Having Our “Doctrinal” Cake, and Eating it Too

A recent thread at T&S — ostensibly devoted to discussing today’s gay rights demonstration at BYU and the anticipated behavior of BYU students — has devolved into another spat over the meaning of the term “doctrine,” how “doctrines” differ from “opinions,” and how to tell the difference between the two. (Thank heavens nobody mentioned “policy” or “principles” or “culture,” or things would have gotten really ugly!). They say “all roads lead to Rome,” and “all Mormon roads lead to Provo,” and I can’t help but notice that all Bloggernacle discussions seem to inevitably lead to this topic, or some variant of it. Fortunately, I seem to be addicted to this sort of discussion, so today’s exchange has brought me out of my cave, at long last.

Let us put aside the question of how to determine whether a given teaching that has currency in the LDS Church is really a “doctrine” or not. Let us grant that the line between “doctrine” and “non-doctrine” (pick your favorite term) is not clear in every case, and the “rule of recognition” for determining a given teaching’s “doctrinalness” is disputable. Let us also concede that there is some small set of core LDS teachings that almost everyone would grant really are LDS “doctrines.” (I don’t think any of these assumptions are unreasonable). What I want to do now is focus on a different, less-talked-about feature of the interminable “What Constitutes Church Doctrine?” debates.

Consider this comment from the T&S thread:

“Church doctrine has never changed, nor will it change. The doctrine that is taught today is the same gospel that was taught by Joseph Smith, even the same that was taught by Christ.”

I rarely hear this sentiment in the Bloggernacle, but growing up in the Church, I heard it a lot. I take it the commenter is not just saying something mundane or obvious like “Mormonism is a restoration of early Christianity.” He is assuming the truth of this, of course, but I think he is claiming something more: That as a matter of fact, the Church’s “doctrines” (whatever they are) are immutable, unchangeable, set in stone.

It is not always clear, from statements like this, whether the speaker (a) is incorporating some notion of “unchangeableness” in the very definition of “doctrine” itself (in which case claims that “Doctrines don’t change” would be tautological) or (b) believes that “doctrine” refers to some core set of absolutely authoritative Church teachings, without incorporating a notion of “unchangeableness”, per se, in the definition (in which case the question of whether Church “doctrines” change becomes an empirical or historical one). However, what is clear from this comment is that once we’ve determined that something is a “doctrine” (no small feat that), we can rest assured that it is something which is immutable, unchangeable, set in stone, etc.

Now, let us assume the non-tautological interpretation (b). What to do with this claim? For simplicity’s sake, let us ignore real-world examples of historical Mormon teachings that have evolved over time (in order to avoid the inevitable warfare that would break out over whether such teachings “really” meet the competing “doctrinal” threshold tests offered by various commenters). Let us postulate that Brigham Young once taught that “God is X.” Let us further postulate that David O. McKay taught that “God is Y.”  Let us further say that X is not compatible with Y. Let us further and finally grant that the question of whether God is X or Y is a question of “doctrine” (i.e., the issue is one of supreme theological significance, the authoritativeness of the speaker was presumably maximal in the setting in which the relevant pronouncements were made (General Conference), etc.).

At this point, I think there are a couple of different reactions we can have to the realization that Young and McKay have made contradictory pronouncements, from the perspective of talking about “doctrine”: We can say that the “doctrine” of the Church “changed” with respect to God being X or Y. (We can then find this to be ominous and faith-destroying, or not, depending on a host of other theological assumptions that we hold). Or, we can say that the “doctrine” of the Church hasn’t changed at all, it’s just our or our leaders’ “understanding of the doctrine” that has changed! You can imagine how this argument would flesh out … “The Lord has given his servants certain truths, but only line upon line, precept upon precept! Young had a more limited understanding than McKay! This doesn’t mean that the Doctrine of the Church changed over the course of 100 years! The Doctrine has always been the same — it’s just that we understand the Doctrine better than we used to! Etc., etc.”

At first glance, I would argue that there is nothing necessarily wrong with this second way of talking about “doctrine.” There is nothing incoherent about defining “doctrine” as something that exists independent of what we (or our Church leaders) happen to think about it at a given point in time. It is perfectly reasonable to talk this way. The problem I have, however, is this: In my experience the very people who talk this way are often the same ones who, in other contexts (or even in the same context!) will brag about how this or that Mormon doctrine has “never changed” over the past 150+ years, and how this is some sort of external evidence of the rock-solidness of Mormonism’s truth claims. Implied, or sometimes even stated, in all this is the notion that if you look at the histories of other mainstream Christian denominations, there is an obvious, embarrassing history of theological or, if you will, “doctrinal” evolution and innovation that shows how adrift in a sea of shifting truths other religions are, as compared to our own. (I think we have Hugh Nibley’s essay, “No Ma’am, That’s Not History,” to thank for this attitude, to some extent). Yet isn’t there an inconsistency here? How is it that we can meaningfully compare the allegedly unchanging “doctrines” of Mormonism to the changing “doctrines” of other religions, if we just got through arguing that an evolution in Mormon theological understanding has no actual impact on the “real,” unchanging nature of our “doctrines”?

It seems to me we have a choice:

(1) We can use the word “doctrine” as a historical term, that is, a term which describes definitively authoritative Mormon beliefs in history, in which case we expose our “doctrines” to historical scrutiny. In this case, we can look to what Mormon Prophet A said about Doctrine X, look at what Mormon Prophet B said about Doctrine X, note the difference between A’s take on X and B’s take on X, and accurately conclude that “The Church’s doctrine on X has changed”; or

(2) We can use the word “doctrine” to refer to some cosmic truth claim that exists independent of its particular historical manifestation at a given time in LDS history. In this case, what Mormon Prophet A said about X isn’t necessarily “doctrine.” It may only constitute A’s “understanding” of doctrine, or the Church’s understanding of “doctrine” at that time. But, as a corollary, we must simultaneously recognize that since we’ve defined “doctrine” in such a way as to render it immune from historical scrutiny, we also have deprived ourselves of the ability to brag about the objectively-verifiable immutability of any of our “doctrines.”

Either our “doctrines” exist in history, in which case they can be historically evaluated, or they don’t exist in history, in which case we cannot smugly make claims about them as if they do.

Personally, I really don’t care which one we choose, but at the end of the day, WE MUST CHOOSE. We can’t have it both ways.

Comments

  1. Aaron, explain to me why we have to irrevocably choose between those options? It seems to me that God doesn’t work in those narrow categories: sometimes covenants are everlasting, eternal, sometimes laws are temporary.

  2. Tyler W. says:

    I put my vote on number 2. But then the question remains which church teachings are actually “doctrine” and which are not.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve, what I’m insisting on is that we “choose” how we’re going to use the word “doctrine,” and then use it consistently. I’m not disputing that there are different sorts of “covenants,” or teachings, or what have you, and I’m actually not interested in any of that in my post. I am trying to critique what, in my experience, is a common problem in the way we talk about the word “doctrine” and what we use it to mean. I am demanding consistency in how we employ a concept.

    Note that I am certainly not interested in exploring what the word “doctrine” “really” means or “really” refers to. There are those who like to debate these things (I’m thinking of Louis Midgely’s critique of Thomas Alexander of “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine” fame, etc.), but I am indifferent. Some would argue that the scriptures promote a particular meaning of the word, at the exclusion of other meanings, but I’m not sure I care. My point is that we like to throw this word “doctrine” around a lot, a sub-set of us likes to brag about how Mormon “doctrines” don’t change, and instead of saying “Oh-yes-they-do,” and giving obvious examples, I’m trying to explore the inconsistent ways in which we use the word.

    This double-speak allows us to smugly flaunt our supposed “doctrinal” consistency when we feel like bragging, and then avoid seeing how our own theological evolution problematizes our boasting.

    This was real quick and dirty write-up this afternoon, so for all I know, I’m not making any sense. :)

    Aaron B

  4. I guess I have to believe that there is a ‘truth’ out there to every doctrinal question. But that truth is not necessarily easy or even possible for man to comprehend. I don’t really see any real compelling reason to lean to option 1 listed above. Option 2 in a lot more easy for me to take.

  5. It seems to me that option 2 renders the meaning of the word “doctrine” incomprehensible. That is not doctrine, it is eternal Truth. You can’t really say anything is Church Doctrine in this case. There is only institutional perception of truth, otherwise stated: institutional belief or doctrine (see definition 1).

  6. …looks like Eric and I have the same perspective, but different analysis. I would argue that in every case imaginable, Mormon doctrine has evolved and changed and will likely yet.

  7. Mark Butler says:

    Using the word doctrine in the sense of (2) is pretty much a perversion of the English language. We have a perfectly good term for (2) already: Truth, or somewhat redundantly Eternal Truth.

    By universal convention, the term doctrine is reserved for what is taught or held to be authoritative in a particular organizational context. A doctrine may be true, or even be a Truth, but the sense of the word is different. A Truth is necessarily true, and a doctrine is not. Otherwise there would be no such thing as false doctrine.

    The mere usage of the term false doctrine belies any belief that the use of the term doctrine in the church inevitably carries the sense of cosmic truth.

  8. Mark Butler says:

    It looks like J. Stapley beat me to the punch…

  9. …ah, but you said it so much better.

  10. Mark Butler says:

    I think much of the confusion derives from the shorthand use of the term doctrinal, which should always be read as “according to the doctrine of the Church” in LDS contexts.

    Ironically, the very use of the term, as in “that is doctrinal” or “that is not doctrinal” implies the very distinction that the common use of the term as has obscured – that Church doctrine is a subset of and in some respects inevitably an approximation to Eternal Truth (c.f. D&C 29:33). Otherwise why not just say “that is true” or “that is not true”?

  11. Mark Butler says:

    Thanks for the compliment, J.S.

  12. Kirke (Kiskilili) says:

    Even so, Aaron’s point is still very much worth making; he’s quoting church members who say, “Doctrine never changes.” What do others of you think people mean when they make such statements? Surely they don’t mean, “Doctrine never changes–even false doctrine.” And surely they’re not taking a relativistic stance, “Doctrine never changes–doctrine is just a statement about an institution’s belief, whether true or false.”

    My reading of the statement on the T&S thread was that the phrase “doctrine never changes” was intended to convey the idea that “current church leaders have stated x, which is therefore a cosmic, eternal principle.” It seems to me in our own parlance people sometimes use the term “doctrine” to mean “eternal Truth.”

  13. D. Fletcher says:

    I believe truth is slippery. Doctrine will change over time, reflecting God’s will, and progression of the culture.

    It might be better to suggest that doctrines “evolve,” that prophets come to understand truth more clearly as the years progress. Certainly we didn’t know all the implications of the temple ceremonies, originally, and these have evolved, along with our understanding of the afterlife, etc.

    And not everything is perfectly understood now, or delineated.

  14. My solution is to avoid the term “doctrine” altogether, at least if I’m trying to have a careful discussion about something. I prefer to use the word “teaching.” It is clear to everyone that a “teaching” is something that is or was taught, and that some teachings have been more prevelant or authoritative than others. There is no need to spend time bickering over exactly what qualifies as a “teaching.” I’m not sure what is gained by deciding whether or not some teaching qualifies as a “doctrine” by any particular definition.

    Sometimes words get so loaded with baggage that it’s better to just avoid them. (Another example: “diversity.”)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    The word “doctrine” itself derives from Latin and indeed means “teaching.” So to me, it doesn’t work as some sort of platonic ideal apart from things that are actually taught in the Church. I agree with J. and Mark on that.

    I favor statement no. 1. *Of course* doctrine evolves over time, or changes, if you prefer. The person who believes doctrine never changes had best not read any LDS history, or else prepare to have his faith shattered.

  16. I grew up thinking in terms of #2. The first time I read J. Reuben Clark’s talk on when the statements of Church leaders are scripture, I was a little confused. He asserts that only the president of the Church can change doctrines. I wondered how a doctrine could ever change (thinking in terms of #2). I came to realize JRC was using the term more like #1.

  17. aaron, thanks for bringing this post here. i believe i started the tangent over at times and seasons, and i couldn’t help feel like i was speaking to… well lets just say that nothing i had to say could go anywhere.

    i’m with ed. i think we should just abandon the term ‘doctrine’ altogether. joseph smith had a strong dispassion for creeds as he felt they were to easily used and abused to beat others down with. i think the mythic ‘doctrines’ of the church today are used in a very similar fashion. (i use mythic not to describe beliefs, but to describe the notion that there are official church doctrines out there). if anything, doctrine only means “this is the opinion that i uphold”, nothing more.

  18. Scott Marquardt, a never-mormon critic who used to post on soc.religion.mormon, once described his efforts to understand Mormon doctrine as like playing whack-a-mole. Just when he thought he understood an institutional teaching somebody would pipe up with a different spin on that institutional teaching, rendering argument pointless. He eventually gave up. Haven’t seen him on SRM since.

    One advantage of clearly defined institutional teachings (doctrine) is, um, clarity. The American Catholics’ Baltimore Catechism, the church’s official teachings about the nature of God and what a Catholic must believe, is available in Word format on the internet. If you want to know what a Catholic doctrine is, it’s hard to argue with an official catechism. Mormon doctrine is positively elusive in comparison.

    LDS members’ understandings of some institutional teachings are dramatically different now than they were even 100 years ago. The shift of the definition of “New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage” from plural marriage to temple marriage is just one example of how doctrines stay the same, and yet change entirely.

  19. Aaron Brown says:

    Mark:

    In my post, I took the position that I am agnostic on the “right” use of the word doctrine; I just want people to use it consistently. Truth be told, however, I think I totally agree with your analysis at comments #7 and 10.

    Ed:

    Your comment #14 is EXACTLY what I say to people all the time. Virtually verbatim. It’s almost scary. I would accuse you of plagiarizing my thoughts, but I doubt you have that power.

    I really do avoid use of the word “doctrine” when I teach Church classes. Not 100%, mind you, but close. It really does prevent everybody’s baggage re: “doctrine” from rearing its ugly head.

    Aaron B

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    I should add that I also use the word “teaching” instead of “doctrine.”

  21. a random John says:

    In many ways it seems we cling too tightly to various doctrines. In some ways it boils down to the concept that God wants us to return to Him and have eternal life. He has placed His Church on the earth to help us accomplish that goal. The Church is run by people who are imperfect and who often have imperfect understandings of God and His ways, but are doing their best to help us reach eternal life. It seems clear enough that these men have changed/simplified/cast away doctrines on occasion. Does this have an effect on the overall goal? Not really. Does admitting that these concepts have changed hurt us? That probably varies by individual. Those who want to cling to a notion of static doctrine for now are free to do so. Those for whom this would seem dishonest appear to be free to their own beliefs as well. Each group views the other with some disdain as either heretical or simplistic but in the long run I’m not sure that holding to one position or another is a big deal. It seems clear that in either case we know almost nothing about these doctrines that we cling to so tightly, especially compared to what we have the opportunity to know in the long run.

  22. I think I have to favor #1. To me, doctrine is what the Church believes or teaches at any particular time in a dispensation. Sometimes doctrine reflects eternal truths, but I think, sometimes it doesn’t. We need to remember that the organization of the church is a temporal entity, and its doctrines will sometimes reflect that. Doctrines can and do change, and shouldn’t necessarily be equated with an eternal and everlasting Truth.

  23. Bertrand Russell on Scripture (from “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish“)

    As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Now-a-days, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices. No Catholic, for instance, takes seriously the text which says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. (emphasis added)

    I think that this applies to the LDS approach to doctrine. The last comment about a bishop having one wife is especially apt, given how many bishops practiced polygamy.

  24. Eric Russell says:

    “WE MUST CHOOSE. We can’t have it both ways.”

    I’m still not sure that this is true. I agree that we can’t have it both ways at the same time. But there are plenty of words that have multiple meanings. And once enough people using a word to mean X, there’s nothing you can do about it. I think the solution is simply to recognize that there are different senses of the word “doctrine.” If some discussion leads to a debate about the nature of doctrine, then you just clarify in which sense you mean it.

    But I don’t really think this is the root of the problem of “doctrine.” Assuming we all agree to definition #1, differences in its usage will continue, as there’s still the problem of identifying what constitutes “definitively authoritative Mormon beliefs.” In this sense, there are multiple definitions of doctrine, and it seems we each use our own.

  25. Mark Butler says:

    However, if one wants to speak so as to be understood, he had best use the definition his audience is familiar with. Trying to legislate the language through non-standard usage is a privilege best reserved for philosophers and university professors.

  26. I suggest that we begin with the Lord’s definition of doctrine:

    III Nephi 11:

    31 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.

    32 And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.

    33 And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.

    34 And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.

    35 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.

    36 And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.

    37 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.

    38 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

    39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.

    40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.

    That I would argue is doctrine, unchanging, eternal, fixed notwithstanding anything that anybody says about it.

    When we start trying to stuff other things into the “doctrine” folder, then we start moving out onto that sandy foundation.

  27. By the way, my surname is also Butler, but I am not “Mark Butler”.

  28. Amri Brown says:

    I think that we have to think about the kinds of people that claim that doctrine never changes or that use what we’re calling eternal truths interchangeably with doctrine. Everybody wants security, they want safety, a bit of predictability (don’t argue with me on this point). As a pretentious intellectual, I find security in the discussion of relative truths or doctrine as historic. That makes me feel better about the world and my experiences in it. I wouldn’t know how to make sense of it otherwise and I’d probably have a nervous breakdown.
    But take someone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about my intellectual jibber-jabber. Relativity seems threatening and the idea that doctrine is always changing depending on who’s saying it or interpreting it makes one feel extremely insecure in the way that they see the world.
    All this to say, while I whole-heartedly disagree with that idea that doctrine never changes, I get why they think it. I don’t have the power to change what makes other people feel secure but I can only talk about things in the way I like to talk about them (calling doctrine teachings or whatever). And I think that at least a little bit our discussion of this is helping us to feel secure that we can make sense of what we see in the Church or in the world.
    That being said, has anyone noticed that even God seems to change his mind? The OT says he repented or redirected and then there’s things like no killing never! Oh except can you kill that person please? Thanks.

  29. From our point of view it seems it though some doctrines change. But from God’s point of view the doctrine isn’t changing, he is just revealing more of the doctrine.

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    Ryan — What you are doing is aligning yourself with #2. As I said previously, one can certainly choose to do this, but I think I agree with Mark Butler in comment #7: You seem to be using the word “doctrine” as a synonym for “truth,” and if you’re going to do that, it’s not clear why we even need a word like “doctrine.” Just say “truth is truth,” and call it a day.

    Aaron B

  31. I totally agree. I’m in a ward where I’ve seen instructors use “doctrine”, “teaching”, “truth” as if they are all the same, which can be very confusing for a new convert.

  32. Mark Butler says:

    [that explains a lot...smile]

    Jesus Christ did not give a definition of doctrine, but rather my doctrine, or what we call The Doctrine of Christ. And the dire consequences prophesied are explicitly attached to establishing other teachings as my doctrine, i.e. as the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

    That identification has some interesting “doctrinal” implications, but invalidating the common sense of the unqualified term doctrine is not one of them.

  33. Mark Butler says:

    [Sorry, I messed up the formatting somehow...Here it is again.]

    Jesus Christ did not give a definition of doctrine, but rather my doctrine, or what we call The Doctrine of Christ. And the dire consequences prophesied are explicitly attached to establishing other teachings as my doctrine, i.e. as the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

    That identification has some interesting “doctrinal” implications, but invalidating the common sense of the unqualified term doctrine is not one of them.

  34. Aaron: It seems to me that you actually have two gripes in this post. First, you are frustrated that our use of the term doctrine lacks clarity. I don’t actually think this is such a huge issue. It seems to me that we are often sloppy, but that so long as we are as clear as we need to be given the context, this isn’t really a problem. This is not to suggest that we are as clear as we should be (for from it), just that achieving clarity does not require some sort of an existential choice about word usage.

    Second, it seems to me that you are concerned about Mormon smuggness. I would suggest, however, that the smuggness doesn’t come from confusion over the term doctrine, just tactlessness and a certain amount of ignorance.

  35. Let me put my second point another way:

    Mormon smugness is an ethical rather than a conceptual problem.

  36. I’ve got to throw my two cents into this:

    In Mike Wallaces interview with Pres. Hinkley the following is stated:

    Mike Wallace: From 1830 to 1978, blacks could not become priests in the Mormon church. Right?
    Gordon B. Hinckley: That’s correct.
    Mike Wallace: Why?
    Gordon B. Hinckley: Because the leaders of the church at that time interpreted that doctrine that way.

    Exactly what can we take from this exchange to lend us an understanding of how the President of the church understands the word doctrine? President Hinkley openly suggests that at least in this case, church doctrine was driven by the private interpretation of church leaders. The conversation continues:

    Gordon B. Hinckley: It’s behind us. Look, that’s behind us. Don’t worry about those little flecks of history.
    Mike Wallace: Skeptics will suggest, “Well, look, if we’re going to expand, we can’t keep the blacks out.”
    Gordon B. Hinckley: Pure speculation.
    Mike Wallace: Now that blacks can be priests, the current issue is whether Mormon women will ever be priests.
    Gordon B. Hinckley: Men hold the priesthood in this church.
    Mike Wallace: Why?
    Gordon B. Hinckley: Because God stated that it should be so. That was the revelation to the church. That was the way it was set forth.

    There are a few interesting things to be taken from this portion of the exchange. Firstly, President Hinkley obviously doesn’t want these historical things considered (something we are all obviously ignoring). But secondly, that the case with women is fundamentally different than the case with blacks. He doesn’t explicitly state the difference between the two, but be does state that in the case of women holding the priesthood, it is as it is because “That was the revelation to the church. That was the way it was set forth.”

    I think my point is that this whole problem of defining doctrine is really the fault of the leadership of the church. It appears to me that they want to “Have Their ‘Doctrinal’ Cake, and Eat it Too”. President Hinkley’s first says that the doctrines of the church do not change; only our conceptions of them change (in the case of blacks holding the priesthood). But then he turns around and states categorically that certain doctrines will never change, and that they are independent of our conceptions (as in the case of women holding the priesthood). It is my opinion that the problem of doctrinal definition stems from verbiage of this sort.

    It’s also interesting that President Hinkley states at the beginning of the interview that the church “stands as an anchor in a world of shifting values”, as if the church isn’t doing any of shifting of its own.

  37. As for teaching in the Church, I find that it is frequently useful to take the approach of saying something like, “There have been a couple of different ways of answering this question. One might say….. Another approach would be to say….. etc.”

    The response of most class members is to find a way of reconciling everything, which is not such a bad way of getting a good discussion going, even if I ultimately don’t always find the reconciliations compelling.

  38. Jared E., President Hinkley does not state that only men hold the priesthood. At least some women already hold the priesthood. Specifically, those that have received their “2nd Endowment” have been ordained as Queens and Priestesses.

  39. Mike Wallace: Now that blacks can be priests, the current issue is whether Mormon women will ever be priests.
    Gordon B. Hinckley: Men hold the priesthood in this church.

    Granted President Hinkley does not explicity say women don’t hold the priesthood, but I think it can be inferred by the statement Men hold the priesthood in this church.

    Women who have received their ‘2nd Endowment’ have been ordained as Queens and Priestesses, so in a sense you are right, but they do not hold the priesthood in the same sense men do. Anyway, a discussion of this sort will break down into problems of definition, i.e. ‘what does it mean to hold the priesthood’ and then there is the question of how women’s exercising of the priesthood has changed over time. Such a discussion is interesting, but is completely off the point. My point has nothing to do with women holding the priesthood, my point is that the problem being discussed, that of ‘defining doctrine’ is due largely to how the leadership of the church talk about such issues and the one you raised.

  40. I meant to say:

    My point has nothing to do with women holding the priesthood, my point is that the problem being discussed, that of ‘defining doctrine’ is due largely to how the leadership of the church talk about such issues as the one you raised.

  41. Aaron Brown says:

    Nate said:
    “Mormon smugness is an ethical rather than a conceptual problem.”

    Oh, sure. I agree with this. I certainly don’t think that terminological confusion over “doctrine” CAUSES smugness. I do think that all our shifty talk about “doctrine” provides us with a particularly choice (and unfortunate) avenue to be smug, though. If you’re going to be smug, it’s hard to imagine where you’d get more satisfaction as a Church member than from making smug observations about Mormonism’s “doctrines” vz-a-vz the “doctrines” of other Churches.

    Also, in practice I am probably resigned to your other point. That is, I also feel like as long as we define our terms in the appropriate instances, it really doesn’t matter how we use a word. Thus, my post’s professed agnosticism as to which of the two “doctrine” defintions we should use (even though, obviously, I really prefer #1).

    Aaron B

  42. Bob Caswell says:

    “It seems to me that we are often sloppy, but that so long as we are as clear as we need to be given the context, this isn’t really a problem.”

    Because of people like you, Nate, people like me are confused. The problem lies in the combination of accessibility of information and the ambiguity of what you call “context.”

    For example, sure, something can be “most important” (or whatever, insert your favorite superlative here) in some sort of contextual way. But later, when someone is researching those things that are “most important” in our Church (ala the Internet or what have you) only to find that practically EVERYTHING is the “most important” at one point or another (with only rare cases of context explicitly defined)… It’s difficult to learn truths/doctrines/teachings in a congruent fashion when frequently they only make sense in isolation.

    Perhaps this o.k. for you and many others, but like I said, it frustrates and/or confuses the snot out of me. Oh, and when I said “people like you,” I hope you take that in a contexual fashion rather than take offensive due to the baggage associated with the phrase…

  43. MikeInWeHo says:

    The GBH quote (#36) is interesting because it does not close the door on change in the future, imo. When women are given the priesthood someday, it will be easy to parse a statement like that to show that there is no historical inconsistently…..just like how the old black/priesthood ban quotes are handled today. This is the genius of the Church, maybe the thing that most gives it a claim to be “true” (or more true than other churches): The capacity to grow, develop, advance, and change. It’s all about the open canon and ongoing revelation.

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