If you haven’t surmised it yet, I like searching the scriptures for words, phrases, and topics. There are flecks and nuggets of gold we find when we seek to understand the doctrines presented in the scriptures. Several years ago I got a copy of Elder David Bednar’s book, “Increase in Learning,” because I wanted to be “instructed more perfectly.” I particularly enjoyed a realization that came in chapter 4 where he put a visual framework in my mind on the difference between doctrines and principles of the gospel in a way I’d never consciously thought about it.
Doctrines answer the fundamental “why” questions. If people have unexplained questions, a study of doctrines may help them find inner peace. President Boyd K. Packer has an important quote that goes along with this notion.
“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.” (Boyd K. Packer, GC Oct. 1986, “Little Children”)
A key element of that quote is the word “true.” There are false doctrines as well. For some examples of true doctrines, look at the first few articles of faith where we encapsulate our beliefs about the Godhead, the fall, and the atonement.
Principles are guidelines that arise from doctrines and direct the use of our agency in righteous ways. Principles focus on “what” questions. What we need to do to embrace the doctrines.
For example, a doctrine of the gospel is the atonement of Christ (3rd article of faith). Principle arising out of that doctrine once it is understood would be things contained in the 4th article of faith which constitute part of the doctrine of Christ. These answer the question of “what do we do” once we understand there was an atonement made for our sins. We exercise faith in Christ, repent, be baptized, and seek for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Joseph Smith was once asked how he governs such a large group of people and he replied, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” (quoted by John Taylor, Millennial Star, 15 Nov. 1851, 339)
Now there are a couple verses in the Doctrine and Covenants you are probably familiar with and they both pertain to the school of the prophets.
Given in December 1832, D&C 88 contains many verses pertaining to the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, which was organized and run by the prophet Joseph Smith. In that revelation we read:
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;
A revelation given in August 1833 begins by directing Parley P. Pratt in Jackson County, Missouri, to set up a similar school of the prophets in that area for a similar purpose.
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.
The revelation continues with a command to construct a temple as a place where God can enter to bless and teach his people.
Now the interesting thing to me is the use in these verses of the words theory and law. There are a few ways we could look at this. Here are a couple simple models I created as a way to visualize this. There are eternal laws and doctrines (teachings) rest upon those laws. Principles comes out of doctrines, and “a theory is founded on inferences drawn from principles which have been established on independent evidence” (Webster’s 1828 definition). A theory isn’t a man-made hypothesis like the theory of organic evolution or global warming, but it does feel a lot like holy speculation. What happens if I act on this true principle? What will the result be? A strengthening of faith?
To me, I think theory is the perfected understanding that comes from cause and effect relationships. If I do X, then Y happens. I plan to do a blog article on this in the near future.
What does it mean to be perfected in our understanding? The Lord wants us to seek for and obtain truth, not just in the gospel, but in all fields of study. Following the verse above in D&C 88, the Lord tells us what we are to learn about:
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—
Obviously, this isn’t just about the gospel. It’s about science, and history, and politics, and the things that affect a telestial world. Why?
80. That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.
81. Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.
To go out prepared to testify to the people that the judgments of the Lord are upon the nations. To not be ignorant of the false beliefs of man so that when confronted by a false theory, we are prepared to “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
There are two elements here as well. To be instructed more perfectly, means the teacher and the learner both have a responsibility. They both have a need for the spirit to guide their teaching and learning (D&C 50:13-25) to become perfect in “the truth that [we] may chase darkness from among [us]” (D&C 50:25).
In light (pun intended) of this, here’s a few things to ponder this week prior to next week’s topic on law and doctrine.
1) Is there a better model for representing these verses than the ones I’ve drawn above?
2) What is the law?
You could do a search in the scriptures for the word “law” but there are 714 results which is slow to load (big speed improvements are coming soon to Scripture Notes). This takes a minute to load, but pressing ctrl-F to find “law” and scanning the list may help you get some ideas for components of law. You could also limit your search to a particular work (OT/NT/BOM/DC/PoGP) of scripture at a time.
Create a collection note on the law and record all your thoughts about it. You might think of some of the language used in the temple endowment on the law of the gospel and let that guide your searching as well.
3) Create a collection note on what you’ve learned in this topic. Organize it so you are prepared to teach it.