Redeeming (Most of) the Seven Deadly Heresies
19 April 2021
On 1 June 1980, Bruce R. McConkie delivered a sermon entitled “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” For a long time, I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts about this sermon. And recently, while writing another article, I found myself bumping up against this sermon again. So now is probably a good time.
McConkie was an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s by far the largest Mormon denomination. And it’s the denomination of which I’m a member. He died in 1985 when I was ten years old.
Perhaps needless to say, I disagree with much of McConkie’s sermon. That doesn’t mean that I think McConkie was a bad or stupid person. To the contrary, I think he was an admirable person in many ways. But he was an advocate for several dogmatisms that, I believe, have harmed Mormonism theologically and practically.
Below are brief explanations of each of the ideas that McConkie deemed heretical, followed by a brief account of my perspective on each idea. The explanations and my perspectives will be too brief for some purposes. But this is intended as a general overview. And I may delve deeper into some of them at a later time.
Like McConkie, I have sought enlightenment from the Holy Spirit as I’ve pondered these topics. And I desire to write my perspective in truth and wisdom. Unlike McConkie, I trust that God progressively reveals everything, including the doctrines of salvation, in innumerable ways to innumerable people according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. That means laboratories and geological field trips can be important means of revelation, in my estimation, not displacing but complementing the traditional religious means.
1) “God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.”
McConkie claims that this idea is “utterly, totally, and completely” false. He attributes it to a “wholly twisted and incorrect view” of Joseph Smith’s last general conference sermon. I think he protests too much.
McConkie does acknowledge that God progresses through expanding creation. God creates new worlds. And God creates new children with divine potential. But, according to McConkie, God doesn’t learn any new truths in the process.
I disagree. To begin with, for reasons that require more elaboration than I’ll provide here, I think the concept of creation is incoherent without incorporating the concept of learning. And beyond that, other Church authorities have explicitly disagreed with McConkie. Notably, here’s what president Wilford Woodruff taught:
“If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us.” (Journal of Discourses 6: 120)
McConkie’s primary justification for his position is an appeal to his interpretation of the Lectures on Faith. Unfortunately for his position, however, the Lectures on Faith are no more authoritative than his own opinion, or the opinion of Woodruff. And the scriptures themselves don’t teach his position.
Similar to McConkie, some have argued that we can’t trust a God that learns. I disagree. We trust many people who learn, for good reason. And we trust some more than others, for good reason.
I trust that God is incomprehensibly more intelligent, creative, and compassionate than we are. I trust that “omniscient” is practically applicable to God, relative to us, even if it’s not strictly accurate in any final sense. And if that’s the case, that’s a sufficiently good reason for me to trust God far more than others that I already trust highly.
2) “Organic evolution and revealed religion … can be harmonized.”
McConkie doesn’t think evolution and our religion can be completely harmonized. This is because, according to his interpretation, the scriptures teach that there was no death before the Fall of Adam. He reasons that evolution would require death before Adam, which would negate the Fall of Adam, which would negate the Atonement of Christ. And if we negate the Atonement of Christ then there’s no need for our religion.
I disagree with his interpretation of the scriptures regarding the Fall of Adam. The scriptures do teach that there was no death before the Fall. But, although most people overlook the fact, the scriptures also teach that there was no life before the Fall. And our interpretation of the scriptures must account for both of these claims.
The best explanation of the Fall of Adam, in my opinion, is that it’s a symbolic account of human emergence into moral agency. It’s evolution or growth into a conceptualization of life in contrast to death, pleasure in contrast to pain, and good in contrast to evil. And it’s applicable to humanity on both the species and individual level. Whether collectively many thousands of years ago, or individually during childhood, we fell from innocence into moral awareness.
We look back at prehumanity and recognize, from our cognitive vantage point, that they didn’t conceptualize death and pain and evil as we do. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t die and suffer and oppress, as judged from our perspective. There was death before the fall from our human perspective. And there was neither death nor life before the fall from the prehuman perspective.
This symbolic interpretation of the Fall of Adam is entirely consistent with evolution. And, because of that, it’s perfectly consistent with the scriptures that draw a relationship between the Fall of Adam and the Atonement of Christ. Because of our evolution into moral agency, we evolved into needing something that we didn’t need before. That something is the reconciliatory grace of Christ.
Beyond the scriptures, evidence for human evolution is abundant. It comes from many independent scientific domains. And it has numerous practical technological applications. To deny human evolution is essentially to deny science, as there are few scientific theories that are more well established.
Finally, I’ll note that, today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on evolution, human or otherwise. So of course a person can be a good member of the Church while either denying or embracing Evolution Theory. But it sure can make missionary work harder when some Church members continue to demonize it needlessly and incorrectly.
3) “Temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation.”
McConkie points out that our rituals don’t guarantee anything in themselves. They serve a valuable function. But we should still live in accordance with the covenants that we make in association with the rituals. Only then should we trust in the desired outcomes.
I agree with McConkie on this one. Rituals, in themselves, don’t assure anything in the future. But rituals can certainly serve to strengthen us. And that’s greatly under-appreciated by many anti- and non-religious persons.
4) “The doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation.”
McConkie claims that each person has only one chance to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That chance is during this mortal life for anyone who learns the Gospel in this life. That chance is during postmortal life for anyone who doesn’t learn the Gospel in this life. And he refers to some scriptures that do back up his claim.
I disagree for a few reasons. But the reasons are complicated. And I actually think there are also practical reasons for advocating a position that approximates McConkie’s in some situations. In any case, I’ll briefly outline my reasons.
First, the scriptures teach that God exaggerates to provoke us. That might seem like another heresy that McConkie would like to criticize. But it’s true whether any of us like it or not. And it has significant consequences for scriptural interpretation.
It merits more of an explanation than I’ll provide here. But this principle of scriptural interpretation is taught clearly in Doctrine and Covenants 19. Here’s the most relevant passage:
“And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless. Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand. Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.” (D&C 19:4-7)
This passage points out that “endless torment” is not actually endless. But it’s called “endless torment” so that it will “work upon the hearts of the children of men.” In other words, God uses an expression that denotes something false in order to provoke an emotional reaction.
I think the same thing is happening throughout the scriptures and in McConkie’s teachings when they claim that there are temporal limits to human progress. They intend those claims to provoke action. And I do think that provocation can be good in some situations. After all, when confronted with momentous risks and opportunities, a kick in the butt can sometimes be helpful.
Second, Joseph Smith strongly denounced any creed that would limit human progress. And I think that applies, not only to creeds from other religions, but just as much to creeds that we develop within our own religion. Here’s what he said:
“I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things, but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further,’ which I cannot subscribe to.”
Third, to the extent that there’s any uncertainty, there is reasonable hope for more and better. This is basic pragmatism, which persistently acts on hope because its realization often depends on action. And we should trust that a kick in the butt is only that – a kick in the butt. It’s not the end of worlds without end.
5) “There is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds.”
This is related to #4. McConkie claims that, after our one chance to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are forever and finally assigned to a particular heavenly glory (often described as a “kingdom” in scripture). He refers to a few scriptures that do back up his claim. And, alluding to one of the scriptures, he expresses concern that trust in progress between heavenly glories would lull us into a “state of carnal security.”
As I mentioned previously, I think there’s some legitimacy to his concern. But I still ultimately disagree. The reasons that I disagree include all those reasons that I mentioned for #4. There’s also one additional and highly important reason.
In the temple, the endowment ritual explicitly teaches that Earth is currently a Telestial world. Yet the scriptures teach that we all have potential to progress, from the world we now live in, to a greater Celestial world. And they teach even that the Earth itself will eventually transform into a Celestial world. In other words, our authoritative tradition requires the possibility of progress between heavenly glories.
If, as McConkie claims, there is no progress between heavenly glories then we could not do what the scriptures urge us to do. We could not progress from the Telestial glory we now live in to a Celestial glory. The Earth could not transform from a Telestial world into a Celestial world. And both the temple ritual and the scriptures would be false.
Moreover, the scriptures teach that future inhabitants of the Celestial Earth will learn about yet higher glories. This implies another case of progress between heavenly glories. And this too must be false if McConkie is right. But I’m going with the scriptures and the temple on this one.
6) “Adam is our father and our god.”
McConkie is referring to an idea that president Brigham Young taught repeatedly. The idea is commonly known as Adam-God. And, basically, it’s the notion that God is a plurality of beings, some of whom came to Earth, became mortal, and initiated the human race. McConkie strongly criticized Adam-God, stating that “the devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism.”
My perspective on Adam-God is complex. Basically, I think it has beautiful and useful symbolic meaning. And I intend to write about it at greater length in the future. But, for now, it suits my purpose simply to point out that I disagree with how McConkie approached the matter.
McConkie claims that Adam-God is contrary to the scriptures. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Brigham Young knew the scriptures well and still taught Adam-God. And the scriptures are compatible with the interpretation that there is a recurring cyclical transformation between God and humanity, symbolized by Adam.
McConkie also claims that Adam-God is contrary to the endowment ritual in the temple. Again, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, at least one historical record suggests that Brigham Young incorporated Adam-God into the endowment ritual toward the end of his life. And the current endowment ritual remains compatible with an interpretation of recurring cyclical transformation between God and humanity.
7) “We must be perfect to gain salvation.”
McConkie claims out that our progress is not limited to this life. Instead, we have potential to advance and progress in eternal life to come. For him, this is qualified by his earlier claims that we only get one chance to accept the Gospel. And there is no possibility of progress from lower to higher heavenly glories.
I kind of agree with McConkie that we don’t need to be perfect to gain salvation. But I don’t agree for the reasons that he describes. As explained previously, I disagree with his opinion that there are final limits on anyone’s potential. But there’s something more important to address here.
McConkie appears to be referring to a concept of perfection that, in my opinion, is not directly related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the notion that perfection is in having all power and knowing everything, and therefore never making mistakes. And that’s not the kind of perfection that the Gospel concerns itself with.
The perfection that the Gospel concerns itself with is relational. It’s the kind of perfection that we gain through love, grace, and forgiveness. It’s perfection that we attribute to each other. And we do that, not because we measure up to some external standard, but rather because we choose to do so.
Jesus sets the example. He loves us and forgives us no matter what. We don’t earn it. He just gives it so long as we desire it, as demonstrated through repentance.
Then Jesus invites us to do the same. He invites us to love and forgive others no matter what. They shouldn’t need to earn it. We should just give it so long as they desire it, as demonstrated through repentance.
So McConkie’s right that we don’t need to be perfect in first sense. We can’t be perfect in the first sense. It’s not even conceptually coherent, so far as I can tell. Not even God can be perfect in the first sense, as suggested by my disagreement with McConkie’s opinion that God cannot progress in knowledge.
But McConkie’s words would be wrong if we were to understand them to apply to the second sense. We can be perfect in the second sense. In fact, the closing message of The Book of Mormon is an invitation to be perfect. And that invitation is for right now and not in some supposed finally-omnipotent future.
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” (Moroni 10: 32-33)
Like many other passages of scripture, this passage does actually teach that we must be perfect to gain salvation. But it teaches that this perfection comes through relational love and grace instead of some external measurement of power and knowledge. And of course, we’re all called to take on the name and role of Christ in the work of reconciliation for perfection.