Wednesday, July 09, 2008

the first third, give or take a few pages

here is the first third or so of my paper in a very draft and unpolished form. enjoy. i still don't have a title and the abstract needs to be completely rewritten.



Over the last decade and in response to both criticisms and growing media questions concerning Mormonism, there has been several attempts to identify or provide criteria for determining LDS Church beliefs and doctrines. In this paper I will show how these and any attempts to define what it is that Mormonism espouses are not only problematic in themselves, but how they point to larger problems that result from the combination authority, modern revelation, and the common notion of truth within Mormonism.

As the global and media presence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown over the last several decades, so has the inquiry of the faith from both without and within the Church over its beliefs and practices. This inquiry has especially risen sharply from critics and the news media over the last ten years as the Church has been highlighted in the national media by events such as the Salt Lake City Olympics, the FLDS polygamy cases, and Mitt Romney’s campaign for the United States Presidency. These have come in the form of both apparent misrepresentations of Mormonism and earnest inquiry as to what the Church officially teaches – a fair response to the often sharp divergence that Latter-day Saint faith claims have from that of traditional Christians. Furthermore, as the Church has grown in population so have the number of members within the Church who actively study, theorize, and speculate about their beliefs. The availability of information and communication over the internet has accelerated greatly accelerated these inquiries.

Attempts have been made to define or provide criteria for defining Church doctrines and beliefs. The most common of these is what I will call the authoritative model, as it attempts to define doctrine by primarily appealing to what is commonly understood to be authoritative sources and leaders. This model has been expressed by Robert Millet in his essay, “What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters within Mormonism,”[1] and has recently been promoted in an official LDS media commentary on the Church’s website.[2] More recently, Nathan Oman has proposed an interpretive approach that is modeled after judicial practices of interpreting law, such that particular doctrines are appealed to in an attempt to provide boundaries or parameters of doctrinal possibility.[3] However these proposals are problematic as they fall short or do not achieve their own criteriological goals and fail to adequately distinguish what ‘doctrine’ is (as opposed to beliefs, teachings, or policies). Furthermore, they point to larger problems that have yet to be adequately acknowledged or approached by LDS leaders, teachers, and thinkers.

The authoritative model attempts to appeal to what it considers to be authoritative sources. According to Millet, something that is a doctrine is (1) “found within the four standard works and/or within official declarations or proclamations;” (2) “taught or discusses in general conference or other official gatherings by general Church leaders;” (3) “found in the general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church;” or (4) in “the content of the temple endowment.” Furthermore, for Millet doctrine is that which is found in (5) “the teachings of the Church today;” are (6) “central and saving doctrine[s] . . . , not tangential and peripheral concepts,” and has (7) “what might be called ‘sticking power,’ i.e, it is taught and discussed and perpetuated over time.” Finally, (8) “not everything that was ever spoken . . . by a Church leader in the past is part of what we teach today.” [4] Millet places a heavy emphasis on contemporary sources and repeatedly pointing out that “not everything that was ever spoken or written by a Church leader in the past is a part of what we teach today.”[5] If a belief or teaching is confirmed by these criteria then it could be confidently claimed to be doctrine.

However, the appeal to a criterion of authoritative sources is problematic in itself for several reasons. First, no justification is provided as to why that particular set of criteria should be used over any other. If there are, in fact, saving doctrines or saving practices tied to certain true doctrines, then the method by which one determines that a certain teaching is a saving one (as opposed to one that is merely tangential or non-doctrinal) would seem of equivalent importance. For example, Millet briefly mentions the old teaching that plural marriage is essential for salvation.[6] By the authoritative model, such a teaching would not be considered doctrine as it is no longer taught by the Church today; whereas, the present teaching that monogamous heterosexual marriage is essential for salvation (and polygamous marriage is grounds for excommunication) would qualify as a true doctrine. As adherence to the former teaching could prove damning while adherence to the latter could prove saving, the method by which someone could distinguish between the two would be just as equally as important for her soul’s salvation. Yet no scriptural, official, or authoritative justification is provided to support such criteria.

Furthermore, even if such criteria are justifiable through scriptural and other authoritative sources they would still be problematic because the relevance of those sources as authoritative justification for the criteria would be based on the criteria they are attempting to justify. In other words, the truthfulness of the criteria depends on its own truthfulness in order for it to be true. This circularity is problematic because similar circularity could be used to establish almost any methodology for determining what is true Church doctrine. For example, I could claim that doctrine is that which is contained in the scriptures or taught in a sermon by Brigham Young. I could then appeal to Young’s sermon where he states that he has “never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture,”[7] and then use that to justify my criteria. Just as with the authoritative model, the validity of my ‘Young model’ would depend on the criteria of the model itself to grant doctrinal authority to the sources I am using as an authority to justify my criteria.

A similar circularity is found in the common claim modern church leaders are correct in pronouncing Church doctrine because God would not allow a modern day prophet to lead the saints astray. To back up this claim, Wilford Woodruff’s famous quote is usually appealed to; where he claims that “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray.”[8] This criterion begs the question, like the others, of whether or not the source is in fact an authoritative source for determining doctrine. What if Woodruff, was in fact misleading the saints with this particular statement? Of course, this would not mean that Woodruff was always leading the saints astray, nor would it argue that any other LDS prophet were leading the members astray. It could simply say that LDS prophets can on occasion lead the saints astray, and that was what Woodruff was unknowingly doing so on this occasion.

Nathan Oman’s interpretive model takes a different approach and avoids these problems by not making appeals to authoritative sources, but instead uses a model analogous to judicial practices of appealing to previously decided legal cases to provide an interpretive basis for judging a new case. Oman points out that judges are often presented with difficult legal cases where the obvious ruling is unclear and no precedence had yet been established for determining the case. In such a situation the judge must then “look at the previously decided cases and construct the best possible argument that he can to justify them.”[9] Doing so would provide him with the best understanding and reasoning to pronounce a decision on the new case. Centuries ago, when a judge was unable to make a clear ruling he “could rule dubitante, simply declaring that the law was unclear and leaving the case undecided.”[10] Similarly then, Oman proposes that when a case of whether or not a certain teaching or belief is a Church doctrine, one would need to first appeal to “some easily identifiable core cases of Church Doctrine from which we can reason.”[11] By appealing to these “brute facts” of doctrine we “can simply reason on the basis of clear cases, fitting the new question into a story that will place things in their best possible light.”[12] If a clear answer is still not available, like the ruling of dubitante, we can ascertain that while the answer may not be clear, possible answers would fall within certain boundaries or limits of doctrine.

To illustrate this interpretive model, Oman examines one of the most debated doctrinal question within Mormonism – are caffeinated beverages doctrinally prohibited by the Word of Wisdom? As there seems to not be a clear answer to this, Oman goes back to “the brute fact that we all agree that the Word of Wisdom is Church Doctrine and that it forbids drinking coffee, tea, and alcohol.”[13] Just as a judge will look into the reasons behind rulings for previous cases, we would attempt to look at the reasons behind the coffee prohibition and other prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom. From this we might conjecture that the Word of Wisdom is not merely a prohibition of certain substances, as chocolate (which contains caffeine) and cold medicines (which may contain some alcohol) do not seem to be prohibited. Neither does the revealed Word of Wisdom prohibit narcotics and other dangerous drugs that were prevalent at the time of the revelation. Instead we might decide that “a better account is that the prohibition is meant as a reminder or symbol of the covenant that [we] make with God and an open-ended admonition to be healthy.”[14] Under this understanding, the specific prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom would be akin to circumcision and the Sabbath as signs of our covenant, and the broader teachings of the Word of Wisdom should be applied to our entire lifestyle in eating healthy and avoiding over-consumption. Thus, caffeinated beverages would not be specifically prohibited, but like all foods and substances, should be consumed, limited, or prohibited based on what would be a healthy diet and lifestyle.

While Oman’s interpretive model largely avoids the criteriological problems of the authoritative model, it suffers from an assumption that there are “clear instances” of Church doctrine that are easily and clearly known. In the legal basis for his analogy, the judge assessing a new case appeals to “previously decided cases” of law. In such instances, there are clear and officially documented rulings that were formally made within an established and universally accepted framework of law.[15] However, analogous instances of “previously decided cases” of Church doctrine do not seem to exist. This is because an established and accepted framework of understanding and ruling Church doctrine does not exist. While there may be a more formalized framework of policy and procedures under Church government, a framework of defining “easily identifiable core cases” of Church doctrine does not seem to exist; especially one that is universally accepted and understood by members of the Church.

Oman provides two examples of what he considers to be easily identifiable cases of Church doctrine: that “Jesus is the savior of mankind”[16] and that the Word of Wisdom prohibits the consumption of coffee, tea, and alcohol. In the former, what it means for Jesus to be the savior of mankind is widely disputed. Both I and Stephen Robinson may affirm that ‘Jesus is the savior of mankind,’ however we most likely believe that phrase means two very different things – to the extent that he might not consider my understanding and affirmation of that phrase to be sufficient for my salvation. If we take into account the many different beliefs of Jesus, salvation, and the atonement there are dozens and dozens of different understandings of what it means for Jesus to be the savior of mankind, even though the same scriptures and sources may be appealed to for the various understandings. This is often the assertion of critics of Mormonism – that Mormons use the same language of traditional Christianity, but do not mean the same thing; and that these mistaken beliefs are detrimental to salvation.

Similarly, the assumption that the prohibition of coffee, tea, and alcohol is an easily understood doctrine does not take into account the varying understandings of what that actually means. Does the prohibition include de-caffeinated coffee, frozen lattes, coffee ice cream, chocolate-covered espresso beans, green tea, chai teas, herbal teas, iced teas, and kava? What about the prohibition of alcohol? The revealed text of the Word of Wisdom distinguishes between “strong drinks” which “are not for the belly” and “mild drinks” of barley and other grains which are promoted.[17] Yet, there is no easily identifiable interpretation of this that one can point to.[18] Also, the alcohol prohibition does not seem to forbid cough syrups and other medicines that may contain alcohol. Oman’s interpretive model depends on the assumed ability to appeal to easily identifiable brute facts of Church doctrine. However, upon examination, these clear cases of doctrine do not exist. This is because no accessible and widely accepted framework for determining doctrine has been established for which these cases could be determined. Instead of clear cases of doctrine, we have only vague and abstract terms with no definitive understandings of what they should mean.

[1] Robert L. Millet, “What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters within Mormonism,” in Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical and Theological Possibilities, ed. James M. McLachlan and Loyd Ericson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 265-81. A previous version of this essay was also published in “What Is Our Doctrine?” The Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center). Vol. 4, no. 3 (2003), 15-33. Selections from this essay, including his authoritative model are included in his new book, ???????????????.

[2] see “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” (4 May, 2007) in the LDS Newsroom: The Official New Source for Media, Opinion Leaders, and the Public. Retrieved March 6, 2008 at

[3] Nathan B. Oman, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine.” Element 2:1 (Fall 2006), 1-19

[4] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe,” 266-7, 273 (emphasis added). Compare to “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” where it states that (1) “doctrine resides in the four ‘standard works’ of scripture;” (2) is established by the First Presidency . . . and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles;” (3) “in official Church publications;” (5) “relevant to the circumstances of [the] day;” (6) “might be considered core doctrines;” (7) “is consistently proclaimed;” and (8) a “single statement by a single leader on a single occasion . . . is not meant to be officially binding for the whole church.” My speculation is that an appeal to the LDS temple rituals as a source of doctrine was not made in the LDS Newsroom article to avoid providing justification for the media to cite the sacred rites.

[5] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe,” 266. Emphasis added. In fact, Millet uses the word ‘today’ at least 18 times through his essay to emphasize that statements of current leaders should be given doctrinal authority over those of past leaders.

[6] Ibid., 267.

[7] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses Vol. 13:95.

[8] Wilford Woodruff, Sixty–First Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, 2.

[9] Oman, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine,” 9.

[10] Ibid., 10. Emphasis in original.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 11.

[14] Ibid.

[15] By ‘universally accepted’ I do not infer that everybody agrees with the framework of law, but that there is an agreement that a well-defined and codified law exist which citizens of a state are expected to abide by and work through.

[16] Ibid., 9.

[17] D&C 89:7,17.

[18] Though a historical reading of the text would probably make the same distinction of the drinks that exists today – that strong drinks are hard drinks with a high alcohol-content such as whiskey, rums, spirits, and some wines, while mild drinks are mild drinks with low alcohol-content such as malted beers and stouts. If you live in Utah, you could buy a mild drink at a grocery store, while you would have to go to the state liquor store to purchase a strong drink.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps my comments will be premature since I only read part one and you said it was incomplete.

    One thought -- church history. The progression of revelation/"doctrine" in the Doctrine and Covenants shows the step by step process of the Lord trying to help the newbies understand in "some way" what is needed to have eternal life. If there are no guidelines (doctrine?) for mankind to follow then how do we overcome the world? (or is my, or anyone's, interpretation of how to overcome the world singular and vacuous?)

    If you want to show that the revelations have been polluted by tradition or individual circumspect than perhaps you need to be more specific with the actual process of interpretation (maybe that comes later in your paper). Perhaps people agree on certain definitions or interpretations where you are presupposing that they do not.

    Another thought: People didn't care about caffeinated soda when I was a kid. That came later in my teenage years. My LDS grandpa drank Postum every afternoon. My non-LDS grandpa (good guy) had a swig of whiskey now and then. When you look at the lists of supplies of the pioneers you see coffee and whiskey.

    I think some of the problem with interpretation or defining doctrine stems from religion professors, scholars, philosophers(burn), various authors (with "authority" or not), and others who have to dissect "scripture" and wrangle with words. I'm not saying I've never been guilty of wrangling... My question is: What or where is the cell before it split?

    Are the initial revelations given to J. Smith being diluted or becoming more concentrated, if so, why?

    Why is there seemingly a need to give more and more instruction when "plain and precious" might very well suffice? And/or are we skimming over some essential info?Perhaps I'm bias since I've never understood the need (not saying I don't read them - saying I'm curious about the need) for shelves full of manuals, handbooks, and "here's how to understand the gospel" books; however, I do appreciate a good Old Testament commentary now and then.

    Anyway.... the most prominent thought in my mind while reading section one: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    **Excellent writing in terms of expression and determined rhythm. Very readable. Philosophically formulaic.

    carry on.
    (Since it's one a.m. I will save the next two sections for another day.)
    Curious -- Why are you posting your paper?


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