Elder Cornish’s Theology of Grace for a Diverse Church #LDSconf

Elder Cornish’s talk participates in the LDS turn toward grace that’s come in the wake of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ. So, I’m going to reflect briefly on how exactly he understands the theology of grace. He begins with what superficially seems like a classic Calvinist moment of redemption, where an external force lifts him from utter despair about the adequacy of his own capacity and efforts. He was a young medical intern, faced with a case of pediatric pneumonia he had no idea how to address, when a senior resident came along and believed in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. The manner of salvation isn’t quite Calvinist, though: instead of affirming the election of an omnipotent God, the resident affirmed Cornish’s own capacities.

The talk continues in this kind of Arminian vein, as suggested by his quoting President Hinckley: “Brothers and sisters, all the Lord expects of us is to try, but you have to really try!” Cornish interprets Hinckley in a way that balances this emphasis on effort with the effects of grace:

“Really trying” means doing the best we can, recognizing where we need to improve, and then trying again. By repeatedly doing this, we come closer and closer to the Lord; we feel his spirit more and more; and we receive more of his grace or help.

It’s not that trying actually saves us so much as that it brings us closer to Jesus, who saves us. Cornish’s gloss of “grace” as “help” could be read in an Arminian sense as the magnification of some action on our part prior to the intervention of grace, but it could also be read in a Calvinist manner as God working in us to make our actions actually good.

A similar bifurcation occurs when Cornish quotes Elder Bednar: “Most of us clearly understand that the Atonement is for sinners. I am not so sure, however, that we know and understand that the Atonement is also for saints.” Put another way, the Atonement’s reach extends both to those in the church who self-identify as sinners—who feel that their actions alone could never save them—and to those “saints” who (perhaps a little smugly) feel fairly confident in their capacity to do good.

I want to suggest that such theological ambiguity isn’t just sloppiness. The Calvinist and Arminian options I’ve gestured toward here hardly cover the range of possible approaches to the theology of grace, and people listening to Cornish’s talk could well have read it differently than either of the ways I’ve proposed here. We all need the Atonement, but we all differ in how exactly it becomes a reality in our lives, and we consequently understand its workings differently, even if we may use similar language in our public expressions.

In other words, a kind of grace appears in the potential for reading Elder Cornish’s words in different ways—a grace that allows us to sit in the same pew with people who think differently. Saints and sinners alike, we need more of that grace.

Comments

  1. It’s the few talks like this that keep in sane as a member of the Church

  2. Elder Cornish’s talk is one of the most clear explanations I have heard from a General Authority of the Church on the idea of near-universal salvation. He said that we WILL obtain salvation in the celestial kingdom if we continually repent and don’t rationalize or rebel (i.e., sink to the status of a son of perdition, placing ourselves outside the reach of the Atonement). There was no hint in his talk of permanent post-resurrection residence in an inferior kingdom of glory (the telestial or terrestrial). He asserted that exaltation in the celestial kingdom is the ultimate outcome of our repentance combined with the saving grace of Jesus Christ. That incomparably wonderful outcome is God’s work and glory, and the true gospel (good news!) of Jesus Christ!

  3. Great post, Jason.

    “We all need the Atonement, but we all differ in how exactly it becomes a reality in our lives, and we consequently understand its workings differently, even if we may use similar language in our public expressions.”

    Such a great insight.

  4. How can an atonement happen when those most vulnerable in our society have their needs purposely ignored. Meaning the children.

  5. Excellent commentary, esp. re how (roughly) saints must more fully recognize, remember, and incorporate grace.

  6. Elder Eyering hit some of the same Arminian grace notes in his talk last night at priesthood session, too.

  7. Waiting around for grace gets nothing done. We are saved by a combination of works and grace. The two go hand in hand. A Christian who waits around for only grace is lazy and gets nothing done. Grace comes from God works come from humanity. God and his son Jesus help those who help themselves. Humans messed up the world and it’s up to humans to get it right. After that we get help from God and His son Jesus and the other divinities mentioned in scriptures. God is not going to plant the crops that will save the hungry and starving masses. Humanity must build and operate those tractors and combines. There’s no use in talking about limiting the number of people on earth either. Forget those Georgia guide stones as they only serve as conspiracy fodder for the ‘tin hat’ crowd. The needy are here now let’s deal with it responsibly. Enough land exists to feed all who are in need the world over. Why isn’t it getting done!? We’re not yet in heaven so let’s get to work and show God what we are capable of.

    Stephen Miller, BS: Criminal Justice/And grew up on substandard farmland but still survived.
    The above sign off are my credentials.

  8. Stephen: I more or less agree with you, but let’s leave some room for people whose sense of their own capacities is rather more strained. As a friend of mine recently said about Stephen Robinson’s wife as depicted in Believing Christ: his response was that she didn’t understand the Atonement, but it never occurred to him to think that perhaps he didn’t understand his wife. Some people experience the Atonement as something that enables them to take on the problems in the world, while others experience it as something that rescues them from circumstances against which they not only feel but in fact are powerless. I’ve had both experiences at different times in my life; trust me when I say that waiting around for God’s grace isn’t always a sign of laziness. A close friend is in that place of waiting right now, and I spend a fair bit of time praying for God’s grace to manifest itself.

  9. Jason, I don’t see the Calvinist threads you want to tease out. I’m seeing Pelagian and Arminian (not explicitly and not harmonized, if that’s even possible). (Note: As almost always, I have to look up the terms in order to respond thoughtfully. Concepts stick. Terminology escapes.)

    Take that as agreement and approval of a “grace that allows us to sit in the same pew with people who think differently.”

  10. DeepThink says:

    “Some people experience the Atonement as something that enables them to take on the problems in the world, while others experience it as something that rescues them from circumstances against which they not only feel but in fact are powerless. ”

    Beautiful, Jason.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Brian (4:03) I’m not sure that entails universalism though. I think the common LDS folk theology here that sometimes pops up in GAs is the idea that not everyone would want to live like God. i.e. grace is essentially tied up in the theodicy of this life as a test. Typically in this tradition the test is not so God knows us and can judge us but so that we come to know us and what we ultimately want.

    So the idea that if we keep trying we’ll make it has to be balanced with the idea we may not wish to keep trying.

    Christian (1:52) like you I see more elements of Pelagian and Arminian ideas. Although I don’t think either tradition really fits Mormonism due to our pretty different ontological conceptions. Clearly though the ideas of Jacobus Arminius were a huge influence in the early church in various ways (both direct and indirect). Once you start getting the big cosmological and ontological revelations in Nauvoo though I think that really shifts how Mormons think about our theology especially the atonement. There’s a natural move to see it as more a kind of enabling power offered that we have to take hold of.

    The problem is that while there are still elements of Pelegius that fit Mormon thought, the change in conception of the fall and the God’s purposes really radically shift how the fall is conceived. That is there is a change of nature but it’s seen as a positive, not negative ultimately.

    The biggest break (IMO) between Mormons and at least major strains of Protestantism is over whether grace is a moment or a process. Joseph was pretty emphatic it was a process. I think that arises given our theodicity of our fallen natures being for our growth combined with God being limited in how he is able to change us. (Something alien to the absolutist God of post-Augustinian Christianity)

  12. Clark Goble says:

    DeepThink (12:29) Sometimes the rescue is that enabling. I remember situations like that in my life were I was totally overwhelmed but what enabled me to go on was having those feelings taken away.