Official Doctrine vs. Personal Speculation

Brian JohnstonMormon 25 Comments

Mormonism, in its very short history, has a rich tradition of theological speculation.  The foundations of the Church were based on burning desires to know concrete answers about the great mysteries.  The existing answers in the early 19th century felt stale or unsatisfying as the world was changing and new frontiers opened up.  Formerly settled religious questions were thrown back into the ring for debate.  This happened within a frontier tradition attempting to interpret and combine ideas from the newly forming materialistic sciences with the long-established magical world view held in western culture.

Mormonism today runs a balancing act between its roots of free speculation and the need to create a cohesive religious and cultural organization.  The social bond of a church is based at some vital level on common belief and understanding among people practicing their religion.  Lacking firm creeds, we conduct this balancing act on a personal level.  Problems arise when we attempt to impose our speculation on others.  Conflict occurs when we need others to validate our individual interpretations.  There is a line between personal belief and the beliefs that all Mormons must share in common.  But where is it?

There has to be official Mormon doctrine.  There has to be something common that brings people together in the religion.  Don Ashton recently published a paper on this topic at  It is called “What is Official Church Doctrine?”  You can find it in the “Additional Support Resources” section of the website:

Don argues that the official and binding core of ideas, the cannon of doctrine that is fixed, is actually limited and abstract.  That abstract characteristic allows following generations to interpret and develop the core to suit the needs of their contemporary environment.  The same can be done by individuals to meet personal needs in their eternal journey of progress towards divine enlightenment.

Don summarizes this nicely in his opening section:

The 14 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are spread across 160 countries on 6 continents. Yet there is a remarkable consistency in beliefs, attitudes, teachings and practices among Mormons everywhere. A traveler visiting congregations throughout the world will find familiar curricula materials, beliefs, and attitudes on most every religious topic.

Yet Mormonism is not dogmatic. There is no creed or statement of core beliefs which adherents are obliged to accept. Both members and leaders alike hold varying opinions ranging from whether watching TV on Sunday is sinful, to whether every statement by a General Authority must be explicitly and unconditionally obeyed.

Such questions may be insignificant or disquieting. If a person is struggling with faith issues, it may become important to distinguish between Official Doctrine and less authoritative council. A clear understanding of Official Doctrine can reduce controversy, minimize anxiety and perhaps open up new options for resolving faith issues. This essay attempts to evaluate the authoritativeness of council ranging from canonized scripture to conventional wisdom.

The practical implications of this speak to a common encounter, which is a feeling of having to believe or practice things sometimes that do not make sense to us.  The first question should then be whether the problem stems from an unbending core of fundamental doctrine; or instead, is it actually our own incorrect expectations and assumptions, someone else’s personal speculation, or something that we can freely explore.

Many ideas and practices touted as “official” are not.  They are someone’s personal speculation and interpretation of the core doctrine.  That means we are free to agree or disagree.  It does not mean that person is wrong in their religious journey.  What they do and believe may be valuable to them.  But we should feel justified and even compelled to use our free agency and God-given intelligence to build what works for us.  That is the soul inherited from our Church founding, and it is a theme to be nurtured today.  We should expect our understanding to evolve over the course of our life.  We should also expect the larger and broader concept of Restoration in the Church to continue its course of evolution from the past to today, and on into the future.

What do you think?  Discuss.

Comments 25

  1. If I my quote from my own article on this subject:

    One problem with this is that the Mormon Church has no binding and official position on what constitutes a binding and official position. Mormon leaders and thinkers have proposed a variety of approaches to defining what constitutes official doctrine, not one being settled upon. Multiple things must be taken into account. First, and most important, Mormons have been taught that they enjoy a continual stream of prophetic counsel and revelation, and that their leaders will never lead them astray. They have also been taught that “The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” 1980). A sense has been fostered that the living leadership is for members a more direct line to God than ancient scripture. But Mormonism also attempts to esteem its scriptures and ensure some stability. When leaders have gone especially awry, subsequent generations of leaders have downplayed prior teachings by appealing to the boundaries of scriptures (that the previous leaders failed to stay within). In short, Mormonism teeters between maximalism and minimalism, expansion and reduction.

    In my study I have so far identified three general Mormon approaches to the standard of officiality:

    sola scriptura – The Standard Works are the final and alone binding source of authority. If it is not in scripture, or if it is not inferred by scripture, it is not doctrinal and it is not binding.

    prima scriptura – Scripture is the highest, most final binding source of authority, but it is not the only source of that which is binding and doctrinal. Other sources, such as current church leadership (considered lesser because they are compared with scripture and discarded if in contradiction with scripture) are also binding.

    prima ecclesia – Modern church leadership is the highest, most final binding source of authority and doctrine, and may override other sources of authority and doctrine, like scripture, if there is contradiction. This is rarely done by direct repudiation and instead is done by re-interpreting, making obsolete, or questioning the preservation of a particular text. When addressing the question of whether living leaders trump scripture, or vice versa, BYU professor Robert Millet admits with refreshing honesty:

    “I think most Latter-day Saints would be prone to answer this by pointing out the value and significance of living oracles, or continuing revelation, or ongoing divine direction through modern apostles and prophets, and thus to conclude that living prophets take precedence over canonized scripture” (Claiming Christ, p.31)…

    My contention is that Mormonism oscillates between varying models to keep alive the theme of the “continuing revelation” as well as enforce some regulatory sanity.

  2. this is my biggest problem with the church, other than the standard works, what is official doctrine. I don’t think I have ever received a straight answer. Yes, there is the standard works, but that’s left to ones own interpretation.

    The problem I have with that is obvious how I apply the standard works in my life is probably not the same as how some conservative members might interpret the gospel. This creates a problem because if one does not apply the gospel in the strictness of the word people in the church tend to look down on you and say, your not being a good member.

  3. There has to be official Mormon doctrine. There has to be something common that brings people together in the religion.

    First sentence: generally speaking, this is a conclusion awaiting its proof.
    Second sentence: That commonality isn’t necessarily “official Mormon doctrine.”

  4. I think this is a simple concept that is taken to complex extremes because of the abundance of speculative thinking in the 1800s and well into the 1900s. I think that if one wanted to get a good read on what is official Mormon Doctrine (not the book), the “Gospel Principles” Manual or “True to the Faith” book are very good places to start.

    What is pretty amazing to me is that 90% or more of our Doctrine originated with Joseph Smith is remains unchanged.

  5. Post


    I agree with your observation about vacillating between Prima Ecclesia and Sola Scriptura. I think the Church does this dance in the printed materials and general conference talks. Members do this when they search for an authoritative reference to support their individual preference of the day.

    We “talk the talk” of following the words of the prophets. On Sunday we talked about scripture in Elders Quorum. I threw out a comment about General Conference talks not being scripture (not canonized). But many others insisted that everything said by a current leader is scripture, even if not canonized. The problem is obvious though to anyone who starts to research any topic of deeper theology: You are going to enter the world of wild speculation from the past. Like you said. It isn’t repudiated. Most of the time I think, the hope is that it is forgotten or ignored 🙂


    Your issue is the same problem I have. It creates problems when the vocal minority attempt to impose their personal speculation and interpretation on others, with the belief in or implied authority of it being “official.” It brings to mind the classic phrase “well … I know I read that in an Ensign article once, so I know I am right.”

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    You bring up a really good point. I was expressing a wish or assumption more than a fact — pleading with the universe :-). Here is my counter question though. If we are all in the same religion, and belief in a religious theology doesn’t create the common ground, what does?

    Why has Mormonism created such a cohesive and effective “glue” to create organized religion and culture, if it isn’t the doctrines of the religion?

  7. Ok, I will quote one of my favorite lines from Elder Uchtdorf, that when said in General Conference immediately made me think it applies to so much of the church and how things evolve over time…not being doctrine, but “good ideas”

    there are so many “shoulds” and “should nots” that merely keeping track of them can be a challenge. Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.”-Pres Uchtdorf

    There are many things (like Sunday activities or Sprite vs Coke or rum cake) that people were taught growing up in the church as “wrong” and they just accept that and are shocked when others don’t follow them the same way…without really understanding the principles underneath those teachings.

  8. #4 Jeff wrote: “What is pretty amazing to me is that 90% or more of our Doctrine originated with Joseph Smith is remains unchanged.”

    Jeff, do you really think it is that high a percentage?? I immediately think of Word of Wisdom is different, polygamy, temples (which is a big one), teachings of the second coming and building up of zion…just off the top of my head.

    It seems like, while many things are unchanged, the doctrines have been “smoothed out” so they apply to a global church and through correlation have been polished and clarified in the lesson manuals in ways that seem different from Joseph’s teachings.

    I compare the church today on Sunday to how I read the history of things said the church was like in the 1800s.

  9. Don argues that the official and binding core of ideas, the cannon of doctrine that is fixed, is actually limited and abstract. That abstract characteristic allows following generations to interpret and develop the core to suit the needs of their contemporary environment. The same can be done by individuals to meet personal needs in their eternal journey of progress towards divine enlightenment.

    I’ve thought about this somewhat and even wrote a post on it at Mormon Mentality which dovetails with a lot of this. Rather than cite from it extensively I suppose it’s just easier to post a link: The Prophet Is Dead.

  10. Heber13 #9,

    So here we go, this is where we as members seem to differ,

    “Jeff, do you really think it is that high a percentage??

    I immediately think of Word of Wisdom is different, polygamy, temples (which is a big one), teachings of the second coming and building up of zion…just off the top of my head.”

    What is different from a Doctrinal perspective? if you tell me we do this or we do that, that to me, is a practice or a policy. What of the underlying fundamental doctrines have changed?

    I maintain not much. If you want to discuss practices, there are many,. many changes over the years.

  11. Merriam Webster dictionary:

    a : something that is taught
    b : a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief : dogma
    c : a principle of law established through past decisions
    d : a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations e : a military principle or set of strategies

    Gospel Principles, p.167
    “The Lord commands us not to use wine and strong drinks, meaning drinks containing alcohol.”

    Is that a Doctrine?

  12. Heber 13:

    I love Elder Uchtdorf’s quote. In fact, I think I just love Elder Uchtdorf.

    Perhaps the continuing negotiation and enforcement of “rules” by members upon ourselves and one another (in formal and informal ways) is one ongoing project that contributes to a common Mormon identity.

  13. Heber13

    oh crap, take away my rum cake. you just broke this Italian girls heart. Just kidding, lol

    But I do love your quote, I think it illustrates the point beautifully, thank you

  14. dblock, I side with President McKay…rum cake is not off limits! Its not a strong drink, its a yummy dessert! (Phew). I also love Tiramasu!

  15. Heber13, #14
    “The Lord commands us not to use wine and strong drinks, meaning drinks containing alcohol.”

    Is that a Doctrine?”

    The Doctrine that the WoW teaches is to eat and drink things that are good for us physically and abstain from those things that are bad for us. The practice, some of which is outlined in section 89 has to do with eating grains, meat sparingly, etc. The practice of abstaining from certain drinks has been clarified as alcoholic drinks, coffee and tea. The WoW has also been extended to the abuse of legal and illegal drugs, which might be inferred but not explicatively stated.

    That is the doctrine and practice of the Church at this time.

    What is interesting to me is that some have extended the drink ban to cola drinks and some have allow themselves to drink decaffeinated coffee or iced tea, even though that distinction is not made. That to me is not doctrinal.

  16. Jeff, agreed. And I have no problem with the church stating that doctrine.

    But my point is that seems to have changed since Joseph Smith’s time. Yes, there was the teaching of D&C 89, but that doctrine changed to become a commandment, as did many other things in the church.

    That is ok with me…we have prophets that lead us and help tell us what the doctrines are for the Church at this time…but I wouldn’t agree with 90% of it is the same as Joseph Smith taught it.

    Regardless of the percentage…I would agree with you on the premise that many underlying teachings, or the spirit of the laws we know of, are consistent. I like to distinguish that as the difference between the “gospel” and the “church”, because I do think Church Doctrine changes, but not the gospel.

    Referring to the article Brian linked…I think the question becomes understanding what Doctrines there are, and what are personal speculations or good ideas passed on over time that become expectations.

    That line isn’t always clear to me…nor do I think is it clear to most members.

  17. Heber13, #17,

    Ferreting out the true doctrine of the church can be a challenge. I always look for the simplest denominator, so to speak. The more complex, the less doctrinal it seems to be. As a new member, you tend to accept almost everything you hear in Church until you get more experience and are able to sort those things out.

  18. Brian-
    Awesome post! Here are a few thoughts:
    1. I still have the same issue with this as I did when I first read Ashton’s post. That is, we’re carving out a very narrow definition and niche while ignoring the underlying feeling. For example, this past Sunday, Elder Bednar came to my stake to give a “Special Stake Conference.” He referenced the word “doctrine” many times. In each of those times he did not refer to things which had been canonized but to things which had been propounded in the past by leaders. In other words, my conjecture is that while we may wish a narrow definition of “doctrine” the modern usage in the church (even by its highest leaders) implies a much broader definition which includes the things they say, our policies, and practices.
    2. Nevertheless, I actually quite admire (from my personal perspective) the narrow distinction. I also combat the status quo by referencing scripture and/or talks that demonstrate my idea du jour.
    3. I agree with Heber13. I think 90% is pretty generous. My reading of history is that Joseph would likely not even recognize this church as the one he founded. I think Joseph’s theology was much more detailed, and also much more controversial and would likely not survive in today’s church.
    4. I do, however, agree with Jeff re the WoW. A more interesting example is plural marriage as necessary for salvation (as taught by church leaders prior to the manifesto). Or even the idea of God once being a man (the entire King Follet discourse for that matter).

    My own observation is that in today’s church, most leaders don’t actually expound doctrine. Or at least, they don’t try to expound theology. Most leaders pick a particular point of good living that they wish to emphasize and doctrinally back it up. It seems they leave the full theology up to philosophers, apologists, and individual members to figure out for themselves. One exception was Neal Maxwell. He frequently tried to “tie in” various points of doctrine to create a more polished theology. But for the most part I think our leaders don’t engage in that much.

  19. Post

    To be sure, we all throw the word “doctrine” around liberally, without spending a lot of time defining what we mean by it. There is canonized doctrine. There are also bodies of folk doctrine (mystical and eschatalogical for example), cultural doctrine (who is in the group or not), personal doctrine (how we apply it to our situations) and administrative doctrine (how the corporation is operated). I am just thinking of a few subsets that jump to mind.

    I think two core topics jump out at me when I was thinking about all this:

    1. I have different views than a lot of other people sitting in the chapel on any given Sunday. Most people are not aware of this of themselves, but I am accutely aware and conscious of it. If I disagree with something said, am I still just as much a “Mormon” and the person I disagree with? I am not talking about “straining at gnats” either. I personally have a very non-literal view of Church doctrine (whatever that is) and foundational mythology, but I am very happy with my views. They work for me, and I like being a part of the LDS Church. I consider myself Mormon. Am I?

    Someone else in my shoes might think they have to leave the Church in order to be honest and authentic. Or they may feel they are not welcome, because they do not believe in the “doctrines” of the Church. I ask myself, which ones matter enough?

    2. If we are so open to speculation, and the official core (as I believe it) is so abstract and open (which I am thankful for), what the heck holds this crazy ship together?

    In answer to that, I would say the amalgamation of a loosely defined, but strongly enforce, culture of practices. It is one that shifts all over the place around this core. The shifts are not even slow, but are easily observed many times in even an average length lifetime.

    But like JMB said, this leads to a socially enforced belief du jour, literally changing daily, that leaders and members can reach back into this wild jungle of speculation and always find some sort of authoritative reference. If a leader said it, then it is scripture, even if that contradicts other leaders. Certainly take someone like Brigham Young. He had no sense of embarassment of even contradicting himself on important issues (which I do not see as cynically as others, but find endearing to be honest, like loving a crazy uncle).

  20. Someone else in my shoes might think they have to leave the Church in order to be honest and authentic. Or they may feel they are not welcome, because they do not believe in the “doctrines” of the Church. I ask myself, which ones matter enough?

    I think this gets to the core of why most people leave – they want to be authentic. During my faith crisis I had some people tell me that I would feel better if I left. Perhaps they are right. But I am grateful for the crazy uncle mentality even if, socially, the “doctrine” is very dogmatic. Well said Brian.

  21. One of the main meanings of “doctrine” is simply “something that is taught.” To the extent something is taught in Church, it’s Church doctrine. “Official” doctrine is that doctrine that isn’t contradicted by somebody with a bigger ecclesiastical stick than the person teaching it has.

  22. Post

    In my opinion, Mormonism has operated with a certain paradigm — a claim to true doctrine (that which is taught) that creates a duty to act.

    This is the main thrust of proselytizing. We encourage an investigator to have a spiritual/intuitive/emotional experience that we assign a meaning of revealed “truth.” The requirement is then to be baptized. Sure, we may teach other things, but the main conversion tool is a personal revelation (or it is supposed to be).

    For the members, the teaching of doctrine often accompanies a promise of blessings based on action. To not act, or to act differently, mean the loss of those blessings. This is a classic theme in the Book of Mormon, for example.

    That is what causes so much angst IMO — that urge to act that is so deeply rooted in our religious culture.

    So what MUST we act upon? Everything that has ever been taught? Every specualation that has been dreamed?

  23. “To build what works for us”, is a relative statement that seems to divert from eternal truths and the scriptures that we are to work to achieve a “one mind and one faith” with God.

    There is a difference between personal preferences and eternal principles. What “works for us” is automatically based on our personal human preferences until we are changed by the Holy Spirit.

    This is not to say that we should remove ourselves from making choices in the fear of making a personal human choice, but to pay mind of whether we are in line with gospel truths and principles. It is not an easy process but a necessary one. Where we are not in line, requires us to change that part of us.

    Through the years of personal-spiritual change of gradually moving a worldly mind to a spiritual one ( a life long process of line by line), personal preference can become more in line with gospel principles. Granted, each of us will develop according to our spiritual gifts and spiritual nature, but in the end, the core truths and principles should be the same in each of us, else there is no oneness as described by Jesus Christ. Then the difference would be in our expression of that same eternal principle.

    Jesus Christ had free will, yet he freely choose in accordance to the eternal truths that made the Father what he is.

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