What is “Church Doctrine” Good For?

The discussion of “church doctrine” on this blog has thus far focused on what might be called its soteriological significance. However, it seems to me that this is hardly the only reason that one might want to be able to understand “church doctrine.”

Soteriology refers to the theory of salvation. Thus, our discussions seem to assume that when thinking about “church doctrine” the important issue is to understand how it relates to one’s salvation. Hence, we get two common approaches. One approach asserts that most doctrine probably doesn’t matter all that much, since what is really important is how one lives. The second approach is really an elaboration of the first one. On this view, we look at doctrine not in propositional terms, but in terms of its transformative power.

However, it is not obvious to me that understanding “church doctrine” is only significant in the soteriological context. Here are non-soteriological some possibilities:

1. Church doctrine is an important concept in certain administrative contexts. For example, I believe that the General Handbook of Instructions gives as at least one definition of apostasy continuing to teach as church doctrine that which is not church doctrine after having been told to stop doing so by the appropriate authorities. This sort of apostasy can lead to church disciplinary action. Thus, the appropriate authorities might, justifiably, want some working definition of what counts as “church doctrine.”

2. One might want to understand our religious positions comparatively. How are we the same or different from other religions? The point of the comparative understanding need not be soteriological. One could simply be curious, desiring deeper understanding of both one’s own beliefs and the beliefs of others.

3. One might be interested in the implications of church doctrine in fields that are not immediately related to soteriology. For example, I am interested in contract law. It is not immediately obvious to me that my salvation hinges on any particular position that I might have about contract law. On the other hand, it is a field that presents complex philosophical and ethical issues. It is not unreasonable to think that “church doctrine” (whatever it is) could have implications for how I think about such things. My goal would not be to provide some authoritative or official “church position” on say the doctrine of consideration. Rather, I have two somewhat less dramatic goals. First, I am interested in some intellectual integrity in my life, and I view the simplistic compartmentalization of my religious and intellectual lives as threatening that integrity. Second, I am genuinely perplexed by the problems of contract law, and I am hoping that “church doctrine” could give me further light and knowledge on these problems. In this second guise “church doctrine” provides a useful field from which to borrow ideas, much as economic theory or Kantian ethical philosophy might provide useful ideas.

As should be obvious, my non-soteriological interest in “church doctrine” mainly revolves around 3. As should also be obvious, I don’t think that 3 is limited to contract law or even law in general. Rather, I am interested in the possibility that Mormon theology could furnish the intellectual resources to provide insights on other disciplines.

14 comments for “What is “Church Doctrine” Good For?

  1. Grasshopper
    February 9, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    It seems that point number 1 may be increasing in importance. Yesterday, in our ward, the bishopric read a letter from the First Presidency reiterating that Church members with doctrinal questions are not to write the General Authorities with questions, but are to consult with their local leaders, who may ask for clarification from General Authorities. This seems to indicate a few things:

    – Church doctrine is not clear to many members, or they wouldn’t be writing to the General Authorities
    – Church doctrine is not fully understood by local leaders, or they wouldn’t need to ask for clarification from the General Authorities

    I think where this letter points is that whatever Church leaders say is Church doctrine is Church doctrine. In which case, it can change from time to time, which seems to undermine points 2 and 3 to some extent. This may say something interesting about the relative importance of maintaining institutional authority compared with other uses for “church doctrine”.

  2. February 9, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    I think most church doctrine is fairly clear. The problem is that there are many, many areas where we have no doctrine. And that bothers people who can’t handle the fact not everything has been revealed.

    I’d lay a bet that were we to take all these doctrinal questions sent the first presidentency we’d find in 90% of the cases the answer ultimately is “we don’t know.”

  3. Kristine
    February 9, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    Nate: your #3 seems to be looking for some of the possibilities that Richard Bushman laid out in his essay “Faithful History.” He, however, argues that doctrine would be mediated through the person of the scholar and the scholar’s application of principles to his own behavior before it could be applied to some field of study, or that simply living the doctrine would have the side effect of increasing understanding of any field. Do you think that’s a workable model, or are you suggesting that principles could be derived from gospel doctrine which could be applied to areas of study like contract law in some unmediated form?

  4. Nate Oman
    February 9, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    My problem with Bushman’s approach (and it has been a long time since I read the essay, so I may be misreading him) is that it doesn’t have much methodological bite. Thus, he thinks that the doctrine mediates itself implicitly into scholarship through the medium of the scholar’s personal life rather than explicitly through self-conscious religious reflection on the methods, assumptions, and justifications for the discipline.

    Obviously, I think that some disciplines are more open to the kind of explicit religious reflection that I am interested in than are other disciplines. Also, for certain disciplines I think that the reflection has to be a very “meta” level before concepts from “church doctrine” have much bite. The problem is that such meta reflection often implicates the fundamental reasons why a particular discipline is desirable, and practioners of a discipline are often the people LEAST interested in these sorts of questions, precisely because the desirablity of the discipline is the starting place of their work, rather than its goal. Try getting a scientist, economist, lawyer or literary theorist to talk about the epistemological or normative foundations of what they do and they are likely to get defensive or confused. “What?!?! You want to revert to myths about nature rather than real knowledge? You think poverty is good? Don’t you know that the rule of law is a great and beautiful thing, or do want the government to exercise arbitrary power? What kind of philistine are you to question the importance of literature?”

  5. Kristine
    February 9, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    I’ve had that discussion–my husband’s in the insurance industry :>)

    I agree that there’s something akin to alchemy in Bushman’s “methodology.” But I don’t know if that makes it less useful than what you propose. After all, how useful is it if, say, an insurance underwriter applies your methodology to think through the foundations of his profession. You don’t have to get too “meta” to realize that insurance is needed only in a fallen world, but what normative implications can one draw from that?

    A tangent: Do you know Wayne Booth’s _The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction_? It might be the best attempt I know at applying ethical concepts to some field which might not immediately seem to need them. And though it’s never explicit, in some ways it’s a thoroughly Mormon book. It’s also a wise and seriously underappreciated book, in my not-terribly-humble opinion.

  6. William Morris
    February 9, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    I think Nate makes a good point. I have tried to intersect my interests in literary theory and Mormon theology and have not had much success — at least not in using an explicit Mormon perspective in reading text by non-Mormons. Of course, most of the best literary criticism, imo, is written by people (not necessarily just academics) who have a very personal, idiosyncratic view of things that may be informed by their ideology, but isn’t a simple application or overlay of it. This is why any grad student can “do” Marxist or feminist or structuralist literary theory — it’s like using a cookie cutter — but when they “do” theory, the results are almost always predictable and boring. For instance, the Harold Bloom of _The Anxiety of Influence_ is much more interesting, imo, than the polemical, hit-over-the-head-with-the-canon Bloom. _The Anxiety of Influence_ is basically useless as a literary theory that can be applied across the literary history board. But as a text, it’s a fascinating albeit somewhat metaphysical read that brings out some interesting phenomena and observations related to individual poets and literary history.

    Literary studies, perhaps, is a little more accepting of the “meta” level so I suppose it’s possible to do some interesting work from a Mormon point of view. I just haven’t been able to do it very well so far — although I do have a few vague ideas about why the ending of Bulgakov’s _The Master and Margarita_ from a Mormon perspective .

  7. February 9, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    While I think many scientists are somewhat ignorant of the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline, I think most have very significnat concerns about epistemology. They may just not be that sophisticated in how they deal with it. But every scientist does consider it. (Indeed to a limited extent it is formally taugh via error bounds on measurement, on bayesian methods, and in courses on significant figures and statistics)

    Of course I’m the overly picky scientist type. I can’t speak to the economist or lawyer. Literary theorists are in a class of their own, so don’t get me started there. (grin)

  8. William Morris
    February 9, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    You can make all the cracks you want, clark, but the truth is you love slumming with us.

  9. February 9, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    Well, yes.

    I was more thinking of literary theorists awareness of their foundations. Even when they utilize philosophical positions, they often get them very, very wrong. (i.e. literary types who read Deconstruction as basically an anything goes relativism) Not all are like this, of course. But enough are that discussions about foundations with literary theorists are always interesting…

  10. William Morris
    February 9, 2004 at 6:11 pm

    Most definitely.

    It’ll be interesting to see what direction literary studies takes now that the theoretical turn has fizzled out. More literary critics doing bad history? Probably.

  11. February 9, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    “I’d lay a bet that were we to take all these doctrinal questions sent the first presidentency we’d find in 90% of the cases the answer ultimately is ‘we don’t know’.”

    If this were truly the case, wouldn’t it’d be nice if Bishops and Stake Presidents (and all other positions of influence in the Church, pretty much all positions) would stop trying to preach the gospel according to themselves? And instead, just admit the “we don’t know”?

    It’s a fine line… How does a bishop share insight without sounding like he has THE answer? Maybe that’s one characteristic that helps make a good bishop.

    Just curious what your thoughts would be on that one.

  12. Nate Oman
    February 9, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    Bob: I suspect that the answer to your question has as much to do with the sensitivity of the person doing the listening as the sensitivity of the person doing the speaking…

  13. February 9, 2004 at 6:38 pm


    So you’re saying that there’s no chance at a formulistic approach that works every time. I figured as much.

  14. February 9, 2004 at 6:47 pm

    Meaning, there’s no easy way to teach a Bishop how to pull it off. Thus, making it very easy for members of the Church to live in an environment where leaders make up answers, forming a reason for everyone to start making stuff up.

    I know I may have taken this too far, but you see what I’m getting at.

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