What it means to be an authority on truth

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This entry is part 10 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

How we think of truth influences on how we will think about authority. Questions about who can be an authority and why we trust them are answered very differently from a person view of truth than from an idea view of truth. From an idea view of truth, we assume that a person can only be an authority on subjects they have studied in a publicly replicable and verifiable way—and only insofar as their conclusions contribute to a converging consensus on the issues at hand.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, an appeal to authority is not always a logical fallacy, even from the perspective of idea-truth. A legitimate authority in the modern world, however, must meet two criteria:

  1. He/she must have gained his or her expertise in a way that is publicly demonstrable and replicable by others. Others must be able to obtain the same expertise and arrive at the same conclusions (if they so desire).
  2. The authority must contribute to a consensus of experts. If an expert’s observations are open to public scrutiny, and his or her conclusions are replicable, a consensus of opinion will form.((For more detailed analyses of scientific and rational authority, see, e.g., Jean E. Hampton, The Authority of Reason (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Theodore L. Brown, Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009); Heather E. Douglas, Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (Pittsburgh, PA: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).))

From this perspective, someone is a legitimate authority if their truth claims are based on public observations that contribute to expert consensus.((See, for example, the claim in Brigham Young University’s physical science textbook: “In cases of conflicting claims of knowledge between competing authorities, we often give precedence to those … that are held to be true by the greatest number and so have been validated by the most witnesses.” From J. Ward Moody, “Knowledge, Science, and the Universe,” in Physical Science Foundations (Provo: BYU Academic Publishing, 2006), 8.)) Most scholarly dialogue relies on appeals to authority—scientists do not individually replicate every experiment done by their peers. Scholars assume that errant conclusions will eventually be corrected through replication, critical analysis, and consensus-building.

This is why, in the modern world, becoming an authority involves a process of peer-review, debate, and academic argument. Anyone brave enough is free to face the intellectual battlegrounds of the academic world. And anyone who is so brave, if they have enough wits about them, can become an authority (expert) in their area of research. No ordination, visitation, or special calling from God is required. One simply has to master the methods of scholarship and subject their work to public scrutiny.

From this perspective, prophets and apostles are not considered legitimate authorities, precisely because they do not meet the two criteria above. There is no transcript of Joseph Smith’s conversation with the Father and the Son, and no known means to reproduce that sacred event. These observations cannot be guaranteed by the method Joseph employed. The same is true of today’s Church leaders. The general public is seldom privy to their reasoning, their evidence, or their revelatory communications with God.

When seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that Hellenized (that is, Greek-influenced) Christianity came to rely so heavily on rational theology and consensus-seeking councils.((For a detailed analysis of the history of rational theology and creedalism in Christianity, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999); Vittorio Hosle, God as Reason: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).)) Indeed, many theologians seek to defend their sectarian traditions not with ongoing revelation, but with systematic logic and reason, in an attempt to build a consensus within their scholarly (or ecclesiastical) communities.((See, e.g., Vittorio Hosle, God as Reason: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).))

Person-truth can commission messengers

If we think of truth as a person, someone can be an authority even if they cannot open their methods to public scrutiny, and even if they defy expert consensus. God (the Truth made Flesh) can visit and converse with specific persons in specific places and times, and commission them to be His spokesmen and to share His teachings. From this view, while these visitations and conversations may not be open to public scrutiny, prophets and apostles can still be considered authorities.

Faulconer has noted that, as Latter-day Saints, “We dare to say that God continues to reveal himself authoritatively to human beings through another human being.”((James E. Faulconer, “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007), 180.)) And, similarly, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught, “It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it.”((Jeffrey R. Holland, “Prophets in the Land Again,” Ensign, November, 2006, 104-107.)) Idea-truth cannot have spokesmen. But the Truth made Flesh (Christ) can. He can declare His word through spokesmen chosen at His discretion, usually through no merits of their own (such as, for example, Enoch, Moses, or Saul).

From this perspective, to become such an authority on person-truth requires that we are called of God. In the Articles of Faith, we read: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (AoF 1:5). Nothing we do on our own volition can make us such an authority on person-truth, because it has little to do with scholarly methods (replicable or otherwise). In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord refers to His servants as the “weak things of the world” (D&C 1:19).((See also, President Boyd K. Packer, “The Weak and Simple of the Church,” Ensign, November, 2007, 6-9.))

The concept of prophets are deeply rooted in Hebrew tradition. The Hebrews, after all, were identified by their lineage from the prophets Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were led through the wilderness by the prophet Moses. They gave us the writings of Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets of the Old Testament. We read in the Old Testament that the Lord “testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 17:13).

Simply put, a prophet is someone appointed by the truth Himself to speak for the truth—and is quite literally a “truth-teller.” As Truman G. Madsen noted, prophets are not merely “fore-tellers,” they are also “‘forth-tellers,’ meaning that they speak forth boldly in judgment and in recommendation as to their own time.”((Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1989), 7. Indeed, the Greek word prophetes (προφάτης) used in the New Testament means “forth speaker.” Similarly, the Old Testament Hebrew word nabiy (נָבִיא) means something very much like “spokesman.” Thus, initially at least, neither term has much to do with predicting or foretelling the future.)) Indeed, the Greek word prophetes (προφήτης) used in the New Testament means “forth speaker.” Similarly, the Old Testament Hebrew word nabi (נָבִיא) (translated as “prophet”) means something very much like “spokesman.”

In the previous chapter, we explained that in the person view of truth, society will not always take a forward trajectory of moral progress. In fact, if societal consensus is not informed (to some degree) by contemporary messengers from God, it will likely be wrong. For this reason, Christ’s servants will often contradict expert consensus. We cannot dismiss the counsel of prophets as just “good advice,” to be measured against the conventional wisdom of our times.

The idea view of truth can quietly sneak into the way we think about prophets. From this view, it is not who speaks that matters, but what is said. Someone is a prophet if they teach universal truth, regardless of their divine commission. In other words, if President Monson teaches truth, then he is a prophet. But so is the Dalai Lama, if he teaches the same truth. From the idea view, the content of their teaching matters most. This is why, from the idea view of truth, prophets are only authorities if they contribute to an ongoing consensus.

From a person view of truth, however, we are equally concerned about the divine authority of the speaker. In this view, who is speaking is just as important as what is being said. The source matters as much as the content. We see the person view expressed in the temple drama. After they were driven out of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not search for abstract “truth.” Rather, they sought and waited for authorized messengers. To us, this is a crucial distinction: their concern was about the source of what they were taught, and not merely the content.

The Holy Ghost confirms the divine commission of prophets

The divine commission of a prophet is established differently than the authority of secular scholars and experts. Prophets generally do not have a diploma that establishes their divine stewardship, and there is no (mortal) third-party accrediting agency that verifies their authority. Rather, we must seek personal revelation from God to know whether they are genuine prophets and apostles. From an idea view of truth, the Holy Ghost merely confirms whether the ideas taught are “truth.” But from a person view of truth, the Holy Ghost affirms the stewardship of the person teaching the truths.

Seeking personal revelation from God to confirm the divine stewardship of His servants is a kind of “independent verification” that is vastly different from the peer review processes valued by Western thought. When we engage is such prayer and seek such confirmations, we are not comparing the teachings of the prophets against scholarly consensus, nor are we examining their methods and replicating their reasoning. We are instead asking a simple question of God: “Are these men commissioned by you? Are they indeed prophets and messengers with a divine calling?” Brigham Young famously said:

What a pity it would be if we were lead by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him. … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the lord dictates or not.((Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, 150.))

Some have misread this quote, and think Brigham Young feared that people could be led astray unless they independently verify each of his instructions. However, when read in context, Brigham Young was mimicking what others (non-believers) had said about the Saints. He does not share the fears held by non-believers, but fears more that people will not heed the teachings of the prophets with the conviction that comes the Spirit of God.

Joseph Smith wrote, “a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such.”((Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:265.)) Some interpret this to mean that a prophet is only a prophet if he is teaching what can be objectively recognized as truth. This adopts the central assumptions of the idea view of truth. But from a person view of truth, Joseph Smith was merely stating that prophets are not on the Lord’s errand every minute of every day—not that we need to independently verify everything they teach.

None of this should be misinterpreted to imply that prophets are infallible, or never make mistakes. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “[T]here have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”((Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” Ensign, November, 2013.)) Rather, from a person view of truth, prophets can have a divine commission while also being mortal, imperfect people. King Benjamin expresses this perspective clearly:

I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people. (Mosiah 2:9-11)

Here, King Benjaming says three things: (1) People should not fear him as they might fear God, because he is a mortal man, subject to imperfection. (2) People should not trifle with his words, but should open their ears and hearts to what he has to say. (3) This is because he has a divine commission from the people and from God to be their teacher. This is what it means to treat prophets as authorities (from the person view of truth): we recognize their mortal fallibility, but we do not trifle with their words.

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