In the temple, Adam asks Peter, James and John, “How shall I know that you are true messengers?”
That is the question I’ve been asking over the last year or so.
I recently discovered Elder Hugh B. Brown’s talk, titled, “Profile of a Prophet.” I compared it to the more recent Elder Ezra Taft Benson talk, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” and was struck by the differences. Who is right? Elder Brown’s list seems to fit the pattern of all the past patriarchs and prophets – from Adam to Joseph Smith. Elder Benson’s “14 Fundamentals” is more in line with the presidents of the church from Brigham Young on.
Here are a few of the fourteen fundamentals from Elder Benson’s talk:
“The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.”
“The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.”
“The prophet does not have to say “Thus Saith the Lord,” to give us scripture.”
“The prophet will never lead the church astray.”
And then add to that a recent statement from Elder Oaks:
“. . . modern apostles are called to be witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world (D&C 107:23). This is not to witness of a personal manifestation. To witness of the name is to witness of the plan, the work, or mission such as the atonement and the authority or priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which an apostle who holds the keys is uniquely responsible to do.
Of course apostles are also witnesses of Christ just like all members of the Church who have the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Now contrast all of that with Elder Brown’s statements where he describes key characteristics of a true prophet:
“He will boldly claim that God had spoken to him.”
“His teachings would be in strict conformity with scripture, and his words and his writings would become scripture.”
“He would have not only an important message for his time but often a message for all future time, such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and others had.”
“Such a man would speak in the name of the Lord, saying, “Thus said the Lord,” as did Moses, Joshua, and others.”
“If he were speaking for God he could not make concessions, although what he taught would be new and contrary to the accepted teachings of the day. A prophet bears witness to what he has seen and heard and seldom tries to make a case by argument. His message and not himself is important.”
“Such a man would predict future events in the name of the Lord, and they would come to pass, as did those predicted by Isaiah and Ezekiel.”
The scriptures tell us that, “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”
So what are the fruits of a prophet? If Elder Benson and Elder Oaks are correct, then how are we to judge? What are the fruits we can look at? According to them, a prophet can contradict scripture as well as past prophets. A prophet doesn’t need to have any direct manifestation or calling from the Lord. Whatever he says is scripture and he is not required to tell us if a message comes from the Lord or the Spirit or from himself. A prophet can never lead us astray so we don’t really need to examine any of his teachings. A prophet is a prophet, then, if he has the title of prophet.
But what if Elder Brown is correct in identifying what makes someone a true prophet? Does President Monson display those fruits? Does he prophesy and "predict future events?" Does he “boldly claim” that God has spoken to him? Does he bear witness of what "he has seen and heard?" Are his teachings "in strict conformity with scripture?" Does he have "an important message" for our time as well as for all future time?
And what if he’s not that kind of prophet? Does the whole thing really crumble? What about the church in the Book of Mormon? What about those times when they did not have a true prophet to lead them? Did they lose everything just because they weren’t in perfect harmony with God’s will? Did the Lord abandon His people during those times? Or did He continue to work with His people, even if He was sometimes slower to hear their prayers than at other times? Did He sometimes send prophets from outside the established order to call them to repentance? Did He still inspire righteous individuals and those who sought Him out?