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.”Â 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.