Discussions of Mormon doctrine often end up confusing to an outsider as they struggle to understand what the faithful believe. Many times outsiders don’t understand the nuances and possible interpretations of the faith. Most are used to specific articles and statements that define a religious sect or denomination. It is said that Mormonism is like jello; hard to pin down. There is truth in these observations because systematic theology has been rejected since at least Joseph Smith who considered the necessity to believe in creeds as objectionable. But, this hides the very real doctrines that are specific to Mormons that make it unique and its own.
A creed can be defined as a set of doctrines and teachings that must be accepted by religious believers to be a sect or denomination member. Some religious organizations are more flexible than others in what constitutes official creeds. Regardless, the point of creeds is to have a unity of faith. Even the Unitarian Universalists have a set of principles and purposes that guide the membership. Their doctrine can be summed up as spiritual based humanism. Encompassing as it sounds, this sets it apart from other religious organizations. It would be hard to believe very many Evangelical Christians or pious Muslims would be members of the organization.
There aren’t very many hard and fast rules to what can be considered Mormon doctrine, but there are enough to recognize. It might even be said that Mormons have a loose, but binding, dogma that flows from the very reason for its founding and continued existence. Outsiders are constantly bringing up doctrinal and historical teachings of the LDS Church almost without hesitation. They might be mistaken in the interpretation or critically over-dramatic in the presentation, but for the most part do notice cohesive beliefs.
This is not to say the “dogma” is necessary to be part of Mormon membership. The actual Scriptural requirements are slim and vague, especially as related to doctrine. Moroni 6 insists on changes of the heart and overall faith of the individual in general Christian concepts:
1And now I speak concerning baptism. Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.
2Neither did they receive any unto baptism save they came forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and witnessed unto the church that they truly repented of all their sins.
3And none were received unto baptism save they took upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end.
4And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.
What can be learned from this? That a Mormon must enter baptism with a repentant heart and faith in Christ. After that, they must continue to be taught the words of God so they will continue in righteousness, pray for their souls, and rely on Christ’s atonement and grace. Easy enough up to this point, but the reliance on doctrinal necessities becomes more complicated. It must be asked exactly who has the authority to baptize according to Mormon doctrine? It isn’t just anyone off the streets.
As taught in Doctrine and Covenants 42, only those ordained by recognized LDS Church authorities have authority themselves to teach and baptize:
11Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.
This section goes on to say that the mere giving of authority doesn’t mean there aren’t strings attached. An officer of the Gospel must live the commandments and have inner religious convictions that guide them, with the Scriptures as a source material:
12And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fullness of the gospel.
13And they shall observe the covenants and church articles to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit.
14And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.
Where did the LDS Church get this authority? According to the religion, not from churches that existed at its founding. The first prophet Joseph Smith Jr. could have joined any one of them, but was commanded not to by a vision of Jesus Christ who warned of the creeds they confessed without the power. They had all fallen into what is now called “The Great Apostasy” where both the fullness of the Gospel and the authority to act in the Lord’s name became lost. Those who follow this announcement farther understand that a new book of Scripture, the Book of Mormon, was soon to be made available. Parallel to the publication came the development of a Church with new authority from the Lord as given by angels who formerly were known to have the Priesthood given to them while mortal. Of course, this would be John the Baptist with Peter, James, and John known from the New Testament pages.
It almost goes without saying that one must believe the Lord gave Joseph Smith Jr. divine authority to accept the LDS Church claims. He had the First Visions that got things started, he translated the Book of Mormon that inspired him to seek out Priesthood authority, and he as a divinely appointed Prophet wrote the revelations known as the Doctrine and Covenants that are considered official canon. The Doctrine and Covenants contain the guidelines of both belief and practice for the general Mormon membership.
Going through all that is taught in the Doctrine and Covenants is a task beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the point is that what makes Mormonism can be found inside it and other Scripture pages. It might be a jumble of ideas and revelations that can be mixed and matched into several interpretive frames of reference. The lack of systematic theology is not in doubt. What can be said is that there are specific and sometimes detailed doctrines, practices, covenants, and pronouncements inside the collection. It can be argued that, given the history of Joseph Smith’s claims, no Mormon can lightly reject any of the revelations without putting into question the legitimacy of his calling. To be clear this isn’t about interpretations of his revelations. It is about the veracity of the revelations themselves. To those who might question the truth of what it says, the Doctrine and Covenants section 1 warns:
6 Behold, this is mine authority, and the authority of my servants, and my preface unto the book of my commandments, which I have given them to publish unto you, O inhabitants of the earth . . .
17 Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments . . .
29And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually . . .
Having established that Joseph Smith Jr. is the divinely appointed authority to set up the LDS Church, then it follows what he says under that authority is binding. It is true that he wasn’t always acting as a prophet in his actions and words, but he did act in that capacity. Recognizing when he was doing his prophetic duty is a matter of having faith in the canonization process. This includes a fundamental belief in the continued divine nature and authority of the Church and Priesthood organization where the member belongs. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that means a belief in the continued authority of their Apostles and Prophets and other offices. Thus, because of past authoritative dictations members can safely assume the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great price are “Standard Works” or yardsticks the faithful use to establish what constitutes Mormonism.
Despite the confusion that an non-systematic theology creates, there are some concise doctrines that can be pointed out. One of the main basic declarations of belief is the 13 Articles of Faith often recited by younger members. It has become, and not without reason because of its position as canon, a de facto Mormon creed. Its assertions of “We believe” come directly from founder, Prophet, and First Elder Joseph Smith Jr. as published in a newspaper editorial. Later LDS Church Priesthood authorities, duly recognized, included it as Scripture. Therefore it has become part of the Word of the Lord binding on the membership.
To conclude, the logic of what constitutes Mormon faith is that original Christianity had fallen into Apostasy and lost authoritative legitimacy. This was Restored to Joseph Smith Jr. by Angels (who were at one time mortal) with the Lord’s divine approval. He was called as an elder, translator, a revelatory, a seer, and a prophet (see Doct. and Cov. 124: 123-128 ) and ordained others to Priesthood offices. Only those who are under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a religious frame of mind and heart, can be called and officiate. With divine Priesthood authority the Church was established and doctrines and teachings declared the Word of the Lord binding on the Saints. Interpretation and emphasis aside, a Mormon believes a lot and is required to believe even more than they started with (see Alma 12: 9-11 ). The goal of Mormonism is to perfect faith and not compound doubt. At a minimum a Mormon should believe in the divine Priesthood authority of the LDS Church and the saving power of Jesus Christ. However, these faith concepts are the start and not the end of where a member must go in our spiritual journey.