Friday, July 11, 2008

the next third

Both the authoritative and interpretive models also suffer from a definitional problem as they propose ways to determine doctrine, but fail to define what it is that they are determining. In asking the question “Is ‘X’ a doctrine?” Whatever might be ‘X’ is carefully examined and defined, but the term ‘doctrine’ is left unexplored. This lack of a proper definition for doctrine is especially problematic as it often leads to a conflation of beliefs, teachings, policies, and doctrine. This is especially true when the ordinary usage of these terms Mormon discourse[1] is not considered or when these terms are applied both descriptively and prescriptively without an acknowledgement of a difference in usage.

In Stephen Robinson’s Are Mormons Christian? he argues that “if you want to know what Mormons believe, go ask one” (need proper quote). Yet at the same time, he argues that various statements by Church leaders should not be considered descriptive of Mormon beliefs. Similarly, in his “What Do We Really Believe?” Millet recounts an experience of an LDS woman who approached him and claimed that Mormons did not technically believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, but that it was a Mormon belief that Jesus was conceived through sexual relations that God had with Mary. Appealing to his authoritative criteria, Millet convinces her that Mormons do not believe the very thing that she, a Mormon, was claiming to be a Mormon belief. This should seem familiar to the experiences and frustrations of many Mormons who have to defend their personal beliefs from critics we wish to tell them what they really believe.

Thus when Millet asks what it is that Mormons really believe, he is not asking a descriptive question of what Mormons really believe; rather, he is posing a prescriptive question of what Mormons ought to believe. In other words, he is equating beliefs with doctrine or teachings. However, this prescriptive use can cause confusion because for most Mormons the question, “what do you believe?” is asking them to describe their beliefs, not to theorize about what they should believe. In fact, it is very common for Mormons in Sunday School or in other forums to begin a statement with: “Well this may not be doctrine, but I believe that. . . .” From this it seems that a belief is not necessarily a teaching or doctrine, but is rather something that may or may not be taught by the Church. For example, there are many Mormons that hold various beliefs they would not claim to be doctrine or officially taught in Church: such as the belief that Jesus was married; that we should not drink caffeinated sodas; that the Earth is no older than 13,000 years; that God has multiple wives; or that the three Nephites possessed the cure to cancer, but an uninspired Bishop in some unknown ward did not recognize them.

Now, it could be the case that Millet is trying be descriptive with his question and that his use of the plural subject (“what do we. . . ?”) is meant to ask what it is that all Mormons believe. However, such a question would seem to go against his need for an authoritative model, as establishing what all Mormons believe would be more easily learned through a questionnaire than through his problematic criteria. Furthermore if all Mormons did believe in the actual virgin birth of Jesus, then he would have had no need to correct this Mormon woman of her incorrect belief. Also, as discussed with Oman’s appeal to easily identifiable cases of doctrine, we would be hard-pressed to find a single particular doctrine that all Mormons agreed on.

Furthermore, just as a Mormon may hold a belief that they believe might not be doctrine or taught by the Church, it would seem that for most Mormons there is not a necessary relationship between their beliefs and truth. It would not be uncommon to hear a Mormon say, “I believe ‘x’, though it may not be true” just as it would not be uncommon to hear someone say “I believe that the Obama will win the presidency, though he could lose to Mccain.”

Similarly, what is officially taught in the Church does not seem to be considered co-extensive with doctrine either. Oman points out that while the scriptures are taught in Church, there are many things within them that are not considered doctrine. For example, the scriptural and revealed form of the Word of Wisdom is given as guidance and not as commandment;[2] it prohibits the consumption of meat except in times of winter and famine;[3] and seems to support the consumption of mild alcoholic beverages.[4] Yet most Mormons would not consider these to be doctrine. Likewise, what has been taught in the past by Church leaders is not necessarily doctrine. But what about that which is taught in general conference or “found in the general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church today” as Millet argues?[5] It seems that similar to beliefs, official teachings are not necessarily tied to truth or doctrine. Mormons frequently comment (though perhaps less publicly) that they do not agree with something said in general conference, published in the Ensign, or taught as part of a church gospel course – that an interpretation of a scripture was not correct, that a particular state did not ring true to them, or that something was just their opinion and not doctrine. Even general authorities have been known to disagree with things taught by their colleagues in general conferences and official gatherings[6]

This is an important distinction that Millet’s and the LDS Newsroom commentary’s authoritative model seems to lack – that for many faithful and believing Mormons, that which is officially taught in the Church’s gospel curriculum and spoken of by Church leaders is not necessarily true doctrine. A particular teaching may such that any given faithful member might say, “Yes. That is taught, but I believe it is a poor interpretation or just an opinion. I don’t believe it to be true doctrine.”

Unlike beliefs and teachings, policy seems to have a stronger and more authoritative nature than the former two; as it is usually incorporated into the church governance through official instructional leadership handbooks and, in many cases, strict application. Policy may best be defined as procedural regulations that are contingent and not directly based in scripture or published revelations. Examples of policy may include the size of priesthood quorums; the wearing of white clothing and complete submersion during baptism (so that if hair or part of the clothing remains floating at the surface, the new convert must be re-baptized); perfect one-for-word recital of sacramental prayers; the Word of Wisdom; the specifics of temple rituals; and current abortion policies. Yet like beliefs and official teachings, it seems that policy is not co-extensive with doctrine in Mormon discourse. For example David O. McKay adamantly argued that the ban prohibiting those of African descent from ordination into the priesthood was a policy and not a doctrine.[7]

So what is it then that distinguishes a policy from a doctrine? Consider the following statements:

(1) Photographs should not be taken of baptismal ordinances.

(2) A new convert should be dressed in white for her baptism.

(3) Those of African descent should not be ordained into the priesthood.

(4) A deacons quorum should be composed of twelve or less deacons.

The first of these is clearly a policy according to the official Church Handbook of Instructions, but it does not seem to be something that most Mormons would consider a teaching or a doctrine of the Church. The second statement is also a policy and it would seem fair to say that it is taught by the Church. However, it seems that many Mormons might consider calling it doctrine problematic as it may be more of just a symbolic convention that isn’t necessary. For example, if a situation arose where attaining white clothing for a baptism would not be possible, most Mormons would see no problem with baptizing the new convert in whatever they could – even if that meant blue jeans and a Metallica t-shirt. The third statement becomes interesting for a few reasons. While it is not a statement that would have application today in Mormon beliefs, teachings, or doctrine. What about in 1950 though? At that time it was widely taught and believed. It was certainly a policy at the time. But was it doctrine? While McKay said it was a policy and not and not a doctrine, other Church leaders at the same time (such as Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith) considered it one.[8] Perhaps it was their belief in the nature of the policy that led them to either to distinguish it from, or attribute it to, Church doctrine – as the former believed that the ban could and would be lifted, while the latter believed it to be divinely mandated until at least the Millenium.[9] Finally, many Mormons would more likely claim the last statement to be doctrine because it is a policy that is taught by the Church and is contained in the LDS scriptures.[10] However, some may have reservations about calling it doctrine because it may seem to them to be an arbitrary number that could be changed by revelation (or counsel) in order to accommodate a growing and culturally changing Church. From an examination of these statements, it seems clear then that something which is a policy for the Church is not necessarily a doctrine; and for many Mormons, one of the distinguishing marks between the two the former is a contingent regulation that may or may not be divinely instituted, while the latter is something that is necessary and cannot be changed. Furthermore, while an active Mormon may adhere to the policies of the Church, not only may she feel that they are contingent, but she may also disagree with the policy and believe it ought to change. This was in fact the view of many Mormons of the priesthood ban before it was lifted in 1979.[11]

If beliefs, teachings, and policies are not necessarily doctrine, then what is a doctrine? Like teachings and policies, a doctrine must have some sort of official support. While determining what official support consists of is problematic in itself, we can probably be certain that speculations, theories, and even revelations of lay members would not be considered doctrine. And as discussed earlier, even that which is officially taught by the Church is not necessarily considered doctrine either. However, unlike beliefs, teachings, and policies which are not necessarily true or correct, doctrine does seem to have a qualification of being true. This is especially evident in general conference addresses and teachings from Church leaders where ‘doctrine’ is used almost always in conjunction with ‘truth’. For example, in the April 2008 general conference, Richard B. Wirthlin gave a loving talk urging Mormons who have strayed from the Church for various reasons to return. However, “To those who have strayed because of doctrinal concerns,” he adds, “we cannot apologize for the truth.”[12] Similarly, Millet frequently appeals to “true doctrine” when discussing his model for determining doctrine.[13]

That something is true, though, is not sufficient for it to be considered doctrine. As Oman points out:

[T]here are issues about which Church Doctrine is silent. For example, I take it to be fairly uncontroversial that there is no Church Doctrine on the precise location of Williamsburg, Virginia. . . . No one could plausibly argue, however, that because of this, no statement about the location of Williamsburg, Virginia . . . could be true or false. The statement that “Williamsburg, Virginia is located on the banks of the Potomac River” is clearly false, the silence of Church Doctrine notwithstanding. Nor does it make sense of our ordinary usage of the term Church Doctrine to say, “It is Church Doctrine that Williamsburg, Virginia is on the York-James Peninsula.”[14]

Furthermore, just because a statement about a religious matter happens to be true, its truthfulness is likewise not sufficient for being it to be doctrine. For example, it may be the case that the mortal Jesus was actually married or that Earth was created less than 13,000 years ago. Even if those were true unbeknownst to us, that would not be sufficient for it to be doctrine. Like the location of the Potomac River, Church doctrine is silent on these matters.

The role that truth plays when determining doctrine is then not to say that the actual truth of something makes it doctrine; rather it is to say that it is the claim of truth within an official context that makes it doctrine. Despite the factuality of the matter, it would be extremely odd and nonsensical for a church leader to speak during general conference and say “X is a doctrine, but it is not true” or “X is a doctrine, but it may not be true.” When something is declared to be a doctrine, it is assumed that an implicit declaration of truth accompanies it.[15] So then what distinguishes a doctrine from a belief, teaching, or policy is that while the latter may be given or made with a presumption that it may not actually be true or correct, a doctrine is something that is considered and assumed to be true.

However this notion of doctrine as truth creates even greater problems when it is joined with attempts to determine doctrine in a Church that is changing with modern revelaton. . .

[1] While I acknowledge that there is a wide variation of how these terms may be used within Mormonism, by ‘ordinary usage’ I am referring especially to the usage employed by Church general authorities when speaking to the membership. These, I believe, best represent how terms are applied for the majority of Latter-day Saints.

[2] D&C 89:2.

[3] D&C 89:12-3.

[4] D&C 89:17.

[5] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?” 267.

[6] See for example Gary James Bergera, Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), especially 169-187; D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 66-115; and THE SMITH-TALMAGE FEUD.

[7] See Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2005), 75.



[10] D&C 107:85.

[11] For example, see Hugh B. Brown’s disagreement with the priesthood ban in Edwin B. Firmage, An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 129, 142-3.

[12] Richard B. Wirthlin, “Concern for the One,” Ensign (May 2008), 18.

[13] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?” 265, 273, 278.

[14] Oman, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Chuch Doctrine,” 5.

[15] In fact a search of the last 37 years of general conference on the Church’s website results in over 800 talks that mention doctrine in conjunction with it being true.

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