This Is My Doctrine

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
10. Satan
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
Proof-Texting
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
Nauvoo-Period 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.

Comments

  1. I just bought it. Thanks for the review

  2. Thanks Kevin. Harrell talks about the book here. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it.

  3. Thanks for the review.

  4. Kevin-good summary. I’ve read a good chunk of it so far and agree that it serves a very valuable role. He came and spoke at Benchmark this week and it was fun to sit down and talk to him after-pastrami burgers and discussion mix really.

  5. I finished This is My Doctrine just the other day. I was very pleased with its approach and felt like it really did try to cover a lot of ground. However, I was blown away by the bad writing. First, I disagree about the hand holding. I thought Harrell did way too much hand holding. He introduced every author as “John Doe, a critical biblical scholar,” “John Doe, a Mormon historian,” or “John Doe, a Christian theologian.” I understand that the audience for this book may not necessarily be familiar with things like German higher criticism, but in the introduction, when this kind of hand holding is happening about two to three time per paragraph, the repetition gets old fast. Second, the writing was just plain bad. At one point Harrell begins every paragraph for two and a half pages with the same sentence or variation of the same phrase (can’t remember exactly but it was something like five or six paragraphs). It was so distracting that I found the book almost impossible to take seriously as the writing only served to underscore the amateur nature of the work. Generally speaking it was a pretty good summary of the development of Mormon theology, which I guess is the point of the book. I just didn’t discover any real original insights or contributions other than providing a good systematic and reasonably historical summary of the development of Mormon theology. I suppose this was needed, but because Harrell is also trying to cover such broad ground I felt like the discussion of each topic was rather cheap. I basically found the whole schema of Old Testament Theology to Later Mormon Theology to be incredibly superficial. The book ultimately lacked the historical specificity of earlier prominent examples of this developmental approach (e.g. Alexander’s The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine, 1980) while simultaneously lacking command of the particular protestant traditions that clearly contributed to Mormon thought. I’m still glad I read it. It’s what our Sunday School/Priesthood/Relief Society Manuals should be like, which probably speaks for itself as both an endorsement and a warning.

    P.S. I loved the binding job. In comparison the really bad bind of Ostler’s trilogy (my copies basically fell apart) Kofford Books did a really good job on this one.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Jordan, thanks for your thoughts. I’m genuinely interested in other people’s reactions.

  7. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I haven’t read the book so cannot really comment on it. My main concern is what is meant by an evolving theology or an evolving thought on Mormon theology. It is evident from the Doctrine and Covenants and the precursor, The Book of Commandments, that LDS theology was not presented wholesale to the prophets, but was on a “line by line, precept by precept” system.
    Early LDS thought was almost surely colored strongly by the different Protestant thoughts and ideas of the day, and I would expect to see initially that LDS thoughts, as expressed by the written word, would have paralleled that of the their Protestant counterparts, and began to diverge as revelations (and the LDS understanding of those revelations) occurred.

    Glenn

  8. I’m probably going to put together a longer response to the book, but I was disappointed with it overall. It seems to me Harrell bit off much more than anyone could possibly chew in such a volume. I expected a closer historical analysis of LDS doctrinal development, but instead this is the general tenor I picked up over the course of the book:

    1) Here’s how a selected group of scholars view X biblical concept.
    2) Here’s how a selected (sometimes representative, sometimes not) group of LDS leaders view said concept, and it is clearly different from how my selected scholars view it.
    3) But that’s ok, we should be able to believe this idiosyncratic interpretation regardless.

    Particularly the atonement chapter was a complete disappointment to me. Rather than tracing various atonement theologies in and out of Mormonism, Harrell spent a good chunk of the chapter arguing that the idea of an “infinite atonement” is an anachronism in the Book of Mormon. How could a chapter on LDS views of the atonement not even mention the name of an LDS apostle, Amasa Lyman, and the controversies surrounding his view of the atonement, etc.? This is just one example among many where it felt like Harrell missed the boat. I began enthused, I ended disappointed. Maybe I expected too much.

  9. Brant Gardner’s The GIft and Power has the same citation style that Jordan mentions (citing the author’s professional credentials before each quote) so I’m guessing that it’s an editorial decision by Kofford’s staff. I also found it distracting.

  10. I don’t mind those details on a first citation, personally. Or at least included in a footnote. Saves a little time if I haven’t heard of the person and need a bit of background on why they are being quoted, etc.

  11. I am, of course, a bit biased here, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

    bhodges,:

    “How could a chapter on LDS views of the atonement not even mention the name of an LDS apostle, Amasa Lyman, and the controversies surrounding his view of the atonement, etc.?”

    Because Lyman’s views were on the fringe and were never widely accepted nor promoted. As Kevin points out, each chapter of this book could have easily filled a volume on its own, especially if the chapter spent much time discussing every pet theory of every Church leader–and the chapter on the atonement is certainly one of them. The problem with including Lyman’s theory is that it was a fringe belief that was never heavily debated/considered and never came close to becoming an official, pseudo-official, popular, or even semi-popular “doctrine.” Rather it was squashed rather quickly. Harrell is pretty clear that his book is attempting to trace the evolution, development, and changes in LDS doctrine over the years. With even a broad and simplistic definition of doctrine (such as has been articulated by Millet and the LDS Newsroom), Lyman’s short-lived theory would have never have been considered a ‘doctrine.’ And as it made no real immediate change or effect in the doctrines of the atonement, it just doesn’t fit in Harrell’s book.

    Of course Harrell could have written a different book to include your particular fascination with Lyman’s view, but then he would have needed to included virtually every contentious and short-lived theory of every Church leader, and written that 20 volume set that you, Harrell, nor anybody else will ever write.

    Steve: That was not an editorial decision by Kofford Books. The authors wanted to write books that were accessible to both scholars and “lay” members (which I am not always sure is possible). bhodges’s explanation is pretty much the reason why the authors included them.

  12. Completely disagree, Loyd. I can’t point to a more internally focused instance of direct discussion of atonement theology, blood sacrifice, etc. amongst the leading councils of the Church than the Lyman case. Short-lived theory or no, elements of it continue to resonate among some Mormons to this day, though they are likely unfamiliar with Lyman’s views. This is just a single instance, not a fascination, where I think Harrell missed it on presenting a historical overview of LDS doctrinal devpt.

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