Can Mormonism Have a Systematic Theology?

By Bowman, Matthew | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Can Mormonism Have a Systematic Theology?


Bowman, Matthew, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Can Mormonism Have a Systematic Theology? Charles R. Harrell. "This Is My Doctrine": The Development of Mormon Theology. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011. xii, 583 pp., index, chapter endnotes. $34.95. ISBN 1589581032

Reviewed by Matthew Bowman

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 be lieved 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. Second, 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. …

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