Blogging, Church Doctrine, and the Limits of Authority

November 19, 2007 | 40 comments

People frequently claim that Mormonism is an essentially atheological religion. It is not always exactly clear what is meant by this statement, but it generally seems to me something like we place right practice and sacred stories at the center of our faith rather than an abstract set of propositions. Whatever the merits of this claim, I think that it is hard to deny that the concept of “church doctrine” is enormously important within the church discussions.

Consider the following examples:

Eliza: “President Ezra Taft Benson taught that Martin Luther King was part of a communist plot; how can a good Mormon support the civil rights movement?”
Emma: “Those were just his opinions. That was not church doctrine.”


Brigham: “The Book of Mormon is so scathing in its denunciations of war that all Mormons ought to be pacifists.”
Heber: “That is just your opinion; that is not church doctrine.”


Sussanah: “Is it church doctrine that one must be a polygamist to enter the celestial kingdom?”

Somewhat closer to home, someone might ask whether – to pick an example entirely at random – Sister Beck’s recent conference address represents church doctrine. After all, it was given in conference.

Despite the image of lock-step saints marching in perfect unity, the fact of the matter is that Mormons disagree with one another quite a bit. While there are certainly disagreements between the true believers and the skeptics on the fringe, I actually think that the most interesting disagreements among Mormons don’t center on the question of whether church doctrine is right or wrong, true or false in some final and absolute sense. Rather it seems to me that the trickiest (and most common) disputes about church doctrine center on two questions. First, how do I identify whether any particular claim or rule is church doctrine or not? Second, to what extent does some particular teaching have a claim on Latter-day Saints simply because it is church doctrine?

I have been puzzling about these questions for some time, and a while back I finally tried to collect my thinking into a set of coherent arguments. The result is a pair of articles. The first, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine, will be appearing in the next issue of Element and the final version of the article can now be downloaded for free from SSRN. The second, “A Defense of the Authority of Church Doctrine,” was published in the last issue of Dialogue and can also be downloaded from SSRN.

The first article tackles the question of how we identify what is church doctrine. My conclusion is that we have no simple rule that allows us to identify what is or isn’t church doctrine. Rather, we always discover church doctrine through an ongoing process of interpretation. This means that the precise contours of church doctrine are always contestable, not in the sense of arguing whether church doctrine is good or bad, true or false. Rather I am talking about contestability over the content of what is or is not church doctrine. Doctrinal diversity is not managed epistemicaly (that is by knowing exactly what is doctrine) but rather ethically and institutionally through norms against contention and the hierarchical structure of the church. The inherent contestability of church doctrine also sheds light, I believe, on the nature of Mormon discussions of history. (My thesis is that most LDS discussions of history are actually discussions about authority; we are less interested in understanding the past than figuring out which bits of it have a claim on us now.) I also think that the contestability of church doctrine sheds light on the interplay between independent judgment and authority within the practice of obedience itself. (My thesis is that obedience to church doctrine necessarily requires the exercise of independent moral judgment not only in choosing to follow church doctrine but also in identifying the demands of church doctrine itself.)

My second article builds on the first article by seeking to justify (and understand the limits of) church doctrine’s authority over church members. I begin by arguing – somewhat counter-intuitively to some – that authority is actually a special kind of reason giving that purports to exclude other reasons. This understanding of the concept of authority itself suggests the contours that arguments in favor of an authority must take, namely that they must justify the claim of authority to exclude the operation of other reasons, rather than simply outweighing those reasons or demonstrating their mistakenness. There are, I believe, at least three sorts of arguments that can be made justifying the authority of church doctrine: The first is the argument from covenant. Mormons are bound by church doctrine because they promise to obey it. The second is the argument from epistemic advantage. Even if we reject the notion that church doctrine is infallible (and I do reject this notion), we can be justified in thinking that church doctrine is systematically less error prone than we are. The third is what I call the argument from communal participation. My idea here is that church doctrine is much like the rules of a game – the “game” of Mormonism if you will. Active Latter-day Saints participate in this game and to violate the rules is a form of cheating and hypocrisy. All of these arguments in favor of the authority of church doctrine are defeasable, but only under limited circumstances. Hence, I conclude that one is not necessarily always obligated to follow church doctrine, but the mere assertion “I think that doctrine X is wrong,” is generally insufficient to justify a Latter-day Saint ignoring the dictates of church doctrine.

As far as I know, this duo of articles is among the few sustained attempts to provide a philosophical analysis of church doctrine. That is nice, but I also suspect that to the extent that they spark discussion it also means that at the end of the day virtually everyone will decide that the pieces are mistaken to a greater or lesser degree. In addition to laying out my own thinking on the subject, however, these articles are also to a certain extent an exercise in blogging. I tried out virtually all of these arguments out first in the context of the bloggernacle. Part of the reason that I wrote them is because I wanted to see if I thought that it was possible to work blog-level arguments with greater rigor, and part of the reason was that I wanted to see to what extent it was possible to kick a blog argument into the slower but more rigorous world of print. Time will tell. I do think that it would be great if blogs could increasingly function as a first draft of ideas that ultimately get a fuller treatment elsewhere.

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40 Responses to Blogging, Church Doctrine, and the Limits of Authority

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 19, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Excellent. I’ll have to see if I can resurrect my reasons why I thought you were mistaken to a greater or lesser degree.

  2. Aaron Brown on November 19, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    I quite liked your first article, as you know, though I haven’t yet read your Dialogue piece. As someone with a longstanding interest in this subject, I’ve always found your thoughts compelling. I suppose I should take issue with some part of what you say, if only to show my sophistication. :)

    Aaron B

  3. Ugly Mahana on November 19, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    I appreciate the arguments you address as to doctrine being ‘discovered.’ In a faithful setting, how does revelation come into play?

  4. Nate Oman on November 19, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    My sense is that it many ways church doctrine is logically prior to personal revelation. For example, if I get a revelation saying that I ought to become a polygamist, I think that the standard response would be something like, “That’s not church doctrine!” The implication is that my personal revelation lacks authority when in conflict with church doctrine. Hence, I want to resist the idea that we discover church doctrine by revelation, not because I disbelieve in personal revelation but because of the function that I think church doctrine serves in our discussions.

  5. Ray on November 19, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Fwiw, I view “Church doctrine” in most cases as the fencing within which my individual revelation can romp. I can’t jump the fence, but I am free to explore everything it encircles. If my wandering takes me to different parts of the range than others, that’s fine – even when the view looks different from each of the multiple vantage points.

    I also view Church doctrine as separate in many cases from intellectual understanding – especially of ancient events that we accept “as far as it is translated correctly, including by the original recorder. For example, I feel free to try to understand the flood and the Garden of Eden and the Jaredites and questions of Lamanite lineage and many other things without much constraint of doctrine – since I view doctrine as what adds meaning to a 30,000 foot view of the history rather than an integral aspect of the distinct historical events themselves.

    One of my favorite things about blogging is that it exposes me to so many views from so many vantage points within the same general range. At this point in my life, I’m not very interested in most views from outside the fence, since I’ve given them due diligence in the past. I want to know what others observe and think from their own locations (and heights), and the Bloggernacle is wonderful for that.

  6. Mike on November 19, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    I don’t know if you saw this, but I found it quite interesting and thoughtful:

    Blake touches upon some of the issues you discuss here and I think it relevant.

  7. Sarah on November 19, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Your comment about history as a discussion of authority reminds me of almost every argument I’ve ever heard about the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution. Maybe it’s just that we’re really, really American.

    I also agree that for most Latter-day Saints, saying a doctrine is “wrong” isn’t a justification for ignoring it. It has to be “that isn’t doctrine at all.” Everyone is committed to accepting (at least to some extent) that if something is doctrinal, then it’s binding. Again, see everything ever written about the Constitution. This is probably why we have such a hassle with polygamy and the United Order and blacks not having the priesthood.

    I wonder if most other religious groups do this. I (sort of) grew up a Unitarian Universalist, and the very first thing that they’d say is “there’s no such thing as doctrine.” I don’t know enough about other traditions to say for sure, though some of the things I’ve read on Jewish message boards and advice columns leads me to think there’s a parallel there… same with Catholicism.

    (Nate: I will so totally read your articles, once I have a paying job. I’ve grounded myself out of desperation.)

  8. Kent on November 19, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Nate, I just read both your articles and found them enlightening. I love how you point out that doctrine is a means of storytelling, which I absolutely agree with. I remember my aunt telling me (in good humor) of an encounter she had with a priesthood leader where she complained about something or pondered a question about something seemingly benign IMO (something like, “I wonder why we have to go to Relief Society” or “I wonder why men can’t have beards in Priesthood leadership). The leader immediately jumped to ask, “Sister Edwards, do you support the brethren?” She responded, “Well, yes but…” “Sister Edwards, do you support the brethren?” She, chagrined said, “Yes.” And that was it. She told me this story to point out how he was right and she was wrong in a sense, but also how it ended up being unimportant what the answer was because of her answer.

    I’ve always hated that story because I hate insensitivity and loyalty tests when issues are trivial, but it has focused my mind on what the larger issue for most members is: Loyalty. Doctrinal disputes end up being more about loyalty than anything else most of the time in my experience.

  9. Jim Cobabe on November 19, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    Obi-Wan:”…So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”
    Luke:”A certain point of view?”
    Obi-Wan:”Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

  10. Dan S. on November 20, 2007 at 1:01 am

    I read your article, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine.” To me, it kind of lumps the whole concept of Church doctrine into one container. I think, however, that there are two kinds, or containers, of church doctrines: (1) temporal doctrines, or doctrines that change because of times and circumstances, and (2) spiritual doctrines, doctrines that are universally unchanging. Some truths can change just like how some laws can change. For example, suppose a child is on a roof, and a father is standing below and tells his child to jump into his arms. At that moment, it is right and good for the child to jump. However, if the child is too afraid to jump, then the father needs to climb a ladder to retrieve the child. The father then tells his child not to jump. So is it “jump”, or “not jump”? Clearly the situation dictated the truth. That instruction to jump was like a temporal doctrine. However, suppose the father says to the child, “if you jump, gravity will pull you down to the earth at an acceleration of 9.81 m/s2.” That is a principle. Principles are spiritual doctrines. They don’t change because of the circumstance (or much less likely to change – it is after all possible that a massive meteor could strike the earth and dissolve 1/12th of the earth’s mass, thus affecting earth’s gravity, but very unlikely. Plus, there are slight variations to the principle, since 9.81 m/s2 is an average acceleration, however the principle is fairly clear and stable.)

    To utilize historical examples, some argue that polygamy was a temporal doctrine. At one point it was right and true, and at another point is was not. Others argue that the rights to the priesthood or the priesthood itself are temporal doctrines. Some could argue that killing, deception, anger, etc. are all temporal doctrines. These concepts, by nature are arguable based on the circumstance, and are therefore temporal doctrines (I’d say that most commandments that govern our earthly interaction with each other are arguably temporal to some degree).

    On the other hand, doctrines pertaining to salvation, such as Jesus Christ as Lord, the existence of God, the power of the atonement, the Holy Spirit – these are not necessarily arguable. These are principles of truth. We may not understand them completely because the whole truth may not yet be revealed on these doctrines, but they are not generally arguable within the Church. Any interpretations on these doctrines are speculative, not circumstantial, until additional truths are revealed.

    Consequently, I agree that some Church doctrines, temporal ones, are “discoverable” through “ongoing interpretation”, whereas, spiritual doctrines are not “discoverable” in that sense, but rather revealed and repeatedly reiterated by prophets and angels in plainness. Though there is overlap between temporal and spiritual doctrines, I think that Mormons can usually sniff out the temporal from the spiritual and generally agree on the spiritual doctrines.

  11. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 10:18 am

    That’s interesting, Nate. Your argument about the epstemic superiority of authority is reminiscent of Burke’s argument in favor of tradition in his famous essay in response to the French revolution. The difference between authority and tradition is that the latter is tested by experience. While authority might be biased towards tradition, it can also invoke revolutionary messages.

    Therefore, authority lacks the empirical evidence that inherently supports tradition. With tradition, we know what we have because we have the evidence of vast experience. If one argues to adapt yesterday’s procedures to today’s problems, which is what Burke means by tradition, then one can rely on a considerable body of evidence to justify one’s actions.

    By contrast, authority can turn on a dime. Whether or not such a turn would be a good thing is an empirical question.

    Of course, you are really arguing for the epistemic superiority of obedience. The problem with this post is that you don’t seem to be clear about the alternative. What is obedience epistemically superior to? Doubt? Self-reliance? Reason? Self-interest?

    In my opinion, your argument is confused, particularly with respect to your remark about hypocrisy, which in the Mormon case is often a product of authority, i.e. members are attempting to escape the consequences of dysfunctional instructions while desiring to be obedient, but it is hard to tell because you do not explicitly juxtapose obedience with its epistemic alternatives.

  12. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Hellmut: Have you read the papers or are you simply going off of the post? Incidentally, I think that you are wrong that “authority” (I’m not at all clear what you mean by this) can turn on a dime. I certainly don’t think that church doctrine can turn on a dime. For example, more than a century later, the doctrinal significance of the Manifesto seems far from clear.

    I am also not sure what to make of your remarks about epistemology, although this is no doubt my fault. It seems to me that church doctrine presents two epistemic questions. The first question has to do with determining what is or is not church doctrine. The second question has to do with the truth of church doctrine (whatever its content happens to be). For myself, I think that we lack clear answers to both questions. Hence, I think that the precise contours of church doctrine are unclear. I also think that church doctrine is fallible, and hence its truth is unclear. For reasons that I try to set forth in the two papers, however, I don’t think that either of these problems creates insurmountable obstancles to treating church doctrine as an authority. I think that the first difficulty is managed with non-epistemic coping mechanisms, while the second difficulty is finessed through a series of ultimately redundent arguments for the authority of church doctrine, including an epistemic argument that explicitly assumes the fallibility of church doctrine.

  13. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Nate O. is not making an argument that applies to every authority everywhere the way Burke’s could be applied to all tradition. He’s talking about a specific set of authorities, those associated with the LDS church. I’m sure it would be entirely possible to empirically justify following a specific set of authorities, though as you know most Mormons have reasons other than the social sciences for doing so. In short, the incoherence you claim to have found in Nate O.’s argument seems to have exerted a gravitational pull on yours.

  14. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Adam: I think that my argument is even narrower than that. In the first paragraph of my “A Defense of the Authority of Church Doctrine,” I explicitly disclaim a discussion even of all authorities within the church. For example, I do not purport to be offering an account of the authority of church leaders, prophetic authority, or priesthood authority. Rather, I am talking ONLY about the authority of church doctrine. Even here my discussion is limited to the particular conception of church doctrine that I put forward in my Element paper. Obviously, I think that church doctrine has something to say about other sorts of authority within the church, but I am trying to be relatively precise and relatively modest in my arguments. Particularlly given the fact that the various concepts of authority at work within Mormon thought and practice have recieved virtually no philosophical attention, I am content to begin with small steps.

  15. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    I appreciate Nate’s care with respect to limiting authority. However, I remain concerned because knowledge claims entail power claims. The twentieth century is the history of unwarranted knowledge claims bolstering power claims that led straight to the gulag and the death camps (see Karl Popper’s The Open Society and It’s Enemies).

    Therefore it is important that intellectuals are careful with knowledge claims.

    Nate is advancing a knowledge claim. Some sort of authority, somehow narrowly defined, is supposed to generate more reliable knowledge than an unspecified alternative.

    Compared to Marxist dialectic and fascist essentialism, Nate’s approach is relatively modest. He narrowly, though admittedly imprecisely, defines authority approaching minimalist terms. More importantly, he conceives authority as fallible.

    Nonetheless, he asserts authority’s superiority to unspecified alternatives. As is logically inevitable, Nate then asserts a power claim when he recommends obedience (the fact that he does not claim power for himself is irrelevant. Potential victims suffer all the same).

    That recommendation can have serious consequences for those who adhere to it. Therefore, it seems to me that Nate needs to explain what authority is superior to so that he can justify the epistemic quality of authority/doctrine and the superiority of obedience compared to other a decision making techniques.

  16. Ray on November 20, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Authority is superior to the chaos inherent in the lack thereof.

    How’s that? *grin*

  17. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    I’ll admit that following authority is probably, but not certainly, going to be more advantageous than random behavior, Ray.

    grin back!

  18. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    “Compared to Marxist dialectic and fascist essentialism, Nate’s approach is relatively modes.”

    So I am not as bad as the Marxists and the facists. What a relief.

    “Therefore, it seems to me that Nate needs to explain what authority is superior to so that he can justify the epistemic quality of authority/doctrine and the superiority of obedience compared to other a decision making techniques.”

    The answer on this one is that I don’t really have a clear answer. This doesn’t mean that one couldn’t be put forward, simply that I haven’t worked out exactly what I think. The gist of my position, however, would have to be something like through a process of faith and personal revelation one can come to the conviction that God is uniquely and sometimes decisively involved in the production fo chruch doctrine. This does not mean that it is infallible, only that it is divinely infused. This infusion would justify one in thinking that it is likely to be better informed about the mind and will of God than one’s own unaided speculations (and even — I would say — personal revelations). This justifies following church doctrine even if one disagrees with its substantive content. (One might be mistaken.) However, I don’t want to push the argument too far. If one has good reasons for believing that church doctrine is systematically skewed on some topic, then there is no epistemic justification for its authority in that area.

    Frankly, Hellmut, I have a hard time seeing how that sort of analysis paves the road to death camps or the gulag. The conversation would be more pleasant and illuminating if you cut out the histrionics.

  19. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    I condemn your jack-booted epistemology, Nate O.

  20. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    The relationship between epistemology and totalitarianism is well established, Nate. Rather than calling me names, it would be more productive if you read the literature that illuminates the nature of your activity.

    After all, you are formulating rules of conduct that you consider applicable to every human being. It is hardly asking for too much that you justify such a statement. Neither is it inappropriate to point to the possible consequences of your behavior.

    I find it troubling that you are relying on a poorly defined notion of divine revelation to deduce behavioral imperatives. The implications of that approach have been thoroughly discussed since the early days of the reformation. It is a well known problem. You could easily read about it.

    Why are you averse to exploring the possible consequences of your behavior? I might be doing you a favor by pointing you to implications that you have not considered.

    Anyways, I recommend the Open Society to you. You will find it relevant and enlightening with respect to your endeavor.

  21. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    You fascist, Nazi, jew-hating murderer! Hellmut, how dare you try to tell Nate O. what his conduct should be with respect to statements he makes? The blood of millions is on your hands.

  22. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    That’s not funny, Adam. I am surprised that you would sink to that level.

  23. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Hellmut: Actually I have read Popper and others writing his tradition (e.g. Friedrich Hayek). I actually like their work a great deal. I think as a historical explanation Poppper in particular runs into problems because (like most philosophers) tends to overstate the power of ideas as the motive forces in history. (Richard John Evan’s _The Coming of the Third Reich_, for example, provides a nuanced analysis of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany that emphasizes the role of contingencies in German history rather than over-arching epistemic mistakes in Hitler’s rise.) Hayek is a bit better on this, but writing as he did before the rise of public choice theory, I think that his account is inattentive to the way in which perverse incentives (rather than a fatal epistemic conceit) accounts for the rise of particular political structures. And so on.

    My article is not meant as a homily or a sermon. I am not calling on the unbelievers to follow the Brethren or seeking to fire up the faithful to renewed efforts of obedience. I am certainly not “formulating rules of conduct that [I] consider applicable to every human being.” For example I write:

    Finally, I do not seek to justify the authority of Church doctrine to religious skeptics. My goal is not to convert the unconversted but rather to show that many of the intuitions and implicit assumptions of ordinary Latter-day Saints with regard to the authority of Church doctrine can be made explicit and justiifed by arguments resting on premises that are widely shared among Mormons. (Oman, “A Defense of the Authority of Church Doctrine,” 1-2)

    This is hardly totalitarian stuff. I am trying to work out some puzzles and elucidate the relationship between some concepts in Mormon thought. However, I necessarily leave more questions unanswered and unanalyzed than not. Frankly, I don’t think that this is some sort of ethical or epistemic failure that places me in line with Lenin or Hitler. It shows me guilty of the lesser sin of academic writing.

    Sorry to be testy, I am just not a big fan of the reductio ad Hitler argument, even when supported by cursory citations to philosophers that I like.

  24. Hellmut on November 20, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Nate. I am sorry that my criticism upsets you. If the roles were reversed, I would be upset as well. Unfortunately, our sensibilities do not cancel the implications of our statements.

    The higher the stakes, the more essential it is that we face the distasteful aspects of the human condition. Thank heavens, this is only a blog and a relatively safe environment to explore our respective claims. It seems to me that this is an opportunity to improve the quality of our ideas.

    I agree with you that one can exaggerate the role of ideas but without ideas, movements cannot persist.

    You might remember that the The Open Society and Its Enemies is not an explanation of Hitler’s rise to power. Rather Popper makes the argument that neither National Socialism nor Marxism would be coherent if it were not for their knowledge claims, which turn out to be false.

    It is a serious blow to any movement when common sense holds its ideas to be mythical rather than real. Mormon bloggers intuitively understand this. That’s why some of us expend considerable effort to defend the plausibility of the Joseph Smith story, for example.

    With regard to Karl Popper, it is a mistake to invoke arguments about the historical contingencies that allowed Hitler’s rise. They are not relevant. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper was concerned to identify the faulty reasoning that was the foundation of totalitarian ideology.

    In my opinion, the problem with your argument are the hidden and unacknowledged implications. As you noticed, I have taken care to distinguish your argument from its totalitarian analogues. Then I proceeded to show how, in spite of your modifications, implications that empower totalitarians continue to maintain a hidden presence in your argument.

    My apologies for misattributing the wrong audience. Although I do feel bad for putting words in your mouth, let me point out that as long as the intended audience is greater than zero, the power claim emanating from a knowledge claim persists.

    I am curious though, don’t you subscribe to the Mormon concept that religion is about the salvation of mankind? Wouldn’t you agree with the claim that every human being would be better off to be Mormon and abide by Mormon/Christian commandments? And isn’t it the case that your essays are exploring the proper attitude of believers to Mormon doctrine? Finally, assuming believers can recognize Mormon doctrine, don’t they have an obligation to let the doctrine guide their behavior?

  25. Seth R. on November 20, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    “That’s not funny, Adam. I am surprised that you would sink to that level.”

    He must not know Adam that well.

  26. Nate Oman on November 20, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Hellmut: I really think that you need to read the papers before you make the sorts of sweeping claims that you do. My claim about the epistemic argument for the authority of church doctrine is qutie a bit more limited than you make it out to be. I am simply saying that it is possible to put forward arguments in favor of following an authority even when one disagrees as a substantive matter. I then go on to explicitly state that when one’s reasons for believing in the epistemic advantage of church doctrine fail, there is no longer a basis for treating it as an authority. This simply is not a claim about universal duties of obedience to an authority. Nor is it even an argument about the inferiority of emperical verification or any other particular epistemic methodology. Rather, it is making the simpler point that infallibiltiy is not a necessary condition for treating something as an authority. This is a claim to knowledge, I suppose, but not one that is sufficiently related to totalitarianism for its invocation to make much sense. You are clearly arguing with some sort of Mormon interlocutor in your head, but it is by no means obvious that he is me, particularlly in light of the fact that you don’t seem to have actually read my articles. (My apologies if I am wrong on this one.)

    “I am curious though, don’t you subscribe to the Mormon concept that religion is about the salvation of mankind? Wouldn’t you agree with the claim that every human being would be better off to be Mormon and abide by Mormon/Christian commandments? And isn’t it the case that your essays are exploring the proper attitude of believers to Mormon doctrine? Finally, assuming believers can recognize Mormon doctrine, don’t they have an obligation to let the doctrine guide their behavior?”

    The short answer to this question is that I actually think that “church doctrine” has a limited role in Mormonism and it would be a mistake to identify it with that which is necessary for salvation. For example, I would deny that an understanding of church doctrine is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for salvation.

  27. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 20, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Sure, while any societal authority is able to be critiqued, there have always been/ always will be various and competing forms of these societal authorites and having one or another of them has proven to be quite useful. However, given the aforementioned generality, let’s go ahead and examine one specific instance of authority: fact that the rites and practices of Mormonism depend on the understanding that God provides divine communications in these Latter Days through its organizational, presiding quorum…..

  28. Adam Greenwood on November 20, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    It happened like this when only the dead
    Were smiling, glad of their release,
    That Leningrad hung around its prisons
    Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
    Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
    Short songs of farewell
    To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
    As they, in regiments, walked along -
    Stars of death stood over us
    As innocent Russia squirmed
    Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
    Of the epistemic concerns related to what Mormons would and would not accept as church doctrine.

  29. Gary on November 21, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    Nate—I am a frequent lurker who almost never comments, but this is an issue that is of particular interest to me, so I would like to dive in if I may, and offer a few observations on the one paper I have read. Forgive me if my comments seem a little disjointed.

    I like the way you frame the issue—it is precisely where we disagree with church doctrine that this issue matters. However I think you go a bit too far when you make the following statement in your paper:

    “Furthermore, if I am willing to grant legitimacy to the claims of Church doctrine only in those cases where I already substantively agree with it, there is a sense in which it lacks any power to teach or change me. It is precisely those instances where I find myself in disagreement with the substantive content of Church doctrine that it has the real possibility of altering or changing my beliefs and behaviors.”

    Although I agree with the latter part of this statement, I don’t think that I must grant legitimacy to claims of Church doctrine for this to be true. Church doctrine can change me if I acknowledge its authority even though I disagree, but it can also change me by persuading me that I am wrong. The Church may lose some of its ability to change us if we do not submit to its authority, but it does not lose all of its ability to change us as long as we remain open minded about our own opinions, and acknowledge the possibility that they are wrong.

    In fact, I might even argue that the exclusionary arguments you make limit the ability of the doctrine to change us. When we change because we are persuaded we are wrong, either by argument or by the influence of the Spirit, we really change. When we concede the authority of doctrine on the basis of arguments like those you have presented, we may adjust certain of our actions, but our submission is usually given grudgingly (how can it be otherwise since, by definition, we still disagree?) and it is questionable whether any meaningful change really occurs.

    With respect to your argument from covenant, I think you make a plausible, but weak case for the proposition that members of the church promise to accept and submit to church doctrine. A commitment to serve God and keep his commandments does not imply a commitment to accept church doctrine, which you admit is fallible. At best, I think that baptism might imply a covenant not to openly rebel against the church for teaching what you happen to believe is false doctrine, but I don’t see any basis in the scriptures you have cited for concluding that there is an implicit covenant to accept doctrines with which you in good faith disagree.

    I was particularly interested in your argument from epistemic advantage, because several years ago I made precisely this argument to a friend of mine who has since become something of a celebrity in apostate ex-Mormon circles. Since that time I have come to believe that the argument works conceptually, but it is of very limited practical value. Firstly, I don’t think any of us has any idea how to measure the probability either that church doctrine or any particular individual is correct on any matter in dispute. Those kinds of probabilities just cannot be measured, and so the assumption that church doctrine is more likely to be correct on certain matters than I am is nothing more than an act of faith and it is precisely the legitimacy of that act of faith that is at issue. I don’t think we can we really turn it in to more than that by invoking an argument about relative probabilities.

    Secondly, I think that the exception you acknowledge swallows the rule, at least for all practical purposes. For example, jsome people may have no trouble at all acknowledging that church doctrine is, on average correct more than 95% of the time. However, with regard to the matter of granting the priesthood, they may conclude that track record is pretty poor. Peter was unduly influenced by his Jewish upbringing, and so got it wrong when it came to gentiles, Mormon leaders were affected by the racism of their culture and got it wrong on blacks, so what reason do we have to believe that they are not unduly influenced by the sexism of our culture and they have it wrong now when it comes to women. Others have argued with some force that the prophets have a poor track record with respect any doctrinal issues which are susceptible to scientific investigation.

    Finally, I think that the circumstances in which you suggest that the authority of doctrine is defeasible also swallow at least a big chunk of your rule. Many who find themselves disagreeing with church doctrine do so because they believe that the doctrine being taught is contrary to God’s will. They really believe that God wanted all races to hold the Priesthood. Or they really believe that women are not being treated in accordance with God’s will. Or they really believe that prohibiting gay marriage is not in accordance with God’s will. If I understand you correctly, you would acknowledge that the authority of church doctrine has no claim upon such individuals. This strikes me as a pretty big exception.

    I would appreciate your further thoughts, if you have the time and inclination.

  30. Nate Oman on November 21, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Gary: I think that your point about the persuasive function of church doctrine is very well taken. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that assent to church doctrine comes in only two forms: assent based on pre-existing agreement or assent based on authority. I fully agree that church doctrine can be persuasive. I am less certain the extent to which claims of authority undermine this persuasive function. To be sure, accepting church doctrine only on the basis of authority is likely to be unappealing and spiritually dangerous. On the other hand, I don’t think that church doctrine can perform the functions that it does within our discourse unless we acknowledge that it claims to be an authority in the Razian sense, i.e. an exclusionary reason. Hence my focus on this aspect of the case. I am certainly not adverse to, for example, making substantive arguments for the correctness of church doctrine, and properly speaking I think that they should probably occupy most of our time in church discussion and analysis of particular doctrines. Such discussions, however, do not, IMHO, respond to the issue of authority. Since as near as I could tell there has been very little in the way of disciplined reflection on this point, that is where I focused my attention.

    As for the argument from covenant, arguments about implicit consent are always difficult to pin down. On the other hand, implicit consent is a ubiquitious phenomena. Hence, I think that you have zeroed in on exactly the right point where this argument is weakests. I am not sure, however, how much this proves. After all, implicit agreement by definition will not be explicit so the mere fact that this or that source cited in support of implicit consent does not contain an explicit affirmation of consent can hardly be a devestating critique, unless we are going to jettison the notion of implicit consent entirely. I agree that in the specific case of church doctrine it is a tough call. On the other hand, a person who says something like, “As a member of the church you have promised to follow church doctrine” doesn’t seem obviously out to lunch in my book.

    The argument from epistemic advantage is first and foremost a way of demonstrating the logical possiblity of authority in the face of fallability. I fully agree with you that it rises or falls on the basis of our faith in the epistemic advantage of the processes by which it is created. Hence, I think that the the argument is persuasive to the believer who says something like, “You know I have had all of these experiences in and with the church and the restoration. I really think that the prophets are inspired at least some of the time and that the scriptures contain the word of God, albeit mediated through human minds. I just don’t know why I should follow something fallible when I disagree.” It does not, I think, have any traction with the out and out skeptic or the person who his having a more fundamental crisis of faith. I think, however, that there are more of the first sort of person out there than one might expect. Again, I am very explicit upfront that I am not trying to write an apologetic piece or something that is meant to justify church doctrine’s authority over or to unbelievers.

    The execptions needn’t swallow the rule, in my opinion. First, if you read the other paper — “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine” — where I bracket the authority of church doctrine and look only at how we discover it, you will see that I think that the process inherently involves a great deal of personal judgment. Hence, I think that a lot of the concerns that you would address on the backend so to speak as instances of the defeasability of church doctrine’s authority can actually be dealt with on the front end through the definition of the contours of church doctrine. Obviously (or obviously after you read the first paper) there are limits to this sort of thing. (For example, I think that you will have a hard time making the case that it is church doctrine that women ought to recieve the priesthood in exactly the same way as men.) Still, I think that many an apparent conflict WITH church doctrine is actually a debate about what IS church doctrine. In particular, I think that many are fooled into believing that there is a rule of recognition for church doctrine, and then reject teachings that they identify as church doctrine on the basis of the rule. As I argue in “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine,” however, I think that it is a mistake to think that there is a rule of recognition for church doctrine.

    Two final points. First, whenever one is making arguments about authority one always, in my view, needs to provide a conceptual route to the defeasability of authority. Otherwise the arguments can be rather easily subject to devestating reductio ad absurdums. On the other hand, this leads inevitably to the exception-swallows-the-rule criticism. Put more simply, I think that the danger of exceptions swallowing the rule is part of the strength of my argument. Second, while I probably think that church doctrine does more work in Mormon discourse and practice than some folks (for example Blake Ostler), I ultimately think that it is a secondary player. That is one of the reasons why I was careful in the intro to insist that I was not, for example, discussing the institutional authority of church leaders, the individual authority of prophets, or the concept of priesthood authority. Hence, there are always other kinds of authority operating in tandem with church doctrine. (Once I have figured out what I think about those authorities, I will try to write something up. It took me several years to work out my thinking on church doctrine, so give me time.) Even more than authority, however, I think that many doctrinal disagreements are negotiated (and ought to be negotiated) morally, for example through charity in our disagreements and commitment based on love of fellow saints, institutions, history, etc. In other words, quite aside from church doctrine and other kinds of authority there are (or at least I would hope that there should be) much stronger ties that bind us.

    Thanks for your thoughtful read on the Dialogue piece. I hope that at some point you get a chance to look at the Element article as well.

  31. Hellmut on November 22, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Nate, contrary to your concerns, my criticism is carefully calibrated. I am engaging this sentence:

    “Even if we reject the notion that church doctrine is infallible (and I do reject this notion), we can be justified in thinking that church doctrine is systematically less error prone than we are.”

    Clearly, that’s a knowledge claim. According to you, Church doctrine is less likely to be wrong than we are. That means that at least stochastically, church doctrine, whatever that may be, is more often right than we are. By some measure, there is more truth in Church doctrine than in us (although I am not sure if you apply that only to individual members as well as their communities).

    The paragraph where that statement occurs begins with a power claim:

    “My second article builds on the first article by seeking to justify (and understand the limits of) church doctrine’s authority over church members.”

    You are grounding the authority of Mormon doctrine, whatever that may be, with a claim of epistemic superiority. According to you that is why doctrine is supposed to have a claim on members.

    Therefore, Popper’s concerns about the epistemological foundations of totalitarianism apply to your argument. A dubious knowledge claim buttresses power claims.

    I hope this clarifies the problems with your essay. Since I have not taken issue with your larger claim that there might be good reasons to abide by church doctrine even when it is less than perfect, I am somewhat puzzled by your references to your purpose.

    I am not criticizing your agenda. I do consider it dangerous, however, to attribute special epistemic status to anything in the absence of rationally sustainable reasons.

    Clearly, my criticism of your project is limited, at least in the context of this debate. It would seem to me that you could entirely abandon the unwarranted knowledge claim without sacrificing your stated purpose.

    In return, you would unburden your argument from a problem that has had considerable consequences in Mormon and world history.

  32. Gary on November 22, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Hellmut: I am sure Nate will respond directly, but I think you may be taking the sentence which gives rise to your concern out of context. I understand why you raise the concern you do if all you have read is this post, but Nate’s point in the Dialogue paper is much more nuanced. I understand him to mean simply that any particular individual may rationally conclude that the probability of church doctrine being correct is greater than the probability of that individual being correct. If that is the case, it makes sense for that individual to accept church doctrine even though she disagrees with it. There are at least some exceptions to this which he outlines in the paper.

    Although for reasons which I have mentioned above I am not sure that this argument has a lot of practical application when it comes to doctrinal matters, the general claim does not strike me as particularly controversial. Any time I find myself in disagreement with people whose judgment I have come to respect based on their credentials and track record, it should at least give me pause. I know I am wrong on many issues quite often, so it is perfectly rational for me to defer to those whose track record is also flawed, but still better than mine.

  33. Gary on November 22, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    Nate: I agree with most of what you said. However, there are couple of points I would like respond to.

    I would agree with the following statement: “On the other hand, a person who says something like, “As a member of the church you have promised to follow church doctrine” doesn’t seem obviously out to lunch in my book.” It isn’t obviously out to lunch, but I do think that the statement is too broad. I think that there is plenty of room within the church for people to reject at least some elements of church doctrine without at the same time finding themselves in breach of baptismal or other covenants. On the other hand, I do think that there at least some elements of church doctrine that are not optional, and that all members implicitly promise to accept those doctrines. Of course, I have not yet read your paper on what constitutes church doctrine, so maybe that issue is dealt with there.

    I have been thinking some more about your argument of epistemic advantage. I am not so sure it really fits as an exclusionary argument in the same as way as the other two arguments you are making. The other arguments ask us to ignore the substantive issues, and force us to accept doctrine without addressing the question whether the doctrine is true or false. The argument from epistemic authority does not really do that. It is really a method of assessing the truth of a particular doctrine by some kind of statistical analysis. This method, whether or not it is reliable, seems like an attempt to assess the truth of a particular doctrine and is subject to rebuttals defending a different conclusion. The other arguments would exclude those rebuttals as irrelevant.

    I agree that the potential of exceptions swallowing the rule is a strength of your argument. I think that is largely what protects your approach from Hellmut’s critique. However, I suspect that the large majority of dissenters could agree with your arguments and still hold to their dissenting opinions, because I think that one or more exceptions will usually apply. I happen to think that is a good thing.

  34. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 22, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Like the cool optical illusion Adam G. linked to on T&S’s sidebar recently (,21985,22556281-661,00.html ), those “buying-in” to a faith see the marvelous social ordering as results from a legitimatization of its authority as proof of its inspired vision, while those who don’t, don’t (and to the extent they are able to catch but a glimpse of the image in question, decide it must be but a chimera). Still, those writing for others within a religious community will assume fellow members buy-in to its basic authoritative legitimacy before they sit down to put pen to paper (uh, lie down on their couch and press their keyboard or whatever).

  35. Nate Oman on November 22, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Hellmut: Thanks for your response. At this point, I doubt that further discussion is all that useful until you have read the paper and seen the context in which I make the argument from epistemic advantage, and the ways in which I discuss its defeasability. Also, until you have actually read the essay in question, I am going to bracket your claims about the argument’s “considerable consequences in Mormon and world history,” although needless to say I am flattered by your assessment of the power of my (alleged) philosophical mistakes.

  36. Nate Oman on November 22, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Gary: One of the issues that I haven’t worked out yet is what to make of the relationship between church doctrine and beliefs. In cases of practices, I think that the arguments work quite well. On the other hand, I am faced with a bit of a quandary in that I think that as a matter of church doctrine one is not required to believe all of church doctrine. Put another way, I don’t think that heretical (read contra-doctrinal) beliefs are per se wrong, although I can imagine that in some cases such beliefs could be wrong. Hence, I think as a matter of doctrine that in many cases one is free to dissent from doctrine. So does this mean that I reject the authority of church doctrine, or does it simply mean that I believe that church doctrine’s authority authorizes differing beliefs? I haven’t quite worked this one out. In short, I am a big believer in Joseph Smith’s statement that “Just because a man errs in doctrine, it doesn’t mean that he is not a good man.” On the other hand, I think that even doctrine that is without any apparent practical significance has practical implications for church practices: For example, I think that it would be wrong to advocate ideas that are clearly rejected by church doctrine in church settings. I think that it would be wrong to attack church doctrine as a teacher in the church. Etc. etc.

  37. Hellmut on November 24, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Nate, I don’t know why you have such a hard time to understand that I read your paper. The problem persists.

  38. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 25, 2007 at 2:47 am

    (My just observing outer contours here): Knowledge claims shown to be dubious include a qualified, positive view of religious authority that believers, by definition, accept as divine. Makes for a classic failure to communicate. A Bushman versus Vogel; a so-called “fundy,” hyphen, too-liberal-for-authority-of-holy-writ split?

  39. Chino Blanco on November 26, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    ” … the LDS salvific model … has a very strong legalistic flavor to it.”

    Ya’ think?

  40. Chino Blanco on November 26, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Sorry, I’m confused, but is the weekend of “fuller treatment” happening at Abu Ghraib or the Maldives?


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