One of the endlessly entertaining topics in Mormonism is the conundrum of figuring out what exactly constitutes “official doctrine,” and how we make that determination. I found myself seriously grappling with this dilemma early on in my theological studies, when I first attempted to write an academic paper on Mormonism for a non-LDS audience. I wrote, “LDS doctrine is x”—and then I wondered how I knew that, and what reference I should cite. Of course, we have a lot of official-ish sources. The scriptures certainly have a strong claim to authority—but sometimes they contradict each other, there is widespread disagreement regarding how many of them should be interpreted, and there are plenty of things in the canon (especially the Bible) that we overlook altogether. The same could be said for the teachings of church leaders. I often look at recent publications or conference talks to get a sense of what is being currently taught and emphasized. But the boundaries of “official teaching” remain somewhat murky. I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing. But the situation nonetheless poses challenges for anyone trying to say something coherent about LDS beliefs.
There is a theologian by the name of George Lindbeck who proposes an intriguing approach to questions of doctrine. He lays out three possible ways of understanding what doctrine is. The first model is the propositionalist. This is the traditional approach in which doctrines are understood as being propositional statements about truth. I would hazard a guess that this is how Latter-day Saints generally think about doctrine. The second model Lindbeck describes is the experiential-expressivist, in which doctrines are understood as articulations of some kind of prelinguistic religious experience; the experience itself, then, is more fundamental than the way in which it is expressed. And Lindbeck’s third model, the one for which he advocates, is what he calls a cultural-linguistic model.
In this third model, doctrines play a regulative role. They are comparable to the rules of grammar in that they provide a structure to religious belief, and regulate what can and cannot be said. Lindbeck uses the example of the Nicene Creed: it clearly rules out certain kinds of statements about God, such as the assertion that God is a quaternity, while leaving a wide amount of room for discussion of God in the context of the regulating doctrine of God as Trinity.
There is much more to Lindbeck’s argument than I am mentioning here, but I want to consider this particular idea that doctrine is comparable to grammar. When we try to establish what is truly doctrinal in LDS teachings, a common approach is to look for propositional truths, as if we could make a collection of them and then have the definitive word on Mormon doctrine. But I like the idea that doctrine could instead be understood as a boundary, leaving room for debate and discussion, but still providing a structure of some kind. And as with grammar, the boundaries are fluid and change over time—as might be similarly said of a church which believes in continuing revelation.
Lindbeck also makes the point that doctrinal rules, like those of any grammar, are best understood (if only implicitly) by those who speak the language. If you are fluent in the language of your community you have a sense of what sounds “right,” of how the rules work. How do I explain to someone, for example, that regardless of what they’ve read in certain literature about Mormons, Kolob doesn’t actually play a central role in our belief system? How do I know that? Because my participation in the community gives me a sense of how our doctrine functions, and what is central and what is less central. Those who read about Mormonism without that context are unlikely to be able to make such a distinction.
I also like this model because it allows for creative thinking. In looking at the atonement—a doctrine I think that most fluent speakers of Mormonism would agree is a central one—the boundary doctrine might be that the atonement reconciles us to God in some way. This leaves plenty of room for discussion about what exactly that involves. It allows for diversity and internal pluralism without watering down the tradition into something meaningless in which anything goes. It also allows us to talk about some interpretations as mainstream (noting of course that this is not static), without ruling out more unusual perspectives.