The following guest post is written by Seth. I successfully guilted him into writing it (we all know guilt is the most effective way to motivate a Mormon). Thanks Seth for adding to the cause.
Evangelicals are sometimes express irritation at the complex nature of Mormon doctrine and theology. They complain that once you think you’ve pinned Mormon theology down on something, the Mormon in front of you will say things like
“Oh, but that’s not what we believe today.”
“That was just Joseph’s personal opinion.”
“That’s not official doctrine.”
“You aren’t taking that quote in context.”
And you’re back to square one and still not sure what Mormons – as a whole – are supposed to be held accountable for in their doctrine. You might be forgiven for considering us, at best, confused or even, at worst, plain sneaky. I won’t deny that some of us Mormons may be both, but bear with me and I’ll try to do my best to provide a few ground rules for sifting the unfamiliar world of Mormon doctrine.
First thing to keep in mind is that Mormonism is a relatively young religion. We haven’t been the first religion in this awkward position. Our current situation is actually unsimilar to Christianity in the first couple centuries, when people like Tertullian took the first tentative stabs at explaing themselves to the world and its existing systems of thought and belief. Like early Christianity, Mormonism does not have the most developed approach to theology. And like most early religions, the focus is more correct practice rather than correct theological belief. Mormonism is more focused on orthopraxy than orthodoxy. So to ask Mormons for a go-to source of orthodoxy is asking the wrong question, because honestly, most Mormons aren’t all that bothered about orthodoxy and questions of orthodoxy. Questions of practice and community concern us more.
That said, Mormons are not entirely indifferent to orthodoxy. We do try to approach our doctrine with a semblance of discipline. Here are the sources of Mormon doctrine, in order of importance as I see them:
1. Canonized scripture. Currently this Entails the Holy Bible (we use the KJV), the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants.
A book does not become canonized in the LDS Church until it has been presented to the entire membership of the Church and sustained as such. I believe the last time this occurred was in relation to some passages in the Doctrine and Covenants. All other sources of doctrine must be tested against this canon.
2. Statements of living prophets (this includes the President of the Church and the other Apostles), spoken officially to the Church, and disseminated to the Church.
This only applies to the currently living General Authorities of the Church. We consider them prophets, and their words are going to have great impact. But you have to make sure that their statements were made in an official capacity and meant to be binding upon the membership. Usually, this means that their words have to be disseminated to the membership by official means. The current vehicle for doing this is the official magazine of the LDS Church (”The Ensign” in the US and “The Liahona” elsewhere). General Conference addresses (in their final published form) are also a good example. Official declarations such as the recent “Proclamation on the Family” top off this category.
3. Doctrine as disseminated in official LDS study materials – such as the teachers guides for youth classes, or Gospel Doctrine handbooks.
You’d think that if it has the LDS seal of approval for being taught every week in Church, that’s as good as God’s own iron-clad guarantee, right? Well, not quite. While they are a great resource for guaging what modern LDS are being taught, and what they are thinking and believing, the manuals should not be viewed as always binding doctrinally. You have to be careful to constantly reassess these sources against numbers 1 and 2. Especially in light of #2 since Church manuals have been known to become outdated in some respects years before new updates are budgeted for. For instance, you might find an old quote from a long dead apostle in a current Church study guide that presents a certain spin on the question of “grace vs. works.” But you have to read that quote in light of the more recent statements made by living General Authorities.
The famous “Church Handbook of Instructions” disseminated to LDS local leadership also falls into this category. It is more of a book of current Church policy than a disciplined and binding statement of timeless doctrine (and since a large swath of the membership is unaware of its precise contents, it doesn’t always accurately portray what ordinary Mormons believe either). Fiinally, statements made on the LDS Newsroom website would also fall into this category – though I think these are often more up-to-date than the actual manuals, due to the fluid and constantly updated nature of the internet.
4. Doctrine as presented by past prophets and apostles.
Once the prophet is dead, he is replaced by successors whose words carry modern authority to the Church going forward. If the successor moves on from policies or (more rarely) doctrines espoused by his predecessor, the living prophet generally trumps the old one. The quotes, sermons and writings of that old prophet must now be subordinated to #4 on the totem pole of Mormon authority.
The Journal of Discourses – that document Evangelicals counter-cultists are always mining for radioactive Brigham Young quotes – falls into this category. Even old Joseph Smith quotes can fall into this category – although his prestige within Mormon belief often prevents his quotes from falling out of favor so quickly. The LIVING prophet takes precedence in guiding the present-day Church. Old quotes do not always stand the test of time. Brigham Young’s Adam-God idea being a prime example. No one in the LDS Church really knows what Brigham meant by those quotes, they seem to conflict with what we know of canonized LDS scripture, and even Brigham Young himself seemed to contradict the notion on occasion in his own statements. Thus the doctrine was discarded.
I imagine some Evangelicals would be horrified at the notion of discarding the doctrinal explanations of a living prophet with a direct connection to God-almighty, but his is not overly concerning from a Mormon perspective. We never claimed our prophets were infallible to begin with. Nor did we ever claim they were exempt from being tested against the scriptures, or even against plain common sense. Prophets in the Mormon tradition are always subject to a great many checks and balances. Those who expect to find a theological dictator with an iron-grasp over the beliefs of the membership will be disappointed (or pleasantly surprised). The LDS Church appears authoritarian on the outside, but in reality, it is surprisingly grass-roots. All must find their own witness among a variety of doctrinal guides.
5. Books apostles write in their spare time, and statements made by General Authorities that were never meant for Church-wide dissemination.
Just because an apostle wrote it doesn’t mean you’re holding binding doctrine in your hand. LDS General Authorities try to be very careful in their writings (perhaps moreso today than in decades past) because they are aware that people will inevitably be tempted to take their opinion as law. But sometimes stuff slips through the cracks.
The most obvious example of this, is apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s landmark book – “Mormon Doctrine.” It’s an invaluable resource and shows a great deal of care and scripture cross-referencing. It’s a resource I use all the time. And most of the time, it gets the doctrine essentially right. Most of the time….
McConkie’s fellow apostles and even the President David O. McKay specifically asked McConkie not to publish the book. They did not want a single apostle giving the impression that he was speaking definitively for Mormon doctrine. The title of the book certainly didn’t help matters in this regard. But McConkie disregarded the advice, and published it anyway. After a few years of circulation, McConkie was forced retract certain incendiary remarks about Catholics and his own theories about the eternal status of certain racial groups among other things.
It’s a dang useful book and will give a lot of insight. But you’ll get a warped view of Mormonism from McConkie if you don’t test it against the doctrinal sources that are higher in priority and status.
Another book example along these lines is Spencer W. Kimball’s book – “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” Another good book that has become something of gold mine for Evangelicals wishing to proof-text how Mormons are obsessed with works at the expense of grace. I personally think the book is a bit dated and due for another book to come along and unseat it. It’s also worth noting that Kimball wrote it as an apostle, not as President of the Church – which gives it less status than something that the President would have written.
Books written by apostles really should not be viewed as binding – merely persuasive. Sort of like rabbinic commentary on the Torah in the Jewish tradition. If it jives with the canon of scripture, great. If it’s out of step with that canon, we need not feel bound by it (though we are encouraged to consider that maybe, just maybe, that apostle knows something we don’t).
6. Mormon literature in general.
Here you have all the other LDS books published. They aren’t published by General Authorities which means they will have varying force and persuasiveness depending on the author. Hugh Nibley has a lot of cachet in some circles. In others Robert Millet or Stephen Robinson might be highly regarded. In yet others, you might have lay LDS gushing over the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul-style offering from a popular LDS author from the youth speaking circuit or what have you. The “Encyclopedia on Mormonism” also falls into this category. It had a lot of scholarly input and I believe they were being as careful as they possibly could in their pronouncements. But, despite it’s impressive name, it is still not the final word (nor would it’s authors claim it was).
Scholarly Mormon magazines and publications fall into this category, as does the online content of various private Mormon sources – such as Mormon blogs. All sources in this category are, of course, best viewed with a highly critical eye.
That’s the best I can do for a summary for you. I hope it’s becoming clear to the readers here that defining the limits of Mormon doctrine is more of an art than a science. Maybe that bothers some who see religion first and foremost as a source of theological and personal security.
But I don’t consider this a bad thing. I’m sure others will disagree with me, but I like the flexibility and natural adaptivity that is built into the LDS interface with doctrine. It makes for a religion that is far more exciting to me than any of the alternatives. And the truth is, you are just going to have a more complex authoritative mix when you throw living, breathing, and dying prophets. That said, Mormonism offers a real opportunity to not be commanded in all things, to move off-script for a moment and stand revealed before God without the shield of a biblical text, and take ownership of your own beliefs.
I believe there comes a time in every Mormon’s life when he or she has to stop a moment, do some serious thinking, and ask themselves – do I really believe that? After such reflection, we Mormons are invited to ask God directly if a teaching should be embraced or disregarded.
I would suggest this isn’t a bad pattern for outside students of Mormonism either.
Best of luck to you. It’s a strange and interesting world you are entering.