How Theology Hurts, and Might Help, Mormons
In spite of that we must try. Formal or systematic theology has long been one way to try to keep the wisdom of the world from infecting the historical and hermeneutic development of belief. Tell us what the "pure" doctrine is and we will measure everything by that.
Many Mormons believe that there is such a pure doctrine somewhere, some set of propositions that lays out clearly all or most of what we believe and perhaps even why, and does so apart from historical or cultural influence. Unfortunately they too often think they found it in their BYU religion class or in a book by their favorite LDS author. Most BYU professors are not guilty of teaching as if they have an inside track to religious truth; many books by Mormons about Mormonism are quite helpful. Sometimes when there is a fault it lies in the student or reader as much or more than in the teacher or author.
Perhaps God could give us a list of the elements of pure doctrine, though whether he would is another question. After all, he is more interested in how we live our lives and keep our covenants than he is in our beliefs. In an LDS context, most often our human accounts of supposedly pure doctrine run exactly the same risks as do the beliefs that come about hermeneutically (which is no surprise since they too came about that way). They run the risk of harm created by beliefs that are inimical to the gospel. A formal theology can't solve the problem.
The ultimate solution to the problem, as the revelation of 1978 shows, is continuing revelation. We believe in continuing revelation not only to our prophet and the apostles, but to all other leaders and members: reliance on the Holy Spirit of Truth rather than on what we have decided is truth can help us keep from mingling the philosophies of men with scripture. And theology can help us with that.
As we think about our beliefs, we can use theology to help us see where the fractures or fault lines are, where we find things we do not understand as well as we assumed, where we may need to call on the Spirit more fervently rather than on the philosophies of BYU professors and others like us. Though theology can be a danger to those whose religion ultimately relies on revelation, it can also help avoid some of those same dangers.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.