People regularly make the observation that Mormons are more concerned with orthopraxis than orthodoxy. In other words, Mormons are more concerned with right behavior than with right belief. The evidence in support of this claim seems fairly overwhelming in my mind. The fact of the matter is that we allow a huge diversity of beliefs on fairly fundamental questions (the nature of God and the nature of man for example), even though we frequently paper over the pluralism with equivicol and vague language. One the other hand, we worry a great deal about proper behavior: The Law of Chastity, the Word of Wisdom, participation in the Church, etc. In this context, I have frequently heard Mormonism compared to Judaism, which is taken as a paradigmatically orthopraxic faith. Which leads to me question:
Why haven’t Mormons developed a jurisprudence.
When one compares Judaism to Christianity one of the remarkable things is the extent to which Jewish thinking has focused mainly on the juridical exposition of scripture while Christian thinking has focused to a much greater extent on speculative theology. I don’t want to over play this distinction. There have been Jewish thinkers who have produced subtle works of speculative philosophy and theology – Spinoza and Maimonides come to mind. Likewise, the cannon law of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the great legal achievements of western civilization.
If one looks at Mormonism, it seems that we have everything one would need to launch a religious jurisprudence. We have a strong emphasis on correct conduct. We have authoritative texts that specify that conduct. We even have ecclesiastical tribunals to decide cases, and for nearly a century they were quite active in resolving inter-member disputes and elaborating correct standards of conduct. Yet one will search Mormonism in vain for an LDS version of Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Abu Hanifa, al-Ghazali, or Ibn Rushd who are the great jurists of Judaism and Islam, which also has an incredibly rich jurisprudential tradition. Why isn’t there more Mormon jurisprudence? Let me suggest some possibilities:
1. Mormons simply haven’t been around long enough. We won’t know whether we need to ask this question for another couple of centuries. After all, it took Islam nearly two hundred years before it produced its first great jurist Muhammad Ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i
2. Mormons have not had a state of their own. At one time in their history both Islam and Judaism have been called upon to provide a full fledged legal regime for an entire society. It was this requirement that produced the body of law upon which the religious jurists went to work. Mormons had only a brief period of legal independence before outside authority in the form of the federal government intervened.
3. Mormons have a hierarchy that can authoritatively resolve disputes and hence jurisprudence is unnecessary. The argument here is related to some points I made in an earlier post. One might argue that the elaborate legal exegesis of Jewish and Islamic jurists came about because their “ecclesiastical” structure meant that the texts themselves had to resolve all disputes. There was no authority to give final rulings. One might point to the Catholic Cannon Law as a counter example of a jurisprudence developed within a centralized and hierarchical religion. There are two reasons that this is not an apt reply. First, historically the centralization and integration of the Catholic Church took a very long time. Much of the creation and exposition of the cannon law, therefore, took place not in the context a stable hierarchy of institutions, but rather in context of hotly contested debates about the creation of that hierarchy. Second, unlike Jewish and Islamic law, cannon law is not primarily a matter of the exegesis of sacred texts. Rather, it consisted mainly of the adaptation of the Roman law for ecclesiastical purposes. Initially, the synthesis and exposition of this law took place in medieval universities as a largely theoretical exercise. During the battles to integrate the church into a single legal entity, the popes and the bishops then appropriated and adapted this university created law, which happened to be lying around ready for use.
4. We tend to take a revelatory rather than exegetical approach to hermeneutics. What I mean is that rather than seeking to understand the scriptures using careful textual analysis, we rely instead on personal revelation. This revelatory approach to the scriptures then deadens our interest in the kind of careful attention to detail and synthesis that jurisprudence requires.
Perhaps we do have a kind of invisible cannon law that is embedded in the General Handbook of Instructions and other internal, proprietary documents. Certainly, to some extent these documents do rely on expositions of revelations. The same is true for the very top structures of the Church – e.g. the First Presidency, the Twelve, the Presiding Bishopric, the Council on the Disposition of Tithes, etc. What is interesting, however, is that these structures are largely built on practice – or early esoteric teachings – rather than on exegesis of authoritative texts. Most dramatically, the procedure for the succession of the presidency is not specified in any canonized text, but rather relies on esoteric teachings of Joseph to the Twelve in Nauvoo, an underlying theory of priesthood authority pieced together from disparate canonize texts, and practice developed over the course of the 19th century.