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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

So what is official doctrine? Can it change? The Collective Witness Model

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

I frequently hear people use the churches position on black and the priesthood to support all sorts of notions about future changes in the church especially in regards to things like gay marriage. This brings up many interesting questions. Does God change his mind? Are certain commandments only for certain time periods? How do we determine what is truly doctrinal and unchanging and what can and/or will change? If things can change should we try to change things in the church the way that we would like them to be? What is official unchanging doctrine?

The Law of Witnesses and the establishment of the truth. 

I think many people are unfamiliar with the law of multiple witnesses and how it relates to the concept of prophetic consistency over time in the establishment of doctrine. In LDS theology this law is seen taught in nearly all dispensations.

"In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." Paul, 2 Cor 13:1 "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established." Duet 19:15 "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. There is another that beareth witness of me, and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true. Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth...But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me. And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me....You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me... If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me." - Jesus,  John 5:31-37

"Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also."- 2 Nephi 29:8


Prophetic Consistency. 

This principle of multiple witnesses relates directly to how we determine official church doctrine. Simply put, the strength and solidity of any doctrine taught by a prophet can be found in how well supported it is by the teachings of other prophets throughout time. A doctrine supported and reinforced by multiple prophets (and especially prophets in different times and ages) certainly should be viewed as more authoritative than the single comments of any one individual prophet. Not every sentence uttered by a prophet is doctrine, even in official settings . It also should be kept in mind that some commands are time specific. Prophets can make mistakes and speak presumptuously. When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously" - Duet: 18:22 "And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ." - Title Page Book of Mormon.  "And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself."- 1 Nephi 19:6 "A prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such"- Joseph Smith.  "We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility."- Charles Penrose (1912 Improvement Era)

For instance, concepts like the denial of blacks receiving the priesthood, the stoning of adulterers, the Adam God theory, and many other teachings by prophets are only found in one dispensation. Something found in one dispensation is much more likely to be subject to culture influences of that time period. Still, other doctrinal concepts like the law of chastity or a male only earthly priesthood are found in all dispensations. This is not to say that a doctrine must be found in all dispensations to be valid but without the word of multiple prophetic witnesses throughout multiple periods of time a doctrine can be said to be less certain and more open to revision than a doctrine that does show prophetic consistency throughout time.

Conclusion

So don't expect changes to be made to the law of chastity or marriage anytime soon. Those doctrines have the attestation support and witness of nearly every prophet since the beginning of the world while the ban on blacks in the priesthood and was only the product of a few men in a relatively short period of time that contradicted the practice of Joseph Smith and the many previous scriptures saying we are all alike to God. If you want to find the core central and most sure doctrines of the church look for those themes that have been consistent over the millennia in the words of the prophets and you quickly come to see more keenly what our central beliefs actually are. “When prophets write and speak on the principles of the gospel, they should have the guidance of the Spirit. If they do, then all that they say will be in harmony with the revealed word. If they are in harmony then we know that they have not spoken presumptuously. Should a man speak or write, and what he says is in conflict with the standards which are accepted, with the revelations the Lord has given, then we may reject what he has said, no matter who he is.” (Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:187.) "A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many." - Neil L Andersen "Many members of the Church have had visions or other inspirations to inform them about how things operate or are organized in the spirit world, but these personal spiritual experiences are not to be understood or taught as the official doctrine of the Church... As to all of these, the wise cautions of Elders D. Todd Christofferson and Neil L. Andersen in earlier general conference messages are important to remember. Elder Christofferson taught: “It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”

In the following conference, Elder Andersen taught this principle: “The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk.” The family proclamation, signed by all 15 prophets, seers, and revelators, is a wonderful illustration of that principle."- Dallin H Oaks.


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