Infallibility through finality

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once famously remarked, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” Does this adage apply to the church as well?

That is, do we believe that Gordon B. Hinckley is final because he is infallible? Is he the last word, the final arbiter of church policy, because he has direct access to the mind of God, and with it the mantle of infallibility? And do we believe the same of the other members of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and so forth?

Or is it possible that they are infallible because they are final? The buck has to stop somewhere, after all — this applies to both the church and the judiciary.

Prophets and Apostles are righteous, committed, intelligent people who have shown a knowledge of and dedication to the community — so why not let the buck stop with them? Under this approach, church leaders acquire infallibility not by virtue of a special connection to divinity, but rather in the same manner as Supreme Court Justices. They are not final because they are infallible; rather, they are infallible because they are final.

12 comments for “Infallibility through finality

  1. Neither. They have the “legal right” (in the 19th centruy parlance) to govern the church. They have the final word and are fallible and God supports them and us.

    There are plenty of cases where the final word, in retrospect, has been quite fallible.

  2. In a church built upon continual revelation, I thought there was no “last word”. As for final, I thought that’s what revelation is about: it’s final because it comes from an infallible source.

  3. J.,

    I don’t think the post is really trying to defend the idea that prophets are infallible per se, inasmuch as give an explanation of the unconditional trust which we are supposed to place in our leaders. The fact is that most member do see the prophet’s word as being infallible, even if they don’t see HIM as being infallible or simply aren’t willing to admit infallibility of any kind. I think Kaimi is simply pointing out that the prophet’s word is final, not infallible; and in this I don’t see much of a difference between his position and yours.

  4. If it can be said that science is all about guessing, estimating, theorizing — & then seeing how these measurments stack up against future data and measuring again, can’t it be said that revelation is likewisea line upon line/ precept upon precept?

  5. And, Kaime, I think that you share a nice way of understanding of the mechanism/ process at play here.

  6. Revelation is a lot like that Kimball, but we only have two objective ways to evaluate it – most importantly the long term consequences in the lives and societies of people who take it seriously, and second in terms of overall consistency and aesthetics. Some things will remain matters of faith alone for a rather long time.

  7. While I was in the army I once worked for a General Who was the commanding officer. He once said words to the effect “I have the final word up untill Higher Powers no longer like what I do. At that point I will be removed and you will get a new General. I guess that could go for a prophet.

  8. I agree that an act of God is law of last resort. We often think of priesthood authority as a pretty much unrestricted discretion within certain bounds, a certain fideistic feudalism as I like to call it.

    However, D&C 121 contains a rather different doctrine of the priesthood that is much neglected – namely the principle that the authority of the priesthood rests ultimately on persuasion, not some sort of divine command and control economy.

    This issue ultimately rests on a fundamental question, namely what is it that legitimizes God’s authority? Is it power? truth? intellect? Or rather persuasion, long suffering, justice, and mercy?

    So while as a simple matter of social order we are obligated to sustain our leaders, there is no reason to believe that priesthood authority is not subject to these considerations, and indeed no reason to believe that the behavior of the particularly heavy handed should not be viewed with a degree of well justified contempt, no matter what their rank is.

  9. That is also why I particularly despise the mode of ecclesiastical administration that refuses to give reasons for policies and decisions. All letter of the law all the time – apparently the spirit of the law is not worth consideration by the presided over. Too much formal dictation, endless arias to authority, not nearly enough persuasion nor education as to the principles underlying policy.

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