Doctrine as Grammar

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.


  1. I really like this way of thinking about doctrine, Lynnette. Like you said, this approach handles changes over time seamlessly, where the propositional approach chokes on them. I think the propositionalist approach also tends to fail because doctrinal statements clearly don’t form a neat unified whole. Again, it seems like this is clearly something that grammars handle, though; there’s no reason there can’t be competing grammatical rules that aren’t necessarily easy to reconcile.

    This is probably going beyond Lindbeck’s thinking, but I also like that rules of grammar are more bottom-up (I think) than rules as thought of using the propositionalist approach. People use language in certain patterned ways, and rules of grammar are used to describe those patterns. But the rules came after the patterns. The propositionalist approach seems more top-down, where there’s an overarching structure that all doctrinal propositions can be fit into.

    Thanks for posting this. Fascinating ideas!

  2. Thanks for putting this up, Lynnette. It’s an intriguing way to reconsider our assumptions about what doctrine is, and how it works.

  3. Lynnette, excellent idea, and I agree that grammar is a fluid thing policed only by native speakers’ abilities to comprehend statements as grammatical. In language, as in the case of doctrine, however, what do you think is the role of the prescriptive/propositionalist approaches in informing native conceptions of what constitutes a grammatical or doctrinal statement? That is, can these two approaches be totally and neatly separated?

    Thanks again, this is certainly the most productive definition I’ve heard!

  4. jupiterschild, the prescriptive grammatical rules (don’t split an infinitive, don’t end a sentence with a preposition, the subject and verb must always agree) affect how people say they ‘should’ talk. And people will firmly state that they always follow these rules. However, when we look at what people actually say when they speak, they follow their internal grammar and completely ignore the schoolteacher rules that don’t fit there. But because they have only been taught the one set of rules they don’t even know what they actually say. Which is I think appropriate because people get a little crazy when they think about how they say everything they say.

    Applying this idea to doctrine, I would say that when asked about a doctrinal statement people would likely be able to quote the statement that has been read over the pulpit and state that that is ‘what we believe’. However, in living life a different set of internal beliefs may be seen, and these two belief systems can coexist for years without undergoing any real examination. Among other things, this would explain the persistence of ‘folk doctrines’ being spouted decades after the policy that motivated them has been abandoned.

    And Katya, I would say there can definitely be doctrinal dialects. I think of stories I’ve heard of general authorities coming out against various practices because groups of people have adopted them into their personal doctrinal grammars.

    Yes, I like this framework very much. Thanks for posting!

  5. Katya, I like that question. I don’t want to over-extend the analogy, but it does make sense to me that there would be variations (no matter how hard we may try to keep everyone correlated). I’ve lived in Utah County, the Midwest, and the Bay Area of California, and I would say that each of them has a slightly different dialect. Though I don’t know if this has to be tied to geography, as you can doubtless find people in the same ward who speak Mormonism differently. And perhaps we could talk about the bloggernacle as having a dialect all its own.

    Ziff, that’s a good point about changes over time–this model not only allows for them, but in fact expects them. And I like your observation about this being less of a top-down approach: people aren’t only receivers of language, but creators of it. I like how that allows for more individual agency.

    Thanks, Eve!

    jupiterschild, glad you stopped by. I think you’re right that the two approaches can’t be completely disentangled. The fact that the rules of grammar change over time doesn’t stop us from writing rule books—and those do play a role, as do propositional statements about religion, in shaping people’s beliefs. But of course the influence goes in both directions.

    Deb, I really like that point that we might glibly quote the correlated rule or doctrinal statement even when our actual beliefs don’t actually coincide that closely with it. And as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance, we might not even notice the disconnect. I’m reminded of how Mormons can sound like robots when we talk to outsiders (and also often to each other), reciting the doctrines/rules in a way that sounds scripted and inauthentic, rather than something arising from the messiness of personal experience. It’s as if we think that following the rules means that everything always has to be said the same way. So it’s always refreshing when someone plays around with the language a little.

  6. In linguistics, dialects are mutually intelligible, but they show consistent grammatical differences from each other.

    It makes sense to me that religious dialects would vary from each other in belief or practice, yet still be similar enough that each practitioner would recognize the other as being from the same religion.

    The idea of how religious dialects/grammars are transmitted is an interesting one. Parent-to-child would be a strong link, since children who grow up in an LDS household learn the details of their faith primarily from their parents. However, once the children are grown, that link could be relatively independent of geography, since children would probably keep a lot of the same dialectical features, regardless of where they lived.

    For converts, the grammar would initially be transmitted via the missionaries, I suppose, but they wouldn’t be around to fill in the details when questions came up, so perhaps converts would turn to fellow ward members or to the bishop?

    In addition, there are external aspects of religious grammar as well as internal ones. My neighbors aren’t going to know if I pay tithing on my net or gross income, but they are going to know if I let my teenage daughter wear tank tops, so perhaps the external aspects of religious grammar are more likely to be regulated by geography than the internal ones are. (In truth, this internal/external aspect of religious practice or belief is an case where the grammar analogy falls apart, because I can’t think of an equivalent in language.)

    Five paragraphs, and I haven’t even touched on standard dialects or prescriptivist grammar, yet. 🙂


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