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What are Doctrines, Principles & Applications?


Ever find yourself thinking “I’m not quite sure I really know the definition of that word”? If not, then you are amazing and I applaud you.

I’ve found it to be valuable to quiz yourself continually as to your knowledge concerning the meanings of words. Here on oneClimbs, I’ve written a few articles trying to clarify common misconceptions about the meanings of certain words. Don’t even get me started on Latter-day Saints use of the word “peculiar“. Understanding the true meanings of words will often bring refreshing insights that are hidden behind a veil of misconception.

A few days ago, I was discussing a particular study method with a friend and one step in the process was: “identifying and understanding doctrines and principles”. So as I commonly do, I asked myself “so what’s the difference between a doctrine and a principle”. The more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t have a clear definition for either in my mind.

I decided to go back to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas called  “Act in Doctrine” by David A. Bednar. On pages xiv-xv in the Preface he defines what doctrines and principles are and then notes a third essential element: Applications. I’ve boiled down his descriptions into the following simplified versions:

  • Doctrines: eternal truths revealed by God.
  • Principles: doctrinally based guidelines for the exercise of agency.
  • Applications: actions we take in response to doctrines and principles.

Elder Bednar points out that “Our tendency as members of the Church is to focus on applications. But as we learn to ask ourselves, ‘What doctrines and principles, if understood, would help with this challenge?’ we come to realize that the answers always are in the doctrines and principles of the gospel” (pg. xv)

Doctrines answer the question of “why” and Elder Bednar suggests that the doctrine of the Atonement explains why Jesus is our advocate with the Father. He writes that principles answer the question of “what”; some examples are repentance, baptism, service, charity, etc. Applications answer the question of “how”, and provide the specifics of how something needs to be done. While the Church does teach applications, like in the case of ordinances and administrative duties, etc., it is necessary that many applications are individually personalized to us by the Spirit.

For instance, the doctrine that God is our Father and that he is willing to commune with us requires that we learn the principle of prayer. The Church offers guidelines on how to appropriately address Heavenly Father but it does not tell us what to say. Likewise, the principle of Sabbath Day observance does not have a long list of rules, we are expected to find our own applications by listening to the guidance of the Spirit.

This is where I think we make the largest mistakes in our gospel instruction. Instead of focusing on the doctrine and principles in our teaching, a teacher can be tempted to teach their application as the gospel truth. If perhaps one day you happened to pray to God while facing east and wearing flip-flops and had an amazingly profound experience, you should not teach that everyone should pray facing east and wearing flip-flops.

If you feel that caffeine is the reason that coffee and tea are against the Word of Wisdom, you probably should not be teaching that as doctrine. By focusing our understanding on doctrines and principles, we will be assisting the Spirit to teach the proper applications that are individually necessary.

What do you think?

  • Do you have any experiences with focusing more on doctrines and principles than applications?
  • Do you find that your teaching is mostly “application based”?
  • How do we teach doctrines and principles effectively?