Review: Charles R. Harrell, “This is my Doctrine”: the development of Mormon theology (Kofford, 2011)

By November 7, 2011

Before I dive into the substance of this review, it’s worth pointing out, I think, a few of the things which are going on beneath its surface. The first is me once again trying to work out the relationship between trained academic scholars and autodidact scholars, and to assess their ongoing discussion about the proper form and the structure of scholarship. This is a popular topic at the JI, which reflects more generally the state of Mormon studies. Many of the points I make below have to do with my judgment of the ways this book holds up as an academic work. A book of this scope and ambition would normally, in an academic setting be a synthesis, weaving together a vast array of work into a single whole by a scholar familiar with the field. But its author is neither a trained theologian nor a trained historian – and, of course, that wide array of secondary literature on the history of Mormon theology simply does not exist. This my mean that we should take its ambitions somewhat differently than we might otherwise. Furthermore – and second – while the work itself certainly has academic aspirations, it also reads in many places as prescriptive as well as descriptive – that is, this is a work of Mormon theology as much as it is a history of Mormon thought. Harrell thinks certain ways of believing are more useful than others, and he seeks to convince us of the fact. This is not bad; indeed, I think Mormonism needs more theology, not less, and I am delighted with Harrell’s contribution to that discussion. But again, it complicates how one might engage with the book as a work of scholarship: how should it be read? Those caveats noted, the review.

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This is a wide-ranging and detailed book, consisting of an extensive examination of a wide variety of topics in Mormon theology from the time of scripture to the present. Harrell announces his methodology in the first chapter: “Theology: A Divine-Human Enterprise.” He wants to examine “how LDS doctrines taught today were understood in early Mormonism and even earlier Biblical times” (12). His overall argument is that Mormon doctrine changes. This may seem a rather unexceptional point, but Harrell’s work is methodical, exhaustive, and not infrequently, impressive simply for its scope.

But though his effort is to be respected, one at times gets the sense that Harrell may have attempted to do too much. The book has the sort of carefully wooden structure of a work struggling to wrap its arms around the entirety of a hugely sprawling and messy subject. It is organized by topic–some obvious, like “Atonement,” some fuzzier, like “The Gospel Plan,” which includes within it everything from ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood to the notion of making one’s calling and election sure. Harrell chops each topic up into chronological subcategories: the Old Testament, the New Testament, American Protestantism at the time of early Mormonism, “early Mormonism” (into which Harrell categorizes the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants), “Nauvoo Mormonism” (in which Harrell includes the Book of Abraham), and “present day Mormonism.” In each subcategory Harrell discusses whatever teachings or material is relevant to the topic. In some cases, this commentary is extensive; in others, Harrell restricts himself to a sentence or two, saying, for instance, “There are no prophecies in the New Testament that can be reasonably construed as references to Joseph Smith,” followed by a scant handful of sentences about a few passages that enthusiastic Mormons have understood as references to Smith (13).

The book is probably most useful as a reference tool, a handy encyclopedia for quickly assessing the key notions about, say, “Satan” or “the fall and nature of humanity,” or “the preexistence” in the Kirtland period or contemporary Mormonism. Harrell’s citations will be useful for other scholars seeking to get a quick sense of the primary sources, and his thumbnail sketches–all the space, likely, which such an expansive effort allowed–raise a number of questions they might pursue.

But the book unfortunately suffers from a title that’s doubly a misnomer. Perhaps unintentionally, Harrell’s premises raise interesting questions about what “doctrine” may be. He does not sketch out epistemological issues with any great depth; but his very premise–that people Mormons regard as authorities believed different things at different times–carries with it theological implications about the nature of doctrine and belief that he never quite explores fully. Harrell is largely content to disrupt what we think we know rather than sketching out a new way of understanding Mormonism. Secondly, though the book claims to illustrate the “development” of ideas the firm lines of Harrell’s structure inhibit the natural growth of that sort of argument and complicate its status as a true work of history. Harrell seems overwhelmed by his own ambitions.

So the question follows: What precisely does Harrell understand himself to be doing: theology or history? Harrell’s first chapter, “Theology: A Divine-Human Enterprise” makes explicit a theological argument for how we should best understand Mormonism. He argues, basically, that all theology can be broken down along an axis whose poles he labels “liberal” and “conservative.” According to Harrell, conservatives believe in scriptural inerrancy and prophetic infallibility and hence believe that all doctrine is “uniform:” pristine, eternal, and, most of all, taught unchangingly from the mouths and pens of God’s representatives from Adam and Moses on down to Neil L. Andersen. On the other hand, liberals can still be “faithful” but may see evidence of “cultural conditioning” or “inconsistencies” in these sources of authority and hence are more comfortable with ambiguity (3-4).

To make this case, Harrell relies very heavily on an odd assortment of writers. Each paragraph seems to introduce a new name, always introduced as “Protestant scholar” or “LDS theologian” or “Catholic thinker,” a tic which grows slightly annoying and only emphasizes the extent to which Harrell appears more or less ignorant of the history of theology. He seems to see little amiss in citing a contemporary Anglican and a medieval Catholic and a nineteenth-century Protestant evangelical to make the same point. This is, oddly enough, a scholarly version of the prooftexting Harrell decries in his “conservatives.”

In that first chapter, for instance, he leaps from the analytic Mormon theologian Blake Ostler to the radical Catholic Hans Kung to the Protestant scholar and founder of “canonical criticism,” Brevard Childs, to (blink) Benjamin Warfield, the late nineteenth-century Princeton professor who did the intellectual spadework behind the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. All of them are described as advocates of the “creative coparticipation” [4] of God and humans in scripture. This may be true to a very superficial extent, but the vast and yawning gulfs between, say, Ostler and Warfield on the question illustrate how facile Harrell’s simple dichotomy is.

Further, if Harrell does understand himself to be making theological arguments, his approach seems strange, particularly when he deals with scripture. His analysis of the Bible is entirely dependent upon the historical-critical method, which seeks to interpret these texts as historical documents reflecting the interests and preoccupations of their presumed authors. Such a reading concludes, for instance, that “Christians since New Testament times have traditionally held that Isaiah 53 is a direct reference to Christ’s suffering. Scholars, however, are less sanguine.” (278) Isaiah 53 is one of the prophet’s “servant songs,” a poem describing a figure who suffers pain and abuse but who is nonetheless a chosen messenger of God. While Christians see prophecy in this figure, historical-critical scholars prefer to read in it and the other servant songs allegories representative of Israelite culture around the time of the Exile: Isaiah himself, for instance, or the nation of Israel itself suffering under foreign invasion. Thus, Harrell argues that it would be anachronistic to the author of that particular section of Isaiah to connect such suffering to Christ’s atonement for sin.

This is an entirely respectable scholarly argument and one on which Harrell cites “Jesuit professor of Christology Gerard O’Collins” and “Anglican theologian N.T. Wright.” They are undoubtedly learned and pious men; but critically, the argument in question is not theological. The biblical text seen through the lens of historical critical scholarship is not necessarily the same text–nor even relevant–to the biblical text seen through the lens of theology. It is thus unclear what sort of relevance Harrell believes his recapitulation of the work of scholars of the higher criticism on topics like priesthood and atonement in the Bible should have to Mormon theology. Put another way, I am unclear as to what Harrell would like us to do: Simply acknowledge that “Gee, what Isaiah seems to say about the Messiah sure isn’t what Samuel Hopkins or Joseph Smith or Harold B. Lee thought he said”? This conclusion would require a radical revision of the ways Mormons use their canon, and it’s not clear that Mormons should, in fact, be reading scripture in the same ways that critical scholars do. Had Harrell read more of Brevard Childs (or Walter Brueggemann, another scholar whom he cites, or say, Hans Frei) the difference between historical critical work on scripture and theological work that takes historical criticism into account, like Childs’s own canonical criticism, might have been better developed here and a greater sense of thematic continuity preserved.

But perhaps Harrell does not understand himself to be doing theology but simply intellectual history, tracing the arc of thought on such diverse topics as “priesthood” and “Jesus Christ” and “the creation” and “salvation for the dead” and a dozen and a half others from the Hebrew scriptures to contemporary Mormonism. Put that way, such a summary seems magnificently ponderous; and indeed, perhaps the only thing Harrell can be faulted for here is biting off more than he can chew.

With such a massive task, an author could go either of two ways: first, he or she could make a work heavily thematic, arguing something specific about the nature of theological change, or using, as many systematic theologies do, a particular idea or concept as a governing structure. Second, he or she could avoid such broad arguments and focus instead on particulars, leaving out any number of examples and producing a work that reads like a reference book or encyclopedia rather than a monograph. This is the route that Harrell has taken; and I believe, unfortunately, it’s the weaker of the two choices.

He claims in his title to be studying the “development” of Mormon theology, but there’s very little sense of continuity, evolution, or change over time in any of his treatments. Little connection is drawn between his periods; indeed, Harrell tends to emphasize contrast rather than continuity. While it is quite clear that Mormon doctrine (if Harrell’s examination of the Bible can be called “Mormon doctrine”) has changed over time, we are not given any real reasons why, or what such change might tell us about Mormonism in total. And because the book covers such a vast expanse of time and theme, Harrell by necessity cannot spend more than a few hundred words in any given section. The reader might spend seven or eight minutes examining the four paragraphs that cover the concept of “foreordination” in the Bible and the eight that cover it in nineteenth-century American Christianity, including Mormonism, and be left with the vague sense that there must have been more to it than this. And indeed, there is.

Harrell’s book is representative of a long stream of works in Mormon theology: deep attention here is paid to the familiar voices: Joseph Smith, Orson and Parley Pratt, James E. Talmage, and Bruce R. McConkie. Mormonism is contextualized in a rather oversimplified early nineteenth-century American evangelicalism. The language of theology is used haphazardly by authors as well as by those Mormon thinkers they study. There is little effort to systematize Mormon doctrine, or to relate its changes to deeper developments in Mormon culture, American culture, or to the context of American Christianity more generally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This value of this sort of work should not be downplayed, and I want to stress that I believe Harrell’s work will be useful in any number of ways to scholars of the future. But Mormon historiography is changing, and Harrell’s work is a monumental for reasons other than those which now seem most pressing.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Theology


  1. Thanks for the review. The problems you highlight are exactly those that worry me about my own project; my program was extremely heavy on languages and texts, and equally light on methodology/theory.

    Comment by Ben S — November 7, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  2. Excellent review, Matt.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 8, 2011 @ 3:38 am

  3. Matt, thank you for a very interesting, insightful, and incisive review. With any luck, Harrell’s book will help to inaugurate interest in more nuanced studies of Mormon theology–both theological and historical.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — November 8, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and probing review of my book, especially from an academic perspective. I must take exception with your allegation that I am not a “trained” theologian. I can say with Herman Cain that I have studied the issues for months and am therefore well qualified to speak knowledgably on them. Actually, it became clear to me early on that this book would fall short in meeting the expectations of Mormon studies scholars as a true theological history, and I think you identified precisely where it is lacking in this regard. My target audience is primarily non-academics who have gone through CES and are entrenched in traditional LDS doctrinal paradigms or have struggled with cognitive dissonance.

    I appreciate your restraint in expressing what you would have preferred to see in a book on the development of Mormon theology and instead tried to understand and appreciate the book on its own terms–in spite of its ambitious aims and somewhat confused theological/historical approach.

    I hope readers don’t get the impression that my only objective is to show that doctrines change, which is, as you note, “a rather unexceptional point” and could have been demonstrated with a few good examples. Rather, I wanted to explore the extent to which doctrines appear to have changed and how that affects one’s understanding of scripture. Thus I determined to focus on “particulars” rather than “broad arguments,” even though, due to their number, they are often reduced to mere “thumbnail sketches.” Hopefully they provide ample jumping off points for further exploration and dialog.

    I look forward with you to future works written by those more qualified than me to fill in the holes and expand upon the work begun here.

    Comment by C. Harrell — November 9, 2011 @ 12:35 am

  5. Gary, Bens – it’s appreciated: thanks.

    Charles – Thanks for your gracious response; it’s hugely appreciated. I’m pleased you’ve come here to join the conversation, and I’m quite interested in what you say here.

    I do, in fact, think the book is probably well suited for the sorts of things that you point out here: for one, it’s very accessible. It makes the sorts of points that might seem “unexceptional” to scholars but which will no doubt seem paradigm-breaking to people who’ve never encountered them before with grace and clarity. Its structure inhibits it from making a progressive argument, but also makes is valuable and useful as a reference tool – not simply to be read from beginning to end, but to be dipped into. In that, it might be usefully compared – and perhaps used – in the same way Mormon Doctrine’s been. I certainly think, as you hope, that it will be used and cited and will spark further dialogue, both within and without the academic community.

    Comment by matt b. — November 9, 2011 @ 10:21 am

  6. Great review, matt, and great reply by Harrell.

    Harrell said:

    My target audience is primarily non-academics who have gone through CES and are entrenched in traditional LDS doctrinal paradigms or have struggled with cognitive dissonance.
    I determined to focus on ‘particulars’ rather than ‘broad arguments,’ even though, due to their number, they are often reduced to mere ‘thumbnail sketches.’ Hopefully they provide ample jumping off points…

    I think this best sums up my concern with the book. If the intent is to mitigate cognitive dissonance, I don’t think this is the best approach. If the target audience is non-academics who are confused based on things learned in CES, etc., then this book doesn’t provide them with much in the way of tools they can use past that “jumping off point.”

    Comment by BHodges — November 18, 2011 @ 2:17 am


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