The Fortunate Failure of the Doctrine & Covenants

In many ways, the Doctrine & Covenants is my favorite book of scripture, and as it now stands it is the result of a failure. The original Doctrine & Covenants had somewhat ambiguous status. Like the Book of Commandments that preceded it, it was a collection of revelations that were accepted as canonical (whatever that means) but there was some attempt to arrange them thematically, and they were coupled with the Lectures on Faith. In short, the Doctrine & Covenants was, in some sense, an attempt to organize and systematize the theology of the Restoration. Reading a facsimile of the first edition of the D&C today, it doesn’t seem especially systematic but there was definitely a move in that direction.

This movement, however, failed. Over the course of the century or so between 1835 and 1920’s the Doctrine & Covenants disintegrated. New sections were added. Some were revelations and some were simply redactions of discourses. The sections were rearranged according — more or less — to chronology rather than to any abstract schema. Most dramatically, in the 1920s the Lectures on Faith were dropped in their entirety.

There are lots of ways of viewing this evolution, of course, but one useful way of thinking about is as the long march of theology out of the Mormon canon. From time to time, I will hear people claim that Mormonism is an atheological religion. This is not strictly speaking correct in my view. We have theology. What we don’t have is canonized or official theology. Rather, we have are a set of more or less arbitrarily arranged and untheorized sacred texts. Theology is what we do when we try to make sense of them as some sort of coherent whole. In this sense, however, theology is always something that happens outside of the text among the readers. Hence, the disintegration of the original rationalized view of the Doctrine and Covenants represents the liberation of theology from canon and of scripture from theology.

24 comments for “The Fortunate Failure of the Doctrine & Covenants

  1. I’m not sure what it means to have theology “outside of the text” beyond the perhaps trivial fact that concrete meaning for any text happens outside of it. Yet it also seems fairly clear that there are rather clear theological pronouncements in texts. I understand the whole theology outside of the text mindset. (And I’ve often written in favor of it) But I think it can be misleading.

  2. My point is that theology is largely a matter of systematizing and organizing the texts, rather than a matter of having canonically identified systematic theologies. IOW, we could have gone down the road that the first edition of the D&C suggested, namely organizing the revelations as a systematic whole and canonizing particular theological treatises. I don’t deny that the sciptures make theological claims in the text themselves. However, it seems to me that we are always understanding those claims in relationship to some larger set of theological concepts that are not in the text.

  3. Nate Oman: “It seems to me that we are always understanding those claims in relationship to some larger set of theological concepts that are not in the text.”

    Are you assuming that we can only understand a text if we have a larger set of concepts, metaphysically prior to the text, that make it possible to understand it and that, without such a set of concepts, we couldn’t understand a text? If so, I think that is an untenable view. I don’t think it will hold up to careful scrutiny.

    If not, why think that a version of that view applies to scripture? Why does it require the “larger” set of theological concepts?

  4. I don’t know that our understanding of a given text or scripture is entirely determined by pre-formed concepts, but certainly we allow them some play in our interpretation and understanding of scripture. How else do we get people as disparate as Klansmen and Lesbians turning to the Bible for self-justification?

  5. Jim: I am not claiming that it is necessary to have some sort of per-scriptural metaphysic. Rather, my point is closer to the classic one of the hermeneutic circle. Suppose I read a sermon in the Book of Mormon about Christ. I am going to understand that sermon in relationship to how I understand stories about Christ in the NT and stories about JS from the PGP. My point is that our understanding of other texts within the scripture is always implicated within our understanding of any particular text. It is this web of interpretations that I regard as being “outside of the text,” If we think of theology as a kind of systematization, my point is that there was a moment when it looked as though that systematization was going to take place within the canon, but ultimately we decided not to go down that route, a fact that the textual history of the D&C illustrates, and in some sense caused.

  6. Are we maybe overthinking Nate Oman’s point a little? The idea that our scriptures lay out doctrines but don’t explain how those doctrines fit together does not seem logically incoherent to me.

  7. Nate it seems we can do theology as merely systematizing texts, it which case I agree it is problematic and limited. What is excluded is the “whatness” that texts are about. One could also take the route that the texts are trying to say something, albeit in a limited, flawed and incomplete way. Thus the texts are designed to get us thinking about these things themselves. Even without further revelation it seems that this change of perspective on texts produces a different theology. However is it no longer systematizing or organizing texts? I’m not sure it is. It seems all that has changed is the way in which the texts are organized. Barring some more empirical approaches. But it seems we can’t get too empirical outside of archaeology and the like.

  8. Excellent thoughts, Nate. Lou Midgley’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, “Theology”, agrees with you:

    The traditional task of theology … is to seek understanding of God’s reality, to describe divine things rationally, and to elaborate the present meaning of past manifestations of God, whether theoretically, practically, descriptively, or critically. 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.

    (And I would agree.)

  9. As I explained our scriptures/prophet to a fellow grad student many years ago during a discussion on theology, he said “Wow, it is really fluid.” It took me back a bit, but the more I look at our scriptural setup, we have a fluid theology that can change and mold with the current times precisely because it is based on scripture and prophetic counsel and not on a systematic approach but on what the current prophet states and what the world looks like today. It is amazing after 9-11 how many members of my ward suddenly found scriptures referring to terrorists, when they used to refer to communists.

  10. Enlighten my ignorance please.

    When was the 13 articles of faith “cannonized”? I just read (don’t know if it is true) that the original letter from J.S to the newspaper man had Fourteen (14) articles. Can anyone confirm this? Any clue when the switch occurred?

  11. Indeed there were 14 AofFs. I read this several years ago when I worked in corporate on the Tanner’s website (hey, sometimes they do their homework for me!), and remember seeing it and thinking it wasn’t much of a big deal. It wasn’t earth-shattering like “We believe that Jell-O is the ultimate form of food, and groweth upon the tree of life.”

    As far as Systematic Theologies, I remember reading (I wish I knew where) one of our GAs say that we don’t have one for the specific purpose of allowing our people to fluidly interpret scripture. So having a ST is both a boon and a bane, depending upon one’s viewpoint. Personally, I’m glad we don’t have one.

    I had a systematic theology course (required) in my M.A. track last year, and I remember reading that in the 20th century, probably after Vatican II, theologian scholars began including the Nicene Creed (and sometimes Chalcedonian, despite its terrible paradoxes) into their definitions of “canon.” This spawned a new form of biblical criticism (there’s a new one, on average, about every 15 years or so) called “canonical criticism” which, as you can guess, guides the exegete to looking at the text in sequential order, but also allowing for interpretation from the canon as a whole. Since the theologies inherent in Genesis to Revelation wasn’t enough of a truss to uphold modern Christianity to their liking, these theologians included the creeds into their definition of “canon” so that they had more to go on. What’s humorous to me is that by so doing, it appears that they’re adding scripture and expanding God’s word, which they say is a no-no and one of the evil, pernicious, demonic tenets of Mormonism.

  12. “What’s humorous to me is that by so doing, it appears that they’re adding scripture and expanding God’s word, which they say is a no-no and one of the evil, pernicious, demonic tenets of Mormonism.”

    What a great point – though they would never admit to it.

  13. For #13.
    Joseph Smith’s original letter (the Wentworth letter) had 13 articles of Faith. Orson Hyde wrote in the Frontier Guardian and had 14.

  14. While I largely agree with Midgley’s talk about Theology (and he’s made similar comments about Nibley’s philosophy) I would suggest that we can learn about theology in more ways than just revelation. I think Midgley downplays empirical methods a tad too much.

  15. The problem with empirical methods is that they rely on the individual to empirically systematize them, and if that person has misinterpreted a key piece (or two, or three), then the entire system is in jeopardy of leading the person astray.

    I’m thinking mostly here of Duane Crowther’s Prophecy: Key to the Future and anything written by Cleon Skousen. Also somewhat so of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine and Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation.

  16. Most of the comments about theology here seem to assume that theology is necessarily systematic. I agree that systematic theology and Mormonism are incompatible: how could you systematize what is continually being revealed? (Actually, Hegelians could show us how that is possible, but I’m not an Hegelian.) But there are other kinds of theology that don’t suffer from the problems that Mormons may have with systematic theology. The problem with Midgley’s piece is that it equates “theology” and “systematic theology.” I know that Louis knows better than that, so I’ll blame the editors.

  17. Regarding the 14th AoF, see here ( a tad defensive), here and the EoM article .

    “Even after the Wentworth Letter was published in March 1842, many other lists of LDS beliefs continued to appear for the next generation. In April 1849, James H. Flanigan included a list of fourteen statements in a pamphlet published in England, and this list was quoted and sometimes modified in various publications throughout the nineteenth century. For example, it was quoted in Charles MacKay´s popular book The Mormons; or the Latter-day Saints (London, 1851, pp. 46–47). This list follows the Wentworth Letter almost verbatim, adding such points as “the Lord´s supper” to Article 4; including “wisdom, charity, [and] brotherly love” among the gifts of the spirit in Article 7; and inserting a fourteenth article regarding the literal resurrection of the body. Other lists (usually composed by missionaries) were published in various parts of the world throughout this era.”

  18. Jim, you and others have made the assertion about theologies other than systematic a few times here. Where should one (ignorant as I am) go to learn more?

  19. It seems, Jim, that the bigger problem with Midgley’s comments is it presupposes that there is no heremeneutics involved in the revelations. Yet I think we all know that there is a fair bit of speculation as we try to understand how to read the revelations – especially given that revelation seems rarely dictated by an angel but comes through various flawed mediations. I’d mentioned a similar problem yestreday I see in Nibley’s views.

    The most common distinction between “theology” and revelation I see tends to be over speculation in various guises. Yet to me that is one of the things they share in common the most.

  20. Mike, I have a very hard time seeing either Crowther or Skousen as “empirical.” Far from it. I see them (and many others) as attempting systematic theology. Crowther and Skousen just do systematic theology in an even more problematic view by adopting tradition sometimes uncritically as a third leg in their systematic theology.

    We probably should clarify what we mean by systematic theology since I think those terms are getting thrown around a lot. In one sense every act of interpreting a text is systematic of a sort. However generally what I mean by it are those people who think that what the author understood can’t be neglected and that there is a fairly obvious to find “God’s eye view” clearly communicated in scripture. That is, we don’t have encounters with God where humans are the prime focus, rather we have encounters with humans where God is the prime focus. By focus I don’t mean of value (clearly God is the most important and valuable focus in scripture) But rather in focus of interpretation and thus how we interpret.

    The scriptures aren’t the equivalent of a physics text dictated by God. Rather they are narratives by flawed mortal people telling of their encounters with God. We see through a glass darkly. That doesn’t mean we don’t see the divine. But God clearly wants the divine manifest through people. It’s interesting that Jesus in his 33 years never wrote a book.

  21. Some might find this post over Siris worth reading. I like his point about Aquinas. To Aquinas theology is to sacred doctrine what the virtuous man is to ethics.

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