Sunday, July 22, 2012

"A personal, though well-considered, opinion"

In the April 2012 general conference, Russell M. Nelson named several amazing attributes of the human body and called them "wondrous gifts from God." He then added this warning:

"Some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere." (Ensign, May 2012.)

When I mentioned this earlier on my blog, Jared* (from LDS Science Review) commented: "It seems to me that Elder Nelson's statements about the Big Bang, when measured against Elder Christofferson's conference talk, and the talk by J. Reuben Clark on which it draws, constitute personal opinion."

I count Jared* as a friend. My very first blog post was published by him on his blog. The two of us have traded many comments over the years on various LDS blogs. I know him to be a careful and considerate blogger who almost always has his facts straight. But, in my opinion, he might be wrong this time. I offer three reasons for that opinion:


I believe Elder Christofferson quoted those portions of President Clark's talk that were relevant to the point he, Christofferson, wanted to make:

"Speaking of members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he [J. Reuben Clark] stated:

" ' [We] should [bear] in mind that some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of the people. They have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church.' " (Ensign, May 2012.)

President Clark, as quoted by Elder Christofferson, doesn't appear to me to be saying that apostolic remarks in general conference might be personal opinion. In fact, as quoted by Christofferson, Clark seems to me to be saying that the First Presidency and Twelve (the prophets, seers, and revelators) are the Church's opinion setters and the rest of us should look to them:

" ' They have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people.... Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment and authority covering their teaching; they have a resulting limitation, and the resulting limitation upon their power and authority in teaching applies to every other officer and member of the Church.' " (Ensign, May 2012.)

My opinion about this is based on President Clark as quoted by Elder Christofferson.


Elder Christofferson did say there are times when a statement made by a Church leader might represent  "a personal, though well-considered, opinion." But I believe we should carefully read all of that sentence, not just those six words:

"At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church." (Ensign, May 2012.)

Yes, Elder Nelson's big bang remark is "a statement made by one leader." But no, it was not made "on a single occasion." On at least four occasions linked on LDS.org, the Church has published big bang remarks made by Elder Nelson: 1987, 1988, 2011, and 2012.


I believe his big bang comment is closely related to and derived from other scriptural doctrines preached by Elder Nelson, doctrines also preached by other apostles and prophets. So let's talk now about what the big bang is and how Elder Nelson perceives the beginning of things without it.

In his book, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (1999, University of Illinois Press), scientist Erich Robert Paul explained the big bang in these words:

"Present-day twentieth-century astrophysics now asserts that the universe began originally in a big bang, prior to which there was simply nothing (at least we can never know of anything prior to this singular event)." (p.166.)

As I understand it then, big bang theory says the entire natural universe had a beginning, before which there was nothing. All things (meaning all things science knows about) came into existence as a result of this big bang.

By contrast, Russell M. Nelson believes and teaches that "Christ is the Creator of all things." (Helaman 14:12.) He finds additional support for this in the Bible, where the Apostle John speaks of Christ as the Word and says: "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." (John 1:3.) To Elder Nelson, all things exist because of Christ, not because of the big bang.

Now let's look again at his April 2012 general conference talk and note that Elder Nelson quoted King Benjamin: "Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth." (Mosiah 4:9.) According to Elder Nelson, our scriptures say GOD (not the big bang) created all things. And Elder Nelson is merely the most recent of many apostles and prophets who have used scripture to teach that GOD created all things.


The way I see it, Elder Nelson's big bang remark is more apostolic interpretation of scripture and less an impromptu statement "made by one leader on a single occasion."

But none of this should be taken to mean that I think Elder Nelson's general conference remark about the big bang constitutes an official statement of doctrine. I don't believe that. Nor do I believe it was meant to be binding on every Church member.

I do feel very strongly that we might all benefit from the words of a Pharisee named Gamaliel who counseled moderation when criticizing apostles, "lest haply ye be found even to fight against God." (Acts 5:39.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you think there has ever been an occasion where a general authority has been wrong on scientific matters?

I can think of a half a dozen examples where general authorities have made statements that were later ground down by the evidence.

Isn't it possible that Elder Nelson's statements fall in that category?

7/22/2012 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

I think Russell Nelson's big bang remarks will stand the test of time.

7/22/2012 02:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Stanton S said...

So were the Hawaiian Islands made by God or by a volcano?

Why does it have to be either/or? Simplified, is it possible that the volcano exists because of God, and therefore God created the islands, albeit indirectly? Why can't the Big Bang exist because of God, and that even indirectly, if necessary?

7/22/2012 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Stanton S: Many things can be imagined. I like to ask what the apostles and prophets teach about the Creations of God.

7/22/2012 04:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gary --

I think an example worth considering is the 19th statements by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others that the Sun and Moon were inhabited, including description Lunar folk as dressed like Quakers.

Considering man has been to the moon, I think that claim has been debunked.

I fear you are setting up for the same scenario.

7/22/2012 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Anonymous: Your comment brings to mind something I was taught in an institute class 40 years ago. It went something like this: I love to quote the dead prophets because they're not around to say, "That's not what I meant."

Your example is unimportant and uninteresting to me. What's wrong with following living prophets?

7/22/2012 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...


Thanks for being nice about disagreeing with me, although I agree with most of your conclusion.

I'm not a cosmologist by any means, but my understanding is that the original Big Bang--with its beginning as a singularity (which might be called nothing, though that's probably not technically correct)--has really been left behind. I think it is well accepted that there was at least energy, and probably an infinite bubbling up of multiverses.

This is why, following Elder Nelson's talk, there were various comments in the bloggernacle agreeing with him--although in somewhat of a tongue in cheek way.

When dealing with General Authority statements that contradict well-supported science, I try to look past their particular example--which may be faulty--to what they are actually defending. In this case, Elder Nelson is defending Jesus' role as creator. That's won't get any argument from me.

7/22/2012 06:04:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jared*: Thanks for your comment. I've always appreciated your patience with me when we have disagreed about something. I hope you are enjoying a wonderful Sabbath.

7/22/2012 06:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

I'm not sure, perhaps because of a lack of spirituality on my part, what Elder Nelson is really saying, but I have a hard time believing that he truly does not believe in evolution. Evolution may not be vital in understanding the heart, although I doubt that, but it is extremely vital to medical research in other areas, such as the study of disease organisms and their victims. Without it we might well be helpless against certain agents. In an extreme scenario, all living humans on earth could be destroyed because we did not use evolution to help us either understand and fight disease organisms and/or strengthen human defenses against them. I agree with some of your correspondents who have stated the belief that in time the church and science will be on the same page. Our God, our Gospel is big enough to handle that.

7/23/2012 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Ken: Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment. I'd like to share some of my thoughts related to your concern about Elder Nelson.

I drink Pepsi Cola.  I've done so for more than fifty years.  Yes, I know the Church frowns on it.  I've visited the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, where four of my children went to school.  I've also visited BYU's Idaho and Hawaii campuses.  To my knowledge there is no caffeinated soda sold anywhere on any of these campuses.  The same is true of vending machines in the Church administration building and in temple cafeterias world wide. It's clear to me that when I drink Pepsi, I am out of sync with the Church.

But wait.  There's one more thing.  An Ensign article adds this: "There is no current Church policy that would preclude a bishop issuing a temple recommend to a person who consumes cola beverages." Whew! Thankfully, I'm off the hook.

Now please bear with me for the remainder of this paragraph and the next. I am very confident that Russell M. Nelson truly does not believe in human evolution. In fact, all of the latter-day apostles and prophets who have talked about it in official Church media have spoken against it. So, just as with drinking Pepsi, believing human evolution is out of sync with the Church.

But notice this: Just like with caffeinated soda, there is no Church policy against issuing a temple recommend to someone who believes human evolution.  In fact in my opinion, believing evolution is no more serious than drinking Pepsi.

Personally, I have no quarrel with anyone who believes man came by evolution. As a matter of fact, I think creationists like myself and evolutionists like yourself should sit together in Church and enjoy each other's company.  We should home teach each other, go on ward temple trips together, and in all other ways enjoy full fellowship with each other in the gospel, just like cola drinkers and cola purists do.

7/23/2012 08:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Log said...

For me, the issue boils down to this: it is my duty to echo the Brethren or remain silent. My covenants do not permit me an alternative course of action.

7/24/2012 08:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Log said...

I feel to go farther with my statement.

Joseph taught "O ye Twelve! and all Saints! profit by this important Key- that in all your trials, troubles, temptations, afflictions, bonds, imprisonments and death, see to it, that you do not betray heaven; that you do not betray Jesus Christ; that you do not betray the brethren; that you do not betray the revelations of God, whether in Bible, Book of Mormon, or Doctrine and Covenants, or any other that ever was or ever will be given and revealed unto man in this world or that which is to come. Yea, in all your kicking and flounderings, see to it that you do not this thing, lest innocent blood be found upon your skirts, and you go down to hell. All other sins are not to be compared to sinning against the Holy Ghost, and proving a traitor to the brethren. ...That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then known assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives."

The scriptures and the Brethren have taught, abundantly and extremely clearly, on Darwinism, the Big Bang, death before the fall, and so forth. To counter their teachings appears to me to be betraying them. It's all well and good to believe whatever you wish - but if I learn you think the prophets and the scriptures are falsified whenever they come into contact with the claims of scientists, then it can only be because you have been indiscreet, and are engaged in that pattern of behavior Joseph taught against above.

To undermine the faith of the children of God in his chosen and anointed servants, as well as his word, received by common consent, is what brings the blood of innocents upon our skirts.

Again - it is my province to echo the Brethren or remain silent. That is the content of the covenants regarding my proper course of conduct with respect to the Church, her doctrines, and her leaders.

7/25/2012 12:58:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Log: I'm not 100% sure I'd go as far as you do on that subject, but I do feel very good about this counsel from Pres. Henry B. Eyring:

-------------- quote --------------
“Looking for the path to safety in the counsel of prophets makes sense to those with strong faith. When a prophet speaks, those with little faith may think that they hear only a wise man giving good advice. Then if his counsel seems comfortable and reasonable, squaring with what they want to do, they take it. If it does not, they consider it either faulty advice or they see their circumstances as justifying their being an exception to the counsel. …

“Another fallacy is to believe that the choice to accept or not accept the counsel of prophets is no more than deciding whether to accept good advice and gain its benefits or to stay where we are. But the choice not to take prophetic counsel changes the very ground upon which we stand. It becomes more dangerous.” (Ensign, June 2011.)
-------------- end quote --------------

7/25/2012 07:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elder Nelson has clearly stated his inspired views on evolution. His most revealing statement in one of his books is shown here.


8/19/2012 10:23:00 PM  

<< Home