Mormon doctrine is showing up in unlikely places lately, including the campaign trail, where earlier this week Mitt Romney squelched a questioner’s short speech that started off quoting from the Pearl of Great Price. I suspect that will not be the last doctrinal question of this campaign. But the glare of heightened publicity and attention that comes with having an LDS candidate on the presidential ticket is making it evident that Mormon doctrine — simply what it is and what it isn’t — is just not all that clear.
Let’s start with Elder Christofferson’s recent Conference talk titled “The Doctrine of Christ,” which was both an admission that we have a problem and a bold step toward a solution. Here’s the admission:
We have seen of late a growing public interest in the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is something we welcome because, after all, our fundamental commission is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, His doctrine, in all the world (see Matthew 28:19–20; D&C 112:28). But we must admit there has been and still persists some confusion about our doctrine and how it is established.
As the Bott Affair made clear last month, the confusion is not restricted to journalists or outsiders but extends to insiders, Mormons, us. If a BYU religion professor can’t get the doctrine straight, we have a serious institutional problem.
Moving toward a solution, Elder Christofferson first noted that only apostles can announce doctrine: “[E]stablishing the doctrine of Christ or correcting doctrinal deviations is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority.” The recent LDS press release is a rare (at least up until now) example of a definitive official apostolic doctrinal statement. It said the statements made by Professor Bott “do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Elder Christofferson continued:
At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.
Of course, as helpful as that statement is in providing a rationale for dismissing opinion (even well-considered opinion) rather than automatically elevating every statement of every leader to doctrinal status, that statement is itself just a well-considered opinion made by a single leader on a single occasion. Let’s hope it gets repeated by other apostolic speakers in coming months and years.
I’m certainly not the only one to sense that the confusing state of Mormon doctrine is suddenly a problem. At Peculiar People, the newest LDS group blog on the block, Matt Bowman discussed “Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out What Mormons Believe?” While noting the advantages of a pragmatic rather than a formal approach to theology, he nevertheless observed its key failing:
But there is no creed, catechism, or systematic theology to hold Mormonism to any fixed point, and therefore, the cluster of ideas that make up Mormon doctrine, all of which at some time or another seemed the unvarnished truth to some group of saints or another, is in a constant state of evolution.
Mormonism has no professional clergy, no theological-scholarly corps. There is no regularly recited doctrinal creed. For well over a hundred years the tradition has been conveyed by word-of-mouth in thousands of lay-taught Sunday School classes and around kitchen tables and campfires. A correlated, cradle-to-grave curriculum was developed in the 1950s, but beyond central tenets of what Mormons might call “the gospel” — faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism; the inspired origins of the LDS Church and Mormon scripture; the eternal significance of families — Mormonism remains a theological “jungle,” as one eminent LDS scholar put it.
So welcome to the jungle. But we don’t want a doctrinal jungle, we want Paradise City. How are we going to get there?