23 September 2007

Does BYU create doctrine?

This post comes from an idea I have had floating around for some time now. In fact, I wish I had posted on it sooner, when the ideas were fresher. In part, it comes out of the experience of my wife teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at BYU.

The argument that I intend to lay out is that, contrary to the prerogatives of latter-day scripture, the true doctrine-making institution of the Church is not the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, it is the faculty of the BYU religion department, and more broadly of the Church Educational System. Disclaimer #1- I am not stating that this as being my ideal situation (it is emphatically NOT), simply that it is empirically true.
Disclaimer #2- I realize that I am overstating my case a little here, and it is intended to be somewhat hyperbolic. However, I would not waste my time on such a long post if I did not think there was some truth to it.

Key assumption (which underlies this entire argument)- the doctrine that really counts is the doctrine "on the ground" (what gets talked about in Church on Sunday and lived out daily in the lives of members) and not some Platonic ideal of doctrine that appears in official Church manuals.

First premise: The great doctrinal era of the Church is OVER.
Perhaps I should state that it a more tentative fashion...based on recent experience, the great doctrinal era of the Church appears to be over (I leave open the possibility that a new revelatory period could break open at any moment). Now I say this as someone who fully believes that the General Authorities of the Church are divinely inspired to guide the LDS Church. Nevertheless, the dramatic world-shaking revelations of Joseph Smith, etc. are not part of our contemporary spiritual experience as members of the Church. Whatever doctrine is being made in the Church today are merely tweaks of existing principles or assertions of principles that are generally uncontroversial among LDS or in the world. Joseph Smith built the house, we are merely moving the furniture around.

Second premise: No one has a greater amount, degree, and depth of access to the repositories of doctrinal knowledge within Latter-day Saints at a time when doctrinal ideas are being formulated and stored than professors at BYU or the faculty of CES.
For the most part, the average Church member's engagement with General Authorities consists of the following: 16 hours a year (General Conference) and a couple of articles from the Ensign. But looking back at the first premise, many of these articles and GC talks are not doctrinal in nature, or at least only weakly so. Also, at a time when members are truly paying attention in GC or reading the Ensign regularly, many notions of doctrine have already been solidified.
BYU professors and CES faculty have far greater access to LDS youth in the high school and college age. Doctrine and interpretations of scripture are, in fact, taught in Seminary, Institute, and throughout the BYU Religion Department (classes in which are required for one to graduate from BYU). Students emerging from these classes will take from them knowledge about the scriptures and the doctrine of the Church that they will reproduce in official settings throughout the rest of their lives (this is really the evidence of the premise, rather than a part of it). In addition, these individuals write a great deal of the doctrinal material on-sale at stores like Deseret Book. While one might claim that most LDS get their doctrinal ideas in Sunday School or Priesthood, chances are that your teacher went to BYU, has attended CES, or got some of the ideas that you are being taught from materials produced by one of those sources.

Example- How many people do you know who claim to have gained a fuller understanding of the Atonement because of Stephen Robinson's "Believing Christ"?

I lump CES and the BYU Religion Department together for a reason. As a purely org chart matter, I do not believe that they are the same thing. Presumably, the head of BYU Religion Dept. reports to the President of BYU, or something like that, who reports to someone on the Church Education Committee, another member of which is the head of CES. This would indicate parallel lines of communication and authority. However, Terry Ball, the current Dean of Religious Education, is a CES trainee. His elevation to the Deanship was orchestrated by another CES alum, Boyd K. Packer. I don't actually believe that CES is some Gadianton-robber-like conspiracy, a secret combination bent on controlling the whole Church through false doctrine. Rather, I merely point out that CES represents and perpetuates a certain conservative brand of Mormon doctrine, one with which not all LDS resonate or feel comfortable.

So my argument basically boils down to the following: there is currently a doctrine-making void in the Church (due to a lack of official doctrinal exposition), and CES and BYU have been both willing and able to step in to fill it. They have the resources and access to perpetuate their particular view of the doctrine of the Church, and have and continue to do so.

Related to this matter, but too large a topic for me to address, is the age-old question of "What is Mormon doctrine? Where do I find it?" The fact that the answers to these questions are uncertain gives CES and BYU even greater latitude to step to the fore and proclaim that they have the answers we seek.


  1. Actually, I see the BYU Religion Department unmaking doctrine. In response to supposed worries that LDS members took The Da Vinci Code as a non-fiction work, four BYU religion instructors released a panel discussion on CD, entitled What Da Vinci Didn't Know. A large percentage of the discussion attacked the long-established Mormon teaching that Jesus was married. While the professors acknowledged that early Mormon leaders had taught this, they belittled such teachings as having been given "in a particular time and circumstance" (in other words, "they didn't know what they were talking about, but we do"). One of the speakers went so far as to target what most would see as a logical necessity in Mormon doctrine for Jesus' marriage, saying "We imitate Jesus, He doesn't imitate us!" Another, with vocal tones conveying strong emotion, said that LDS should not believe Jesus was married because "our beloved prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley doesn't teach that in general conference."

    Within months, coincident with the release of The Da Vinci Code as a film (and uproar by certain christian groups over the film), the Public Relations department issued a statement dismissing the marriage of Jesus as "never" having been the doctrine of the LDS church, despite some early leaders "speculating" on the subject.

    Looks like the tail wagging the dog to me.

  2. Nick, I think this actually goes to my point. Doctrine, like nature, etc., abhors a vacuum. When those professors "unmade" the previous doctrine that Jesus was married, they simultaneously and implicitly stepped in and affirmed that Jesus had not been married. Having seen a couple of your comments around the Bloggernacle, I know this is a pet topic of yours. But when the Prophet says "I don't know" about something, others may not feel the same compunction to refuse to insert their own views.

  3. I don't know about "pet topic," but yes, I think it's an unfortunate trend. As for the comments by Gordon B. Hinckley, he said "we," not "I." I (not we) am not convinced that Joseph Smith would have answered the same. ;-)

  4. I by into everything you're saying except I think there's a larger (primarily self-administering) mechanism that maintains "orthodoxy" within the Rel Ed dept. It's also interesting that the mission of the department is to "preserve the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ".

  5. In regards to you first premise, comparing the LDS Church to the Catholic Church for a moment, I think there are similarities which LDS usually have not considered. The Catholic understanding is that there was a “deposit of faith” which was given early in the church, and then the role of theologians has been to develop this deposit and seek to understand it and articulate it. In a very similar sense, there was also a kind of “deposit of faith” in the early period of the Restoration. By looking at the frequency of the revelations in early church history, as time goes on, revelatory statements and doctrinal pronouncements are given with less frequency (regardless of the reasons why this is the case). However, Mormonism has not had, as an official position, theologians whose function it has been to develop this deposit. Such sort of activity has occurred by individuals in the LDS Church, but it usually has been seen as speculative, not authoritative or binding. Rather the view is to be less certain of some of these speculative doctrines and simply to put them on the shelf so to speak and say that it isn't clear what what was meant.

    I would like to see a little more discussion about what “creating doctrine” means. It’s one thing to say that BYU and CES has influence in assisting LDS in their gospel studies, but it is another thing to say they are creating doctrine. My understanding of creating doctrine would be filling in the theological gaps or trying to reconcile two different kinds of doctrinal theories or conflicting doctrines within Mormonism. I don’t necessarily see Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ as a theological treatise, nor would Robinson himself claim that it is, and even here Robinson, offers a parable and stories, rather than trying to set forth a new kind of theory of the atonement. Robert Millet, for example, is influential not because he is creating doctrine, but rather because he is clarifying what constitutes doctrine and offering the test: is it found in the standard works, in general conference, in current manuals, etc. This doesn’t seem to be the "creation" of doctrine, but rather an effort to prevent speculation from creeping into the curriculum of the church.

  6. Doctrine? I don't think I would give them that much credit. I think both CES and BYU have a significant amount of power when it comes to interpreting and presenting doctrine to people during their formative years. But ultimately, CES and the Y answer to the 12 and the First Presidency, and isn't it Heavenly Father who "creates" doctrine to give to the Prophet?

    Now if you want to talk about BYU and CES as locations (and perhaps instruments) for the perpetuation of mormon culture, that is another post altogether.

    And for what it's worth, 16 hours of institute has never been and will never be equal to 16 hours of General Conference. I would estimate an hour of early morning seminary at 5:30am is probably worth the opening prayer.

  7. There have been a couple of comments here challenging the main premise of this post, so I thought I would take time to answer them.

    It seems like the main beef is the idea that what BYU professors create is "doctrine". Understand that this was always a little tongue-in-cheek. Clearly the only body in the Church that has authority to create official doctrine is the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve acting unanimously (I think that's right...maybe it is just the First Presidency or the Prophet, anyway, that detail is not essential to my point). My point was that BYU professors perpetuate certain beliefs about doctrine and interpretations of scripture that get carried out into the world, lived out and taught in wards and stakes all over the world, and solidify into some kind of de facto doctrine.

    As to whether they are creating/perpetuating doctrine or culture, I won't open that can of worms. I have not met a person yet who is willing to draw that line in the sand in any kind of definitive way. I think that what they are really creating is culture and folklore, but they (CES and BYU) would be offended if you told them that. The problem is that, as smallaxe pointed out, they see themselves as "preserving the doctrine of Jesus Christ." Isn't that somebody else's job? How do they know that what they are preserving is really the doctrine and not just their own interpretation?

    As to whether 16 hours of CES = 16 hours of GC, I know it doesn't but that also is not essential to my premise. The 16 hours of GC are not 16 hours of pure doctrine (Pres. Monson has to have at least an hour to tell stories about all the widows he knows and people he has buried :)).

    I will give an example. I was in a ward this summer in Dallas where a guy gave a background of the OT. I was really interested in his notes and the sources he used. Turned out this came from a class at BYU. In essence, one semester's worth of talking about OT in class at BYU has forever colored how this brother understands and interprets the OT. It does not matter that neither Pres. Hinckley nor anyone else ever taught these things in GC, he knows them and believes them because his BYU professor told him they were true.

  8. I'll draw another analogy from the realm of political science. In international politics, there is hard power (military action, economic sanctions, etc.) and there is soft power (influence generated through culture, ideology, flowing out of reputation). In the Church context, the only group with hard power to enforce their views through sanctions is the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and their local extensions. BYU professors cannot excommunicate me for not believing their ideas (unless they are my stake president...). But they have a great deal of soft power in terms of their reputation and their place of honor and prestige as teaching at the preeminent Church educational institution. They and their ideas influence our thoughts and actions because we respect and admire them, not because they can punish us for not doing so.

  9. I appreciate the example. I can see that some might argue that since only the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve can set forth doctrine that anything done by anyone else would not be considered doctrine by definition. I’m not making that argument here. Supposing for a moment that others outside the prophets could produce doctrine, I haven’t really seen anything produced by BYU or CES which would even be considered “proposals” for doctrine, and also widely accepted by members of the church. But I could be persuaded upon further examples.

    In regards to the example you give about a church members understanding of the OT being influenced by a BYU class, I think the same could be said about religious studies classes offered at non-BYU universities. It could also be the case with books produced by non-LDS scholars and LDS scholars who are not teaching at BYU. I think many people find Richard Bushman and Terryl Given’s works extremely thought provoking but neither Bushman nor Givens teach at BYU. In addition, I can’t tell from your example the nature of the belief about the OT. Could those ideas be found in academic journals or are they the exclusive and novel creation of a professor at BYU advanced by no one else anywhere? One could also point to FARMS or FAIR as influencing the ideas and notions of members of the church too. And while FARMS is now part of BYU, it wasn’t for a long time. To that, one could add the bloggernacle. There are many members who receive ideas for teaching posted on someone’s blog. I simply see several possible sources of influence over the views of members, and I’m uncertain that BYU is having more influence or a particular kind of influence akin to even a broad interpretation of “creating doctrine.”

  10. Nick: The question of Jesus being married was discussed by early Church leaders specifically in a speculative vein.

    Orson Pratt seems to lead the bunch in this topic, and even he flatly stated that he was not relying on a revelation on the subject, but that he was just piecing together evidences from his own scripture study and from his own line of thinking. I personally believe Jesus was married. But I also allow people the right to believe otherwise. I believe it became Christ to do so in order to "fulfill all righteousness," as his baptism intended. That being said, does it really affect my salvation? ultimately? I don't believe it does at all.

    The Church PR department was correct, in my opinion, in asserting it was not taught as doctrine, but as speculation.

    I also echo some of the words of aquinas in saying the works of Millet, Robinson, etc. seem to echo what they hear in GC, or read in the SW. I don't invariably agree with them, but as Hugh B. Brown said, honest men can have honest disagreements. In short, however, the men writing from the BUY religion department often have a prettier package for the same doctrinal foodstuffs. And I don't feel obligated to accept their interpretations on the same level that I feel as far as what the G.A.'s would say, most notably, the living prophet. Note the softening on the part of Joseph Fielding Smith when he became prophet. Most of his own pet doctrines fell by the wayside in lieu of the weightier matters, and rightfully so.

    To be brief, though, doctrine is really only created, and only profits man, when it is revealed through the Holy Ghost. I know that sounds cliche, but it's true. The fact is we can be "saved" no sooner than we get knowledge, but that knowledge doesn't have to come from the BYU or CES peoples, respectively. (I don't say this in opposition to your posts thesis, but as a footnote to emphasize what I believe is more important.) I'm in the camp Joseph Smith described:

    "Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject," (TPJS, p. 324)

    "...The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching" (TPJS, p. 191).

    This all somewhat coincides with a recent blog post I did on the perfection of scriptures:

  11. AHL Duke, in the last paragraph of your original post you mention that a related issue to your post is the whole notion of “what constitutes doctrine?” Upon further reflection, and in light of subsequent comments, it would seem this isn’t only a related issue but the issue in fact.

    Paradigm 1
    Doctrine consists of any statement made by any general authority or apostle (and to a lesser extent any church member who has influence) in the history of the church. Under this paradigm, one could see BYU professors to be “unmaking doctrine” when they point out that contemporary prophets do not affirmatively teach as doctrine a view held by some apostle in the past, because that view in the past could be considered doctrine. In addition, one could also see BYU professors to be “creating doctrine” because they are influential church members whose interpretations of scripture are “carried out into the world, lived out and taught in wards and stakes all over the world, and solidify into some kind of de facto doctrine.”

    Paradigm 2
    Doctrine which only consists of those things that are currently taught by the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve, and does not categorically include every single statement made by a previous prophet or apostle (or influential church member) in the church’s history. Naturally, under this paradigm, BYU professors can’t “create doctrine” despite having influence in how members might approach a gospel topic. Under this paradigm, BYU can’t be “unmaking doctrine” by pointing out certain beliefs held by apostles in the past, because those beliefs wouldn’t necessarily be considered doctrine. Rather one would view their activity as distinguishing doctrine (current teaching) from speculation (personal views held by prior apostles which are speculation and not binding). Finally, under this paradigm, a teaching does not become binding doctrine simply because it is “lived out and taught in stakes all over the world” or even if it was “lived out and taught” in the church in the past. It is only doctrine if it is currently taught by the leaders of the church as binding and authoritative doctrine, found in the standard works, etc.

    These are just example paradigms and I am not saying anyone’s particular comments fall into these categories, nor am I saying that these are the only two views of doctrine. I’m just find it interesting that our answer to the question “Does BYU create doctrine?” depends on how we answer “What is doctrine?”

  12. You've been vindicated with the change in the BoM title page. It was BYU's Sorenson and other apologists that drove that change.