How Do We Tell Doctrine?

“Doctrine” is one of those funny words where it seems inevitably to shift in meaning even within a single discussion. I’ll confess whenever I hear it spoken of I often put myself on guard. Not because I don’t have a fair bit of confidence in doctrine but because I suspect the discussion will inevitably equivocate between idealized doctrine as what we’ll one day believe and what is normatively taught at any particular time. Throw in the disagreements about what constitutes doctrine in either category and things get confusing quickly.

There’s a lot to keep straight in all this. Consider normative doctrine or what the Church practically believes. Do we go by what the majority of members believe? Probably not a wise bet since I’m often surprised just how ill informed the typical member is of even basic scriptural narratives and practices. It’s useful to know the variety of beliefs among the laity, but it’s almost impossible to know how many people believe what — especially when usually our only reference is what gets said in the wards we attend and the people we know. Do we go by what more informed members believe? The problem there is that there’s often a bit of a confirmation bias. Even when we get past that we have the problem of what constitutes being informed. There’s then also again the problem of a larger range of beliefs among the informed than one might at first expect. Do we go by what gets said through Church vehicles? The problem there is that many tend to think certain venues, such as CES instructors, tend to bias certain Church figures at the exclusion of others. There have over the years been problematic articles in the Ensign (although far less than critics portray) although that’s a nice way of figuring safe beliefs. Do we go by what BYU says? Again though there are problems there not to mention big divisions between various groups.

When it comes to what we should believe rather than what is normative things get even trickier. I’ve noticed that most people have a loose hierarchy where scriptures are seen as most trustworthy, then Joseph Smith, then respected recent general authorities, and finally old general authorities with statements from the early Utah period typically coming in last. These aren’t fully followed of course. There are lots of things it doesn’t appear Joseph taught that most people believe, like the idea that we are literally children of our heavenly father and mother.[1] In the King Follet Discourse Joseph taught that children who die young are resurrected as children to be raised again – a “doctrine” I don’t know many people subscribe to. Typically when the King Follet Discourse pops up in a church publication that section is removed or caveats added.

It’s interesting that many doctrines seem inferred rather than having a clear revelation. I don’t think that makes them any less a doctrine. For instance our views on gender seem to have been solidified in the Proclamation on the Family. Nearly everything in it was standard doctrine before it’s release. Yet the mere fact the Prophet put it in that form gives it far more weight than it had before. Arguably people are far more trusting of the Proclamation than they are the King Follet Discourse or Sermon in the Grove.

Jim Faulconer once said that Mormons are far more focused on practice than doctrine. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. For as much as we talk about doctrine, in practice we don’t focus on it much. I don’t particularly care what my Bishop believes about the theology of the King Follet Discourse. It just doesn’t matter and isn’t what I look to him for. Likewise if I were to discover my home teacher has some odd idiosyncratic theological notions, I might be amused, but with some exceptions I don’t think it’d affect things much at all. That’s not to say I don’t think theology matters. It often does and often shapes our practices. Would we act socially the way we do if we didn’t have a theology of life as a test and families as the key to divinity? Probably not. Theology shapes practice. Given all the blurriness with regards to doctrine it’s often surprising just how much we all do agree upon though. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect the places theology is more disagreed upon tend to be the doctrines whose implications affect practice the least. There are exceptions of course. But I bet most of the places theology is seen apostate are also the theology that affects practice in ways most are disturbed by.

So I throw things out to you. What do you mean by doctrine? What we will ultimately believe? What we now believe? And how do you decide what counts?

[1] Jonathan Stapley over at BCC has had several great posts about this.

45 comments for “How Do We Tell Doctrine?

  1. I don’t see doctrine as binary–a yes or no proposition. Doctrines differ by degrees from core to periphery. As you move to the periphery, doctrines become more varied or even contradictory. What makes doctrine more core is that they are repeated more frequently by church leaders and in church manuals. Repetition makes it core.

  2. In my experience, “doctrine” is whatever statement by general authorities/scripture that supports the point one is currently trying to make. I find that the doctrinal belief is often not the beginning, from which personal belief originates. Rather, people begin with their personal beliefs and work backwards, finding “doctrines” that serve as anchors in their discourse. So, I see utility as the defining characteristic of Doctrine. If it’s not useful, it doesn’t count.

  3. This is an area that for decades I thought I understood, but then when it felt like it was really important for my faith it seemed to turn into jello and I can’t pin it down. Right now it feels to me like there is so much retreat from what once was considered revelation, but now considered, “just speaking as a man” that I have a hard time thinking that today’s “doctrine” (however you define it) will be overturned. That is concerning, but not nearly as much as the constant, “God’s doctrine NEVER changes” and if you point to where it has, you are shamed and/or that previous leader is thrown under the bus.

  4. I think this Jesus fellow had the right idea about what is and what is not doctrine, and the importance of keeping that definition foundational: See 3 Nephi 1:39-40

    Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this [faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost] is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.

    And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.

  5. I think doctrine may be impossible to define in the LDS church. When I do a search for the word “doctrine” on, it is used to refer to the “doctrine of Christ” mentioned by Kevin Christensen above. But it is also used to refer to many other teachings. The “core doctrines” of the Church include: the Godhead, the plan of salvation, the atonement, the restoration, prophets and revelation, priesthood and priesthood keys, ordinances and covenants, marriage and family, commandments. The “Doctrine” in Doctrine and Covenants was originally the Lectures on Faith. Members of the Church commonly use the word to refer to any number of teachings like the falsehood of evolution or that the flood of Noah covered all the ground on Earth. I have heard church leaders attempt to specify what is doctrine, but then get contradicted. The word may be undefinable.

  6. Kevin, The problem is that it’s kind of vague. Faith in what? How much is necessary? What needs to be repented of? How much constitutes true repentance? Which baptism? By which authority, if any? What does the Holy Ghost even mean? Was Jesus even talking about these four things or something else altogether?

    People place their own interpretations on it then use that verse (and others like it) as a cudgel to declare others heretic or less enlightened.

  7. Turtle, I do think that’s common and perhaps not as indefensible as some portray it. I am a strong believer in the idea that beliefs are not volitional but happen to us. So long as we are doing our duty by inquiring carefully and critically I think just going by what we can’t help but believing strong has a lot of validity. The problem is of course that many people who take that route haven’t really done a lot of research or thought.

    Happy, I’m not sure there is a lot of retreat. I think in some quarters there’s more of an emphasis to track down why a particular belief originates. The danger is of course privileging some sources too much. You see this somewhat with dismissing of anything Brigham Young said but privileging anything Joseph said. I’m not sure that works for theology for a variety of reasons. That said though I think many people thought some common beliefs were doctrine simply because they were promoted by certain books like McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine not realizing the variety of beliefs on particular topics by even then contemporary authorities.

    Kevin, while I’m fine talking about the core doctrines of the gospel, which are fairly simple, it’s doctrine in the broader sense that seems more difficult. I’m not at all convinced we should restrict the term just to that narrow sense.

  8. I appreciate Charles Harrell’s observation that theology is at least partly a human endeavor (maybe primarily). I’ve been thinking a lot about theology lately and will be writing something on it sometime in the near future, but as a simplistic summary of my thinking so far, I would suggest that the reason we even have theology is that God has not been very clear about what really is the nature of eternity and our place in it, or the nature and purposes of our earthly experience. If God had revealed the details a little more clearly, there would be no need for theology (or all our LDS attempts at putting the pieces together in a sensible way).

    Jonathan Stapley’s recent BCC post about “Plans of Salvation” was a good example. He listed about eight different plans, complete with differing charts, based on the understanding of various Mormon authorities, from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to James Talmage and Bruce McConkie. They all differed, some of them quite radically. So, if we don’t really have a very good grip on the most fundamental element of our religion, the plan of salvation, what do we understand? Theology is our attempt to make sense of the incomplete and sometimes contradictory information we get through scripture and revelation.

    My more disconcerting question thus far is, why is God so vague in what he reveals? We claim to have the TRUTH, but that seems self-congratulatory rather than accurate. At best, we have a muddy view of truth, and if you speak at length with any group of Latter-day Saints, you’ll find that none of them actually believe the same things, not when you get into the details. Maybe this is why missionary lessons and general conference talks stick to generalities. Maybe the “general” in general conference has a different meaning than we usually think it does.

  9. Why, it’s easy: If a teaching from a Church authority appears exclusionary, fantastical, or otherwise indefensible, then it’s not doctrine.

  10. MH – that’s an even more insubstantial bar than Kevin gave (which is impressive).

    What of Christs teachings that excluded the rich and haughty? What of the doctrine that believes in dead people coming back to life or evil spirits being cast into swine? What of cursing a fruit tree simply because it didn’t have any fruit?

    “exclusionary, fantastical, or otherwise indefensible” is much, much more up to personal interpretation.

  11. The problem with this sort of discussion is that so many things that appear to be Doctrine (with a capital D) to one person or one leader or even most Mormons at a particular time turn out, later on, to be reclassified as folk doctrine. The harder you look, the more things fall into that category.

    If you define Doctrine as unchangeable and eternal propositions about God and the Church, you run headlong into the practical consequence of continuous revelation: Anything can change, any doctrine can be modified or discarded. Thus for practical purposes, in Mormonism there is no Doctrine — it’s all folk doctrine.

    Charlie Harrell’s book mentioned above, This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2011) is a good antidote for Mormons who believe in in the existence of Doctrine (with a capital D).

  12. MH – that’s funny because, in practice, I find that those teachings that are exclusionary, fantastical, or otherwise indefensible are precisely the ones people tend to grasp onto as doctrine – as evidence that Church leaders are led by revelation.

  13. Mack, I was mostly invoking Happy Husband’s observation that the unsettling teachings (call it doctrine or whatever you’d like) are written off by many as statements made by God’s annointed while they’re not on the clock. It’s a bummer to see some of the smartest, most progressive Mormons I know take that approach.

  14. I think the hardest part on defining Doctrine is the same as anything that has to be communicated via language; it’s subject to a wide variety of interpretation. Two people can read Christs teachings on the poor and believe two vastly different ways of implementing it, to the point that they seem antithetical to each other. No matter how broad or specific, exceptions for personal revelation or circumstance are carved out.

    I think that’s a good reason for the reiteration in AoF 9, 11 & 13; we have a lot to learn and look forward to gaining more “light and knowledge”, continually clarifying, shifting, and changing what we believed incompletely, ineffectively, or just flat incorrectly before.

  15. Dave B, while I’m really sympathetic to that view, I think an analogy to scientific truth is helpful. In science there are things we think are true that have compelling evidence. Yet every now and then we find out we were wrong. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who are completely fine with that going on in science somehow are disturbed when the same thing happens in religion. I confess I don’t understand why. We are fallible beings and simply may be wrong. That doesn’t mean we can’t know nor that we shouldn’t be confident in things we think we have a lot of evidence for.

    R, to me theology is interesting precisely because we’re trying to draw out implications of things we know reasonably well. But I’d be the first to advocate a healthy skepticism towards things God hasn’t focused on. But at the same time there’s a long standing principle that receiving revelation first requires study and prayer. That is doing theology can often lead to revelation. I think that’s why God commanded Joseph to do the JST which led to many important revelations as he tried to think through the theological implications of what he read. (Think D&C 76 at minimum)

    As to the excellent BCC post on Plans of Salvation, I’m not sure I’d view it as you do. First off I’d probably quibble a bit with calling it the plan of salvation when the point that’s primarily disagreed upon is what comes after judgment which arguably is more or less when the plan of salvation is complete. It seems to me that what’s disagreed upon are only two points. First the fundamental ontology of individuals and second whether there’s movement between kingdoms (and I’d include Adam/God in that). The rest for the most part is pretty well agreed upon particularly the place of Christ’s atonement in the plan. While Jonathan Stapley didn’t focus in on the distinctions within Spirit Prison I think that’s something that isn’t well understood either, although D&C 138 certainly gave us some more information there.

    To your final point, I think your complaint is more about vagueness. All knowledge is vague. So science came to know about atoms. But what’s an atom constituted of? The knowledge was vague. Then we discovered about neutrons and protons and our knowledge became less vague except that our knowledge there opened up new questions. Then we discovered about quarks and leptons and our knowledge became less vague but again opened up knew questions we couldn’t even pose before. We don’t want to say the knowledge wasn’t worthwhile or that it wasn’t true just because it was vague.

    As for why we know so little (through a glass darkly as Paul put it) I think the LDS plan of salvation actually explains that a fair deal. So we have a pretty developed theology for our ignorance.

  16. I think that term “doctrine” is analytically useless. I prefer the categories “teachings” and “beliefs.” There is also the beginnings of church “law.” You can ask what certain leaders believed or taught, and what the church law was at a specific time and place, all without the silliness that so many people invest in “doctrine.”

  17. This is why Paul told us to avoid doctrinal disputations — no good comes from it — it is better to simply live the gospel as one best understands it.

  18. I think the term is useful, although I fully agree it is very problematic analytically. But I think it’s useful to distinguish between beliefs people believe for various reasons and those they believe because they think it’s church teaching. Likewise I think it’s useful to have the idea of what ultimate church teachings would be even if we acknowledge not all our of beliefs about that notion of doctrine are correct.

    One problem I believe in a lot of discussions is that we don’t clearly distinguish between what we believe for religious reasons versus more analytical ethical reasons or political reasons. Of course those will always be somewhat blurry but I think it’s worth asking why we believe something. The notion of doctrine gets at some of those issues.

  19. I’ll confess to a desire to have doctrine spelled out, not just what it means for something to qualify as doctrine, but what the actual set of beliefs is. Not so much because I want to know precisely what we believe as a Church (or should believe), but because it will allow me to discard everything that is NOT doctrine. Remarkably, I’m actually less interested in what IS doctrine, than in what is NOT. That’s probably why the Church is fine to have this stuff be so elusive.

  20. Interesting article I once read by Robert Millet that discusses doctrine, how we define it, how we might approach it. See BYU Religious Studies Center: Robert L. Millet, “What Is Our Doctrine?,” in Religious Educator 4, no. 3 (2003): 15–33.

  21. In practical terms, “the Handbook” sits at the top of the hierarchy. It trumps previous authoritative statements (e.g. birth control), previous practice (treatment of gays, church discipline, etc.) and can even trump scripture (paid bishoprics, for instance; or tithing). And yet, it’s considered no more than policy.

    If “unchanging doctrine” is stuff that is the same across all dispensations, then the list is vanishingly small.
    Every single one of the ten commandments has notable exceptions. Every ordinance, including those in the temple, have changed over time. To cite one obvious example, circumcision was supposed to be an everlasting covenant, but every from St. Peter to Joseph Smith have disagreed. Law of Chastity? Okay, but on a practical “lived” level, Abraham, Paul, Brigham Young, and David O. McKay would have radically different views on what constitutes chastity.

    In short, unchanging doctrine and continuous revelation cannot coexist, and in Mormonism, revelation trumps all. Because of that, as Dave B. mentions, there is no doctrine one can put inside the “safe” circle.

  22. I would endorse J. Stapley’s short comment above, that in most contexts it makes a lot more sense to talk about beliefs and teachings of this or that leader, or this or that particular publication. But for mainstream LDS discussion, “doctrine” implies an objective status with content that is (theoretically) publicly accessible and that all could agree on. Or at least if someone was to disagree, everyone could agree what accepted statement or view they are disagreeing with.

    Beliefs and teachings are fairly subjective and different people, including different leaders, can hold different beliefs and opinions. Which really opens up the discussion, doesn’t it? That sort of open-ended discussion makes a lot of Mormons uncomfortable. Granted, just papering over the actual situation (lots of different views on this or that particular doctrine) by using the term “doctrine” to hide those different views stated by different leaders or different sources is not a great solution. But it works better than it ought to: you can fool most of the people most of the time, it seems.

  23. To define doctrine one has to specify whose doctrine. Christ’s? Church Leaders? Church Members?

    Christ’s doctrine: see 3 Nephi 11
    Church Leaders’ doctrine: see handbooks
    Church Members’ doctrine: millions of definitions, I imagine

    Definition of doctrine: a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group. (see also: creed)

    Do we want to have creeds? Here’s one, if we want one:

    >”There is no God but God, and the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is His Prophet, and we swear with an oath to obey him as though he were God.”

    Maybe truth is a better pursuit than doctrine.

    >”Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth. Consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft…The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p. 264

  24. Here’s the link to the Millet “What Is Our Doctrine?

    Here’s Jim Faulconer’s “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” that I mentioned in passing without giving the full reference. I think Jim pushes it a little too far for my tastes but he makes some excellent points. A somewhat related paper is Brian Birch’s ““Faith Seeking Understanding”: Mormon Atheology and the Challenge of Fideism

    Lemuel, as I tried to suggest, I think both types of quest for doctrine are really after truth. But I think it’s useful to distinguish a quest for truth with the question of which truths are most important? There’s lots of true things that are probably not terribly valuable. (I’d say the litany of sports statistics even though I love sports – but I know some might disagree. So perhaps statistics about sports trading cards?)

    Dave, if we’re doing history or sociology I think talking about beliefs is much more important and useful. For religion though I think doctrine matters. Either of the ideal sort, the personal sort, or the mainstream Church sort.

  25. The quest for doctrine is different from the quest for truth. I like lemuel’s quote from Joseph Smith. People seek doctrine (sometimes called dogma) so they can find someone else to tell them what is true (rather than patiently learning and re-learning from imperfect parents and church leaders, the scriptures, and the Holy Ghost) and so they can impose it on others as being wrong if they don’t agree. People learn truth by living the gospel, reading the scriptures, listening to others in their lives, and putting their faith in and testifying of the Savior. The simplest field hand or chamber maid who does these things will, over his or her life, learn more of the doctrine of Christ than all the doctors and academics and theologians ever will.

  26. I tend to drift towards the position described by J Stapley.

    One problem is Mormon myopia about our history. It begins with selective forgetfulness of ideas espoused by Joseph Smith. But it also includes ideas before him. Mormonism didn’t appear out of a vaccuum, quite the opposite.

    So I begin by asking what did “Doctrine” mean in 1820 in Vermont and upstate New York? That is where we began. But it seems we discounted quite a bit. Is there any belief or teaching that cannot be repealed by current leaders? It appears to be none.Then we have little or no doctrine.

  27. Well, I certainly can’t say what is often meant by others’ use of the word “doctrine.” I think I understand what the BoM says is the “doctrine of Christ” or reports Him speaking of “my doctrine.” But I’m glad not to be teaching the GD class this year and be faced with, e.g. Lesson 42: “The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve oversee correlation in the Church. Correlation includes: a. Maintaining purity of doctrine. …” What the heck is “purity of doctrine” when they are clearly going beyond what the BoM calls “doctrine?” For some of us this is an utterly nonsensical phrase, as is the often repeated phrase “the doctrine never changes.” If the latter, for example is English and not some kind of Mormon-speak I do not grasp, it is demonstrably false. Is there any help for those of us who don’t grasp any reasonable referent of these stock phrases?

  28. Doctrine, noun.

    1. That which, when spoken in church, seems sensible to most of the believers but puzzling to most of the non-believers.
    Includes: Baptisms for the dead, atonement, resurrection, young-earth creationism, dietary restrictions, Heavenly mother, earning Eagle scout awards (boys), having just the right amount of clothing and make-up (girls)
    Excludes: Science, common sense, golden rule moralization, charitable giving

    2. The teachings of the church which a given individual thinks are not subject to change. (Example: Elder [ Young / McConkie / Oaks ] taught as doctrine that [ Adam is God / Adam is not God / gay marriage is not part of God’s plan ].
    Includes: Articles of Faith, Canonical works, General Conference Talks, Heavenly Mother
    Formerly included: Journal of Discourses, Polygamy, Adam-God, young-earth creationism
    Excludes: Journal of Discourses, Polygamy, Adam-God, earning Eagle Scout awards (boys), having just the right amount of clothing and make-up (girls)

    3. Those tenets that most of the clergy want parishioners to take to heart, especially if people outside of the church do not agree
    Includes: oppose gay marriage, temple ordinances, missionary work, large families, young-earth creationism, donations to the church, achieving eagle scout award (boys), having just the right amount of clothes and makeup on (girls)
    Excludes: Heavenly mother, charitable giving (other than to the church)

    All of these definitions allow for doctrine to change over time.

  29. Rockwell, serious question. How many Mormons do you know who publicly express belief in young-earth creationism? I can’t think of any and I’m related to some pretty conservative Mormons.

  30. What should we rename “Gospel DOCTRINE” class?

    Gospel Opinions Class
    Gospel Policies Class
    Gospel Ideas class
    Gospel Beliefs class
    “This may be Gospel Doctrine” class
    This Contains Gospel Doctrine Class
    Gospel Teachings – Current Generation Edition
    Gospel “This-isn’t-necessarily-doctrine” class
    Gospel Wisdom Class
    The Gospel Is True Class
    Gospel Education Class
    Gospel Re-education Class
    Gospel Remediation Class
    The Gospel Is for Everyone! Class
    Gospel Chat
    Gospel Tangents Class
    Gospel Hobbies Class
    “This Is My Gospel, and Quite a Lot More” Class
    Beyond My Gospel Class
    “Before You Were Born You Knew This” Class
    Gospel “The church has no official position on this issue” class.
    The Gospel Is Simple Class
    “The Gospel Is Simple, Made Even Simpler” Class

    Did I leave anything out?

  31. FGH, Great Job! However, you could include some alternatives that leave out the word “gospel” as it, perhaps like “doctrine”, also seems to mean (in Mormon-speak) something much broader than the word means in any of its alternative English definitions. Maybe it is the “Teachings of the Correlation Committee Designed for 12-Year-Olds Some Decades Ago Class.” Compare, for example, the Pr/RS manuals that should be titled “Teachings Of or About a Man Who Sometime, Often Later, Became President of the Church, Selected According to What the Curriculum Committee Wants You to Talk About and With an Eye Toward Ignoring or Obscuring the Teachings of That Same Man That They Wish You and Others Would Not Think About.”

  32. Other ideas:

    Gospel Options Class
    This Was My Gospel Doctrine Class
    This is my Gospel Doctrine Class?
    This Should Be Gospel Doctrine Class
    United We Stand! Class
    What Is the Gospel Doctrine Class
    Where Is the Gospel Doctrine Class
    This Could Be Gospel Doctrine Class
    Gospel Inferred Doctrine Class
    Gospel Normative Doctrine Class
    “The Gospel Doctrine Class that Goes Like This” Class
    Church Manuals Class
    Second Hour for Non-Leaders Class
    I Think This Is Gospel Doctrine Class
    That Which Must Not Be Named Class.
    Gospel Doctrines You Never Knew You Knew
    It Will All Be Worked Out Later Gospel Doctrine Class
    Gospel Shelves

  33. FGH, more great ideas! However, I may simply take refuge in simplicity (and ambiguity) and continue to refer to it as the GD Class. Of course, the first time my former stake president heard that from me he seemed shocked until I pointed out that I was referring to the Gospel Doctrine Class and anything else he chose to think came from his head, not mine. He laughed. Laughter is healthy — at least if it is not loud.

  34. Doctrines are things which we can’t objectively prove to another person, about things which did happen, or things which will happen. There also a descriptor for different aspects to a religion, where different religions/denominations have different versions, for those doctrines.
    They are also statements which stronger than beliefs because they create the framework for other aspects of the religions belief system.
    For example: “The Lehites are the primary ancestors of native Americans.” Some may believe in it strongly enough to consider it a doctrine, but if you do a thought experiment about if you found out that it wasn’t true, how would that effect your relationship with any other aspect of the religion, you discover that it doesn’t. So that makes it a personal belief. But “Christ atoned for your sins” is something which if you do the same thought experiment has a drastic change on the rest of your belief system, if it turns out not to be true. Therefore: Doctrine.
    Perhaps put another way: Doctrines are beliefs with strong measure of hope behind them.

  35. Virginia, I don’t know any Mormons who espouse a full young earth creationism. However there’s a fair number who embrace a no death before the fall position which is a very similar position. The main difference is that most adherents to Joseph Fielding Smith’s no death before the fall also frequently embrace Brigham Young’s take on catastrophism where this earth was made out of prior earths and fossils are due to those prior creations. So there are some important variations from young earth creationism. It’s just as problematic though in terms of explaining the actual evidence.

    Kruiser, typically the way the term “policy” is used is that it’s very context sensitive and often (but not always) has a somewhat arbitrary aspect to it. It’s also much more open to change.

  36. Northern Virginia,

    Good question. I was taught young earth creationism in Sunday school and seminary, straight from D&C 77. I count Seminary teachers as clergy. More recently I’m aware of teachers scoffing at evolution, although I’m not sure if young-eartherism is still prevalent.

  37. Rockwell, CES used to be staffed by a lot of people who oddly found evolution disturbing. This was problematic for a lot of reasons not the least of which it unnecessarily pushed kids to choose seminary or biology. Given the evidence of biology I suspect it pushed some away from church when such a choice never was necessary.

    I’ve heard CES has improved a great deal although part of me is terrified of when my son starts High School at Timpview. He is an avid reader of science and I don’t think would put up with such talk for long.

  38. Clark, Oddly (?), I found your use of “oddly” odd. I think that may be the result of generationally different experience of Church teaching. Glenn Pearson and Reid Bankhead of the BYU religion dept. were, among others, very avid proponents of the BRMcC creed which he turned into something like a catechism here:
    and elsewhere, though he was reportedly forced by SWK to significantly modify his [in]famous Seven Deadly Heresies talk for print, at least on the subject of evolution. From the 1984 conference talk: “There is no salvation in a system of religion that rejects the doctrine of the Fall or that assumes man is the end product of evolution and so was not subject to a fall.” Training those who want to be CES teachers out of teaching what was taught in general conference talks by the self-assured (and not edited as some have been) cannot be an easy task. For those for whom it is not immediately obvious, the logic was — evolution depends upon uniformity (including specifically, death); there was no death before the Fall of Adam, a fully formed human; if there had been, there could have been no Fall; if there had been no Fall, there would be no need for an Atonement; so, faith in Christ would be misplaced rather than a foundation for salvation; so, no evolution of man. While I have not been able to subscribe to the fundamentalist literalism of some Mormon teachers, in the context of Mormon culture I can’t see it as odd that many do.

    p.s. As I quipped when my concerned father objected to my starting graduate school in philosophy, the thing about higher education most damaging to my testimony was the BYU religion dept. Good luck with CES at Timpview. Some parents of high schoolers have handled the problems, when they crop up in Church teaching, by noting that we have a great many people at Church doing their best to perceive and teach the truth and that all of us make mistakes. At least some high schoolers can be trusted to take their teachers’ perceived mistakes (and their own) in stride without causing inordinate problems for themselves or others. I hope CES and the BYU religion dept. have grown up a bit in recent decades.

  39. People have told me the BYU religion department is tons better than when I was there. I had great religion classes in the honors department but all the regular ones I took were not. Since they got rid of the honors department a few years ago I rather fear what that’s done to the quality and variety of religion classes.

  40. Rockwell, interesting to hear that you were taught that. All I can vaguely recall is that the Seminary instructor presented several theories as to how old the earth was, including the scientific view (4B years or so, last I checked).

    Clark, good point. I don’t hear much about the Fall and death in church anymore.

  41. For me I like to go back to D&C 68:3-4. And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

    So the test for true doctrine rests on a single question, was it inspired by the Holy Ghost?

    I also connect this to a statement by Elder McConkie:

    “Since ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’ (1 Cor. 14:32) whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works, and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost” – comes from a unpublished manuscript, I think a personal letter.

    Also, NV or Clark – I have some thoughts on the whole “no death before the fall” debate, you can read the gist of them here: but my book has more fleshed out thoughts.. link is there if you’re interested.

  42. Doctrine has never been agreed on by even the leaders, so it’s unlikely the laypeople in the church will ever get agreement. It’s just too slippery. It was anti-Mormonism that Joseph Smith married a 14 year old Fanny Alger in my childhood. In fact, there was only ever Emma until I got home off my mission and finally learned some Mormon history, and not from many Mormon authors at that. Today it’s actual history accepted now by the church since the essays. It was pure doctrine that the negro being denied the priesthood was a direct revelation from God Himself. But now that doctrine is no longer doctrine, but is understood to be a mere opinion and perhaps a prejudice, a human error, according to the essays again. Granted anti-Mormons or critics or whoever, nowadays say today’s doctrine is tomorrow’s heresy. But, with the essays now out, this is actually more true than not. The actual important question is do we have any evidence that doctrine is true at all? Because if its true today, it very well could be that it’s not true in 50 years. Anyway, my two cents on Clark’s excellent little essay.

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