Let me first say that I’m overwhelmed by the response to my question about my readers’ beliefs. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and deepest-held beliefs with me. That means a great deal to me.
I’ve been having an interesting conversation with a believing Mormon about the nature of doctrine in the LDS church. Officially, the church position seems to be that policies and procedures change, but doctrines remain unchanged. Apostle Boyd Packer stated it pretty succinctly: “While doctrines remain fixed, the methods or procedures do not” (“Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 14).
But the idea of “fixed” doctrine in a church with no systematic theology but “continuing revelation” seems a bit oxymoronic, as clearly some doctrines have changed. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve seen Brigham Young’s emphatic declarations that Adam is God our Father, which were at one point taught in the temple “lecture at the veil,” just as vehemently denounced a century later as damnable heresies. We’ve seen a prophet of God wave off a core doctrine of his religion with “I don’t know that we teach it.” And of course, we’ve seen the recent spectacle of an apologist attempting to remove polygamy from the doctrines of the LDS church.
In the past, I’ve been told that these seeming changes represent peripheral doctrines or simply reflect a misunderstanding on my part. The core doctrines, the ones outlined in the Articles of Faith for example, are fixed and eternal.
But this isn’t so.
The very first article of faith proclaims, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Every Mormon child can recite this passage, and we are all clear on its meaning.
Joseph Smith taught that to know “what kind of being” God is represents the first principle of the gospel:
The apostle [John] says, “This is life eternal”–to know God and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. If any man, not knowing what kind of a being God is, inquires to know if the declaration of the apostle is true–and searches diligently his own heart–he will admit that he has not eternal life; for there can be no eternal life on any other principle.
In short, we cannot have eternal life unless we comprehend who and what God is. Currently, LDS doctrine is described in Doctrine and Covenants 130:22:
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
However, most Mormons remain unaware that even this clear and important doctrine has changed. Until 1921, the Doctrine and Covenants contained the “Lectures on Faith,” which had been written under Joseph Smith’s direction as central doctrinal expositions for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s, so that church leaders “might be more perfectly instructed in the great things of God” (History of the Church 2:180).
The Lectures on Faith were removed because they conflicted with the First Presidency’s 1916 statement, “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition.”
According to the Lectures on Faith,
There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things–by whom all things were created and made, that are created and made, whether visible or invisible: whether in heaven, on earth, or in the earth, under the earth, or throughout the immensity of space–They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory and power: possessing all perfection and fulness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather, man was formed after his likeness, and in his image;–he is also the express image and likeness of the personage of the Father: possessing all the fulness of the Father, or, the same fulness with the Father; being begotten of him, and was ordained from before the foundation of the world to be a propitiation for the sins of all those who should believe on his name, and is called the Son because of the flesh–and descended in suffering below that which man can suffer, or, in other words, suffered greater sufferings, and was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be. (Lectures on Faith 5:2.)
The lecture goes on to say that the Holy Ghost is not a separate personage but is simply the “mind” of the Father.
Thus, the 1916 First Presidency statement officially retired this doctrine and replaced it with Joseph Smith’s later teaching in Doctrine and Covenants 130. Excising the Lectures on Faith in 1921 removed the last vestiges of this outdated doctrine, to the point that today most church members have never read the Lectures on Faith or are even aware of their existence, for that matter.
To his credit, my correspondent readily acknowledges that this doctrine and others have changed. I really can’t decide if the fluidity of Mormon doctrine is a strength or a weakness. On the one hand, it allows the church to adjust to changing circumstances, which obviously would help it survive in the long term. But then if all the church’s teachings are equally as flexible, there is no center to LDS doctrine, and that ought to give us pause.
I’m left to conclude that church doctrine is whatever the church teaches today. And the first principle of the gospel is not so much a doctrine as it is the principle of obedience: do what the church teaches today, and you’ll be fine.