Vagueness as a Gospel Principle

Jeff Spectoraccountability, baptism, blacks, doctrine, doubt, faith, General Conference, LDS, mormon, Mormon, Mormons, obedience, plan of salvation, prophets, questioning, race, religion, revelation, righteousness, salvation, spirituality, testimony, Word of Wisdom 23 Comments

“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.    Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, SJ_Shoulder_Shrug_smalland do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;” (D&C 58:26 – 27)

As I read the scriptures, listen to conference talks, and other materials about the Church, I get the feeling sometimes that things can be a little vague.  Human nature seems to dictate that an absolute answer is always preferred over ambiguity and vagueness.

But in the religious realm, it is not to be.  Vagueness is defined as not clear in meaning or application or, indistinctly felt, perceived, understood, or recalled; hazy.

The fact that there are so many religions and religious denominations seems to confirm this idea. For instance, if there is one God, our Heavenly Father, why does He seem to manifest Himself so differently to different people, to different cultures, and at different times?

For example, In the LDS Church, we believe that Baptism is an essential ordnance to enter the kingdom of God and to progress toward eternal life and salvation.  And there are Christian denominations that echo that same idea.  However, there are just as many, maybe more, who, reading the same scriptures, deny the necessity of Baptism for salvation.  Vagueness occurs because the scriptures are not 100% clear on that point.  Within the LDS Church, the Prophet Joseph Smith did make it clear, in the Fourth Article of Faith, that Baptism is essential.

In another, more contemporary example, many conservative Christians and Jews, for that matter, look at scriptures in Leviticus to proclaim that Homosexual activity is wrong. (Leviticus 18:22, see also Romans 1:27, 29-31, 32) However, religious organizations and individuals more sympathetic toward the Gay Movement have interpreted those scriptures very differently and say that they do not even address the issue of homosexuality.  ( The scriptures do not come right out and address the issue so clearly it cannot be open to interpretation. Vagueness.

In Doctrine and Covenants Section 89, the Word of Wisdom verse 9, “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” But what is a hot drink?  Anyone’s first read of that verse would lead them to conclude it was ANY drink that was HOT  That does not seem terribly vague.

But wait, there’s more!

In 1842 Hyrum Smith, Assistant President of the Church and also the Presiding Patriarch, provided an interpretation of the Word of Wisdom’s proscription of “hot drinks”:

“And again “hot drinks are not for the body, or belly;” there are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it refers to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea, and coffee.  (Times and Seasons, 1842-06-01, vol. 3, p. 800.

But it does not refer to hot chocolate, hot herbal tea, hot barley drinks, etc. But, many have also speculated as to why coffee and tea?  Could it be the caffeine? If so, that means cola drinks, or anything else that might have caffeine in it.  You mean like chocolate? Wait a minute! I thought hot chocolate was ok? What about Mountain Dew, its not a cola drink?  Here is a case where something seems pretty straightforward but has been made somewhat vague.

Here are a few other topics that have been vague at one time or another:

  • Tithing: Net or Gross?
  • New and Everlasting  Covenant of Marriage: Plurality of Wives or just Eternal marriage ( Sealing)
  • Missouri Extermination Order: Kill them or just run them out of town?
  • United Order: Voluntary or the Law of Consecration?
  • Blacks and the Priesthood:  Doctrine, policy or  just plain prejudice?
  • Many, many more

So why would Gospel Principles be Vague?

First, maybe they are not all that vague.  Maybe, you need to find the right source of information. If the scriptures seem vague, what have the Living Prophets said?  If that is vague, what does the Lord tell you when you pray about it or what does the Spirit testify to you about it?  Still nothing?  What are you willing t o take on faith alone?

Second, We do need to develop faith. “NOW faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1). Some things have no immediate answer and must be taken on faith alone until a later time.

Thirdly, we are here on earth as a test.  Ultimately, we decide for ourselves the path we walk. Like the verse at the beginning of this post, if we did not have our agency to decide for ourselves and had to be told each and every little detail, we would not progress to reach the goal of living with Our Father in Heaven and His Son throughout eternity.

Sure, things can be a bit vague and uncertain at times.  But it is part of the great Plan of happiness for us to endure to the end.

So, the question at hand is how do you deal with the vagueness and ambiguity? Perhaps you think there is none. Feel free to list your vague Gospel Principles.

Comments 23

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  2. Vagueness in law is a Bad Thing, because the practical effect is to give inordinate power to those who have discretion to apply the law.

    To the extent that one’s eternal destiny is dependent in any degree upon the authority of people who have the power to bind and loose in heaven, then the more vague the standard those people apply in exercising their power, the more potential there is for arbitrariness and injustice.

  3. Jeff, you pose an interesting question. It is interesting to observe Church leaders’ and Church members’ tolerance or intolerance for ambiguity and vagueness evolve over time. Paul wrote, as an Apostle, that we see through a glass darkly. As time goes on, the more it becomes clear to me (pardon the irony) that Paul was correct (if Paul actually ever said it, hey, another layer of vagueness).

    Speaking of scriptural ambiguity, it would have been nice if Jesus had himself written something on metal plates to be preserved, along with a provenance statement, to give us clear scriptural guidance. He didn’t. Instead we have a flawed system of humans writing inconsistent and often vague things and then translated and mistranslated over time and now even the originals are lost and we aren’t even sure when and where and who wrote them.

    Yet the message of the Restoration as traditionally presented says the very purpose of having a living prophet is to dispel the clouds of uncertainty and provide detailed, specific instructions from God to man. And in LDS scripture that confidence in clear prophetic insight is found where we see God giving instructions about minute details such as real estate transactions and architectural details for temples (see DC). We find no vagueness when Joseph says “thus saith the Lord” and then makes a number of specific statements. But perhaps the best example of LDS belief in the absence of vagueness (thanks to our having a prophet) is the series of books: “Answers to Gospel Questions” where a “prophet, seer, and revelator” provides very specific answers to every question under the sun rather than simply saying “we don’t know”. Example: why don’t blacks have the priesthood? Answer: Cain’s seed on Earth can’t get the priesthood on earth until Able’s seed get it on another planet. This series of books demonstrates the conviction amongst many LDS leaders and members that the whole purpose of having a prophet is to avoid having to wrestle with vagueness and uncertainty, and that LDS leaders possess clear prophetic vision.

    The bottom line is that clear prophetic vision is and long has been one of the main “selling points” the Church has relied on. Consistent with that, LDS prophets, seers, and revelators have and still do speak with unqualified conviction and specificity about a number of topics, and members are expected to rely on their leaders’ prophetic vision.

    As time has progressed, however, we have seen several instances where church leaders who have spoken unequivocally and specifically about a number of topics have been “burned”. The most obvious example being statements about the priesthood ban. It seems that was a watershed event for Church leaders because so many had committed themselves so unequivocally to a specific set of doctrines and ideas that were later overturned. Since then, it seems Church leaders are much more conservative in claiming prophetic insight, and it seems the topics that church leaders feel comfortable giving specific counsel about has been shrinking. For example, most official position statements on issues are statements that the church takes no position, even though it would be nice to know how God feels about whether abortion or capital punishment should be legal.

    However, in spite of the shrinking scope of issues that Church leaders feel comfortable addressing with specificity, there remains a core of issues where we do continue to receive specific guidance, same sex issues being the most prominent. When members are encouraged to follow the Brethren on that and other issues, that is when the traditional notion that they have clear, prophetic insight and can therefore be relied upon is reinforced, and there are many statements stretching far back into LDS history to support that view of clear prophetic vision, which are often quoted in that context.

    Making sense of the concept that Apostles see through a glass darkly but well enough to be relied upon, particularly in the presence of historical examples where clear prophetic insight was claimed but later proved to be lacking, is perhaps the greatest challenge of vagueness we face.

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    Excellent observations. One of the very interesting things about the Church is that the bulk of our doctrine has come from Joseph Smith and not been significantly modified by the later Prophets. Policies have definitely changed and principles adapted to more modern times, but I think the basic doctrines remain intact. Which follows the idea that it is Joseph, as the Prophet of this last dispensation who was called to declare the restored doctrine of the church and all the others simply testify of his work.

    For the most part, what we get from the leadership today is thoughts and advice on how to better live the principles of the gospel and how to conform our lives with the Will of the The Father. Not a lot of doctrine declaration going on.

    Funny you should mention “ATGQ.” Joseph Felding Smith was definitely the McConkie of his time not surprising as his F-I-L). JFS made a number of strong declarations about face cards, WoW, and the ones you mentioned. A lot of those answers were his opinion, like the infamous book “Man: His Origin and Destiny.” So when GA’s do that, in a way, they contribute to the vagueness because it is very likely someone else of equal authority would disagree with it. And, after all, individuals get to make the choice about some of these issues. Birth Control was another hot topic where a lot of advice was given but the church had no real position other than it is a personal choice.

    Somethings need to be vague so we can choose for ourselves how we will behave and some things are vague because they really don’t matter that much to our eternal salvation.

  5. This is a great question, and post. Thanks Jeff. I particularly AA, and Jeff’s responses in #6 and #7. I agree with AA that it would seem like things have shifted, over time, to be more vague, but that a huge draw toward Mormonism is this idea of clarity from continuing revelation.

    However, Jeff, you bring up a good point about Joseph being the Prophet of this last dispensation. This sort of gives him extra clout when proclaiming doctrine, more so than other prophets, while we still recognize that he may have impractically implemented it. Hence, Joseph spelled out the doctrine, and later prophets (including the current one) provide details on how to live it.

    A lot of those answers were his opinion, like the infamous book “Man: His Origin and Destiny.” So when GA’s do that, in a way, they contribute to the vagueness because it is very likely someone else of equal authority would disagree with it. And, after all, individuals get to make the choice about some of these issues.

    This does become tricky however, when the individual speaking is, or becomes the prophet. His opinion may be artificially elevated to “doctrine” status when it ought not to be.

    For me, on the one hand, I am increasingly grateful for the vagueness and ambiguity and welcome more of it. This allows for more individuality (however, it also simultaneously gives more power to enforcers as Thomas pointed out). On the other hand, the church might lose some of its draw if it becomes wishy-washy like so many other mainstream religions. I actually feel like the church has a pretty good balance of declaring unequivocal truth (Elder Holland’s GC talk) while allowing for personal growth and interpretation (Elder Christofferson’s GC talk).

  6. I would disagree when you said that no hot drinks has been made “somewhat vague.” I think it’s still pretty straightforward: no coffee and tea. Every Latter-day Saint I’ve ever met understands this.

  7. great topic thanks 4 a good read. how ever i agree with thomas #5, i feel vagueness leaves the door open for opinions 2 become doctrine, hot drinks mean hot drinks 2 me, it doesn’t say coffee, tea or any other drink except the hot type so if i have an iced coffee or tea there should be no problem after all did the LORD not tell us “it is not what goes into a mans mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out”. vagueness was a great problem for the prophet joseph smith in his time and he dealt with it by bringing about the restoration. 1 of his greatest complaints (i believe) was how strongly people held on 2 tradition. for what else could have lead 2 racism in the church, and don’t bring up the sins of cain, look what hitler did with that opinion.

  8. The more issues the GAs give strong, unequivocal declarations on as individuals, the more ambiguity we have. Because they, as mortal men, are products of their surrounding culture. Hence, a lot of “gospel doctrine” is “middle class morality” — at least IMHO. I could talk about the nonexisting sex education in so many LDS families, for example, but you get the point, right?

    The GAs should only declare doctrine when the Lord dictates, and let people take the issues to God. There are the big issues of morality, and there are the micro-management issues of face cards and cola drinks. Which would seem more important to have a Church policy on. Legality of abortion? A political more than a moral question, because either way you end up killing innocents.

    I just wonder where all that vagueness is, since I don’t seem to notice it; or is it just that I am not bothered by a little ambiguity. There are very few absolute axioms that are always equally true without any qualification. Actually, only one comes to mind quickly: Heavenly Father loves his children, all of us, and there is nothing in this world or out of it that we can do that could change that. He may not be able to invite all of us into his presence, but he will still love us nevertheless.

    Just random thoughts provoked by the post and comments.

  9. “Legality of abortion? A political more than a moral question, because either way you end up killing innocents.”


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    #9 Jmb,

    “On the other hand, the church might lose some of its draw if it becomes wishy-washy like so many other mainstream religions.”

    Yes, I would be afraid of that too. It’s funny, many members want to be lead around by the nose, so to speak. They want every jot and tittle spelled out for them. Take Sabbath observance. It is about as individual as it comes with members deciding what is and is not appropriate. On the other hand, we’ve gotten quite a bit of “counsel” about that subject as well. When I’ve had discussions, it is interesting to hear how different folks observe.

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    #10, Joseph,

    “I would disagree when you said that no hot drinks has been made “somewhat vague.” I think it’s still pretty straightforward: no coffee and tea. Every Latter-day Saint I’ve ever met understands this”

    Agreed. But, I said the vagueness comes in when we try to go beyond what has been declared. No coffee morphs into no cola, which morphs into no chocolate.

  12. Post


    “The GAs should only declare doctrine when the Lord dictates, and let people take the issues to God.”

    Actually, there is only one person that can declare doctrine and that is the Prophet/President of the Church. Everything else is advice on living the doctrine and principles we have in force today.

  13. It seems odd that the prophet can be so specific about how many earrings to wear and what color shirt to wear to pass the sacrament, but are vague on some of the most important things.

  14. Post


    I almost used that as an example. Seems he thought that was some kind of slippery slope……? How’s Oregon?

  15. I guess I see the issue in a very different way. What I see is scriptures presenting us with opportunities to act rather than unwelcome vagueness. The idea that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul . . . and love our neighbors as ourselves, could be understood as a vague statement but I think that would miss the point. What this statement and many others like it give us is an opportunity to dedicate our lives to figuring out what it means through a form of praxis. A great deal of supposed vagueness does the same thing. To seek clarity [sic.], or diminish apparent ambiguity would be to miss the point. It would be to apply our own standards and assumptions to the text.

    Also your example of Leviticus and Romans are in other contexts thought of as examples of the play of the signifier. No text, at least not religious or philosophical texts can actually achieve the telological goals we so often ascribe to them. From a certain point of view this has nothing to do with vagueness, it is rather, an essential element of metaphysical thought. not a flaw but a structural necessity.

  16. I have considered this a LOT over the past year. It seems to me that we want less vagueness, but the more I study things out, the more vague the meaning of things seem to be…not less vague. However, I can make up my mind what it means to me, and then I have clarity to move forward according to my conscience.

    I honestly believe, just like Jesus taught in vague parables that could be symbolic and hold levels of individual meaning to different people, that the direction we get from the church is meant to be based on vague but steady principles, but the specifics of how those principles apply to our individual lives or specific circumstances is meant to be determined by me individually…and that my interpretation (as given by the Spirit) can be different than yours and that is the beauty of our life experience. Walking by faith, not knowing for sure the answers to all things and learning to love others who think differently about those things provides a perfect testing ground…and by providing us that situation in this earthly existence, God can judge our character as we act in faith. If it was all given to us in detail (which many people want for fear of making mistakes)…we wouldn’t have to exercise our character…we’d just follow through obedience (which was Satan’s rejected plan). I think instead, God is ok with us getting it wrong sometimes, and has provided a Savior to save us from the mistakes we make because it is more about the experience we get than it is about whether we get all the right answers on the test or not.

    Drinking cola, coffee, or dating before your at a specific age arbitrarily agreed upon by church leaders are all just rules…I do not think God is tracking which of those things we did or didn’t do…I believe He will judge us by our end product…what we become.

    Religion is meant to be vague…so that we can become something better, not to try to protect us from doing something wrong.

  17. “Religion is meant to be vague…so that we can become something better, not to try to protect us from doing something wrong.”

    I tend to agree with this idea, but shouldn’t we take note of all the conference talks, Sunday lessons, and everything else in the contemporary discourse of the church that is about safety and exactly protecting us from doing something wrong? This is a huge cultural emphasis.

  18. Douglas, yes, I think it is a huge cultural emphasis in the church that I tend to not be comfortable with when over-emphasized. We had a talk in sacrament meeting this last week on tithing, and that it should be viewed as “Fire Insurance”. I do not have a testimony that is what tithing is intended to be.

    I think the youth are taught to adhere to FSOY for protection from the consequences of wrong choices (play white water rafting trip video here).

    It is taught that way in the church…and maybe there is some safety to understand things at that level as a starting point…I just think the risk is that people are motivated improperly to seek blessings and to build expectations that sometimes will come by obedience and sometimes it won’t (Maxwell quote: “It will rain on the just and unjust alike”).

    In my opinion, God is not trying to give us a list of Do’s and Don’ts … He is trying to help us learn how to view things in an Eternal Scheme, so we can easily choose our own Do’s and Don’ts for my own family…and let you choose your Do’s and Don’ts for yours, as best you see it. And that requires enough vagueness for us all to seek that enlightenment, not seek the law of Moses.

  19. Personally I am very grateful for the vagueness. I wish for more and more of it. Much better for us to learn correct principles and govern ourselves than to be commanded in all things (which then IME inevitably leads to judging each other about all things.)

    I’m loving the picture of Sue Johanson. She’s certainly not vague in her advice! 😀

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