by every member of the Church” (p. v). David O. McKay is designated as copyright owner. There seems to be no question about whether or not this book is a #10a. On the other hand, most of Nibley’s writings have not been so approved and would be #11.I see a difference between unanimous approval by the Church’s two highest quorums of the book as a whole (i.e. Doctrines of Salvation), and approval by individual quorum members by means of quoting from or even recommending the book (i.e. Believing Christ). Therefore, Believing Christ remains a #11.The First Presidency and the Twelve have never, to my knowledge, designated an author “that they approved of for church membership.” I think only the Lord chooses authors (as opposed to books), by calling that person to the Quorum of the Twelve or, even better, to be President of the Church.For me, devising the basic list amounted to obtaining and keeping a copy of Teaching: No Greater Call (1978 edition) which contains that list and, if you’d like, I could easily share that list in a comment. Other books, like the Nibley priesthood manual, have been added as I’ve discovered them.As far as the Missionary Reference Library is concerned, missionaries can’t teach true doctrine if they are reading false doctrine. Therefore, any book authorized for missionaries is good enough for me. The old list is as good as the new as far as I’m concerned (unless you are a young Elder or Sister serving a full time mission at this time). Why would non-missionaries want to make a distinction between the lists if the doctrine is good in both? Posted by Gary

  17. Gary, I appreciate your thoughtful response. Regarding all the dislike for Elder McConkie, I too am somewhat mystified. It is one thing disagree with him doctrinally, it is another to consider him an idiot or a bad man (which is reflective of some of the hyperbole I have heard and read).I hate to keep speaking for J, but the impression I got was that he was lamenting that people often turn to comprehensive books like Mormon Doctrine  and Doctrines of Salvation because it is quicker and easier than studying the issue out themselves. There is certainly no reason to not include the opinions of these great men, but we should do a bit of work ourselves too. This laziness is the danger inherent in producing any sort of comprehensive popular work.Also, I would be very interested in the list that you have compiled. I suppose I could track down the original list myself, but, as discussed above, I am too lazy to do the work myself sometimes. That said, I think the list would be of great interest to the entire bloggernacle (although many will disagree with you as to what should be on it, I am sure that most will be interested). Why bury it in the comments on my site when it is surely worthy of a post of its own? Posted by HP

  18. I think Joseph Fielding Smith was an excellent theologian. The only problem is those areas where he directly contradicted both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. If you want to contradict Joseph Smith, you had better have a *very* good argument that takes his opposing position into account. Ignoring Joseph Smith is not an option, nor really is ignoring the century of LDS theology immediately following.

    If they are wrong, one has to say *why*, or one’s position on such subjects is likely to be eclipsed with amazing speed.

  19. By the way, I think the Church is moving away from neo-orthodoxy of the 1960s variety at a pretty good clip, not due to disrespect of anything JFS or BRM said in particular, but due to the cultural aftermath of a couple of generations being raised with the most extreme Protestant-style dogmatism. Now Protestant absolutism actually works pretty well when there is only one sovereign God and the rest of us are dirt.

    But in the context of the LDS doctrine of exaltation, absolutism leads to a culture of high handed, off putting domination, a cult of authority, a fideistic feudalism, and an arbitrary conception of theology as whatever a current authority says it is. Too many Mormons of my grandparents generation act in ways that those of my generation think is extraordinarily heavy handed, bordering on ultimate jerkhood.

    And that creates its own rebellion, a descent into a radical antinomianism that would level the Church completely. We need a proper balance between the two, and if one studies the talks of the General Authorities for the past couple of decades there is plenty of preaching against unrighteous dominion, in favor of Church conciliarism, against presidency as dictatorship, and on and on. BRM is disliked not so much for his doctrine, but for how he is the most prominent echo of the now fast fading culture of heavy handedness.

  20. scriptures ahead of revelation

    In general, I always place scripture ahead of everything else. In particular cases, I modify that position.

    Person and work of Christ: NT is the standard. Extend it appropriately, fine. Repudiate it, not likely.

    Ecclesiology: not much in the NT, so modern revelation guides.

    Eschatology: LDS take the smorgasbord approach, just like everybody else. Whatever. Not really a central issue.

  21. Me too. Insofar as *theology* is concerned. For direction / practice contemporary authority rules.

  22. I think that the distinction of when scripture is an authority and when it isn’t is a useful and important insight. However, I would add that there is not such thing as the “scriptural” position appart from interpretation. Therefore, you can’t really separate out NT theology from LDS church practice. That is to say, certain decisions about meaning and authoritativeness have already been made when a given text is interpreted.

    I think rather than a straight hierarchy of texts and authorities, it might be more useful to think about a matrix of overlapping means of assessing the authoritativeness of any given statement. Because there is no straight hierarchy, the conclusions about how authoritative something is are up for debate and people come to honest disagreements precisely because of a lack of a normative hierarchy.

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