According to Jeffrey R Holland, “[W]ords are sacred,” and “cometh from above,” (see The Tongue of Angels, April 2007 General Conference). And if we are to use them correctly we must understand them correctly. For example, one of the important distinctions that the Book of Mormon makes about the concept of faith is that it is things which are hoped for which are true (see Hebrews 11:1-3 and Alma 32:21). Thus we cannot have real faith if the things we believe in are not true.
One such example was the notion that man should be able to fly simply by jumping off his roof and flapping his arms fast enough. Those people who experienced the consequences of such a belief will tell you this belief simply is not true. And since the belief is not true and acting on the notion was at the time and is not now true faith.
Words are the same. We cannot have true faith if we do not correctly understand the words used to talk about our faith. And more importantly we won’t be able to correctly apply the things we believe to our daily lives if the things we believe are based on an incorrect understanding of the words used to define our beliefs.
As an example, the subject of faith itself is one of the most nebulous and perhaps misunderstood concepts in all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so much so that many individuals both in and out of the cannon of scripture have written extensively about it. The aspect of faith taken from the Book of Mormon mentioned above is but one of many concepts that help to build a fuller, richer, and more correct idea of what faith is, allowing us to more adequately exercise faith in God.
Among the many facets which define our concept of faith there is one passage in the New Testament which sheds a light on the subject of faith that is quite popular in Church doctrine and which adds a dimension to the idea of faith that is different from any other passage on the subject that I am aware of:
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.James 2:17-18 (see also James 2:12-26)
From this passage written by James we learn that faith has two components:
- Things we believe
- Things we do because we believe
In writing Abiding Precepts I realized the the term “precept” is another of those words used to describe our faith which we really don’t understand. It’s meaning is rather nebulous because we don’t use it in our daily vernacular – except in the one instance in the intro to the Book of Mormon. After a brief perusal of the dictionary on the subject I realized that if the Abiding Precepts project is to have the impact on my life and yours that it is intended to it is important to clarify the meaning of the word and call attention to the fact that through ignorance we might be misusing this word.
Which led me to think more broadly of what we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what make up its tenets (another word worth looking up!). As I did I came to the realization that we use lots of words in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to describe our faith and our religion that we don’t really understand or correctly use. Many of them get used interchangeably when they in fact shouldn’t be because they don’t mean the same thing at all and we haven’t yet spent enough time to understand their difference.
With that in mind, and as an aside and support to the work of the Abiding Precepts project, I thought I’d take the opportunity to define a few terms we use all the time but may not fully understand.
As I consider it (basically this is my own simple opinion) there are four main categories of Gospel teachings, and understanding what they are will help us know what to do with them as we try to live our religion.
The first is doctrine.
The second is prophecy.
The third is precept.
And the fourth is history.
I believe that every teaching in the Church can be categorized under one of these four heads – and we’re going to talk a little more about them, define them, and analyze them below. Most of what follows will be focused on the first three categories since the word “history” is not generally misunderstood, and since we also derive much of our doctrine from the historical accounts in the scriptures, and since history as an academic and scientific pursuit does not necessarily inform our religion. I will give at least a little space, however, just to give an illustration of how it relates to our faith.
And now on to a few definitions!
What is doctrine? Defined by Merriam-Webster:
1a. a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief
1b. a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations
1e. something that is taughtMerriam-Webster Online Dictionary – Doctrine
Defined by Dictionary.com:
1. a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government: Catholic doctrines; the Monroe Doctrine.
2. something that is taught; teachings collectively: religious doctrine.
3. a body or system of teachings relating to a particular subject: the doctrine of the Catholic Church.Dictionary.com – Doctrine
Thus when we speak of the doctrine of the Church we mean the things taught by the Church and it’s leaders. And when we speak of the doctrine of Jesus Christ we speak of the things – individually and collectively – taught by the Savior Himself.
It is worth pointing out at this point that there are various aspects or sub-categories under the doctrine heading – things such as principles and ordinances – that are worth defining and discussing at another time.
Prophecy is defined in the dictionaries as:
1. an inspired utterance of a prophet
2. the function or vocation of a prophet specifically : the inspired declaration of divine will and purpose
3. a prediction of something to comeMerriam-Webster Online Dictionary – Prophecy
1. the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
2. something that is declared by a prophet, especially a divinely inspired prediction, instruction, or exhortation.
3. a divinely inspired utterance or revelation:
4. the action, function, or faculty of a prophet.Dictionary.com – Prophecy
I think that most often we consider the term prophecy in terms of a foretelling, particularly when we consider the writings of people such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John. But according to this the definition is not limited to things which are foretold, but also includes any “divinely inspired . . . instruction, or exhortation.” So basically any statement made by a prophet when acting in the role of a prophet is a statement of prophecy so long as it is accompanied and sanctioned by the Holy Ghost. This opens up the spectrum of prophecy to a whole lot more passages of scriptures than perhaps was previously considered.
And now we come to precept:
1. a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action
2. an order issued by legally constituted authority to a subordinate officialMerriam-Webster Online Dictionary – Precept
1. a commandment or direction given as a rule of action or conduct.
2. an injunction as to moral conduct; maxim.
3. a procedural directive or rule, as for the performance of some technical operation.Dictionary.com – Precept
A precept is then a statement or idea by which we choose to govern our decision making. In relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ these would be direct statements of what to do and how to live – i.e. commandments, though they certainly are not limited to the commandments. The commandments themselves are precepts, but there are many many more precepts contained in the scriptures and other teachings of Jesus by which we should be governing our personal conduct.
Things To Believe, Things To Do
If we now reconsider the words of James:
Faith without works is dead.
We understand that there are actually two elements to living our faith and each of the four categories just covered fit into those two elements: first we must believe and then we must do.
We believe doctrine, we believe prophecy, and we believe history – and what we believe informs what we do. It is from our beliefs – doctrine, prophecy, and history – that we derive precept and precept in turn dictates what we do in life and how we respond to our faith. And so precept is what we do about our beliefs.
A New Perspective On Scripture Study
With this perspective on faith we can now dive into our personal and collective scripture study and ask ourselves: “Is this something I am to believe or something I am to do? If it is something to believe, do I? And if it is something to do, am I doing it?”
In this way – by evaluating the things we study in the scriptures using these three questions – we have great power to change our lives for the better, to draw closer to God, to evaluate who we are and where we are going, and to correct and clean up much of the rust we have developed in our lifetimes.
It is my hope that with this new insight into faith and into the term precept, we can each begin (or perhaps simply continue) a journey that leads us more effectively and powerfully back to our Father in Heaven than the process we were using before. May we harness the power of precept to bring us closer to God is my hope both as we continue the Abiding Precepts project and beyond even after that project is complete.