How Theology Hurts, and Might Help, Mormons
Among the few people who care about such things, I am known to be someone who is opposed to the LDS Church having a formalized theology. Of people like me the Catholic theologian Stephen H. Webb has said:
These anti-foundationalist scholars [those who do not believe that a systematic Mormon theology is necessary] celebrate Mormonism as a uniquely fluid and flexible Christian tradition that is unconstrained by doctrinal principles and philosophical commitments. . . . some Mormon scholars would argue that Mormonism does not have (and should not have) methodical and metaphysical ambitions. (Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints, 25)
Webb goes too far; I doubt that anyone would say that Mormonism is "unconstrained by doctrinal principles and philosophical commitments." But he's right: those who think as I do "argue that Mormonism does not have (and should not have) methodical and metaphysical ambitions."
There are not many Latter-day Saints who do theology in a formal way. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology has a well-attended annual conference. But the hundred or so people who take part are an infinitesimally small percentage of the membership of the LDS Church, and whatever their theology, they overwhelmingly represent the stereotypical Mormon: white, male, middle class, university educated, living in one of the Mormon pockets of the U.S., such as the Wasatch Front or Orange County, California. We are few and generally unrepresentative of the Church as a whole in any way.
Though the LDS Church has declared some beliefs to be doctrinally binding, they are not many. Nor does the Church have an official formal theology explaining its beliefs. The LDS Church began amidst the Restorationist movements of 19th-century America, and it continues to hold the Restorationist anti-creedal view that basic religious beliefs need no theological explication. They mean what they mean without theological underpinnings.
Without creeds or theology, how do Mormons know what they believe? How does one know that the doctrines of the Church are? Things taught in the canonized scriptures of the Church (which Mormons call "the standard works") are, of course, doctrinal. There are also a few official statements of doctrine by the highest leadership of the Church, such as the 1917 statement concerning the Godhead (the Trinity for other Christians). But there are not a great many such beliefs. Most Mormon beliefs have a basis in scripture or prophetic declarations, but are themselves not doctrinally binding.
For example, it is doctrinal that there are three degrees of salvation after this life and that almost all human beings will enter into one of them. Doctrine and Covenants 76 and 88 teach that. But in the last two hundred years various Mormons have said a lot about those kingdoms that goes beyond what is in the standard works. It is commonly said, for example, that people will be happy in whatever kingdom they inherit. Probably most Mormons believe that. It probably counts as church doctrine, though I don't believe it is said anywhere in a way that makes it authoritatively binding. How, then, has it come to be doctrinal?
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.