Prophets and Scholars
What is a prophet? On one thing the Jewish and Christian doctors have always seen eye to eye, namely that "Abraham is dead, and the prophets are dead." The prophets being thus disposed of, the word prophet has been liberated in our own day for almost unlimited use. Almost any individual of more than ordinary insight, learning, or rhetorical gifts is sure at some time or other to be called a prophet. So loosely has the word come to be used that we must, before proceeding, reach an agreement on a few things that a prophet is not.
The ancient and valuable Didaché, which revolutionized the study of church history after its discovery in 1883, gives—among its most valuable contributions to a very obscure field of study—priceless information on the nature of priesthood and prophecy in the early church. On one subject in particular it is clear and specific—the tests for distinguishing between a true and a false prophet, for in those early days there were still prophets, both true and false, in the church. If anyone who claimed to be a prophet attempted to teach anything of his skill to another, he was not a true prophet, the saints were advised. Prophecy is a direct gift from God; it cannot be conveyed from one man to another; it cannot be transmitted through any courses of instruction. (Didaché XI, 11—12.)
Peter, for example, had the certain knowledge that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Did he get that knowledge from Jesus, his master and teacher? No, he did not. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). Here was Peter taking direct instruction from the mouth of the Lord himself, in the flesh; yet it was not from him but from his Father that Peter got the testimony of Christ. The same held true of all those disciples of the Lord who received a testimony of his divinity. "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." (John 6:37.) It is the revelation of the Father that brings souls to Christ: "And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me" (John 5:37). The knowledge of salvation is not transmitted from one man to another horizontally, as it were; it is not passed from one generation to the next as a great earthbound tradition. A testimony, that is, the sure knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is received not by horizontal but by vertical descent, or, to use Justin Martyr's expression, it is "a gift that descends from above on holy men at a certain time."1
No man who has a testimony is dependent on any other man for that testimony. Everyone must know for himself that Jesus is the Christ. No one is expected to believe the gospel is true because some official or board or synod says it is. At the end of the great King Follett discourse, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, "I don't blame any one for not believing my history; if I had not experienced what I have, I could not believe it myself." And the Lord repeatedly insisted that if anyone would have a witness of him, that witness must come not from him but from his Father. Every man must have his own experience in these things. "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost," Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:3), and no amount of instruction by other men will suffice. "Without revelation direct from heaven," said Brigham Young, "it is impossible for any person to understand fully the plan of salvation. We often hear it said that the living oracles must be in the Church, in order that the Kingdom of God may be established and prosper on the earth. I will give another version of this sentiment. I say that the living oracles of God, or the Spirit of revelation must be in each and every individual, to know the plan of salvation and keep in the path that leads them to the presence of God."2
Obviously, then, the prophetic gift, the highest form of revelation, coming directly from above cannot be transmitted through any courses of instruction, however valuable they may be as preparation; it cannot be acquired in any school. In a word, the prophet is not a scholar. As surely as the words of a prophet are written down in books, they become the object of specialist study. Once the true prophet has been duly rejected and passed to his reward, swarms of experts descend upon his words to begin the learned business of exegesis. The words of the dead prophets become the peculiar possession of armies of specially trained and carefully conditioned scholars. In a very old text, Peter is reported as saying in a letter to James regarding the use of his own writings in the church: "They think they are able to interpret my own words better than I can, telling their hearers that they are conveying my very thoughts to them, while the fact is that such things never entered my mind. If they take such outrageous liberties while I am alive, what will they do after I am gone!"3 Much later, Clement of Alexandria expressed much the same sentiment.4 You see the point: The scholar and learned divine must necessarily get their knowledge from the written word, and then trouble begins. The prophet, on the other hand, who may well be illiterate, gets his knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven. The orientation of the two is entirely different.
This is well illustrated in the case of the Lord himself. We will recall that he was accused by the learned of blasphemy for claiming tangible contact with the Father in heaven who, he insisted, was not just his symbolic but his real Father. Now the men who opposed Jesus were learned in the scripture: He said, "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain" (Luke 9:22), specifically singling out as his opponents the most learned segment of the society. These men could cite scripture for everything they did or said, and in all things the scripture was their authority. Of Christ, on the other hand, we read: "They were astonished at his doctrine [didaché—way of teaching]: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22). What he spoke was scripture. And the same holds for every true prophet. That fact is admitted by the whole Christian world, which is willing to accept as holy writ any syllable that can be shown to be the genuine utterance of an Apostle, no matter how trivial the matter discussed, as, for example, when Paul asks Timothy to bring him his books and overcoat.
There is much to indicate that the Corinthians were altogether too much taken up with the reputations and opinions of scholars—a weakness which ultimately proved fatal. Paul took them to task for this in the beginning of his first letter to them:
"Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer [syzetetés—we would say committee-member] of this world . . . ?
"For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
"The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
"For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (1 Corinthians 1:20—21, 25—26).
And Paul explains that this is done so "that, according as it is written, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord," not being beholden to any man or to any human instruction. The attitude of the early church on this subject is well-expressed in a remarkable passage from Clement, one of the oldest fragments of genuine early Christian literature in existence, as it has been preserved for us by Eusebius:
"Those inspired and, one might truly say, divine men, by which I mean the Apostles of Christ, having purified their lives to the highest degree and adorned their minds with every virtue, spoke only the common tongue; but they were emboldened by the possession of a supernatural power, which had been bestowed upon them as a gift by the Savior himself. They neither knew nor made any effort to know anything about the art of persuasion or skill with words as taught in the schools. The only power they ever made use of was the assurance of the Holy Ghost and the miraculous power of Christ operating through them, by which they preached the kingdom of God throughout the world. They gave little thought to writing anything down. What they did they did with the aid of a power beyond that of men. Paul, for example, the most skillful speaker and the best educated man of them all, left nothing in writing but a few extremely short letters; yet he was in a position to utter marvelous things without number, as one having actually been in contact with visions of the third heaven, caught up even to God's paradise, where he was deemed worthy to hear unutterable things. But the other disciples of our Savior were not without experience of these things, either: the twelve Apostles, the Seventy disciples, and countless others under their instruction."5
From this passage it is perfectly clear that the early church depended wholly on the inspired teaching of living prophets and would have nothing to do with that formal instruction in rhetoric and dialectic which, by the fourth century, had become a "must" for any candidate for the office of bishop.
Of course, God can choose a learned man for a prophet if he wants to, but we are told in no uncertain terms that such is not the type of man he prefers. To the pagan Celsus, who made merry over the poor education and bad grammar of the Apostles, Origen replied that the obviously defective education of the prophets was a most powerful argument in their favor, for if they had acquired the learning of the schools, then their great gifts of leadership and persuasion might possibly be attributed not to direct instruction from above, but to their years of training.6
The prophet recognizes the merit of study; there is a spirit in man, Paul tells us, and we know that the spirit of Jesus Christ enlightens every man that comes into the world. The prophet recognizes the scholar for what he is, but the scholar does not return the compliment. He cannot conceive how anyone could possibly acquire knowledge by any method other than his. He cannot believe that any man has experienced anything which he has not experienced. The great Dutch scholar Quispel is at present engaged in showing how this narrow prejudice of the experts has rendered them incapable of comprehending the true nature of the Primitive Church. "I have never seen a vision," says the scholar, "therefore Joseph Smith never had one. I have seen dreams, therefore I will allow him that."
The world will not admit that there can be more than one kind of inspiration, but the saints have always known better. The multitude that heard the voice of God speaking at the baptism of Jesus did not on that occasion see the Holy Ghost, as John did. Paul's companions on the road to Damascus had a miraculous manifestation, but it was not the same that Paul had, and they could not lay claim to his calling (Acts 22:9). And while many worshiped Christ as he ascended to heaven before their eyes, "some doubted" (Matthew 28:17). We cannot agree with the Talmudist who says that any opinion expressed by a clever scholar is to be received exactly as if it were the word of God to Moses on Sinai—they are not the same at all. We cannot agree with the fourth-century fathers that the learned man who reads the scripture is conversing with God just as literally as did Adam in the garden. Nor can we agree with the popular academic platitude that since the gospel contains all truth, whatever is taught anywhere, provided only it is true, is the gospel. This is of a piece with that other cliché, that since God is mind, any mental activity whatever is to be regarded as a direct revelation from heaven. All knowledge does come, as Brigham Young assures us, by a kind of revelation, but the idea that all things are equally holy, provided only they are true, is a cheap and easy fallacy that would be the ruin of any science or discipline. Physics and chemistry become meaningful only when facts are presented in a definite order and with a definite priority of importance—otherwise everything is chaos. So it is with the gospel: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," cried the Lord, addressing the scholars on this very theme. Nothing is unimportant, he tells them, but some things must come first: "These ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone"—but he calls them "blind guides," specifically because they "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:23—24). The man who makes his own mental processes the equivalent of revelation from heaven is straining at a very little gnat, while he swallows a camel.
In closing let us return to Paul, by far the best-educated, Clement assures us, of all the disciples of Christ. "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11—12; italics added). Compared with such knowledge, he says, "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Philippians 3:8). That is indeed knowledge worth having, and it is to be had only by revelation. It is our happy duty to announce that since the restoration of the gospel such revelation is again available to mankind, provided they heed the words of the prophets, and do not regard their own discoveries and conclusions as the end of knowledge.
1. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 7, in PG 6:492.
2. John A. Widtsoe, ed., Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1954), 38 (emphasis added).
3. Clementine (dubia), Epistle of Peter to Jacob 2, in PG 2:28.
4. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata I, in PG 8:704.
5. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 24, in PG 20:263—67.
6. Origen, Contra Celsum I, 62, in PG 11:773—78; III, 39—40, in PG 11:969—71; VIII, 47, in PG 11:1585—86.