On Doctrine

Greg is one of our frequent commenters, a thoughtful lawyer with an intense interest in what constitutes "doctrine," and what its significance is. His insightful questions and comments often irrupt into threads on various doctrinal concepts related to evolution. One of my comments in response became so long, I decided to promote it to a post in order to provide a place for more focused discussion of this question. This appears somewhat midstream in a series of exchanges across several threads, but I don't know that I can easily find or summarize what has gone before. Hence I simply begin here by meeting Greg on his own turf, trying an analogy with the law. (For more competent discussions along these lines by a real lawyer, explore the posts by Nate Oman at Times and Seasons.) Greg, eat your heart out!

I recognize that the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine, but I also believe that what is "official," or "canonized," or bound in leather at any given time is not pristine, perfected, glistening and crystalline Truth, but only a community's best collective judgment and perception of it, based on many complex factors I will not get into. I don't dispute that there has to be some sort of order, some mechanism for settling things (at least provisionally) for a community to cohere. I suspect, however, that the fact that it does not always represent the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth is historically demonstrable.

Where does this leave me, operationally, with notions of keys and authority and doctrine? Trying to play in your pond, here is my analogy with the law.

The Supreme Court settles "doctrine" and creates precedents that other courts must respect, for the sake of order. But this does not mean these are immune to refinement or utterly irreversible. There are law schools and think tanks where discussions rage and new ideas form. Either vertically, "up the chain of command" through appellate proceedings; or horizontally, through direct influence by way of law review articles, amicus briefs, or informal consultations, such discussions may end up influencing extensions, revisions, and (rarely) reversals by the Supreme Court of their own "doctrine."

Now, to "cash out" the analogy's application to the Church: the leading councils are like the Supreme Court. Their settled positions are accepted for the purposes of official Church discourse (and, for behavioral standards, Church membership). This means that in Sacrament Meeting talks, Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society discussions, and other "official" venues, I stick to the accepted positions (similar to courts respecting established precedent). But we know historically that "settled" on a time scale of years may still be "provisional" on longer time scales of decades and centuries. Moreover, experience with the real world sometimes suggests that Doctrine is not equivalent to Truth. Hence around the dinner table, and at other unofficial venues formal (e.g. magazines) and otherwise (e.g. blogs), discussion proceeds, in analogy to law schools, think tanks, etc. Some of the results of such discussions influence doctrine through vertical channels, either directly via private discussions between leaders at different levels of the hierarchy, or (probably more often in the Church) through promotion of leaders carrying their private views into office. There is probably some horizontal influence as well (though not as much as in the case of law reviews and amicus briefs in the legal setting), through consideration of the work of trusted and faithful scholars (I'll avoid the radioactive word "intellectuals" here).

A glaring omission here is the role of revelation. I don't know if any of the classical muses were associated with jurisprudence, but perhaps the notion of "revelation" might be accommodated in the legal analogy by creative legal genius divining a "right to privacy" from whole cloth, or deriving Brown v. Board of Education from a footnote in a case on the interstate commerce of milk (as I recall Nate Oman's description). Even with this omission, however, I think the description above captures something of the workaday realities of doctrinal "evolution." (My apologies for the pun---or, maybe not!)



As for limitations that might be placed on prophets and apostles to write down revelation, check out this from Asimov about the creation.


Posted by Mike Wilson

4/21/2005 09:29:00 AM  

That's clever, Mike. I'd quibble on the question of how much "extra" prophets know but choose only to reveal in a simplified way, or whether it's God doing the watering down before allowing prophets to disseminate it.

Also along the lines of that link, the large (almost tedious) proportion of time devoted to creation in the endowment conveys a feeling for how long  it took. Not literally scaled, that would be impossible; but still, it conveys a sense that it took an awful long time. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/21/2005 10:02:00 AM  

Perhaps "revelation" could be likened to either a Constitutional amendment or new legislative material -- i.e., legal authority which the court cannot in itself generate, but which it is charged with interpreting and applying.

Or maybe the metaphors getting a little overextended. 

Posted by Nathan

4/21/2005 01:52:00 PM  

Yes, Nathan, that does capture the notion of something beyond the Court's own intrinsic authority.

It also shows a breakdown in the analogy to the American constitutional system. In the Church there are no checks and balances, no separation of powers. The leading councils perform legislative, executive, and and  judicial functions. Another difference, discussed in a post by Nate Oman, is that the American system has a pretty strong, clear, and clean textual tradition beginning with the Constitution, while the Church's pattern is more like the British system (I can't remember exactly what he called it, maybe Common Law?): a messier mix of various texts and traditions. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/22/2005 04:09:00 AM  

Christian - thanks for somewhat of a promotion. I don't have a lot of time right now, but, I would appreciate a substantive list of "Truths" vs. "Doctrines" in the history of the Restored Church so that I can apply yours and my views to them. We all know about "Adam/God". From my perspective, that was "privately held," and, contrary to both Scripture and public teachings of Pres. Young himself. Also, it took many years in the early part of the Church for some Truths to merge into Doctrine, and vice-versa, so, lets focus on the "mature" Church of the 20th century and beyond, after the Restored Church emerged from puberty and young-adult hood. An undertone here seems to be that "alternate voices" are an essential subculture ordained by God to steady the ship and trim the sails. I am far from convinced of that, so, an exchange may teach me things I don't know. Thanks for listening. 

Posted by Greg

4/22/2005 03:50:00 PM  

[Also posted at Spinozist Mormon Guy's Rambling Thoughts Blog]

One question is whether or not doctrine serves primarily a coordinating function -- which I take it is what you argue here -- or whether or not it has epistemic as opposed to merely institutional authority. Here, I think that your analysis is unduly caught up on the issue of infallibility and the relationship of doctrine to "Truth." First, one may affirm that Church doctrine has epistemic authority -- ie provides us with privileged access to knowledge of the divine -- without also affirming that it is infallible. By rough analogy, I might say that a Noble prize winning physicist's statements with regard to physics are entitled to epistemic authority without also affirming that his statements with regard to physics are infallible. Second, there is clearly some notion of Truth that is kicking around in the assumptions of your discussions about doctrine. What exactly is it? How certain are we that it is the right one?

In my view the concept of Church doctrine presents two major questions: 1. How do I identify what it is; and, 2. How do I understand its authority. I take it that our usage implies both that it is identifiable and in some sense authoritative. Any adequate theory is going to have to address both questions in my humble opinion.

With regard to Greg's concern about sub silento justification for a shift steadyiers and sail trimmers ("Look! We really are important afterall!"), as a sometime author of amicus briefs and law review articles, I can confidently say that they are generally ignored and have little or not influence. 

Posted by Nate Oman

4/24/2005 08:32:00 AM  

[My principal quibbles with Nate's comment are that the term "Rambling Thoughts Blog" is pretty much redundant, given the nature of the medium, but even so seems to give my blog too much credit; and that even if amicus briefs and law review articles have no influence, we can at least be comforted that Nate will carry his private views with him onto the bench and into office. The less substantive response to Nate's comment is given below. I thought it would be safe on this particular post to open comments in both places, but now I think I might have been mistaken.]

Nate, my teasing apart of Doctrine and Truth, and my keeping the epistemic authority of doctrine at arm's length, arise from two factors. One is the particular rhetorical context out of which this post arose, and the second is my concern about the validity of the alleged bases for knowing that prophetic statements correspond to ontological reality.

First, the particular rhetorical context: On the evolution blog there are those who want to defend propositions at variance with scientific ideas having substantial empirical support. For example, some may argue for a paradisiacal Earth with no death whatsoever until Adam's fall 6000 years ago, and use 2 Ne. 2 to defend it. I may wish to argue that the context and specific language ("from what I have read I must needs suppose...") of 2 Ne. 2 suggest that this is Lehi expressing his best opinion and reading of the scriptures, as taught in his personal family home evening, but that it's not Truth, because it contradicts abundant physical evidence. Now because I respect the status of the scriptures as canonical doctrine, I'm not going to make this argument while teaching Gospel Doctrine class; but in this case distinguishing Doctrine from Truth allows me to maintain integrity and sanity while respectfully participating in the official discourse. ("What is Truth?" is a question for the ages; here in this limited rhetorical context you can see I'm referring to a paricular very limited subset: propositions with substantial empirical support.)

There are several reasons for being careful about the epistemic authority of prophetic statements. For one thing, there are numerous disclaimers in the scriptures themselves against infallibility of the scriptures, that acknowledge the fact of imperfect human intermediaries and their culture. Beyond that, I think our revelatory touchstones for prophetic authority (e.g. D&C 1:37-38, D&C 21, and D&C 28), while affirming the unalloyed prerogative of the prophet to speak for the Church, can nevertheless be read as falling short of endorsement of the ontological correctness of prophetic statements (a subject for another post, as this comment is getting quite long). They clearly affirm what you call the "coordinating function," but arguably leave the epistemic authority in question.

Clear scriptural warrants for epistemic correctness seem to be limited to (1) ratification by the Holy Ghost (Mor. 10:3-5, D&C 68:4), which can only be identified and corroborated on an individual basis, and (2) direct sensory witness (e.g. handling the body of Christ). I have concerns with both of these that temper my enthusiasm for assumptions of epistemic authority: social conditioning in the case of (1), and inaccesibility of the witnesses in time, space, and/or openness to cross-examination for (2).

As far as "What is Doctrine?", I think the modern answer is "That which is correlated at present." Frustration at the fact that this is a moving target is ameliorated by allowing for some daylight between authority over official discourse and epistemic authority.

This may seem strange, but might make some sense from the perspective that what God is testing us on is not an ability to correctly ascertain the ontological realities of the universe in their fullness, but an ability to charitably relate to him and a Zion community. (Of course, some of the former is needed to be able to do the latter. And I don't deny that your analogy with authoritative physicists may be useful too.) 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/24/2005 04:39:00 PM  

Greg: A "substantive list of "Truths" vs. "Doctrines" in the history of the Restored Church" is beyond the scope of this comment, and post, and blog (which is to say, I'm too lazy and incompetent to do it right now). Also, it's beyond my capability as I cannot apprehend all Truth. For the purposes of this blog, as time goes by I'd be interested in comparing a restricted subset of Doctrine with a very restricted subset of Truth, i.e. that which relates to evolution that has substantial empirical support.

However I will say that it might always be tempting to see one's own era as the "mature" one. But we still have seen significant changes in our lifetime, for example the lifting of the priesthood ban, and a change in attitude on birth control between an official First Presidency letter in 1969 (the year I was born) to the current statement in the handbook, also available in the new book True to the Faith published by the Church.  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/24/2005 04:49:00 PM  



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