On Doctrinal Authority

On Doctrinal Authority December 15, 2014

This essay represents a very short, and provisional set of ideas about the topic as I am just beginning to think about it more seriously. So much of the so-called “faith crisis” in contemporary Mormonism hinges on these issues, but very little theoretical work has been done on it.

For a while now, Mormons have been concerned with doctrinal authority, especially what is authoritative and the consequences of deviating from it. Most recently the question has arisen concerning prophetic fallibility. Recent essays produced and published by the church have brought to light moments that challenge the well-manicured image of earlier representation of prophets. This most immediate new approach embracing historical change and openness about the past has emerged within and against the broader social and ecclesiastical insistence upon doctrinal conformity.  In the last several decades, many Mormons have focused on doctrinal authority on topics related to gender, sexuality, and historical claims about scripture. These issues come in the form of anxiety about “purity” of doctrine and the belief that doctrinal purity can transmit moral purity to the believer.

Frequently the question of “What is Church Doctrine” is approached from the perspective of a tautology: Church doctrine is what the church teaches. The insufficiency of this approach is self-evident, and all treatments of the question seek to define what is “the church” and what “teaches” means. There is a genre of writings attempting to clarify what is doctrine from official and unofficial sources (see especially this essay). The existence of such essays reveal that the answer itself is not clear. The problem arises because on nearly every doctrinal topic there exists a diversity of perspectives in Mormon history, and even which doctrines are central and which are peripheral changes over time.

The illumination of these changes in doctrines and the translocation in and out of the center is an important endeavor, but I want to suggest some alternative questions for thinking about authority as it relates to doctrine. Rather than asking “What is Doctrine,” let us ask “Why Doctrine?” When and why doctrine arises as a concern is not an inherent feature of Mormonism, but a historically and socially conditioned one. We should ask not only why some doctrines become important and others disappear, but why the authority of doctrine has changed in importance at different times.

In answer the first question about what is doctrine, Nate Oman, provides the most persuasive approach to this question in “Jurisprudence and Church Doctrine” because he takes the problem as a hermeneutical one, and he further seeks to explain why church doctrines should be normative for Mormons.

Oman allows that what is authoritative will not always be clear on all matters, and that plurality one some matters exists. Oman’s approach also seeks to foreclose certain alternatives as having illegitimate claims, even in cases where there are plural options. When seeking to answer the question of what is doctrine, Oman notes that Mormon history “is a search for what is normative and what is not.” This approach proceeds from the present as normative: “it is seeking to understand history only in a very narrow and specific way, namely as a part of the current structure of authoritative Church Doctrine.”

Oman’s interest here is primarily in determining what is authoritative. I worry that Oman smuggles the tautology back into the equation when he posits such a thing as “the current structure of authoritative Church Doctrine,” but I want to approach a different set of issues. When disputes arise, Oman is largely correct here: “we always can have disagreements about certain aspects of what Church Doctrine requires and that the only way of doctrinally settling these disagreements will be by resort to complex arguments about the best possible story to be told.”

I want to point out that the hermeneutical framework Oman offers does highlight one positive aspect of Church Doctrine that destabilizes its claim to authority. A hermeneutical framework can never fully establish what is normative in any permanent sense. The work of interpretation is never finished. The authority is never final, but always provisional as new stories, new histories, and new circumstances emerge. It must continually repeat itself to establish its normativity. This inherent instability in church doctrine is not simply the result of new revelation, but the very fact that it is must continually reassert its authority opens it to the possibility of resignification. Oman’s framework helps to see, at least, this aspect of doctrinal authority more clearly.

I have learned much from Oman’s jurisprudential model for thinking about doctrine, but I have three objections to this approach.

First, I think that the problem begins with seeing doctrine as analogous to law, and not, for instance, scripture, where different hermeneutical models have flourished. These domains have overlapped significantly, and the tradition of seeing scripture as law has historical precedent, but is also a tradition largely abandoned as ill-fitting for the interpretation of scripture in the wake of modern biblical studies. The postulation of the analogy that doctrine is authoritative, rather than instructive, edifying, speculative, or in some other epistemological modality, drives the search for singular answers. Even while admitting plurality in many areas, plurality remains the problem that “the best” story can solve with single, clear, and authoritative doctrine. When doctrines are endowed with authority, they exercise that authority most effectively when they are monological. Having doctrine do the work of normativity to create boundaries between in and out, orthodox and heretic, constrains its possibilities and privileges singularity and uniformity.

Second, I think that Oman’s hermeneutical framework, whose interest is in negotiating authority, ignores various ways that Mormons have critiqued doctrinal authority itself. One may innumerate Joseph Smith’s worry about creeds, or his dislike for calling out those who erred in doctrine, or his own revisions of his revelations, but there is another aspect to his hesitation about such matters. A hermeneutics of suspicion of authority and power is laid out in Joseph’s letter from Liberty Jail. In this context, he had been betrayed by the state, and he seems to worry about the use and abuse of authority in ecclesiastical contexts too: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion….No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:39, 41) Here, Smith acknowledges the inevitable, that almost all men will use their authority in unrighteous ways. It is expected. It is inevitable. It is a problem that we must constantly guard against. He even suggests that persuasion is the only justifiable method of power. The hermeneutics of suspicion authorized here, and the principle of persuasion, points to critique as a crucial framework for thinking about doctrinal authority.

Third, the questions that we should ask are not simply what is authoritative or what was authoritative in the past, but what forms has authority taken and in what form does it currently present itself. Historical and genealogical analysis can lead us to think about the epistemological paradigms of the questions we are asking, and to consider how normativity is established in those paradigms. We might fruitfully ask about the ways in which authority is exercised, what it concerns itself with, and the methods of its enforcement. We may also note that at one time theology was an important discourse in Mormonism, and was replaced by doctrine for much of the 20th c. Theology never disappeared entirely but has remained marginal. Doctrinal authority too has waxed and waned and asserted its influence at different times from different sources.

For instance, the question of what is authoritative “doctrine” represents a rather narrow paradigm of intellectual content that has been at times quite marginal in Mormon history, but at other times has moved the center. More broadly, Mormon leaders have exercised doctrinal, sacerdotal, political, economic, and juridical authority. Juridical authority has almost entirely disappeared in the Mormon tradition, but the authority of church leaders to resolve disputes over land, water, and other civil and criminal issues was once a key domain of Mormon authority. Why has Mormon authority given ground on civil and criminal matters, or other areas of authority, and how have such shifts affected attention to doctrinal matters as a domain of authority?

Such questions denaturalize the topic of doctrinal authority as the question of authority and lead us to consider the historical conditions, both internal and external to Mormonism, that have produced the anxiety about purity and conformity in doctrinal matters, as well as making us aware of alternative kinds of authority and epistemological approaches within Mormonism to intellectual matters.

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