Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Differing Definitions of Doctrine

It has been said that trying to nail down what constitutes our doctrine is like trying to nail jello to a wall. (Great post on that, by the way, by evangelical Bridget Jack Meyers at the Mormon group blog "Times and Seasons": "Why We’re Confused"). Apart from the diversity of beliefs within Mormonism which can make it hard to pin down concrete doctrine, there is a tendency to be loose in our definition and understanding of the word "doctrine" itself.

On the one hand, doctrine can be defined as a set of “beliefs” that are held by and taught by a church. On the other hand, within the Church, there is a tendency to speak of "doctrine" as unchanging. "The policies may change but the doctrine never changes" is an oft heard phrase. So in short, we have two differing definitions of doctrine. "Currently accepted beliefs" on the one hand (which can change) and "eternal unchanging truth" on the other.

Using the first definition, one can say that plural marriage was indeed “doctrinal”–at that time–and that it no longer is doctrinal today. This must be how President Hinckley was defining doctrine when he told Larry King that polygamy is no longer “doctrinal”. Obviously, certain 19th century LDS beliefs are no longer believed the same way now. Various dictionary definitions agree that doctrine is understood to be a set of beliefs held or taught by a church. Teachings have and do change over time. Of course the flip side of using this definition means that doctrines, as well as policies, do in fact change.

President David O. McKay must have had the second definition in mind when he emphasized that the priesthood restriction was "a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed." President McKay clearly differentiates between current policy on one hand and doctrine on the other. The context and definition is important to take into consideration with both examples. "Eternal unchanging truth" and "present doctrine" are not necessarily one and the same. While they may overlap, perhaps we too often mistake the former for the latter.

With the forgoing in mind, how do you typically understand/define "doctrine", "truth", "policy", "principles" and the relationship between them?


Aaron S said...

Hope you don't mind the block-quoting of myself, but elsewhere I have written,

In short, Mormonism teeters between maximalism and minimalism, expansion and reduction.

In my study I have so far identified three general Mormon approaches to the standard of officiality:

sola scriptura – The Standard Works are the final and alone binding source of authority. If it is not in scripture, or if it is not inferred by scripture, it is not doctrinal and it is not binding.

prima scriptura – Scripture is the highest, most final binding source of authority, but it is not the only source of that which is binding and doctrinal. Other sources, such as current church leadership (considered lesser because they are compared with scripture and discarded if in contradiction with scripture) are also binding.

prima ecclesia – Modern church leadership is the highest, most final binding source of authority and doctrine, and may override other sources of authority and doctrine, like scripture, if there is contradiction. This is rarely done by direct repudiation and instead is done by re-interpreting, making obsolete, or questioning the preservation of a particular text. When addressing the question of whether living leaders trump scripture, or vice versa, BYU professor Robert Millet admits with refreshing honesty:

“I think most Latter-day Saints would be prone to answer this by pointing out the value and significance of living oracles, or continuing revelation, or ongoing divine direction through modern apostles and prophets, and thus to conclude that living prophets take precedence over canonized scripture” (Claiming Christ, p.31).

I'm going to include a section soon on a fourth Mormon standard, a sort of filtered sola scriptura that says only that which the modern leadership emphasizes in the canon (and nothing else) is official doctrine.

Take care,


Matt W. said...

Aaron S- I would say for many Mormons there is a compelling case that their outlook is Prima Revelatio.

CC- good post. I'd say this is a great point. When I feel like this issue comes up, I try to switch to using the terms "teachings" and "truth" rather than the confusing term.

Clean Cut said...

Matt W--thanks. I think that's probably wise to switch to the terms "teachings" and "truth" rather than "doctrine" when discussions come up.

Aaron, I've personally steered away from trying to categorize Mormon doctrine. While maybe helpful for contrasting between other traditions, it doesn't necessarily reflect reality. Nate Oman has written a really perceptive essay "Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine" and notes a lot of similarities between the law and religious doctrine. (It's too simplistic to say that new law can simply trump established law.)

I also really like the case Blake puts forth at New Cool Thang: An Interpretive Tradition Rather than Church “Doctrine”. I agree with the "hierarchy" idea below, and especially with his concluding paragraph:

"There seems to be a hierarchy of authoritative sources that one uses in the interpretative context to persuade what constitutes truth and obligation. First, the scriptures are accepted in all that they say. However, just as there are many different religions and creeds that derive from the Bible, there are many that are possible within a Mormon context. Next in authority I would place the uncanonized revelations of Joseph Smith and his successors. Next in authority are the Official Statements of the First Presidency. Next I would place the sermons of Joseph Smith and after that those of his successors. Next I would place LDS Church publication. Knowing this hierarchy of authority doesn’t give one an encyclopedia of Mormon Doctrine — but it gives one the sources necessary to engage in the interpretive dialog about what LDS will accept and take seriously...

...In the end, it turns out that getting doctrine right is not what is essential about being a Christian Mormon. What is essential is being open to love others and do whatever that entails. It is also vital to be open to hear God’s voice when he speaks — and most often that is to assist to discharge the duty to love others. While one could not be Mormon while fighting against the kingdom of God established through the Church, one could follow God with doubt about just about everything fundamental and no clear views on even fundamental “doctrinal issues.”

Aaron S said...

The hierarchical view is akin to the prima scriptura view I describe, and the jurisprudence view just sounds like a description of the inconsistency in Mormonism of appealing to different standards.

Papa D said...

How do I define "doctrine"? - As whatever we happen to believe collectively at any given time.

That drives lots of people nuts, especially those who want the inerrant word of God made plain, but I like it. It can make it hard for some of those who believe differently than the collective understanding at any given time, and that describes me with regard to many issues, but I still like it. I've moved past any real concern for orthodoxy, and nobody really cares about my heterodoxy since I don't push any extremes - and since I'm solidly orthopraxic.

I take comfort in the struggle of others to define how we believe - and it is HIGHLY ironic that some people blast us as brain-washed cultists while others lament how wildly uneven and unpredictable our diverse views are. I get a real kick out of that.

Mitch said...

I see doctrine as the basic beliefs that were always true throughout time. Of course, the problem is that we don't see past teachings as relevant to our current teachings. Very few people make connections to the law of Moses and the sacrament.

I see polygamy as doctrine since we still believe in it as an eternal reality. Both Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson have remarried. If their second wife was sealed to them in the temple, they are polygamists in my view. I know that might make some uncomfortable.

Growing up in the church the blacks and the priesthood was always taught as doctrine, but today it is taught as policy.

I know that the Family Proclamation is taught as doctrine today, but I wonder if science will catch up with us in regards to the fuzzy line on gender (baby born with both gender parts) or homosexuality being in line with left handedness.

Because it's not easy to have a simple answer on everything in the gospel, I try to focus mostly on the atonement. The one thing that must be true if all else fails.

Dale Wight said...

The Church has a posting on their website about this at:
The money quote for me is,
With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.
This definition excludes:
* General Conference talks,
* Church-published manuals and magazines,
* Books by General Authorities, BYU professors, or anyone else interested in LDS beliefs,
* Talks in meetings, firesides, or Sunday School lessons,
* Speculations on meso-american geography and archeaology,
* Interviews on Larry King's TV show,
* Videos posted on YouTube,
* Comments posted in or out of the Bloggernacle,
* Emails debunked by,
* etc.
It should be noted, as some wag commented in the Bloggernacle, that this posting on the Church's website frails its own definition of what's doctrinal and so may not be a sure description of what is our doctrine.
For me, however, the issue in this life isn’t so much what is our true doctrine as what kind of person each of us becomes. (See Elder Oaks’ “The Challenge to Become,” GenCon 10/2000).

Clean Cut said...

The Challenges of Defining Mormon Doctrine