“This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology

Review of “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2011)

By Charles R. Harrell

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

NOTE: Mormonism Research Ministry will be doing a month-long “Viewpoint on Mormonism” series on this book in the very near future—look for it!

Introduction

Although it’s a book that was released back in 2011, “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology is a resource that I keep coming back to in order to cite its pages. Why? This book, which was written by a faithful Latter-day Saint, offers an overall honest historical treatment of how Mormon theology came to be. It’s a resource that every serious Latter-day Saint—and Evangelical Christian who is interested in understanding Mormon doctrine, for that matter—ought to  consider reading. I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Harrell writes. In fact, we probably disagree more than we agree when it comes to doctrine. Still, I think it’s worth the time and effort to read.

A little bit about Charles R. Harrell

Before he wrote this book, I had never heard of Charles R. Harrell. However, here’s what I know now:

  • He’s a professor in the School of Technology (not the School of Religion) at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, the flagship school for the LDS Church. He mainly teaches second-year college classes.
  • According to his “Rate My Professor” page, Harrell is known mostly for being “lecture heavy” and a “tough grader”–this is typical for scholars who require the best work from students, and lot’s of it! (So quit complaining and do your work, students! ;0 ) One recent student post reads, “He’s a nice guy, but his class is terrible. His lectures consist of two hours of rambling and 90% of what he says is not on the tests. Weekly reflections are pretty easy. His tests are fairly difficult though, so study the reviews like crazy. Don’t waste your time going to class, most people didn’t. I only went a few times and did just fine.” This is just one of many similar reviews on the site.
  • He’s a faithful Latter-day Saint–otherwise, he would not be allowed to teach at BYU.

As far as I can tell by reading his book (twice), Harrell is honest as he covers the development of Mormon theology, even if the vast majority of Latter-day Saints will undoubtedly not like what he has to say. However, he feels that there is room for disagreement when it comes to one’s take on Mormon doctrine and doesn’t want to appear dogmatic. He writes on page 502:

“Significantly, the doctrines the Church expects its members to embrace for temple worthiness are fairly basic and few in number, and the Church has been restored and continues to be guided by a living prophet. Beyond these core professions of belief, Saints presumably have some latitude in what they can believe. . . . Differing views or reluctance to go with the status quo on non-essential doctrines is no more an indication of a weak or underdeveloped testimony than indiscriminate acceptance of all popularly held LDS doctrines is a sign of a mature testimony.”

Harrell’s attitude seems to be, “Go ahead and disagree with me, that’s fine. And go ahead and believe doctrine that differs from mine. You have that freedom.” Because he has a pluralist mentality—meaning that he sees the good in other religions as long as the adherents are guided by a sincere desire for good—Harrell doesn’t seem to mind contradicting the current theological mindsets of the general authorities who guide his church. And he doesn’t think the Mormon should hold an air of “doctrinal superiority” over those who do not belong to his church. He writes on page 503:

“Since its inception, many Mormons have taken an exclusivist stance towards other belief systems, acknowledging that, while other religions have a portion of the truth (mingled with error), only Mormonism contains the full and undiluted truth. This has sometimes led to feelings, and certainly an external perception, of doctrinal superiority and elitism among Latter-day Saints. But if Mormon theology is itself still evolving and partially reflects the imperfect understanding of its expounders, the fallacy of theological exclusivity should be apparent. There is nothing wrong with proclaiming one’s church to be ‘true’ in the sense of it being sanctioned and even led by God, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the doctrines taught in the church are ipso facto the absolute truth. And even if Mormonism does possess more of the correct pieces of the theological puzzle than other religions, it certainly doesn’t warrant an attitude of theological exclusivity or superiority.”

The problem with his thinking is that Mormonism is founded on the idea that “all” the churches that were in existence in 1820, when the First Vision of God the Father and Jesus supposedly took place, were wrong. When Joseph Smith asked God which church was true, he was supposedly told by God in Joseph Smith—History 1:19:

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

The beginning of the next verse (20) states, “He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” If Mormonism is true in its teaching, then anything that the Evangelical Christian has to say should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, no doctrine held by a Bible-believing Christian could be correct if God actually did tell Smith that the Christians were wrong and that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.” While it may be politically correct for a Mormon to aim at ecumenism and a declaration that the doctrines espoused by Evangelical Christians are “true” too, God the Father—as reported by Joseph Smith—would disagree.

The format of “This is My Doctrine”

Harrell takes Mormonism, doctrine by doctrine, and dissects its history for all to see. This 500+ page book is very thorough in its research through 21 chapters. Among issues that he deals with are the “Godhead and Plurality of Gods” (chapter 6), the preexistence (chapter 11), and “the Fall and Nature of Humanity” (chapter 13). Every major teaching in Mormonism is covered.

What makes this book valuable is that Harrell systematically lays out the history of each particular doctrine, including what the Old and New Testaments say about a particular doctrine. He follows this analysis with each doctrine’s development through the Standard Works as well as early and contemporary Mormon teaching. Many unique biblical passages used to support unique LDS teachings are considered in their historical context, as Harrell usually shows how these verses generally do not support Mormon teaching.

To support my point, let me provide several examples. Referencing 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a verse to support baptism for the dead, Harrell writes,

“…Paul is not endorsing the practice, though ‘at least he does not see fit to condemn it as heretical.’ “It should be noted that the voice changes from ‘we’ to ‘they’ for this verse only: Else what shall ‘they’ do? And why are ‘they’ baptized for the dead? Then the shift is back to ‘we’—why stand ‘we’ in jeopardy? Could Paul be alluding to a practice that only ‘they’ (not ‘we’) were participating in?”

In other words, he says that 1 Corinthians 15:29 is not a good proof text to support the idea of baptism for the dead, even though it has been commonly used by Mormons throughout the years. For example, one church manual–Gospel Principles, published in 2009–says on page 91, “Living members of His Church then performed ordinances in behalf of the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:29). Ordinances such as baptism and confirmation must be done on earth.”

Under the definition for “proxy baptism” on the lds.org website, the entry reads, “Baptism by immersion performed by a living person acting on behalf of one who is dead, as practiced in New Testament times (1 Corinthians 15:29). This ordinance is performed in temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” And under the definition for baptism for the dead, it reads, “The New Testament indicates that baptisms for the dead were done during the time of the Apostle Paul (see 1 Corinthians 15:29). This ordinance was restored with the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” And a church manual covering the New Testament  states, “Paul explained that the practice of baptism for the dead would have little meaning if there were no Resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:29, 55–57).”

A typical verse used by Mormons to support the doctrine of the preexistence of spirits is Jeremiah 1:5 (“before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”). For instance, an church manual covering the Old Testament states, “We lived with Heavenly Father before we came to earth. We are His spirit children, and He wants us to have the same joy that He has by becoming like Him (see Jeremiah 1:5; Romans 8:16; Hebrews 12:9)” (Old Testament Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, 2003, p. 16).

Referencing the first chapter of Jeremiah chapter 1, another manual explains, “From the fact that God knew Jeremiah before he was born, we learn that before we were born, our Heavenly Father knew us and we existed as His spirit children.” 

Despite the many times Jeremiah 1:5 has been used by Mormons to support the idea that preexistence is true, Harrell explains that this verse is not a good text to use to support this unique concept. As he explains on page 203:

“Latter-day Saints adduce that, since God ‘knew’ and ‘ordained’ Jeremiah before he was born, he therefore must have existed before his birth. However, most biblical scholars interpret this passage as having reference to only ideal preexistence. LDS scholar Lowell L. Bennion concurs, averring that Jeremiah 1:5, as well as other biblical passages which Mormons interpret as referring to man’s preexistence, ‘may be interpreted also as meaning God’s foreknowledge rather than man’s preexistence.’ He further observes that ‘a pre-earth life for man . . . cannot be clearly and indubitably established by the Bible.”

He explains on the next page:

“Like the Old Testament, the New Testament seems to depict human existence as beginning in this life with no explicit mention of a pre-earth life. Nowhere are callings, activities, or outcomes in this life attributed by New Testament writers to a preexistent state.”

These are just two verses interpreted badly by the Mormon leadership, but they are not the only examples given by Harrell as he demythologizes standard Mormon apologetic precedent for misusing biblical passages. Again, disallowing these verses for support of Mormonism’s doctrines doesn’t seem to be bothering Harrell very much at all because a) he remains a faithful Latter-day Saint; and b) he takes a more liberal perspective and believes that personal revelation trumps biblical teaching. In fact, while he does hold to an accurate biblical text, he denies biblical inerrancy.

He also does not hold that the Mormon prophet is infallible, saying on page 7, “Significantly, the Church has never officially endorsed the doctrine of prophet infallibility.” On page 8 he writes,

“Much of the more vicious anti-Mormon literature written to date has been dependent upon this fallacious assumption of prophetic infallibility, and Saints who based their faith on this faulty assumption run the risk of painting themselves into a doctrinal corner.” (p. 8)

I’m not sure to which “vicious anti-Mormon literature” he’s referencing—this is called an ad hominem argument and is nothing more than name-calling—but LDS leaders certainly have taught that they are not about to lead the church astray. While they may not use the word “infallible” (this is not the right word to use anyway), consider the authority that the general authorities themselves claim:

“When we hear the counsel of the Lord expressed through the words of the president of the Church, our response should be positive and prompt” (M. Russell Ballard, “Voice of the Living Prophet Gives Clear Direction,” Church News, April 7, 2001, p. 19).

“When we speak of following the Brethren, we mean particularly the First Presidency and the Twelve. In 1951, President Kimball observed in a general conference that though some of those special individuals might falter, ‘there will never be a majority of the Council of the Twelve on the wrong side at any time.’” (Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, p. 102).

Church manuals echo the same idea:

“We may never have a General Authority visit our home, but we can receive similar blessings if we accept the General Authorities by following their inspired counsel in our homes” (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part A, 2000, p. 83).

“When the prophet speaks to us in the name of the Lord, he speaks what the Lord would say if He were here” (The Latter-day Saint Woman: Basic Manual for Women, Part B, 2000, p. 99).

“The President of the Church is the mouthpiece of God on earth. As such, he reveals the will of God for us today. Therefore, when we follow the inspired counsel of the prophet, we are following God and obeying His will” (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, 2000, p. 234).

“A prophet is ‘a person who has been called by and speaks for God. As a messenger of God, a prophet receives commandments, prophecies, and revelations from God. His responsibility is to make known God’s will and true character to mankind and to show the meaning of his dealings with them. A prophet denounces sin and foretells its consequences. He is a preacher of righteousness. On occasion, prophets may be inspired to foretell the future for the benefit of mankind. His primary responsibility, however, is to bear witness of Christ. The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s prophet on earth today. Members of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators’ (Guide to the Scriptures, ‘Prophet,’ scriptures.lds.org; emphasis added)” (Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual Religion 333, 2010, p. 9. Bold in original).

Finally, consider this quote by Apostle Neal Maxwell:

“Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!” (Things As They Really Are, p. 74).

As Maxwell puts it, discerning Mormon doctrine is not a spiritual “smorgasbord” where the LDS membership is allowed to pick and choose, even if that’s the way that many would like to approach this issue. If the leaders cannot be trusted in everything they say, then why do we need fallible leaders? Is it possible that they can get up at General Conference and lead the people astray? Is Charles R. Harrell ready to visit the Church Administration office and tell these leaders where they are wrong and then correct them? I think there is a disconnect between what Harrell says and what the leaders teach.

What does the average Latter-day Saint think about this book?

To answer this question, I will say that I doubt very many faithful Latter-day Saints have seen this book (or ever will). It’s not a best seller. It’s published by a minor publisher that has a limited budget and will never be able to advertise it. It’s not available at Deseret Book. Outside of his surroundings at BYU, I don’t believe that Charles R. Harrell is a household name in Mormondom. And even if he was, isn’t this a book that a Mormon president or apostle should have written rather than someone who is a laymember and not even a member of the religion department at the church university where he teaches? (And Mr. Harrell, I certainly don’t mean any disrespect.)

For those Latter-day Saints who are familiar with this book, I’m sure that many will feel that he undressed Mormonism for its warts to be seen. And I’m sure this is uncomfortable. As one reviewer on the Rational Faiths (Keeping Mormonism Weird) blog site wrote:

“Harrell obviously knows that reading the core chapters of the book are not the most faith promoting. This is especially true if read with the intention of looking for a beautiful picture of how Mormonism’s doctrine, God’s people’s doctrine, has been the same through all times. At times it may seem that the book is refuting LDS doctrines. I myself felt this way after reading section after section on doctrines that do not correlate well with what the current understood doctrines are. I see now that I still wanted to hold onto at least a portion of the clarity found in universal doctrines I grew up with. In the preface and the epilogue he makes a good attempt to explain his purpose due to the critical nature of the text contained in the book. He is very direct in saying that, although he is an active LDS man, the purpose of the book is “meant to be neither apologetic nor polemic.”

Another reviewer, writing in the Improvement Era: Musings with a Modicum of Mormonism blog site, explains that “the traditional so-called Anti-Mormon crowd – especially those from Evangelical camps – would be unwise to champion this book in their cause, because without the principle of continuing revelation and allowance for theological, textual, and historical error to be found in scripture, this book would be far more damaging to their claims than it would be for the core of Mormonism.”

I’m not sure how this is the case. I think Harrell has many good things to say, especially on the eisegesis (reading into the text) that many Mormons practice when it comes to biblical passages. And, as I have stated, we will have to agree to disagree on a number of other issues, including his high view of the Standard Works. I am not trying to “champion” his book, as this reviewer suggests I might do. While I appreciate the honesty that Harrell gives to the topic of doctrine, especially as it is discovered in Mormonism, I am not pretending that he is a quasi-Christian or even on the road to Christianity. If anything, Harrell would fit very well in a liberal Christian church that espouses a postmodern pluralist philosophy. Harrell certainly accepts many liberal ideas, including the Documentary Hypothesis (a theory proposing that four different authors compiled the Pentateuch) as well as the view that earlier Old Testament believers were polytheistic before later believers turned to monotheism. And these are just a few of my disagreements when it comes to theology.

Still, Mr. Harrell and I do agree on at least one issue: There are too many biblical verses that have, for far too long, been snatched out of their context to support unique LDS teachings. Mormons are free to believe what they want. That is fine. (And it’s why I never assume any belief when I am talking to a Latter-day Saint—rather, I ask lots of questions.) What I don’t agree with is having a Mormon assume that the unique doctrines of Mormonism can be found in the Bible. No, they are not in the scripture. The Mormon will have to go elsewhere to support his/her presuppositions.

Again, for those who are willing to be challenged—both Latter-day Saints and Evangelical Christians—I recommend reading “This is My Doctrine” with a critical eye. It is worth the time and investment.