In Church, and in Church-related discussions, I often hear people differentiate Church policies from doctrine. Policies, they say, can (and not infrequently do) change; doctrine, on the other hand, cannot. It has never changed and will never change.
These doctrine-vs.-policy discussions are rarely satisfying, in my experience. We argue over whether we’re talking about doctrine or policy, but rarely make it any further. And in part, I believe, the impediment is that we don’t really have a clear sense of what we’re talking about when we say “doctrine.”
See, defining “doctrine” as that which cannot change is problematic. In the first instance, that definition doesn’t tell us anything of value. That is, if “doctrine” is the stuff that doesn’t change, we can never know ex ante what is doctrinal. All this definition tells us is that, if something has changed, it wasn’t doctrinal, no matter how important we believed it was before the change. Ultimately, then, the doctrine-vs.-policy argument becomes a shorthand way of announcing whether we think the current practice can change or not. The word “doctrine” ultimately becomes superfluous.
Or maybe it’s worse than superfluous: I think it actually impedes discussion. The shorthand allows us to skip articulating our belief that something can or cannot change, and, perhaps worse, encourages us to elide why we believe something can or cannot change—it merely is or isn’t doctrine. It drops us into an impasse, talking past each other (and, often, becoming frustrated).
Ultimately, though, if “doctrine” really does mean unchangeable, then we’re stuck with the impasse. The good news: it doesn’t. I’ve been curious for some time about the providence of this idea of doctrinal immutability. So I thought I’d try to run it down. Here’s what I can come up with:
The (Non-Mormon) Meaning of “Doctrine”
Webster’s 1828 English Dictionary[fn1] defined “doctrine” as that which is taught, or as the truths of the gospel in general.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s[fn2] definition also focuses on teaching and instruction. It also includes truth-claims made in fields including religion, politics, and science.
Black’s Law Dictionary[fn3] defines “doctrine” as “A principle, esp. a legal principle, that is widely adhered to.”
None of the common definitions of “doctrine” I found demand immutability.[fn4] Instead, they focus on the idea of teaching.
But What About Mormon Thought Specifically?
Of course, there’s no reason that Mormons can’t have an idiosyncratic definition of “doctrine.” And, in our general rhetoric, it looks like we do. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism’s entry for “doctrine” explains that, in scripture, “doctrine” (singular) means the doctrine of Jesus Christ, whereas “doctrines” (plural) refers to false teachings, either from devils or others. The entry then goes on to assert that
the “doctrine of Jesus Christ” is the only teaching that can properly be called “doctrine.” It is fixed and unchanging. It cannot be modified or contradicted, but merely amplified as additional truths that deepen understanding and appreciation of its meaning are revealed.
The entry, however, gives no source for its assertion that doctrine cannot be modified or contradicted.[fn5]
Which isn’t to say it’s unsupportable in Mormon thought. In a 1984 talk to the Regional Representatives‘ Seminar, President Packer admitted that “[p]rocedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. We are quite free, indeed, quite obliged to alter them from time to time.” However, he claimed, “the principles, the doctrines, never change.”
The idea that doctrines do not change predates President Packer, though. Greg Prince, in his biography of President McKay, says that, to President McKay,
there was a distinct difference between a “policy” in the church, which he saw as conditional and thus changeable, and a “doctrine,” which was immutable.[fn6]
From where did President McKay derive this difference? I don’t know; Prince claims the difference was lost on many of his colleagues, so it may have been original to him. On the other hand, he may have learned it from someone else. Either way, though, the Mormon idea that doctrine doesn’t change, while non-doctrinal peripherals may, goes back at least to the first half of the 20th century.
As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism says, “doctrine” in the scriptures generally corresponds to “teachings.” Strong’s Concordance says that Hebrew word translated as “doctrine” in the Old Testament (Strong’s number H3948) appears 9 times, and means learning, teaching, and insight. It’s translated four times as “doctrine,” four times as “learnings,” and once as “speech.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as “doctrine” (Strong’s number G1322) shows up 30 times, 29 as “doctrine” and once as “has been taught.” Again, the word means “teaching.”
We get something similar in the Book of Mormon. According to Reynolds’s Book of Mormon Concordance, “my doctrine” shows up nine times, eight of which are in 3 Ne. 11, and all of which could easily mean “my teachings.” “Doctrine” shows up another nine times, frequently within a couple words of words like learn and teacher, which again suggests the idea of doctrine as teachings. “Doctrines” shows up four times, and are always false, and once also vain and foolish.
“Doctrine of Christ” shows up an additional seven times. It’s frequently associated with teaching or preaching (though twice it’s essentially put in the mouths of people who erroneously call it false or foolish).
N.b.: This post isn’t about women and the priesthood. It’s not about marriage. Or the Church’s stand on immigration or MX missiles or the Equal Rights Amendment. Instead, it’s focused on definitions and usage. If you really want to talk about the merits of any Church practice, there are plenty of places on the internet to do so. Here’s not the place.
That said, the underlying definitional issue is relevant to all those things, and more.
To take the Ordain Women example: I assume that most people who are uncomfortable with the aims of OW would concede that it is at least within the realm of possibility that God could announce, through His prophet, that women, too, can hold the priesthood. Conversely, I assume that most supporters would concede that it is at least possible that a male-only priesthood is God’s will and will not change.
But ex ante, we do not know which will happen. Which means that our traditional doctrine v. policy distinction (that is, immutable v. changeable), adds no value to our discussion. But it makes discussion between the two poles (and any number of points in between) tremendously charged and difficult.
Perhaps, then, we should step back from the precipice of doctrine vs. policy. Instead, we could embrace the dictionary (and scriptural) definition of doctrine. And when we want to talk about immutability, we can expressly talk about it, rather than code arguing about doctrines and policies.
[fn1] Why Webster’s 1828 dictionary? Primarily because it reflects the English being spoken in Joseph Smith’s time. Though there’s no guarantee, it’s fairly likely that when he translated something in the Book of Mormon as “doctrine,” and when he used the word in, e.g., the Doctrine and Covenants, he meant something like the definition in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.
[fn2] Sorry, no link. The OED online is a subscription database.
[fn3] Also from a subscription database. Sorry. Though, as some consolation, perhaps, I learned that there is an insurance law concept called the damn-fool doctrine:
The principle that an insurer may deny (esp. liability) coverage when an insured engages in behavior that is so ill-conceived that the insurer should not be compelled to bear the loss resulting from the insured’s actions.
That, I thought, was pretty cool.
[fn4] And you’re welcome to try dictionary.com’s definition, too, if you think I’m cherry-picking.
[fn5] It does, though, go on to say that, in Mormon vernacular, “doctrine” means, essentially, “virtually everything that is, or has been, taught or believed by the Latter-day Saints.” This vernacular usage corresponds pretty closely to the dictionary definitions of “doctrine,” though not to our current doctrine vs. policy definition.
[fn6] Gregory A. Prince & Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism 75 (2005).