I came across an essay published in BYU Studies journal 54.1 (2015) "Toward a Mormon Systematic Theology - Essay on Wrestling the Angel by Terryl L. Givens". I was surprisingly pleased by signs of cross fertilization in theological constructions between LDS and mainstream Christianity. Stephen H. Webb, the author, was a Roman Catholic who also wrote a 2015 book Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation, also reviewed in the same journal.

The key points that jumped for me is "open canon", and aversion to writing systematic theology and to creeds (which by contrast, a well defined practice for many mainstream Christian denominations). While in the mainstream denominations theology keeps being redefined in every philosophical age (to respond to new worldviews), and currently mainstream denominations are undergoing yet another redefinition by revisiting what the church fathers said, the sources of the theology have remained relatively constant, which include creeds and closed canon. Yes, in Catholicism there is the living Magisterium, and there is the living Holy Spirit, but both living voices cannot contradict the voice of the original authors of the closed canon. So there is stability which grounds flexibility; flexibility obtained by new research into Ancient Near Eastern background, new hermeneutics (which incorporate the now in vogue narrative criticism, for example), new research into the church fathers period, new appropriation of medieval theology, etc.

My question is: "If an LDS theologian wishes to write a systematic theology in the established genre of the mainstream denominations, what sources of authority one needs to consult?" Of course the Bible and the Book of Mormon is high in the list. But what about LDS Church leaders / councils / prophets? Will there be new revelations that need to be taken into account? What are the ranking of authority compared to the Bible & the Book of Mormon? Can there be a prophet in the future? How about Reason and Philosophy, how are they ranked in terms of authority compared to three-legged-stool teaching in Anglicanism for example? (BTW, the answer to this sub-question maybe found in a 2010 book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture by BYU philosophy professor James E. Faulconer).

Quotes from the review (emphasis mine):

Nevertheless, for all its orderliness, Givens actually denies that his book is a work of systematic theology, calling it instead a “study of the foundations of Mormon thought and practice” (ix). I take such denials as a nod to nervousness in the Mormon community about attempts by individuals without a prophetic vocation to bring order to the capacious house of Joseph’s many ideas. That is understandable, but I look forward to the day when Mormon theologians (and yes, while Givens is a professor of religion and literature, he is most assuredly a Mormon and a theologian) do not feel the need to use their church’s “open canon” to claim that “Mormon doctrine is by definition impossible to fix” (x). Every Christian tradition that is open to the Holy Spirit is living and evolving and thus difficult to pin down. Even the most biblically focused Christian traditions tend to operate with a “canon within a canon” whose boundaries are hard to fix, and magisterial church traditions supplement the closed canon with the openness of creeds and councils. Mormons are in pretty much the same position as every other Christian tradition with regard to systematic theology; which is to say, there are lots of sources of authority to be juggled and few certainties to be found, but much delightful work to sustain the life of any curious mind. Brigham Young called theology a “celestial science” (6), and I couldn’t agree more. When Givens emphasizes how Mormon theology must be provisional and incomplete, he is describing theology as such; on this point, Mormons, I regret to say, are not all that special.

I think Givens’s book will go a long way toward calming Mormon theological worries that system building can assume creedal dimensions. Despite his occasional rhetoric to the contrary, his systematic ambitions are clear; yet his aim, appropriately, is doctrinal complexity, not creedal simplicity. Givens is convinced that Mormon foundations have to be put in the context of both continuities with and departures from ancient and contemporary Christian traditions. While systematic theology for churches that are more certain of their location within the broader stream of the faith can afford to be formal and abstract, the intelligibility of Mormon doctrine cannot be elaborated outside a comparative methodology grounded in a historical narrative about the development of church doctrine. Mormonism’s claim to represent the fullness of Christian faith requires nothing less.

Givens points out that the Latter-day Saints do not have a counterpart to Catholicism’s Catechism and that the 1842 Articles of Faith “contain relatively few of Mormonism’s key beliefs” (6). Yet it is my experience that the Saints have done a better job than any other Christian church in instructing their members in the doctrinal basics of their faith. When it comes to theology, Mormons protest too much. The theological practices of the Saints are much more systematic than their rhetorical apologies for being unsystematic would suggest. What the Saints say about theology needs to be brought into closer alignment with what they actually accomplish through education, publishing, and conferencing venues, which is quite impressive indeed.

As demonstrated by his very fine analysis of Mormon views of apostasy, Givens keeps the fullness of the restored gospel front and center. “In Smith’s scheme of restoration, any pruning of accretions is meant to clear the way for the tree’s trunk to reattain the fullness of its original foliage” (19). Such flowery language is a testament to the decades Givens has spent immersed in the literature of the romantics, and indeed the overall aim of Givens’s project is to situate Mormon thought in the ancient past of the church, with all of its exotic richness, rather than in the Protestant Reformation’s narrower explication of the three solae (scripture, grace, and faith). In Givens’s hands, Joseph comes across as a lot closer to Origen than Calvin—and Joseph also comes across as a more theologically explicit variant of Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge.

  • Can there be a prophet in the future? We have a prophet now, Russell M. Nelson. We've had 17 prophets in this Last Dispensation including Joseph Smith, Jr. and President Nelson. Why would we want to redefine our theology in every philosophical age (to respond to new worldviews) when we have prophets who speak with God? I respect that it's perceived as an arrogance, but please remember we believe ourselves to be the one and only true church of Jesus Christ.
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 2:03
  • @JBH What Stephen Webb means by "redefine" in closed canon mainstream theologies is translation to new philosophical language, not adding fresh information into the system. That's how mainstream theologies have adapted in the past 2,000 years from the Neoplatonism of St. Augustine to Aristotelianism of St. Thomas Aquinas to the Personalism of St. John Paul II. This Q&A has successfully highlighted the differences. I don't regard LDS nor mainstream as arrogant; it's just in a closed canon there is inherently more check and balance and stability by virtue of the properties of the system. Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 2:30

2 Answers 2


Depperm's answer is, I think, complete, which I know isn't very satisfying relative to the level of detail you put into your question. But really the sole foundation of Latter-day Saint doctrine is the word of God revealed in the scriptures and through the prophets (ancient and modern). This, coupled with the concept of an open canon, makes it difficult to "fix" the doctrine.

That said, I will address some of your specific questions, and provide a few additional materials to depperm's list.

First to repeat depperm's list:

  1. Scriptures
  • Bible
  • Book of Mormon
  • Pearl of Great Price
  • Doctrine and Covenants
  1. Prophets (past/present/future)

See also Approaching Latter-day Saint Doctrine

There are a few items which I would consider as Latter-day Saint leaders "fixing" doctrine. I use "fixing" in quotation marks because these are doctrines that were taught and set before these documents were created, these documents were more "clear, collected, and very intentional proclamations" of portions of Latter-day Saint doctrine. These do not cover all aspects of Latter-day Saint teaching, but are very good starting points.

I do not list the two official declarations mentioned on that website, despite them being familiar to the modern church membership, 1. in my mind they are more changes to policy than pronouncement of doctrine and 2. are also included in the Doctrine & Covenants. Official Declaration 1 from 1890 was the beginning of the end of the practice of polygamy among Latter-day Saints and Official Declaration 2 from 1978 was the announcement that all worthy men could be ordained to the priesthood, where previous there were race restrictions.

To address some of your more specific questions.

Of course the Bible and the Book of Mormon is high in the list. But what about LDS Church leaders / councils / prophets?

The prophets definitely are high on the list. This talk is good summary of how important prophets are in establishing canon. Two of the fourteen points presented in the talk are "the living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works [the four books of scripture listed above]" and "the living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet." You can read the talk for details, but the short justification for those two points is that it is more valuable to have a living mouthpiece for God giving us God's word today than it is to have a record of God's word from yesterdays. That being said, the living Latter-day Saint prophets have always taught the importance of personal scripture study and often quote scripture in their addresses.

Will there be new revelations that need to be taken into account?

Yes there will be new revelations. The church's ninth Article of Faith states "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

What are the ranking of authority compared to the Bible & the Book of Mormon?

I think the eight Article of Faith provides the answer: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." As far as the Bible is translated correctly, the two books stand equal in authority.

Can there be a prophet in the future?

Yes, and not just "can there" but "there will." It is a Latter-day Saint teaching that there will be a unbroken line of prophets and apostles leading to the Second Coming.

  • 3
    thanks for going into more detail (+1), ran out of time to expound mine the other day
    – depperm
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 11:11
  • 1
    I would like to add to this - When it comes to ranking authority, officially the current prophet ranks highest compared to all other sources. In reality, it is more likely official proclamations are the only time that the current prophet might trump scripture like the Book of Mormon.
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 16:20

The only appropriate source is a prophet called of God.

The standard works and other authoritative writings on the theology of the church all have the same origin: they are the written words of prophets; documented prophecies.

There is one thing we are taught about prophecies in the scriptures:

2 Peter 1:20–21

20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

In order for an "LDS theologian" to properly write a systematic theology, that theologian must also be a prophet, seer, and revelator. Otherwise their research will undoubtedly result in revisions, reinterpretations, and redefinitions.

The Doctrine of Christ is eternal and unchanging. As the Earth progresses closer towards fulfilling its purpose, more will be revealed to the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth to future prophets of God, but the doctrine is never altered, nor can it be.

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