The March 2006 issue of The New Era features an article on the Lord’s prayer, wherein we can read the following:
The Savior used thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your, and yours when He prayed. We should do the same.
Alert readers will not find it hard to spot the flaw in this argument.
I’m sure we could come up with lots of other examples of faulty arguments we’ve heard used in the church (even some additional ones supporting the use of thee and thou). But that is not my purpose in this post. Instead I want to ask: when a flawed argument is used to support a teaching, does this make the teaching less authoritative?
As Nate Oman has often, reminds us we can’t understand Mormonism without taking account of the concept of authority. The idea that we must give special weight to teachings from official church sources is at the core of Mormon belief. But surely not all teachings are equally authoritative. Leaders are not infallible, and a prophet is only prophet when he is speaking as one. Nate poses some hard questions about these issues; I wish to pose a more limited one. Does the use of flawed arguments by authoritative sources give the hearers the right (or even responsibility) to discount or disregard the authority of those sources?
It is not uncommon for church leaders to support their teachings with arguments. This often involve more or less straightforward interpretation of canonized texts, but it may also involve drawing conclusions from doctrinal premises, or from history, current events, science, or common sense.
One could argue that the use of a flawed argument to support a teaching lessen it’s authority. In fact, one could argue that the use of any argument, flawed or not, reveals that the source of the teaching is not revelation, but personal interpretation or extrapolation. If a leader says “thus saith the Lord,” or even “I feel inspired,” then it’s clear that he (it’s usually “he”) is invoking inspiration as the source of authority. If instead he uses some form of argument, it would seem that he is invoking the logic of the argument as the source of authority. Furthermore, if the argument appears flawed, one might conclude that this is evidence that the teaching was not made under inspiration.
The opposite argument can also be made. Perhaps arguments are provided in an attempt to convince the weak and faithless, but for the truly faithful they are beside the point. The authority of a statement derives from the position of the person speaking, and perhaps where and to whom, not from the rhetoric used. God might let a few imperfect arguments slip through, but He will not allow the church lead us astray.
Of course it would also be possible to give different answers depending on whether the flawed argument comes from a local leader, an general authority, or an anonymous correlated publication.
It seems to me that we do in fact give less authoritative weight to teachings supported by flawed arguments. This can be easily seen in hindsight: for example, prophets taught for years an essentially hemispheric view of the BOM narrative. Current apologists feel free to discount those views as a misreading of the BOM text. Another example might be some arguments formerly used to support the priesthood ban.