Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Doctrine

Recently, Kurt Manwaring let me know that there was an issue of BYU Studies that had recently come out that I feel like will be a very impactful issue moving forwards.  The issue–also published as a book entitled Yet to be Revealed–focuses on unanswered questions in Latter-day Saint theology and brings an impressive array of big names in the Latter-day Saint studies field as authors of the discussions.  It covers topics like defining doctrine, how did Satan seek to destroy the agency of humankind?, How does God progress?, Was Jesus married?, the foreknowledge of God, and much more.  More recently, however, Kurt Manwaring discussed the volume with Eric Eliason (one of the two editors for the issue) for a 10 Questions interview.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion from the interview), but, as always, feel free to read the full interview here.

When asked, Eliason explained the background of the volume as follows:

Back in the early 1990s, I read in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (which passed through rigorous scrutiny from Church headquarters) that the Restoration tradition had two main schools of thought on the nature of God’s progress.

Even though there had been strongly expressed views on both sides, neither point of view had been promulgated as official doctrine; and neither had been officially declared anathema.

This was a new perspective to me!

Before then, my young brain was pretty black and white, as young brains often are. I thought one point of view must be right, and the other must be wrong. I was relieved to learn there was space for things to be unsettled because I admired and sustained the voices on all sides of this issue.

An epic conversation on this with my mother-in-law was the genesis of this book. Later, more topics came to mind. A few years ago, I shared some of them with Terryl Givens at the Mormon History Association Meeting. He said, “we should do a book!” I said, “OK.”

We were delighted when BYU Studies agreed to publish the volume both a special issue and a book.

It’s an interesting space to work within in Latter-day Saint doctrine, though it can be a bit speculative at times.

One of the interesting questions pursued in a section of the volume is, what even qualifies as Latter-day Saint doctrine?  It’s a question I’ve had some interest in myself, but the article goes into great depth, analyzing what general authorities have said in recent decades and discussing various models for understanding doctrine proposed by Latter-day Saint scholars.  As Eliason summarized:

 Our lead essay by Michael Goodman considers several proposed formulations. However, they are all quite similar in their understanding that only General Authorities have the Divinely-appointed stewardship to make any such determinations.

In previous decades, Latter-day Saint writers might use the term “doctrine” more loosely to mean various things that today might be called “ideas and beliefs that have come up in the history of our faith tradition.”

More recently, the Brethren, notably Dallin H. Oaks, seem to be making a concerted effort to define the term “doctrine” more precisely, as something more like: only official Church teachings that are currently taught, through official Church channels, by the unified witness of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaking in an official capacity.

As doctrine has been more narrowly defined, it may be important to remember that doctrine is a smaller sub-category of truth. Our heritage has bequeathed us many wonderful beliefs that are still precious and worth reflecting on, even if we would not call them doctrine today.

The approaches outlined in the article are important in discerning what is considered “official doctrine” in the Church vs. opinions and ideas that have been discussed in the past.

One example of a document that has been used as a touchstone for doctrine that is not considered authoritative is the King Follett Discourse given by Joseph Smith in 1844.  Not surprisingly, the question of the relationship of the Church to that document was one of the topics explored in the BYU Studies issue.  Eric Eliason touched on this in the interview as well when asked: “What are some of the key doctrines that trace their roots back to the King Follett discourse?”  He responded that: “One of the points Jim Faulconer and Susannah Morrison make in their chapter is that there are not as many as Church members often suppose. Many are also found elsewhere in Joseph Smith’s teachings.”  In the article itself, the authors state that of the nine most important teachings found in the sermon, seven have been accepted by the Church, but: “Many of these things had already been taught by Joseph Smith. With perhaps one exception, the origin of God as a human being, there is nothing new in the sermon.”  They also noted that:

The King Follett Sermon is one of the most important sermons on doctrine in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, yet most of its teachings are contained in other sources that are sometimes less ambiguous. … Though the King Follett Sermon has remained central to Latter-day Saint belief, since 1844 the Church’s understanding of several key elements of the sermon’s teachings have changed or at least been clarified: the teaching about the history of God, that about human potential, that about the nature of intelligence, and that about the resurrection of infants.

Because those ideas are found elsewhere, there are doctrines not accepted by the Church today in the sermon, and our understanding of some of the doctrines contained within have evolved over the years, the King Follett Discourses remains somewhat ambiguous in whether it should be accepted as authoritative or not.

As a concluding question, Eliason was asked: “Does the reality of ‘open questions’ strengthen or threaten your faith? How so?”  His response was:

Strengthen! No doubt about it!

Oops. I just imagined for a second my own perspective as the only valid one. Not really in keeping with the spirit of the book. I suppose your question is an “open question,” too.

But I’m not writing chapter for the book here. So, here’s my thoughts:

Open questions show that ours really is a religion of revelation and not systematic theology. Trying to shoehorn revelation into our own tidy little mental categories, that we imagine are properly non-contradictory, may not be the best way to benefit from them.

Open questions also show what a full and rich tradition we have and how every question that revelation answers seems give us three new ones to wonder about.

They also show that, over the years, many thoughtful Latter-day Saints have been pondering seriously on the implications of revealed truths.

Isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? I don’t think that is an open question.

To Eliason, open questions are an opportunity for pondering that can strengthen faith, even if we cannot settle on an authoritative answer to those questions.

Anyway, I recommend reading both the interview and the BYU Studies issue in full.  There are a lot of fascinating discussions there and I agree with Kurt’s assessment that it will likely become a very impactful publication as a touchstone for future discussions of these areas of unanswered questions.

3 comments for “Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Doctrine

  1. Thanks for this nice introduction to our special issue on open questions. It is of course free on our website or available for purchase in book form. It is indeed one of the most important issues we have published. But (promo warning!) watch for our next issue, due out next month. It is a special issue on good government. The material in this issue is both timely and desperately needed in America today. I am biased, but I would not hesitate to say that several of the articles are as good as anything BYU Studies has ever published. I’ve been the editorial director here for almost 16 years, so I’ve seen a lot of articles. This coming issue is unique.

  2. I have found that the way some people want to define “doctrine” is not correct. It gets real interesting when we couple it to “official”. “Official doctrine” somehow carries this certain dogma with it as if it some kind of set in stone eternal truth. Things get all confusing when we define “doctrine” as truth. That is not the correct way to define it. Doctrine is defined generally as “that which is taught. So, “Official doctrine” is merely nothing more than that which is accepted or believed to be true and taught. It may be true, partially true, mostly untrue or even false.

    If we can truly understand that the doctrine which we teach may or may not be true it helps us to open our minds and judge all things in proper light. We have the problem that we can only accept as truth something the church has officially stamped their approval on. And then, when it does, we never check or question it, just accept it as true no matter what.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed true, how we interpret that and teach as our doctrine may not carry that same level of truth. And obviously so, there’s hundreds of well established Christian religions, including our own, who all profess to teach Christ’s true doctrine. My own studies have led me to believe that most Christian religions have certain truths and certain false doctrines, including our own. I do feel we have an advantage of sorts with our resources, as long as we can correctly discern the truths found in them. But, herein lies the problem of our mortal minds- we can have it right in front of us and fail, over and over again, to see the truth.

  3. “Open questions show that ours really is a religion of revelation and not systematic theology.”

    I like that perspective. That’s one of the reasons I don’t care for the Lectures on Faith: they’re too systematic. And where they may be correct in suggesting that a systematic approach might be useful–it’s the wrong system. The Book of Mormon teaches us about faith primarily through stories–and while they all have certain elements in common with each other many of them are rather unique.

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