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.
June 13, 2022
Thank you, Mark, for your response to my paper. You’ve asked some good questions, and so now let me try to respond.
Your comments regarding the canon of scripture are timely and significant. Allow me to share a fun experience from my past. Back in 1978 when I began my doctoral program in Religious Studies from Florida State, one of the first classes I enrolled in was a seminar in Old Testament. We discussed such matters as scripture, revelation, prophecy, divine intervention, possible dating of the various books, literary/historical approaches to the Hebrew Bible, canon, and many more. The professor, John Priest, devoted two full 3-hour sessions to the subject of the Biblical Canon. Four times during those six hours of conversation, Dr. Priest made a comment something like this: “If the word canon means anything at all, it implies a collection of sacred books that is closed, set, fixed, and established. And he wrote those words in large letters on the blackboard.
By late in the second period, Dr. Priest had written those now very familiar words two or three times. I noticed that Dr. Priest seemed either distracted or uneasy. Suddenly, he put down the chalk, looked at me, and said: “Mr. Millet, will you please tell this class how the Latter-day Saints view the canon, given your belief in the Book of Mormon and other sacred books?” I was, of course, startled a bit by his question. I stared once more at the board, reviewed his four emphatically stated words, and replied: “Well, I suppose you could say that the Latter-day Saint canon of scripture is open, flexible, and expanding.” The conversation then became even more interesting!
By believing in an open canon, we shouldn’t be misunderstood to mean that we add to the canon cavalierly, regularly, or even very often. I was sitting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during a general conference of the Church when two revelations were added to the canon, one from Joseph Smith in 1836 and one from Joseph F. Smith (Joseph’s nephew, the sixth president of the Church) in 1918. This took place in April of 1976, and it had been almost a hundred years since anything had been added to our canon, or as we call it, the “standard works.” In other words, we do believe that items may be added to the canon, but that doesn’t take place very often. What if an ancient Gospel of Nathaniel, let’s say, should be uncovered and, after thorough investigation, proven to be an actual first century document? Would my Church automatically add it to the canon? Would Lutherans automatically add it? I’m not sure what we would do, but it would certainly be a fascinating occasion.
Second, there is no question whatsoever that Latter-day Saints believe that no person can work himself or herself into heaven on their own. I have written five books myself that deal principally with the grace of God. It is only through divine assistance that one is forgiven, cleansed, renewed, saved, and glorified. In fact, we believe that salvation itself is the greatest of all the gifts of God. A passage early in the Book of Mormon declares: “Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known [matters pertaining to the Atonement of Jesus Christ] unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8; emphasis added). I could supply a score of other passages that teach the same doctrine. You listed several of them yourself.
A member of our First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, stated: “Men and women unquestionably have impressive powers and can bring to pass great things. But after all our obedience and good works, we cannot be saved from death or the effects of our individual sins without the grace extended by the atonement of Jesus Christ. . . . In other words, salvation does not come simply by keeping the commandments. . . . Man cannot earn his own salvation.”
One of the current Latter-day Saint apostles, Jeffrey R. Holland, explained: “I testify of that grand destiny [perfection], made available to us through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . I testify that in this and in every hour He is, with nail-scarred hands, extending to us . . . grace, holding on to us and encouraging us, refusing to let us go until we are safely home. . . . For such a perfect moment, I continue to strive, however clumsily. For such a perfect gift, I continue to give thanks, however inadequately. I do so in the very name of Perfection itself, of Him who has never been clumsy or inadequate but who loves all of us who are.”
As to your next question, we take Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 seriously: that salvation is brought to pass through God’s grace coupled with men and women’s efforts to work out their own salvation. In that sense, we believe that good works are necessary but insufficient for salvation. Another Church leader, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, put it this way: “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. . . . If grace is a gift of God, why then is obedience to God’s commandments so important? Why bother with God’s commandments—or repentance, for that matter? Why not just admit we’re sinful and let God save us? Brothers and sisters, we obey the commandments of God—out of love for Him! . . .
“Therefore, our obedience to God’s commandments comes as a natural outgrowth of our endless love and gratitude for the goodness of God. This form of genuine love and gratitude will miraculously merge our works with God’s grace. . . . Grace is a gift of God, and our desire to be obedient to each of God’s commandments is the reaching out of our mortal hand to receive this sacred gift from our Heavenly Father.”
Finally, we take the emblems of the body and blood of the Son of God (in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper) in remembrance of Jesus. We do not believe he is literally present, but we believe wholeheartedly that the Holy Spirit, which is His messenger and witness, accompanies the blessing, passing, and partaking of the sacrament. If one comes to the main worship service in a spirit of humility and repentance, partaking and remembering bring a remission of sins.
Thank you, Mark, for your excellent questions.
Thanks for these reflections, Bob. (Sorry I did not see them prior to responding to your general response to us all, so though my praise in those reflections of your ecumenical courage still stands, forget my call for further dialogue with Lutheranism, though I think that more on which teachings your encountered in our group which produced “holy envy” would be enlightening for our dialogue. In terms of what you have written here, I thoroughly agree with your cautions about an open canon, and hope that you find my Lutheran account of the role of the consensus of the faithful over time in establishing what is canonical to be in line with LDS teachings, and if not, how is such discernment accomplished? I come away from your reflections still uncertain about your position on prevenient grace. The comments you cite of Dieter Uchtdorf look good to these Lutheran grace-freak eyes! Our positions on Christ’s Presence in the Lord’s Supper differ. I think that that is a function of the impact of the Hebraic view of thinking on Luther vs. the impact of American (and so Greek) ways of thinking on the LDS heritage. .