Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.


66 thoughts on “Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

  1. Jared, I’m not entirely onboard I’m afraid.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the brethren declare, and the saint ratify anything that was in direct conflict and opposition to scripture.

    It’s nice to say in theory that we aren’t bound by static canon – but as a practical matter, we kind of are.

  2. I would like to point out that putting Doctrine and Practice together is wrong. The doctrine does not change, and never has. The practices have changed as needed and commanded by God, but the doctrine has remained the same.
    Also, there is no practice that is not rooted in the standard works and supported by the scriptures, and there never has been.

  3. All that secret stuff and mumbo jumbo and progressive spiritual ladder-climbing is un-Christian and leads people to hell. And they ‘feel’ good about it, all the way there.

  4. Seth,

    “It’s nice to say in theory that we aren’t bound by static canon – but as a practical matter, we kind of are.”

    Isn’t saying the LDS has a “static canon” equivalent of saying the United States live under a static constitution?

    The operative question is, what is it to be “bound”?

    My thesis basically boils down to the idea that the Church is not dogmatic, it can be fairly said that Joseph Smith rejected the notion of dogma altogether.

  5. OldAdam,

    All that secret stuff and mumbo jumbo and progressive spiritual ladder-climbing is un-Christian and leads people to hell.

    All christians (i.e. all Mormons, Evangelicals, Catholics, Lutherans) are undoubtedly ladder climbers, some use the entire ladder, some just use the first couple of rungs. Some emphasize (or demand) a particular ladder-climbing technique, but the ladder is simply the hard facts of existence. For you personally, the most important question is whether you will eventually get drug up the ladder by Jesus, for all of the rest of us the more important question is what you are leaning the ladder up against – i.e. how are you going to look act when you reach the top?

    As for what that secret stuff. . . it is nothing if not Biblical and Christian to keep important things secret:

    “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

  6. Also, there is no practice that is not rooted in the standard works and supported by the scriptures, and there never has been.

    Shemawater, I don’t disagree at all.

  7. How can you reject dogma with a system of policy that is true based on authority?

    I’m with you that binding policy is established by the current authority and the requirement for the membership to sustain the authority and policy. I think your analogy explains both why LDS doctrine is obviously dynamically changing from the outside and guarded and stable from the inside.

    From the outside new policy/doctrine shows change and discontinuity, while from the inside the new policy/doctrine comes from the continuing authority proving, as Shematwater dogmatically says “doctrine does not change, and never has.”

    Honestly I think this is the one of the best explanations of how doctrine and authority relate in Mormonism.

  8. Lutheranism is basically a commentary on the Book of Romans. In that epistle, Paul lays out quite clearly that we do not have ANY righteousness in ourselves and what ‘we do’…but that we are saved by grace through faith…and that is a gift from God to the ungodly.

    And that understanding keeps us off the religious rat wheel, and preserves our freedom in Christ, and God’s freedom to love and forgive the undeserving.

  9. Well, to me, if you want to take the analogy of a “spiritual ladder” seriously, I think you have to include Christ himself in that category.

  10. How can you reject dogma with a system of policy that is true based on authority?

    The Mormon belief in following prophets has never been a dogma nor a basis for dogma. I think you have to have a pretty specific theory of truth to believe in dogma.

  11. Christ came ALL the way down the ladder…to us…so that we wouldn’t have to engage in climbing it. As if that would do us any good. Worse than not doing us any good, it is actually harmful for us, as Paul writes to the Galatians, “…you sever yourself from Christ.”

  12. I think we probably have a different definition for dogma.

    Follow the prophet may be orthopraxy, but having a true and living prophet at the head of the church is certainly an LDS dogma.

  13. I wasn’t aware that Western Christianity had a definition of Dogma.

    Dogma not dogma, the LDS church is chalk full of essential beliefs/doctrines/principals/dogmas. If you have a system of policies and beliefs set down by an authority you pretty much have the dictionary definition of dogma.

  14. I don’t see why?

    It’s clear Mormonism has essential beliefs. Apostasy, restoration, priesthood, continuing revelation, prophets etc. To say that these beliefs in their most basic form are dogma is only a way of identifying that they are essential to the religion.

    Saying for instance that priesthood is a dogma in Mormonism wouldn’t prevent continuing revelation (another dogma) to open the priesthoods to women in the future.

    In the same way to say eternal mater and eternal progression are dogmas in Mormonism doesn’t fix certain views or opinions as the official theology.

    That’s why I like your positive law analogy, it allows for the identification of core beliefs and a better understanding of how that core belief is practiced in its current formula. I think you have outdone yourself. You really should continue by applying this paradigm to a specific idea.

  15. Karl Barth, called dogma “the agreement of the Church proclamation with the revelation attested in the Holy Scripture…” Tweak that to the “sustaining of the Church to the proclamation of the brethren attested to by the standard works…” and you have your positive law paradigm.

  16. I’ve made the point a lot before that Mormons do orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. And I suppose that’s true.

    But that’s only because the majority of people actually in religions do orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. The average Evangelical doesn’t give three rat treats for orthodoxy any more than the average Mormon does.

    But there are people in the Evangelical tradition who do orthodoxy and take it seriously. And I think their efforts do tend to trickle down to average Evangelicals in various ways. I think the same is true of Mormons.

    These days, I tend to think more that the lack of Mormon orthodoxy is due more to the religion being 200 years old than it is to some maxim like “Mormons don’t do orthodoxy.”

  17. And I don’t think that Mormonism is some nice big tent of “whatever you think is cool dude.”

    Incidentally, Kate Kelly’s appeal of her excommunication was rejected recently.

    Theological points still matter.

  18. I think Jared’s paradigm says currentcy, if that is a word, is more important for LDS orthodoxy than history. That seems to explain both the absence of dogmatic definitions and the essential role present leadership in LDS doctrine.

  19. Seth,

    I absolutely don’t think Mormonism is a religion of “whatever you think is cool”. (I see this a lot more clearly now that I have been attending church in the United States again.) But this does not change the point I am making.

    In philosophy of law, the distinction is made between positivism – which says that a rule is law merely because of social facts – and other theories which say that a rule is law – at least in part – because of of the merits of the rule. But taking into account human realities, to say that law is merely positive does not really mean “anything goes” – it just means that law is the tool of politics, not politics itself.

  20. Gundeck

    “How can you separate doctrine and practice?”

    Easily. There is a doctrine that Paul teaches that “Our bodies are temples.” Essentially this doctrine means that our bodies are sacred creations of God in which the Holy Spirit can dwell, and thus we are to take care of our bodies. This doctrine has been around since the beginning, as evidence by the statements of clean and unclean animals during the story of Noah. But the practices surrounding it have changed. Under the Law of Moses there was a very strict guideline for what you can eat. In the New Testament Paul teaches that such strictness is no longer needed, and today we have the general guidelines of the Word of Wisdom. All these show different practices, yet all are based on the same doctrine.
    The same is true of animal sacrifice and the sacrament (communion). Both of these are based in the doctrine of the Atonement. The Animal sacrifices were instituted with Adam to turn the peoples minds forward to when Christ would come. After the Atonement this was replaced with the sacrament, to turn the peoples minds back to when Christ had come. Two different practices based on the same doctrine.
    Practice should never be confused with doctrine. In your later posts you actually show a very similar understanding as you describe the essentials or dogmas, while also giving an understanding of how the practices surrounding them can change.


    “Shemawater, I don’t disagree at all.”

    I am glad we see things the same way. 🙂

  21. Shematwater,

    Providing the doctrinal basis for a change in practice is not separating doctrine and practice. You are showing why doctrine and practice are inseparable.

  22. I think that the concept of Zion as Jared C has outlined it is certainly an extremely important thread in Mormonism, but it is not obviously the only, most important, or most fundamental thread.

  23. I think it just makes more sense to say that the current rules and regulations for members of the church are posited by inspired leadership than to say that the church operates by canons that are strictly reasoned from the existing scriptures. It is clear that the rules and regulations are not set in stone anymore, the commandments change, the entire history of the religion of Isreal is clear evidence of that. The dispensational theory of revelation justifies the change in commandments.

    But where we closer to agreement simply because the commandments change does not mean that the fundamental force behind the commandments changes. In the LDS view, God must be smart enough to see that natural human interaction with eternal principles is always tricky and there is the ever-present limitation of human agency that God operates under.

    The positive law theory also jibes with the LDS idea of different sets of laws corresponding to different kingdoms intriguing. There are different sets of principles that, when applied, lead most people to different levels of peace and happiness in life. These principles naturally would change depending on the background cultural situation of the believer.

  24. This reminds me of the idea that progress is always good. But how can progress be judged “good” absent some external standard of what good is?

    In other words, there has to be dogma in there somewhere, or else you can’t know if you’re progressing towards something you want or should be progressing towards, or not.

    You seem to be saying that the only dogma is that “unity is good”. But again, you can progress as a unified body towards something good or towards something bad. You need some kind of an unchanging principle to tell you which.

  25. Jared, I generally agree that Mormonism includes a substantial body of positive law, i.e., that many Mormon commandments are such not because they are inherent rules coded into the universe a la natural law or because God himself promulgated them by divine command, but that they are binding simply because they were promulgated by God’s authorized representatives. However, I think that Mormon doctrines of priesthood authority are the better starting place for explaining this phenomenon than Mormon ideas about a Zion utopia.

  26. You need some kind of an unchanging principle to tell you which.

    This is a dogmatic approach, but it is certainly not necessary. Seeking a particular state of affairs through conscientiously choosing rules does not require unchanging propositions. The LDS believe that God has revealed that achieving Zion while maintaining free-agency is the goal. Therefore progressing to Zion is good insofar as doing what God wants can be considered good. “Zion” and “free-agency” may not be defined, but they don’t have to be when the Spirit is always there to guide. Dogma in the form of unchanging proposition that are intelligible to humans is not required.

  27. Kullervo,

    I see priesthood as part and parcel to the whole legalistic structure of the church. The doctrines of priesthood authority are also essentially positive, they change over time based on the then-governing authority. I don’t think any reading of Mormon scripture supports the idea of a natural or unchanging structure to the priesthood. In Mormon parlance, priesthood is merely synonymous with authority, and it is clear that authority has been doled out in lots of different ways within scriptural history.

    Therefore, I think keeping the goal in mind is critical if you want make sense of what the church is doing. Holding the priesthood has never meant infallibility. The focus on unity explains why the Church believes it is not appropriate to criticize leadership, even when they screw up.

  28. Jared:

    It seems to me that one of your unchanging propositions is that “achieving Zion while maintaining free-agency is the goal”.

    You probably have some definition of “Zion” which is also unchanging. You can’t move towards Zion if “Zion” is undefined and you don’t know what kinds of things will get you there and what will hinder you.

    The kinds of things that will get you there apparently are doing what the First Presidency says you should do, thereby maintaining unity; therefore, that “following the First Presidency will move us towards Zion” seems to be another unchanging principle.

    Or are you suggesting that getting to Zion might some day no longer be the goal? or that following someone besides the First Presidency might some day be the best way to get to Zion?

  29. No, I don’t have a definition of Zion that is unchanging, neither does the LDS church. There is no precise definition for Zion.

    Or are you suggesting that getting to Zion might some day no longer be the goal? or that following someone besides the First Presidency might some day be the best way to get to Zion?

    The correct LDS answer is: “Who knows?” The scriptural record leaves the door open to such changes.

  30. I think it would be accurate to say that the Church focuses on sustaining authority in order to maintain unity. I think the reason for maintaining unity is mixed up in the pursuit of Zion.

  31. Gundeck

    To say that practice is dependent on doctrine is that same as to say they are the same or not separate. Dependency is a whole different things. The genetics of the child are dependent on the Genetics of the parents, but the child and parents are separate beings with separate genetic codes. While the motion of a ball is dependent on the manner in which it is thrown, the ball and the one throwing it are very separate things.
    Practice is determined by Doctrine, and I have never denied that. But they are very separate things, allowing for Practice to change while the doctrine on which it is based remains the same.

  32. Jared:

    “The correct LDS answer is: “Who knows?” The scriptural record leaves the door open to such changes.”

    So the unchanging principle is that you can’t contradict scripture?

    There has to be an unchanging principle in there somewhere. Otherwise you’re saying that the Church is drifting aimlessly through history, lurching this way and that, to no particular purpose.

  33. Mormons and other Christians clearly believe that you can contradict scripture, they just call it something other than “contradict” – see e.g. the New Testament. What God says changes over time and all change involves contradiction.

    The principle laid out by Joseph Smith that guides the LDS Church is something like: listen to the word of God as it comes by the voice of the Spirit (or by vision or angelic messenger), and do your best to follow that. It boils down to “live by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God.” That is not really dogma it is just a commonsense approach to following God.

    The purpose of the Church has always been pretty clear, and has always been focused on the Second Coming and Zion. But this could not really be considered the formulation of any unchanging principle or dogma.

  34. Shemawater,

    I think the distinction I am making is that practice is inspired by doctrine, but not determined by doctrine. Doctrine alone doesn’t determine much of anything, an argument based on reason and doctrine alone does not have any real force in the Church if it is not blessed by those in authority. It is only persuasive, not compelling.

  35. That’s why St. Paul said to the Galatians (and it might as well have been the Mormons)…that “if a angel from heaven comes down with another gospel, let him be accursed.”

    Mormonism has another gospel. It is a cooperative venture. The true gospel is all God for the ungodly.

    It (the true gospel) is as if someone spoke of love in a bordello. That’s how radical it is. And that is why so many religions just have to add onto the Cross of Christ. They just don’t buy it. Some so much so that they don’t even put the Cross on top of their buildings.

  36. Shematwater

    I said doctrine and practice are inseparable, not that they are not distinct. Faith and repentance are inseparable, they are still distinct. I don’t see why practice being dependent on doctrine in any way breaks down distinctions between what we think and what we do.

  37. Jared,

    We don’t put that Cross up there because we have to.

    That Cross accomplished everything for us. So we WANT to put it up there for all to see.

  38. I got a strong sense of all of this while reading McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine”. He seemed to rest his argument on “we said it, that settles it.”

  39. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine is a great example of LDS-style thinking. McConkie believed in prophecy and reasoned from it. His conclusions were generally conjecture based on the scriptures and select teachings of Joseph Smith. He also had a very strong sense of his own ability to see and understand by the Spirit, often believing the precise wording of his talks was critical to the message.

    McConkie’s participation in and reaction to the 1978 priesthood revelation is a good example of him faithfully falling in line with the new policy. What mattered to him most was revelation, not reasoning. He was happy to change his position and admit that he, Brigham Young, and a host of others were flat wrong about the way the Church assigned priesthood authority and began seeing everything in a new light when he accepted the “further light and knowledge.”

    My experiences with David B. Haight, who was in my ward for several years, also confirms this sort of thinking. Elder Haight spoke in churchfor 10 or 15 minutes every time he showed up, which was every other week or so. One of the regular themes of his talks was his experience surrounding the blacks-getting-the-priesthood revelation. He said he and all of the other Apostles felt a spirit of absolute unity and resolve regarding President Kimball’s revelation. The revelatory process was that of creating complete consensus among the leadership and then feeling complete spiritual harmony and enlightenment when they sustained the new revelation.

    This all made sense to me because I saw church policy as temporal law rather than everlastingly true dogma. Laws become more enlightened as the people who sustain the law become more enlightened. I saw it as comparable to Peter’s revelation extending the Gospel to the gentiles.

  40. Oldadam,

    I didn’t question why you put the cross up, I questioned why you build the church under it and what that is all about.

  41. Jared,

    I’ve already explained that (many times on this site in many different comments).

    If you haven’t heard it…then you may not have ears to hear it…at this point, anyway.

  42. theoldadam – “Mormonism has another gospel.”

    Nope – you do!

    (That was a fun exercise.)

  43. Gunduck

    But doctrine and practice are separable, and that is the point. The practice of animal sacrifice has been separated from the doctrine of the Atonement. It was once attached to it, but no longer is.
    Faith and repentance are separable, because one can have faith and yet not repent. Yet one cannot repent if they do not have faith.

    To say that they are inseparable is to say that both are dependent on the other; that you cannot have the doctrine without the practice, or the practice without the doctrine. This is not accurate. If it was there would be no change in practice. Practice changes because they are separable.


    I would disagree with you somewhat on this. There is a fixed and eternal principle that governs all the church. That principle is God, with all His perfection in attributes, glory, and power. You mention the lifting of the ban on the black race and Elder McConkie’s reactions. God is the constant, and when God reveals or commands we follow. With this comes the belief that God is unchanging in His justice, His mercy, and His truth. We are imperfect in all these things, and we change (hopefully for the better); but God does not. Thus we accept that God will never contradict Himself; that what He reveals today will be in harmony with what He revealed in the past, as well as what He will reveal in the future.
    There are other eternal principles, but this is the main one that guides the church. It doesn’t matter what any man says, whether they be a prophet or a deacon. If God reveals something that is contrary to what that man said, than that man is wrong, because God is always right.

  44. Shematwater,

    I am sure for you doctrine and practice are separable, I get it.

    From my perspective inseparability of doctrine and practice probably has more to do with your idea that doctrine never changes.

    I think doctrine is an expression of our current understanding and is always subject to revision. I would understand the OT sacrificial system have been fulfilled by the perfect sacrifice of Christ, so the lack of sacrifice in the Church is based on the doctrine of the completed work of Christ. So in the case of sacrifices doctrine dictates practice.

    Once again we have a fundamental disagreement showing how far apart we are, but in this case I am not convinced that your position is the mainstream LDS position.

  45. JT,

    I hope you are up to the task with your Mormon “gospel”.

    I know that I am not up to the task with mine (Jesus’ gospel). But I don’t have to be.

  46. theoldadam – My point is that invoking Galatians 1 is a futile exercise of presupposing the conclusion.

  47. JT, you are now saying that invoking the Word of God is “a futile exercise of presupposing the conclusion.” And by doing so you pretty much prove theoldadam right.

  48. But isn’t that Jared’s point, to the Mormon it wouldn’t matter if there was a different gospel as long as it is the current gospel of the first presidency, the quorum of the rwelve, sustained by the members?

  49. Gundek:

    That’s more or less how I was reading it. If there are no “unchanging principles”, or in other words dogmas, then in theory the Church can preach any number of gospels during the course of its history.

  50. In theory, yes, anything can be doctrine if the social facts make it so. However, that does not mean the social facts are infinitely malleable. The positive law theory just puts the source of the law at a certain kind of society rather than in certain ideas or ideals.

    Despite the authoritarian appearance, the LDS church is a grassroots organization – a volunteer army. This is partly why the Church allows a wide range of formulations of the Gospel . Mormons believe they are following the Holy Spirit and place faith in that as primal. Whatever the membership classify as common experiences with the Spirit ultimately dictate the social facts that make up doctrine. This is why some doctrines stick and others don’t, regardless of whether they are taught by the leadership.

  51. Once again, a dubious exercise (following the Spirit)…since apart from the gospel and God’s law…”the devil can come to us all dressed up as an angel of light” (Moroni).

    As St. Paul said, “Even if an angel from Heaven come down with another gospel, let him be accursed.”

  52. What is the job of the Holy Spirit?

    We believe that it is to point to Christ. Not to lead us off into self-focused ladder-climbing, or experiential feelings which we cannot trust in. Was it the Holy Spirit telling you something?
    Or last night’s pizza?

  53. theoldadam – Isn’t that all in the eye of the beholder?

    Let’s take the line from your previous comment, but throw in a different angel:

    “Once again, a dubious exercise (following the Spirit)…since apart from the gospel and God’s law…”the devil can come to us all dressed up as an angel of light” (Gabriel).

    The poor church never would have made it off the ground.

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