Do Latter-Day Saints Get Any Help in Following Jesus?
The reflections of Robert Millet about the Latter-Day Saints’ (LDS) vision of the Christian life are thoughtful and helpful. I have always been impressed with the level of commitment and real-life practice of the faith of many members of the LDS (a feeling I also share regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses). But I must say that in the case of LDS thought and practice reflected in the paper, although I find many points of contact with my Lutheran heritage, a few themes precious to historic Lutheranism are missing in LDS heritage as presented. And so I write in the spirit of learning whether the Latter-Day Saints do in fact endorse the faith-commitments I now highlight or could allow Lutherans to make them and still be considered brothers and sisters in our mutual walk with Christ.
Regarding the LDS commitment to Bible study, that is of course music to Lutheran ears. Regarding what constitutes Scripture, in previous correspondences with you Robert (Dr. Millet) I have noted that, unlike other Protestant traditions, Lutherans have not identified which books belong in the Bible. In short, in principle Lutherans have an “open canon.” This entails that nothing in principle forbids me, as a Lutheran pastor, to preach and teach on the Apochrypha of the Catholic and Eastern traditions. This could open doors to my church receiving The Book of Mormon as well. Not in our lifetimes, to be sure. Lutherans share with the Orthodox tradition something like the consensus fidelium, the belief that a document’s or a theological idea’s authority is demonstrated by its reception among the faithful over time (Formula of Concord SD, Rule and Norm). Who knows what the Holy Spirit will show to the faithful in the next centuries, and in the meantime the dialogue about the authority of these additional Books could continue. And so I raise the issue with Robert whether an LDS-Lutheran dialogue on this matter is warranted?
I do want to respond to the opening claim in your paper that people in fields like Christian History or Theology may easily lose focus on Scripture itself. Though of course that can happen, I would urge a little more charity to the intentions behind such study. The reason for study of Tradition and theological precedents is to understand Scripture more clearly and truly. The student of the Bible wants to be sure he/she is not imposing his/her own agenda on the Biblical text. The study of how God has had His Word taught throughout the Church’s history ensures that we are more likely to discern Scripture’s true meaning in the consensus of the Church’s leaders over time in order to safeguard the Bible’s meaning from the whims of some self-proclaimed prophet. Luther teaches us to study the past in order to understand God’s Word, because we can trust long-term perduring teaching since God would not deceive the Church that long by allowing false teaching to persist (The Large Catechism, IV.49). This is why it will take at least a few more centuries and a lot of dialogue and increased ecumenical use of The Book of Mormon to get Lutheranism and her sister churches to consider accepting the authority of these texts.
Next let’s talk about themes missing from the paper. There is so much in it that the Pietist strand of Lutheranism can endorse – prayer, serving and loving others, striving to grow in grace (The Large Catechism, II.57). But what is missing or not much emphasized might be a source of concern, and that concern is reflected in the title of this response. Do Latter-Day Saints believe like Lutherans that we cannot live the Christian life alone, that in these activities we need the help of (even the initiation by) grace and the Holy Spirit? I hope so.
Is there not a stress on the character of salvation as a gift, not just in Galatians 3:6-13, but also in 2 Nephi 2:3-6; 10:24; 25:23? And just as Lutherans insist that grace and the Work of the Holy Spirit make good works possible (Small Catechism, II.6; Luther’s Works. Vol.31, p.57), themes found in Ephesians 2:8-10 and Romans 6:1-14 and also in Jacob 4:7 (grace gives us power) as well as in Moroni 10:5-11 and 2 Nephi 32:5 (on the Spirit’s work in the believer), can Latter-Day Saints make that affirmation? If not, why not, given these Biblical precedents? And if so, why are these themes not presented with more specificity in the paper before us?
Of course I recognize the LDS concern with the believer’s responsibility for doing something, emphases clearly evident in texts like Ether 12:26-27 and 1 Nephi 10:17-19. But are these texts to be understood as calling for the believer’s cooperation with grace like our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings teach? In that case, Lutherans can endorse LDS thinking on these matters too, as long as the prevenience (priority) of grace over works is still affirmed (Formula of Concird, SD II.90). Where does the LDS heritage stand on this range of issues? I also wonder why the paper did not pursue apparent LDS affinities with the Eastern concept of theosis, for then Lutherans could also link with this heritage (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280)
Several other topics raised in the paper are worth pursuing. I sense a kind of American optimism about human nature and what it can accomplish in both in the paper and in The Book of Mormon (Moroni 8:8-24 claiming little children are not sinners). Of course as a Lutheran/ Augustinian, I am more pessimistic/realistic about our sinfulness, contending that we sin in all we do from infancy on to the grave (Romans 7:7-24; Apology of The Augsburg Confession, II.42f.; The Augsburg Confession, II.3). Without agreeing with such an affirmation, can such realism be deemed legitimately Christian in LDS circles, and if not, why not? If not, how does your tradition avoid the Pelagian heresy?
I note with appreciation that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in each LDS worship service. It is claimed that those partaking do so in “remembrance” of Jesus. Are you doing so in a Greek sense of the term, that remembrance is simply recall in the mind? Or as a Hebrew, did Jesus have in mind the Hebraic sense of remembrance (sakar) which includes the real presence of the figure remembered (witness God’s Presence of the Covenant of Shechem in Joshua 24, following the remembrance of His mighty acts)? It would be interesting to pursue the question of whether Native American understandings of remembrance more closely parallel this Hebraic or the more Greek conception.
Finally I turn to the concern raised about the marked growth of the Nones in America. I have devoted a book to this subject, and in it noted that one of the polls taken concerning the Nones indicates that a significant number are put off by a sense that the Church imposes rules on adherents which limit choices (Ever Hear of Feuerbach?, p.5; cf. Jean Twenge, Generation Me, pp.34-35). To counter these perceptions, I propose the Lutheran stress on the spontaneity of good works and freedom from the Law (Galatians 5:1; Genesis 22:1-19; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Ibid., Vol.5, p.150). Of course, these themes would not be characteristic of Latter-Day Saint teaching with its concern to affirm the importance of good works, but is there anything in your tradition’s doctrine that would consider the spontaneity and situational ethic of the Lutheran heritage as a legitimate Christian response? If not, why not? Let’s keep the dialogue going between our traditions.