"The Living Oracles": Legal Interpretation and Mormon Thought

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"We have only an outline of our duties written; we are to be guided by the living oracles." -Wilford Woodruff1

"The judges in the several courts of justice . . . are the depositary of the laws; the living oracles . . ." -William Blackstone2


Mormon thinkers have a problem. Suppose that a Latter-day Saint were interested in learning what his or her religion has to say about some contemporary philosophical, social, or political issue. Where should a Mormon thinker begin? Consider the counter-example of Catholic intellectuals. Faced with such a question, they have the luxury of a rich philosophical and theological tradition on which to draw. They can turn to Aquinas or modern Catholic social thought and find there a set of closely reasoned propositions and arguments to apply to the questions before them. To be sure, the task of such a thinker is not simply to "look up" the answer, but Catholic intellectuals do have a religious tradition that has been digested over the centuries in intellectual categories that lend themselves easily to analysis and extension into new areas. This option, however, is not open to a Latter-day Saint. Mormonism- despite some important exceptions3-has largely eschewed closely reasoned systematic theology. As one sympathetic Catholic observer has written, "I have found it difficult to try to understand the complex relationships between philosophy and theology in Mormon thought."4 To which I would respond, "Join the club." Given the difficulties presented by what is at best a nascent philosophical tradition, Mormon thinkers interested in offering a "Mormon perspective" on an issue such as the nature of property or the proper forms of political reasoning, for example, face a methodological problem. How does one begin looking for Mormon resources from which to construct such perspectives? Indeed, on many issues it would seem at first glance that Mormon thinkers might be justified in concluding that Mormonism just doesn't have much of anything to say.

To be sure there is a voluminous body of Mormon writing on many subjects, but the overwhelming majority of this work is homiletic and is meant to inspire and motivate its audience rather than provide them with careful conceptual analysis. Furthermore, when one looks to the content of this work, one finds that much of it consists of narrative rather than exposition. Richard Bushman has observed that "Mormonism is less a set of doctrines than a collection of stories."5 Indeed, the central obsession of Mormon intellectual life for the last half century has not been systematic theology but history. One might point to any number of things to underline the centrality of history for Mormon thought.

One example will suffice. The relationship between faith and reason is a perennial question for religious thinkers. Generally speaking, these debates are couched in the language of philosophy. The question is, as Alvin Plantinga has put it, whether or not belief is rationally warranted.6 In contrast, the most sophisticated and prolonged debates within Mormonism on the relative claims of faith and unaided human reason have been cast as battles between "faithful history" and "secular history."7 Where other traditions debate epistemology and theology, Mormons debate historiography and historicity. Accordingly, one response to the methodological problem facing Mormon intellectuals discussed above would be the interpretation of history in normative terms. Indeed, we can see something like this in the work of writers such as Hugh Nibley who look to historical narratives about nineteenth- century Zion-building as a basis for social criticism.8 Such efforts, however, are dogged by persistent anxieties about the intellectual respectability of using the past as a springboard for broader conceptual or normative discussions. For many professional historians and the Mormon intellectuals who take them as models, straying beyond concrete debates over sources, chronology, and their interpretation smacks of apologetics or sectarian rather than "scholarly" history. …