As Mormons we often like to speak as though we have a well settled body of doctrine that provides determinate answers to some set of questions, but is silent as to other questions. Thus, someone makes some comment in Sunday School with which we disagree, and we are able to say, “Well that is your opinion, but it is not church doctrine.” My question is how do I figure out if something is church doctrine or not.
Consider the Catholics. If I want to know what is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church I can turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no similar document within Mormonism.
We sometimes say that church doctrine is defined by the scriptures, but I doubt that this is going to do us all that much work. The interpretation of the scriptures tends to be the context in which people make claims about what is or is not “church doctrine.” In other words, we generally use “church doctrine” as a way of adjudicating between competing scriptural interpretations.
Being a lawyer, I approach this question — gasps of horror! — “legalistically.” It turns out that there is a real debate in the philosophy of law as to what we mean when we talk about “law.” Since we tend to conceptualize “church doctrine” as a set of authoritative statements, I actually think that the legal analogy is useful, since law is also generally conceptualized as a set of authoritative statements. One branch of the philosophy of law known as positivism follows a definition of law set out by an English guy named H.L.A. Hart. According to Hart, law consists of two sorts of rules. First, there are rules about human conduct — e.g. two witnesses are necessary to make a valid will, the taking of a human life with malice aforethought is murder, etc. Second, there are rules about rules. More properly speaking, there is a single rule about rules that Hart called “The Rule of Recognition.” This is the rule that specifies which rules are law and which rules are something else, like rules of manners, etc. Thus, the rule about murder is law because it has been enacted by the legislature of the state of Arkansas, while the rule that says I should answer the telephone by saying “Hello, this is the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals” is not law because it was not enacted by the state of Arkansas. The rule that rules enacted by the state of Arkansas are law is the rule of recognition.
In these terms, the problem with the concept of “church doctrine” is that we do not have a rule of recognition. The philosophy of law provides us with at least two other possible models for conceptualizing “church doctrine.” The natural law school of the philosophy of law posits a necessary connection between law and morality. There are, so the argument goes, objectively true moral statements. Law consists of rules that guiding official conduct that conform with this objective moral truth. Thus, the prohibition against murder is a law because murder is immoral. The Nuremburg Laws, which paved the road to the Holocaust, are not really law because they are manifestly unjust and immoral. Translated into the realm of “church doctrine,” natural law would specify what is or is not church doctrine by reference to some objective standard of truth. For example, Joseph Smith once said, “Mormonism is truth.” If we take this statement as defining “church doctrine,” then we are adopting some analogy to the natural law position. The problem with the natural law position, of course, is that determining the objective content of moral truth is notoriously difficult, and in order to specify whether something is law we will need some methodology that specifies what is morally true. Likewise, “Mormonism is truth” as a specification of “church doctrine” requires some methodology to discover what is truth, a methodology that cannot itself be given by “church doctrine.”
Another possible analogy from the philosophy of law is an approach known as interpretivism. The best known expositor of this approach is a painfully pompous philosopher by the name of Ronald Dworkin. According to Dworkin, we have certain things that we can uncontroversially specify as being “law.” For example, the Rule Against Perpetuities, a notoriously complicated rule dealing with future property interests in land, is clearly law, as is the definition of murder that I cited above and any number of other propositions that we could name. What we then do is take this bundle of uncontroversial cases and tell a story about it, a story that provides it with some unity and cohesion. However, we don’t tell just any story. We tell the story that places the body of law in the best possible light. Then, when we are confronted with a difficult legal question — Can a murderer inherit under the will of his victim? Is abortion protected by the constitution? Is a modification in a contract of sale enforceable without some new payment? — we look to the story we told about the law. Which answer provides the most natural continuation of that story and continues to place it in the best possible light? The answer to this question gives us the answer to what the law governing these hard cases is.
Whatever its limitations as a philosophy of law (and they are legion), I think that Dworkin’s approach provides us with a useful way of thinking about church doctrine. We have some propositions that are — at least provisionally — uncontroversially church doctrine. For example: “Joseph Smith was a prophet.” “Adultery is a sin.” “The Atonement of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.” etc. We then try to come up with some coherent account of these propositions that places them in the best possible light. We thus reject, for example, Brodie’s Joseph Smith was a psychotic con man thesis when specifying church doctrine. Given this story we then use it to resolve difficult questions like what is church doctrine on the question of drinking Diet Coke (which I am drinking now).
Not a great solution to the quandry of what is church doctrine, but though it be a little thing it is mine!