Please clarify the meaning of theory, principle, and doctrine in D&C 88:78.
June 1977

“Please clarify the meaning of theory, principle, and doctrine in D&C 88:78.” Ensign, June 1977, 38–39

I’m confused about the meaning of three words in D&C 88:78: “… that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel.” My dictionary defines theory as synonymous with doctrine, defines doctrine as principle, and principle as an antonym for theory. Help!

Robert J. Woodford, high councilor, Salt Lake Winder West Stake The portion of section 88 that contains this verse is addressed to a small number of priesthood brethren known as “the first laborers in this last kingdom.” (D&C 88:74.) Among this group were the leaders of the Church and some of the missionaries called by revelation at the conference held 25 January 1832 at Amherst, Ohio (see D&C 75), who had since returned from their missions. Many of these “first laborers” had only the barest rudiments of an education and must have felt limited in their effectiveness among people who had superior academic training.

It would also appear that these men had a need to learn more concerning the gospel and to put into practice the things they knew to be true. In this revelation the Lord was making provision for these men to improve themselves before he sent them out again on missions. (D&C 88:80.) Their preparation included sanctifying themselves from all sin (D&C 88:68–69, 74–76) and engaging in an intensified study of theology and the several branches of secular learning (D&C 88:77–79).

In verse 78 [D&C 88:78], instruction is given concerning the study of theology, and a literary device known as synonymia is used so that the reader will be touched with the importance of the message, which is to learn“… all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand.” Synonymia, repetition of words that are different in sound and origin but similar in meaning, is used for the purpose of emphasizing and enhancing. The idea is to look at the subject again and again in order to impress the meaning on the mind of the reader. In this case the subject is to learn all that is possible about the kingdom of God, and so the words theory, principle, doctrine, and law of the gospel are used for emphasis.

Knowing the context in which these words are used aids in deciding which of the several dictionary definitions that are offered for each is intended. Also, since almost a century and a half have lapsed since this revelation was written, the 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language may better give the meanings intended:

Theory—An exposition of the general principles of any science; as the theory of music.

Principle—A general truth; a law comprehending many subordinate truths; as the principles of morality, of law, of government, etc.

Doctrine—The truths of the gospel in general. Instruction and confirmation in the truths of the gospel.

Law (of the gospel)—The word of God; the doctrines and precepts of God, or his revealed will.

In addition to the matters already discussed, these words appear to be strategically placed within the sentence so that each builds on the other, from general principles to the truths of the gospel, and from these truths to the word of God.

Within a month of the reception of this revelation, the School of the Prophets was established, and these men did receive the instruction recommended here. For the most part, those brethren who already had some education were their teachers: Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, William E. McLellin, and Orson Hyde. But the principle of studying all aspects of the gospel “that are expedient for you to understand” still holds true today.

Joseph Smith teaching at the School of the Prophets. Painting by John Falter.