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.