Doctrinal Development and Continuing Revelation

One of my Catholic professors once wryly observed that ten seemed to be the magic number for official Catholic pronouncements: after a new teaching had been repeated ten times, documents would begin with the phrase, “as the Church has always taught . . .” The comment made me laugh, because it reminded me of the LDS tendency to assert that every current notion in the Church must have existed in antiquity. Like other religious traditions, we are confronted with the challenge of theologically accounting for change while maintaining continuity with the past.

One influential approach to this problem was laid out by John Henry Newman in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, first published in 1845 (the same year Newman joined the Catholic church). In this work, he proposes a theological framework for understanding doctrinal development over time and the emergence of apparently “new” teachings. The underlying problem, he explains, is that “great questions exist in the subject-matter of which Scripture treats, which Scripture does not solve; questions so real, so practical, that they must be answered.” (60) His solution to dealing with these gaps is the process of doctrinal development.

These developments are not completely new ideas. For Newman, all the truths of revelation are contained in the Bible. However, they are not necessarily there in an explicit form. Doctrinal development does not mean the addition of new truths to a pre-existing deposit of revelation, but a richer articulation of what we already possess. This development can continue indefinitely, because explicit articulations of doctrine can never fully express their underlying truths. “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea; no one term or proposition which will serve to define it.” (35) Human language can never fully convey the mysteries of God. In Newman’s framework, then, to say that revelation is closed does not mean that the conversation is over, as the search for better expression of the truths of faith is an ongoing one.

How different is this concept of doctrinal development from the LDS understanding of continuing revelation? One challenge in answering such a question is that “revelation” is a rather ambiguous term. (As a recent BCC thread points out, so is “doctrine.”) In 19th century thought, revelation was generally understood as God revealing truths of faith. Much of recent theology, on the other hand, understands revelation not as God revealing something, but rather as God revealing himself. (While Newman’s own view of the matter is not entirely clear, his framework has proved useful for those taking the latter approach.) Mormons, I think, tend to conceptualize revelation as propositional– according to the Ninth Article of Faith, after all, God has yet to reveal “many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”

(A bit tangentially, I think that clarifying what we mean by “revelation” might be helpful in interfaith dialogue, as I’ve noted that Mormons and other Christians often seem to talk past each other on this subject. Members of the LDS church are prone to erroneously assuming that when other Christians assert that revelation is closed, this necessarily implies a silent God, one no longer involved in human affairs. On the other hand, when someone who understands Christ as the unsurpassable, definitive, final revelation of God hears that Mormons believe in a “new revelation,” she or he may mistakenly assume that we believe that someone else–perhaps Joseph Smith–has somehow surpassed Christ.)

Given our belief in continuing revelation, one might expect to find an abundance of new, never-before-revealed truths in Mormonism. But interestingly, many distinctive LDS doctrines (such an embodied God, the premortal existence, and the three degrees of glory) which might conceivably have be presented this way are instead framed in terms of a restoration of what was already known by people in antiquity, and are connected to the Bible. In other words, instead of teaching radically new doctrines and then playing the “continuing revelation” trump card to account for them, we frequently seek to ground our teachings, even ones that might sound new, in past revelation. In such cases, our approach seems to somewhat parallel that of doctrinal development.

Of course, there do exist doctrinal assertions within Mormonism which might be classified as “new” (the King Follett Discourse? the notion that intelligences cannot be created?) On the other hand, there are Catholic teachings which might also sound like innovations (e.g. the immaculate conception of Mary, or the doctrine of purgatory), but which Newman manages to account for without turning to any notion of new revelation.

“Continuing revelation” as we use the term might also refer to:

(1) New sources of truth. (These might but do not necessarily contain additional truths; the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon, for example, seems to be to clarify and witness to truths already revealed.)

(2) Changes in practice: the institution and the abandonment of polygamy, the implementation of the Word of Wisdom, alterations in how ordinances are performed, the extension of the priesthood to all worthy males, etc.

(3) The general continuing involvement of God in Church affairs.

Would a model of “doctrinal development” also allow for these? For Newman, (3) is in fact a necessity, as doctrinal development must be guided by the Spirit, which guarantees the legitimacy of the process. And for (2), it is quite conceivable that changes in practice could be accounted for in terms of a more complete understanding of the revelation one already possessed, or an application of that revelation to the contemporary situation.

However, I do not think that Newman’s doctrinal development model allows for (1). Where continuing revelation most sharply differs from his approach, I would argue, is not in the possibility of new truths, or in the way it allows for changes in practice, but rather in the possibility that such new truths or altered practices might arise not from already existing revelation, but from additions to it. I do wonder, though, given that we have not added much to our canon in the last century (and our one recent revelation was a policy change), whether these two approaches are actually all that different in current practice.


  1. If one considers the doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ, the concept of revelation as the Lord revealing himself takes on some serious additional significance.

    I belong to the camp that sees most doctrinal innovations as actually restorations of something in antiquity. However, I see antiquity primarily in terms of the first estate or the order of heaven, and not as something practiced a handful of thousand years ago.

    For example, it seems likely to me that the Law of Moses probably actually existed in comparable form at some point in the history of heavenly civilization, and was found not to be adequate, hence the need for a better covenant founded on better promises.

    That said, I don’t think that the laws and ordinances of God are generally natural laws at all, but rather divinely authored ones. In other words celestial civilization itself is progressing and developing new laws, and this collaborative progress will never cease.

    So the answer to the dilemma is that there isn’t one. Revelation is simply a process of communicating the doctrinal development that occured in heaven at one time or another down to earth, as fast as we are prepared to receive it.

  2. It’s interesting to hear that we’re not the only ones who believe once the Church has repeated something ten times, it has always taught it. (“From the beginning of time, the Church has always stressed the importance of motherhood,” for example, presumably meaning the beginning of 1973 or so. ;))

    Another thought I’ve had that relates tangentially is that in some circumstances we point to changes in the Church as evidence of its validity–that God is involved and actively steering its course. But in other contexts we claim constancy as the evidence of our validity–that the basic truths we embrace were taught in antiquity and are fundamentally unchanged. I’m not quite sure how to sort this out.

  3. (By the way, as I posted on Brad’s blog, though I’ve done a lot of academic work with Catholic theology and in Catholic settings, they haven’t yet converted me. But maybe if they offered chocolate . . .)

    Mark, that’s an interesting take on the notion of things being restored from “antiquity.” Though I have to admit that it’s hard for me to imagine what something like the Law of Moses, which is so entwined with a particular culture, would look like in a heavenly civilization.

    Kiskilili, I was also amused to learn that we’re not alone in our “since the beginning of time” rhetoric. On kind of a similar note, one of the things that fascinates me about this subject is that I got the impression growing up that “continuing revelation” made us special because we were the only church which saw itself as being currently directed by God–which obviously isn’t the case.

  4. Thanks Lynnette. I was thinking of your paragraph (the one enclosed entirely in quotes) when we visited last night with our Lutheran friend. She confessed that she sometimes suspected me of laying a trap for her when I asked her why she prayed if she didn’t believe in ongoing revelation. She was right, of course, I was trying to “make her an offender for a word”, and I apologized. So, your lovely little corner of the bloggernacle has already contributed to the quality of interfaith dialogue!

    I agree that we often attempt to ground our beliefs in the bible, but I think our most distinctly Mormon, and therefore most radical, doctrine stands on its own. I’m not sure I have ever heard anyone attempt to tie our doctrine of sealing generations together to any previous teaching. The idea that “the same sociality” can continue beyond death is enormously appealing to me.

  5. Interesting thoughts, Lynnette.

    The ahistorical approach is one that often grates. (I was biting my tongue during one recent talk about the Tamar story, which framed it all as a highly scarlet-letter-esque account of how adultery was bad).

    And the accounts of doctrinal innovations in Mormonism are often overstated. Moroni told us not to baptize babies — in a memo that we received quite a while after Protestants said the same. And I’ve heard church members refer to “Adam fell that men might be” as an innovative Mormon doctrine. Alas, the general rule of thumb is that if a Latin phrase exists to describe it — felix culpa — then the Catholics probably thought of it first.

    Other potential real innovations — polygamy, consecration, King Follett, blood atonement — are left aside. And the millennialist traditions of the church are largely downplayed now.

    What is left, then, for continuing revelation? Is it just a relatively unique model of theophany (or at least, a crystalization of nineteenth-century ideas in a relatively unique way)? I agree with Mark, one of the great innovations has to be the sealing doctrine — though it’s one that we don’t really understand much, I think.

  6. Mark, you rock. Thanks for sharing that experience.

    I agree with you that our most distinctive doctrines are at best only loosely connected to the Bible (and I’m wondering whether a tendency to play up those often tenuous connections maybe arises from a desire to gain legitimacy in the eyes of other Christians?)

    Something I’m interested in is teasing out which LDS doctrines are in fact distinctive (at least in the context of Christianity, since I’m not all that familiar with other religions). Like Kaimi, I’ve found that not everything we claim as our unique innovation is really all that unique. But I’d agree that sealings do seem to fit into the category of peculiarly Mormon.

    Roasted Tomatoes did an interesting post a while ago on the role of revelation in the contemporary church. It’s a question I definitely wonder about.


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