There are two circumstances that inform my (positive) opinion on Charles R. Harrell, “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (n.p.: Kofford Books, 2011). First, in 2001, James Patrick Holding (a pseudonym) published a slim volume, The Mormon Defenders: How Latter-day Saint Apologists Misinterpret the Bible (self-published, 2001). Kevin Graham organized a set of responses to Holding’s book, and I agreed to respond to Chapter 3, “Persons and Pre-Mortality: The Mormon Doctrine of Preexistence,” at 53-61, with related endnotes at 144-45. The result was my paper, “On Preexistence in the Bible.” I needed to understand the development of preexistence in Mormon thought in order to be able to effectively write my paper, and so I turned to two sources. One I was already familiar with: Blake Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15/1 (Spring 1982): 59-78, which was actually a student essay published in a volume devoted to such student work. The second was one I had not been familiar with before and was new to me: Charles R. Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies 28/2 (Spring 1988): 75-96.
I needed something that traced the development of the idea of preexistence in Mormon thought as background to my piece, rather than just an exposition of the doctrine as it exists today, and Harrell did just that. His article was immensely useful to me. I simply summarized Harrell and Ostler and then referred the reader to them for more detailed treatment. I was very thankful that such studies existed that allowed me to concentrate on the biblical evidence and not have to reinvent the wheel on the Mormon side.
Second, I have long sort of had a fantasy of writing a systematic theology of Mormonism. But instead of a volume like Protestant systematic theologies or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this would be different. My idea was not to try to define with precision what the theology is, but rather to be more descriptive, to identify the various schools of thought that have existed and their historical development. I have often been frustrated trying to separate the strands of Mormon thought on a given topic, and I thought that such a developmental approach was badly needed.
And wonder of wonders, that is pretty much exactly what Harrell’s new book, This Is My Doctrine, is. He takes the same developmental approach he took in his preexistence article and similarly investigates a whole range of Mormon theological topics, as shown by the Table of Contents:
2. The Great Apostasy
3. Joseph Smith and the Restoration
4. The Restoration of the Priesthood and the Church
5. Doctrinal Truths Restored
6. The Godhead and Plurality of Gods
7. God the Father
8. Jesus Christ
9. The Holy Ghost
11. The Preexistence
12. The Creation
13. The Fall and Nature of Humanity
14. The Atonement
15. The Gospel Plan
16. Salvation for the Dead
17. The Priesthood
18. The Gathering of Israel and Establishment of Zion
19. The Second Coming and Millennium
20. The Resurrection
21. Final Judgment
The background necessary for the reader to be able to approach these topics in this developmental fashion is set forth in the first chapter, a 30-page introduction titled “Theology, a Divine-Human Enterprise.” The captions to this chapter will give you a fairly good sense of what it contains:
Theological Conservatism and Liberalism
The Myth of Scriptural Inerrancy
The Myth of Doctrinal Uniformity
The Myth of Prophetic Infallibility
Mining the Theology of the Scriptures
Harrell’s treatment of these subjects is by no means exhaustive; many of these chapters could easily absorb an entire volume on their own. In order to keep the material manageable, he generally follows something like this framework in his analysis:
Old Testament Theology
New Testament Theology
Early Nineteenth Century Christian Theology
Early Mormon Theology
Later Mormon Theology
I liked the book and found it very useful in parsing the history and development of these basic Mormon doctrines, the kind of tool for which I have long felt a need.
There are a couple of potential issues with this book that have been raised in preliminary internet chatter. One friend of mine feels that Harrell doesn’t do enough to hold the reader’s hand. He is exposing people who bring an assumption of a univocal, set-in-stone theology, to a completely different developmental model, and he’s not giving them much of a safety net. I can see how this could be a concern. It’s perhaps not a book for the unprepared or the faint of heart. But I thought the introductory essay did a pretty good job of at least broaching these issues. And frankly, I’m all for anything that knocks our people off of their fundamentalist assumptions about where Mormon theology comes from. I have interests in (educative) apologetics, and nothing is a bigger problem for our people than pervasive assumptions of scriptural inerrancy and prophetic infallibility. Anything we can do to nudge our people away from those assumptions is a good thing, in my view. Stepping away from that thought world is going to be difficult for a lot of folks, no matter what.
The second issue is one of academic sophistication. Harrell is not trained in theology; he is, as I understand it (I’ve never met him in person), a professor of engineering at BYU. His treatment of Old Testament and New Testament theology is necessarily heavily reliant on secondary literature. And there may well be academic tools in the examination of historical theology that Harrell could have or should have used, but didn’t. I don’t really know, because I’m not trained in theology, either. All I know is that for my purposes, I found the book very useful, and I anticipate referring to it often in the future when I’m trying to get a handle on various Mormon doctrines.
So, those issues notwithstanding, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.