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Meaning, Source, and History of Doctrine

by M. Gerald Bradford and Larry E. Dahl

MEANING OF DOCTRINE. The word "doctrine" in the scriptures means "a teaching" as well as "that which is taught." Most often in the Church it refers to the teachings or doctrine of Jesus Christ, understood in a rather specific sense. Scripturally, then, the term "doctrine" means the core message of Jesus Christ—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer. All other teachings are subordinate to those by which all people "know how to come unto Christ and be saved"—that is, to the "points of doctrine," such as faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. At one time, stressing the preeminence and foundational nature of this message, Jesus taught, "And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock" (3 Ne. 11:40).

In the King James Version (KJV) of the Old Testament, the word "doctrine" occurs six times (Deut. 32:2; Job 11:4; Prov. 4:2; Isa. 28:9, 29:24; Jer. 10:8), usually as a translation of the Hebrew word leqakh, meaning "instruction" or, more literally, "what is to be received." In the KJV New Testament it is used some fifty times, most often in reference to the teaching or instruction of Jesus Christ, less frequently to the teachings of others.

The "doctrine of Jesus Christ," which the Savior's listeners found "astonishing" (Matt. 7:28) and "new" (Mark 1:27) and which he attributed to the Father (John 7:16-19), is synonymous with his central message, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Paul's words, it was the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand and that God "hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 5:18).

The apostles, following the death and resurrection of the Savior, continued to teach this essential message (Acts 13:12; 1 Tim. 6:1). They used the word "doctrine" most often in reference to what a person must believe and do in order to be saved (Acts 2:41-47; 1 Tim. 4:16; Heb. 6:1-3).

Most occurrences of the term "doctrine" in the New Testament are in the singular and refer to the "doctrine of Jesus Christ." The plural "doctrines" usually refers to the teachings of men and devils, false and vain teachings contrary to or denying the Savior's "doctrine." Jesus' message comes from the Father and has its content in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer, the way of salvation. The "doctrine" of Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which all other teachings, principles, and practices rest.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants use the word "doctrine" in the same way. In the singular it always refers to the "doctrine of Jesus Christ" or to the "points of his doctrine" and means "that which will ensure the salvation of those who accept and act upon it." In the plural, it refers to the false teachings of devils or others (2 Ne. 3:12; 28:9; D&C 46:7). The Book of Mormon uses "doctrine" in this special sense as the "doctrine of Jesus Christ" or the gospel (twenty-eight times). Jesus attributed his teaching to the Father: "This is my doctrine,…that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me. And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God" (3 Ne. 11:32-33). Later he declared, "This is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of the Father,…and my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; …that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before the Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world" (3 Ne. 27:13-16; cf. D&C 76:40-42).

Thus, the "doctrine of Jesus Christ" is the only teaching that can properly be called "doctrine." It is fixed and unchanging. It cannot be modified or contradicted, but merely amplified as additional truths that deepen understanding and appreciation of its meaning are revealed. It is the basis on which the test of faith is made, and the rock or foundation of all other revealed teachings, principles, and practices.

Some of these other teachings comprise what is sometimes referred to as the Plan of Salvation, which is understood as the larger historical setting in which the "doctrine of Jesus Christ" is situated and hence best understood. This is the plan worked out by the Father from the beginning, centering on the Atonement of Jesus Christ as the necessary means by which all individuals are saved and exalted. All other revealed teachings are either aspects of the doctrine of Jesus Christ or extensions, elaborations, or appendages of it. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, "The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended unto heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it" (TPJS, p. 121).

Some of the "appendages" that are explicitly identified in the scriptures as part of the doctrine of Jesus Christ are (1) faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; (2) repentance of all sins; (3) baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; (4) the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying-on of hands by those in authority; (5) enduring in righteousness to the end; and (6) the resurrection of all human beings to be judged by Christ (3 Ne. 9:1-16; 11:23-39; 19:7-28; 27:13-21; D&C 10:62-69; 33:10-15; 39:5-6; 76:40-43). Additional teachings, or "things we know" (D&C 20:17), that are closely associated with this foundation include knowledge about the nature of God, the creation and the Fall of Adam, agency, continuing revelation, an open canon and the continual search for the truth of all things, premortal life, the gathering of Israel, the role of a covenant people, sharing the gospel, hope and charity, the establishment of Zion, the second coming of Christ, Christ's reign on earth for a thousand years, temple ordinances for the living and the dead, the preaching of the gospel in the postearth spirit world, the need for priesthood, degrees of glory in the hereafter, eternal marriage, and the concept of ultimate exaltation in the presence of God to share his glory and life.

In addition to its scriptural use, the word "doctrine" has a broad meaning in Mormon vernacular, where it is used to mean virtually everything that is, or has been, taught or believed by the Latter-day Saints. In this sense, doctrinal teachings answer a host of questions. Some relate closely to the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ; others are farther removed and unsystematically lap over into such disciplines as history, psychology, philosophy, science, politics, business, and economics. Some of these beliefs qualify as official doctrine and are given to the Saints as counsel, exhortation, reproof, and instruction (2 Tim. 3:16). Continual effort is made to harmonize and implement these principles and doctrine into a righteous life. Other teachings, ones that lack official or authoritative standing, may also be widespread among Church members at any given time.

SOURCE OF DOCTRINE. God is the source of doctrine. It is not devised or developed by man. It is based on eternal truth and is revealed by God to man. It can be properly understood only by revelation through the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11-14; Jacob 4:8).

God dispenses eternal truths "line upon line, precept upon precept" (2 Ne. 28:30). At times, he has revealed the fulness of the gospel, and those who have accepted and lived it were received into his presence. When people have ignored or rejected his gospel, God has on occasion withheld his Spirit, and people have had to live in a state of spiritual darkness (see Apostasy).

God reveals as much light as humankind is willing to abide. Hence, varying amounts of true doctrine have existed on the earth at different periods of time, and people on earth during the same era have enjoyed differing amounts of truth. In this sense, there can be said to be a history of doctrine—that is, an account of how, over time, humankind has either grown or declined in the knowledge of the things of God, man, and the world. Joseph Smith taught, "This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed" (TPJS, p. 256).

Many factors influence how much God reveals, to whom, and under what circumstances. These include (1) who takes the opportunity to ask the Father in the name of Christ; (2) how much faith those seeking knowledge have; (3) what they ask for; (4) what is good for them to receive (D&C 18:18); (5) how willing they are to obey what is given (Alma 12:9-11); (6) what the will and wisdom of God require, for he gives "all that he seeth fit that they should have" (Alma 29:8); (7) whether the faith of people needs to be tested (Mormon was about to write more, but "the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people" [3 Ne. 26:8-11]); and (8) how spiritually prepared people are to receive the revelation (for example, Jesus taught through parables in order to protect those who were not ready to understand [Luke 8:10; D&C 19:22]). The eternal truths constituting the gospel do not change, and eventually all who are exalted in the kingdom of God will understand them and apply them fully. However, mankind's knowledge and understanding of these truths change, as do the policies and practices appropriate to concurrent levels of understanding and obedience.

Inasmuch as God's house "is a house of order…and not a house of confusion" (D&C 132:8), there must be one who can speak for God for the whole Church and also settle differences. In THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints, the living prophet is the only one authorized to "receive revelations and commandments" binding on the entire Church (D&C 28:1-7; 43:1-7; 128:11). From the time the Church was organized, there has been—and always will be—"a prophet, recognized of God and his people, who will continue to interpret the mind and will of the Lord" (Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign 7 [May 1977]:78). Ordinarily, the prophet acts in concert with his counselors in the First Presidency and the quorum of the Twelve apostles—those who hold, with the Prophet, the "keys of the kingdom" (D&C 81:2; 112:30)—with the principle of quorum unanimity and common consent of the members of the Church giving power and validity to their decisions (D&C 26:2; 107:27-31). Acting collectively and under the inspiration of God, these leaders are authorized to determine the position of the Church at any given time on matters of doctrine, policy, and practice. This is the proper channel through which changes come. Latter-day Saints believe that God "will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (A of F 9). It is expected that such revelations will involve an expanded understanding of doctrine.

Many individuals write or preach their views. Some, by study and obedience, may learn truths that go beyond the stated position of the Church, but this does not authorize them to speak officially for the Church or to present their views as binding on the Church. There are many subjects about which the scriptures are not clear and about which the Church has made no official pronouncements. In such matters, one can find differences of opinion among Church members and leaders. Until the truth of these matters is made known by revelation, there is room for different levels of understanding and interpretation of unsettled issues.

HISTORY OF DOCTRINE. The doctrine of the Church was revealed principally through the Prophet Joseph Smith, though subsequent additions and clarifications have been made. These truths are part of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, known on earth in earlier times but now lost, necessitating a restoration by revelation.

The Prophet Joseph Smith received and shared his doctrinal understanding line upon line, from the time of his first vision in 1820 to his death in 1844. In many instances, his own understanding was progressively enhanced. In other matters, he learned certain principles early but only taught them as his followers were able and willing to accept them. Concerning the hereafter, for example, he said, "I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them" (TPJS, p. 305).

There is no simple pattern or predictable sequence in the growth of Joseph Smith's knowledge. Much of his doctrinal understanding gradually unfolded through revelations that he received in response to various contemporary issues and circumstances facing the infant but quickly expanding Church. Other teachings emerged quite spontaneously. His perceptions grew in completeness and detail, but they did not lose their historical footing in past dispensations or their undeviating goal of bringing people to Christ.

One important catalyst in this process was Joseph Smith's systematic examination of the Bible (see Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible [JST]), which yielded inspired biblical interpretations and textual restorations. Also, many sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are revelations answering questions that arose in this process (e.g., D&C 76, 91, 132).

Joseph's teachings about the Godhead illustrate the previous points. At first, he simply taught that God the Father and the Son were separate personages, without mentioning explicitly the nature of their bodies, even though 3 Nephi 11:15 (translated in 1829) made it clear that Jesus' resurrected body was tangible. Later, in Nauvoo, Joseph declared that "there is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones" (TPJS, p. 181, a comment made in 1841 on the biblical text in John 5:26), and that both the Father and the Son have bodies of "flesh and bones as tangible as man's" (D&C 130:22). Two months before his death, Joseph, for the first time in a recorded public sermon—indeed, in his crowning sermon about the nature of God, the King Follett discourse—taught that God is an exalted man. And two weeks before his death he spoke of a "plurality of Gods," expanding one's understanding in Genesis 1 of the Hebrew plural elohim, or "gods" (Joseph had studied Hebrew in 1835), explaining that "there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us only one, and we are to be in subjection to that one," and declaring that for fifteen years he had always preached "the plurality of Gods" (TPJS, pp. 370-71; cf. 1 Cor. 8:5-6).

Similarly, Joseph's teachings relating to such things as the nature of man, his premortal existence, his agency, and his eternal potential of godhood also gradually unfolded to him and to those around him. He learned in December 1830 that "all the children of men" were created "spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth" (Moses 3:5). A revelation in 1833 indicated that a component of each individual existed before his or her spiritual creation, a component called intelligence, which "was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D&C 93:29). During the period 1835-1842, while translating the book of Abraham, Joseph Smith learned that Abraham had seen into the premortal world and beheld myriads of "intelligences that were organized before the world was," in the presence of God (Abr. 3:22). Many were "noble and great" and chose to follow Christ. To this was added in 1841 that "at the first organization in heaven we were all present, and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the Plan of Salvation made, and we sanctioned it" (TPJS, p. 181).

The Prophet's teachings on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, creation, foreordination, salvation for the dead, priesthood, temple ordinances, eternal marriage, exaltation, and many other subjects can all be shown to have followed similar courses of development during his ministry (Cannon, Dahl, and Welch).

By 1844, the basic doctrinal structure of the Church was in place. Since that time, however, there have been official pronouncements clarifying doctrinal understanding or adapting doctrinal applications to particular circumstances. Some are now included in the Doctrine and Covenants; others are published as official messages of the First Presidency (cf. MFP). Over the years, various procedures and practices have received greater or lesser emphasis as changes have occurred in economic conditions (see Consecration; Tithing; United Order; Welfare), political circumstances (see Church and State; Politics; War and Peace), intellectual atmosphere (see Intellectual History), Church growth (see Organization), and many other areas. The essential doctrine of the Church, however, has remained constant amid such change.

Certain Church leaders have written extensively of their understanding of the doctrines of the Church and, as a consequence, have had a significant influence on what many members believe (see treatises on doctrine below). These have included Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, B. H. Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie. Their writings evidence some differences of opinion on unsettled issues, just as different schools of thought exist among Church members in general on certain issues. Examples include efforts to reconcile current scientific teachings and revealed truths, to ponder the nature of uncreated intelligence, and to define eternal progression. Latter-day Saints have faith that answers will eventually be revealed, and are urged, in the meantime, to seek knowledge by all available means and to show tolerance toward those espousing differing opinions on such subjects.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Doctrines of the Gospel home page)


Cannon, Donald Q.; Larry E. Dahl; and John W. Welch. "The Restoration of Major Doctrines Through Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and the Creation." Ensign 19 (Jan. 1989):27-33; and "The Restoration of Major Doctrines Through Joseph Smith: Priesthood, the Word of God, and the Temple." Ensign 19 (Feb. 1989):7-13.

Lyon, T. Edgar. "Doctrinal Development of the Church During the Nauvoo Sojourn, 1839-1846." BYU Studies 15 (Summer 1975):435-46.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Doctrine

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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