Apr 2, 2008

Fact Or Fiction: Distinguishing Doctrine From Speculation

I was reading "What Is Official Doctrine" by Stephen E. Robertson and just had a few thoughts that I wanted to post and get feedback on. Robertson's words are in italics.

"The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine."

(When I hear the term “Mormon Doctrine,” Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine comes to mind. I used to read it as a child and although some things seemed really strange to me, in my juvenile ignorance I just assumed it was indeed Mormon doctrine. Now I wonder how he was even allowed to publish a book with that title without any consequences, that I know of, imposed by The First Presidency. I think that the title was actually quite misleading. “Mormon Theory” or “Mormon Speculation” would have perhaps been more appropriate.)

Usually the critics insist that the Latter-day Saints must defend as doctrine everything that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or any other General Authority ever said. (See "Are Brigham Young's Sermons Scripture") But the LDS concept of doctrine simply cannot be stretched this far. The Latter-day Saints allow that sometimes the living prophet speaks in his role as prophet and sometimes he simply states his own opinions. This distinction is no different than that made in some other Christian denominations. For example, even though Roman Catholics believe in "papal infallibility," they insist that the pope is infallible only in certain clearly defined circumstances --when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Cannot the Latter-day Saints be allowed a similar distinction? The LDS view was expressed succinctly by Joseph Smith himself: "I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such."

Finally, from an LDS point of view some things may be correct without being official Church doctrine. For example, it is probably true that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse, but the Pythagorean theorem has never been sustained in a general conference of the Church. Similarly the doctrinal opinions of individual Latter-day Saints could very well turn out to be correct--and some such opinions are believed by many of the Saints --but that does not make them the official doctrine of the Church. This category of things that may be true and that are believed by some in the Church is confusing to members and nonmembers alike. Hence the Brethren have insisted again and again that the members avoid such speculative matters and teach only from the standard works, for only they contain the official doctrines of the Church.

(Why then do we not just teach from the Standard Works, but also from manuals containing teachings from various prophets? Some of the anecdotes and statements written in these manuals may have been recorded when a prophet was merely stating his opinion and not necessarily prophetically. So how do we know? Also, regarding church manuals, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that in the Joseph Smith manual that we're studying this year, the subject of polygamy is nowhere to be found. Not even mentioned! I've often thought that investigators who read only church materials can be led to believe that Emma was Joseph's one and only wife. I wonder why this doctrine, as troubling as it can be to us today, is white-washed or at times completely ignored by current Church publications. Yes, it was controversial. But it was fact and it was very important to Church history. Trying to erase the past is, in my opinion, not a solution. What do you think?)


Sanford said...

The Faithful Dissident asks

I wonder why this doctrine, as troubling as it can be to us today, is white-washed or at times completely ignored by current Church publications.

How about these possibilities

1 - We don't believe it anymore
2 – Market analysis shows that a frank discussion of polygamy will dramatically reduce the rate of convert baptisms
3 – We do believe it, but we don’t want people to know we believe it
4 – We don’t want to rock the boat
5 – Its best to let sleeping dogs lie
6 – People can’t handle the truth
7 – All of the above

The Faithful Dissident said...

All good answers, Sanford. And you're probably right. Although I acknowledge that bringing up such topics too early with an investigator will only push them away, if it were me, then I would appreciate it if someone in the Church told me the truth instead of having to find out from some other source, which probably can't even explain it accurately anyways.

My family is a mix of races and nationalities and I have a black cousin who converted to the Church in his teens. Later on, he went on a mission. But he had never even heard about the priesthood ban until he knocked on some guy's door who angrily sent them away and told him "don't you know that your Church doesn't even want your kind?" Yikes, what a way to find out! Needless to say, I guess the mission president had to do some big-time damage control and thankfully, instead of running away screaming, he was able to finish his mission and remains active in the Church today. A happy ending, but I'm sure that there are many sad endings out there.

Bored in Vernal said...

Back in the day (when I was a young wife and mother), Mormon Doctrine by BRM was looked upon as completely authoritative. Since then the Church has slowly been moving away from even having any "doctrine." The manuals are as non-controversial as possible and so is General Conference. Many people think this is a good thing. Things that were said by past GA's can be dismissed by saying that "it was his opinion, not doctrine." We fit in with other Christian denominations much better that way. It's very hard on those of us who grew up on the old stuff...

The Faithful Dissident said...

I really wonder how book published today under that title, by a high-ranking leader, would be received by the Prophet and GA's.

Sanford said...

The book Mormon Doctrine was big deal when I was growing up for a few reasons. Bruce R. McConkie was my grandmother’s cousin and his church position was a point of pride in our family. Later, when I was in high school my family moved into a house where Bruce R (that’s what my mother called him) lived 3 houses away. I was in awe of the man. He was so stern and serious and authoritative. It would never have occurred to me then that Mormon Doctrine was anything other than what it purported to be – Mormon Doctrine. And as odd as it sounds, I think bored in vernal is on right on the money in her assertion that the Church is moving away from having “doctrine.” And I, like her, find that disconcerting. Sometimes guys in the elder’s quorum will dismiss out of hand things that I struggle over because I think they are doctrine (or least they once were) and they think they just need to pray about it and do what is right.

The Faithful Dissident said...

It puzzles me as to why we're told by some that we "just need to pray about it." Despite the fact that we're all unique, I would expect that there are some doctrines and/or policies that apply to everyone. One example comes to mind. By the time I got my endowments, there had been a policy change in regards to how to wear your bra with garments. Before, I think sisters were always instructed to wear their bras on top of the garments. Now, it's become a personal matter and apparently acceptable to wear your bra under your garments as long as it's white. The temple matron said that we should pray about it and decide what's best for ourselves, that it would be between us and the Lord. I don't know, but it seems odd to me that the Lord would tell some sisters that they should wear their bra over their garments and others under. It's either right or it's wrong, right? Or can the Lord give us multiple choice answers? And what if I receive a different answer than someone else? Is the more traditional/conservative one right? Is the other wrong? Does it really matter????

The Faithful Dissident said...

Another good example is the evolution of the acceptability of birth control among members, on which Bored in Vernal did a lengthy and interesting write-up. Now it's become another one of those "between you and God" issues that we're supposed to pray about -- though I suspect that many are too afraid to ask the Lord about for fear that they'll get an answer that they need to revert back to the rhythm method. :)

brandt said...

I've noticed that recently BRM's Mormon Doctrine has been referenced less and less in Church. Perhaps it's just my ward, or me tuning out anytime anyone mentions it, but I really feel that it hit it's prime in the 80's-early 90's, then has been slowly less and less referenced.

For a great discussion on the coming forth of Mormon Doctrine and the after-effects, I highly recommend Greg Prince's David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism

Zelph said...

My dad has a copy of Mormon Doctrine, the original version. I remember opening it up and seeing all kinds of pen markings in the book crossing things out, and "correcting" certain things. I couldn't believe that even my dad, who is a devout member of the church made several corrections to the book.

It is my understanding that BRM published the book without consent from the first presidency, he just did it independently, and it was not well received by other members of the first presidency. In fact, I believe that he faced possible disciplinary action, but they decided it would undermine the integrity of the apostleship.

However, it is interesting that the book "Mormon doctrine" is now looked at as speculation, because it was authoritative back then. It is evident that my dad used the book a lot and referred to it frequently.

It did contain a TON of errors that are not even correct in Mormon theology, like for example it said that you can only bless your house after you have the mortgage paid off. It says that blacks would never get the priesthood until the millennium.

This is why the church now tries to stay as neutral and as non-controversial as possible because they have been burned on many occasions.