Questions about the 2007 statement on how to interpret doctrine

Recently, I reviewed the May 4, 2007 LDS Church statement that gave the news media and members guidance on how to interpret what constitutes church doctrine. Amongst other assertions, the statement indicates that GA opinions made on single occasions are not meant to be binding.  The statement helpfully narrows the scope of where media and members should search for doctrine: “With divine inspiration, the First Presidency … and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles… counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications.  This doctrine resides in the four standard works of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.”

I take this statement to mean that doctrine is what is consistently proclaimed in church publications (although I am not quite sure what counts as an official publication) and what resides in the texts mentioned above.  In general, I find this statement helpful and appreciate the limits placed on what counts as binding doctrine.  But, as a thought experiment, what are the consequences are of narrowing the scope of doctrine to what is consistently claimed in church publications?

In order for something to be consistently proclaimed in church publications, the claim must be made repeatedly over (an unspecified amount of) time.  This fact makes me wonder if one consequence of narrowing where to look for doctrine is that members might be inclined to give less weight to current statements by the prophet and other GAs and perhaps undue weight to statements that have been repeated throughout history.  Of course, this consequence is part of the point—it might be unwise to take any given pronouncement by a GA too seriously.  But it does seem to place more weight on teachings that have a history than on new revelations or messages that might come, and it leaves open the question of when something is said consistently enough to be elevated to doctrine—or when it ceases being repeated so as to perhaps not be doctrine?

Perhaps more interesting to me is that the statement emphasizes that doctrine is proclaimed consistently in official church publications.  Part of the reason why certain statements have been consistently repeated in the past is that they were published in a book form during a time in which most members had the same books in their shelves, because books were expensive, harder to update than in digital printing, and because few media outlets existed where people could turn for other reading material on Mormonism.  In other words, the nature of former models of print publishing means that as a group we are far more likely to be familiar with and to continually cite statements from older books published when audiences had fewer choices.  Since media is now far more fragmented and there is even a wide array of official church publications, it seems less likely that we will all hear the same messages. In other words, it seems plausible that the requirements and business of print publishing might have caused certain statements to enter into doctrinal texts and culture and to gain more current weight than might be warranted.    Does this at all trouble the idea of looking at what is consistently proclaimed in official publications for doctrine?

Finally, what burdens does it place upon us as readers if doctrine is to be found by looking for what is consistently proclaimed in official church publications?  Should we be reading for trends, empirically studying what is most frequently expressed in official publications, since whether a statement is doctrine or not rests in part on how many authorities said something over a span of time?  Should we be making more of an effort to read broadly over the many kinds of official publications now released, since otherwise we might miss these trends?  Should we complain less about repetitive talks, since apparently repetition gives statements doctrinal weight?

What other consequences might this statement entail?

Comments

  1. My first thought is if the church de-establishes doctrine the same way.

  2. My only problem with this statement and many others is inconsistency. Take the JOD for instance, the Church quotes from it all the time in General Conference and Church related publications but when the doctrine seem to be too controversial and NOT supporting the present Church view on various topics, they suddenly say it was the “opinion” of Brigham Young or Joseph Smith…so what is it really? When it sounds good is okay to quote and call it doctrinal but when is too controversial to chew, we label it as opinion?

    Even that 2007 statement is NOT clear as to what constitutes official doctrine.

  3. Where do we, the lowly members who live outside Utah, find these news statements? I take the Church News/magazines but don’t remember seeing this and I don’t make habit of reading the Newsroom at lds.org – is this where you found it? You ask some very good questions. I’ll read thru the OP again and voice my thoughts later.

  4. #2 Soul- It’s not possible for a lengthy unedited series to contain teachings of various degrees of doctrinal reliability or inspiration?

  5. hypothetically speaking…

  6. Re: the OP, I think this post is a partial response to criticism of the Church/doctrine based on a Protestant worldview, in which all prophetic words are inspired and therefore internally consistent. Therefore, if anything Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or the Book of Mormon says is not 100% consistent with everything else every other prophet or apostle says, they’re a false prophet, and we should all abandon Mormonism and embrace the True Jesus of the Bible™.

    Of course, Mormons don’t share that worldview, or at least shouldn’t (given our doctrine of line-upon-line, the 9th Article of Faith, etc.), though many of us seem to have absorbed it a bit through cultural osmosis. As one of my BYU profs was fond of saying about Church history/doctrine/scripture, “you can have it all or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.”

  7. #4 Why they should be edited?

    It depends, if the Prophet speaking is saying the Lord told him so, etc (as many parts in the JOD) who are we to say what is reliable and what isn’t? Who decides that?

  8. #6 Nitsav, what your professor said its depressing. Yikes!

  9. I never read that statement to be an exclusive treatise on doctrine and scope, but it did serve to highlight the lack of doctrinal standing, so to speak, of one-off statements.

    I.e., if a random GA says that Obama is a socialist in a random stake conference, it’s not doctrinal. But if the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve publish a note in the Ensign and associated magazines (Liahona) that we should all vote Democrat, it carries more weight.

  10. Thanks, Natalie B. I don’t remember having heard of or paid attention to the statement when it came out, but I agree completely. I would add that for a statement to be doctrinal, it probably should have been made in a recent official Church publication, since some non-doctrinal statements may have been consistently made in the past.

    I don’t see a problem interpreting doctrinal statements from GA’s or modern prophets as non-doctrine. First of all, if it is a GA announcing a “doctrine” for the first time, it’s not doctrine. If it’s the prophet announcing a new “doctrine,” then I trust it will come by way of a statement from the prophet and Twelve or at least the First Presidency. Otherwise, it would have to meet the test set forth in the post as being doctrine of the Church, which is to be consistently repeated in official Church publications (i.e. not on Larry King Live).

    #2 I don’t see a problem with the Journal of Discourses. As Nitsav said, the JoD has both doctrine and opinion, and only the stuff that has been consistently repeated in official Church publications is doctrine of the Church. As far as Brigham Young or anyone else saying that God has revealed something to them that we do not now consider doctrine, I would need to see an example to comment on it.

  11. To me that sounds like it rules out the Ensign and conference talks as sources of doctrine, unless what is said in those sources is also encapsulated in a proclamation. Am I wrong?

  12. Mytha,

    I think the opposite is true. Conference talks are indisputably (I think) official Church communications, and I would hazard a guess that Ensigns are likewise official Church publications, since they are found on the Church’s website.

  13. But aren’t a lot of the things that have been called personal opinion/speaking as a man/not doctrine been from conference talks? Or were they all from CES firesides?

  14. Natalie B. says:

    I would agree that conference talks would meet the publication requirement, because they are always printed in the Ensign (though it is a bit unclear to me what counts as an official publication–is what is repeated in the Friend doctrine even if not written by a GA?).

    One more question that this document raises is the status of a purely oral statement by a GA, since it seems to imply that doctrine must be published. Also, does this statement leave open the possibility that something can be doctrine if not written by a GA but part of a trend of things published in an official publication?

  15. Natalie B. says:

    #13 – Based purely on what the statement says, I think we would have to consider if they are “consistently” proclaimed in publication.

  16. Jakob Hansen says:

    Perhaps this is parsing, but I’m not sure that the statement guarantees that everything consistently declared in church publications is doctrine. Since the places the doctrine “resides” are the standard works, “official declarations and proclamations,” and the Articles of Faith, it seems to me that other church publications cannot be the source of doctrines. They can only repeat and perhaps interpret them. Now, the prophets and apostles (through correlation, no doubt) ensure that the doctrines found in these sources are consistently proclaimed in church publications, but this doesn’t mean that they are the only things consistently proclaimed therein. I doubt the church’s rather consistent graphic design style is doctrinal, for instance.

  17. I think lds.org has to somehow count as a place where the Church might announce new doctrines/policies/practices (or any other sort of official communication)…

  18. aloysiusmiller says:
  19. Bye, Aloysius.

  20. aloysiusmiller says:

    Steve didn’t you know that it is doctrine if it is in Mormon Doctrine :) This post is worthy of the book.

  21. #16 – “Since the places the doctrine “resides” are the standard works, “official declarations and proclamations,” and the Articles of Faith, it seems to me that other church publications cannot be the source of doctrines.”

    That’s what I was thinking. Others interpret it the other way around. Very clear statement there.

  22. #15 – Yeah, that sounds about right. So if it’s been said once it isn’t doctrine, but if it’s reiterated at every GC, it is. If it was said numerous times during GC ten years ago, but hasn’t been mentioned since…. Um….

  23. Left Field says:

    It seems very odd that the Articles of Faith are mentioned separately from the Pearl of Great Price. It’s sort of like saying, “the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Book of Jeremiah.”

  24. Natalie, I’m not sure your model of a widening of church publications is accurate. The variety of church publications before correlation , and the editorial freedom of those periodicals, meant that a general authority or auxiliary leader could publish something through an official church publication without the kind of correlation to which we are now accustomed. For better or for worse.

  25. Robert Millet has been giving almost the exact same model for defining ‘doctrine’ for several years now. I would be surprised if the Newsroom’s commentary is not directly based off of Millet’s approach.

    One main difference though is that Millet also includes temple ordinances as a source of doctrine. My guess is that the Newsroom omitted this source to avoid having the media cite the endowment while trying to describe LDS beliefs.

  26. As I interpret the statement the listing of the Church Canon is merely clarifying what it means by “official church publications.” Only the Canon (which includes official declarations and proclamations) is the source for doctrine. Everything else is just commentary on the doctrine and prone to error. This statement has to be bad news for a healthy number of commenters at this web site as well as a permablogger or two as I’ve oft heard the refrain, “The proclamation on the family is not official doctrine.”

  27. Latter-day Guy says:

    There was an interesting paper related to this subject I once read… it is available here. It examines both Robert Millet’s and Nate Oman’s approaches to this problem/issue and offers cogent analysis and criticism. It is also by none other than ‘the narrator’ of comment 24. If you have the time (it’s about 15 pages long) it is definitely worth reading.

  28. Unfortunately, the 2007 statement leaves the issue of doctrine only a little less muddy than it was before, and we are left to using spreadsheets to figure out what we should believe:

    http://www.mormonmentality.org/2009/05/31/determining-doctrine-using-excel.htm

  29. I think we need to look at it historically. Too many members viewed anything written by an apostle to be doctrine, whether it was or not. We forget that living prophets must trump dead ones, but that is often not the case. How many people still quote one-offs from 50 years ago, as if it were doctrine?
    Statements by GAs on evolution (Joseph Fielding Smith), politics (Ezra Taft Benson), or priesthood “curse” (Alvin R. Dyer) have to be placed in proper perspective, and that is where the statement comes into play.

    As for correlated work, let’s not forget Daniel Peterson’s work on correlation, where he was to work on the portion of the New Testament manual where a guy dies while listening to Paul speak for hours. Brother Peterson jokingly added questions: “Have you ever killed someone while giving a Sacrament talk?” “How did it make you feel?”
    It made it all the way through correlation, and he had to make sure it was removed before publication.

    I’ve used the Approaching Mormon Doctrine policy on many occasions to try and get people to come back to the truly saving doctrines. I think it fits in perfectly with Pres Packer’s insistence that the GAs teach the doctrine of the gospel, and not go into speculation. Speculation was Brigham Young’s favorite thing to do, or so it seems, but it just doesn’t fit in a church that goes way beyond the boundaries of Utah.

    Whatever the GAs teach en masse today, is what we can consider doctrine. And as we must realize, not all doctrine is of equal weight.

  30. I think what this statement is trying to do is to address the problems of folk-doctrine and gospel-hobbyism in the Church, which are not small. It’s saying that the Church doesn’t hide its official doctrine, and that there isn’t a whole lot of official doctrine. You don’t need to scour the JoD or books by GAs living or present, or anybody else to find the official doctrine — it’s going to be found in something the Church has published within the last curriculum cycle.

    This is not the limit of every possibly true doctrine, but it is the limit of the essential doctrines the Church wants to stand by. Other, speculative, doctrines may or may not be true, but they are neither official nor essential. If you want to know if they are true, the path to determine that is not difficult to find, although it is difficult to walk.

    I have no problem with rejecting “A prophet said it, and that settles it.”

  31. That Daniel Peterson super-awesome story about what he slipped through correlation is already tired and trite. Hell, it made me groan the first time I heard/read it. Enough. Can I get an amen?

  32. Is 5-4-2007 itself official doctrine? If so, who said it?
    I thought 5-4-2007 used ‘and’ many times when maybe it should have used ‘or’. ( “Or the AoF” ?)
    All I got from 5-4-2007 was 1) The Church thinks it has doctrines. 2) The Church is willing to take a shot at defining what those doctrines are. 3) they need to take another shot.

  33. Bob makes a fair point. Perhaps if we repeat the idea often enough, it will become more common in the Church, then repeated in the Ensign then General Conference then, BAM!, we have a new doctrine. I’m going to draft a Facebook petition now!

  34. Pedro Olavarria says:

    I think people need to focus less on “doctrine” and more on truth. Less on theory and more on practice. Who cares if ABC statement made by XYZ prophet is doctrine? What do I have to DO should be the real issue.

  35. Where does this leave the distillation of the doctrines like the dews of the heavens? It is just a AR management trying to get its arms around an ongoing and chaotic process and stop up the dews, rains and doctrines. (Deut 32:1-2)

    I favor the Buddhist approach of an open canon where anyone can contribute. The reader decides. This allows for the maximum opportunity for the Spirit to work.

    That being impossible, in the D&C there is provision for deciding what is true doctrine when there are competing opinions. Why not use this process which has been revealed in our standard works?

  36. It seems to me there is another question which has been only touched. That is: What is doctrine? Not in the sense of what things are members of the set of doctrine, but rather what does it mean to be doctrine. Is doctrine truths? Or is doctrine what is taught?

    I think it seems clear that doctrine is more along the lines of what is being taught.

    If doctrine is what is taught then we can see that doctrine can change without the set of truth being changed underneath it. For example, say over a period of years some idea X is taught about conditions in the spirit world. Then, for years afterwards, the idea is no longer taught. We can safely say it is not doctrine. But can we say, therefore, that it is not true?

    That definition also affects the meaning of the statement, “It’s not doctrine.” We are not saying that it is not true. We are not saying that we don’t believe it. We are merely stating that it is not currently taught.

  37. 35 — Truth still distills, but it does so for the individual seeker at least as much as it does for the institutional Church. This statement does nothing to dam it up soever.

    36 — Official doctrine or essential doctrine is more than simply what is taught. It is a set of beliefs that must be true, which is why it is what is taught, and must not be taught against (which would be apostacy). We don’t have much of it — almost nothing compared to mainstream Christians, who have to juggle the various creeds, confessions and catechisms to sort out their doctrinal differences that justify their many divisions — but we do have some, and it is openly and repeatedly taught: Apostacy, Restoration, Priesthood, Temples, Families, etc.

    And then we have the huge world of speculative doctrine, which is rich and wild and fun. “Speculative” is not a dismissive term — it just describes things that might be true, but don’t have to be true for the Church to be valid, or for the believer to be orthodox. This would include things like plural marriage in the next life for people who were sealed to singular spouses in this life.

    As contrasted to false doctrine, which contradicts essential doctrine. This would be something like the idea that God doesn’t have a body, or that sex outside marriage is okay.

    “It’s not doctrine” would be better said “It’s not official/essential doctrine.”

    Or so it seems to me.

  38. aloysiusmiller says:

    I was at a sealing in the temple a few weeks ago. The sealer said a few things that I disagree with. I didn’t do a poll but I think that most people in the room would have raised an eyebrow or added some nuance to accept what was said. Now a sealer isn’t a general authority but I think that doctrine is what the body of the faithful saints know it to be by the revelation of the Holy Ghost. Hard test to apply objectively but it beats all the legalisms that are the alternative.

  39. Mack Samaha says:

    I’ve always thought that if the Church isn’t willing to canonize a statement then it can’t be taken as doctrine regardless of wether or not it is true.

    And as far as GA’s et. al. they quite often repeatedly contradict each other, what of such statements (I know I’m being lazy by not referencing, perhaps Nibley speaking of evolution whilst others were so obviously against the fact)? It would be thus possible to have differing/conflicting ‘doctrine(s)’ if we took the ‘repeated often’ approach …

  40. But I don’t think “repeated often” means that something that’s said here and then there by one or two GAs, or even several. The point isn’t to make some checklist where “a ha!” this or that statement becomes official doctrine when it satisfies three out of five criteria. This isn’t so much about getting legalistic and technical as it is in winnowing out the few, clear points of essential doctrine from the many murky points of speculative doctrine.

  41. “Repeated often” is not a good way to determine what is Church doctrine. Natalie referenced the 2007 statement to argue that something was Church doctrine if it was consistently repeated in official church publications. The “official church publications” part is important.

    The test isn’t to create some legal standard for doctrine, it’s intended to answer a simple question: what is our Church’s official doctrine? The correct answer cannot be “whatever each individual believes it is,” because that would not be the “Church’s” doctrine.

    Natalie’s standard (based on the 2007 statement) is as good a standard as I’ve ever heard.

  42. I believe that the days are past or are passing when the church will be held to any type of formula for what it considers to be the source of official doctrine.

    Today, official doctrine is whatever the church says is official doctrine – regardless of who said what, when, or how many times.

    If President Monson on Larry King says the priesthood was withheld from blacks because blacks did not like green jello in the pre-existence, then that is official doctrine.

    Earl

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