It’s Reformation Day yet again, number 498 with 500 coming soon, and to commemorate it yet again Craig H. (a professor of Reformation history) delivered the DeLamar Jensen lecture at BYU on Thursday, on the twin themes of 1) how a Mormon farm-boy like DeLamar Jensen (or for that matter a Mormon suburb-boy like himself) ever in the world got interested in the Reformation, and 2) what the youngish sixteenth-century monk Martin Luther might possibly have to say to other Mormons too. Jason K. was in attendance, squished among the Axe-sprayed hordes (as certain BYU colleagues affectionately call them), and asked Craig whether he might publish excerpts at BCC, especially Craig’s assorted Luther-style theses on what an infusion of Luther-style grace into Mormonism might possibly look like. Though Craig is a (very occasional) blogger at T&S, he, in good ecumenical spirit, agreed. And though he has written mostly about the Reformation, Craig is also the author of a missionary memoir, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, which is exactly as amazing as that title makes it sound (see Russell Arben Fox’s review here). We’re glad to welcome Craig as a guest at BCC.
The body of the talk went something like this: most Mormons (like most people) don’t know much about Luther, but plenty still tend to think of him as a sort of forerunner of their own religion. Maybe. But his big main point, that justification comes by grace, through faith, isn’t exactly the dominant Mormon way of thinking about salvation.
In fact, despite some recent flashes of something close to Luther-style grace in Mormonism (coming from Stephen Robinson, Elder Uchtdorf, or Adam Miller), Mormons are still more likely to believe the version of salvation Luther was protesting against: justification by grace, through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace. Or more formally, doing all that lies within you.
That formula, said Luther, came straight out of Aristotle, not the Bible, and much as Aristotle was to be admired on some subjects and much as Luther understood the attractions of Aristotle’s thought for the scholastic theologians who after 1100 came up with the formula as part of their excitement to reconcile classical reason with Christian faith, Aristotle knew Jack Squat about Christian salvation (unquote). Good works don’t make you good, said Luther, contradicting Aristotle and speaking from his own millions of attempts to make himself good. No, he said, relying mostly on his reading of Paul, it was the other way around: a good person does good works—and a person is made good, or just, by God alone. Because saying that justification came through a combination of grace and doing every dang thing you possibly can never answers the question that plagued Luther all those years: how much is all? How many dang things are enough?
In 1518, Luther’s formula was still actually Catholic—sure, it was a minority tradition, but Luther wasn’t the only Catholic who thought this way. Still, most Catholics didn’t like it, saying too much belief in grace makes believers lax: they’ll think they can do anything as long as they say they believe. Luther said back, whoever says that doesn’t understand grace, and the desperation that precedes it, and the life-changing effect that follows it. Grace isn’t the easy way: it’s the way of the cross. Just as Christ’s glory emerged from the darkness of the cross, so the light of grace comes only through dark trials—and you never get to those trials as long as you think that things like indulgences will give you grace instead.
Critics said that an emphasis on grace lessens the importance of good works: Luther responded that he was thoroughly in favor of good works, in fact should be called the doctor of good works, he just wanted people to understand that grace doesn’t come from those works; instead good works flow out of grace.
So if everybody’s in favor of doing good works anyway, then why stir things up? Because, said Luther, how you think about works affects which works you do and how you approach them: doing good works to earn grace tends to make you obsessed with yourself and your purity, making for some cranky souls, as he knew firsthand. People whose works flow out of grace are more inclined to turn their works toward others, out of gratitude to God, plus the worry about earning credit is gone and you’re a far more pleasant person.
And so to Luther the key wasn’t to do more good works, or to preach more good works, but to deepen your belief that Christ really would do what he said and save you, if you just believe.
Then came the question: is there anything for Mormons in all this? Maybe the classic formula, justification by grace through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace, is right. But maybe for people wired something like Luther, it doesn’t quite work. And maybe even people who like the classic formula might like a little Luther-style grace too. So how might an infusion of that sort of grace look in Mormonism? Like Luther, I’m a professor, and am supposed to profess things. So I decided to profess Luther-style, in the form of a mere 19 theses (disputations in Luther’s time might range anywhere from 3 to 380 theses), which like all such theses I advanced not as statements of absolute truth, or what should occur, but to raise points for discussion and clarification.
- An infusion of Luther-style grace would affirm that faith, not obedience, is the first principle of the gospel, just like the fourth Article of Faith says, which wouldn’t even need altering.
- Some Luther-style grace might require altering a couple of others, like the third, but some articles get altered in practice anyway, like the twelfth: we believe in obeying and sustaining kings and rulers and the law, except the King of England, rulers not in our political party, and any speed limit that is ridiculously too low.
- Telling people to do their best but also to obey rules with exactness can fast create a crisis of faith in anyone who is even close to being as sensitive as Martin Luther.
- Saying that all God asks you to do is keep His commandments isn’t entirely all, since God also says that whoever has to be commanded in all things is a bafflingly lazy someone.
- This is one reason why obedience can’t be the currency of salvation (à la Elder Uchtdorf) or even ultimate guide to life: there just aren’t enough commandments in the world to anticipate every situation you might possibly face.
- Another reason is that commandments are sometimes at odds and you therefore have to choose one or the other, like in the very first story of Adam and Eve; or maybe they don’t even fit the immediate situation, like in David’s followers eating the shew bread, and Jesus’s picking corn on the Sabbath, and Nephi lopping off Laban’s head.
- An infusion of Luther-style grace might help you pay less attention to visible behaviors that usually count for religion or irreligion, and pay more attention to the invisible quality of someone’s heart, including your own, that Jesus spoke so profusely about but that is so easy to ignore in religious societies defined pretty much entirely by visible behaviors.
- A little Luther-style grace might lead you actually to believe that the greatest commandments really are to love God and love your neighbor, even greater than not smoking, not cussing, not drinking, not cheering for the U, paying tithing, dressing modestly, etc.
- In fact, a little Luther-style grace can help you to see that when Luther said it was more important to do works of love for your neighbor than to buy indulgences, it would be akin in Mormonism to saying that it’s more important to do works of love for your neighbor than not smoking, not cussing, not drinking, not cheering for the U, paying tithing, dressing modestly, etc., all of which in Mormonism can easily take on some indulgence-style features.
- Some Luther-style grace might result in more and actually well-prepared sacrament-meeting talks on how people believe what Christ says about saving you, rather than on how to do even more of every dang thing you possibly can at an even higher level than you currently are.
- Putting the focus on talks about believing Christ might, though, mean changing the line in I Am A Child of God back to “Teach me all that I must know” instead of the famous 60s revision “Teach me all that I must do,” which might in turn make you think about how profound that can be.
- A little Luther-style grace might help you stress out less over being something less than perfect, and a little less shocked when you or others inevitably fall short, even way short, and realize that just as it’s easier to handle death by wholeheartedly and not just theoretically accepting that it’s real, and painful, and inevitable, it’s also easier to handle less-than-perfect by likewise accepting that it’s likewise real, and painful, and inevitable.
- That sort of acceptance also goes a long way toward helping us all to see that we really all are in the same boat: we are all beggars.
- We are all people of Walmart too.
- And we are all people of AA as well, because we can all use the 12 steps and benefit from the point that as soon as you think you can handle things on your own, without your sponsor, then you’re in trouble, because we probably all need a sponsor to help us keep an eye on our particular afflictions, or when we start saying “I am worthy” instead of “I am unworthy.”
- Saying you are unworthy like that doesn’t have to go with any flagellation or gloom and doom, but should actually lend some joy, because just like Luther said you become less obsessed with yourself, and turn pleasantly to help your neighbor, and be a home or visiting teacher or doing other things not for the classic reasons of getting the EQ or RS president off your back, or because “I need the [preferably tangible] blessings,” but because you realize you need help too—maybe not on this particular thing, but on something else for sure. Probably something big too. Certainly.
- But with a little Luther-style grace you again don’t despair but have hope, and you really believe the famous sermon of the Lutheran Paul Tillich: You are accepted, even though you are unacceptable–which is no easy statement to get your mind around, mind you, but when you finally do you actually believe both parts now instead of still secretly believing that you can only be accepted when you’re acceptable.
- Some Luther-style grace would keep you from constantly waiting for the day when you’re finally perfect, but instead help you find some joy and contentment right now.
- In fact some Luther-style grace would make you as relieved as the character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, who said, “now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
These are just a few possible theses on the subject, of course. They could go on forever, even all the way up to 95, but there wasn’t time. Oh, more Luther-style grace might not solve everything: Luther himself had periods of horrible doubt his whole life, about whether he could really be saved. And maybe it doesn’t even all fit very well. But it might help some. It’s sure helped me.