Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History Theology

Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology

History doesn’t have as many Latter-day Saint theological answers as we might think. And that’s okay.

Latter-day Saint theology has many questions without settled answers. Was Jesus married? Does God progress? How important is the King Follett Sermon? In each case, Latter-day Saint leaders have expressed differing opinions. Editor Eric A. Eliason discusses a new edition of BYU Studies Quarterly devoted to the concept of ‘open questions.’

What is the Yet to Be Revealed issue of BYU Studies about?

Here is the description we put together for selecting the topics and giving guidance to contributors, “an anthology of essays by specialist scholars, on topics distinctive to Latter-day Saint religion, about which there have been more than one school of thought, with a significant history of discussion, that have not been authoritatively resolved.”

What was the catalyst for this special BYU Studies issue on open questions?

Back in the early 1990s, I read in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (which passed through rigorous scrutiny from Church headquarters) that the Restoration tradition had two main schools of thought on the nature of God’s progress.

Even though there had been strongly expressed views on both sides, neither point of view had been promulgated as official doctrine; and neither had been officially declared anathema.

This was a new perspective to me!

Our purpose in assembling this collection of essays is simple: we wish to celebrate the miracle of continuing revelation and the promise of more to come, in which God will “yet reveal many great and important things” (Articles of Faith 1:9).

Eric A. Eliason and Terryl L. Givens, “Introduction to a ‘BYU Studies Quarterly Special Issue’ on Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology”

Before then, my young brain was pretty black and white, as young brains often are. I thought one point of view must be right, and the other must be wrong. I was relieved to learn there was space for things to be unsettled because I admired and sustained the voices on all sides of this issue.

An epic conversation on this with my mother-in-law was the genesis of this book. Later, more topics came to mind. A few years ago, I shared some of them with Terryl Givens at the Mormon History Association Meeting. He said, “we should do a book!” I said, “OK.”

We were delighted when BYU Studies agreed to publish the volume both a special issue and a book.

Is there a single definition of what constitutes Latter-day Saint theology?

Heavens, no. Our lead essay by Michael Goodman considers several proposed formulations. However, they are all quite similar in their understanding that only General Authorities have the Divinely-appointed stewardship to make any such determinations.

In previous decades, Latter-day Saint writers might use the term “doctrine” more loosely to mean various things that today might be called “ideas and beliefs that have come up in the history of our faith tradition.”

More recently, the Brethren, notably Dallin H. Oaks, seem to be making a concerted effort to define the term “doctrine” more precisely, as something more like: only official Church teachings that are currently taught, through official Church channels, by the unified witness of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaking in an official capacity.

As doctrine has been more narrowly defined, it may be important to remember that doctrine is a smaller sub-category of truth. Our heritage has bequeathed us many wonderful beliefs that are still precious and worth reflecting on, even if we would not call them doctrine today.

What lessons can we learn from a documented history of prophets sometimes taking opposite viewpoints in their teachings about Latter-day Saint theology?

A great number of things, I reckon. Maybe the Lord, for reasons we don’t yet understand, needed his servants to emphasize different things for different audiences at different times.

Maybe language is often an imperfect instrument for conveying truth.
Maybe this is an instance of the old story where five blind men go around the corner to tell us what they find, and they come upon an elephant. One grabs the trunk and says, “a snake!” The next grabs the tail and says, “a rope!” The ear, “a curtain!” The torso, “ a wall!” And a leg, “a tree trunk!”

Are they all wrong and contradicting each other?

Or has each given us a useful insight pointing toward a deeper more complex truth not yet fully seen?

Maybe they are not really “blind” after all? Maybe they are seeing much more than we do, which was nothing until they gave their report.

Does God progress? Who are some well-known apostles who have taken different sides on the issue?

Yes. There is no disagreement that He continues to progress quantitatively in the number of his creations, bringing to pass the immortality and eternal lives of men and women on worlds without end.

As Matt Bowman shows in his chapter in the book, there has been disagreement on whether His progress is qualitative in knowledge and wisdom.

Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff said that He is progressing in this way. Orson Pratt and Bruce R. McConkie said He is not.

What are some key “doctrines” that trace their roots back to the King Follett discourse?

One of the points Jim Faulconer and Susannah Morrison make in their chapter is that there are not as many key doctrines in the King Follett Sermon as Church members often suppose. Many are also found elsewhere in Joseph Smith’s teachings.

Why does James Falconer say that Church leaders rarely refer to the King Follet discourse?

Not sure. Jim Falcouner and Susannah Morrison could answer that one better. But I suspect it has to do with the previous answer.

What was the purpose of the Gold Plates if Joseph Smith rarely consulted them?

Wow, that is waaay above my pay grade. But I do know the Lord works in mysterious ways. I’m pretty sure there is something to be said for their value as an attention-getter. The Tin Plates? Not as memorable.

Was Jesus married?

In our book, Chris Blythe looks closely into this, martials all the available evidence, and delivers a confident and resounding, “There is no official position.”

But a wide variety of interesting things have been said on this, by interesting people, for interesting reasons.

Does the reality of “open questions” in Latter-day Saint theology strengthen or threaten your faith? How so?

Strengthen! No doubt about it!

Oops. I just imagined for a second my own perspective as the only valid one. Not really in keeping with the spirit of the book. I suppose your question is an “open question,” too.

Open questions show that ours really is a religion of revelation and not systematic theology. Trying to shoehorn revelation into our own tidy little mental categories, that we imagine are properly non-contradictory, may not be the best way to benefit from them.

Open questions also show what a full and rich tradition we have and how every question that revelation answers seems to give us three new ones to wonder about.

They also show that, over the years, many thoughtful Latter-day Saints have been pondering seriously on the implications of revealed truths.

Isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? I don’t think that is an open question.

Further reading

Latter-day Saint theology resources

Yet to Be Revealed: Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology

Table of contents

“Oh Say, What Is Truth?”: Approaches to Doctrine (Michael Goodman)

Is Sure Knowledge an Ideal for Everyone or One Spiritual Gift among Many? (Blair Dee Hodges and Patrick Q. Mason)

Is God Subject to or the Creator of Eternal Law? (James M. McLachlan)

What Is the Nature of God’s Progress? (Matthew Bowman)

Was Jesus Married? (Christopher James Blythe)

The King Follett Discourse: Pinnacle or Peripheral? (James E. Falcouner and Susannah Morrison)

Understandings of the Relationship between Grace and Works (Terryl L. Givens)

Shards of Combat: How Did Satan Seek to Destroy the Agency of Man? (Philip L. Barlow)

How Limited Is Postmortal Progression? (Terryl L. Givens)

Each Atom an Agent? (Steven L. Peck)

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible: Ancient Material Restored or Inspired Commentary? Canonical or Optional? Finished or Unfinished? (Jared W. Ludlow)

Is the Bible Reliable? A Case Study: Were King Josiah’s Reforms a Restoration from Apostasy or a Suppression of Plain and Precious Truths? (And What about Margaret Barker?) (Eric A. Eliason)

Is the Song of Solomon Scripture? (Dana M. Pike and Eric A. Eliason)

Book of Mormon Geographies (Andrew H. Hedges)

The Book of Mormon Translation Process (Grant Hardy)

Narrating Religious Heritage: Apostasy and Restoration (Miranda Wilcox)

Civil Disobedience in Latter-day Saint Thought (Nathan B. Oman)

What Is Women’s Relationship to Priesthood? (Lisa Olsen Tait)

On the Foreknowledge of God: Time, Knowledge, Reality, Agency (Rosalynde F. Welch)

Will Things Get Better or Worse before the Second Coming?: Are the Latter-day Saints Premillenarians or Postmillenarians? (Jed L. Woodworth)

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

3 replies on “Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology”

Frankly, the editors and authors of this BYU Studies number do not have good reputations for orthodoxy. On the contrary, they are mostly known to be liberal academics (they don’t like that label because it places them where they really are). In other words, they are what Elder Oaks called “Alternate Voices”.

I believe that people who have worked in CES and in Church Correlation, who are better positioned to know the mind and feelings of the Brethren for the last 30 to 40 years, would disagree with much that is said in this BYU Studies number and in this interview.

It is beyond dispute (except among unorthodox liberals) that the 4 standard works govern the church in matters of doctrine. For instance, they leave no room for God progressing in knowledge–not one verse. On the other hand, many passages teach that God knows all things–period–and that governs over what Pres. Young and perhaps Wilford Woodruff may have said.

Those who study the scriptures closest, and reject theories that contradict them, will not agree with Givens and Eliason and the “Mormon Studies” liberal authors they selected to write about matters that mostly only have disagreements among themselves, and not among the General Authorities.

So if you want to know what unorthodox liberal (alleged) “scholars” think, or what their biased liberal-leaning surveys say, then read their stuff.

If you want to know what the Lord has to say about the same matters, read the scriptures instead, and ignore interpretations that contradict them, which this BYU Studies number is filled with.
And read General Conference talks over the last 50 years that touch on the same subjects, and Church manuals’ chapters on those same subjects.
Or read the hundreds of statements of the Brethren in my book “Determining Doctrine” to see what they say, which is not in harmony with what Goodman says. And pray for the spirit of discernment throughout all of it.
It is a sad thing to see these academics shooting so wide in their writings. It is a tremendous thing to be taught by prophets and apostles who actually do know what God really has revealed.

I would like to modify my comment by saying that there are 3 authors that contributed articles that have fine strong orthodox reputations (2 of them in BYU religious ed).

I’m skeptical of what Dennis claims here because there are parts of what he claims that I know better than anyone. I know, for example, whether or not I would like to be labeled a “liberal academic” and Dennis does not. He doesn’t know me.

I am the editor of BYU Studies and I am a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. Both positions depend on orthodoxy, if not the kind that Dennis has in mind. My performance in both positions is reviewed regularly by a department chair, a dean (who is on a Correlation Committee with Mike Goodman), and an Associate Academic Vice President at BYU.

I also don’t mind if people think of me as a liberal academic. Neither of those words carries for me the negative connotation they carry for Dennis.

I can’t wait for everyone to see BYU Studies issue 61:1. It’ll be off the press soon. It includes an article by President Oaks.

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Steve Harper

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