Things To Act
Sunday, February 08, 2004
 
What is Doctrine?
A correspondent sent me the link to this Robert L. Millet article about the boundaries of our doctrine, which someone also referenced in this Times & Seasons discussion. I didn't get around to reading the article until today, but did think off and on about how we answer the question of what exactly is official Church doctrine.

It's not a terribly easy question to answer, though it's also not one I spend a lot of time worrying about (but then, having grown up in the Church, I have the advantage of instinct helping me out). The comment Millet quotes is amusing but has an element of truth--trying to pin down our exact doctrine is rather like trying to nail jello to the wall.

Our sources of official doctrine include:
*The standard works (OT, NT, BOM, D&C, PGP, anything canonized as such in GC).
*Teachings of the living prophets, particularly in General Conference
*Teachings found in official Church curriculum, websites, manuals, etc.
*Official standards of the Church, particularly the Temple Recommend questions, as well as the exact patterns of the ordinances.
[*And, at a more subtle level, negative doctrine, including things about which the Church either says nothing (regardless of what some of its leaders may have said in the distant past) or says there is no official position.]

To these we can add unofficial sources, including:
*nonstandard works, by BYU professors, General Authorities' personal writings, Sunday School teachers' interpretations, etc.
*conclusions reached through reason and rationality
*conclusions reached through personal revelation/inspiration (including one's patriarchal blessing, though it is received by another on one's behalf).

One could, in theory, rank these sources according to some priority scheme to resolve conflicts and draw the boundaries of 'official' versus 'unofficial/cultural/etc.' The problem is, however, that all of these sources are fallible or problematic under at least some circumstances.

*We believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, and believe that all scripture is generally received through imperfect men; hence, there's always a chance that error crept in (though the chance is higher with certain types of scripture compared to others--Song of Solomon versus D&C 76).
*The Prophet (and GAs generally) is only a prophet when acting as such, according to Joseph Smith. Prophets are fallible humans, and can make mistakes, particularly on more trivial matters. Wilford Woodruff's teaching that the Prophet would never lead the Church astray, at its heart, means that the Prophet is more reliable than not on the important issues, but does not guarantee perfection in all of his teachings.
*Official curriculum, therefore, is both safer and riskier. It's safer in the sense that (lately, anyway) the Brethren have been quite careful with it. On the other hand, given how many people are involved in the production of manuals, websites, etc, the possibility of human error (by a non-GA, no less) cannot be totally discounted. Furthermore, the official materials of the Church (for various good reasons) definitely tilt towards milk, rather than meat, and hence may not make authoritative or complete statements on the 'meatier' matters of doctrine.
*This same problem applies to practical applications--they cover the milk (and most important things), but fundamentally, they are about what we do, not necessarily about what we believe. Furthermore, the exact form of the ordinances or standards can change in minor ways from dispensation to dispensation or even within dispensations, suggesting that we should be cautious about reading too much into certain things.
*Negative doctrine doesn't tell us very much about positive doctrine; at best it warns us off of certain paths.
**All of this adds up not to a statement that we can't trust anything, but that we can't fully trust our conclusions about everything in the 'official' sources, at least on their face.

As for the unofficial sources, things get even worse. None (even one's own personal revelation) is binding on the Church, and all are fallible due to human weakness (even to the point of counterfeit revelation, as taught by President Packer).

So how do we decide what is official doctrine and what is not (or even what degree of semi-officialness doctrine has)? First, a couple of principles:

*The "D&C 91" principle: The Lord didn't give Joseph an authoritative translation of the Apocrypha (in fact, arguments about how complete/reliable the entire JST is continue). Instead, He basically said, 'everyone read it for yourself, in the light of the Spirit, and work things out for yourself.' From this, I draw the lesson that God expects us to work things out, and isn't just going to give us the answers (except in circumstances where He deems it necessary, which, of course, He gets to be the judge of). Similarly, we are commanded to seek out the 'best books,' but are not told which those are, and are not guaranteed that they will be 100% true. In all of our studies, we need to be actively sifting reliable truth from not-as-reliable truth, and can't expect to have the answers handed to us.

*The “good enough” principle: this one was introduced to me by a fellow cynical office elder, but I think there's a lot of truth in it. The theory goes, 'the Lord doesn't always (or even usually) hand you the One Perfect Answer, but rather allows you to work out the best possible answer, and, if it's good enough, tells you that it's good enough or allows you to go forward (if it isn't good enough, he'll tell you to get back to work, presumably).' The specific application was transfers, which I can believe. This principle makes sense to me because Church leaders are human too, and it seems logical that the Lord permits them to make their own mistakes, as well as to have their own successes in helping Him with His work. Certainly he directs them--but they aren't heavenly fax machines. This ties in with the fact that greater light leads to greater responsibility. While this is probably a controversial proposition, it makes sense to me (though I'm not wedded to it being proven right on the Day of Judgment). The counterargument seems indicative--if the Lord really does have One Right Transfer (every six weeks exactly, right on schedule) that will maximize everyone's personalized temporal growing experiences, and the mission president isn't quite on the ball that day with the personal revelation, and accidentally mixes up Elder A and Elder B's assignments, does that mean that they are being punished or held back somehow due to the president’s human weakness? Or should we assume the president is infallible? And what about unrighteous Church leaders (which, sadly, do exist occasionally)? Do they have the power to screw up The Plan for others? To a degree, I think that God can make it so our mistakes cancel each other out, but largely I suspect that the decisions of Church leaders are held to the 'good enough' standard--the Lord guides them to the point that the necessary decisions/statements are made, but the minor details may just be good enough. In the transfer example, it could be that Elders C and D need to serve together, and the president will be prompted to redo the transfer to put them together if he hadn't already done so--but Elders E and F may not need one particular companion or area, and hence may simply be assigned according to the best judgment of the President. (Presumably with enough experience, the president gets enough in tune with the Lord's way of doing things that he can come up with the One Right Transfer without help, eventually. Except by then he's been released).

So the D&C 91 principles suggests that we're not going to have one uniform body of doctrine, all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed. Rather, we're going to have to work things out on the margins for ourselves. Meanwhile, the 'good enough' principles suggests that we don't need to find precise perfection in every circumstance; rather, we need to realize that the Lord made sure that what the Saints of past dispensations had was good enough to get them to salvation, and the doctrine we have today is good enough for that same purpose.

But that still leaves us with the problem of how to work things out on the margins, which is certainly nontrivial in many circumstances. After all, if we believe the scriptures, except when they're mistranslated, and we believe the prophets, except when they're speculating, how do we reconcile a confusing scripture with a confusing statement in the Journal of Discourses? (Which is wrong, or are they both wrong together, or are they both right and the contradiction isn't a contradiction when you understand what's going on)?

The easy answer is the one I mentioned above--instinct. After long enough in the Church, you get an idea of how much weight to put on certain things, and what generally outranks what in terms of deciding on official doctrine. Talks such as '14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet' or scriptures about revelation give a pretty good idea of what's going on--and consistency among sources is highly indicative. In a way, it's not much different from the judgment calls we're asked to make in other fields. For instance, if confronted with a scientific claim I find dubious, I instinctively look at several things--who said it? What authority does he have? What were his methods/reasons? Does this fit in with what I already know? Is there any counterevidence, from which sources? I generally consider the WSJ to be more credible than the NYT, and both to be more credible than the National Inquirer. Similarly, certain scriptures and recent prophetic statements are extremely credible, while the Journal of Discourse isn't as much, but still outranks my personal opinion in some matters.

But there's still one more piece of the puzzle, as it's still possible for instincts to vary. Two people could still come to radically different conclusions about what's important and what isn't. We need something to guide our interpretation in deciding what fits into the doctrinal puzzle and what doesn't. In other words, we need some sort of foundation, or cornerstone, or something. Here 2 Nephi 31 comes in handy, as does 3 Nephi 11: the root of all of our doctrine is the Atonement of Christ, accessible through faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost. Everything else, in the words of the prophet, is an appendage to that set of fundamental truths. (Thus, when the Savior commands us not to declare more or less than this (3 Nephi 11:40), I understand him to mean not that we are misguided in teaching the Word of Wisdom, but that all our doctrine must build on the foundation of His atonement (see v. 39 for the building imagery)). [And details about those fundamental truths, such as the exact mechanism of the Atonement, quibbles about the nature of God or Christ, etc pale in comparison to the fundamental truth that through Him we can find salvation].

Thus, in trying to decide where to draw our chalk line of Exact Doctrine, we have a mess of sources of varying reliability, and the margins of the circle can generate much controversy about what 'really' is and is not official doctrine (I suspect the zone of actual official doctrine, that you Must Believe To Be Saved, is probably remarkably small). However, we have a Grand Unifying Principle at the center of the circle, that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and all doctrine must somehow relate to that central truth.

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