With the precision of a surgeon, Dennis B. Horne dissects the issue of who has the authority to determine doctrine in Mormonism. His approach is clinical and exhaustive, giving the reader a wealth of source material on the subject. The author states in his preface:
This guidebook has been prepared as a reference tool to help readers
screen and evaluate the flood of doctrinally oriented teachings and
writings that are available to Church members today...This compilation
is founded on the premise that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints is the only true and living Church on the face of the earth...
The final source of authority in all doctrinal matters rests with the
President of the Church and those who serve him as prophets, seers, and
revelators. (p. vii)
His credo promises a compilation of statements from General Authorities and others to support his thesis. He does not disappoint. But neither does he ignore the bumpy road that led to a benign general acknowledgement of his belief.
Chapter One covers the topic of "Church Books." In a lengthy and interesting introduction to the subject. Horne warns against the dual dangers of "priestcraft" -- writing merely for the monetary benefit -- and the establishment of a "theological scholastic aristocracy," arguing that writing about doctrine may, and should, be done by anyone so moved. Of course, what is written must be in harmony with the belief of the Church. He examines how disagreements are handled at the top levels of Church administration, and explores how the phrase "steadying the ark" is used, and abused, in discussing some critical writing.
Chapter Two is titled "False Doctrine and Apostasy (part 1)." Here the author assembles cites by Mormon writers addressing various views on such teachings as the pre-existence, etc. Interestingly, he cites James E. Talmage in support of inter-kingdom progression, noting at the end that this statement was removed from the second and subsequent editions of "Jesus the Christ." He explores the Adam/God controversy, perhaps soft-pedaling the extent to which this was believed in Brigham Young's times. And the conflict between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt is discussed.
Chapter Three is appropriately titled "False Doctrine and Apostasy (part II)." It takes a more general approach to the subject, dealing with the wider aspects of apostasy and false teachings.
Chapter Four, "Determining Doctrinal Authority (part I)," touches at the heart of this book. Here, in my opinion, is where the rubber meets the road. How is such authority determined, and who does the determining? And, if this doesn't get too complicated, who determines who is authorized to determine doctrine? And at what point does all this devolve into a rhetorical spiral? I was amazed as I read the different viewpoints of various writers. I was especially interested in Grant Underwood's observation on the writings of Bruce R. McConkie:
At the very least, it seems safe to cite his works as representative of
currently acceptable doctrinal positions. (p. 119)
He bases this on the frequency with which official publications of the Church cite Elder McConkie (in his example of three CES manuals, about 14%) as an authoritative source. Later in the chapter, Horne includes a summary section titled "Doctrinal Disagreement" in which he summarizes the viewpoints of several authors. (For the record, there are 18 cites, 5 are from Elder McConkie -- about 28%).
Chapter Five continues the theme with "Determining Doctrinal Authority (part II)." Here the subject of scriptural interpretation is dealt with at length. Also covered is the interesting area of "Church Leaders and Members' Personal Opinions and Theories." I had to look twice at the heading. The absence of an apostrophe after the word "Leaders" gives a different meaning than if there had been such punctuation. Without the apostrophe, it deals with the attitude of Church leaders toward the personal opinions of members. With the apostrophe, it includes the personal opinions of the leaders themselves. In fact, the second interpretation is correct; perhaps a second printing of the book will supply the apostrophe. In any event, we find here a great deal of information on the subject of when a prophet is speaking as a prophet. It is a cautionary and timely topic. One brief subsection (only two cites) is titled "No academic freedom in gospel teaching."
Chapter Six steps away from the purely religious into the realm of "Scientific Theories." Of course, the subject of evolution is discussed, along with the relationship of science to philosophy and religion.
Chapter Seven, "Gospel Knowledge," tackles the thorny problem of how much knowledge is expected of leaders in the Church, and the sometimes-casual attitude, indeed lack of interest, in such knowledge on the part of some Church members. The role of personal revelation is also discussed, with cautions about the extent to which such revelation may be applied to one's self, one's family, and the Church at large.
With Chapter Eight we enter into the sometimes-mystifying world of "Church Correlation." Horne gives us an interesting glimpse behind the scenes as he offers the text of a series of memos written by the First Presidency during the 1970's with regard to routing materials intended for publication in Church journals and other outlets. The author also gives a bit of the history of how the Church had dealt with the issue of consistency in teaching prior to the establishment of Correlation. Later, and illustrative of his points, is an extensive discussion titled "Comments from the Reading Committee of the Quorum of the Twelve for B. H. Roberts's book, 'The Truth, The Way, The Life.'" Here we see a writer (Roberts) who refuses to alter his work in keeping with the suggestions of the Brethren, and the book's subsequent publication many decades later.
Chapter Nine is titled "The Standard Works of the Church." I learned that the phrase "standard works" was first used by James E. Talmage. It is now a common way of referring to the four books of scripture commonly acknowledged by the Church. In a subsection titled "The Meaning of Binding," Horne juxtaposes statements by Hugh B. Brown and Bruce R. McConkie regarding the role of Church members at large in the acceptance of revelations into the canon. It's a fascination discussion. Later, he offers collections of quotations addressing each of the four constituents of the canon, along with a brief look at the development of the LDS canon.
Chapter Ten is titled "The Living Oracles (part I)." Here the author revisits the question, "When is a prophet speaking as a prophet?" and explores the distinctions denoted by the words "prophet," "seer," and "revelator." Following a lengthy treatment of the primacy of the President of the Church in doctrinal matters, he looks at the role of the other members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.
Chapter Eleven continues with "The Living Oracles (part II)." The idea of "priesthood keys" is discussed here, along with manifestations of the holding of these keys, including a look at the Manifesto of Wilford Woodruff.
Several appendices fill out the volume, including a record of the proceedings of the October 1897 General Conference, where much was made of the role of "living oracles" in the life of the Church.
"Determining Doctrine" will be very appealing to those who have an interest in the whole area of "authority." I found the book fascinating, not because I agreed with everything said, but rather for the breadth of the material presented by the compiler. Horne clearly comes from a standpoint of true belief, but he acknowledges that the steps toward doctrinal consistency were not always easy or well-defined. At times even the General Authorities disagreed among themselves. But Horne reports them as a matter of historical completeness rather than as a point of argumentation.
Although this book isn't for everyone (I can't think of *any* book that is for everyone), researchers and students of Mormon ecclesiology will find this material both helpful and instructive in their search for the essence of Mormon self-definition and understanding.