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Miscellaneous Myths about Church 'Doctrine' Vol. 1

From The Atlantic

A few weeks ago I wrote volume 1 of myths concerning Church History. This week I begin with a short, but fun, article about various misunderstandings or myths that Latter-Day Saints believe about their own doctrine. To begin, I love this line that President Nelson gave from a recent General Conference:
"One by one, our best efforts as individuals will be required to correct errors that have crept in through the years." (1)
  "God gives us weaknesses that we may be humble"

This 'doctrine' largely comes from a large misreading of Ether 12:27. I have written somewhat extensively on that verse here and here. First, nowhere in the scriptures does it say that God gives unto man weaknesses. You will find that the plural 'weaknesses' does not exist in holy writ. The remarkable consistency, at least for me, suggests that the prophets are consistently trying to get a point across when they speak of weakness. The Institue Manual for the Book of Mormon puts it straightforwardly:
"Weakness comes to men and women through the Fall of Adam. The physical body and mind is susceptible to disease and decay. We are subject to temptation and struggle. Each of us experiences personal weaknesses. Nevertheless, the Lord clearly teaches that as we come unto Him in humility and faith, He will help us turn weakness into strength. His grace is sufficient to make this transformation by lifting us above our own natural abilities. In a very personal way, we experience how the power of the Atonement overcomes the effects of the Fall." (2)
 In other words, when Ether 12:27 says that God gave unto man weakness it means that he allowed for the fall to happen in which we are then subject to weakness. Weaknesses in and of themselves did not come from God. B. H. Roberts gives authoritative commentary on where they might have come from:
"What is the value of this doctrine of the eternal existence of uncreated intelligences?... This conception of things relieves God of the responsibility for the nature and status of intelligences in all stages of their development; their inherent nature and their volition make them primarily what they are, and this nature they may change, slowly, perhaps, yet change it they may. God has put them in the way of changing it by enlarging their intelligence through it change of environment, through experiences; the only way God effects these self-existent beings is favorably; he creates not their inherent nature; he is not responsible for the use they make of their freedom; nor is he the author of their sufferings when they fall into sin: that arises out of the violations of law to which the "intelligence" subscribed, and must be endured until its lessons are learned." - B.H. Roberts (Seventy's Course on Theology, p. 190-191)
"God gave us our Agency"

This is true doctrine depending on what you mean and the answer is closely related to what is written above about weakness. Moses 7:32 does plainly say that God gave unto man their agency, but some conclude that means God gave us the ability to choose. Without thinking deeply about such an idea, these people fail to realize they are making God an accomplice to every evil deed ever done and every sin ever committed. The reality is that our free will is as eternal as God is. God has placed us in this second estate to use that inherent free will to become more like Him. Christopher Garvin explains this clearly:
"Agency is an inherent part of intelligences and, likewise, neither was nor can be created. Agency, a natural product of God’s organizing power, is inherently ours, and thus constitutes the only true offering we can present to our Maker.
What did the Lord mean, then, in proclaiming that He gave us agency? Verse 30 of section 93 partially answers this question, indicating that the Lord’s role in the employment of agency was to create the sphere in which intelligence and truth could act for themselves—the conditions in which intelligences could exercise their agency. It seems that agency lay dormant until the creation of the proper environment. Heavenly Father, understanding the role of agency in the salvation of mankind and knowing that intelligences had an inherent capacity for agency, created the conditions necessary for its release—a world in which good and evil could exist—thus setting His plan into motion. It follows, then, that the Lord did not literally create agency. Rather, He created the realm in which agency could operate and thus enable Him to fulfill His plan." (3)
Even further, for me, I distinguish between what is meant by 'agency' and 'free will'. It might be easier to understand 'agency' in the context that we were not agents until we were put in a position to pick between opposition. Free will is easier to see in the context of the eternal part of us that is our capacity to choose and have volition. It is my opinion that Elder Maxwell implies that distinction here:
“The submission of one's will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God's altar. It is a hard doctrine, but it is true. The many other things we give to God, however nice that may be of us, are actually things He has already given us, and He has loaned them to us. But when we begin to submit ourselves by letting our wills be swallowed up in God's will, then we are really giving something to Him.” (4)
Understanding this idea puts us in the same position as Job. Namely, that we do "not charge God foolishly" (see Job 1:22). We can put ourselves in our eternal context even more, which will give us increased power in our lives.

"In the Pre-Earth Life we walked by sight, but now we are to walk by Faith"

This is a very trite belief that is well-intentioned but falls short in many areas. Robert Millett briefly points out one problem:
"We are prone to say in the Church that in the premortal existence we walked by sight but now we walk by faith. This is only partly true. Though in that pristine sphere we saw the Gods and surely conversed with them; though we had the plan of salvation, the Gospel of God the Father, presented to us and heard the noble and great ones attest to its veracity; though we walked by knowledge in that estate, still faith was required to be obedient and thereby to qualify for the blessings of the Father. There was a gradation of faithfulness among the spirits. There were many who were “noble and great” (Abraham 3:22), implying that there were those spirits who were less great and less noble, perhaps some even ignoble. Those men who demonstrated “exceeding faith and good works” that Alma discusses were ordained there to receive the priesthood here." (5)
Not only do the scriptures explicitly teach that Faith was greatly involved in our lives before our mortal experience here and now, but they teach us that we overcame the War in Heaven by Faith in Jesus Christ (see Revelation chapter 12). A few things that a belief in the above idea also suggests is that we need to work on our understanding of Faith and our understanding of what the Pre-Earth life was like. This greater understanding will give us more power to exercise Faith in the here and now.

"The Holy Ghost is my constant companion"

This might be the most controversial myth I write about in this article. For more info, I have written about it extensively here. We are taught, by well-intentioned Church Leaders (local mostly), from an early age that we receive the Holy Ghost as our constant companion at our confirmation after baptism. The truth is that we receive the right to its companionship, but that its influence is supposed to crescendo throughout our life. 

For example, D&C 109:15 ought to suggest to us that something else needs to happen before we take full advantage of the gift of the Holy Ghost. Also, the idea that the Holy Ghost can be a constant companion is only articulated once in scripture. In D&C 121:45-46 it is worded in the context of finality. It is worded in the context of priesthood and entering into God's presence.

Another interesting thing to point out is the original manuscript of D&C 130:22. Ronald E. Bartholomew has done great work in reconciling what our current scriptures say to the seemingly polar opposite the original manuscript says. I'll leave a link to his findings here. His findings appear to fit the context of D&C 109:15 and D&C 121:45-46 even more.

Refining our understanding about the Holy Ghost will do a ton for us in overcoming concerns about missed revelatory expectations. It will also bring to our mind, further, the importance of the ordinances of the Temple.

"Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is the only unforgivable sin"

Many, if not most, attribute the idea of an unpardonable sin (blasphemy against the Holy Ghost) as being the only unforgivable sin and thus equating unforgivable and unpardonable. There is an important difference between the two. The idea is hinted at in this quote from Elder Bruce R. McConkie:
"There are sins for which there is no forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come. There are sins which utterly and completely preclude the sinner from gaining eternal life. Hence there are sins for which repentance does not operate, sins that the atoning blood of Christ will not wash away, sins for which the sinner must suffer and pay the full penalty personally" (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 231)
Note the plural use of the word "sins" when speaking of those "sins" in which there is no forgiveness. Note how these "sins" are to be paid by the sinner personally and are therefore still pardonable. They are unforgivable in that the atonement of Jesus Christ will not wash them away, but they are pardonable in that the price can still be paid. A good example of this distinction is the sin of murder.

"After paying the last farthing, murderers will reside in the Telestial Kingdom and thus be saved in the kingdom of God. Although the sin of murder is unforgivable as far as the atonement of Christ is concerned, the repentant murderer can still qualify for salvation in the Telestial Kingdom. Thus the sin of murder is different from the sin against the Holy Ghost and sexual sin." - Dean H. Garrett (The Book of Mormon: Alma, The Testimony of the Word, Chapter 10: The Three Most Abominable Sins)

This lends itself to several more questions, but it ought to correct our understanding as we read the scriptures. It makes prophetic statements, for example, as found in Alma 20:17 more understandable. As we purify our speech when we speak of gospel truths (even the negative kind) we come to have tongues more like our Father in Heaven.

For clarification purposes here is a list of the three big sins and their distinction in light of what is written above:

  • Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost - Unpardonable and Unforgivable
  • Murder (there are degrees of Murder as a comparison between Alma 34:6 and D&C 42:18 show. For purposes here, murder here only applies to those who have made covenants with the Lord through restored ordinances) - Unforgivable and pardonable
  • Sexual Sin - Pardonable and Forgivable


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