What Is “Mormon Doctrine?”

In my first post I discussed why God was concerned with creating creeds and using them as a test of one’s allegiance to God. In my last post I explained what it means to not have creeds and gave examples of the LDS Church following that pattern. I am now prepared to tackle the question of “What is Mormon Doctrine?” To outsiders, our doctrines must seem slippery or downright fluid. It’s impossible to pin us down on anything that they care about!

What informed (semi-informed?) outsiders want to know is what our specific teachings are on all the juicy subjects they’ve heard through the anti-Mormon grapevine:

  • Was Mary really a virgin?
  • Did God once live on another planet and live a sinful life?
  • Do Mormons secretly worship other gods?
  • Do Mormons want to take over the world?
  • Do men in the LDS Church get to decide if their wives are resurrected or not?
  • Why were African Americans banned from the priesthood?

I can’t say that I blame them. Thanks to our Evangelical neighbors, a half-true version (and by this I mean “a lie”) of many of our “doctrines” has long since leaked out. Worse yet, every juicy statement made by our 19th century leaders has been carefully combed through for any bombs and all have been dropped.

Do Mormons Even Have Doctrine?

I think part of the problem is the way we misuse the word “doctrine.”

“Doctrine” actually means “what a religion teaches.” Any false teaching in our past are still a “doctrine” of ours in this sense. But as members of the Church, we don’t use the word “doctrine” that way. Somewhat protectively, we transmuted “doctrine” to mean “that which we teach which is true and will not change.” We muddy the waters further by branding “true things that change” as “policy.” But here is the rub, if “doctrine” can only mean “that which is true that cannot change” then in fact Mormons have no “doctrine” at all except for the uninterrupted statements in scripture.

Revelatory Truths vs. Doctrine

I would like to propose a different way of thinking. A while back a poster on Times and Seasons asked: “We can’t have ‘truths’ and ‘doctrines’ be separate things. Or can we?”

In fact, we can! It works like this to me:

It starts with the underlying profound truths taught in the scriptures or other revelations. We have a hard time comprehending these truths because we are so much less than God and He had to condescend to even get the basics into our heads. We believe the truth, but naturally have to form the idea about that truth into our minds as something concrete that we can wrap our minds around.

That concrete version of the truth is what gets taught (often with several competing variants) and that is our “doctrine.” Because the “doctrine” is really just an approximation of the truth, there is nothing wrong with refining or changing it later so long as the underlying truth is maintained.

This idea is not new. Nor is it mine.

Want Proof?

Despite the misuse of the word “doctrine” here, this official LDS Church statement is getting at this idea:

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This 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. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted. (link)

Think this is a modern interpretation? Guess again. Here is the same idea from B.H. Roberts back in 1907:

And yet these gentlemen [who wrote an anti-Mormon new article]… make ten long quotations from a repudiated work, and one quotation only from a work that is accepted as standard in the Church, viz., the Doctrine and Covenants! For a long time the Church has announced over and over again that her standard works in which the word of God is to be found, and for which alone she stands, are the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price. All else is commentary, and of a secondary character as to its authority, containing much that is good, much that illustrates the doctrines of the Church, and yet liable to have error in it for which the Church does not stand. (Defense of the Faith and the Saints, Volume 2, p. 296)

100 years not good enough for you? Well how about this statement from Brigham Young back in 1855! (and please forgive the racist view of Native Americans and try to understand the point he was making instead):

I am so far from believing that any government upon this earth has constitutions and laws that are perfect, that I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness.[sic] The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling [sic], sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities, as we have to do with these benighted Lamanites; it would be of no benefit to talk to them as I am now speaking to you. Before you can enter into conversation with them and give them your ideas, you are under the necessity of condescending to their low estate, so far as communication is concerned, in order to exalt them. (link)

Still not convinced? Well consider this explanation from Elder John Smith on behalf of the Church in 1835 concerning the difference between the Lectures on Faith and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants: “[he] bore record that the revelations in [the Doctrine and Covenants] were true, and that the lectures judicially were written and compiled, and were profitable for doctrine.” (History of the Church, Vol 2, 176.)

Perhaps this is what Joseph Smith meant when he said, “Why be so certain that you comprehend the things of God, when all things with you are so uncertain.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320)

Creedless in Action

Let’s give an actual application of scriptural truth vs. doctrine using some of the questions above.

If I am a 19th century Mormon who only knows about Newtonian physics, believes the universe is infinite, and believes D&C 132:20 that God will exalt us by making us gods, I would naturally envision that truth as an infinite universe proportioned amongst all previously exalted beings with a future world or two being my future charge if I am exalted. If God was once a man, I could only envision such a thing as happening a long time in the past on some world far from here. To me God being “Eternal” would simply mean that he has been God for so long that I can’t imagine it otherwise. [1]

As a 21st century Mormon familiar with post-Newtonian physics, the big bang, and the finite nature of space and time, I naturally envision this same truth as God creating the universe via a the big bang and the universe being His alone. Other exalted beings would create their own universes that I know nothing about. And if exalted myself, I imagine I’ll create universes too, not just a world or two. If God was once a man, I envision this happening in a different space and time in a different universe, thus making God — for all intents and purposes — Eternal to us for there was never a time He wasn’t God. (Yes, this is how big bang physics work; it creates time as well as space. I know we can’t comprehend it.)

Explanations of the priesthood-ban follow this pattern. In a 19th century world where the superiority of the Caucasian race and Darwinism between the races were considered scientifically proven, a question on everyone’s mind was “why would God create an inferior race?” [2] Pre-existence explanations were the only sensible conclusions. It would be natural to see the priesthood-ban in this light.

But in a modern world where eugenics has been eradicated and science has proven there are no inferior races, just inferior circumstances [3], there is no longer a need to answer why God would make an inferior race. So naturally we see the priesthood-ban more as a protection of well-meaning (but racist) beliefs of a Church body not ready for the whole truth yet.

Now consider how a 19th century Mormon might differ from a 21st century Mormon on their interpretation of these truths: God having a body, the literal Sonship of Christ, and the virgin birth?

If I’m a 19th century Mormon that is actively practicing polygamy and recently learned to reject the Catholic and Protestant notion that sexuality is for weaker believers that can’t put God first, I would be very likely to envision those truths as being a literal marriage between God and Mary and possibly even an appropriate (i.e. inside marriage) sexual act between them for the birth of Jesus. I would have to make the word “virgin” figurative here, but this is no worse than figurative interpretations of the earth as having four corners (Rev 7:1) [4]

But as a 21st century Mormon familiar with such modern wonders as in vitro fertilization, I am not likely to envision these truths as being sexual in nature but rather as a miracle similar to the wonders of modern science.

Who is right? It doesn’t matter; these are things unrevealed. This is the natural process by which we wrap our minds around an scriptural truth that may not yet be comprehendible by us. The truth is probably none of these. But these “doctrines” allows us to conceptualize the scriptural truths.


So in answer to the question: “What is Mormon Doctrine?” It is the profound truths of the scriptures mixed with an infinite and changing body of traditions allowing us to envision and conceptualize such truths.


[1] In defense of this point of view, which I don’t even share, it should be noted that the literal interpretation of the word “Eternal” in the Old Testament means “time out of mind.” See Strong’s 5769. See also Strong’s 6924 which approximately means “ancient.” In the New Testament the word “Eternal” comes from the Strong’s 166 and 165 which mean “an age.” I have no idea if this is significant or not. But in any case, the Bible literally leaves open the possibility of Eternity not being forever. This might just be a language issue.

[2] For more information on this topic, I would highly recommend Jennifer Burn’s excellent American History podcast available through U.C. Berekley. Professor Burns brings to light the wide spread belief during the 19th century of the Darwinian struggle between races and even, to a lesser degree, eugenics. Amongst other things, this belief was used to justify sterilizing a retarded white woman to remove her from the gene pool and protect the white race. Such beliefs were considered scientifically proven and the great scientific minds of the time supported it. So widespread were these beliefs that even people dedicating their lives to help the African American’s still considered them an inferior race. Even the best of them were racist by today’s standards.

[3] The studies used to disprove that African Americans had a genetic mental inferiority were done by studying African American’s raised by Caucasian parents. This group performed exactly the same as other Caucasian children. This indicated overwhelming evidence that any statistical difference detected up to that point was in fact environmental in nature only.

[4] Contrary to anti-Mormon smears, I’ve never actually found a definitive quote from 19th century Mormons leaders confirming a belief in a sexual act between a sealed Mary and God. Brigham Young is usually quoted here, but he never confirms this belief. It seems to me that he was strongly hinting at it, but never came out and said it. I am here only postulating that some did believe this, though I do not know for certain. My point is only that such a belief, from their point of view, would certainly be natural. It does not strike me as offensive even though I personally don’t believe it. Believing God was married to Mary and then went to heaven and she then married Joseph would be no more offensive to a 19th century Mormon mind that a widow remarrying would be.

13 thoughts on “What Is “Mormon Doctrine?”

  1. Bruce, there is another interesting case to consider. In the early 1950s, President McKay told a prominent Church member that the priesthood ban was not doctrine but instead current Church policy. This conversation was later confirmed by President McKay’s family as President McKay was dying. President McKay prayed regularly to overturn the priesthood ban but interpreted the answer to be that the time was not during his lifetime. I think the difference between doctrine and policy is important and helps explain the priesthood ban for our times.

  2. I hope you don’t take this as an “anti-Mormon smear”, but, regarding your footnote #4, you don’t even have to look at 19th century Mormon leaders to confirm the teaching that Jesus’ mortal body was literally sired by God the Father. Here’s a quote from a fireside address delivered by President Benson in 1979 and re-circulated in the Ensign at least as recently as 2001:

    “I am bold to say to you, … Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the most literal sense. The body in which He performed His mission in the flesh was sired by that same Holy Being we worship as God, our Eternal Father. He was not the son of Joseph, nor was He begotten by the Holy Ghost. He is the Son of the Eternal Father!”

    — Ezra Taft Benson, “Five Marks of the Divinity of Jesus Christ”, Ensign, Dec 2001, p. 8

  3. Nice post. I think what you have proposed is a good way to deal with principles, laws, concepts, ideas, etc. — the abstract stuff — which our evangelical friends tend to get hung-up on.

    I do believe, however, that certain events and, to a lesser extent, actions constitute immovable pillars of doctrine in the grand scheme.

    God created the universe.
    God atoned for our sins.
    God visited Joseph Smith.
    The Book of Mormon was translated by the power of God.
    God reveals his will today through his appointed servants.
    We must have faith in Jesus Christ.
    We must repent.
    We must be baptized
    We must receive the Holy Ghost.
    We must endure to the end.

  4. I should add…

    This is where there is so much confusion between Mormons and most of the Christian world regarding doctrine. Our sense of religious identity is built more on a foundation of events while our friends’ is built more on a foundation of ideas — I think.

  5. Apparently Joey doesn’t believe Jesus was the literal son of God,
    or he really doesn’t understand what “sired” means (in other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean sex was involved).

    If you’re implying that Elder Benson stated that Jesus was conceived through an act of sex, you’re way off. As stated above, it’s entirely possible to be a father (or a mother) without sex.

  6. Church doctrine should be more accurately defined as “what the Church officially teaches today”. Anything the Church doesn’t currently teach and hasn’t taught for same time cannot be said to be “the doctrine of the Church”. It might have been the doctrine of the Church in the past, but something the Church doesn’t teach anymore can hardly be said to be the doctrine of the Church today. True, false, questionable, ambiguous – doesn’t matter.

    Furthermore the idea that the term “doctrine” should be regarded as synonymous with the term “true teaching” borders on mental infirmity. What then is “false doctrine”? A “false true teaching”?

  7. Joey Day,

    Tim sort of already covered this, but my whole point in the footnote is that all the quotes people give out about Mormons believing in a specific sex act never actually say that specifically — just like the quote you used doesn’t.

    Does this mean that President Benson wasn’t thinking that or was he just showing a bit of circumspection? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask President Benson to be sure.

  8. Geoff,

    If you’ve ever read the Adventures of a Church Historian, Arrington actually does a quick historical treatment on the facts you laid out. It is true that many prophets have said the priesthood ban was policy, not “doctrine” per se. But they still felt it was so deeply entrenched in so many ways that they weren’t allowed to over turn it without a revelation. (In fact, there was a temporary period of time where it was overturned without a revelation only to be reinstated days later because the President of the Church felt a revelation was needed.)

  9. As a 21st century Mormon familiar with post-Newtonian physics, the big bang, and the finite nature of space and time

    The existence of the Big Bang and finiteness of space and time have not been established to the level where anyone is justified as referring to those propositions as “scientific truth”. Nor has the theory of general relativity for that matter.

    What I mean by that is that there are alternative theories that account for all the experimental evidence (including scalar, Euclidean theories of space and time). Until those theories are falsified, one cannot even begin to refer to the received alternative as some sort of fact.

    The Big Bang is particularly obnoxious, because it is the theory that at one point in the past, everything we know about physics (conservation of energy, for example) was wrong. It is the creatio ex nihilo theory of modern physics.

  10. Mark D, I think you are kind of missing the point. Bruce is laying out what the general cultural perspective is, not providing a complete scientific survey of cosmic evolution in one or two sentences.

    By the way, I agree with you that the Big Bang is problematic from a Mormon perspective, but it is nonetheless what most people believe today. That may change in 30-40 years.

  11. Mark D,

    Geoff explained it. My point is only that we change our interpretations of the abstract truths in scripture as we understand our world differently.

    However, if the “big bang” does turn out to be correct (or some form of it) I would not personally be surprised. Nor would I see it as being at odds with Mormon Doctrine.

  12. Geoff B, I know it is largely beside the point. I just brought it up because it annoys me when not particularly well established (if commonly accepted) scientific theories are treated that way. And of all theories the evidence we have for the Big Bang is wildly circumstantial in nature.

    Aside from any theological implications, the universe popping into existence seems problematic as a physical theory to me. It is a causality violation of the first magnitude.

    Of course the divine multi-verse theory doesn’t have that problem, since you have a First Cause for each universe of sorts. William of Ockham would be impressed. Classical Mormon metaphysics + First Cause = Ockham’s view of the world.

  13. I look at it this way:

    We have foundational doctrines and principles. Upon these are built other teachings, rules, guidelines, policy, etc.

    Foundational doctrines do not ever change. The principle, Faith in Christ, is unchanging. The ordinance/doctrine of receiving the Holy Ghost is unchanging. The methods in achieving these, however, could change.

    Since we do not view all teachings as equal, it causes non-LDS (and many LDS) some consternation. However, it is the only way to have a Church with continuing revelation. It MUST be fluid, at least on some level. We will not ever change foundational doctrine (can you imagine a Christian Church that does not have faith in Christ?).

    That said, it seems that most of our teachings are NOT foundational or core doctrine/principles. This leaves us very fluid, and therefore without a systematic theology. Jack’s list is one of core doctrines and principles that will not change. But the “etc” does not go on forever.

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