Is There Any Mormon “Doctrine”?

I interact with evangelicals regarding LDS beliefs. Our way of approaching issues of “doctrine” drives them crazy because they feel like they are shooting at a moving target. It seems to me that they are shooting at no target at all. We approach the way of being in relation to God so differently that we are not really even talking to each other about doctrine. Let me explain.

The notion of “doctrine” is that of a carefully formulated or set of beliefs that are adopted as definitive for a “religion”. For traditional Christians, “doctrine” means the set of propositions affirmed in the creeds or in carefully thought through statements about belief. The careful statements at Trent or Chalcedon were worked out by scholars skilled in elucidating “doctrine”. The LDS Church started out in this vein. Section 20 of the D&C was intended as the Articles of the Church which set forth its basic beliefs and practices. However, Section 20 was a statement at the beginning of an incredible deluge of revelation — and the revelations that have followed have not been nor can they be so easily formulated. We’re still drowning in this deluge and we’re not sure how to navigate these waters. We have no doctrine of “grace” though we know grace. We have no doctrine of the “Trinity” though we know God. We have no doctrine of “baptism” though we have baptismal practices and baptize.

With due respect to Bruce McConkie, I propose that we now have no Mormon “doctrine” whatsoever. There are a few very basic assertions that are not really theological in nature that define what is essential — and these questions are those of the temple recommend interview. What is essential is orthopraxis or what we do and are rather than the content of our beliefs. What that means is that it is pretty difficult to be right or wrong about LDS “doctrine”. I don’t know anyone who has been excommunicated for having wrong ideas — I know some who have been because what they taught essentially undermined and usurped priesthood hierarchical authority. The real issue is almost always political it seems to me.

It also seems to me that LDS are also therefore unfettered and free to explore the implications and inspirations of LDS revelations and how they illuminate issues of interest. We have powerful messages that may revolutionize many areas of academic pursuit. So, for example, because we have no doctrine of God’s providence (like Calvinisists and Thomists who have carefully articulated systems) we are free to explore various ways of approaching these issues and we are free to accept what works best for us. However, we are not free to define appropriate conduct or practice. I’ll address that in my next post.

34 comments for “Is There Any Mormon “Doctrine”?

  1. Mike Parker
    April 23, 2005 at 11:43 am

    Good comments, Blake. It sounds like you agree with Lou Midgley’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on theology:

    “Since scriptures and specific revelations supply Latter-day Saints with authoritative answers to many of the traditional concerns of faith, members of the Church tend to devote little energy to theoretical, speculative, or systematic theology. For Latter-day Saints, faith is anchored in revelations that occurred in history. From the perspective of the restored gospel, what can be known about divine things must be revealed by God. Though rationally structured, coherent, and ordered, the content of Latter-day Saint faith is not the fruit of speculation, nor has it been deduced from premises or derived from philosophical or scientific inquiries into the nature of things.”

  2. Ben S.
    April 23, 2005 at 11:51 am

    “I know some who have been because what they taught essentially undermined and usurped priesthood hierarchical authority. The real issue is almost always political it seems to me.”
    I agree with the first part completely, but calling it “political” does not seem an appropriate adjective.

  3. Wilfried
    April 23, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Very interesting post, Blake. I fully agree, but everything in your approach seems to hang on the definition of “doctrine”, and you’re right to add from the beginning “a carefully formulated set of beliefs that are adopted as definitive for a ‘religion’ “. If this set is the product of long debated issues and final concensus among theologians, Mormons do not have it. But, we still have our own “doctrine” and must therefore have our own definition of doctrine, otherwise no Doctrine and Covenants.

  4. April 23, 2005 at 12:18 pm


    POACHER! (Just kidding)

    Actually as you may know this subject has been on my mind lately too. I posted on it recently but the post got completely threadjacked by an anti (your input was greatly appreciated there). The conclusion I have come to is very similar to yours. Unlike most Christian sects, we do not have a closed doctrine and theology. It appears we are more like the Jewish pattern in this respect with an open theology (though I suspect we probably have more closed doctrinal issues than one would find in Judaism). That means it makes perfect sense to discuss a Mormon doctrine or school of thought but a lot less sense to discuss the Mormon doctrine on many, many issues. While is true there are more popular theories than others, it does not mean that popularity of a theory makes it “the” doctrine of the church.

    As you said, enemies of the church see this as sleight of hand. In their traditions there are set creeds. Therefore they find some juicy and controversial opinion of one of our Prophets or Apostles (often from a 19th century record) and blast it as “the” Mormon doctrine. Then an apologist will come back and deny that the doctrine is “the” Mormon doctrine and show the other apostles had other opinions on the subject and the enemy will think that the apologists are obfuscating. The fact of the matter is that God hasn’t chosen to reveal all of his mysteries to the church so there will always be opinions on various doctrinal matters.

    Perhaps the biggest issue is that most of us LDS think we have a closed doctrine and theology when we don’t. That is why I’m glad you brought this subject up. I think we need to come to the realization that much or most of our doctrine is not closed yet because God has not chosen to close it yet. That fact makes differences of opinion on doctrines even by those we think ought to be “in the know” a lot less scary and confusing.

    I think that is one of the best contributions your first book has made to the church. You have come out and posited clear theological and doctrinal opinions where the rest of us have been deathly afraid to ever talk about “the mysteries”. It appears the word speculate is a bad word in the church. While Sunday School is a bad place to discuss non-basics, I think the Bloggernacle is a wonderful place to faithfully investigate questions that are often referred to as speculations in church. Your writings have served as an excellent launching point for those extremely valuable and enlightening discussions, Blake.

  5. April 23, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Wilfried, the “Doctrine” in Doctrine and Covenants was the Lectures on Faith, as the 1835 edition makes clear. It was perhaps the next attempt at a systematic exposition after Sec. 20, and there’s also the Articles of Faith, but by and large systematic expositions are rare in our Church, and frowned upon as a sign of a lack of revelation. Joseph was all about creating narratives and dialogs—i.e., revelation—that solved problems as they arose, not systematic exposition.

    The Proclamation on the Family has the feel of systematic exposition, though it only covers limited subject matter.

  6. Ben H
    April 23, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Midgley writes: Since scriptures and specific revelations supply Latter-day Saints with authoritative answers to many of the traditional concerns of faith, members of the Church tend to devote little energy to theoretical, speculative, or systematic theology.

    I am sympathetic, but I wonder if he has quite put his finger on the reason. Don’t scriptures and revelations supply authoritative answers for anyone who believes the Bible? Is Midgley implying that people only do theology because they actually don’t trust revelation? Or is he implying that Mormon scriptures answer all the important questions much more unambiguously than the Bible alone?

    It seems to me that implicit in Blake’s post is a very different explanation of why Mormons don’t have a theology, from anything that shows up in this quotation from Midgley’s article (I have only read the excerpt above; I haven’t encountered EM online).

  7. Ben H
    April 23, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    Wow, Christian, that is a big deal if you are right about the “Doctrine” in “Doctrine and Covenants”. Is it that clear, though? How much of the current D&C is really covenants? Isn’t a great deal of it doctrine? Is the 1835 edition’s suggestion that the Lectures on Faith were the “doctrine” part called into question by the same decision that removed the L on F from the D&C?

  8. Wilfried
    April 23, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you, Christian, but I think we mean the same. “Doctrine” in Mormondom must have its own definition, and probably the original, etymological sense, from “docere”, to teach. Doctrines are teachings, and teachings follow each other, line upon line, precept upon precept, with this unique dynamic dimension that characterizes Mormonism because of continuing revelation. D&C was not called “The Doctrine and The Covenants” and this lack of definite article may have an inspired purpose.

  9. lyle
    April 23, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    Hm…so if the distinguishing characteristic of Protestant faith is the direct relationship between worshipper & God (as opposed to the Priesthood-mediated relationship in the Catholic Church), then, Latter-day Saints are _too_ Protestant for the Evangelicals? The complaint you mention Blake makes these Evangelicals sound like Catholics, depending upon Creeds & Councils (Athanasius, Nicea, etc).

  10. Rosalynde Welch
    April 23, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    D&C 20 draws heavily from Nephite religion for its delineation of orthopraxy in ordinances, and I think in the matter of “doctrine” Mormonism adopts the Nephite approach, too. “False doctrine” is decried frequently in the Book of Mormon, as it is the present-day Church, but virtually the only positive, sytematic doctrine–labled as such–set out by BoM prophets is the doctrine of Christ: faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost, and endurance. While Nephite prophets produced virtuosic discourses on a number of subjects, those discourses occasionally contradict one another, are neither systematic nor credal, and don’t appear to have been received or transmitted as such (except for the five-part doctrine of Christ).

    There are a lot of differences between Nephite religion and Mormonism, of course, but I think in these ways they’re similar.

  11. Ben H
    April 23, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Andrew Sullivan sees us as a bit less fluid than this discussion suggests:
    “even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches . . .” ! (scroll about 1/3 of the way down at that link — thanks to Kaimi’s sidebar link)

    Fun stuff : )

  12. April 23, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Ben, I quote from p. 41-42 of Woodford’s BYU Ph.D. dissertation, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants:

    The change in name from Book of Commandments to Doctrine and Covenants reflected a change in content. Unlike the Book of Commandments, which contained revelations only, the D&C was divided into two parts: seven theological treatises commonly known as the “Lectures on Faith,” and the revelations. The title page to the “Lectures on Faith” stated that they were: “On the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.” The second part was entitled: “PART SECOND Covenants and Commandments.” It seems, therefore, that the title, “Doctrine and Covenants,” reflected the subtitles of these two parts of the book: The Doctrine (seven “Lectures on Faith”) and Covenants (one hundred-three revelations).

    That the name remained unchanged when the Lectures on Faith were removed in the 1921 edition is a matter of simple inertia, in my opinion.

  13. Nate Oman
    April 23, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    Blake: I am not quite so certain that we don’t have any doctrine. I do, however, agree with you that we don’t have doctrine in the sense of an authoritative set of clearly elaborated and integrated theological propositions. This does not mean, however, that we are without doctrine, even a doctrine that in a sense holds together as a coherent whole. If such a doctrine exists (as I think it does), it is worth being cautious with, since it serves rather different purposes in Mormonism than doctrine (of whatever stripe) in other religions. I actually had an extensive post on this a while back. See:

    “What is Church Doctrine?”

  14. April 23, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    I think we have doctrine, but we don’t have a theology.

  15. Brian King
    April 23, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    One of the things I love most about the Church is that it is generally reluctant to lay down a bunch of specific directives. The continuing revelation component does and should make church leaders, even at the highest levels, think long and hard before they make a definitive statement proclaiming doctrine. It acts a nice, and I think necessary, counterweight to the kind of “doctrine” that would otherwise tend to accumulate over time in such a hierarchical organization as ours.

    An example: The question often arises among members of whether tithing should be paid on gross or net income. The answer for as long as I’ve known is always the same: “pay your tithing.” It’s nice to have something as integral as how you pay tithing left up to each individual to such a large degree. But we can see what the alternative would be: the Internal Revenue Code!

    Of course, the many members who are uncomfortable with ambiguity or not being told what to do each step of the way hate this lack of direction. But to me it is an important indicator of the truth of the Gospel.

  16. April 23, 2005 at 6:58 pm


    How do you define theology vs. doctrine? They seem like pretty squirrelly terms to pin down to me. I offer as an example the book I’ve been reading recently by John A. Widtsoe, Rational Theology. He says simply “A religion which accepts the idea of God is a theology” (p. 3)

  17. Blake
    April 23, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Nate: Just what is the diffrence between a doctrine and a theology? Are you saying there is some doctrine or some set of doctrines that define Mormonism as a religion? If not, what could possibly be the distinction that you seem to want to draw? I’ve read your post and I am still in the dark. If a “doctrine” is just a simple statement that we are required to affirm like “I believe that the Book of Mormon is true in some sense,” then I suggest that what is required is an action (i.e., belief) even if that action is not one that is completely within our control (since it seems that some aspects of belief are not matters of choice). Doesn’t that really mean that what is important isn’t the cognitive content of the belief but rather the commitment to the Church that is important (i.e, orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy)? For example, I think that Church would be fine with me as long as I pay my tithing, I am willing to be nursery leader or scout master and I don’t say anything against the prophet and I am not a predator or purveyor of sin.

  18. Salem
    April 23, 2005 at 7:29 pm

    It seems the closest thing that comes to doctrine is what is now found in “Preach My Gospel”. The basic principles taught to investigators and new members in this book teach the base of our religion. It has been carefully scrutinized by the Prophet and Apostles and it would be assumed that all memebers of the church know and understand the teachings found within. Seems like this is as close as it gets. Sure, it does not cover every detail, but if those details are even known, would they be considered “doctrine”?

  19. Jim F.
    April 23, 2005 at 7:53 pm

    Geoff: Widtsoe is entitled to define “theology” as he wishes in his book, but to define it as “accepting that there is a God” is a strange definition (and it is, I think, a definition that does not describe well what he takes theology to be in Rational Theology). In my experience, Mormons tend to use the term quite idiosyncratically, often as synonymous with “doctrine.” However, most others don’t use the terms the way we do. (We’ve invented a meaning for “theology” that is different than everyone else’s, just as we’ve invented a meaning for “scriptorian” that no one else has.)

    Here is the definition of “theology” in the OED: “the study or science that treats of God.” That is the primary meaning, and it has citations from the 14th century to the present. When people who aren’t Mormons use the term, that is a good description of what they usually mean. The use of the word “science” in that definition is important to its meaning, suggesting as it does that the study in question is systematic and logical. However, not all theologies are systematic or rational theologies. There are, for example, narrative and pastoral theologies. But they still remain studies, implying both reflection and some kind of systematicity to that study.

    In contrast, “doctrine” is a broader term, “teachings.” One could have teachings without a theology, but one couldn’t have a theology without teachings.

    Though both terms have a fairly wide range of meaning, it doesn’t seem to me that it is impossible to distinguish them. Mormons should do so more carefully, in spite of the fact that we’ve been making the two terms indistinguishable for a long time.

  20. April 23, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    Doctrines to me seem mostly practice-oriented; they are rationales to why we do what we do. Doctrines don’t really exist very often in mormon experience. We believe in continuing revelation, we have an open canon, and practice (ordinances) are more important than any doctrine. I’m not surprised that Latter-day saints don’t have a systematic theology.

    Geoff, Widstoe’s definition is a little too broad for my taste; not everything is theology.

  21. April 23, 2005 at 8:25 pm

    Just to add to Jim’s comment on theology, the Lectures on Faith develop a lot from the definition of theology. While I think the Lectures are problematic, they do develop a very interesting approach to theology. Rather than conceiving of what is necessary for a divine being in absolutist philosophical terms they start with man asking what is necessary for us to have faith in such a being. It’s a very different approach. (Well not that different I suppose, I understand that Rigdon adopted a lot of it from other theologians) Still it orients our thought in ways than a different from what often happens in theology.

  22. Nate Oman
    April 23, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    Blake: The distinction between doctrine and theology is Steve’s not mine, and I am not quite sure what it means. My point is that there is some (albeit problematically identified) set of teachings that constitute “Church doctrine.” While there is evolution over time, at any given time there is some identifiable core of teachings that are put forward by the Church and constitute authoritative doctrine.

    The problem comes in what it means to be authoritative. I agree with you that it is not authoritative in the sense that holding contrary opinions is apostate. It is not even authoritative in the sense that contrary teachings are deemed false. It is not clear to me that Church doctrine is necessarily a perfect standard of truth. It does, however, represent, I think, the corporate church’s current state of understanding. I should also make clear — as I tried to do in the comments on my original thread — that although I invoke Dworkin as an analogy, I do not think he is a perfect analogy. I don’t think that on every issue there is a uniquely correct answer. I think that on many issues there is a menu of legitimate options, as well as some illegitimate options. On other issues, I think that the answer is simply that there is no position. On some issues we have the doctrinal equivalent of a dubitante ruling, a position but one that is open to doubt.

    It seems to me that without some concept of Church doctrine one is difficult to defend the claim that Mormonism as such as any cognative as opposed to practical content. Furthermore, given the fact that members, leaders, GAs, and prophets regularlly refer to Church doctrine as though it is something that actually exists, it seems to me that any attempt to understand Mormonism must explain what it is that is being referred to.

  23. Jim F.
    April 23, 2005 at 8:51 pm

    Nate: (1) I’m curious why you think that “cognitive content” and “practical content” form a dichotomy, as I think you say in comment #22: cognitive as opposed to practical content.

    (2) You seem to take “doctrine” to mean something like “what the Church, in general, believes at any particular point in time,” and you seem to suggest that it may be impossible to do more than sketch that content. Am I understanding you correctly?

    (3) Can you flesh out more fully (perhaps all of this needs to be a new post rather than the form of a response to Blake’s) what you mean in the last paragraph of comment #22? I think that you argue this: Church members and leaders refer to Mormon doctrine as if there is a particular referent for that term. So, if we are to understand Mormonism, we must understand that referent. The conclusion doesn’t follow, hwoever, since we could also understand Mormonism if we understood our use of the term “doctrine,” whether or not it has a particular referent. I am not arguing that the term “Mormon doctrine” is meaningless. In fact, your description of Mormon doctrine, as I understand what you say, seems reasonable. But I question whether we need to ascertain that doctrine in order to understand Mormonism, whether doctrine holds the central place that I think you want to give it. (My question will hardly surprise you.)

  24. April 23, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    Nate: “The distinction … is Steve’s not mine, and I am not quite sure what it means”

    you and me both, brother. Mostly, I was trying to get at what Blake mentioned in #17: orthopraxis vs. orthodoxy. We have plenty of commonly held statements of belief, which leads us to behave a certain way. But I don’t think we have overall structures in a theological framework. They may define us as a people, but they don’t define a mormon worldview or anything like that.

  25. April 23, 2005 at 9:45 pm

    It seems to me that “Essential Christian Doctrine” is very clear. The Trinity (which few truly understand as demonstrated in the various analogies produced); Sola Scriptura (which claims the Bible and only the Bible is the word of God, despite the fact that no where in the Bible is this claim made); and, well, that’s pretty much it. The rest of Christendom is up for interpretation and “brotherly debate”.

    I would submit that “Mormon Doctrine” can be defined as contained in the Articles of Faith. While on the High Council, I once felt inspired to speak on the Article of Faith, and so for several weeks made a very contiuous (I can’t spell this word to save my life) study of them. What I found is that they follow a very distinct pattern.

    We believe in the Godhead. We believe that what makes us different from the Godhead is sin, and that we are punished for what we do. We believe that when we commit sin, we can be forgiven through the atonement of Christ and obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel. We believe that those principles and ordinances are faith, repentance, baptism, and to receive the Holy Ghost.

    However, in order for those principles and ordinances to be practiced and performed, the man that performs them must be called of God, by prophecy and the laying on of hands. We believe that when men are called of God, they are organized into the same orginization as that which Christ put into place, namely apostles, prophets, etc. We also believe that when man (meaning members of the church generally) have received the ordinances by one ordained, they share in the gifts of the spirit.

    Now, once we have this organization, we accept that we receive the word of God from the Bible, and the Book of Mormon.

    And so on, and so forth.

    The Articles of Faith lay out our doctine and belief quite clearly. However, there are many things that are taught, whether over the pulpit, in Sunday School, in Priesthood and Relief Society, or in the Temple, that may not be quite so clear. Let me illustrate.

    In a priesthood leadership meeting that accompanyied a recent Stake Conference, a question was asked by a member of the audience of the General Authority in attendance regarding something he said about the temple. His response was something along the line of “I know what it means for me, now you need to go to the temple and find out what it means for you”.

    What a revelation (pun intended)

  26. April 23, 2005 at 11:00 pm

    Jim: I doubt that I am going to be able to offer you satisfactory answers to your questions. In part this is no doubt because I am simply dumb, and it part it is because I’m tired and don’t have a lot of time, but let me take a stab.

    (1) I don’t know that I was necessarily making a distinction between practical action and cognitive content. It seems to me that the two categories overlap but incompletely. Hence, I think that one can have practical activities with an abstract (perhaps a better word than “cognitive”) componentm and I think that you can have a practical activity with little or no abstraction and abstraction with little or no practical component. My point is that I think that in our discussions we tend to over-play the orthopraxis v. orthodoxy line of analysis to the point where we make it sound as though Mormonism is without theoretical or abstract content but consists merely of a set of required behaviors that are more or less unconnected to any larger, coherent system of meaning. This, I think, is a mistake, and one that short-changes Mormonism. It doesn’t simply teach us about behavior, it also teaches us about the way that the universe is. The Gospel is not simply techne, but also has — I believe — an aspect of theoria. I just worry that in celebrating our anti-creedalism we go too far.

    (2) I don’t think that “church doctrine” is simply the sum of what we happen to believe. Rather, I think of it as a coherent body of teachings that has some claim upon us both behaviorally and theoretically or intellectually. You will notice that what I offered in the post I linked to was not a sociological account of Mormon belief, but an interpretive account of our teachings. My point is that I do believe that one can speak coherently of “church doctrine” as some sort of a meaningful standard even if (1) the precise contours of church doctrine may be contestable; and, (2) the nature of church doctrine’s claim upon us is ambigious (which is another way of saying, “I haven’t worked it out for myself yet, give me some time.”)

    (3) I think that our use of the term “church doctrine” presupposes some referent. It does not follow from this that one must understand the referent to understand Mormonism, but I think that it does mean that one cannot fully understand how we use the term without understanding its referent. The centrality of understanding the referent to understanding Mormonism goes to the question of how central one takes the concept of church doctrine to be in Mormonism. It seems to me that our practical use of the term “church doctrine” presupposes a referent that is some authoritative body of teachings that goes beyond strictures regarding behavior. Consider, for example the way that most LDS would deal — I think — with the evidence that Brigham Young taught that their were men on the moon or that Adam was the father of Jesus Christ. They would say, entirely correctly I believe, that “Brigham’s teachings on these subjects are not Church doctrine.” I don’t see how that statement can be rendered coherent without thinking of Church doctrine as being some relatively determinate body of teachings on subjects that include such apparently non-practical matters as the fatherhood of Jesus Christ or the presence or absence of moonmen.

    I would argue that a central claim that Mormonism makes is that it restores or provides doctrine lost or concealed from others. I would further submit that the prophets understand one of their primary roles to be the safeguarding of the purity of Church doctrine. Both of these seem like central enough parts of Mormonism that we ought to have some understanding of what we are referring to when we refer to Church doctrine.

    Finally, to claim that understanding Church doctrine is not central to understanding Mormonism seems to me to reduce Mormonism to essentially a set of behaviors. Such a claim, it seems to me, flies in the face of the vast majority of Restoration scriptures, only a tiny portion of which are explicitly directed at the regulation of behavior.

  27. Blake
    April 23, 2005 at 11:47 pm

    I just wanted to second Clark’s comments about how the Lectures on Faith have a different focus than traditional tomes on theology — they focus on the necessity of what kind of being could inspire our utlimate faith and commitment and how we know that our relation to this being is sound. That is something that Noel Reynolds seems to have missed altogether in his assessment of the Lectures on Faith it seems to me. It gives LDS “theology” a relational flavor and a pragmatic centering in the way we enter into relationship with God in a trusting and faithful way. I like that approach and I take it to be indicative of the rejection of “theology” and of doctrine as they are conceived in the Catholic and evangelical Protestant traditions. Faithful trust does in fact have certain conditions precedent (to use a legal term) as necessary conditions — in the same way I cannot trust a person I know is not trustworthy. Ultimate trust requires a certain ultimacy it seems to me. I also like the emphasis on the relationality of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as the relation into which we have been invited and in virture of which we can share divine life in oneness with them presented in the Lectures. If we do “theology” I believe that the Lectures are a good model of how to think through our pragmatic orientation to faith and “doctrine”.

  28. Jed
    April 24, 2005 at 1:30 am

    Blake’s definition of doctrine (“a carefully formulated or set of beliefs that are adopted as definitive for a religion”) is unnecessarily narrow. Why must doctrine be “carefully formulated”? Why must it be a “set”? “Why must it be “adopted”? Those words lean too heavily in the direction of creedal or systematic doctrine. Doctrine need not be creedal or systematic to be doctrine. As Jim F. suggests, doctrine can simply mean teachings. Teachings can hang together loosely and still be doctrinal. This may be one of those cases where Mormons define their terms a little differently from others. Mormon “doctrine” is not Protestant or Catholic “doctrine” but that does not mean Mormons cannot claim the word. Blake suggests that the Mormon revelations untame, moving this way and that, like flood water, resistant to system. I would agree with this assessment. But I see no reason to throw out doctrine altogether. Even flood water has properties even if cannot be reduced to system or formula.

    I share Nate’s concern with reducing Mormonism to orthopraxy. The case for orthpraxy can be easily overstated. It may be that the church is happy with me paying tithing and serving in the nursery, but if that is all I’m doing, church leaders would be disappointed with me in the long run. If I am not attending the temple or have not made myself worthy for a temple recommend, I would be stopping short of what Mormonism offers me. To be recommended for the temple, we should realize, implies that I have affirmed a host of doctrinal teachings suggested in the questions given to me by the interviewer. These teachings are not “a few” as Blake suggests at the outset. They are many. They are more loosely connected than systematic, more implicit than explict, but they are doctrinal nonetheless.

    If, for example, I affirm that Gordon B. Hinckley is God’s prophet, seer, and revelator, and the only man authorized to exercise all priesthood keys on the earth at this time, that affirmation implies far more than a simple affirmation of the equation of subject to predicate. Hinckley himself is an instance of a category–LDS presidents–whose authority relies on a line of succession going back to Joseph Smith. To accept one is to accept all. The line of authority is a doctrinal proposition, and so is the authority of each of the prophets in the line. The idea that there is such a thing as a “prophet,” a “seer, ” a “revelator” in modern times, and that these three hang together in a formal title, are further doctrinal propositions. The idea that such a person is “God’s” prophet is another doctrine. The idea that the man holds priesthood keys is another doctrine. The idea that he is a man. The idea that there are “keys.” And so on through this question and every other. Each question implies doctrine upon doctrine. The questions are like zip-it or stuff-it computer files containing worlds within worlds of doctrinal propositions Mormons may scarcely realize they are affirming.

    I realize that the interview questions have shifted over time, placing new emphasis on belief in recent years, but that actually strengthens the case for doctrine not weakens it. These same doctrines have always been present in the church and now members are asked to affirm them before recognized leaders before entering our holiest places. Interview questions aside, in the end I think probably the best case for Mormon “doctrine” is in the experience of converts and members. Mormonism has intellectual appeal. Mormons think they are affirming doctrinal propositions even if they cannot lay these out in a philosophical treatise. The ideas “make sense,” they hang together. Mormonism has its own internal logic. Prophets, revelation, temples, priesthood, keys, etc., hold together in our minds in a beautiful mosaic of world history. Mormons are more likely to weave these doctrines into a narrative or story than they are in a logical tract. Telling a story of God’s intervention into human affairs–that is the Mormon doctrine from the church’s earliest days.

  29. April 24, 2005 at 7:41 am

    Nate said, Furthermore, given the fact that members, leaders, GAs, and prophets regularlly refer to Church doctrine as though it is something that actually exists, it seems to me that any attempt to understand Mormonism must explain what it is that is being referred to.

    I recall a priesthood leadership meeting in which Elder L. Aldin Porter said something along the lines of, “The greatest single challenge facing the brethren is to keep the doctrine pure.” Their concern with this is evident in the existence of Correlation, explicit statements in all our manuals about avoidance of supplementary commentaries and reference texts (e.g. page vi of our current David O. McKay manual, which also recommends it for personal study), and the recent insertion of conference talks directly into the curriculum.

  30. April 24, 2005 at 7:49 am

    Nate also said It doesn’t simply teach us about behavior, it also teaches us about the way that the universe is.

    I agree strongly with Nate here. “The way that the universe is” precedes behavioral requirements; it is a prelude, setting, motivation, and justification for the required behaviors. This is why Pres. Packer is so fond of saying things along the lines of “Teaching about doctrine will influence behavior more than teaching about behavior will influence behavior.” It is also why the books of Moses begin with creation: the rhetorical goal is to provide a direct (if many-linked) chain from God’s authority, grounded in and evidenced by creation, to the binding authority of the Law of Moses. It is also why many religionists approach evolution in schools as culture war: an incorrect (as they believe) understanding of “the way the universe is” undermines (they worry) the authority of their moral tenets.

    Even though I did so on Blake’s previous thread, since this thread is specifically about “doctrine” I will again execute a manual traceback/pingback to my thread
    On Doctrine.”
    This post purposely avoids the question of how exactly to determine what doctrine is. But it affirms the existence and operational importance of “doctrine,” while distinguishing it from “Truth.” It also discusses the possible relationships between “extracurriculur” discourse and the evolution of “doctrine.”

  31. Blake
    April 24, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    Christian: So how do I identify doctrine? If it is something like “Preach my Gospel,” it seems to me that we have a lowest common denominator approach that doesn’t allow us to get past the investigator stage — the same with the Articles on Faith. Every statement we could identify, like “Joseph Smith is a prophet” is so ambiguous that it is virtually vacuous without something further to pin it down — and it is the something further which I think is “doctrine.” Until I know what a “prophet” refers to, I’m not sure I believe that it is affirming anything. For example, I believe that Mohammed was a prophet in a very loose sense and Mother Theresa was in another sense.

    So Christian, what do I have to believe about the way the universe is to be LDS? And where does the authoritative statement of beliefs come from? What you really provide is a chain of authority — and the doctrine thus seems to boil down “listen to the prophet,” which looks a lot more like something I do than something I believe. Of course there are beliefs implicit in the notion that God can talk to a prophet (like the belief that God is personal, can interact with humans in time etc.) but what I do is believe and trust and listen.

    Jed: What do you mean by “doctrine” since the examples you give, i.e, “if I am not attending the temple or have not made myself worthy for a temple recommend ,” are things I do and not statements of belief.

  32. April 24, 2005 at 9:03 pm

    Blake, I think the modern answer to “How do I identify doctrine?” is, “The Correlated material currently on offer.” This is a moving target, and I agree it doesn’t get us past a basic stage. Obviously this means there is a lot of Truth that is not Doctrine, and also suggests there may be some Doctrine that is not Truth. Perhaps a lot of frustration can be avoided by not trying too hard to conflate the two. As suggested in your previous post, this might make some sense from the perspective that what God is testing us on is not an ability to correctly ascertain the ontological realities of the universe in their fullness, but an ability to charitably relate to him and a Zion community. (Of course, some of the former is needed to be able to do the latter, and eventually in eternity we’d have to know everything. It just might be that knowing everything is not the primary purpose of this life, however; here we may just be demonstrating character that qualifies us for enrollment in post-mortal classes to learn all things.)

    Some further thoughts about the distinction between Truth and Doctrine are in a critique by Nate and my response.

    I think you’re right to focus on the Temple Recommend questions to define what it means to be LDS. As you also note, these include certain beliefs that are not completely reducible to behavior (though it might be argued that obtaining the “right” convictions is reducible to behavior, i.e. the standard things necessary to obtain a testimony). These “Recommend beliefs” seem to be few at first blush, but in affirming a testimony of the Restoration and current prophets one is, at least in broad brush, accepting the present Correlated body of material. And while one is not required to check off a list of tenets describing “the way the universe is,” I think acceptance of Mormon cosmology goes a long way toward providing the motivation and willpower necessary to live the required behaviors.

  33. JWL
    April 25, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    The problem with saying that there is no Mormon “doctrine” is that that sounds like we don’t believe anything. Discussions about what is the “minimum” that a Latter-day Saint must believe can sound the same way.

    However, this contradicts obvious facts. Latter-day Sinats believe a LOT of stuff, indeed we “believe all things,” with more to come. We have extra scriptures, and bookshelves that groan with additional apostolic, scholarly, and goofball expositions on the huge amount of stuff we believe.

    What we don’t have is a systematic organization of those beliefs done in the western scholastic tradition. Our beliefs come in the form of visions and stories, and often lend themselves to a multiplicity of understandings.

    As much as I love to indulge in the pursuit myself, I am leery of too much systemization, because it of necessity entails pruning and stratifying, and I don’t know if what is lost may be the fruit. Following Joseph Smith, I think we need to reject systemization and basic statements of beliefs, in other words creeds.

    So, how to deal with explaining our religion? Rather than using strategies such as coming up with a set of minimal beliefs, or emphasizing practice over belief, we need a different model. Blake described our revelations as a deluge, and Jed called our faith a great flood. This is very appealing. Great rivers can be full of eddies and channels, and sometimes murky, but in the end they move resolutely to their objective. I like thinking of the gospel as a great river. It makes no sense to say that some of the water is not part of the river — all of the water is in the river. I may find my best path to come from navigating in one part of the river whareas someone else fits better in another part of the river. However, their water is as much a part of the river as my water, and it is enough that we are both moving with the river in the same direction.

    Now there are some limits to this analogy. One can drown in a river, and there is clearly a place for guidance in how best to navigate the river, or at least avoid the shoals. But there is not only one single exact course to get down the river.

    One question is how does this differ from an “all paths lead to heaven” argument? Here is where the analogy helps me understand what can be said about a minimal belief for Latter-day Saints. “All paths” theology implies paths with many different starting points and many different routes. The river has only one source, although it may eventually draw water from many places. To be a Latter-day Saint is to affirm that the source of our river is God, and to jump in and go with that river. That is it — that is the minimum, to accept, not necessarily to know, but to accept that the water in the river comes from God and that it is flowing where he wants us to go — and then to get in the river and go.

  34. Bryan Robert
    April 25, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    #33 I have to agree with you. We do believe in alot of things. Im really not buying the whole other people have a hard time debating our Church, because the doctrine is hard to pin down. I think it is the exact opposite. You can attack our Church eaisly, because we KNOW what we believe, we are taught it.You can read the Book of Mormon, Marvelous Work and Wonder, On and On and attack what we believe. Like it or not this is our Doctrine.

    Where I am from there are alot of Baptists, and non denominational(basically like a pseudo baptist thing). Well, you cant really attack them, because they truely have no docrine. Every church follows basically the same thing, but vary from church to church. They dont have a book we can pull out and say..ahh yall believe this. If you confront them, they can just say they dont really believe that. Or well, some baptist churches teach this but, I dont really believe it, I believe this, cause my pastor said etc etc. They have the baptist convention, but basically “believe in the bible”.
    You cant debate that.

    I will agree that because we have new revalations, that we are more fluid. To say that we have very little or no doctrine is just plain wrong. If I took everyone of you in a room and asked you basic questions about our Church, our beliefs, our stance on things, our “doctrine”. I would say that 99% of the answers will be the same. Yes we are a thinking religion, and everyone here would probably have their 2 cents to add about each question. However, all the answers about our core beliefs would basically be the same.

    I agree more that i is hard to pin down when we talk abou the so called “deep” doctrine of the Church. These are things that we believe, but are not really taught or talked about on a regular basis. They are not essential to our salvation, but there if you want to delve into them. It seems to me that these are hard to pin down, almost theories, based on comments from Prophets, or apostles.

    If we didnt have a very strict and very known Doctrine in our Church,, we would be like the baptists, that all believe in different things, or the Catholics that have no idea what they believe. You can go to any Church member in the entire world, and 9 times out of 10 they will tell you the same thing. This was also found in the study of high school kids that was done. LDS kids knew more about their religion across the board then all other religions.They were able to talk more coherently across the board then all other religions. Thank strong Doctrine for that.

Comments are closed.