The Grand Council in Heaven: Re-interpreting an Archetype

Aaron R. aka Ricoaccountability, doctrine, Mormon, questioning, religion, thought 24 Comments

As a fan of Mormon Studies I value the opportunity to discuss and, sometimes, disagree.  In this regard, I have been particularly inspired by the vision of J. Bonner Ritchie.  He has repeatedly argued for openness and honesty regarding the Mormon Experience.  However, I wonder whether Mormon thought really has space for this kind of openness when we retain the LDS version of the pre-mortal Grand Council as our archetypal council meeting?

Ritchie has said: ‘I want to be part of a culture that dares to asks questions and can live with uncomfortable or no answers’.  Further, he has said ‘I appreciate Sunstone [or other open forums for discussion] not because I agree with everything that is said.  I agree with precious little that is said, here or anywhere else.  But I defend with passion the right to say it’ [1].

Kathleen Flake in a profound and challenging Sunstone presentation has said “First stories are very important.  They are the ones we go back to again and again to understand the present and to envision our future possibilities… [Beginnings]  are a function of making meaning out of the past to explain the present and construct the future” [2].  The Grand Council is such a story.  Therefore how we understand it has important implications for the Church’s future possibilities. 

Moses 4 seems to indicate that there was some sort of discussion about the Plan. It is difficult to tell much from this but at the very least Lucifer’s views were heard.  Further he had the chance, it seems, to be persuasive enough to have some agree with his point of view.  So far this all seems quite friendly, almost like a Sunstone symposium session. 

Then God ends the discussion with a definitive declaration of his plan.  Although there is an idea that people could still choose which side to vote for; the implication was that either you follow God’s plan or you are banished.  Thus if we accept the Grand Council as our archetypal council meeting what message does this present to us.  The basic message seems to be: discussion is good until the answer is given.  Yet, what inspires me about Bonner Ritchie’s ideas is that such open discussion and, more importantly for me, the raising of questions is a process that attempts to transcend the paradoxes of faith.  He suggests that there are not always answers to the questions or issues that are raised but learning to deal with this tension is spiritually healthy.  That resonates with me in a way that the Grand Council does not. 

As a result, I believe, that unless this archetype can be re-interpreted, the vision that Ritchie has will never be realised, because there will always be a strong ‘doctrinal’ foundation for the view that: discussion is good until the answer is given.

Have I mis-interpreted the Grand Council?

How else can we interpret this narrative?

Can Bonner Ritchie’s vision be realised without a need to re-interpret these scriptural archetypes?


1. J. Bonner Ritchie, Pillars of my Faith delivered at Sunstone. Available Here.

2. Kathleen Flake, Evil’s Origin and Evil’s End in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis in Sunstone [Salt Lake City, UT.: Sunstone Education Foundation, 1998] p. 25.

Comments 24

  1. Aaron,

    Although there is an idea that people could still choose which side to vote for; the implication was that either you follow God’s plan or you are banished.

    I think this is where I would disagree with your assessment of the plan. The banishment did not occur because of God’s will, but because of each individual soul choosing for himself freely to rebel against God and follow Lucifer. My understanding of the council in heaven is that Lucifer was not pleased with the result, and like any insurgent/revolutionary tried to change the system and impose his will on what had already been decided by the entire group through democratic process. I see two choices made. Choice number one was whether we would choose Lucifer’s plan or God’s plan as our “plan of salvation.” Choice number two was whether we would choose Lucifer’s insurgency/rebellion or to stay with God. When it came to choice number one, there was no punishment involved because that was part of the way the group decided things. When it came to choice number two, of course there would be a punishment, because not only is there a rejection of God’s plan, but there is an attempt made to overthrow God and his whole system!

    This sort of thing is quite common here on earth. We actually saw this in Iran just this summer. There were two choices made. One choice was the election itself. Once the results were in, a second choice was made by Ahmadinejad and his followers to overthrow the results and do as they will.

  2. I half agree with Dan. Whether we found Satan persuasive or not, the scriptures don’t indicate that we ever voted on his plan. Heavenly Father had a plan, and we don’t know what part we may have played in coming up with it.

    But Dan is right that the scriptures don’t support the idea of banishment for agreeing with Satan’s plan. The banishment was for the subsequent rebellion against Heavenly Father. So a person could agree with Satan’s ideas, but still enter mortality because he chose not to rebel against Heavenly Father once Heavenly Father rejected Satan’s idea.

  3. #1 & 2 – Thanks for your responses. Although I agree there are two choices here. Cain is an obvious example of when someone seems to have agreed with satan in the pre-mortal council but did not rebel. However, my point is still the same. That when the answer is given there was no choice. Either you were willing to submit your view to God or you rebelled because you could not accept the plan. What this story tells us then, is that we can disagree until the answer is given and then we must silence or change our views.

  4. Aaron-

    I have to agree with you on this one. I thought of Emma Smith when I read your post.

    D & C 132:54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

    She was given two choices here just as we were in the Grand Council. Either she do what the Lord asked or she would be destroyed. I think that is the extent of our agency. We can either do God’s will or we can choose not to and reap the consequences. It seems pretty straightforward to me.

  5. The scriptures have a lot of statements about the need to decide what side you are going to be on. My own interpretation of this Grand Council is a discussion of how to implement the Plan that Heavenly Father already had rather than coming up with one. There was no ultimate discussion, just the finer points and picking a leader. Satan wanted to try something different and Jesus wanted to follow through with what was already in place. When Satan didn’t get his way he rebelled and convinced others his way was better. Ever since then Satan has been trying to use Heavenly Father’s plan of free moral agency against Him, even if that means acting as an agent of the plan.

  6. Fascinating questions. And, although I’m not nearly as knowledgable as I’d like to be, I do have a question/theory to throw out there: Could the result of the choice we made in the pre-existence be something deeper? Meaning, (maybe) the laws of heaven required that those not accepting/agreeing with Heavenly Father’s decision were required to be “banished.” If they were allowed to stay then the environment would cease to be the “heavenly presence” of God.

    I can’t imagine it was initially an easy decision for those who chose Lucifer’s side. Relationships were probably broken over the dispute. Possibly pride was high on the “winners” side. I can’t begin to imagine the sadness and disappointment Heavenly Father felt to see His children in such a mess.

    (Just a side note: author Chris Stewart gives an interesting and thought-provoking interpretation of that event in the first book of his “The Great and Terrible” series.)

  7. Aaron,

    I understand what you are saying about discussion- that we are free to discuss matters until the truth is known, and then we must choose sides or face consequence.

    Now, as for the Grand Council goes, there is a lot more here than meets the eye. It is my firm opinion that Lucifer had devised a plan of secret combinations to usurp, or try to usurp, the kingdom of God from under the Fathers power. Lucifer wanted to gain the power of godlieness (immortality) through being born from an eternal Father- that is why he wanted to be the Son of God. With that power he would then bring the kingdom down into his eternal subjection with those secret combinations. Lucifer was lying when he said he would save all mankind. he had no such plan! He wanted instead to rule unjustly over mortal man in a broken kingdom for all of eternity- kind of like a dark “Lord of the Rings” archetype.

    The destruction of our agency happens when we yeild our souls over to Satan- that is his plan. The Father had him banished because he rebelled against Jehova in the Grand Council. He came into direct opposition to Christ and what Christ wanted to do. The real story at the Grand Council plays out by the Father realizing Lucifers secret combinations and then allowing his children to freely choose which side they are all on. This next part is my total conjecture-

    The Father sent out spies to report on Lucifers secret combinations and record the names of his secret successors to his evil plan (basically his closest allies) long before the Council ever met. Lucifer thus had a long time to line his dark forces together and place the secret combinations in motion to destroy the Father kingdom. Spies were thus subjected to Lucifers ways as they recorded the plans and names of those who were seeking the secret plot to overthrow the kingdom with their future eternal leader “Lucifer” at their healm. The spies returned to the Father with the needed records and then at the Council Lucifer and his hosts were made aware of their secret combinations and were cast out. Thus there really was no discussion at the council over which side to join as both sides were already aligned pretty much. Lucifer, in being found out then came out in open rebellion because he was mad. He was then cast out of heaven because there was ample enough evidence collected that violated the kingdom of Heaven’s rules. So, in reality, it (the council) may have been more of a judgment bar than anything else!

  8. #4 – Although I agree that this is how it looks. It is an idea I am not very comfortable with. Primarily because our experience here seems very different from the one we seem to have had in the pre-mortal life. I readily acknowledge that in this area there is often more speculation than doctrine. I am not saying that the situation discussed did not happen that way or that it was wrong. My point is that if we view the story in this way then we as Mormons trying to live out our experience are left with the Emma situation, which I am not sure I can accept because it is not the same. Firstly, our knowledge of God is different here. Secondly most people, Emma included, by struggling with the commandments are not trying to usurp God’s power. My point is this: if we accept this story as the way that many here have interpreted it statements like ‘when the prophet has spoken the thinking is done’ (a bad example, but it was said) will keep popping up. I believe that with the difficulties and limitations we have in this life I believe that very little is as clear cut as the pre-mortal council in heaven. But by using this as our foundation story (in this way) I believe we are closing off the possibility of discussion and disagreement.

    I guess I have thought this because I know people whose views cannot be expressed because they disagree with a GA and therefore it can’t be legitimate because they are obviously wrong. But it seems that I am alone in seeing this problem, which probably means it is more a problem with me than a wider one.

  9. “Ritchie has said: ‘I want to be part of a culture that dares to asks questions and can live with uncomfortable or no answers’. Further, he has said ‘I appreciate Sunstone [or other open forums for discussion] not because I agree with everything that is said. I agree with precious little that is said, here or anywhere else. But I defend with passion the right to say it’ .”

    Aaron excellent post!! You may live and cultivate a Ritchie view but the church doesn’t promote this radical thinking. I feel the church is getting more open but doesn’t want us to think for our self.

    Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the prophets, seers, revelators’ of the church, is cultivating the spirit of apostacy. One cannot speak evil of the lord’s annointed… and retain the holy spirit in his heart. This sort of game is Satan’s favorite pastime, and he has practiced it to believing souls since Adam. He {Satan} wins a great victory when he can get members of the church to speak against their leaders and to do their own thinking.”

    “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s Plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give directions, it should mark the end of controversy, God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”

    Ward Teachers Message, Deseret News, Church Section p. 5, May 26, 1945

  10. Aaron:

    I agree with the principle that once we know Heavenly Father has spoken, we should not keep debating the matter of which He has spoken. I do not apply this principle to G.A.’s., including the Prophet, and I do not apply the principle in a situation in which someone else tells me Heavenly Father has spoken, but I don’t know if it is true.

    I could imagine situations in which I would silence my views for the sake of peace in the Church. And if a G.A. directed me to do something contrary to my beliefs, I would always seek to know from Heavenly Father if I should change my views. But I would neither silence my views nor change them just because a G.A. told me to do so.

  11. I agree that the council in heaven was less of a debate or discussion about the plan and more of a presentation of God’s plan. However, I’m not throughly convinced that it was entirely God’s plan in the first place. The plan of salvation, I believe, is an eternal plan. God was only showing the one and only way for his children to reach exaltation. There is no other way it could possibly be done, so, why would the plan be up for debate? When Satan rebelled (and God knew he, or someone, would) I can in my minds eye, see God kind of rolling his eyes, getting ready to rebuke him.

    Often, I like to liken our lives in the pre-existence to our lives here. When important choices are made at my house, my wife and I usually don’t ask my kids what they want to do, we just usually do it. This is because we feel we know what’s best for our family, we understand better than our kids do the consequences of our decisions. We may present to them what will happen, but we don’t ask them what we should do. Inevitably, there will be a child that wants to rebel, but, there’s clearly nothing they can do. Sometime, we even send them to outer darkness…

  12. #9 – Although I don’t like this quote because I don’t think it is representative. I do think there is a sense that this attitude exists as a possibility and may even bubble over as a reality. More than that I wonder on doctrinal issues whether there is this scope for debate and disagreement.

    #10 – I feel the same. For me this is exactly the point. For this story seems to have the potential that we could be required to submit or be punished or ostracised. I have sensed repeatedly that discussions in lessons, instead of raising questions we wait for the definitive answer. This seems spiritually unproductive to me. So until we can open up this story we won’t have the scope for such discussion.

  13. Can Bonner Ritchie’s vision be realised without a need to re-interpret these scriptural archetypes?

    The “Council in Heaven” model is really the only organizational model that is sustainable for the whole, this Model was reinforced under Brigham Young’s stewardship, bringing with it a stabalisation that had not been seen before in church it had a calming effect on the many differing forces surrounding the Church. Whether right or wrong once the Prophet has spoken, for the sake of the Church we much suspend any overt opposition to the matter.

    The Council in Heaven demonstrates that we have our agency to express our views but we must fall into line.

    The Priesthood Ban is a good example of how we have the capacity to question policies or doctrines but also must show support to the Prophet when required.

    Because of the emotive naturre of Good vs Evil, the Council in Heaven archetype can’t really be reinterpreted, it would suggest the possibility of outright rebellion, Women’s Priesthood rights or Open Communion, might become the new civil rights movement, I notice in many of the correspondence of the GA’s that their opinions where not based on whether changes should happen or not but who should be the one to instigate the change, and many GA’s felt that only God could make such a change.

    “Can Bonner Ritchie’s vision be realised” – IMO it can be realised but it must be done some other way, and with limits. discussion is great and should be welcomed, more should be taught of the dissagreements between B.H. Roberts and Joseph. F. Smith, from SP & BP more should be discussed of the lack of clear direction given but through council, discussion & disagreements a decision was reached. More should be taught of not having all the answers, ie Evolution, Policy Changes, DNA. Also BRM mediocre retraction should not have been just swept under the carpet.

    However I understand that this is not the direction the “Brethren” would choose to go, I’m not in a position to see whether this would be beneficial for the membership as a whole, but the Prophet is and despite me preferring things being done differently i will fall into line, and sustain.

  14. Post

    #14 – Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think that I agree that the Grand Council can’t be re-interpreted without some danger. Yet this then leads me to think that we need to use a different archetype for deriving our view of discussion and council meetings in the Church. For differences of opinion rarely ever are a matter of usurping God’s power, they are a result of the mortal experience. Although I wholeheartedly agree that these changes would be positive unless we can find a new archetype we will not see such changes. I guess I see the possibility of using two competing archetypes, or perhaps, more accurately two competing narratives. One that emphasises answers and another that emphasises uncertainty. This would highlight the tension in our experience here but it would also allow people to faithfully acknowledge the challenges they have and even the certainty that they have at the same time. Perhaps using BH Roberts and Joseph F Smith is a great example, because they highlight both trends.

  15. Aaron has some validity to his thesis. I understand that within the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, when an official statement is to be made, all members of those quorums have open, frank and sometimes excited discussions. Only when all members are in agreement is the statement issued. Thus, when a decision is made, discussion ends.
    Of course, at the Grand Council, not everyone agreed. Likely, the war in heaven was one of words and missionary-type work, on both sides. We fought for and against agency. We fought to become like the Father. Note: Both sides wanted the earthly experience. Satan wanted the glory, by force if necessary. Jesus wanted the glory passed on to the Father. And so we did vote – we voted with our feet.

    See Ensign » 1993 » November
    Strength in Counsel by Elder M. Russell Ballard
    One quote:
    “… promote free and open expression. Such expression is essential if we are to achieve the purpose of councils. Leaders and parents should establish a climate that is conducive to openness, where every person is important and every opinion valued. The Lord admonished: “Let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified” (D&C 88:122; emphasis added).”

    See Ensign » 1993 » November
    Keeping Covenants and Honoring the Priesthood by Elder James E. Faust

  16. Glen Smith – This is a really good talk I will use this in future, however it is still based on the same archetype of once the discussion is over no disagreement is allowed. Which is the point of the post, can there still be room for amicable disagreement?

    In a really interesting letter to Eugene England BRM explains that even Modern day Prophets can be wrong and that it is down to our own us to compare their teachings with the Standard Works. (The irony isn’t lost on me, Bruce R McConkie teaching that prophets can be wrong). I do think that teaching an appropriate way to express our concerns.

  17. Does it really matter on how we voted on something we can’t remember? We, obviously voted in a manner and fought in a battle, that led us here, – in a state of flesh and bones and ‘free’ will.

  18. #17 – I think the pattern matters. How we use the story matters. I do not think this should be the pattern or story we use for our council meetings because they are fundamentally different contexts. So the reality of waht happened is not really my concern, it is how this story is used?

    #15 – 16 – Thanks for two great comments. I totally agree. I think there are great books and talks written on this same topic. e.g. Maxwell’s ‘a more excellent way’. I also agree that this type of discussion is necessary and I really believe the brethren want it; and that we don’t yet have it. I also acknowledge that when it comes to decision making the process is a difficult one. Without some sort of consensus, even reluctant, nothing will get done. However, I feel that if this idea of the 12 having disagreements was part of the Church culture then it would open the way for more open discussion in sunday schools and council meetings. However, I think these contexts are different as well. Though a decision might need to be made in council, a decision is not needed in a classroom. Allowing this type of differentiation would be helpful, IMO.

  19. Aaron Reeves:

    Although we may have no evidence, I see the possibility that Lucifer was the one who acted ‘too fast’. We understand that we have been given ‘free will’ as a gift here and that we had this gift in the Pre-existence and God, most assuredly, would have allowed all of us to discuss the ‘Grand Plan’ thru and thru. Lucifer may have been the one who forced God’s hand and thus the ‘battle’, under the direction of the Arch Angel Michal, began.

    It makes no sense that God would abruptly stop the discussion and all would have to follow Him or Satan. It makes more sense that Lucifer, by what we know of his character, was the instigator of rebellion.

    And if we did not, by free will, side with God – we simply would not be here in a state of flesh and bones.

  20. Post

    I think that is an interesting point. One that makes some sense to me. Thank you. My only issue with it, would be that if Satan did force God’s hand would it not be possible to have cast Satan out without allowing more discussion first? Why did he have to stop and say ok, its now or never?

  21. Aaron Reeves:

    I don’t see any unfairness, in the sense that some were forced to make up their minds as to whom to follow etc.
    However, the ‘point’ may have arrived where one had to choose sides. And since we have free will, it would also be possible to change one’s mind after the Battle of Heaven was fought. – Which sounds improbable, but it’s possible.
    I feel, that before actually coming to the earth in our state, that our minds were ‘clear’ with God as to how we felt about this issue.

  22. If you look at what Joseph Smith taught,

    “The contention in heaven was-Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him” (TPJS, p. 357).

    There was a vote, Satan rejected the majority and rebelled and was the caste down. He was the one that fought back against what the majority wanted. If he had not done so, perhaps he would not have been cast down.

    I would not say that this teaches us that those who disagree are punished. This is a story of a council and a subsequent uprising that Satan began. He wanted to take away agency, he was voted down. He disagreed and wanted to force his decision on everyone. I don’t think there is any need to paint him in an apologetic light that creates sympathy for dissenters. He was trying to take away our right to choose.

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