Revelation and the Open Canon: A Process-Relational Perspective on Mormon Theology

For many Christians, it goes without saying that God’s ultimate and final revelation is contained in the words of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. Nothing needs to be added for our awareness of God, doctrine, or spiritual edification. They believe that all further revelation is qualitatively inferior and different in kind from holy scripture- an elaboration on God’s word spoken through the authors of scripture. The holy books of other religions and the insights of Christian and Jewish mystics and social reformers pale by comparison to biblical truth. Any addition to scripture is seen as heretical and worthy of condemnation, after all, as the bumper sticker states, “The Bible says it. I believe it, and that settles it!”

In their introductory text to Mormonism, or the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The God Who Weeps, Teryl and Fiona Givens assert that God’s “word and will are made manifest in a scriptural canon that is never definitively closed.” An open canon enables Mormons to affirm three sacred writings in addition to the Bible: The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. While I cannot assess the wisdom or insights of these texts, I believe that it is plausible and necessary to assume that important divine revelations are found in a variety of texts as well as in lived human experience.

As a process theologian, I affirm the universality of revelation. God is present in every moment of experience. While most moments have few religious messages, on occasion a synergy between God’s call and our response awakens persons to a deeper knowledge of God’s vision for themselves and the world. Surely this was the case in the writing of the Gospels, the prophetic writings, and the epistles of the New Testament, to name a few. Yet, we must remember that divine inspiration was present at every stage of the process, including the oral traditions, the process of writing, the written word, and the spoken or read word. If revelation is universal, then biblical revelation may only be different in degree – and that would not necessarily apply to all of the bible – and not different in kind from other inspirational literature. Because God seeks beauty and wholeness, every divine revealing has the potential of becoming a spoken or written revelation.

The closing of the scriptural canon was ambiguous in nature. On the one hand, it served to give an identity to the emerging Christian movement as well as protect its faith in the incarnation and the holiness of embodiment from those who scorned the “world made flesh” and saw the world as a prison house and impediment to spiritual growth. On the other hand, the establishing of only one definitive text stifled alternative visions of God, human freedom, and the goal of life and as a side effect promoted monolithic understandings of scripture and persecution of those who deviated from majority (orthodox) understandings. The power to interpret scripture became resident among the few – scholarly priests, popes, and those who held that scripture was inerrant in nature.  All other interpretations were silenced or critiqued as heretical deviations from the one true faith.

Let me suggest a more fluid and dynamic understanding of revelation. If God is omnipresent and constantly seeking to reveal God’s vision to humankind, then the canon must, in principle, be open. While the Bible serves as a guide to divine revelation, it cannot be final either chronologically or spiritually. As the United Church of Christ proclaims, “God is still speaking” in human thoughts and emotions, in social transformation and hospitality, in the highest expressions of culture, science, medicine, and religion, and in the creation of new stars and galaxies. New insights are constantly emerging in the interplay of divine wisdom, human openness, and historical events. For example, we must now understand the Genesis stories in light of our understanding of the big bang and photos from the Hubble telescope. We must also understanding prohibitions related to homosexuality in light of contemporary medical and psychological insights as well as current contextual biblical scholarship.

Revelation continues, but note that any revelation is finite and perspectival. All revelation is time bound and historical and expressed in terms of the world view of 1st or 21st century people. Moreover, the receivers of revelation themselves are limited by their beliefs, science, and social location. Not all biblical passages are created equal!  Nor are all spiritual documents equally insightful or illuminating. Scripture does not fall from the sky or emerge from the earth, finished and complete. Even Joseph Smith’s reading of the formative Mormon revelations were colored and shaped by the spectacles he wore! We do not require a perfect revelation but one that is good enough to transform our lives and open us to experiencing God’s saving grace. Scripture itself is never finished insofar as laypersons and scholars discover new insights and understandings of ancient texts. Today, divine inspirations are still colored by human finitude, imperfection, and standpoint; they point to God but cannot be fully identified with God’s vision.

We can never close the book of revelation, although we should be careful in granting equal revelatory power to all parts of the Bible or other scriptural texts. Further, the finite and limited nature of scriptural revelation is a challenge to read scripture with humility, to see yourself as part of the scriptural stories, and to trust that God’s word and wisdom speak through the finite words of scripture.

In conclusion, there are no grounds for barring the doors of revelation to texts such as the Book of Mormon. Surely, God was also inspiring authors such as Dante, Tolkein, Lewis, and Tolstoy. Moreover we can catch glimpse of divinity in Plato, Alfred North Whitehead, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and philosophers and mystics on every continent.

The bible remains the spiritual compass for Jews and Christians; but the bible is not alone in revealing God’s guidance for the human adventure. It must be dynamically integrated with new insights from culture, theological reflection, science, spiritual experiences, and reason in dialogue without God’s own creative and ongoing presence in the world. God is still speaking, revealing, and enlightening.

For more on The God Who Weeps, including a book excerpt and responses by other Protestant, Catholic and Mormon bloggers, visit the Patheos Book Club here. 

 

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

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  • Gene Libutti

    Well done article–well stated and reasonable. Thanks for the insights. All are entitled to inspiration/revelation as noted, according the Latter-day Saint doctrine. In fact, each person is under divine mandate to seek it for their lives. But what of the “one true faith?” Does God love us today as in the days of ancient prophets? Is there really “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” today as when Christ organized his church with apostles and prophets? Are there blessings and happiness available today–could there be modern prophets? I humbly state that it is all found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–and much, much more than most of us can even imagine!

  • Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.

    As a believing member of The Church of Jesus christ of Latter-day Saints I thank you for a thoughtful statement about continuous revelation. Not only do we believe in continuous revelation we believe that we should seek truth wherever we can find it. As Joseph Smith said “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy we seek after these things.”

    There is another avenue of verification, the most important, and that is we all have the right to ask our Heavenly Father, with sincere intent, if something is good and true.

  • Dale Wight

    “The closing of the scriptural canon was ambiguous in nature.”

    And Joseph Smith noted (paraphrased) that if the Bible is complete, it is incomplete in that it does not tell us that it is complete.

  • ellacc

    A loving Father will always speak with His children. The idea that the Bible is the last word that our Heavenly Father was willing to communicate to us, His children, defies the reality of a living God who loves us and wants us to help us to make correct choices, to be happy and to return to His presence. Thank you for this thoughtful insight.

    • LindaS

      ellacc:

      Can you give even one prophecy a Mormon prophet has given that was completely accurate?

  • Dwight

    Great article. We see that God does give different instructions at different times to different prophets. The history of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is one of ongoing revelations to prophets and Apostles. God directed His work and some things were changed over time according to God’s will.

    Noah (but no other prophet) was to build an Ark (Genesis 6:14)

    Moses implemented the Passover, which was hitherto unknown (Exodus 3:12-28)

    Jesus revoked the celebration of Passover, and modified the ordinance and its performance at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19)

    Hosea was commanded to marry a prostitute as a sign to Israel Hosea 1-3

    First the Higher law was given in the bible.

    Then the Law of Moses: It was added to the higher laws of God because of the stubbornness of the children of Israel. The scriptures say “…ye could not be justified by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:39); and “For the law made nothing perfect…” (Heb 7:19); and that the law “…was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24).

    Later, the law of Moses was fulfilled by Christ and no longer observed and the higher law was reinstated. (See Acts 13:39; Heb. 7:19; Ga. 3:24).

    He gave “a better covenant” (Heb. 7:6), and spoke of “the first covenant” (Heb. 7:7), and “a new covenant” (Heb 7:8,13). And we also read where the God instituted “a change also of the law” (Heb 7:12), and He said: “For verily there is a disannulling of the commandment going before” (Heb. 7:18). It is clear that God can change his laws, or the way his gospel is administered, as he pleases.

    The Priesthood

    God gave the Aaronic Priesthood to only one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exo. 28:1-4; Num, 23:5-13; Num 8:5-26’ Num ch 17; Num. 18:6-8; Num. 27: 18-23).

    Uzza was severely punished for exercising a priesthood function when he did not hold the priesthood (1 Chr. 13:9-10).

    God destroyed Korah, Dathan, Abiram and 250 rebel leaders for seeking priestly offices when they were not authorized to do so (See Numbers chapter 16).

    The Aaronic Priesthood was given to the tribe of Levi as “an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations” (Ex. 40:15) and those who could not prove their Levitical lineage were “polluted, put from the priesthood.” (Ezra 2:6-26).

    God changed this later when priests from tribes other than the tribe of Levi were allowed to have the priesthood. Two examples are given: Christ himself, and Melchizedek who would “not be called after the order of Aaron. (Heb. 7:11-12). This shows that God can withhold priesthood from some groups and then change that policy and give the priesthood to them later. God did this in the bible. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is false for the priesthood issue then so is God for doing the same thing and the Bible is therefore false.

    Gospel taken Only to Jew – Later to Gentiles
    Jesus commanded that the gospel be taken only to the Jews. (Matthew 10:5-6) Later God revealed to Peter that the time had come to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10) This came by revelation to the man who was the prophet at the time – Peter. It does not come by the will or reasoning of men. This shows that God has his purposes and his time table. It is not revealed why the gospel was denied to the gentiles at first but it was God’s will that it be so.

    The central truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, that He is God incarnate, and that only through Him can we be washed clean – none of those central truths change. But, clearly, God does change some of the things he requires of his people over time. He did so throughout the Bible and it was always done through a prophet or Apostle of God. None of those prophets, including Joseph Smith, ever supersede Jesus Christ.

    Other examples could be cited.

  • MrNirom

    Revelation. What is it? Christ built his church upon it when he questioned the apostles who did they think he was? Peter answered him.. “Thou are the Christ, the son of the living God.” And Jesus then said to him: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” And then he continued and said: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Revelation is the rock. The gates of hell will never prevail against revelation.

    When God has revealed his will to man, he has done it through his servants the prophets. If God quits speaking to man.. is there then revelation? Why do you think that the canon was closed in the first place? If revelation had still been continuing.. would it be closed? So the only reason a canon would be closed is that there is no revelation being received. But that had been prophesied in scripture. The prophet Amos declared: “¶Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.”

    Today we say we have the word of the Lord.. a book. A book of books. But there was a time that hearing the word of the Lord meant from his holy prophets. Just when did this famine start?

    After the Apostles of Jesus Christ were all killed. They were the last to write.. the last to receive revelation from God. And some 300 years later.. when there had still been no new revelation given, all the writings of the prophets and the apostles were all collected and compiled and put into one big book we now call the Bible. Man in his ultimate wisdom declared God was done speaking to man and therefore.. the canon is closed. Until 1820.

    When God speaks again.. the canon is reopened.

  • Central Texan

    Over a 40 day period, Christ appeared to many of the faithful in a resurrected state after his death. After his resurrection, Christ appeared to Saul (Paul) and redirected him to serve as a great leader and missionary. After Christ’s ministry in and around Jerusalem and Galilee, angels were yet active, assisting Peter to escape from imprisonment and opening prophetic visions to John the Beloved and other Apostles. Visions were opened to martyrs such as Stephen, who when he was about to be stoned to death, declared he could see the heavens opened, with Christ standing on the right hand of God. Angels ministered unto Cornelius and visions were given to Peter when the time came to open the gospel preaching to the Gentiles. Peter and others performed great miracles as Christ had done himself.

    The hallmark of the early Church of Jesus Christ was not that they possessed the books of the Old Testament, but that there was an active, vibrant, ordained leadership called to carry on Christ’s work to “feed his sheep” and to carry the gospel message to the whole world. These leaders, the faithful and other chosen individuals interacted with Christ himself, with angelic emissaries, or through other means of revelation in order to carry out Christ’s work.

    Why do so many accept that the hallmark of Christ’s church is no longer revelation — the active, vibrant dialogue between Christ and the faithful — and between Christ and His ordained leadership who are charged to “feed his sheep” today — the ones who today must carry the gospel to the world?

  • http://www.godanautobiography.com Jerry L. Martin

    Most religious people would concede that God still speaks to us. The question is whether new divine communications or inspirations have the standing of revelation. Some people say that revelation is closed. But surely it could happen. It seems incompatible with the power and mystery of the divine to say that God couldn’t do that. When I pray, I am told that is “a new spiritual era, a new axial age,” and I believe it. Why should the old axial age be the final word for all time?

  • BryanJensen

    The historically orthodox affirmation is that in Jesus the Messiah has been revealed as ultimate prophet, priest and king: The final prophet through whom God has spoken for this age (Heb 1); the ikon of God through whom the invisible God can be comprehended (Col 1); and a priest who has offered a sacrifice to satisfy all sacrifices (Heb 5-6), destroyed the physical Temple (Matt 24), built a new temple of Believers (1 Pet 2), and, Kingdom ushered, as King has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Heb 10) — against which even the gates of hell can not withstand (Matt 16). These, among other Bible texts, are significant New Testament concepts we affirm of the identity of Anointed One, Messiah, Ancient of Days, Son of God and Son of Man as having been revealed in Jesus and can unite the historical movements of Protestant, Eastern, Roman, Nestorian and Jacobite believers.

    Therefore while the Bible canon is not be closed in principle, in the case of “restorationist” movements like the Latter-day Saints we can say that their new scripture, where it puts forth a vision of a Kingdom that was corrupted, over which Hell did prevail, the advancement was stopped, that was not whole and trustworthy in its Gospel proclamation, that needed new physical temples and ordinances, and is headed by a Father God who once was a human and now exalted, etc., that, in the wisdom of Galatians 1, we can reject this LDS “new gospel” as having any efficacy. Mormon teachings need not re-contextualize the lens through which followers of Christ should understand scripture as the breath of God to invigorate our lives in this Kingdom Age. Orthodoxy doesn’t deny the value of Mormonism as a human spiritual movement; it only denies its claim to be the restored “Only True Church of Christ”.

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