Elder Holland’s Subversive Message?

At the risk of stirring controversy against my absolute favorite Apostle, I want to ask a few questions stemming from his engaging discussion of Scripture and modern prophecy and his dialogue with biblical studies.

Elder Holland’s talk in General Conference was part II of his discourse on Mormonism’s place with respect to “Christianity”. He begins by giving justifications for an open canon, namely, why the various statements about not adding to or taking away from a given book (Revelation) don’t apply to the whole Bible. These arguments are, for the most part, old, but what is new is his recourse to mainstream biblical scholarship in making the arguments. Most biblical-studies types were ecstatic, I’d venture, to hear eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright quoted by Elder Holland.

In the subsequent discussion of scripture that ensued, Elder Holland gave subtle nods to theories of composition, such as the Markan priority. And in one fell swoop he decoupled all wranglings over scripture from what constitutes gospel knowledge for Latter-day Saints. Quoting Wright, he said that the risen Jesus indicated that “all authority in heaven and on earth is given [not to the ‘books’ the disciples would write, but rather] to me.” Elder Holland went on to say

In other words, Scripture itself points away from itself and toward the fact that final true authority belongs to God Himself. So the scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God. The communication of those gifts comes form God, as living, vibrant, divine revelation. This doctrine lies at the very heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our message to the world.

What he seems to be saying is that scriptures are authoritative insofar as they are connected to this ultimate source. What I want to explore is what this means for prophetic authority. My initial assumption is that he was setting up a contrast between scripture, to which can be applied all of these theories, and living prophecy, which connects itself to the source directly. He doesn’t make this explicit, though. He goes on to extol continuing revelation as a blessing in the lives of individual members.

Is there a potentially subversive message behind Elder Holland’s talk, though? One not necessarily intended by him? By establishing God as the source of all knowledge, does he not put modern prophets into the same category as ancient scripture–that is, as “manifestations” of the Ultimate Source? Does this not encourage individuals to go directly to the source and to take the manifestations of the source with a grain of salt?

To be clear, I’m not advocating these positions, just wondering about the implications. What do you think he meant?

23 Replies to “Elder Holland’s Subversive Message?”

  1. But we have to remember in God’s economy, I am encouraged to go to the source and seek revelation for myself. But, only the prophet who has been sustained by common consent and regularly ordained by the heads of the church (D&C 42: 11)(D&C 20: 65) has the keys and authority to receive revelation for the whole church.

    And if someone claims to have received revelation contrary to scripture, and the words of the prophet, then we should respect his right to follow his conscience. If, this person has some influence and stewardship over others it may adversely affect them. However, this is the necessary risk because the benefits of personal revalation, conversion and direct access to God are so great.

  2. What I loved about the talk was his appeal to Scholarship for his point! It was amazing.

    Sorry on topic now:

    I think that if this message is intentionally misinterpreted a subversive argument could be made. But I think the last two sentences point directly to living prophets, “The communication of those gifts comes form God, as living, vibrant, divine revelation. This doctrine lies at the very heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our message to the world.” Our message to the world being the Christ speaks to man today through modern prophets. In fact I think that this quote secondarily takes aim at people who want to drudge up quotes from the JD to attack the church. We emphasize following the living prophets.

    Personal revelation is indeed essential to his argument, but it seems to me that the framework of personal revelation being personal but not trumping Divine prophetic revelation (while left generally unemphasized in this talk) remains a firm, well established tenet of our faith. Personal revelation in our church is inseparably linked to faith in living prophets and the B.O.M., The first thing an investigator learns about the subject from the missionaries is Moroni 10:3-5.

  3. jupiterschild,

    This is great. I definitely did not catch this particular theme listening to Elder Holland’s talk live, but I think you are on to something. When you de-emphasize the authority of scripture (I think that Elder Holland would vehemently protest that he was not doing this, but I think he was), you cannot help but do the same to modern revelation. After all, what is scripture but somebody else’s modern revelation?

    I think it would solve tons of issues if we came to acknowledge that modern revelation, inspiration etc., both mine, yours and the prophets’, are manifestations of the truth without being the Truth (Platonic form) themselves. It would certainly breed some humility in all of us, both in our relationships amongst one another as members of the Church and with those outside of the Church.

  4. One not necessarily intended by him? By establishing God as the source of all knowledge, does he not put modern prophets into the same category as ancient scripture–that is, as “manifestations” of the Ultimate Source? Does this not encourage individuals to go directly to the source and to take the manifestations of the source with a grain of salt?

    I kind of thought that was the orthodox Mormon position — and always has been, from comments by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young all the way down to the present day, with a few possible exceptions along the way (e.g. perhaps ETB’s 14 Fundamentals Talk, but even that doesn’t really go against the principle you identify as possibly being subversive).

  5. Numbers 11:25-29

    Joshua complained to Moses that a couple of guys were filled with the spirit of prophecy and he asked Moses to put them in their place. Moses replied, “…would that all the Lord’s people were prophets…”

    I hardly think Elder Hollands talk is subversive, intended or otherwise.

  6. jupiterschild:

    Is it possible that Elder Holland was echoing Teryl Givens’ argument that the early Latter-day Saints valued the Book of Mormon more as a sign pointing to God’s miracles and less for its content?

    Wouldn’t you have to explore the nature and concept of the Mormon canon in order to answer your questions about the implications of Holland’s message?

  7. I agree with others that subversive is the the wrong word here. The message of the restoration has always been “revelation happens now and you need to get personal revelation yourself”. After all Jesus said that life eternal is to know God — not to hear about him from someone else who had personal experiences with him.

    Now I agree that the emphasis on personal revelation does by its nature require a de-emphasis of sorts of the revelations others have received, but I think that is a good thing because over emphasizing the revelations of others can lead to the Bible worship we see so often in some creedal Christians.

  8. I think that Givens is useful for analyzing this issue, not necessarily about whether or not Holland is referencing his argument, but that Givens points out the “paradox” inherent in LDS emphasis on the authority of ecclesiastical revelation, and the encouragement to get personal revelation. That is why everyone can claim that there is nothing new in what Holland is saying, because this theme is a part of Mormonism already.
    That said, I think that it is worth exploring the “paradox” as a paradox, a tension, wherein emphasis on the personal revelation necessarily points away from authoritative community revelations.
    One more point: in Mormon discourse, decentering scriptural texts is often used as a way to butress the authority of prophetic revelation, so there isn’t a simple binary between authority and individual as Givens can put it at times. Rather, there are multiple discursive strategies that can be deployed for different purposes.

  9. “Does this not encourage individuals to go directly to the source and to take the manifestations of the source with a grain of salt?”

    This is the founding story of Mormonism: Joseph’s experience in the Grove. I appreciate you pointing this out in Holland’s talk–I too had missed this “theme”–but it seems to me that Mormonism demands this sort of relationship with God (meaning, a direct relationship).

  10. In other words, Scripture itself points away from itself and toward the fact that final true authority belongs to God Himself.

    I don’t know any Evangelicals who wouldn’t agree with that statement 100%. We believe that God is living and dynamically involved in the world and our lives.

  11. I think this from Elder Oaks’ talk might be relevant:

    Of course, we have leaders, and of course, we are subject to their decisions and directions in the operation of the Church and in the performance of needed priesthood ordinances. But when it comes to learning and knowing the truth of the gospel—our personal testimonies—we each have a direct relationship with God, our Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, through the powerful witness of the Holy Ghost. This is what our critics fail to understand. It puzzles them that we can be united in following our leaders and yet independent in knowing for ourselves.

    Perhaps the puzzle some feel can be explained by the reality that each of us has two different channels to God. We have a channel of governance through our prophet and other leaders. This channel, which has to do with doctrine, ordinances, and commandments, results in obedience. We also have a channel of personal testimony, which is direct to God. This has to do with His existence, our relationship to Him, and the truth of His restored gospel. This channel results in knowledge. These two channels are mutually reinforcing: knowledge encourages obedience (see Deuteronomy 5:27; Moses 5:11), and obedience enhances knowledge (see John 7:17; D&C 93:1).

  12. This is a great subject. IMHO, our doctrine teaches that from the moment we actually receive the 1st Comforter (Holy Ghost) we begin to move in the direction of receiving the 2nd Comforter, that is, if we don’t take detours.

    As an observer for many years I would say that nearly all of us in this generation are spending time on detours. I don’t see many who are taking the invitation to “come unto Christ” with the full embrace with which the invitation is given. I don’t hear much talk about making our calling and election sure, or seeking the face of the Lord. Most of what I see and hear from church members indicates that we as a people are struggling to receive the HG and the gifts of the Spirit.

    I’m not saying this to be critical, just my observations.

    We’ll know when this changes by the testimonies we hear at church and by what the leaders are willing to share about their personal experiences with these things.

    I think it fair to say that this generation can be called Lite Mormons.

  13. Jared,
    I think that we won’t really hear much in testimonies that will be obvious (and I think we probably hear more than we think now).

    I also agree that most of us live beneath our privileges. I think the adversary will get us any way he can, and for the information generation, I think the challenge is not to get distracted and to really focus on what matters.

  14. Jared,

    Those are my observations, as well. Though I think that it has done me well to nibble away rather than take broad swipes. And, even more, to concetrate on myself and my own testimony and experience first and foremost,- am I looking to and seeking after Christ, where am I along that way, am I working with spiritual gifts,- and to be gentle with other people. Keep at it, my brutha,


  15. Jared,

    What exactly do you think having one’s calling and election made sure consists of? (People seem to have differing views on this in my experience.)

  16. m&m and Thomas

    Good thoughts, thanks for sharing.

    At the stage of life I am in I feel that drawing near to God is done best in our own personal prayers. Serving the Lord is essential, attending church is essential, reading the scriptures is essential, and of course repenting and keeping the commandments is essential, but they all are insufficient without meaningful prayer. Prayer, in my opinion, is the most important part. I have experienced many things of the spirit and they have all come from prayer, “meaningful” prayer. I would define meaningful prayer as knowing that our prayers were heard. Not every prayer can be a meaningful prayer, but as we grow in are ability I believe this kind of prayer increases.

    I believe that we need to ask Heavenly Father for some very specific things and we shouldn’t stop praying about it until we get an answer. No matter how long it takes!.If the answer is to stop praying about a certain thing–that is an answer. I think we have a habit of giving up too soon in our petitions. Prayer is work. Prayer is crying unto the Lord. Prayer is a struggle. Prayer is wrestling with the Lord.

  17. Geoff J

    Tough question. Only those who have received it can say for sure.

    From what I have read I think the Lord will appear to a man or women when they have fulfilled D&C 93:1. Some feel there needs to be an ordinance. I don’t think that is the case because the 2nd A makes us a K&P or Q&P. The 2nd Comforter comes after we have received the 1st Comforter and comes in the same way, unknown to the casual observer. The Lord tells us he employees no servant there.

    I read a 400+ page book a few months ago by a church member and when I got to the end I was astonished to read that he claims to have received the 2nd Comforter. I thought the book was well written. I’ve been praying about it for several months, asking the Lord to show me by the power of the HG if it is true. So far I haven’t received an answer.

    I’ve decided not give the authors name or the book title until I know from the Lord if it is true or not.

    I’m surprised that it has not been mentioned in the bloggernacle thus far.

    I just noticed you have a post on the subject. I’ll read that with interest when I get back in town.

  18. Excellent post, M&M (12). When I first read jupiterschild’s post, I immediately thought of Elder Oak’s talk from the day before on testimony and the two channels to God. I think his remarks are directly on point.

  19. Elder Holland is indeed a very gifted man.

    How would you answer this question? If God wanted to tell the people of the world something important, would He tell it to the Pope, Rick Warren, or the Prophet of our church? Of course you may want to change the names above, but you get the point.

    I would like to think God would tell all of the above and even more, perhaps everyone that would listen.

  20. For Jared,

    One of my ancestor’s journal contains an entry that just casually mentions: “It was at this time my wife and I received our second endowment.” He goes on to say it occurred by invitation, in the temple, and that they were grateful for the experience.

    I have never been able to find out any more than that. It may or may not have had anything to do with their calling and election being made sure.

    However, I think in terms of any ordinance that it simply won’t occur very often any more. The reason is that if you are living your life in such a way that you would qualify for the ordinance, it makes no difference to your behavior or your eternal state whether the ordinance is performed or not. Given how busy the church leaders are today with the actual work of the Kingdom I can’t imagine that they have time to ask the Lord if there are any Saints who currently qualify for the ordinance.

  21. John Swenson Harvey, when you say “it makes no difference to your behavior or your eternal state whether the ordinance is performed or not,” doesn’t this undercut our entire message? Why do we want to baptize people, or get them to go to the temple? Is it an entirely temporal thing?

  22. To jupiterschild: I meant that having an ordinance performed that confirms something that has already happened (having your calling and election made sure) makes no temporal or eternal difference. The D&C is pretty clear that Christ will reveal himself to those he chooses, and that constitutes the next “step” after the “standard” temple ordinances and covenants have been done/entered into. For whatever reason God has stated that baptism and temple ordinances are essential; God has NOT stated such for any ordinance associated with having your calling and election made sure.

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