All or Nothing Principle

on 11 January 2009

Both Alan and Austin have recently discussed their take on the “All or Nothing” teaching that states that if the Book of Mormon is true then Joseph Smith was a prophet and all prophets since him were prophets and thus we have this compulsion to believe everything that is said out of the mouths of the Prophets because thy are the Mouthpieces of God.

I have had difficulty with this doctrine in the past both before and after I came out to myself. Before I never really had a testimony of the Book of Mormon, but I believed the words of the Prophets were inspired by God and that we should follow them. Recently the reverse had been true, I believed that the Book of Mormon was true but I had misgivings about the leaders and the revelatory nature of their teachings. While I was having the second round of attack by the “all or nothing” doctrine two things hit me that taught me the absurdity of the doctrine. The first comes from Star Wars Episode III the Revenge of the Sith and while I know that it is cheesy, the line does serve the discussion well.

Anakin Skywalker: If you're not with me, then you're my enemy.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Now I will admit I am slightly nerdish and often relate Star Wars to principles of the Gospel, but not as much as some. (My brother-in-law has FHE lessons that describe the gospel principles taught by Star Wars) When I heard this line in the Movie theatre I was thinking; “George, How did you know that was what I needed to hear?” Granted I do know that the line itself is an absolute statement and that it does fall under the principle of “false dilemma,” but it still has worth for the purposes of this discussion.

I often feel that the “corridor” is trying to shove the line down my throat that you are either with us or against us, that if you aren’t following every little facet of the unwritten order of things, or the “Law of Packer” as I have heard it described, then you are apostatizing. I feel that this can be best compared to the Law of Moses and those that tried to uphold it over the doctrine of the Church. The people who held so tightly to the unwritten practices began to loose sight of the Lord, and the reason for their actions. That reason is communion with God. And thus a new culture is born, a culture that is focused on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. I often see that those whose focus is on the cultural aspects of the Church and not the doctrinal ones most tightly hold the all or nothing principle and brandish it at all others.

The other experience that taught me some clarification on this principle was during my discussion with a student of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies about the similarities between Islam and the Church. I am talking about the doctrinal similarities not any radicalizations, and I am in no ways trying to say that the Church is breeding suicide bombers. I found that the five pillars of Islam are contained in the Doctrine of the Church. The five pillars and their Church counterparts are as follows.
1. Shahadat is professing one-ness of Allah and accepting Prophet Muhammad as his messenger to humanity. – This is akin to both taking the Lord’s name upon us and in bearing our testimony of our belief in God and his prophets.
2. Ṣalāt the Islamic prayer. - Prayer
3. Zakaat or alms-giving, is the practice of charitable giving by Muslims based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all who are able to do so. – Tithing anyone?
4. Sawm during Ramadan - Fasting
5. The Hajj is a pilgrimage that occurs during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah to the holy city of Mecca, and derives from an ancient Arab practice. – Visiting the Temple
Even Jihad as defined by Arabic as Struggle, their are several types of Jihad and all but the most commonly thought of yet least often discussed in the holy writ talk about controlling the natural man.

So I was having this discussion with my friend who was studying Arabic and she started to talk to me about the Hadith. If we look at the Quran as a similar book of script to the Book of Mormon, then the Hadith is like the D&C. It is a collection of everything the Prophet Mohammad said, did or didn’t say or do. The difference between the Hadith and the D&C is that in the D&C only revelation is present and in the Hadith there are myriad of simple actions or inactions that were taken as doctrine of the Divine. This is where the thought hit me to compare this to the All or Nothing theory.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was taught that there was a hierarchy in the teachings of prophets and what weight we should give them. This Hierarchy states that Scriptures trump words of the Prophets unless those words are elevated to scripture, that the words of current prophets were greater than those of past prophets. While I was re-taught this at BYU my freshman year, my great religion professor told us that not everything that the prophets said was prophecy, that they were men and lots of the things expressed over the pulpit were the opinions of great and learned men, but were not revelation unless stated so.

His perfect example of this was the Bible Dictionary and the Topical Guide and Footnotes. A council was formed to provide a set of study tools that every latter day saint could use to help them further their knowledge of the gospel. The majority of the footnotes and most of the bible dictionary are based off of the personal notations of Bruce R. McConkie. These were not revelation but instead were scholarly discoveries. If you doubt this then go and read the introduction to the Bible dictionary.

So I saw the every movement of the Prophet Mohammed being taken as doctrine that is one step removed from the Quran as a similarity to the words of the Twelve as revelation when often they are not revelatory in nature. Most latter day saints don’t see the difference and instead see the need to follow every jot and tittle that is put forth in front of them.

Austin you say “In a nutshell the “All or Nothing Theory” is that either Mormonism is all true, or Joseph Smith was a false prophet and anything that has come from him was not inspired by God (not necessarily saying it is not good).” What is often needed to be distinguished here, as I have tried to do, is that there is a difference between Mormonism, and the Doctrine of the Church. I do believe in the All or Nothing principle in that if Joseph Smith was a prophet, then all of the truth of the gospel is true. To that extend I believe in the all or nothing principle, however when you have material that claims to be doctrine but isn’t, that that does not need to be followed or believed in order for the truth of the gospel to be true. For example, when you went to church did you ever see anyone who was dressed in a non-white shirt or wearing sneakers instead of dress shoes. Think back to that and try to remember what your feelings about it were when you were inundated with the Mormon culture. I know my reaction, it even happened last week but I caught myself and realized what I was doing. I sat there thinking that person was not being righteous, and that I might be more righteous than them. I don’t know how you might have felt I don’t pretend to know, but for me that was a real clear example of the separation between Gospel and Culture.

The only other point that I might try to make concerning this is what Elder Oaks said in a CES fireside almost 4 years ago about the case of exceptions to the general rule, and how that was meant to be worked out between you and the Lord. I believe that there is a theory of all or nothing when it comes to following Christ, but that it comes to the following of Christ not the Culture of the Church.

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