In Tents #79 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 4

What did Stewart Glutmeyer name his boat?
Stewardship.

Bless our Seminary teachers for giving us silly sayings to help remember complicated concepts. The multiple choice answers to a test question like “What is stewardship?” don’t really define the concept as much as they highlight its importance.

The concept of Stewardship has become much more important to me in the last few years, particularly since I read Steven C. Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants  in 2008. Harper’s discussion of agency in the Doctrine & Covenants, of what it means to act as an agent for the Lord, gave me something to carry in Bro. Glutmeyer’s boat.

(A lot of the value I got from Seminary I got in spite of the political rhetoric it was couched in, rhetoric that might lead one to think the gospel resided in a political party or one wing of the national bird–which Ben Franklin thought would better have been a turkey. One of the valuable lessons I learned was from a comment that Jephthah should not have sacrificed his daughter, but should have fallen down before the Lord and asked forgiveness for making a rash vow. (See #33 for a fuller discussion.) That comment, together with a dramatic monologue of Pontius Pilate in Hell–Spirit Prison?–taught me that I didn’t have to accept what characters in scripture say about themselves or others as the Lord’s viewpoint, that I could question their motives and assumptions. A great gift.)

My historian cousin Joe Soderborg has also talked with me about the concept of being agents or stewards, particularly about the parable of the man traveling into a far country as a parable about leadership as stewardship:

14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. 15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
(Matthew 25:14-15)

For Joe the important phrase is “straightway took his journey.” The man gave out the stewardships, gave instruction and  left straightway–even before the servants could put a comma after instruction. That is, he gave them general instructions then left them to carry out the instructions he had given, left them to figure out how to accomplish their assignment, didn’t stick around and oversee every detail of their stewardship. Thinking about prophetic and apostolic callings in light of this parable “solves a lot of problems in Church history,” Joe said.

What kind of problems? Here’s one that comes to my mind: How do you talk about a major change, like ending a policy that has been in place for more than a century? especially when leaders for much of that century have proclaimed that the policy came as commandment from God?

If you are Bruce R. McConkie addressing the teachers in the Church Education System, the people who will teach about this new revelation, you say this:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?”  And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood  of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year (1978). It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.

This is a longer excerpt than usually gets quoted. Each paragraph contrasts the light from this revelation with our previous lack of knowledge, which the last two paragraphs call darkness. It can be difficult to acknowledge that we have walked in darkness. In June 2011 Margaret Young posted “All God’s Critters: Some Thoughts on the Priesthood Restriction and Differing Opinions, Part I, Part II, Part III,” and Jonathan Stapley posted “Teaching the Priesthood Restriction,” both on By Common Consent.  R. Gary Shapiro responded with “LDS Prophets tag­-teamed at BCC about the pre­ 1978 priesthood restriction,” on his blog No Death Before the Fall:

However, readers should be aware of this: J. Stapley and Margaret Young do NOT speak for the Church when they accuse a dozen Church Presidents of wrongful conduct regarding the pre-1978 priesthood restriction.

By contrast, President Spencer W. Kimball *did* speak for the Church when he made the following statement about the priesthood restriction in 1974:

“Blacks and the priesthood: I am not sure that there will be a change, although there could be. We are under the dictates of our Heavenly Father, and this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it, and I know of no change, although we are subject to revelations of the Lord in case he should ever wish to make a change.” (Ensign Feb. 1974, 2.)

To be clear, neither Margaret Young nor Jonathan Stapley calls any president of the church a wrongdoer, and neither lists 12 presidents of the church by name. R. Gary [yes, it’s scholarly practice to mention sources by last name, but R. Gary doesn’t blog under the name Shapiro. I only know it by clicking on his “I’m a Mormon” link. Similarly, Jonathan Stapley blogs under J. Stapley.] apparently assumes that saying the priesthood restriction did not originate with God is the same as accusing prophets of wrongdoing.

But if that’s the case, why not state that Bruce R. McConkie was accusing the people he named? When commenter kevinf quoted David O. McKay, Bruce R. McConkie and Jeffrey R. Holland saying that the priesthood restriction didn’t come from God, commenter FelixAndAva said,

 So, Kevin, what you’re saying is that early Church leaders simply inflicted their own opinions on the Church? And you’re saying that this was an error, but that Christ Himself “failed” to step in and correct it? Was it that Christ Himself was “in error” by your 21st century standards of mortal philosophy, or that He failed to communicate with prophets, or that He did not enforce His wishes for His Church?

Must be nice to have special revelations that elude chosen and anointed prophets.

No doubt I have stepped in a minefield here. (Didn’t someone say, “Deep minefields are where I am wont to tread”?) But controversy is not my intent. I mention R. Gary and FelixAndAva’s comments only because of how they contrast with Elder McConkie’s approach to the question of how we should react when a present revelation overturns practices earlier prophets proclaimed as coming from God.

Elder McConkie’s approach sees the calling of prophet, seer, and revelator as a stewardship (or assignment) where “We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept,” and may speak with “limited understanding”  until “a new flood  of intelligence and light on [a] particular subject . . . erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.”

As to the question of whether the Lord “failed to communicate with prophets, or that He did not enforce His wishes for His Church?” McConkie might say, “What do you call revelation if not communication with prophets?” And he might add, in the spirit of Joseph Smith’s letter from Liberty Jail, that the Lord doesn’t work through enforcement or compulsion, so He may not give us new light until we ask for it.

(Note that in the parable above, when the  man returns from a far country, and asks for an accounting of the stewardships the servant who did nothing with his talent accuses his master of compulsion, “I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed.”)

Now, consider Elder McConkie’s word flood for a moment. The statement R. Gary quoted from President Kimball that “this is not my policy or the Church’s policy. It is the policy of the Lord who has established it,” came from the new prophet’s first press conference, Dec. 31, 1973, so his answer to a question on the topic came before he had started considering asking if the policy could be changed.

It’s possible that when he did pray for the policy to be changed he received a greater flood of light and knowledge than a simple “Yes, it’s time for the policy to be changed,” a flood of knowledge telling him the policy had not been instituted by the Lord, and that as part of their stewardships the prophets, seers, and revelators should forget everything they had taught about priesthood restrictions previously.

What is the alternative to thinking about scripture-making and prophetic callings as stewardships? It may be assuming that God imposes his will on prophets and directs their every move. Where did the idea of revelation as imposition that overwhelms the prophet’s agency come from? I wonder how much of it comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac?

We may touch on that next month as part of  a discussion of a couple of remarkable statements I came across from people who describe themselves as King James Only, meaning that one considers the King James text, rather than the Hebrew and Greek originals, his “final written authority,” and the other considers Desiderius Erasmus’s Textus Receptus as God’s purified text of the New Testament.

I suspect that to both of them the idea that Luke might be correcting Matthew’s depiction of the Pharisees and John the Baptist’s reception of them might be anathema.

Maranatha.

Your turn.

 

2 Thoughts on “In Tents #79 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 4

  1. Harlow Clark on July 20, 2017 at 1:32 pm said:

    The idea of continuing revelation, new prophets, and an open canon has a lot of implications we don’t often think about, and if we’re not careful, and don’t think about the implications, we can set linguistic traps for ourselves and each other. For the Christian world at large the idea of an open canon and new revelation is either redundant or scandalous, maybe both. Redundant because if God has given us the gospel what more is there to give? Scandalous because for two millennia Christians have followed the precepts of the Bible and built their lives around it, and if scripture is incomplete, how can we know our salvation is complete?

    These are linguistic traps that make us think we’re honoring the Lord and scripture, when we’re really distancing ourselves, refusing ourselves access to all God has to offer us, as Nephi explains in II Nephi 29.

    The idea of prophets, seers, and revelators as stewards with general instructions and the expectation they will study their stewardships out in their minds and proceed without having to be told every step to take is designed to avoid another linguistic trap, the trap of claiming that every word that comes out of a prophet’s mouth was put there by the Lord. I read Elder McConkie’s instructions to church educators as a caution against stepping into this trap:

    People write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?”  And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

    If we don’t allow that people sometimes speak with limited understanding–even people whose stewardships make them prophets, seers, and revelators–then we may have no tool for acknowledging disagreements between them, and end up accusing those who point out the disagreements of ill motives. (See the quote from FelixAndAva in the post.)

    • Harlow Clark on July 20, 2017 at 1:39 pm said:

      To be sure, D&C 21:5 does say, “For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith,” but we ought to remember what Joseph noted as a journal entry in 1843:

      Wednesday, Feb. 8.—This morning I read German and visited with a brother and sister from
      Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet;” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such. (quoted from DHC 5:265 in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 278).

      We might consider D&C 21:5 as a statement of Joseph’s stewardship as prophet of the newly organized church, and paraphrase it as, “All prophetic words come from me even if someone else is mouth.” This idea of agency or stewardship is how Stephen C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants, sees D&C 5:9-10 “But this generation shall have my word through you.”

      Harper repeatedly quotes the last half of the prayer that ends Joseph’s Nov. 27, 1832 letter to W. W. Phelps, “O Lord God, deliver us in due time from the little narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen and ink; and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.”  (The whole letter was quoted in The First Presidency’s 13, Nov 1905 message, “One Mighty and Strong,” reprinted here.)

      “Listen to the rhythm of that, ‘a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language,'” Dennis Clark said to me once. It has a fine poetic rhythm and we may think Joseph was simply being modest, but Harper connects this feeling of inadequacy to the negative conversation about Joseph’s language in the special conference convened in Nov, 1831 to discuss publishing Joseph’s revelations (The Book of Commandments).

      Harper suggests that the statement in Section 5 is the Lord’s statement of stewardship to Joseph, ‘You can’t delegate this to someone with more polished language. This is your stewardship. This generation shall have my word through you.’

      I will add that since I’ve been reading Revelation Book 1, the book used to prepare many of the revelations for The Book of Commandments, I’ve started to think of the deeply intriguing rebuke to W. W. Phelps (oh, it’s not Sidney Rigdon?), “for he seeketh to excel,” as connected to this matter of Joseph’s language, Phelps being the printer.

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