Doctrine and principles. We all know that they exist. That they’re in the scriptures. However, prior to my class on teaching seminary, I basically left that sort of thing up to someone else to work out. I thought, “Doctrine and principles are the stuff that made it into the manual.” To a certain extent, I was right. Many do make it into the manual. However, by taking myself out of the equation, I was robbing myself. If you leave those discoveries up to others, you will not get the whole of what the Lord has to teach you.
Now that you’ve studied the Content and Context of the scripture block, it’s time to dive deeper.
What are Doctrine and Principles?
At first glance, doctrine and principles can seem like very similar things. They’re both complete statements. Likewise, they both express truth. The difference lies mostly in how they can be applied. While doctrine are statements of gospel fact, principles are statements that can be applied to situations in our lives. That might seem like a fine hair to split, but let me give examples.
Doctrine: We are children of God.
Principle: If I am a child of God, and thus like Him, I should not worship idols, for I know He isn’t them.
Both of these acknowledge the same gospel truth. That gospel truth can be summarized in a complete sentence as a piece of doctrine, that “We are children of God”. It can also be summarized in a complete sentence as a principle for application in our life, teaching us why we shouldn’t worship idols. The complete sentence bit is important. We need these to be packets of wisdom that can be looked at out of their original context. That way, when we turn to them, we can apply them to OUR context.
Why not just the ones in the manual?
A lot of really smart, and spiritual men have worked on the various manuals and studies and guides to the scriptures. They’ve likely outlined dozens of doctrines and heaps of principles that we can adopt for ourselves and grow. I’m counting on it, because I’ve relied on that for 7 years now. However, what really stands out when you put this method of scripture study to the test is that there are too many nuggets of wisdom for any number of books that could be written and read. We might not ever find them all. We also might not be ready for, or understand, a different person’s interpretation. Take my seminary class, when asked to complete a principle, for instance: “Because I am a child of God…” they will come up with numerous completely different answers! Which one of them is right? All of them.
If all of them are right, which is the most important principle? For them? I think it is the one they came up with. Because that golden nugget they pulled from the scriptures themselves is the nugget they’re being inspired to find. It’s the nugget that builds on their life and takes into account all the things about them that I can never hope to know. It takes their dreams and fears, their testimony, their experience, their whole lives into account as they take the time to work out a principle for themselves.
What kinds of Doctrine and Principles are there?
Some doctrine and principles are going to jump out at you. They’re right there on the page waiting to be found. We can and do find those in our every day reading. If we take the time to look for them, they will be easy to discover. The above principle from Acts 17 is pretty plain and apparent from the text. It is an example of one of the easier to discover doctrines and principles.
Others are going to take more work. They are implied by the text, but never said straight out. They take time and effort to discover. Though with practice, it gets easier. Finding them is both the challenge and the key. Think about how Jesus taught in parables, about how he protected the casual listener from understanding the truths he sought to deliver, and you will start to understand why delving for doctrine and principles is one of the most important endeavors we can set ourselves to.
Finding the “obvious”
The word obvious is misleading. Sometimes even the “obvious” slips past our eyes as we read through the scriptures. However for the sake of argument, I’m going to stick with the word. Call it writer’s prerogative. “Obvious” doctrine and principles are found by looking for statements of truth. In the above example, “we are offspring of God” was a doctrine said straight out and in the open. It stands alone as a complete statement and contains something fundamental. Often you can find this kind of doctrine or principle by underlining or highlighting part of or all of a verse. I highly recommend picking a color now and trying to do that whenever you read, you’ll be amazed at what you find.
Finding the “hidden”
Finding the hidden can be a little more challenging, and it should be. We are studying our scriptures in more depth because we want to get more out of them, right? Those spiritual treasures are valuable things. They have the power to change our lives, now and forever. We should have to work for them, to show our desire to receive them. So finding these principles will require more time and effort from you, but they will be worth it!
Here are a couple of methods of finding hidden doctrine and principles:
- Look for the if/then: If this, then that. This happened, so that happened. Wherefore. Therefore. Forasmuch as. And so it came to pass. These are all huge clues that you should screech to a halt in your reading and look closer for the doctrine or principle involved. There is almost always one there, some reason that one thing lead to another. Find that relationship between the ‘if’ and the ‘then’ and you’ve found your hidden doctrine or principle.
- Ask what and why?: Why is that in the scriptures? Why did that happen? What does that teach me? What was the point of all that? Taking the time to ask what and why questions and really thinking about the answers can help us see doctrine and principles that would otherwise escape our notice.
- Write our answers down, then rewrite them: Sometimes just the act of trying to rewrite something as a doctrine or principle can help you to discover it! Get your answers on paper for yourself, then make sure they’re in complete sentence form, so you can use them later in your life.
Before we move on to “Understanding Doctrine and Principles“, take a little bit of time, delve into the scriptures and identify some doctrine and principles for yourself. It’s probably possible for some people to skip straight to the finish line and gain miraculous spiritual knowledge and understanding… If that’s you, please share your secret. If it isn’t you, then just trust me and do each step in order.