While I was writing this post, I found this tidbit of information on the front page of LDS.org:
The Gospel Principles manual contains information on 47 core principles of the gospel for personal study and teaching. In 2010 and 2011, this manual will be used in Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society classes, as well as the Gospel Principles class for investigators and new members. The manual is available online in multiple media formats.
This excites me quite a bit. One of my biggest concerns in the Church is the problem of doctrine. Mainstream Christianity has a relatively stable, if disputed, and quite elaborate set of doctrines which answer essential theological questions, but Mormonism has a much smaller set of core, essential doctrines and a large and robust set of speculative doctrines. Mainstream Christianity also has a large body of professional clergy who learn these sets of doctrines and the chatecisms, confessions and creeds from which they are derived to carry these doctrines to individuals to strive to keep their belief orthodox. Mormonism, by contrast, has no paid clergy, and is based in revealed truth that extends beyond, and sometimes contrasts with, the chatechisms, confessions and creeds of mainstream Christianity. We believe that many things will yet be revealed pertaining to the Kingdom of God. And we have, and have had, a large group of leaders that we believe can speak, through inspiration, the word of God, just as scriptures hold the word of God.
The profundity, and, from some perspectives, audacity of this claim is hard to overestimate. And it brings some major consequences to Mormonism, as nobody speaks through inspiration all the time. Over time, these leaders have explored doctrinal ideas, and shared those explorations, without always being clear that these explorations were their own personal understanding — what I call speculative doctrines. Speculative doctrines are things which might be true, and are contrasted with essential doctrines which must be true. Speculative doctrines can appeal to people for a variety of reasons, some of which are good, because they are true, and some of which are not so good, because they are false, but they can be handled reasonably well when people understand that they are speculative, and not essential. Think of these as doctrinal urban legends, and you’ll have the right idea.
Occasionally, someone will take a speculative doctrine and, with the best of intentions, extend it far enough that it actually becomes a false doctrine. And it can appeal to other people, and spread. This is a problem. The most striking example I can think of of a false doctrine is the doctrine of Salvation by Works, where the importance of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is minimized in the misguided attempt to point to the requirement that we do work both to live and to accept the influece of the Savior in our lives. There is no scripture of which I am aware that tells us of anything that can save us but the grace and love of God manifest in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But, because we don’t want to be seen as accepting the notion that one can proclaim Jesus with their lips, and do nothing to follow the commandments he gave, and be saved, far too many over-react and over-estimate the importance of our own efforts.
So I am excited to see that this course of study is going to reach all the adults in the Church over the next two years. This course will cover the essential doctrines of the Church in their most basic form. Anything not found in this course, or in the temple ceremonies, is not an essential doctrine. Speculative doctrines are fine, so long as they are understood and spoken of as being speculative. I am hopeful that this will help clarify this distinction.