The Challenges of Mormons Defining Mormon Doctrine for Mormons; or, Is It Mormon Doctrine that Mormon Doctrine Is True? A Rejoinder
The following is a part of a very rough draft of a rejoinder to responses to a previous article I had published in Element. You can read the original here. Thoughts anyone?
The Challenges of Mormons Defining Mormon Doctrine for Mormons;
or, Is It Mormon Doctrine that Mormon Doctrine Is True?
In his response Millet stresses that “doctrine means teaching.” This is, of course, a straightforward definition of the term and is perhaps the appropriate use when responding to observers of Mormonism who simply want a list of the contemporary LDS Church’s teachings. Thus, if a simple list of teachings was all that was being delineated, then no real justification would be needed other than an appeal to common sense and common usage—or as Millet puts, we could simply appeal to “a description of present Church practice,” which Oman calls “sensible rules of thumb for discovering church doctrine.” In light of such a view, Oman’s theory of doctrine as authority offers a plausible theoretical basis for the practice.
With the perspective of doctrine as teachings, the question “What is LDS doctrine?” would be analogous to the hypothetical question, “What does Professor Xavier teach at the School for Gifted Youngsters?” Like Millet’s criteria, in order to give a careful description of what Professor X teaches we would simply need to listen to Professor X’s lectures, read his syllabus and self-authored course manual,[i] and participate in his lab activities. We would, of course, also have to be careful to note when Professor X is speaking off-the-cuff and offering his opinion, exclude what he says among friends at an after-school party, and check to see if he is continuing to teach what he had taught in previous semesters. Furthermore, because Professor X is both highly knowledgeable in his field and in bit hard-nosed in his self-assurance, Oman’s theory of doctrine and authority could adequately describe the relationship between Professor X’s teachings and his students. Just as “the concept of authority . . . is not so demanding that church doctrine must be identical with the truth,” a similar concept of professor-student authority does not demand that Professor X’s teachings be identical with the truth. Even though it is possible that some of his teachings may be wrong, students “are justified in letting the authority of [his teachings] override their own . . . best judgments so long as they believe that [Professor X], like a doctor, enjoys an epistemological advantage.” Furthermore, regardless of whether Professor X is right or wrong on a particular matter, the authority of his teachings requires that students affirm his teachings in tests and quizzes and not publically contradict him in class in order to receive passing grades.
If doctrine was merely just a set of official teachings, then I would join with Oman in stating that church doctrine had no direct relation to truth and was primarily about authority. I could further join Millet in saying that the best way to know what is and is not contemporary LDS doctrine is to simply look at the criteria in his doctrinal parameters. The problem, however, is that, within Mormonism, doctrine is simply more than just a list of official teachings. As Millet puts it in his original essay, “There is power in doctrine, power in the word, power to heal the wounded soul, power to transform human behavior.”[ii] Millet is not alone in defining doctrine as such, and by both Millet’s and Oman’s models for defining doctrine, it seems to be a clear and unambiguous doctrine that doctrine is more than mere teachings. The Church-produced teaching manuals constantly encourage teachers and students to testify of the truthfulness and power of church doctrine.[iii] A quick search on the Church’s website brings up hundreds of example from general conference talks from just the last decade or so that define and use the word “doctrine” in a manner that denotes truth and power, not merely “teachings”—in one talk alone, Elder Henry B. Eyring uses the word 45 times with this meaning.[iv] In fact, given its occurrence and use in contemporary Church-produced manuals, general conferences, Church statements,[v] and scripture, there is perhaps no doctrine of the church more pronounced than the doctrine that church doctrine is true.
This should hopefully make clear the primary problem I hoped to address in my original article. As I have entitled this rejoinder, the challenges are not simply in defining the contemporary teachings of the LDS Church. Rather, they are the challenges of Mormons defining Mormon doctrine for those within Mormonism. Even though more than the last third of my article was attempting to make this point clear, Millet virtual avoids the issue of doctrine of truth altogether in his response and Oman simply side-steps the issue by declaring that church doctrine is not directly about truth.
Without recognizing the heavy emphasis in church doctrine about church doctrine’s truthfulness, the challenge of defining church doctrine becomes as interesting and simplistic as a student trying to find out what she needs to study for Professor X’s mid-term exam. The challenge arises not when one wishes to know what the LDS Church teaches in its manuals and what how members are to relate to those teachings, but when Mormons try to ascertain what the doctrines of truth and power are—that the Church has a primary (though perhaps not exclusive) claim on truth is, after all, one of the primary doctrines of the restoration. If it is the case, as Millet and Oman agree, that the doctrines of the Church can and do change, and if the doctrines of the restored Church are true, then how should Mormons understand the truthfulness of these changing doctrines? Is truth relative? Does truth change with time? Is the Mormon corpus of true church doctrine smaller than we might initially think—and if so, what are those doctrines?
Or, is the church doctrine of church doctrine’s truthfulness not true?
[i] While the corollaries of Professor X’s lectures, syllabi, etc. to Millet’s criteria may be clear, I specifically chose “self-authored manuals” to be a corollary to Church-authored manuals. Just as it would be incorrect to state that Professor X teaches the particular things in a text he uses for a course, it would be incorrect to say that the contemporary LDS Church teaches everything found in the LDS Scriptures (see my example above with the Word of Wisdom). Because scripture needs to be interpreted, it seems that there will always be a layer of interpretation (perhaps through a Church manual or statement from Church leaders) that would always separate the Church’s teachings from scripture.
[ii] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?” 265.
[iii] See for example, “Lesson 3: The Teacher’s Divine Commission,” in Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide For Gospel Teaching (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, XXXX), XX-XX.
[iv] Henry B. Eyring, “The Power of Teaching Doctrine,” Ensign, May 1999, 73.
[v] For example, the Churches official statement on doctrine states that “members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine.” In “Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” LDS Newsroom, May 4, 2007, http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine (accessed March 6, 2008).