Reductio ad Infallibilum

November 9, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 1:40 pm   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle,orthodox

(I do not even pretend to know Latin, so correct me if my title isn’t quite right.)

Over at Times and Seasons, I mentioned the passage of the New Testament where Jesus says:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” -Matt 23: 2-3

This is an incredibly powerful claim on Jesus’ part in that he is saying that even though the scribes and Pharisees were unrighteous men, because of the priesthood offices that they held, their teachings should still be obeyed!  This, I suggested, strongly undermines the common tendency to dismiss any argument that even remotely resembles prophetic infallibility.  After all, these priesthood leaders were not only imperfect in the typical cognitive sense (not unlike every other mortal), but they were also flawed in a deeply moral sense…. And yet the apostles were still told to obey what these immoral men taught!

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go all the way down this path, nor is it clear to me that Jesus himself goes all the way down it.  What is clear, however, is that he makes the moral and intellectual fallibility of priesthood leader totally irrelevant to our obedience to their teachings.  (At no point within gospel teachings is our obedience to priesthood leaders conditioned upon their being infallible, certain, morally or intellectually pure, etc…. which is the primary point of this post.)

While the KJV above is the official version for the church, a commenter named “perturbed” did point out that Joseph Smith’s version of that passage reads differently (note* This is found not in the JST, but in the “Inspired Version” that is not officially endorsed by the LDS church):

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:  All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, *that they will make you observe and do*; for they are ministers of the law, and they make themselves your judges. But do not ye after their works:; for they say, and do not.”

Notice, however, that while the reading is different, it does not contradict what the KJV version (the version that the church takes to be official) says.  Thus, it could be argued that this is not an open and shut case in either direction.

It was at this point in the thread, however, that BradL, who I’ve interacted with before, chimed in with the rather cliche accusation that I was preaching “blind obedience” or “prophetic infallibility”.  I finally challenged BradL to find any place where I have suggested that priesthood leaders are never (let alone incapable of being) wrong or that I have suggested that we ought to obey our priesthood leader no matter what.  Indeed, I challenged him to find ANYBODY who has taught these things, a standing challenge that I offer to all readers.

To be sure, one can easily find statements that we should not publicly oppose or correct priesthood leader, or that we should not trust our own reasoning/understanding over the teachings of priesthood leaders, but I have never heard of anybody ever teaching that you should obey priesthood leaders even if God Himself tells you otherwise.  This is what “blind obedience” or “prophetic infallibility” amounts to and nobody ever teaches it.  It is a bugbear of the intellectuals’ own making.

I do admit, however, that it may be the case that somebody, somewhere actually has taught one or both of these things.  There are lot’s of people who have said lot’s of pretty incredible things, so I can’t be 100% sure on this point.  What I can be sure of, however, is that the vast majority of church members or bloggernacle participants who have ever been accused of teaching these things have not, in fact, done so.  The closest that I have ever found to somebody actually teaching these things is Jesus Himself in the passage above.

I thus propose the following as a new rule that I will call “Reductio ad Infallibilum”:

Whenever an LDS blogger accuses another LDS blogger of preaching “blind obedience” or “prophetic infalliblity” within some debate, they have automatically lost the debate in question.  Such a person has used the sloppiest of human reasoning to defend a trust in human reasoning and is thus no longer worth reasoning with.

To be sure, there may well be exceptions to this rule (just as there are to any rule) in that it may be the case that a person actually has insisted that priesthood leaders are incapable of error or that we ought to obey what they say no matter what.  It is possible that such people do exist.  I, however, have never found such a person.


  1. Certainly, Church leaders have the right to set policy in this case. Can one believe that leaders are wrong in their belief that this policy will have good consequences or that this is the right policy? Should one express that belief to others, and if so, how?
    It seems like the corollary here would be that people who agree with this policy should not use the argument from authority to convince others that this is the right policy unless God has told them that it is. We should follow these policies because those in authority have set them and not try to baptize any children of gay people, but, since we are not claiming infallibility, I don’t think that we can use the argument from authority to judge the rightness of the policy.

    Comment by Aden van Dish — November 9, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

  2. This is a nice term and I hope to use it someday. I do have a question, how does one prevent going from one extreme to the next? If obedience is not a ‘no matter what’ senario, then is it anything goes? And if it is not anything goes, then is it no matter what? Where should one be if not at one extreme or the other, and how is this place anything other than personal preference.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — November 9, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

  3. Aden van Dish,

    I’m not sure that your corollary actually follows at all. First off, I do allow that somebody can be inspired to disagree with the policy. Who am I to tell them what God has and has not told them? So long as these people keep their feelings within the bounded stewardship of that personal revelation, there doesn’t seem to be a problem.

    That said, however, just because I believe that arguments, feelings, moral convictions, etc. cannot themselves adjudicate priesthood statements in a public debate does not mean that such things have no place in public at all. Arguments, feelings, moral convictions, etc. that do not publicly correct or otherwise publicly stand in judgement of priesthood statements seem perfectly acceptable to me.

    In other words, its all about respecting the limits and boundaries of revelation.


    Like I said above, it is revelation within its properly bounded stewardship that shines light upon and constrains our obedience. Not moral reasoning/conviction/feeling, etc. Only God can tell us if our leaders are wrong or that we should disobey them (these are not the same thing). Not social theory, moral indignation, hurt feelings, ethical reasoning, etc.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 9, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

  4. I guess I don’t understand why “publicly” is the necessary boundary here. If I’m okay saying that (a) a leader can be wrong, and (b) I believe (for whatever my reasons) that a leader is wrong in a particular instance, but (c) I’m not in any direct way disobeying the stated policy (e.g., if I am a bishop in 1977, I am not going out and ordaining black teenagers in my ward to the priesthood), why can’t I voice my disagreement publicly? Why draw the line at public vs. private?

    I guess I’m just thinking that it’s the content of the criticism/disagreement that matters, not the public or private nature of it.

    And, how do I even define what is private or public? If I talk to my wife about my opinion, is that public? What about my brother? Best friend? It’s a blurry line and I’m not sure it’s really a line worth noticing in the first place.

    Comment by Jay — November 9, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

  5. Because that public audience is outside of your stewardship… your revelation is not for them.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 9, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

  6. Just to clarify…

    Near as I can read, the Handbook changes do NOT say children of same-sex marriages CANNOT EVER be baptized. Rather, it removes responsibility of bishops and stake presidents to make that call, and makes it mandatory for local leaders to clear their request for baptism with the First Presidency. The change is not without precedent, it only has new application to children who belong to same-sex families. Which is of course a new circumstance that has not been addressed heretofore, since it did not exist.

    There have been many instances where this misstatement has been published and popularized, so everybody knows it now. Problem being, what they all know, just ain’t true.

    Of course it is also glaringly obvious to everyone over the age of ten that so far, children are never EVER natural products of same-sex marriage.

    When I was teaching as a stake missionary, we were requested to interview a man for baptism who was convicted of murder and went to prison during his earlier years. We had to obtain permission from the First Presidency for him to be baptized. Information was exchanged, he had a brief telephone conversation with a General Authority, permission was given, and he became a member of the Church in good standing.

    Anyway, there’s already plenty of bad things people can criticize us about, without perpetuating falsehoods.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — November 10, 2015 @ 11:11 am

  7. Jim, here’s what it says:

    A mission president or a stake president may request approval from the Office of the First Presidency to baptize and confirm, ordain, or recommend missionary service for a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship when he is satisfied by personal interviews that both of the following requirements are met:

    1. The child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.
    2. The child is of legal age and does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.

    That means that the “child” must be of legal age before approval can be sought, let alone granted. We’ll see how that ends up working in practice, but there is a group of people who the policy prohibits from getting baptized without exception before they are adults.

    Jeff, what if I am not claiming revelation but just using reason and argument to say that a particular policy seems like a really bad idea? What can I say to someone “outside my stewardship”?

    Comment by Aden van Dish — November 10, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

  8. I wish we had a critical text of the various revisions of Joseph’s translation of the Bible the way we now have of the Book of Mormon thanks to Skousen. What version is in the “Inspired Version” (is this the RLDS version or something else?)

    To the topic at hand, I suspect we’ll get clarifications on the policy over the next few weeks. A lot of people are confused as to what this does or doesn’t require. My understanding, that may well be wrong, is that you can always ask for 1st Presidency approval but they’re more or less saying that it’ll be denied in these cases.

    Comment by Clark — November 10, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  9. Aden,

    I don’t see how the scriptures allow anything like that. Everything I read basically says that reason and arguments are good as long as they don’t contradict the words of the prophets. At no point do I find a place where we are taught to follow disputes, scribes, theologians or other “philosophies of men”.


    Yes, I’m fairly certain it is the RLDS version. It is interesting that the LDS JST does not contain that “emendation”.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 10, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

  10. To be fair what’s in the footnotes of the current LDS scriptures is a tad underwhelming. I mean I’m glad it’s there but I suspect we can all agree the footnotes in the current standard works are pretty lame. Especially compared to what it could be.

    Comment by Clark — November 10, 2015 @ 10:25 pm

  11. Clark @8

    You mean this?

    Comment by DavidF — November 12, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

  12. Wow. I did not know Matthews had done that. Of course $99 is a tad out of my justifiable book budget.

    Comment by Clark — November 12, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

  13. I wrote something similar.

    Also,that Bible passage bears some examining. I’m not quite sure how to square it with some other things.

    Comment by Ben S — November 13, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

  14. That’s a great post Ben.

    Comment by Clark — November 13, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

  15. I agree with Clark – Great post, Ben! I wish I’d seen it when it originally came out, if only because it deserves far more discussion that it received in that thread.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 17, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

  16. Thanks! Great threads often get few comments, it seems.

    Comment by Ben S — November 17, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

  17. Comments often are where questions or disagreements go. When you agree it’s hard to find much to say.

    Comment by Clark — November 17, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

  18. BenS,

    What I noticed in that thread was that while many of the commenters accepted your criticisms of sola scriptura and sola revelatione, they seemed completely blind to part where you claim that certain people are uniquely authorized to act as humans in their priesthood capacities.

    Instead, they took you to be opening up a legitimate space for a kind of participatory democratic model of reasoned debate, when I think you were actually aiming at a MUCH more conservative goal. But maybe I’m projecting my own arguments and positions onto you.

    Comment by Jeff G — November 18, 2015 @ 8:40 am