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Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave a devotional speech in 1980 titled “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” Here are the titular heresies, presented in the order given by Elder McConkie:
- “Heresy one: There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.”
- “Heresy two concerns itself with the relationship between organic evolution and revealed religion and asks the question whether they can be harmonized.”
- “Heresy three: There are those who say that temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation. Some have supposed that couples married in the temple who commit all manner of sin, and who then pay the penalty, will gain their exaltation eventually.”
- “Heresy four: There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation.”
- “Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were.”
- “Heresy six: There are those who believe or say they believe that Adam is our father and our god, that he is the father of our spirits and our bodies, and that he is the one we worship.”
- “Heresy seven: There are those who believe we must be perfect to gain salvation.”
Now, I could spend a lot of time dissecting each of these anathema ideas. However, for now I’ll simply run through each of them and give a quick rundown of where I personally stand on Elder McConkie’s heresy scale.
Heresy one: There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.
If I’m to be counted a heretic for believing that God is progressing in knowledge, then so too is Wilford Woodruff.
If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us. (Journal of Discourses 6:120)
At least I’m in good company. Also, need I point out the fact that insisting on God’s absolute omniscience is not only at odds with the teachings of Joseph Smith, but also presents some serious problems when it comes to maintaing a robust theodicy? See this article by David L. Paulsen and Blake Ostler if you don’t believe me.
Heresy two concerns itself with the relationship between organic evolution and revealed religion and asks the question whether they can be harmonized.
Not only do I think Mormonism and evolution can be harmonized, I think they should be harmonized. I’m not entirely sure how to do such (I have some thoughts on this, but won’t try to articulate them at this time), but, in the spirit of Brigham Young, I’m confident that “our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular” (Journal of Discourses 14:116). The trick, of course, is determining what is true science and what is true religion. Truth is never static, either in science or revealed religion. When these truths are recognized and synthesized by study and also by faith, I’m perfectly satisfied that they will harmonize. In short, my attitude towards this topic is that of one of my favorite apostles, John A. Widtsoe. “The Church, which comprehends all truth, accepts all the reliably determined facts used in building the hypothesis of organic evolution. It does not question the observed order of advancement or progression in nature, whether called the law of evolution or by any other name” (In Search of Truth, 40).
Heresy three: There are those who say that temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation. Some have supposed that couples married in the temple who commit all manner of sin, and who then pay the penalty, will gain their exaltation eventually.
I agree. Being sealed in the temple doesn’t automatically guarantee exaltation. The covenants we make, including the covenants in the temple, do not license sin or transgression. The promises the Lord makes to those who keep their covenants are real and binding, but in order for us to realize those blessings we must exercise our agency righteously (cf. D&C 82:10).
Heresy four: There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation.
I agree. The preaching of the gospel to the dead is about equal chances, not second chances. (We can, once again, thank Joseph Smith for sorting out this sticky question of the soteriological problem of evil.) Of course, it’s only for the Lord to decide who has had a fair chance to receive the gospel and who hasn’t. Does a “chance” mean you get one minute with the missionaries on your doorstep, and if you don’t accept the gospel then or there, you’re toast? Does a “chance” mean someone who was once a member of the Church, but then fell away and never returned to activity? You see my point. It’s for the Lord to decide. Life is filled with too many variables and influences and circumstances, many beyond control, that can shape someone’s path for us to say with absolute certainty who has had an adequate chance to accept the gospel and who hasn’t. Our job, then, is to do all we can to proclaim the gospel and invite others to come unto Christ, while leaving ultimate judgement in the hands of God. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:
I will speak first of the final judgment. This is that future occasion in which all of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to be judged according to our works (see 1 Nephi 15:33, 3 Nephi 27:15, Mormon 3:20, D&C 19:3). Some Christians look on this as the time when individuals are assigned to heaven or hell. With the increased understanding we have received from the Restoration, Latter-day Saints understand the final judgment as the time when all mankind will receive their personal dominions in the mansions prepared for them in the various kingdoms of glory (see D&C 76:111, John 14:2, 1 Corinthians 15:40–44). I believe that the scriptural command to “judge not” refers most clearly to this final judgment, as in the Book of Mormon declaration that “man shall not . . . judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord” (Mormon 8:20).
Since mortals cannot suppose that they will be acting as final judges at that future, sacred time, why did the Savior command that we not judge final judgments? I believe this commandment was given because we presume to make final judgments whenever we proclaim that any particular person is going to hell (or to heaven) for a particular act or as of a particular time. When we do this—and there is great temptation to do so—we hurt ourselves and the person we pretend to judge. (“Judge Not and Judging”)
But I digress. Moving on.
Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were.
Fasten me to the stake. I’m an absolutely firm believer in this doctrine.
Exhibit A for the truthfulness of this oft-maligned doctrine is D&C 76:88.
And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation.
What exactly is the “administering of angels”? Well, many scriptures attest that one of the main jobs of angels is to declare repentance.
- “[H]e hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.” (Helaman 5:11)
- “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (Alma 29:1)
- “I, the Lord God . . . send forth angels to declare unto them repentance and redemption, through faith on the name of mine Only Begotten Son.” (D&C 29:42)
Declaring repentance is evidently a crucial job of angels. So what are they doing going to the Telestial Kingdom? I think it’s to declare repentance to those in that kingdom, and thus give them a chance to advance to the Celestial Kingdom and thus “be heirs of salvation.” After all, why bother sending angels to these schlubs in the Telestial Kingdom if they are stuck there forever and ever? Doesn’t it seem rather gratuitous for God to send angels if this is the case? As with B. H. Roberts, “I can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father’s children along the lines of eternal progression” (New Witnesses for God, 1:392).
But what have other General Authorities said about this? My favorite quote comes from Elder James E. Talmage.
It is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that, in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for. But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank will not be stopped in their progress; and thus we may conclude, that degrees and grades will ever characterize the kingdoms of our God. Eternity is progressive; perfection is relative; the essential feature of God’s living purpose is its associated power of eternal increase. (The Articles of Faith, 1st edition, 420–421)
But wait, there’s more!
I attended the Prayer Circle in the evening … In conversing upon various principles President Young said none would inherit this Earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods and able to endure the fullness of the presence of God, except they would be permitted to take with them some servants for whom they would be held responsible. All others would have to inherit another kingdom, even that kingdom agreeing with the law which they had kept. He said they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom, but it would be a slow progress. (Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 5 Aug 1855)
Hiram [Smith] said Aug 1st 43 Those of the Terrestrial Glory either advance to the Celestial or recede to the Telestial [or] else the moon could not be a type [viz. a symbol of that kingdom]. [for] it [the moon] “waxes & wanes”. Also that br George will be quickened by celestial glory having been ministered to by one of that Kingdom. (Franklin D. Richards, August 1, 1843)
The Savior tells us that the terrestrial glory, or kingdom, is likened unto the glory of the moon, which is not of the brightness of the sun, neither of the smallness nor dimness of the stars. But those others who have no part in marrying or giving of marriage in the last resurrection, they become as stars, and even differ from each other in glory; but those in the terrestrial kingdom are those who will come forth at the time when Enoch comes back, when the Savior comes again to dwell upon the earth; when Father Abraham will be there with the Urim and Thummim to look after every son and daughter of his race; to make known all things that are needed to be known, and with them enter into their promised inheritance. Thus the people of God will go forward. They will go forward, like unto the new moon, increasing in knowledge and brightness and glory, until they come to a fullness of celestial glory. (Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses, 25:236)
So clearly McConkie’s isn’t the only view on this; and, once again, if I’m a heretic, then at least I’m in good company.
In fact, if what Terryl Givens recently reported is true, then not only am I a heretic, but so too are some of the modern Brethren.
I know with pretty good authority that at least some of the Brethren on the Quorum today are universalists. They believe there’s no question, everyone will progress through the kingdoms until we’re all saved. (Source)
Speaking of Terryl Givens, he and his wife Fiona have this to say about the Christian (and, by extension, Mormon) view of salvation. “[W]e have a dilemma. Granting opportunity only to those who accept Christ in the flesh seems patently unfair and inefficient. Giving amnesty to all the rest of humankind makes of Christ’s life and sacrifice a magnificent gesture but a superfluous or redundant one. A reasonable conception of God and His plan for us demands a third possibility” (The God Who Weeps, 96).
What is this third possibility? According to the Givenses, this third option is the Mormon concept of what I like to call the “Open Invitation” theory of universalism or progressive salvation. In other words, God has an open invitation to the Celestial Kingdom for everyone, and will never impede you from returning to Him because of your religion, creed, culture, or honest beliefs that might be contrary to the gospel or might land you in a lower kingdom. He doesn’t automatically grant you amnesty willy-nilly, but he does grant you an eternal chance to improve, increase, grow, progress, and eventually reach him. Hell and damnation exist, but is not an eternal roasting pit. It is rather “a stunting of one’s infinite potential” (The God Who Weeps, 99). As my professor Richard Holzapfel put it, “In LDS doctrine, to be damned means to be stopped, blocked, or limited in one’s progress. Individuals are damned whenever they are prevented from reaching their full potential as children of God. Damnation is falling short of what one might have enjoyed if one had received and been faithful to the whole law of the gospel” (“Damnation,” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
To be damned is to stop progressing. It is to retard oneself in a lower kingdom, refusing to accept further light and knowledge and refusing to repent and make covenants that will save and exalt you into a higher kingdom. This isn’t because God says you’re not allowed to progress, but because of your own stubbornness to change and progress. If you refuse to live a godly life, then you won’t want to live with God at all, as Moroni explains.
Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Mormon 9:3–4)
So damnation does not come because God says you can never return to him, but because of our own refusal to improve. The Givenses say it perfectly: “God has the desire and the power to unite and exalt the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny” (The God Who Weeps, 77).
I am convinced, as Nephi was, that even though “I do not know the meaning of all things,” I do know “that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:16). And, as with Joseph, I acknowledge that “it is not all to be comprehended in this world,” and that it will be “a great thing to learn salvation beyond the grave.”
Heresy six: There are those who believe or say they believe that Adam is our father and our god, that he is the father of our spirits and our bodies, and that he is the one we worship.
I’m actually pretty ambivalent about this one. I don’t deny that Brigham Young and others taught the so-called Adam-God doctrine, but I don’t exactly know what to do with it, or if I really believe it or not. So I’m agnostic on this issue. Adam-God stuff is on my proverbial shelf, and I hope one day to better understand it. I will say that I think some of the usual apologetic answers (“Oh, Brigham Young must’ve been mis-recorded by his scribes or something”) are pretty lame. I am intrigued with Matthew Brown’s approach to this puzzle, but that’s as far as I’ll go with it.
I also think it’s remarkable that Elder McConkie would so blatantly throw Brother Brigham under the bus on this point, but that’s just me.
I suppose because I won’t outright condemn this teaching that still makes me a heretic. But if that’s the case, then I’m only a lukewarm heretic, so it only counts as half a point on my Heretic-O-Meter.
Heresy seven: There are those who believe we must be perfect to gain salvation.
I can’t say one way or the other, since I suppose whether I agree with this depends on what Elder McConkie means by “perfect.” Clearly, if by “perfect” he means “sinless” or “never make mistakes,” then’s he right. But this is the modern, colloquial understanding of “perfect.” The scriptural use of “perfect” is a bit more nuanced. D&C 76:69–70, for example, seems to use “perfect” as a synonym for “saved,” in the sense of inheriting the Celestial Kingdom.
These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood. These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.
If this is what one means by “perfect,” i.e. made clean from sin through the atonement, then I’d say one absolutely must be perfect to gain salvation in the Celestial Kingdom. But I get the feeling this isn’t what most people, including Elder McConkie, mean in this instance. Elder McConkie, for example, observes, “If men had to be perfect and live all of the law strictly, wholly, and completely, there would be only one saved person in eternity.” In this sense he’s right. But the problem I see here is equivocation in the use of the word “perfect.” The word, both in the scriptures and in modern parlance, is not always used consistently. The Hebrew Bible employs no less than four different words (tamim, nekhon, shalem, and kalil) that are all translated as “perfect” in the KJV, but each words ranges in meaning from “blameless” to “whole” to “healthy” to “firm,” etc. Likewise, the Greek New Testament employs such words as teleios (“completed,” “initiated”), katartismos (“to train,” “to equip”), artios (“qualified”), and katartizo (“to mend,” “to restore”) that are indiscriminately translated in the KJV as “perfect.”
My point here is just to make sure we’re all taking about the same thing when we use words like “perfect,” since the shifting lexical meaning of the word can potentially create confusion. I suppose if I had to choose a solid word to describe the kind of “perfect” spoken of in D&C 76:69–––the kind of “perfect” that comes with “salvation”––––that word would be the hearty German adjective vollkommen, which essentially means “complete” or “accomplished.” This is the “perfection” that comes with salvation. One doesn’t need to be sinless or never make mistakes to be “complete” in the sense that one can, in this life, accomplish one’s calling and election, and, as Joseph taught, “have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time, and even He will manifest the Father unto him, and they will take up their abode with him, and the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him, and the Lord will teach him face to face, and he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God” (“Calling and Election Made Sure”).
So what’s my heretic score? Let’s see. Heresy one: check. Heresy two: check. Heresy three: safe. Heresy four: safe. Heresy five: check. Heresy six: half-check. Heresy seven: N/A.
That’s 3.5 out of 6.
Not too bad. 3.5 divided by 6 is 58%, so I’m 42% away from being a total heretic.
Now it’s time for you, dear reader, to take the heresy challenge and see how heretical you are!