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What doctrine is, what doctrine isn’t… (not what is doctrine, what isn’t doctrine)

Posted by joespencer on January 17, 2007

Under the heading “Teach the Saving Doctrines and Ordinances of the Gospel,” the Church Handbook of Instructions says:

The Savior focused His teaching on the saving doctrines and ordinances of the gospel (see, for example, 3 Nephi 27:16-20). Teachers should teach only the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the scriptures and the teachings off the latter-day prophets (see D&C 19:31-32; 52:9). Speculative or controversial teachings are not appropriate.

The question as to what doctrine is and isn’t was raised recently in another thread, and it seems to me an important enough topic to take up in a thread all its own. Now, I have my own opinion on what we mean when we say “doctrine,” but I will leave that out of this post (though I’m sure I’ll end up explaining it during the course of the comments that follow). For now, I want to focus just on this quotation itself.

First things first, one must notice that the title and paragraph never use the word “doctrine.” Rather they use the word “doctrines.” (I should note, also, that under the section “Leaders’ Responsibilities for Effective Teaching” there are several instances of “They ensure that teaching is effective and doctrinally correct.”) A first point, then: doctrines are the concern, not doctrine. The handbook, then, seems ultimately not to appeal to some sort of absolute systematization of all truth under one canopy called “doctrine.”

Second, each of the two times the word “doctrines” shows up (once in the title, once in the paragraph), it is qualified by the word “saving.” This seems to imply that there are different classes of “doctrines”: there are at least “saving doctrines” and “non-saving doctrines.” I think we are all familiar with this distinction, because we’ve all heard “That isn’t necessary for my salvation.” So, whatever doctrines are, there are those that accomplish the work of salvation, and there are those that do not. And, as is quite clear in the quotation, teachers are to focus on those that accomplish the work of salvation. (Obviously, this brief discussion of the point ignores the question of what is meant by salvation here.)

Third, there is a pairing of “doctrines” with “ordinances.” That is, “saving” qualifies both of these things together. Just as much as one should teach the doctrines, one should teach the ordinances, and just as much as one should teach the ordinances, one should teach the doctrines. To some extent, there seems to be an implication that the doctrines are closely connected with the ordinances, that they are interrelated somehow (I suppose I’m suggesting that because these two are paired, there is a hint here as to how “doctrines” and perhaps as to how “saving” should be interpreted).

Fourth, the use of the word “teachings” is interesting in the paragraph. For example, it replaces what one might expect to be the word “doctrines” in the last sentence: “Speculative or controversial teachings are not appropriate.” There is, then, no mention of “false doctrine” or “false doctrines,” but rather “speculative or controversial teachings.” It is not quite clear whether there should be some distance felt between the word “doctrines” and the word “teachings,” or whether they should be roughly equated. Certainly, “teachings” is not disparaged, since it is used in the quotation for the “teachings” of the latter-day prophets. Due to the etymological meaning of the word “doctrines” (it means, quite literally, “teachings”), there is some question here of interpretation.

Four issues I’ve raised, and at least four questions I’d like to think about:
#1. What should we read into the non-use of the word “doctrine,” and the use of the word “doctrines”?
#2. What is a “saving doctrine” as opposed to a “non-saving doctrine,” and what sense of “salvation” underlies this?
#3. How are ordinances connected with doctrines, and how might they help us think about what “doctrines” are?
#4. What is the relation between “doctrines” and “teachings”?

Perhaps a fifth question: Are the ambiguities in the Handbook purposeful, so as to allow for local deliberation on these sorts of questoins? That is, is the interpretation of this paragraph ultimately up to the leader who is to make sure that teachings are “doctrinally correct”? If so or if not, how should a teacher approach questions of doctrine?

20 Responses to “What doctrine is, what doctrine isn’t… (not what is doctrine, what isn’t doctrine)”

  1. Geoff J said

    Are the ambiguities in the Handbook purposeful

    Probably yes.

  2. Matt W. said

    It doesn’t seem ambiguous to me, it says Teach only what the Scriptures say and what “latter-day prophets” say in official publications. Of Course this means no more quoting seventies, general relief society presidents, or members of the presiding bishopric in class…

    We resently had a discussion of what doctrine is over at New Cool Thang. I learned alot.

  3. douglashunter said

    Matt#2- but what are the parameters? For some of us the idea of teaching only what the Scriptures “say” raises a few different issues such as the modern / post-modern tension that Joe raised in another thread. It also brings the issue of interpertation front and center, that is, how do we know what the scriptures “say”?

    Can you provide a link to the new cool thang discussion? I’ll look for it myself but a link is always welcome.

  4. Matt W. said

    Here ya go.

    A challenge I have, and hope to overcome this year is that opening the scriptures in my class
    (16 to 17 year olds) is tantamount to self destruction, as the kids seem to “turn off” when we do this.

  5. Two points in response to Matt W.

    First, that the paragraph does not mention “in official publications” is precisely the sort of ambiguity I am talking about. For that matter, it does not say “presidents of the Latter-day Saint Church,” so that “prophets” is itself ambiguous. I think Douglas is right ask what the parameters are.

    Second, I am convinced that kids (especially 14-18 year olds) “turn on” precisely when the scriptures are taken seriously. My experience with youth (a couple of years of teaching seminary students, two years in the YM program, etc.) is that they “turn off” when the scriptures are treated marginally, are treated as a source for the same old ideas they have heard. Try this sometime: have your students open their scriptures to 1 Nephi 1:1. Have someone start reading. They pick up that droning voice they always get and the class begins to stare at the wall. As soon as the student has read “I, Nephi” say abruptly and quite loudly: “Stop!” Follow immediately with a series of questions about those two words: “Why mention his name?” “Why would he begin with ‘I’ when almost no one does that in the Old Testament?” “Why does Nephi both to summarize his life when he is writing about God?” etc. Reject simplistic answers, force them to think. Then let the student begin reading again, “having been born…” “Stop! Why would he tell us about his birth?” “Why does he say ‘having been born’ instead of ‘I, Nephi, was born’?” And on and on.

    When I taught the Book of Mormon to an all-senior early morning class (all 17-18 years old, and the class that had driven out a dozen teachers in three years; I was told, by the way, that they hated the gospel, the scriptures, etc., and the only way to teach was to play enough games that they didn’t hate you), we spent the first three days on this first verse, picking apart every word. The rest of the year was golden (I think I did have to say “Please you two, quiet down” once during the year), and they were so involved in the scriptures. We never played a single game, did only one “activity,” had no handouts, or anything like that. We came every morning and buried ourselves in the scriptures, picking apart everything.

    If this was an isolated incident, I’d pass it off as such, but this has been universal. I think the scriptures are precisely what the kids want.

    But I probably should have posted this to the other thread (what does a 16-17 year-old mean…).

  6. Rob Osborn said

    Very good post Joe!

    First off I like the paragraph you cited from the handbook of instructions. There is an issue though of how we distinguish between something that is in the scriptures and what is in say a manual. The manual is not scripture even though it may highlight what past and living prophets say. The problem arises when we discuss the saving principles of the gospel fromt the scriptures only to be refuted by the manual itself! For instance-

    In deacon’s quorum about a year ago or so we were talking about sin and it’s consequences. I drew a simple diagram on the board showing a simplified version of the saving plan of salvation and that all sin must be conquered. God does not allow sin. I then spoke that if one hasn’t repented of his sinful things, great or small, he must be cast off into outer darkness. This “is a saving doctrine” as found in the scriptures. But then it was also brought up that there would be a different salvation for those who could not live worthy to perfection. The problem is though, that doctrine of salvation (differing degrees) is not found in the scripture, in fact there is only “one type” of salvation spoken of and it must include “ordinances”.

    One of my complaints has always been that if a person is saved from the devil, but is not saved into the Celestial kingdom, exactly what are the “saving ordinances” for those people. I have heard answers from everything like “well they suffer for their own sins and become cleansed that way” or “well they did accept the gospel, but only after seeing that there was no other way in spirit prison, therfor they will still be damned”. Neither of those two “doctrines” are found in the scriptures. In fact, to some, they could be considered a “speculative or controversial” teachings.

    One of the most common things that is almost “always” left out of teaching the plan of salvation, is that in order to receive “salvation” from the devil for anyone, spirit prison included, one “must accept the gospel” and show obedience to “saving ordinances” like repentance and baptism! There is no other way that man can be saved from the devil an his eternal doom. Problem is though, I can’t teach that doctrine because it is not what we of the church have generally “interpreted” to be true. But in so doing, we unknowingly contradict ourselves and our very guidelines for teaching itself!

    It is definatly a mind boggling paradox that we have created for ourselves- teach only what the scriptures say and what the prophets teach even though they might not always mesh with each other and end up being a thing of genuine speculation and controversy!

    I am in favor of just teaching out of the scriptures as a collective whole rather than rely on what others have said or what might be in the teaching manual when it doesn’t jive with the scriptures!

  7. Rob Osborn said

    BTW,3 Nephi 27:16-20 (quoted in your citation) is the most pure doctrine in the scriptures- now if only we truly believed and taught it exactly as it is spoken. Repent and be baptised and hold out faithful til the end (last judgment) or be cast off into perdition to die the second death! Truly, why do we not teach that doctrine? ……..Makes one truly wonder that we just might be missing the bigger picture!

  8. I think, Rob, that you are reading the implications of the Handbook correctly. That is, I think the idea of “saving doctrines” is one of an either-or decision, and I think that is what is probably meant in the Handbook. I suppose I am inclined to relate the injunction there to Alma’s injunction to teach only faith and repentance (and baptism). 3 Nephi 27:16-20 IS a perfect example of this.

    Rob also brings up the question of manuals, which I’m surprised we haven’t come up against, yet. That is a whole different topic for me, one that I deal with far more often than the present one. If there is interest in that topic, it might be worth bringing up the issue on a thread of its own.

  9. Matt W. said

    (Joe, I am pondering trying this approach of intense scriptural analysis. We’ll see how it goes. Sorry for the threadjack.)

  10. Robert C. said

    Joe #8: I agree that how one reads the Handbook is much different than how one reads a manual. And I think the best way to approach both of these questions, as well as the question of what doctrine is, is in terms of community.

    The Handbook is not written for the general Church community, only the community of leaders (bishops and stake presidents?). Since I’m not part of that community of leaders, it doesn’t really matter how I think the Handbook should be interpreted. What matters to me is how my bishop interprets that manual, what he thinks is speculative and controversial, and perhaps what other members in my ward think is speculative and controversial. Now, I might be able to change the mind of my bishop or others by appealing to scriptures and what not, but no matter how right I think I may be (or I “actually” may be, if you believe there is such a thing), it is irrelevant: if my bishop and stake president think I am speculative and controversial, I am–in the most relevant, though not necessarily “correct,” sense of the word–speculative and controversial. As a member of my ward community, I think it is very important that I show respect to the recognized leader of this community (and this is where I think there are lots of interesting questions about what the roles of the different ward members in the ward community are).

    Regarding “preaching nothing save faith and repentance,” I’m very curious to hear others’ thoughts on this. Should this be applied only to missionaries or to Sunday teachers and speakers also? If it applies to Sunday teachers, how does Joe’s teaching approach of asking why Nephi started with a careful deconstruction of “I, Nephi” square with this? I’m sure there are many who would say asking questions of the text is very speculative b/c we can’t answer such questions confidently–all we have is the text of the scriptures and we should just take the plainest meaning of those words, where plainest can be take as whatever reinforces (or “builds our testimony”) of what we basically already know about faith and repentance. If the goal is to avoid controversy and speculation, it seems it is better for us to stick to General Authority interpretations or Church-correlated material that tells us what confusing scriptures mean. (To be clear, this isn’t my view, I’m just posing the question to hear how others would respond….)

  11. Well, I’ll respond to Robert #10, even though I’d very much like to hear other opinions on this subject first (I’m so impatient).

    I don’t believe the injunction to preach nothing save faith and repentance means that you are to teach only the SUBJECTS of faith and repentance, but that whatever subject you teach, you must accomplish the sole task of building faith and calling to repentance. I imagine that Alma’s little church in the wilderness didn’t have any manuals, but they did have the scriptures. That is, they did not have a particular subject matter to teach, and they did not have a string of interrelated scriptures they were to draw on (not to mention the stories, the examples, the object-lessons, etc.). As a result, I imagine that his priests and teachers did what most preachers did in the Christian tradition for a very long time: they took up a particular text somewhere in the scriptures, and they explored it in an attempt to build faith and call to repentance.

    So when I spent three days teaching the first verse of Nephi, I never at all suggested that we had an absolute knowledge of anything we were saying (in fact, I made the kids to ALL the thinking; they didn’t have answers from me really at all). The point of the exercise was to force the kids to think about the words, to look carefully at the meaning of phrases, to analyze the structure of the verse, to think critically about connections elsewhere in the scriptures, etc. But we never came up with any answers. The three days, however, were very faith-promoting (the kids began to realize that there is a lot more in the scriptures than they had ever thought, and they began to have a very real faith in word: they trusted that the scriptures–that God–had something to say to them and that they should open their ears to hear it), and the kids began to repent (to turn, that is, to the scriptures again, to seek understanding, to change their behavior in class and out of class–as I began to hear very quickly from parents and leaders, even within the first week of teaching). I don’t know that I even had to say “faith” or “repentance,” but the aim of the whole experience was to embody, right in class, both faith and repentance, and the kids grew in faith and repented, though the subject was never faith or repentance.

    In a sense, isn’t this tied to the injunction against the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture? If we take as our text “faith” or “repentance” or whatever topic, haven’t we begun with a philosophy, a concept, etc., and then when we go to the scriptures we are mingling those philosophies (which stick around) with scripture. Rather, we should be teaching/learning scripture (the actual text), mingled with the philosophies of men: we should be buried in the text itself, reading it for all it is worth, and then we should be taking up the things we have always been taught, etc., and questioning them according to the text itself. So it seems to me.

  12. Robert C. said

    Intresting response, Joe (#11), similar I think to the tack I would take. I esp. like your point about repentance being, fundamentally, a questioning process of our own presuppositions.

    The next question I’m particularly interested in is Joe’s question #3 about the paired usage of “saving doctrines and ordinances.” To beat Joe to the linguistic-deconstruction punch, it seems historically the Hebrew chuqqah is what is used in the OT to mean ordinances, a word which in Hebrew also can mean “statute, limit, enactment, something prescribed” (I’ll leave the English etymology for Joe or others…). Also, it seems it is often translated “custom” which I think is very intereting b/c it adds an historical-context connotation. All of this, I think, points to trying to understand the meaning of not only what we typically think of as ordinances (sacrament, baptism, temple ordinances, etc.), but also commandments that are perhaps more historically-based than “eternal, unalterable, unchanging” doctrines–like the Word of Wisdom for example, something I don’t think I have a very good handle on the original D&C 89 meaning of (see the wiki for some fairly recent discussion), but I do think there are ways that the Word of Wisdom has taken on cultural and historical meaning (e.g. symbolic of our willingness to do whatever is asked of us, even if we don’t understand all the reasons–I’m thinking/hoping Joe will disagree with me here…).

  13. Robert C. said

    Quick addendum to #12: I think that the “doctrines and ordinances” would generally be taken to mean the covenants that we take upon ourselves at baptism and renew with the sacrament and further in the temple, which are that we will strive to keep the commandments, repent of our sins when we don’t (and be willing to be corrected by our leaders as needed), yada yada. Again, since this is “just” a Handbook, I’m not sure it’s meaning should be taken to be much more specific or nuanced than this (I think Matt’s post linked to in #4 makes this point, that the Handbook is agreed to by common consent).

    On a related note, I read an interesting blog post somewhere (I thought it was at BCC but can’t find it…) questioning the notion of “covenants we make at baptism.” I’d be interested in hearing more thoughts on that topic. In short, the idea is that we don’t, for example, nod our head and say yes and agree to do something specific when we our baptized, so in what sense are we really making a conscious covenant?

  14. Rob Osborn said

    Robert #13,

    The covenant we make at baptism is repenatnce and willingness to obey all that God commands us to do. If we end up breaking a temple covenant or priesthood covenant later on in life, all we really do is break our own baptismal covenant. When we are interviewed before baptism, we must come clean of our past sins and be in a repentant state. As we do this we accept the atonement in our behalf. A covenant is really nothing more than a promise. The promise we make to god is that we are willing to give up a sinful life in turn for his atoneing power in our lives. It is a covenant because both sides make promises, either inward or outward, that certain principles will be met. For us it is a promise that we will take upon the name of Jesus Christ. For God it is a promise that he will lift us up at the last day. According to the “guide to the scriptures”, it states that a covenant is “an agreement between God and man”.

    What I find interesting about covenants is that all men must enter into covenant with the lord in order to be pulled out of the devils grasp. We don’t just yell help me and suddenly he is going to bring us out of that wrath with no strings attached. He may help us find the way to bring ourselves to the door where he can help, but then we must obey his command to repent and be baptized. This is the covenant that brings us out of the devils grasp, it is the door for which we enter into salvation.

    Salvation could not possibly come to us without a covenant made. Or in other words- Salvation could not possibly come to us without reaching an agreement with god as to why he should save us from the devils grasp. The agreement (covenant) is that we will be obedient to god’s commands, which include faith, repenatnce and baptism in turn that god will agree to save us from further wrath.

  15. Robert C. said

    All: I noticed this post at BCC which gives an explicit list of specific doctrines which are not endorsed by the Church as declared by SWK.

    Rob #14: I think you’re right in describing the common view in the Church, and there are more scriptures about this than the blog I referred to let on. Thinking about this deepens my appreciation for how uniquely Mormon this notion of making a covenant at baptism is. I think the lack of Paul’s writing on this topic in particular can explain a lot of why the rest of Christianity has differing views on this (incl. infant baptism in particular).

    But I’m not so sure about a couple things. First, is this view you describe the way that covenants are described in the scriptures? The Abrahamic “Covenant” for example seems to be an unconditional covenant to me (he didn’t promise God anything in return). Also, I think the NT, Paul esp., uses the term covenant in a way that is a one-way unconditional promise like the Abrahamic Covenant. These scriptural precedents make me question the way I’ve typically read this in the D&C, esp. regarding the new and everlasting covenant… (though the “I the Lord am bound when you do what I say, but when you do not what I say ye have no promise” passage seems to support the view you’ve described).

  16. I read the baptismal covenant quite a bit different from Rob, and I imagine from most. I think what is most important about baptism is the typology and the enactment at work in the ordinance. Typologically, the one baptized is Christ, dying, being buried, and resurrecting. That this is acted out is so significant because in baptism one acts as Christ, acts in the name of Christ, in fact, takes upon oneself the name of Christ (as an actor/actress takes on the name of the part he/she plays). What I think this accomplishes is this: the baptized becomes, typologically, the Son (a son of God, and thus may all become my sons, etc., sort of thing). If one becomes the Son, or a son/daughter, then one is inscribed within the family in a very direct relation to the Father (a relation that is then sealed by the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and of the Son, when the gift is given). One is, in baptism, inscribed within the play of the Trinity (I know I’m departing from the comfort zone of some by using that language, but I think it is the best way to understand it). The Holy Ghost binds one, as the Son/son/daughter, to the Father. This is the point of Romans 8-9, I think.

    But how is that a covenant, or what is the covenant? It is the covenant made between the Father and the Son: “Here am I, send me.” You covenant to do you know not what. That is, you bind yourself to that person, but not with any foresight as to what that means. Just like the covenant of marriage: you bind yourself to your spouse, though you have no idea what that means yet, nor will you have any idea what that means until things are happening. (Isn’t this part of the implication of Jesus’ surprise in Gethsemane? He didn’t know how shockingly painful this was going to be, but He had covenanted, bound Himself, to the Father, and there was no way out now but to break that bond.) This, at any rate, is how I read covenant. (The comparison to marriage, by the way, I got from Jim F. in a paper he wrote recently.)

  17. Rob Osborn said

    I think that we should look at seeing the word covenant as merely nothing more than “agreement with god”. A person who enters into baptism knows exactly what is entailed, they are not left to wonder what they agreed to do. To think that they have no idea specifically what they have arranged with god is what I call bad missionary work or even- bad learning. Maybe I just see it differently.

  18. I suppose I’m thinking of examples like Nephi with Laban, Abraham with Isaac, Joseph (or any of the early saints) with polygamy, etc. We know exactly what the covenant entails from the very beginning in one sense: we know that it entails a binding, despite the circumstances. But we have absolutely no idea what the covenant entails in another sense: we don’t know the circumstances, what God will require of us along the way. If a covenant is to mean anything, it cannot be a calculated deal or even agreement: it must be a commitment, whether that means this, that, or the Other. At least, so I understand it.

  19. Robert C. said

    Interesting. I guess I don’t see Joe’s view as that different than the common view (though I like the naunced emphasis on the unknown nature of a covenant). I think I read Mosiah 18 in every pre-baptism interview I conducted and discussed “bearing one another’s burdens” which presupposes that we don’t know what those burdens will be. I’m guessing Rob is thinking more in terms of the things like Word of Wisdom and tithing, though I still think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty there too: I don’t know if I’ll have plenty of money in the future and this’ll be an easy commandment to keep, or I may have to hungry in order to pay my tithing. Regardless, I think this issue might be better discussed, at least preliminarily, in terms of the wording of the sacrament prayer. As I see it, the strongest support for Rob’s view would be in noting the past tense in the following phrase (only in the blessing on the bread):

    “. . . that they may . . . witness unto the, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to . . . keep his commandments which he hath given them.”

    The counter-argument (which I’m more sympathetic to) is that these commandments entail, for example, obeying prophets who are able to receive new revelation, so it seems we’re promising to obey something we don’t know the specifics about yet.

  20. Rob Osborn said

    The baptismal covenant is an agreement that you will be obedient to every command god gives you. Disobedience to god’s commands after baptism is sin, and sin causes us to be cutoff from god’s presence. The baptismanl covenant is all encompassing, meaning that disobedience to a later priesthood covenant also is breaking your baptismal covenant. To say otherwise, makes one still worthy through baptism even though he lives in sin.

    I agree that there is some ambiguity to what the covenant might entail for us futurally as it is a covenant we take on faith.

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