Wednesday, October 05, 2011

"This Is My Doctrine"

It’s official, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology is required reading.

Written by BYU professor Charles Harrell, this sorely needed book examines the origins of LDS doctrine as we know it today. It is not, of course, an exhaustive treatment of the subject, which would require a whole series of books (and this one clocks in at just about 500 pages). However, it is a tremendous resource that is worth devouring straight through, but will also prove an excellent juming-off point for future reference and study (it’s got good indexes and a vast works cited section).

After an introductory essay––worth reading all on it’s own––the volume proceeds, chapter by chapter, to tackle major doctrines (say, God the Father, or Priesthood) historically. That is, it addresses what beliefs were held in the Old Testament period, New Testament Christianity, 19th-Century Protestantism, then early and modern Mormonism, about each given subject. There are occasional subsections that examine, for instance, thought in the Nauvoo period, if doctrinal developments were particularly significant during those years.

His scriptural exegesis may not have been quite as sophisticated as I would have liked, but, again, for a book of this length, it likely wouldn’t have been feasible to go much deeper. Also, Harrell is not a theologian (though he has published some articles in that arena) so he relies heavily on secondary sources in Biblical criticism. He uses them well, however, staying mainly in areas of broad consensus, and, where there is controversy, presenting a variety of views.

The target audience seems to be Joe Mormon, so those familiar with scholarly work in this area may find a little too much “hand-holding,” but you can’t fault him––I really hope this book finds its way into the hands of many, many Saints, so anything he can do to make it accessible is a plus.

Most importantly, this book helps readers to take the really vital step of shattering one’s idea of theology as God dictating perfect, simple, clear Truth, reducing prophets to secretaries. It reveals that it is a complicated, messy, sometimes contradictory process of serious minds wrestling with the big questions in terms of the texts they’ve inherited and the culture they’re swimming in.

Burn The Stick of Bruce, folks.* This book is the real deal, and it belongs on every LDS bookshelf.

*Actually, don’t. It’s no longer being printed and so may have some value as a collector’s item.