There is a tension within Mormonism revealed by studying two general definitions of the word “oracle”. I alluded to this tension in my previous post, but I think the idea is worth exploring explicitly. 

The first definition is given by Webster’s 1828 Dictionary as follows:

“4. Among christians, oracles, in the plural, denotes the communications, revelations or messages delivered by God to prophets. In this sense it is rarely used in the singular; but we say, the oracles of God, divine oracles, meaning the Scriptures.”

The second definition is outlined by two other entries from the same Dictionary: 

“6. Any person or place where certain decisions are obtained.

    1. Any person reputed uncommonly wise, whose determinations are not disputed, or whose opinions are of great authority.”‘

“Oracles” as revealed texts

The New Testament (KJV) and Doctrine and Covenants use the first definition, describing the revelations and sacred texts inherited by believers as “oracles” (Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11; D&C 90:4-5; D&C 124:39, 126). The Old Testament (KJV) uses the word translated “oracle” to describe the Holy of Holies within the Temple in which people conversed with God and received revelation. 

The New Testament uses the word to emphasize how precious and important these texts are, and that they are still essential for believers.

The Doctrine and Covenants uses the word to express that believers after Joseph Smith would be bound by the oracles that God had given through Joseph: 

D&C 90:3 Verily I say unto you [Joseph Smith], the keys of this kingdom shall never be taken from you, while thou art in the world, neither in the world to come;

4 Nevertheless, through you shall the oracles be given to another, yea, even unto the church.

5 And all they who receive the oracles of God, let them beware how they hold them lest they are accounted as a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby, and stumble and fall when the storms descend, and the winds blow, and the rains descend, and beat upon their house.

Joseph’s words are not like the Law of Moses, which was fulfilled, done away with, and replaced with a more complete covenant. Those who aspire to membership in “the church” should consider themselves bound to receive and obey Joseph’s oracles and not treat them lightly (D&C 10:67-69).

Joseph also taught that the continued receipt of the oracles of God is an essential sign that the kingdom of God is come among a people:

Whare there is a Prophet a priest or a righteous man unto whom God gives his oracles there is the Kingdom of God, & whare the oracles of God are not there the Kingdom of God is not…

But if we do not get revelations we do not have the oracles of God & if they have not the oracles of God they are not the people of God But say you what will become of the world or the various professors of religion who do not believe in revelation & the oracles of God as Continued to the Church in all ages of the world when he has a people on earth I Tell you in the name of Jesus Christ they will be damned & when you get into the eternal world you will find it to be so they cannot escape the damnation of hell

(http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1843/22Jan43.html)

Nowhere do Joseph Smith or the scriptures imply that these new oracles would be fundamentally in conflict with former oracles and that we would need to reconcile that conflict by rejecting the older. 

 

“Oracles” as church leaders

After Joseph Smith’s death, the second definition of oracle entered the Latter-day Saint vocabulary, with leaders describing themselves as “oracles” who are more important and valuable than scripture:

The Prophet Joseph was the oracle through which God spoke; they slew his body, but “Mormonism” is still the same. (JD 1:94, Brigham Young, June 13th 1852)

The living oracles or Priesthood in our midst can develop these principles from time to time as we need them, for they minister in holy things, and soon they will enter with us into the holy temple, where we may learn more fully; (JD 1:263, Parley P. Pratt, April 10, 1853)

We have got to follow the oracles of heaven in all things; there is no other way but to follow him [whom] God has appointed to lead us and guide us into eternal salvation. (JD 1:375, John Taylor, April 19, 1854)

Listen to that which you have heard to−day from brother Brigham; he is our leader, our Prophet, our Priest, and our Governor − the Governor of the Territory of Utah. In him is every power and key of celestial life and salvation, pertaining to every person there is on this earth… Take away that power, take away those keys, and you cannot find your way into the celestial kingdom. The keys in his possession will unlock the door and let you through into another existence, more excellent than this. He holds the keys. Can anybody pass without them? No, only as they get authority through him. Are they appreciated as they should be? Do this people listen to the counsel that proceeds from his mouth, as the words of the living oracles of God?

I would not care if there was not a Bible within ten thousand miles of this place, or any other book or scrip; here are the oracles living right in our midst, and we receive them from day to day, by word of mouth from a living man, an Apostle who is alive, and through a Priesthood which is living in our midst.  At the same time, a great many persons think more of the testimony of a dead Apostle than they do of a living one, and think more of dead Prophets than they do of living ones who are here in their midst. (JD 3:197 − p.198, Heber C. Kimball, January 27, 1856)

There are numerous other examples. The word came to refer primarily the living leaders of the Church. Today, one rarely hears the scriptural definition (a written revelation), and instead hears references to Church leaders. In Ezra Taft Benson’s discourse “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet”, seminal for today’s LDS Mormonism, we see this idea fully crystallized:

Second: The living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works….

“Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.’”…

Third: The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.

God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the Ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore the most important prophet so far as you and I are concerned is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each month in our Church Magazines. Our instructions about what we should do for each six months are found in the General Conference addresses which are printed in the Church magazine.

Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.

(https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/1981/06/fourteen-fundamentals-in-following-the-prophet?lang=eng)

Perhaps the most final and succinct embodiment of this idea that church leaders are living oracles occurred in 2015 in a missionary meeting, in which a sister missionary asked Elder Bednar for any scripture references that would support the statements he had been making regarding women and priesthood. His response, according to multiple sources, was “I am scripture” (source). 

Those who set prophets against prophets

After Joseph Smith’s death, leaders of the Church positioned themselves as the embodiment of God’s revelation, as the “oracles” which must be with the kingdom for it to be God’s kingdom. They also explicitly demoted existing scripture, making it subordinate to their own words and beliefs. 

Furthermore, there is an irony in Elder Benson’s last statement in the excerpt above:

Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.

By claiming that “living prophets always take precedence” over “dead prophets” it is he who sets them in opposition to one another. If the words of “living prophets” were not in “opposition” to dead prophets, there would be no need to decide which would prevail and “take precedence.” 

This oppositional relationship between living prophets and dead prophets is a very common feature of LDS rhetoric. For instance, it is popular for Latter-day Saints to characterize the Pharisees as following Moses so strictly and doggedly that they refused to acknowledge John the Baptist or Christ, but that is fiction created to serve the modern Church’s authority narrative. Read the New Testament and see for yourself. Christ condemned the Pharisees because they had created additional commandments while altering or ignoring scriptural commandments, rather than simply obeying Moses’s law (Matthew 15:1-5). They even falsely claimed that these modifications had come by revelation (see the text of the hands-washing blessing here). The sin of the Pharisees was not in their obedience to Moses, but in their disobedience. Rather than simply reading and doing Moses’ commandments, they had added to, deleted, and modified the law, rendering it a blurry and useless lens through which to view God when he came in the flesh.  If they had truly followed Moses’ law, they would have gratefully received Christ (John 5:39-47). 

The relationship between Moses and Christ is not like the relationship between Joseph Smith and the later leaders of the Church. Christ accepted Moses and lived the law in word and spirit. Joseph’s successors have positioned themselves in opposition to Joseph by stating that their words take precedence over his revelations. In that way, they have made themselves like the Pharisees. All those who today place themselves in opposition to past prophets will be similarly blind to Christ, though they may garnish Joseph Smith’s sepulcher with words of praise. 

Authority and trust

The scriptural use of the term ‘oracle’ to mean a written revelation serves a vital function: It locates authority in the message itself rather than in the messenger. God’s people exist in an equilibrium between two commandments: they must receive the messages God sends through anyone who speaks by the Holy Ghost, but they must never place their trust or faith in the messenger (D&C 68:3-4; Jeremiah 17:5; 2 Nephi 28:31; D&C 1:19). By declaring the scriptural text the “oracle”, God makes it the thing we must investigate, study, and pray over rather than the messenger who brought it. In fact, D&C 90 states that the authority and value of the text endures after the death of the messenger. Thus we can receive the message on the inherent authority of its own truth without committing the sin of trusting in the arm of the flesh. 

By redefining the word oracle in the LDS mind, all authority has been removed from the message and placed in the living body of the messenger. Texts now retain only the authority granted to them by the current leaders, and authority can be revoked at any time. This power is used on a constant basis by the Correlation Department to prune the actual teachings of previous Church presidents from the current message of the Church as those teachings become uncomfortable, offensive, or inconvenient. While we are constantly reminded that the current leaders cannot lead us astray, their teachings are subject to aggressive censorship as soon as they die in an apparent admission that those teachings could, in fact, lead us astray. In addition, the authority of the “living oracle” has also been used to decanonize scripture, change the definition of marriage, and set policies that would violate fundamental scriptural principles were those scriptures still considered authoritative. For Latter-day Saints, there is no choice offered by their leaders but to trust in the arm of the flesh: There is no authority in truth itself, only in the office of the one speaking. 

This redefinition is motivated by the spirit of leader-dependence  that Joseph Smith warned against in Nauvoo in 1842:

Prest. J. Smith rose, read the 14th Chap. of Ezekiel— [vs. 14 “Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in [the land], they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord God.”] said the Lord had declar’d by the prophet that the people should each one stand for himself and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church— that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls— app[l]ied it to the present state of the church of Latter-Day Saints— said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall— that they were depending on the prophet hence were darkened in their minds from neglect of themselves.

(Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, p. 51)

The enduring value of written scripture

In all of scripture, not a single word is given to emphasizing the primacy of a “living prophet” over a “dead prophet.” And why would there be any need to do so? Their words were true when written and continue to be true. True prophets who happen to be alive currently would never reject or deny the testimony of true prophets who happen to be dead. Death doesn’t remove true keys of authority, after all, and surely it doesn’t transform truth into falsehood (D&C 90:3).

When true messengers appear in scripture, either as resurrected angels or as prophets sent by God, their message almost invariably includes a commandment to repent by studying and heeding the words of “dead prophets” (Moroni 7:31).

Abraham didn’t reject or disregard the commandments given through Adam in favor of new revelation, instead he used them as his key to knowing God himself as Adam had (Abraham 1:2-4,31).

When prophets taught in the centuries after Moses, they did not claim that their teachings superseded his. They commanded people to repent by reading and obeying the law. 

Christ did not reject Moses’ law when he taught in Judea in his mortal ministry. He encouraged people to live it, as did every “living prophet” who taught in the 1200 years between Moses and Jesus.

When Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, he “opened…the scriptures” to the two disciples, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27-32)

The Lord sent the sons of Lehi back to Jerusalem to retrieve the plates of brass, because those scriptures were still fully valid and in force despite having several “living prophets” in the family. Even with prophets among them, the absence of the ancient scriptures would have caused the whole nation to “dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). King Benjamin later warns his sons that this dwindling would still occur with the plates in their possession if they did not spend the effort to read them and discover their mysteries (Mosiah 1:3-7).

The story of the plates of brass is a caution to all those who pit themselves against dead prophets by claiming their words take precedence. If you account the oracles of God as a “light thing,” and attempt to transfer their weight of authority elsewhere, you may as well not possess them. You, like Lehi’s descendants, risk dwindling and perishing in unbelief even while you may own many copies of the standard works. It may even be worse for you, because you had access to the truth but elected to place your trust in the commandments of men instead.

The idea of following “living prophets” rather than or in preference to “dead prophets” is a concept that is utterly unnecessary except when a teacher wants people to join him in his Pharisaical rejection of “dead prophets.” I will once again state my support of part of Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s discourse about prophets: “Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets.” When people claim that their words or policies allow you to minimize, reject, set aside, ignore, or disobey the teachings of the scriptures, you should be very wary of them, their words, and their policies.