What is doctrine?
It’s a hard question to answer because the word tends to get employed in a couple of different ways. For it to be meaningful, we should be really clear about what we mean when we say something is doctrinal.
In my experience, doctrine is used in two contexts that look roughly like the following:
1. Doctrine – All eternal truth. Everything that is true is also doctrinal and if something is doctrinal, it is true.
I think this is the most commonly held assumption when referring to something as being doctrinal. As we will explore, using this term is probably what the term doctrine should mean, but if we hold to this we step into all types of problems; especially since what has been considered doctrinal over the the past 200 years of the restoration has shifted, evolved, and in some cases, radically changed.
The second definition is a working definition that probably captures the reality of what we consider doctrinal.
2. Doctrine – What is considered an acceptable teaching in the church at a certain point in time.
Although our doctrine should capture all that is eternally true, what we consider as doctrinal is an infinitesimal portion of the truth. And since what we have considered as true has shifted significantly at times (ie: blacks and the priesthood, plural marriage as a requirement for exaltation, Adam-God doctrine, etc.) the second definition seems the only one that is useful. Doctrine is the body of teachings that is generally acceptable to the church. This is the only working definition that helps us understand how and why the Lord both gives us greater truth, but also takes truth away from the members of the church. It is a changing body of acceptable teachings.
To better understand why we should be clear about using the second definition as the only one that is useful, I’d like to suggest a reason for changes and shifts in what has been considered doctrine.
The Alma 12 Principle
One of my favorite teachings uniquely found in the Book of Mormon is outlined powerfully in the Alma chapter 12.
“And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many tothe of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.”
Many can know the mysteries of God, and they are only authorized to teach according to how diligent people are to the light given to them.
“And therefore, he that willhis heart, the same receiveth the portion of the word; and he that will harden his heart, to him is the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesserof the word until they concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the of
This is such a powerful and simple principle. If you soften your heart and give diligence and heed to light and truth you will grow in the reception of mysteries. If you harden your heart you will have light and truth removed from you until you don’t know anything concerning the mysteries. Alma is careful to define the chains as being in a state of knowing nothing of the mysteries of God.
How does this relate to the question of what is doctrine? It has relevance when we understand that covenant bodies of people act as individuals. The same promises and warnings apply to collective groups of covenant bound people as they do to individuals themselves.
In other words, as the covenant body collectively softens their hearts they collectively increase in the reception of the mysteries of God, and as they collectively harden their hearts they collectively lose mysteries and knowledge.
So, the covenant body of the church is a group of people that is capable of both increasing and decreasing in light and truth. For this reason, only 18 months into the restoration the Lord pronounced a collective condemnation on the church “until they repent and remember the new, even the and the commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to according to that which I have written” (D&C 84: 57).
Considering that we will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the First Vision in just a few short months, perhaps it will be an opportunity to ponder whether we are 200 years more enlightened than those early years of Joseph Smith, or if our collective understanding has suffered from the aggregate hardening against what was revealed through Joseph.
The answer to this question may be informed by an interview question put to President Hinkley by the San Francisco Chronicle when he was President of the Church.
Question: And this belief in contemporary revelation and prophecy? As the prophet, tell us how that works. How do you receive divine revelation? What does it feel like?
Answer: [Gordon B. Hinckley] Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.
Because our understanding of mysteries – light, truth, and knowledge – is a function of mysteries either being added to us or taken away; it makes sense that our understanding of what is “doctrinal” also shifts.
For this reason, the definition of doctrine being the currently acceptable and authorized body of teaching in the church most closely reflects the reality of what is taught and considered truth in the church.
What this also suggests is that our doctrine will reflect greater or lesser light and truth depending on how obedient, faithful, and diligent we as a collective covenant body has been to what has been revealed.
Because our body of doctrine shifts according to the obedience of the covenant membership, it is important to consider that what is doctrinal does not include all that is true. What is considered “doctrinal” will of necessity be a very small subset of eternal truth.
Our doctrine has changed over the past 200 years. This is to be expected. And if we are honest with ourselves we can ask some hard questions: How true have we been to the revelations we’ve already received? Are we receiving more? Are we a more enlightened people two centuries since the Father and the Son manifested to Joseph and light burst upon the earth once again?
If we don’t understand that our doctrinal comprehension is going to reflect our collective (un)faithfulness then we will be tempted to go to great lengths to demonstrate that our doctrine has been consistent, and even has progressed in the past 200 years. We will find ourselves in the almost impossibly difficult situation of trying to reconcile prophets who taught at higher levels of light and truth, revealing great and marvelous things, to a people unprepared to receive mysteries in the capacity required to understand them. When facing this doctrinal dilemma, we have marginalized prophets of extraordinary knowledge as simply speaking from their own limited understanding, or even “speculating”.
Because of this doctrinal dilemma, without acknowledging the consequences taught in Alma 12, we may formulate legalistic escape clauses from great knowledge taught in an earlier era by arbitrarily requiring doctrine to be something that must be repeated by many authorities of the church in order to be valid. As if the repetition or a truth or a lie makes it valid by the number of people who repeat it.
A teaching repeated often does not a truth make. (But it does make something in the church a generally accepted teaching.)
Of course the Holy Ghost solves this problem for all of those who repent sufficiently of their hardened hearts, and jealousies and fears sufficient to receive an abundance of the mysteries of God. But it needs to happen collectively if we are to be redeemed from the self-satisfied state of believing we are favored of God when he has signaled his disfavor through four generations of virtual revelatory silence.
Christ also gave us a warning and sign to know if we, in the latter-days, would be condemned. As Moroni recorded:
“8 And these things have I written, which are apart of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken.
9 And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the be made manifest unto them.
10 And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the be from them, unto their condemnation.
11 Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord it, saying: I will the faith of my people” (3 Nephi 26: 8-11).
Have we received the greater portion? If we haven’t, Christ has taught us it is because we are in a state of condemnation. Christ said he would try our faith. We have yet to receive the fruit of having exercised faith sufficient to remove us from our condemnation.
This should inform us that what we should be very careful as to what we believe about ourselves and our understanding of doctrine. We are never collectively static. We are either increasing or decreasing. And so it seems that when considering how we propose what is, or isn’t, “doctrinal” we should be humble enough to understand that our doctrine may or may not comply to the truth of what the Lord has yet to reveal, or may have already revealed.
For this reason, I am always intently focused on what we consider “doctrine”. But more importantly, I am far more interested in what is true.