Review of

"This Is My Doctrine": The Development of Mormon Theology

Author: Charles R. Harrell
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
ISBN13: 9781589581036
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Richard Packham

One would think that Christ's statement would be sufficient to establish what is and what is not his doctrine. He announced to the Nephites (3 Nephi 11:32, 35, 39): "And this is my doctrine..." He then listed faith, repentance, and baptism, and then added (v.40): "And whoso shall declare more or less than this... cometh of evil." (Similar wording is in Doctrine and Covenants 10:67-68, given 1828, with similar condemnation of declaring more or less.)

Apparently Christ is not to be taken that literally. A well-worn cliché about Mormon doctrine claims that trying to determine what Mormon doctrine really says is like trying to "nail Jell-o to the wall." This book explains why that is.

Many Mormons are under the impression that the doctrines of their church are true, "everlasting," and unchanging. Yes, they realize that "continuing revelation" (a fundamental doctrine in Mormonism) implies that gradually more information and more truth will be added to what has already been given. As one person put it, "Continuing revelation is like the gradual opening of a rosebud." But the Saints have also been taught that any new revelation will not contradict or do away with previously revealed truth. As Joseph Smith said, one of the ways to recognize false revelations, even if presented by an angel, is that they contradict previous revelations. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 215, History of the Church 4:581)

Charles R. Harrell, who teaches at Brigham Young University (in the School of Technology, not the School of Religion, however), demonstrates in this book the history and development (and the many changes) in practically all of the fundamental doctrines of Mormonism. The book is arranged by doctrinal topics: the Godhead, the Holy Ghost, preexistence, atonement, resurrection, etc. Most also have subdivisions: Creation, for example, has separate discussions on the Genesis version, the agent and method of creation, the meaning of "create," evolution, the meaning of "day," and so on. The author then traces the development of the doctrinal variations in each topic (not just Mormon, but Jewish and Christian), beginning in the Old Testament, through the New Testament, then following with "early Mormon teachings," Mormon scriptures (in chronological order), ending with present-day Mormon teachings. Thus the reader gets a complete panorama of the widely differing views on each doctrinal issue, the many changes in doctrines, and the source of those views. It is not reassuring for those who believe in the permanent and unchanging nature of their doctrines.

Harrell has certainly done a thorough job. He carefully cites relevant scriptures and pertinent comments on each issue from Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, carefully identifying the scholars as to their religion, institution, and historical period. The bibliography is a 33-page collection of every conceivable work dealing with religious doctrine, both Mormon and Christian.

And Harrell does not pull any punches. He analyzes each doctrinal issue in great detail, showing the arguments on all sides from the first hints of the idea in the Old Testament right down to the still-unsettled discussions from current LDS leaders. He presents not only what the scriptural passage says, but carefully points out what it does NOT say, which is usually what some theologian has "read into" the passage. Mormon readers may be surprised at the author's frank admission that so many fundamental doctrinal issues are indeed so fragile, so unsettled, and so contradictory. He calls them "problematic."

Although most Mormons are led to believe that the major points of Mormon doctrine are the result of direct revelations from God to the Prophet, Harrell shows that almost all of them were popular and well-known ideas at the time Joseph Smith received the revelation. Practically nothing originated with Joseph Smith. He offers no faith-saving explanation, but of course any faithful Saint will understand that it was God's way of preparing the world to receive the idea when it would finally be revealed to the Prophet.

Christian doctrines, even those adopted in some form into Mormonism, get just as thorough a treatment. The author shows, often relying on the careful textual analysis of biblical scholars of the last two centuries, how biblical texts are often a reflection of the social and historical conditions of the time when they were written, and he emphasizes how they must be interpreted with that in mind. Especially in the area of biblical prophecies is this true. In case after case, he demolishes the claim that a certain passage is a prophecy, although he acknowledges that faithful believers might still view it as having a double purpose (its contemporary purpose plus its function as a "type" of things to come).

In summary, this book is an essential handbook for anyone interested in Mormon doctrine. It is not intended as a statement of what Mormon doctrine actually is (like Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine, for example). It is rather a careful history of the development of the many strands of doctrine, showing the evolution, modification, enhancement, and multiple interpretations offered by theologians. Never does the author take sides on a doctrinal issue.

A skeptical reader of Harrell's analyses might come to the conclusion that Mormon doctrine is not based at all on revelation, but was just made up as the situation demanded. (The person who used the analogy of the opening rosebud described the actual situation as being "like a chameleon, changing its color to match the environment.") Not until the end of the book does the author - presumably a devout Mormon, since he teaches at BYU - offer any way out of such a conclusion for the faithful Saint. He suggests that however changing and imprecise Mormon doctrine may be, it is still valuable because "it works." He does not explain why that should be, or why Mormon doctine "works" any better than, say, Islamic or Catholic or Baha'i doctrine. Nor does he acknowledge that for many Mormons and former Mormons, Mormon doctrine does NOT "work." The implicit admission seems to be that it is completely irrelevant whether it is actually true and actually revealed from God. Truth, it seems, is not that important.

Regardless of what conclusion any reader might reach about the divinity or truth of Mormon doctrine, no one interested in Mormon teachings should ignore the vast amount of information in this book. It used to be that books about Mormon doctrine were either prescriptive, by Mormon theologians, saying what the correct doctrine was, or critical, by critics of Mormonism, saying why the doctrine (as they understood it) was false. This book is of neither kind, and will be of great worth to both sides. I know of no other book like it.

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©  2012 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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