A Middle Path Toward Theology?

(This post was inspired by the conversation between Mark D., Bob, and several others in the comments here.)

80.      Bob

#79: Mark, I guess I still don’t know what you mean. Do you want a new “Mormon Doctrine” book written and studied. Or, a new set of AoF?

Bob’s question summarizes what I believe to be the most compelling argument against developing a church-wide systematic theology: “with all the failed attempts in the past, why do you think we’ll get it right this time?” And it’s a good argument; chances are, we won’t get it right. Explanations and apologetics soon become outdated.

What this view takes for granted, however, is that the church leadership must always speak with unanimity. If we go back a century or more, we see this was not always the case. Great debates played out between general authorities, sometimes in relatively public forums.

This discursive approach to church leadership certainly had its problems (most dramatically in the story being re-told by Daymon and Brad at BCC (by the way, to Daymon, Brad, and every other blogger who writes multi-part articles — please update the original article with links to the later ones, otherwise it’s hard to provide a good link to your amazing work!)) It is more chaotic, less predictable, more likely to offend long-time members when long-held doctrines change. However, it is, perhaps, more responsive to the changing needs of church membership.

In terms of developing a systematic theology, open discussion between church authorities means that incompatible theologies can be held simultaneously. So, while a new Mormon Doctrine isn’t going to be the answer, perhaps several different simultaneously published Mormon Doctrines could be (and don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to compare, say, Elder Hales’ version with Elder Scott’s!)

This has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging that none of them are the “one true theology” of the church, while still providing some level of authoritative guidance on complex issues. It would also encourage church members to engage with difficult topics beyond merely saying, “Elder So-and-So said it, so it must be true.”

38 comments for “A Middle Path Toward Theology?

  1. I think this would be absolutely wonderful. A big problem is the “official” and “correlated” version of how things are. We have drifted far, far away from the “teach correct principles” mindset of Joseph Smith and are fully in the “leaders have spoken” mindset.

    I also love the Buddhist implications of the title of your post – a philosophy where principles are emphasized, and the actual implication is generally up to each person to find out for themselves. There is a tremendous amount of growth that occurs when someone has to truly define what they think around a certain principle, rather than a list of check-boxes predefined. We are lacking that in our church today.

  2. I would like it if the apostles weren’t on such short leashes as to their theological views, but the idea of everyone publishing their own Mormon Doctrine makes my hair stand on end.

  3. Jacob, for what it’s worth, I think Mormon Doctrine did a lot of things very well. When I was a missionary, it was my introduction to a lot of issues I had never considered before. While my views on those issues may have changed over the past decade, I must give credit to Mormon Doctrine (and Doctrines of Salvation, and The Way to Perfection) for first getting me to think about them.

    The problem with Mormon Doctrine (and books like it) isn’t that it’s not well-written, or representative of meaningful engagement with difficult subjects. The problem is that people’s brains turn off after they read it (not unlike what happens when people get all of their political information from a single source). I would hope that presenting diverse authoritative reflections on doctrinal topics might encourage us to engage with those topics as thinking, feeling, agency-wielding adults.

  4. I first came across Mormon Doctrine as a child and it was one of the sweetest experiences in studying the gospel I’ve ever had. I vividly remember laying at the foot of my bed by the nightlight reading about the signs of the times. It facilitated my very first topical study of the scriptures, and first introduced me to cross referencing. It was absolutely thrilling and completely captured my young theological imagination. Like Dane, I see the content of the book much differently today, but will always think of it quite fondly. My own idiosyncrasies today make me cringe either when I hear people who appeal uncritically to Elder McConkie in order to support horrible notions (notions which were horrible even when the book was published) or when I hear people who are flippantly dismissive of Elder McConkie on account of his mistakes.

    I love Dane’s idea. i’d love to see us all capable of recognizing our apostle’s treatments on doctrinal topics for what they are: profound, demanding of our careful attention and reflection, representative of important ways of approaching the revelations, rich with good ideas, normative in the way in which only an apostle’s claims can be, and of course, human, historically bound, and ultimately non-binding.

  5. Nice thoughts, Dane. It’s not just a question of getting the theology right. It’s also a question of having a place where theology can be pursued as an activity. This is a key point: Without an institutional sponsor, theology as an activity will not occur, and without theology as an activity, theology as a body of thought will not emerge. The problem is that within the LDS Church there is no institutional location where theology as an activity is supported or even tolerated.

    There are no Mormon seminaries. There is no professional clergy that receives the sort of education required to participate in theological disucssion. Senior LDS leaders are not prepared or inclined to do serious theology. Neither BYU nor CES encourages theological discussion. Forums outside the LDS span of control are marginalized as “alternate voices.” So at the present there simply is no place for Mormon theology to emerge.

    [By theology, I mean more than just a collection of Mormon doctrines, which come and go and which may or may not be consistent with each other. I don’t see Mormon Doctrine as a book of theology.]

  6. “with all the failed attempts in the past, why do you think we’ll get it right this time?

    I would say by doing the things Dave just outlined. I would add that systematic theology is not the sort of thing that one person can easily do by themselves, and even if he did it would not be likely to be nearly as well received as what one might call “peer-reviewed”, consensus theology.

    As far as the middle path is concerned it is worthy of note that the Catholic Church endorses (in its catechism, or guide to education) a conservative consensus theology. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, for example, is highly respected, and occasionally quoted, but hardly normative.

    One of the big problems we have in the Church is what I would call theological legalism. If something is an authorized revelation, or from an authorized source members will consider it. Commentaries, interpretations, analysis from other sources is considered irrelevant because it isn’t “legal”, i.e. it does not bear the Church’s stamp of approval, or be authored by a sufficiently well placed ecclesiastical authority.

    Furthermore, if the Church doesn’t teach it, no matter how scriptural, canonical, or authoritative it is or was, it isn’t “essential to one’s salvation”, in fact (according to most), it is entirely irrelevant to one’s salvation, a distracting, potentially subversive hobby horse and waste of time. This applies doubly so to anything written prior to the Restoration or by a non-member, no matter how insightful. So the common feeling goes.

    If that attitude were changed, non-normative theology consistent with the LDS tradition would be able to flourish, and the consensus that develops on certain points could eventually be used as _normative_ source material for publications that the Church endorses, under the guidance of the inspiration, revelation, and review of the proper authorities. And the non-normative commentaries and analysis that remain would provide richness to the intellectual life, practice, and belief of those members so inclined to pursue them.

    It is the difference between “that which is not permitted is prohibited” and “that which is not prohibited is permitted (and encouraged)”.

  7. Dane,

    Saying the problem is that people’s brains turn off when they read it suggests that the problem is primarily with the readers. But why do a lot of people’s brains turn off when they read it? The reason seems obvious and it lies in the book itself. The tone of the book consistently portrays every idea it advances as settled doctrine regardless of how speculative the basis. People turn their brains off because doctrine is portrayed as something to be looked up and memorized rather than as a range of possible interpretations due to a dearth of definitive revelation. Having every GA publish something like that would be a nightmare.

    However, I would like to think we could let GAs share their opinions on a variety of topics along with their reasons for coming to those opinions.

  8. “with all the failed attempts in the past, why do you think we’ll get it right this time?”

    I’m not aware of any historical church-wide (failed) attempts by the church to create a systematic theology. Various authorities have endeavored to create their own, but even those were not Church-wide, and, for instance, President Kimball was bothered by McConkie’s attempt to do so with his book.

    One thing I enjoy about the church is how neat and tidily it is run (for the most part). While an entertaining endeavor, having each general authority adopting their own “Mormon Doctrine” would be chaotic and confusing, albeit stimulating in some ways. But I gather that the church organization isn’t here to entertain us. It is here to give us the basics needed for salvation. In an organizational context, unity is an important asset to the church, throughout the entire membership, but especially at the top.

    Despite the church’s organizational tidiness, however, I’ve always enjoyed what I believe to be significant theological range. I think Mark D., for instance, takes too narrow a view. Theology can be rich in a personal or group setting, and our particular theology encompasses a great deal of material outside what is “legal,” recognizing as it does God’s inspiration in varied pockets of the world and varied points in history, irrespective of the organized church or priesthood authority.

  9. Interesting thoughts, Dane. I think it would be fascinating to sit all the apostles down and say, “So, what do you really think about polygamy in heaven?”

  10. our particular theology encompasses a great deal of material outside what is “legal,” recognizing as it does God’s inspiration in varied pockets of the world and varied points in history, irrespective of the organized church or priesthood authority.

    Certainly. It is just not taught, mentioned, nor really discussed, in any ordinary forum the church sponsors, including Sunday School, PR/RS, Seminary, or Institute. The focus in all those environments (more so now than ever) is charismatic and devotional. Teachers are instructed not to teach anything substantive except the barest summary of any particular topic, e.g. that which is typically written in a couple of paragraphs in a Gospel Doctrine manual, but rather to build testimony and focus on applying that testimony in an everyday fashion.

    Now, in my opinion, that leads to a weakening of testimony, and an inability to compete with much more comprehensive secular systems of thought on any number of topics that the gospel ought to infringe upon. And the best evidence of that is the discussion in the LDS oriented blogosphere, which inevitably is done using ordinary secular language and analysis rather than the well developed theological language and analysis that characterize many other denominations, and the Catholics in particular.

    I believe that there is power in discussing topics in religious terms, and if there is no formal theological language, formal topics simply cannot be discussed except in the language and according to the principles of the secular world. That is good as far as it goes, but the language of theology would be superior, and I believe would lead to greater influence of religious principles in the lives of church members, the rest of the world, and greater effectiveness in the way we approach real world problems of any subtlety whatsoever.

    People rarely are inspired in favor of conclusions they haven’t thought about, and the more effective and exact and religiously oriented that thought process the better.

  11. Dane, thanks for the post. I agree that history shows that general authorities held widely different theological views. I think to the extent that such a history is set forth and more works on the history of theological development in Mormonism are made available and accessible that this will be a good development in and of itself. Since such work isn’t very common and isn’t really known, there lacks the necessary frame of reference to foster such discourse. I think this really is the initial step.

    I think the Church as an institution ultimately desires to speak with unanimity. There seems to be no incentive for apostles to publish theological works that interact with, respond to, and disagree with other theological works produced by other current apostles. In addition, while I think it could be possible that apostles might engage in open discussion with each other behind closed doors (and history bears this out) could you really see such a discussion happening publicly where the Church would be satisfied with the public perception that there is “no one right theology”? Such a dynamic seems to run counter to much of what makes the Church desirable for many people.

    While readers of Mormon history are correct that some Church leaders disagreed with and disapproved of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine the history is that these facts was never made public during the time, and McConkie was never publicly censured. I agree with the observation that theology isn’t encouraged but the reason is because the project of theology is inherently divisive. One must disagree with someone. Traditionally, that “someone” has been the “religious other” (the Catholics, the Protestants, the Scientists, the Philosophers, the World, etc.) so in the Mormon tradition it has served as apologetic literature. However, I don’t think it is realistic to imagine that apostles today will actually engage in theological discourse with each other publicly. (I know this has happened in the past in regards to evolution but I believe the lesson the Church learned was not to do that ever again).

    This has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging that none of them are the “one true theology” of the church, while still providing some level of authoritative guidance on complex issues.

    I don’t know if history bears this out. History suggests that no matter how many disclaimers is provided by anything published by an ecclesiastical authority in Mormonism, it will be appealed to solely on its connection to an apostle, without any analysis of the merits of its content, consistency, internal and external validity, etc.

    If anything, Mormon history suggests that only realistic way for a vibrant and dynamic internal theological discussion to occur in Mormonism is for it to be performed by non-ecclesiastical authorities (i.e. “non-normative theology”). It sounds counter-intuitive, but in actuality, it is not. Doing so would allow people to disagree and actually examine and inquire into the merits of theological positions. If theology is produced by ecclesiastical authorities, such a discussion simply will not happen, because I see no incentive for other authorities to engage these works publicly, and if lay members do so, such activity will be interpreted as apostasy or disagreeing with church leaders on matters of doctrine. For example, anyone can disagree with and challenge McMurrin, Ostler, Madsen, etc., without any ecclesiastical repercussions. Yet, the moment someone starts to critique and analyze theological positions taken by current apostles, such discussion will simple not appeal to the majority of the church membership (ending up with the perception of “alternate voices”). I’m assuming one of the goals is to not merely have one small fringe section engaging in such activity but for more people to become comfortable, familiar, and fluent with theological discourse.

  12. “The focus in all those environments (more so now than ever) is charismatic and devotional. Teachers are instructed not to teach anything substantive except the barest summary of any particular topic, e.g. that which is typically written in a couple of paragraphs in a Gospel Doctrine manual, but rather to build testimony and focus on applying that testimony in an everyday fashion.”

    I agree that theological topics are rarely discussed or pushed in official church settings. I disagree, however, that teachers are instructed not to teach anything substantive, and I think it would be a mistake to equate “theological” with “substantive.” There are no restrictions on a good red meat-eating lesson on basic principles of the gospel. Yes, even two measly paragraphs in a gospel doctrine manual can be spun into an applicable and interesting lesson.

    I do agree though that poor teaching weakens testimony and that this is a problem within the church, but I think the poor teaching stems from poor training, not from a lack of theological discourse. And its worth adding the caveat that Sunday lessons are intended merely to be supplementary instruction, not primary.

    Personally I think theology is interesting and I enjoy thinking about theological topics and discussing them with friends and family members, but I don’t think theology has a whole lot to add to the church as an organization. I used to read the Journal of Discourses and lament the fact that we no longer receive that type of paradigm-busting goodness from the pulpit. But frankly, we can barely manage to serve our neighbor, pay our tithing, and attend a few church meetings a week without declaring woe is me. So in that sense I see the necessity of reviewing the mainstream doctrines over and over again and I’ll content myself with musing over theological topics on my own time.

  13. As Jessawhy observed ( http://the-exponent.com/2010/01/11/why-im-still-mormon-and-why-i-dont-homeschool/ ), church attendance essentially outsources home religious education to an independent contractor. What this means is that many active adherents in any church denomination are there *because* they don’t care about theological discussions. The church lets someone else worry about that. So maybe wanting the general church populace to be engaged in theological discussion is a desire at odds with the profile of church membership.

  14. I guess once again I must speak about BRM and “Mormon Doctine” only because I was there.
    BRM was not an Apostle when he wrote “Mormon Doctine”. He was made an Apostle because he wrote it. The book is not just his thinking, but the thinking of many GAs that supported his writing it. He was not viewed as a leader, but a theoretician.

  15. He was not viewed as a leader, but a theoretician.

    By those perhaps who hadn’t the slightest idea of what “theoretician” means. That said, BRM certainly had a comprehensive, literalist, neo-orthodox theology that bears an extraordinary amount of influence from Protestant fundamentalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In that respect he was much like his father in law, Joseph Fielding Smith.

    If the Church today is theologically more like it was pre-1835 than it was for the century following, it is due primarily to the writings of those two individuals. And that theology (on most points) is essentially a direct import of the Arminian Protestant theology of the time, whether for good or for evil.

    One of the consequences of that, of course, is that since the Church is hostile to the development of our own systematic theology, that the _primary_ systematic theological influence on LDS theology is that developed in other Protestant denominations. How wide the divide indeed.

  16. He was made an Apostle because he wrote it.

    Are you sure that it wasn’t inspiration? Or more cynically, because he was the President of the Church’s son in law?

    The book is not just his thinking, but the thinking of many GAs that supported his writing it.

    The Quorum of the Twelve certainly were not very happy about it. A committee of two apostles was appointed to review it after publication and they found approximately 1000 errors and other problems. The original decision was to admonish him _never_ to publish another edition. He apparently got away with another edition only because President McKay was aging in years.

    Certainly JFS2 was a fan, and BRMs calling to an apostleship amounted to an ex post facto endorsement of everything he wrote. From what I have read the neo-orthodox theology of JFS2 was wildly popular in CES for a couple of decades before that. Essentially, the failure of Mormons to do their own theology led to the adoption of the theology of others, leading in part to the theological schizophrenia that characterizes the Church today.

    And for all practical purposes the apostles and other authorities who disagreed with that change were missing in action. The rest seem to have simply acquiesced while BRM and JFS2 single handedly remade the theology of the Church. It is not an accident that virtually all of the former’s “seven deadly heresies” were teachings of Brigham Young.

  17. But Mark, why must the primary systematic theological influence on LDS theology by that developed in other Protestant denominations instead of the Catholic tradition. LDS faith and practice includes a strong emphasis on priesthood, authority, and ordinances for salvation. I recognize it also includes many protestant elements likewise. The Prophet Joseph caused some consternation amongst early church followers for his incorporation of both traditions (see RSR). With such a large number of recent converts coming from the Catholic tradition over the past 30 years, why discount the use of Catholic theology as an influence on our own tradition?

    As a side note, I wonder how the Saints in Brasil, Mexico, Chile, and the Philippines incorporate their former worldviews and approaches to religion in their lives as Latter-day Saints.

  18. #17: “Are you sure that it wasn’t inspiration?” A fair question. David O. McKay kept BRM a Seventy for 26 years or until he (DOM) died. BRM was then moved up to Q12 by Harold.B. Lee.
    “The failure of Mormons to do their own theology led to the adoption of the theology of others…” (Mark). Some of this needs to be placed on Talmage.
    IMO__the Church has many times made efforts for it’s own unified theology__starting in 1833 with the School of the Prophets.

  19. Michael, certainly there was implicitly some Catholic influence on the Church in the very beginning. Nearly all the founding authorities were from or sympathetic to an Arminian Protestant background, however, and on any precept not yet decided that was our theology “by default”. In my experience, there are few things more informative that to study what that background was – the writings of John Wesley in particular.

    Arminian theology has enormous strengths, but it certainly wasn’t comprehensively developed or reviewed in the light of the later revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith or any of his successors for more than a century, which represented a far more radical departure on certain fundamental points that was virtually abandoned by 1970.

    Those points are largely the nature of eternal progression, the nature of divine omnipotence and omniscience, what it means to be exalted, divine timelessness, the nature of grace and free will, a mystical understanding of the Atonement, the adoption of the Protestant take on Old Testament prophecies, and of course overwhelming scriptural literalism.

    And if there were any single factor that contributed to that trend, I would say it was the failure of Joseph Smith and his successors to develop a consonant theology of the Atonement. Without that, Pelagianism – the idea that salvation is a lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, grace free endeavor is a serious risk, something that many neo-orthodox commentators in the Church complained about. In doctrinal (if not theological) terms that particular shift was important, and in my view an overwhelming success.

    But on all the other factors, Mormon theology is a mess in a way that it wasn’t even ninety years ago, when John A. Widtsoe’s Rational Theology was used as a manual of priesthood instruction. We have a retreat to mysterianism about the nature of God and attributes, a increasing de facto denial that we are of the same species, an abandonment from the idea that God works within the context of natural law, a practical restoration of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, a “magical” theology about the Atonement and divine power and omniscience in general, an inability to explain why a suffering Atonement was necessary, complete incomprehensibility about the nature of grace vs. works, no unique theodicy to speak of, and so on.

    Perhaps those things do not rise to the importance of priesthood and ordinances, but other than that they indicate the re-adoption of Arminian Protestant orthodoxy, and the abandonment of virtually all of the unique contributions of Mormon theology. Protestant and Catholic, mixed and stirred, is not very ground breaking. Nauvoo era theology and what followed for a century after was, and is pragmatically counted as worthless dross, and perhaps no more so than in the College of Religion.

  20. David O. McKay kept BRM a Seventy for 26 years or until he (DOM) died

    When was the last time a Seventy has ever been fired? The FP/Q12 didn’t even publish a statement about Mormon Doctrine because they believed it would ruin his reputation. Brigham Young re Orson Pratt had no such qualms, and it hardly ruined the latter’s.

    BRM was then moved up to Q12 by Harold.B. Lee

    JFS2 was the one who “nominated” him. The President of the Church could certainly veto any choice, but ultimately it requires a Q12 consensus. I am not going to say there were not all sorts of reasons why the choice of BRM was inspired, but rather that it had enormous implications for the theological development of the Church. The only good thing about our thin treatment of theology in the church as of the past two decades or so is that it represents the de facto withdrawal of the endorsement of JFS2/BRM style neo-orthodox fundamentalism. Now the Church is agnostic about more theological questions than you can count.

  21. Two things we can learn from the publication and reception of Mormon Doctrine: (1) Attempts to systematize or codify Mormon Doctrine (sounds like the beginning of theology to me) will only be taken seriously by the membership when it’s a GA that does it; and (2) after the Mormon Doctrine experience, senior LDS leaders will never allow it to happen again.

  22. I would say the problem with Mormon Doctrine was that it wasn’t an attempt to persuade at all, but (effectively) an attempt to hijack the doctrine of the Church.

    There are no sources, no arguments, no analysis, nothing other than Mormon Doctrine is what I say it is. Which of course, prior to the publication of the book, it wasn’t.

  23. #21: I did not mean to say BRM should have been fired. I should have said DOM was not inspired to put BRM in the Q12 for 26 years.
    #23: I don’t know of many who thought Mormon Doctrine (when written}, was not Mormon doctrine.

  24. Does unanimity amongst the Brethren and the membership take precedence over the need for a well-defined theology? If the goal is to prepare to establish Zion and usher in the millennium, what are the priorities for preparing the Saints? How would one choose the most important foundational items to be in place prior to the second coming? How would those items be well communicated across multiple cultures and peoples? How would they be implemented?

  25. I don’t know of many who thought Mormon Doctrine (when written}, was not Mormon doctrine

    It is a well documented fact that many of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve did not feel the same way:

    This is what Elder Romney said:

    As to the book itself, notwithstanding its many commendable and valuable features and the author’s assumption of ‘sole and full responsibility’ for it, its nature and scope and the authoritative tone of the style in which it is written pose the question as to the propriety of the author’s attempting such a project without assignment and supervision from him whose right and responsibility it is to speak for the Church on ‘Mormon Doctrine.’ Had the work been authoritatively supervised, some of the following matters might have been omitted and the treatment of others modified.” (Report of Marion G. Romney on the book MORMON DOCTRINE, January 28, 1959) on

    The matters Elder Romney listed included references to the Catholic church, other denominations, evolution and evolutionists, pre-adamites, the garden of Eden, creation accounts, the origin of individuality, the manner in which Jesus was begotten, limitations on “Deity”, geological changes at the time of the flood, about thirty other major topics, and the repeated use of the term “apostate”.

    When a meeting of the FP and the review committee of Romney and Petersen was held about it:

    Elder Petersen stated that the extent of the corrections which he had marked in his copy of the book (1067) affected most of the 776 pages of the book.

    It was agreed that the necessary corrections are so numerous that to republish a corrected edition of the book would be such an extensive repudiation of the original as to destroy the credit of the author; that the republication of the book should be forbidden and that the book should be repudiated in such a way as to save the career of the author as one of the General Authorities of the Church. It was also agreed that this decision should be announced to the Council of the Twelve before I talk to the author. (Office Journal of President David O. Mckay, January 7, 1960)

    From the same record, the next day:

    The First Presidency held a meeting. We decided that Bruce R. McConkie’s book, ‘Mormon Doctrine’ recently published by Bookcraft Company, must not be re-published, as it is full of errors and misstatements, and it is most unfortunate that it has receive such wide circulation. It is reported to us that Brother McConkie has made corrections to his book, and is now preparing another edition. We decided this morning that we do not want him to publish another edition. (ibid., January 8, 1960, emphasis added)

    A few weeks later:

    Was engaged in the meeting of the First Presidency. I reported to my counselors that I had talked with President Joseph Fielding Smith about the decision that the book ‘Mormon Doctrine’ should not be republished and about handling the matter to avoid undermining Brother McConkie’s influence. President Smith agreed that the book should not be republished, and said he would talk with Brother McConkie. (ibid., January 8, 1960, emphasis added)

    It is worth mentioning that while Joseph Fielding Smith shared a similar approach to theology, his multi-volume series Doctrines of Salvation is a model of decorum and restraint by comparison.

  26. Why were they so worried about preserving his reputation and influence if he had that many mistakes in the book? And I find it strange they classify the “calling” as a general authority as a “career”.

    Would the same consideration for maintaining an errant author’s reputation and influence be given today? Or was it just because Brother McConkie was a general authority?

  27. Would the same consideration for maintaining an errant author’s reputation and influence be given today?

    If the author wasn’t a general authority, the contents of the book would probably have been unobjectionable – private opinion, more or less. A title like that, however, would probably have led to a public disavowal.

  28. In his biography of his father, Joseph Fielding McConkie states that six years later:

    “On July 5, 1966, President McKay invited Elder McConkie into his office and gave approval for the book to be reprinted if appropriate changes were made and approved. Elder Spencer W. Kimball [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] was assigned to be Elder McConkie’s mentor in making those changes. … My father told me that President McKay had so directed him. In addition to that, I am in possession of handwritten papers by my father affirming that direction.”

  29. I seem to recall Elder McConkie himself saying that being a General Authority does not make a person a theologian, and that the opinions of a GA on issues for which no authoritative revelation has been received are not inherently more reliable than the opinions of any other church member.

    My guess is that the Brethren don’t want to see a situation where church members become partisans of one GA or another, in the way that the Corinthian saints declared themselves followers of Paul, Apollos, or other popular teachers.

    Daniel C. Peterson wrote in an editor’s introduction to an issue of the FARMS Review a few years ago, as he commented on criticisms of Mormonism in a book of essays by Evangelical Christians, that Morminism does not have a “theology” that forms a logical structure of deductions on religious issues, but rather has a “history” of revelations. My reading of a number of statements by Joseph Smith is that he was concerned about any attempt to comprehensively reason out answers to all the questions raised by the revelations in the scriptures, because the opinions of men would form a straitjacket that unnecessarily binds and limits the ability to receive, and accept, new revelations from God, the kinds of limits that the historical creeds imposed on traditional Christian thought.

    Certainly, for each of us who needs to create a structure for our understanding of ANY body of knowledge (a curse that made it impossible for me to continue in an MBA program because the courses were random scraps of information and practices rather than an integrated theory), the church ends up leaving us with the challenge, and the opportunity, to construct our own individual pictures of Mormon “theology”. There are some like Blake Ostler who are compelled to do so, and able to do so, in such a coherent way that it is worth the time of the rest of us to read and understand it. For most of us, our personal take on LDS theology burps out in fragments in blogs like this one.

    On the other hand, it is not at all clear that having constructed a comprehensive theology of our own, or buying into someone else’s, is in any way a prerequisite for exaltation. The requirements for attaining the Terrestrial Kingdom are not complex and do not require even a nodding acquaintance with the most basic doctrines of Mormonism. It is also clear that the Restored Gospel is not a gnostic sect, that requires us to acquire knowledge or enlightenment in some fashion in order to receive the full Celestial benefit of the Atonement. Even at the Celestial level, it is more how we respond to what limited amount we do know, rather than the volume of the knowledge we acquire, and can recite, that determines our eternal reward, and our opportunity to continue growing in knowledge through the eternities. Those who hang out on blogs are tempted to see our activities here as an aspect of our eternal progression. But God has not indicated that he regards our interest in snappy repartee to be an essential prerequisite for immigrants to His presence.

    Not that working our our own theological understanding has no worth. It is necessary for those of us who need such intellectual structure to be able to develop such a detailed and coherent understanding, and those who have constructed a personal theology can help persuade people of like concerns and temperament to embrace and trust the Restored Gospel. But those who don’t need theology in order to motivate their making and keeping of covenants with God just don’t need it.

    Robert Millet tells the story of how, in a conversation with an Evangelical minister (and friend), he is told that Mormonism depends on “feelings” while “Christianity” is based on “facts” and reasoned theology. Brother Millet questions that assertion, noting the many humble Christians who love Christ but have no appreciation for the finer points of theology.

  30. What about The Encyclopedia of Mormonism?

    I think, in many ways, it marks the resurgence of the other approach to a systematic theology.

    Currently, as I see it, there are four major camps.

    1. The fading Mormon Doctrine Camp. (it may yet resurge).
    2. The FARMS/Nibley Camp (which seems to have survived Nibley’s death) and which is reflected by the Encyclopedia.
    3. The minimalist “Teachings” series (the excerpted quotes from various prophets) used for manuals the past few years. It reduces LDS theology to a very minimalist set of core beliefs.
    4. The diffusionist camp that is marked by books such as Believing Christ. (It could well fade away, though it is gaining in strength at present).

    It is fascinating to consider just how those groups are currently represented and facilitated by the current CES and other materials.

  31. What about The Encyclopedia of Mormonism?

    The EOM documents contemporary Mormon doctrine, such as it is, fairly well. It just isn’t particularly encyclopedic with regard to traditions in Mormon theology, nor does it address the issues of systematic theology at all in my experience.

    Another problem it has it that several articles do not represent a neutral point of view, but rather advocate (rather than describe) some controversial position or another, which is a critical flaw in any work claiming to be an encyclopedia.

    Finally, no encyclopedia of Mormonism can be complete without an extensive discussion of the aspects of pre-Restoration theology that bear an enormous influence on the history of Mormon theology and belief, and still do. There is a tendency to deny that such influences exist, unfortunately, and for pretty obvious reasons.

  32. It is interesting that a knowledge of conventional Protestant theology tends to highlight certain concepts that were borrowed into Mormon teachings at various points, while Protestant critics of Mormon doctrines do not seem to be aware of such diffucion or borrowing, even when they also espouse the idea that Mormons would eventually come to embrace a more conventional theology (ala the Community of Christ AKA Reorganized LDS). It would seem to be in the interest of Evangelicals who want to see a Mormon transformation into Protestantism to fully catelogue all such borrowings that are broadly accepted among Mormons as orthodox. It would then give us Mormons an opportunity to reconsider whether we are successfully preserving and communicating the distinctive doctrines of the Restoration.

    I was told by a GA who has a home in my former ward in Idaho that he was distressed by so many churches, Protestant and Catholic, appearing to adopt viewpoints that were once markers of distinctive Mormon doctrine that differentiated us from them. He sees these changes in other churches as partly an effort to decrease the attractiveness of LDS doctrine. Among these he classed the fact that the Catholic church had backed off its endorsement of the idea that unbaptized infants went to Limbo, while that church now claims to be agnostic on the fate of unbaptized innocents. Another area are varous ideas about how salvation might be obtained by people who failed to hear the Christian gospel during their mortal lives, ranging from a belief that all persons are given a one-time opportunity to accept Christ at the moment of death, to a more Mormon-like belief, based on 1 Peter 3 and 4, in post-mortal evangelization of the spirits of the dead. (Since the need for baptism is not a universal requirement among Evangelicals, even among “Baptists” now, they avoid the fact that no Protestant has performed baptisms for the dead.)

  33. I was told by a GA who has a home in my former ward in Idaho that he was distressed by so many churches, Protestant and Catholic, appearing to adopt viewpoints that were once markers of distinctive Mormon doctrine that differentiated us from them.

    I would call that a first class success, not anything to be distressed about. If other denominations adopt all the points of LDS doctrine, we can just have a grand merger and be done with it.

  34. In defense of Mormonism, Protestants who expect the LDS Church to have a well-defined set of doctrines like any other denomination are unfairly expecting us to simply be another Protestant denomination (while, of course, at the same time rather schizophrenically denying that we are legitimately Protestant). If we are seen instead as a broader religious tradition (think Shipps), the open and undefined state of most LDS doctrine is more understandable. It’s like looking at all of Protestantism as a whole.

    Another consideration is if the price of unanimity of senior leaders is us not having clearly defined “official” doctrine, it is probably worth the tradeoff. We’re better off with unity. Again, the contrast with Protestants is instructive. Doctrine, however pure or correct, doesn’t do as much work as you might think. Look at how many modern Protestant megachurches willingly downplay or ignore denominational labels and doctrinal differences. So now they end up with both mushy doctrine and organizational fragmentation.

  35. Dave,

    You state that the price of unanimity of senior leaders is worth the tradeoff. However, such unanimity does have costs. Think of all the blacks that suffered by not going to the Temple, receiving the Sealing Ordinances, and being denied the Priesthood all in the name of unanimity. Because of the prejudice and stubbornness of a number general authorities, the change in Priesthood policy was deferred for almost 20 years.

    We now face painful challenges in the church in defining the place of women as well as natural eunuchs (gays and lesbians) in the overall plan of salvation. We have issues in defining gender roles from an eternal perspective and we also have an imperative to separate Utah LDS culture from the truths of restored gospel so that globalization of the Church succeeds. We have a rising generation that is becoming disconnected from personal prayer, scripture study, pondering, and receiving personal revelation due to short attention spans and constantly being entertained.

    If unanimity is to be successful, it must find a way to reconcile itself with the natural human tendency to avoid seeking additional truths to today’s challenges. Many people suffering with dissonance between their knowledge of the restored gospel and what they learn from daily experience need to know that the issues are at least on the minds of the Brethren. A shield of unanimity does not reveal what is being discussed behind the scenes. That is why the biographies on President McKay and President Kimball were so refreshing for many of us. Those books provided hope that the dissonance can be bridged or, at least, minimized.

  36. If we are seen instead as a broader religious tradition (think Shipps), the open and undefined state of most LDS doctrine is more understandable. It’s like looking at all of Protestantism as a whole.

    The difference is that within Protestantism, there are at least two major systematic theologies. Those provide a foundation for a richness of belief and understanding regardless of whether they are adopted by any particular denomination or not.

    I don’t think that any systematic or comprehensive theology should be canonized or turned into the doctrine of the Church. That would be a disaster. The Church however, can certainly survey and encourage various approaches to the problem in the appropriate forums without canonizing one or the other of them.

    Sometimes we get books that say “so and so thought this” and “so and so thought that”, but rarely is there ever any indication of _why_ they thought that. Perhaps the biggest problem with Mormon Doctrine is that there isn’t a trace of evidence as to how BRM came to the conclusions he did. The same goes for the endless number of books that are published that consist of nothing more than tiny excerpts of what some authority said on some subject or another.

    Even revelations have an internal logic to them (see the Manifesto or much of the New Testament for an example), and it impoverishes the membership for that logic to be concealed as something “above their pay grade”. The attitude of the Catholic church is _overwhelmingly_ that reason, properly applied, strengthens faith. The tradition for many decades now in our denomination is that reason applied to religious questions tends to weaken it.

    That is fideism for you, and in my opinion it leads to a hollowing out of faith and belief, essentially making it vulnerable to the very attack that the advocates are trying to avoid in the first place. No more is this in evidence than all the directives, policies, etc that are delivered without any rationale. While it is in good order to follow such directives, especially those pertaining to the operations of the Church, something seems to be awfully wrong when the desire to understand them is considered to be subversive.

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