Skip to content

Mormonism LIVE: 082: Charley Harrell & Contemplating Mormon Doctrine

  • by
We sit down with Former BYU Professor, and author of the book “This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology”, Charley Harrell to dive into several important assumptions Mormonism and its leaders and members impose in order to cleanly define doctrine. But do these really hold up? Can the word Doctrine as used within the LDS Church be defined in such a way that any imposed definition can be dependable? A.) What is Church doctrine?
  1. Dictionary Definition = Doctrine comes from the Latin Doctrina which means “teachings.” The first definition that comes up in a Google search is from the Oxford English Dictionary:
a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group. ‘the doctrine of predestination’”
  1. So essentially, religious doctrines are simply the teachings or beliefs of a particular religion.
  1. Generally Understood = The term “doctrine” is generally used in the Church to refer either to propositional statements about God and his works or to explanatory narratives about how God operates in the world. Propositional statements include: God has a body, God created the world, Christ died for the sins of the world. Explanatory narratives include: How the world came to be, How the priesthood works, How the Church was lost and restored, How the atonement and plan of salvation work.
  2. “Official” doctrine comprises those teachings which are found in the scriptures, current Church publications, and are agreed upon by the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12.
    1. Neil Anderson “Trial of Your Faith” – “A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find. Periodical = Audio =
We should share briefly that LDS leaders have attempted to define doctrine in ways that expose that the word is fluid and simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny or critical thinking. What does this definition say about doctrines that were widely taught in prior times and no longer taught today? Plural Marriage (MY EXPERIENCE IN HIGH PRIEST GROUP ABOUT DOCTRINE) Reason for the priesthood ban Lamanite identification Does the fact that it has to be taught by everyone in the 1st presidency and Q12 impose an unreasonably high bar? WASN’T THERE AT TIME NOT TOO LONG AGO WHEN DOCTRINE WAS ESTABLISHED FIRST BY WHETHER THE PROPHET SAID IT; THEN BY WHETHER IT WAS A FIRST PRESIDENCY STATEMENT; THEN (NOW) BY WHETHER ALL FIFTEEN AGREE? IT SEEMS THAT THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE FIRST PRESIDENCY AND QUORUM OF TWELVE HAVE ALL BUT DISAPPEARED AT LEAST WHEN IT COMES TO ESTABLISHING DOCTRINE Does Elder Anderson’s doctrine of doctrine meet his own criteria of doctrine?
  1. D. Todd Christofferson “At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.””  Periodical =
  1. Other definitions given by the Church  (Don’t need to go in depth)
    1. “Doctrine—The truths of the gospel in general. Instruction and confirmation in the truths of the gospel.”
    2. Church Newsroom remains ambiguous
The Church makes several claims about Mormon doctrines that together can be said to constitute the doctrine of LDS doctrine. But are these claims really warranted by empirical evidence? B.) Claims vs Realities
  1. Claim: Mormon doctrine derives primarily from the Standard Works and official statements of the Church leadership.
    1. The Church Newsroom states, “[Our] doctrine resides in the four ‘standard works’ of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.” (LDS Newsroom 2007)
THIS IS WHAT I WAS SURPRISED TO SEE IN THE WRITINGS OF BRM AND JFS; THAT DOCTRINE IS ESTABLISHED BY THE STANDARD WORKS; THAT IS WHY THEY ARE CALLED THE STANDARD WORKS; AND IF ANY LEADER TEACHES SOMETHING CONTRARY TO THE STANDARD WORKS, YOU CAN KNOW IT IS NOT CORRECT. Reality: Doctrine doesn’t just jump out of the scriptures, it has to be interpreted by the reader. LDS doctrine, therefore, doesn’t actually “reside” in the scriptures, but in the Church’s interpretation of the scriptures. Further, since scripture is not univocal, one must pick and choose which passages to use. So in reality Mormon doctrine derives from a biased selection of scriptural fragments, often taken out of context, that are cobbled together to construct a doctrinal view.
  1. Things not in the scriptures or misunderstood become hard truths within the Church – April 6th  & Take, for example, the three degrees of glory…
  2. Things that are in the scriptures are discarded or altered once worldly evidence comes to be accepted.  (flood, tower of babel, 6000 year old earth, racism, april 6th)
  1. Claim: Church doctrines are eternal truths. The underlying logic is that, Because God is a God of truth and would never lie, all of the teachings he reveals through his prophets are true.
    1. Joseph Smith – “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught” (HC, 6:366).
Russell M. Nelson – TIME STAMP 13:47 to 14:58  – “Sometimes we as leaders of the Church are criticized for holding firm to the laws of God, defending the Savior’s doctrine, and resisting the social pressures of our day. But our commission as ordained apostles is “to go into all the world to preach [His] gospel unto every creature.”8 That means we are commanded to teach truth. In doing so, sometimes we are accused of being uncaring as we teach the Father’s requirements for exaltation in the celestial kingdom. But wouldn’t it be far more uncaring for us not to tell the truth—not to teach what God has revealed? It is precisely because we do care deeply about all of God’s children that we proclaim His truth. We may not always tell people what they want to hear. Prophets are rarely popular. But we will always teach the truth!” Reality: Many doctrines have been shown to be in error, especially when disproven by science (age of the earth, of man, etc.) and therefore changed or even discarded.
  1. Doctrine and Truth intersect at some points, but the circle of LDS doctrine is not the same as or even a subset of the circle of truth.
  1. Claim: As a corollary to above, if a prophet speaks under the influence of the Holy Ghost, it is going to be God’s word and therefore be true. And we can know a prophet is inspired by the witness of the HG to us.
Reality: There are many examples where prophets claimed to be speaking under the power of the HG, and yet their teachings were later rejected.  (There are also many examples where members knew those doctrines were true through spiritual means and such has since been disavowed) Furthermore, what we deem to be spiritual promptings are suspect and inconsistent.
  1. A major problem with relying on feelings is that neither we nor a prophet can know for certain when the HG is inspiring us. Like Richard Bushman said regarding patriarchs, we are all just doing the best we can to try to recognize the voice of God.
  2. The circular reasoning behind inspiration is apparent: The Church asks us to pray to know whether its teachings are true, but insists that the Spirit will only witness what the Church teaches to be true.
  1. Claim: Doctrine, because it is eternal truth, is consistent throughout scripture and prophetic teachings.
    1. Bruce R. McConkie – “The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of any other person.”
Reality: The doctrinal teachings of scripture are not consistent. Some passages speak of God as a spirit, others refer to him as having a body of flesh and bones. So to speak of any scriptural doctrine as though scripture is univocal is unsustainable. Example: Christ preaching to spirits in prison.
  1. Claim: Doctrine, because it is eternal truth, never changes over time, and the same doctrines taught today were taught to Adam and the other ancient prophets.
a.) “Those who observe us say that we are moving into the mainstream of religion. We are not changing. The world’s perception of us is changing. We teach the same doctrine. We have the same organization.” – Gordon B. Hinckley Reality: Many doctrines have changed over time. In fact, as shown in my book, there isn’t a single major doctrine of the Church that hasn’t changed with time, especially if we go back to biblical times.
  1. The doctrinal teachings of the Bible are significantly different from those taught in the Church today, including the nature of God, preexistence, the Fall and nature of man, the afterlife, ordinances of salvation, etc.
  2. When a doctrinal change occurs, Church leaders might give one or more of the following explanations to camouflage the change, so it appears that no change has occurred: (1) the doctrine has simply broadened, (2) we have always taught it this way, (3) prior prophets were speaking as men, or (4) what changed was a policy, not a doctrine.. AND (4) IT ISN’T A CHANGE; IT IS A CLARIFICATION.  (RFM)
  3. In cases where a new doctrine is introduced that is unsupported by or contradicts the Bible, the assertion is sometimes made that it is because it was altered or removed by the great and abominable church. Biblical scholarship has shown, however, that the Bible (both Old and NT) has been passed down with reasonable integrity and that there is no major loss or change from the oldest extant texts.
Note: The fact that the Church defines Doctrine as eternal, unchanging truth makes one wonder if the Church has any doctrines at all, since virtually all of its doctrines have undergone change. Perhaps the Church should either use a different term or redefine what doctrine means.
  1. Claim: Doctrinal development (we can’t call it change) always results in progressively better doctrines. And thus God leads us towards greater light and knowledge.
    1. Joseph Fielding Smith – “It is true that a divine revelation admits of no change, but it may admit of additional knowledge or development and information….His word to man comes in steps, piecemeal, as his servants are prepared to receive it. But there will be no conflict between the part first revealed, and the latter part revealed, they will harmonize.“ Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, 470. My emphasis.470.
    2. (This view is even held by LDS intellectuals such as Terryl Givens, Sam Brown, etc.)
Reality: There is no preordained path along which doctrine unfolds to a fullness of truth. Instead there were unforeseen twists and turns, zigs and zags, which could have led to radically different outcomes. It is only the particular random forces at play that caused each doctrine to turn out like it has so far.
  1. For example the LDS doctrine of God’s nature reflected contemporary Christan ideas. Then the literalistic folk ideas encountered by JS resulted in God being given flesh and bones. Many of the teachings in the BoM (creation, eternal punishment, fate of those who die without knowledge of the gospel, second coming, etc.) also reflected contemporary ideas known to JS and were later modified as he became exposed to more literalistic and fringe religious ideas.
  2. Other doctrines are simply quietly discarded  (Lamanite identity, reasons for blacks being denied priesthood, Adam-God, Blood atonement, Polygamy necessary for exaltation,  etc.)
  3. As to whether doctrinal modification yields greater light and knowledge, we really have no way of knowing. Karen Armstrong wrote that religious ideas have “not evolved from one point and progressed in a linear fashion to a final conception. Scientific notions work like that but the ideas of art and religion do not.”
  4. One could certainly argue that the priesthood ban and introduction of plural marriage were steps backward and not forward. To its credit, the church has discarded several of its doctrines which conflict with science, but only after years of pushing back and only when the scientific view had become irrefutable and widely accepted.
  1. Claim: As promised in the 9th article of faith, we believe that God will continue to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And trying to hold back the Lord from pouring knowledge on the Saints is like holding back the mighty Missouri river by sticking your hand in it.In recent years, and as part of the ongoing restoration of all things, the Lord has been especially active in rolling out new doctrines and expanding existing ones. Pres. Nelson – “If you think the Church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There is much more to come. … Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.” Russell M. Nelson, in “Latter-day Saint Prophet, Wife and Apostle Share Insights of Global Ministry,” Oct. 30, 2018,
Reality: The kinds of things that are being “restored” are all minor and pertain to procedural and organizational issues. There is little, if any, further light and knowledge on doctrinal matters. In fact, on doctrinal matters, there has actually been a roll back, so that we know less now then we did before.
  • Lamanite identity
  • age of the earth
  • time of the second coming and millennium
  • why blacks were denied the priesthood and temple blessings
  • the general geography of the BoM
  • that plural marriage was required for the highest exaltation
  • How the BoM was translated
  • Location of Garden of Eden
  • Adam-God
  • That we would become just like God and not only get our own world but create worlds of our own
Notice that these are all doctrines that history, science and cultural pressures have caused the church to rethink. More and more, the answer to questions for which we used to have answers for is, “We don’t know” or “we don’t teach that.” It was taught to us that having prophets meant we were continually receiving new truth which was added to what we have and the reality is that by having prophets we actually are reducing the number of things we are certain about and are pulling past doctrines off the truth cart.  Hence by having prophets we know less and less compared to what we used to.
  1. Claim: we can be certain about all of our claims regarding Church doctrine, because we have the testimony of scripture, modern prophets and witness of the Holy Ghost.
Reality: These claims don’t warrant the level of certainty that leaders often place on them and which lead members to blindly accept them without investigation. It isn’t that the Church makes so many claims about doctrine that is disturbing, but the certainty they place in these claims.
  1. Consider Pres. Oak’s absolute certainty about gender being eternally determined and fixed in the recent April general conference, stating that it is “founded on irrevocable doctrine.” And this is a doctrine that isn’t found anywhere in the scriptures and collides with the lived experience of many.
  2. A few years back Peter Enns wrote a great book called “the Sin of Certainty.” In my mind, that still remains the greatest roadblock to doctrinal progress in the Church. In spite of minor improvements, there is a long way to go. How long will it take before the church relaxes its position, for example, that “gender is eternal.”
C.) Conclusion: The doctrine of LDS doctrine is a set of highly questionable truth claims that renders all other doctrines suspect.
  1. What is the future outlook for LDS doctrine? Are there any signs that Church leaders may be starting to recognize the unsustainability of these claims?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *