“Toward Nominalism: Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9” by Gregory Prymak

As published in 1988 in Restoration Studies IV, pgs. 202-207

1. Introduction

This article examines the theological background and theoretical subculture of Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9. It gives particular attention to identifying the philosophical postulates of the document and locating them within the wider milieu of how traditional and more recent RLDS theology has conceptualized the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority

2. RLDS Conceptualizations of the Church, the Priesthood, and Priesthood Authority

A. The Traditional Approach: Realism

RLDS Theology has traditionally tended to treat the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority as heavenly ideals which are eternal, perfect, and constant. According to this view, the priesthood is unchangeable and everlasting – existing with God in eternity, having neither beginning nor end, and continuing forever. 1

From time-to-time, these three archetypes have been particularized on earth and imperative within human history. Adam received the full measure of priesthood and passed it on to his successors; they in turn did likewise until it ultimately devolved upon Moses. During their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites rebelled against God. God therefore became angry, took the higher order of priesthood from them, and left a lesser priesthood in the world until the coming of Jesus. 2

Jesus perfectly instituted the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority among his disciples. Christendom, however, subsequently apostatized from his pure gospel, thereby cursing God again to remove the eternal ideals from earth. 3 Through Joseph Smith, God has sent them “down from heaven” for the final time, to usher in the end of the world, restore everything spoken by the prophets since the beginning of creation, and accomplish the salvation of humanity. 4

The soteriology of this system leans rather heavily on two considerations: a close correspondence between the heavenly patterns and their earthly replications, and the administration of certain saving ordinances. The visible church and priesthood must duplicate their incorporeal ideals as exactly as possible to ensure that they are genuine receptacles of Divine power and authoritative conduits of salvation. 5 To be assured of receiving the fullness of eternal life, persons must not only repent and believe in Jesus and exhibit good works 6 but also receive baptism and confirmation through the RLDS priesthood. 7 These ordinances are crucial to being saved, for they mediate “the power of godliness” to people and enable them to see God and live. 8 On the other hand, those who reject Christ and refuse to be baptized are damned and will be excluded from the kingdom of God. 9

The presuppositions of this conceptual framework correspond to the metaphysics of realism, which holds that certain abstract ideals exist apart from their actual expressions. So the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority are heavenly universals which remain eternally real, regardless of whether they are present in or absent in the world. Indeed, they are timeless, perfect, and indestructible absolutes, for their subsistence is not contingent on any earthly particularization. As such, they determine the identity and circumstances of individuals, not vice versa. Hence when people join the church, occupy the priesthood, or exercise priesthood authority, they partake of eternal realities which have been bestowed on them from heaven. Conversely, the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority are what they are because they are eternal realities, not because they are eternal realities, not because people join the church, occupy the priesthood, or exercise priesthood authority. The church therefore does not consist of members so much as members consist of the church. Elders are elders and so forth because they hold the priesthood, not because they perform ministry. Authority validates priesthood service; priesthood service does not validate authority.

The church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority play a strongly cosmic role in this traditional RLDS realistic theology. They constitute part of the fabric of the universe, intersect the eternal and temporal realms, and allow divinity and humanity interface. They also enable people to transcend their human limitations, to come into the presence of the Almighty, and to receive the fullness of Divine blessings. As a result, they define, measure, blend, and become virtually synonymous with cosmic, religious, and individual reality.

B. The Recent Approach: Nominalism

More recent RLDS theology has shifted toward understanding the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority as concrete, functional, and fluid categories, rather than as abstract, absolute, and unchangeable ideas. 10 For instance, it now teaches that Jesus did not establish the church in an invariable pattern for all time, but let it free to modify and develop its structures and ministries in response to changing circumstances. The RLDS Church therefore is not the exact replica of an eternal prototype but the product of a continuum of institutional and doctrinal evolution which began in the first century and has been unfolding ever since. 11 The church is also regarded more inclusively as the “universal community” of all who acknowledge Jesus as Lord, proclaim that through him the world has been reconciled to God, and serve God with dedication and sincerity. 12

The priesthood and its modes of service are not substitutes for the gospel but symbols of God’s love for humanity and media through which God’s redemptive purposes may be achieved. 13 Persons holding the priesthood are leaders who are called to guide, direct, and keep harmony within the church and to help people experience the sort of life which will motivate them to permeate society with a testimony of Christ. 14

Priesthood authority has never been completely absent from earth, for in every generation Christianity has had honest believers who tried to follow God as best they could. 15 Thus the apostasy is not a discrete event which occurred at a particular moment in history but a condition of estrangement between God and humanity which is constantly active in the world. 16

The RLDS Church does not have exclusive authority to represent divinity; God is also working through other Christian groups to bring about the salvation of humanity. 17 Its authority, moreover, is relative and contingent. It receives authority as it responds to the direction of the Holy Spirit, and in proportion to its willingness to encounter, interpret, and address the actual circumstances of life “with spiritual insight and integrity.” 18 When it fails to do so, its authority is correspondingly “diminished.” 19 The authority of individual RLDS priesthood members is also conditional, for it comes as they provide competent ministry and live uprightly. 20

The soteriology of this schema rests more on faith and personal well being than on institutional and sacramental considerations. The church points people toward eternal life but does not itself save them; salvation instead derives from the grace of God and one’s faith in Christ. 21 Discrepancies between the contemporary RLDS movement and its ancient counterpart therefore tend not to jeopardize salvation and are not overly disturbing. In addition, the performance of ordinances is deemphasized as the means of assuring eligibility for eternal life. Thus ordinances do not themselves have salvific consequences but are symbols which both signify that a person has become a member of the church and reify her or his commitment to accept Christ and serve God. 22 They also express the essential significance of creation, enable individuals to understand and participate in the “transcendent and sacramental meaning of life,” and make God relevant to human experience. 23 In sum, they give people a sense of religious and personal wholeness. 24

The theoretical underpinnings of this system are congruous with the metaphysics of nominalism, which denies the existence of universals and holds that only particulars have actuality. The church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority are not eternal ideas but practicalities which become real only when they are particularized within time and space. They are neither perfect nor absolute, because they are subject to change and development. People define their character and condition: when individuals join the church, hold the priesthood, or exercise priesthood authority, they bring functional categories into play. Hence, the church is the church because it has members. Priesthood are priesthood because they do specific things on behalf of God, not because they hold the priesthood. Authority is received and actualized through priesthood service. On the other hand, the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority are “diminished” – i.e., do not exist – to the extent that they lack members, active ministers, and ongoing ministries.

The church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority occupy primarily functional and existential positions in this more recent RLDS nominalistic theology. Their methods and structures are so adapted as to communicate their message and realize their objectives most effectively. They help people find the richness of life by identifying God’s loving purpose for creation and integrating them in it. Human experience is not a cosmic tour de force conducted or supervised by the priesthood but a process of coming to grips with the real world in the here and now. Reality, then, is marked off more as a matter of personal wholeness than of some grand, eternal arrangement.

3. The Theological Orientation of Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9

For its significance to be properly appreciated, Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9 must be analyzed not only in the limited context of what it actually says but also against the larger backdrop of the movement of RLDS theology toward a metaphysic based on nominalism. The central goal of the document is to reinvigorate the church. So a temple is to be constructed as the locus for providing certain ministries to bless and spiritually awaken the people. 25 It will be devoted to “peace,” apparently meaning a comprehensive personal shalom which encompasses reconciliation, spiritual health, faith, courage for witness, and a “wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.” 26 It will also supply leadership education and enrich the understanding of the church as an instrument of healing and redemption. 27

The priesthood is a special element of this matric, for it has been placed in the world “for the blessing and salvation of humanity.” 28 Temple ministries will broaden and give new meaning to its functions and enhance its ability to mediate God’s blessings. 29 In this setting, “blessing and salvation” seem to refer to individual and collective harmony, as opposed to a scheme of cosmic reclamation.

The negative message of Doctrine and Covenants 156 is that the shortcomings of various priesthood members threaten to keep this optimistic program from being realized. Some have served inappropriately, others insufficiently. Their failure to fulfill their callings has caused the church to lose spiritual power and “diminished” the “entire priesthood structure.” 30 The corrective for this situation has two prongs: to weed out those who are not willing to provide sound ministry and to restrict ministerial credentials to persons wishing to serve God with humility and devotion. 31

This progression has important consequences for assessing the basis on which Doctrine and Covenants 156:9A-9D endorses the ordination of women. The prior theme of committed service (7B-8B) gives way abruptly to the topic of who is eligible for the priesthood (9A). Next comes the theoretical principle that giftedness is the criterion for a call to ministry (9B). The conclusion (9C) is “Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities.” “Therefore” links back to verse 9B and indicates that women’s ordination is premised on giftedness. So women are to be admitted to the priesthood not to compensate for the ministerial deficiencies of men but to allow them to express their gifts – and thereby share as agents in the ongoing process by which God’s blessings and salvation are imparted to humanity.

Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9 follows the nominalistic trajectory of recent RLDS theology. Although the remark in verse 7A that the power of the priesthood was “placed in” the world appears to echo the realistic notion that the priesthood and its authority are earthly particularizations of heavenly universals, the rest of the section pushes in a much different direction. It does not go on to suggest that the priesthood needs to be reformed or to include women so that it may conform to an eternal absolute or preserve the order of the cosmos. To the contrary, it maintains that the priesthood and priesthood authority are “diminished” as individual priesthood members fail to perform their duties. Hence they take on reality and identity to the degree that they are expressed in and through concrete human experience. The priesthood and priesthood authority also are not static, for their functions and composition are being recast to meet the demands of contemporary society. One such adjustment is the ordination of women, which is intended to harness their gifts in the work of bringing wholeness to humanity.

Doctrine and Covenants 156:7-9 thus approaches the priesthood and priesthood authority from the perspectives of ethics and praxis, and describes them as practical, contingent, and dynamic concerns. This contextualization in turn relativizes and removes them from the arena of timeless metaphysical ideals. They operate as functional mechanisms for integrating people in their environment, rather than as building blocks of the universe. Reality within this framework is therefore portrayed in personal rather than cosmic terms.

4. Postscript: Current RLDS Difficulty Concerning the Ordination of Women

This analysis clarifies why some segments of the RLDS Church oppose the ordination of women. Their objection involves more than chauvinism, dogmatic rejection of innovation, or hostility to the leaders of the church. Indeed it grows out of a more general resistance to the shift from realism to nominalism as the paradigm for constructing understandings of God and creation. As such, its dimensions are both philosophical and theological.

Realists are in effect being told that what they have believed is ultimate  – the church, the priesthood, and priesthood authority – is not ultimate at all. At the same time, they are being asked to modify (and in some respects to abandon) their ideal and cosmic orientation toward life by adopting a more relative and environmental conception of reality. Such a change tends to be unsettling, not only because it is so profound but also because it nudges people away from a fascination with the perceived epicenter of universal stability and requires them to interact more directly with life and its myriad complexities.

Questions of soteriology and salvation intensify the tension. Realism is predicated on absolutes which provide bright lines showing what one must do to be saved; a person will receive eternal life if she or he believes in Jesus, is baptized and confirmed through the RLDS priesthood, and serves God in love and morality. The nominalistic system, however, offers no final guarantee that what an individual does in this life will without a doubt produce salvation. Salvation instead depends on faith and the radical grace of God to make up for all human inadequacies and bring people into the realm of transcendent divinity.

The interactions between realism and nominalism are still creating tensions. The challenge which the RLDS Church will face in coming years is to engage its realists and nominalists in constructive dialogue so that together they may articulate a common approach to conceptualizing the the ultimacy of human and Divine reality.



E.g., Doctrine and Covenants 83:2G-3A

Willard Richards Pocket Companion (n.d.)

Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The WOrds of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1980), 8

Original manuscript in hand of Robert B. Thompson, 5 October 1840, ibid., pp. 38-39

Erastus Snow, “On Priesthood,” Times and Seasons 2 (2 August 1841): 488-489

Gomer T. Griffiths, An Exegesis of the Priesthood (Cleveland: Savage Press, n.d.), 104-105

Alfred H. Yale, Priesthood Orientation Studies (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1964(, 15.


D&C 83:2C-4F

D&C 104:18-27


E.G., Snow, “On Priesthood,” Times and Seasons 2 (16 August 1841): 504-506

“Extract from Elder John Taylor’s Journal, Liverpool, May 5, 1839,” Times and Seasons 3 (15 February 1842): 693

“The Melchisedec Priesthood,” Times and Seasons 4 (15 November 1842): 9

Samual Fry Walker, “The Great Apostasy. – No. 2.,” The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald 19 (1 April 1872): 200-201

Idem, “The Great Apostasy. – No. 3. Saints’ Herald (15 April 1872): 233

G.H. Wixom, “The Apostasy,” Saints’ Herald 76 (30 October 1929): 1313-1314

Evan A. Fry, “Evidences of Apostasy,” Saints’ Herald 89 (7 November 1942): 1424

Idem, “The Apostasy and What Was Lost In It,” Saints’ Herald 93 (9 March 1946): 294

Elbert A. Smith, Restoration: A Study in Prophecy, 2d ed. (Independence, Missouri: herald Publishing House, 1946(, 42-49, 134-136

T.W. Williams, “The Latter Day Saints: Who Are They?” The Angel Message Tracts (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, n.d.), 155-156

A.B. Phillips, “The Latter Day Saints and What They Believe,” The Angel Message Tracts, 1840186, 200-202


E.g., D&C 84:3A-3B

D&C 105:12A-12C

D&C 107:10D

D&C 110:8A-11B

D&C 110:15A-18E

Snow, “On Priesthood,” 507

Samuel Fry Walker, “The Great Apostasy. – No. 4.,” Saints’ Herald 19 (1 May 1872):263

Fry, “Evidences of Apostasy,” 1424

Idem, “THE RESTORATION: 4. The Prophecies of the Restoration” Saints’ Herald 93 (30 March 1946): 345

Idem, “THE RESTORATION: 5. The story of the Restoration,” Saints’ Herald (13 April 1946):426

Smith, Restoration: A Study in Prophecy, 79-82, 134-136

Williams, “The Latter Day Saints; Who Are They?” 137-138, 156

Phillips, “The Latter Day Saints and What They Believe,” 188-189.


See Smith, Restoration: A Study in Prophecy, 90-91, 125, 141

Williams, “The Latter Day Saints; Who Are They?” 151-153

Phillips, “The Latter Day Saints and What They Believe,” 188-189, 204-104

Walker, “The Great Apostasy. – No. 2.,” 200-201

Moses C. Nickerson, “The Primitive Gospel,” Saints’ Herald 18 (1 May 1871): 265

Fry, “Evidences of Apostasy,” 1423-1424

Fry, “THE RESTORATION: 5. The Story of the Restoration,” 426


E.g. D&C 76:5A-5B, 5D


Cf. D&C 76:5B-5C

[Joseph Smith III?] “Priesthood,” Saints Herald 24 (1 June 1877), 168-169

Charles E. Brockway and Alfred H. Yale, Ordinances and Sacraments of the Church (Independence, Missouri: Herald publishing house, 1962), 14

Phillips, “The Latter Day Saints and What They Believe,” 207-208

Fry, “Evidences of Apostasy,” 1423-1424

Arthur A. Oakman, God’s Spiritual Universe (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1961), 32


D&C 83:3

D&C 105:11C


D&C 83:12A

D&C 105:11C


Cf. Exploring the Faith (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1970), 164, 168: The kingdom of God is not a “predetermined, fixed order or system blueprinted in heaven and released piece-by-piece through Divine command,” but a “social reality” and a symbol which illustrates God’s purposes for humanity.


Exploring the Faith  128-129, 131-132

Guidelines for Priesthood: Ordination, Preparation, Continuing Commitment (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1985), 5-8, 12


Exploring the Faith, 132-136

First Presidency, “The Nature of the Church” (paper delivered at First Presidency Meetings, Independence, Missouri, 9 January 1979), 2-5


First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church” (Paper delivered at First Presidency Meetings, Independence, Missouri, 9 January 1979), 4-5


Exploring the Faith, 184-185, 188


Exploring the Faith, 130


First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church,” 7


First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church,” 12-13

Exploring the Faith, 131, 145


Exploring the Faith, 131

First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church,” 11


First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church,” 11


Guidelines for Priesthood: Ordination, Preparation, Continuing Commitment, 10, 12


Cf. Exploring the Faith, 106-114

First Presidency, “The Nature of the Church”, 1, 8


Exploring the Faith, 143-145


Exploring the Faith, 194-195

First Presidency, “The Identity of the Church,” 4-5


Exploring the Faith, 191-193


D&C 156:3-4B


D&C 156:5A-5C


D&C 156:5D-5E


D&C 156:7A


D&C 156:4B


D&C 156:7B-7D


D&C 156:8A-8B