What do you think about when you hear the word theory? Is it speculation? Is gospel speculation appropriate? Is it necessary? Or do you think of a scientific theory such as the theory of relativity? The last couple weeks I’ve written about the topics of doctrine and principle as mentioned in a couple verses in the Doctrine & Covenants. Today I’d like to discuss another term used in these verses, theory.
There are the only 2 verses in the scriptures where the word theory appears.
D&C 88:78. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
D&C 97:14. That they may be perfected in the understanding of their ministry, in theory, in principle, and in doctrine, in all things pertaining to the kingdom of God on the earth, the keys of which kingdom have been conferred upon you.
What is gospel theory and how does it fit into this framework we’ve been exploring?
To summarize the past couple articles, doctrine is a set of teachings that answers “why” questions. Principles are guidelines that provide direction in living and understanding the gospel. They are foundational truths and explain the effects generated by causes of action. For example, the plan of salvation is a doctrine, and a key principle of that plan is obedience. The scriptures are full of principles of obedience when they declare things like “if you keep the commandments, you shall prosper in the land.” It’s a cause and effect relationship.
In Webster’s 1828 dictionary we get 4 definitions.
- Speculation; a doctrine or scheme of things, which terminates in speculation or contemplation, without a view to practice. It is here taken in an unfavorable sense, as implying something visionary.
- An exposition of the general principles of any science; as the theory of music.
- The science distinguished from the art; as the theory and practice of medicine.
- The philosophical explanation of phenomena, either physical or moral; as Lavoisier’s theory of combustion; Smith’s theory of moral sentiments.
Theory is distinguished from hypothesis thus; a theory is founded on inferences drawn from principles which have been established on independent evidence; a hypothesis is a proposition assumed to account for certain phenomena, and has no other evidence of its truth, than that it affords a satisfactory explanation of those phenomena.
So how can we relate these definitions to the gospel?
I’ll start from the top as I think all of these can be found in the scriptures.
1) Is gospel speculation appropriate? I think it is entirely appropriate to ask speculative questions in faith building ways. Asking why a verse uses a word or phrase the way it does and trying to think through the possibilities is a form of speculation. “Could it mean this? Or does it mean that?” We then proceed through a process of study, faith, and prayer to understand what it means.
However, there are other negative forms of speculation such as Elder Maxwell describes here and seems to match Webster’s first definition of a doctrine or scheme that concludes with speculation or contemplation instead of practice.
“Unfortunately, we tend to think of consecration only in terms of property and money. But there are so many ways of keeping back part. One might be giving of money and time and yet hold back a significant portion of himself. One might share talents publicly yet privately retain a particular pride. One might hold back from kneeling before God’s throne and yet bow to a particular gallery of peers. One might accept a Church calling but have his heart more set on maintaining a certain role in the world.
Still others find it easier to bend their knees than their minds. Exciting exploration is preferred to plodding implementation; speculation seems more fun than consecration, and so is trying to soften the hard doctrines instead of submitting to them. Worse still, by not obeying, these few members lack real knowing. (See John 7:17) Lacking real knowing, they cannot defend their faith and may become critics instead of defenders!” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell, GC October 1992, Settle this in Your Hearts
We have to be doers of the word and not just contemplative thinkers.
2) An exposition of general principles is easy to see in the scriptures. Music theory is the example Webster used and a general definition is a study of the practices and possibilities of music which covers the notations and signatures, historical understanding, and the processes from which music is built.
In the gospel, we can see some examples of this. Priesthood theory is masterfully explained in principle and process in D&C 121:34-46. Christ’s overarching gospel theory is expressed in Matthew chapters 5-7 in the Sermon on the Mount. These examples are cohesive sets of principles and practices that we can refer to as theory.
3) Science as theory and art as the practice. In last week’s post on principles, we discussed extensively the cause and effect in scripture. This is the scientific theory the scriptures cover. They are absolute truth principles that state what will happen if the principle is put into practice such as the example mentioned above, “if you keep the commandments, you shall prosper in the land.”
4) The philosophical explanation of phenomena in scripture is most easily seen in the phrase “and thus we see.” These statements in the Book of Mormon are specifically put there by the authors to give us an inspired explanation of the results of the actions an individual or group took.
5) Webster’s concluding paragraph is illuminating as he distinguishes between a theory and a hypothesis. A theory is based on sound principles that are already proven. An hypothesis is a set of inferences to explain something without evidence of truth. This makes a lot of sense as to why the Lord used the word theory in the verses above. It’s not to engage in speculation, but to focus us on true principles that give us a process. It’s the “how to implement” or application stage of this framework.
Like music theory teaches someone to create music that harmonizes, gospel theory harmonizes our lives with the principles and doctrines of the gospel and aligns us with eternal law. It isn’t about “theorizing” except in the sense that we seek revelation on questions that come to us as we ponder on passages in the scriptures or other things that come to us. It’s about establishing a theory of living the principles that are true.
What is it that we are to learn doctrine, principles, and theory about? Obviously the gospel, but what else? The Lord tells us in the very next verse of D&C 88 mentioned above.
79. Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—
The Lord has instructed us to become knowledgeable about not just spiritual but secular theory, principles, and doctrines of science, history, and politics. This reminds me of a quote I love in a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail. It shows the progression of activity from one of establishing freedom, to then building up the sciences for the progress of mankind, to then having the freedom to learn the arts that bring joy to the soul.
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
This kind of makes me ponder where we are in this progression and if it ties into the pride cycle the Book of Mormon explains. There were many seasons of war in the Book of Mormon, followed by advancements and generation of wealth which made the people less dependent on relying on God. Captain Moroni had to learn war so that his people could have peace. I am grateful to such men and women who sacrificed so much that we could have time to devote to learning the arts as well as the sciences.
Since there’s only 2 verses (or perhaps 3 if you include the follow-up in section 88), for a study project this week, you could organize your thoughts about theory into a collection note in Scripture Notes and copy/paste some of the above content if you want.
Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion as we discuss eternal law.
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