As I studied and took the class necessary to become a full-time Seminary instructor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last year (a full-time religious education teaching position for high school aged students), we were instructed, among many things, on how to approach the scriptural text. When approaching and teaching the text, there were four levels of analysis/understanding that were presented, with a fifth level that the instructor alluded to but that was not specifically mentioned in the instructor manual Gospel Teaching and Learning (this entire article is pulled heavily from this manual). These four levels of analysis/understanding are Content, Context, Doctrine, and Principle. The fifth level alluded to was Application.
As I see many critical posts in social media against the LDS Church over one issue or another, I have often seen that most of these critical posts and attacks come from arguments that misapply these terms. I have seen over the last year the increased need for understanding these terms and applying them correctly. Sadly, most people, including myself, have spent most of their lives only scratching the surface of understanding and analyzing content and context and have largely remained in the dark regarding scriptural doctrines, principles, and administered application.
When we typically think of reading, or when casually reading our scriptures, we almost always read for primarily content.
The content is the story line, people, events, sermons, and inspired explanations that make up the scriptural text. The content of the scriptures gives life and relevance to the doctrines and principles that are found in the scripture block. For example, the story of Nephi obtaining the brass plates teaches the principle that faith in the Lord and listening to the Spirit can help individuals overcome what appears to be insurmountable challenges.
This level of scriptural knowledge, analysis, and understanding is what we mostly glean from our scripture study time, as we become familiar with the men and women in scripture and know of their strengths and weaknesses, faiths and doubts, and obedience and disobedience. We learn to identify with the struggles of the sinner, as we gain hope for the joys of repentance.
Most “scriptorians” are well versed in the context of scripture. This is where most religious apologists come in to play – your “Hugh Nibley” type figures. Context is not only the story-line that bookends the specific scripture in question, but it is the social, religious, historical, semantic, situation, cultural, and geographic setting(s) that frames that story in its time and place so that we may more fully and perfectly understand the purpose behind why the story was included in the text. Joseph Smith stated the purpose of context succinctly when he said,
I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I inquire, what was the question which drew out the answer…? (History of the Church, 5:261).
Through the context we are more perfectly able to understand the breadth and depth of the scriptural content.
Doctrines of the gospel are very broad and general statements of truth that never change. The doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are simple and can be stated concisely in a short sentence.
A doctrine is a fundamental, unchanging truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such truths as Heavenly father has a body of flesh and bones, baptism is necessary to enter the kingdom of God, and all men will be resurrected are all examples of doctrines.
The doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are often distorted in public in confusion to the application of the gospel as administered by priesthood and Church authorities. Doctrines are the fundamental statements of reality wherein principles, applications, and policies seek to find a foundation to build.
Doctrines and principles are sometimes hard to determine from each other, but generally speaking “principles are enduring truths or rules individuals can adopt to guide them in making decisions.”
This means that a gospel principle usually suggests action as well as the consequences that follow. For example: praying always can help us overcome temptation (see D&C 10:5), and if we follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, He will help us accomplish what the Lord has commanded (see 1 Nephi 4).
Principles are broad/general statements that suggest to the mind necessary actions and to show the consequences of following/not following those actions. There are two general types of principles found in scripture: Stated and Implied.
Stated principles are very easy to identify. They are explicit if/then statements and are typically proceeded by such words as “thus we see,” “therefore,” “wherefore,” or “behold”. These words help the reader to identify an action with its consequence. For example:
Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name (Helaman 3:27).
Therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word (Alma 12:10).
Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Ephesians 6:13).
Whenever we see if/then statements, we know that there is a stated principle nearby.
Implied principles are initially harder to find and may come by reading an entire chapter or book. For instance, one implied principle spoken of throughout the entire Book of Mosiah (within The Book of Mormon) is that if we follow the Lord with full diligence of mind and heart, serve him, and trust in him, then he will deliver us from bondage.
Gospel Teaching and Learning offers one tool for discovering implied principles by asking such questions as:
- What is the moral point of the story?
- Why do you think the writer included these events of passages?
- What did the author intend for us to learn?
- What are some of the fundamental truths taught in this passage?
Through seeking to find general if/then statements and messages, we are certain to begin to find treasures of knowledge and understanding that we did not have before.
Another tool to discovering principles is to ask “Therefore, what?” When we have searched the content (story), delved into and have a working understanding of the context, and have understood a general doctrine, we may do well to ask ourselves “therefore, what?” and let the Spirit teach us what principles we may take for our own benefit and learning to enhance and bring joy to our lives.
Principles are general if/then statements, built on eternal doctrines, that are eternal and unchanging, yet the Lord has applied various principles and doctrines differently throughout time. Applications of gospel doctrines and principles are conventionally applied. God lives and loves his children (doctrine), and if we love God then we will keep his commandments (principles) – but how that doctrine and principle are applied and administered in one given context verses another has and will continue to vary. In one day and age, the House of Israel gave of the firstling of their flocks without blemish as an application of a priesthood ordinance in symbolism of an eternal doctrine and principle; yet, today, we offer a broken heart and contrite spirit in place of a sacrificial lamb in symbolic application. Take for instance President Henry B. Eyring’s statement at a BYU Devotional Address in 1996.
Our Heavenly Father has at different periods in the history of this earth adjusted what he has asked of his children because of choices they made, but the new and everlasting covenant has endured and will endure…
The Lord will adjust what he requires of his children because of their own choices, but the doctrine and principle of the new and everlasting covenant are constant. Taking this as an example, the Lord has adjusted the application of gospel doctrines and principles, but those doctrines and principles have never changed.
Even in this last priesthood dispensation, the Lord has and will continue to adjust what he requires of his people based on their own choices – and many will perceive these changes in application and misapply these applications as changes in principle and doctrine (thus seeking to show inconsistency where none exists).
If ever we believe that we have seen inconsistency in the way the gospel of Jesus Christ is administered, then we may most certainly know that the principles and doctrines of Christ are unchanging and eternal and that we witness continued and varied change to the application of the Gospel of Christ.
Take Away Message
When we read scripture, we would do well to understand the content and context – but the real power of scripture is found in learning, understanding, becoming, and applying the scriptures in our own lives. We have the examples of people before us and their walk with God, but scripture is only as powerful as we make it through our own living the doctrines and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.