I was recently having a conversation with an orthodox Jewish law professor about the challenges faced by Mormons and orthodox Jews as they seek to adapt their religion to life in liberal societies. He was struck by the parallels between Jewish and Mormon discussions, and then said, “Of course, I assume that the idea of continuing revelation makes things much different for Mormons.” His comment got me thinking, and here’s what I wrote in response:
You’d think that ideas of continuing revelation would make discussions of change — including basic theological and liturgical change — easier for Mormons, and in a sense it does. However, there are two reasons that the idea of continuing revelation provides less flexibility than many folks — including many Mormons — assume.
First, very early on in the church ideas of personal revelation and continuing revelation led to antinomian chaos. This isn’t that surprising to anyone that has studied the history of religion. In Mormonism the solution was the creation of an institutional structure — the church — that gets endowed with a great deal of theological significance and that limits the kinds of legitimate claims one can make for revelation. Mormons believe that God talks to everyone, but we don’t believe that God will talk to me for someone else, unless God has given me some responsibility for that person, generally through the ecclesiastical structure of the church. There is thus less room for legitimate claims of authority based on personal revelation than one might assume. At the same time, the emphasis on revelation tends to delegitimizes attempts to introduce change through other mechanism, such as creative reinterpretation of old texts. It can happen, but there is NOTHING in Mormonism even remotely analogous to the immense hermeneutic creativity — and celebration of that creativity — that one finds in Judaism.
The second rigidity introduced by continuing revelation is that the fact that we believe the president of the Church and other high leaders can receive general revelation from God. This creates the temptation to see all actions by the hierarchy as inspired. I don’t believe this and think that this belief is a doctrinal error. It is, however, widespread among Mormons. There is thus a danger that every practice blessed by the hierarchy — including practices that may have little or no support in scripture or revelatory experience — will be seen as a non-negotiable revelation from God.
The problem is that even a theological moderate like me who doesn’t believe that God constantly inspires the hierarchy has to admit the possibility that practices or teachings beyond the formal canon may have revelatory support. And I am loath to say that the criterion for discovering what is or is not from God in the tradition is the application of liberal ideas of justice. The upshot of all of this is that it is possible to have theological upheaval and revolution in Mormonism but it is very difficult to push or advocate for such revolution. Indeed, in most cases I think the idea of continuing revelation tends to have a pretty conservative effect on Mormon doctrine and practice. It’s ironic.