Joseph Smith and the Aufhebung of the Reformation (and of Catholicism)

April 22, 2013 | 9 comments
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How should Mormons feel about the Reformation? On the one hand, we tend to valorize figures like Tyndale and Luther who defied the religious authorities of their time, setting the stage in many ways for our own radical break with tradition. On the other hand, the need for a Restoration presupposes that the Reformation wasn’t good enough.

Jonathan Green argues in a recent post that the Restoration represents a thorough rejection of the Reformation. He focuses on three of Luther’s distinctive teachings: salvation by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers (associated also with a rejection of sacred objects and spaces), and sola scriptura.

At one level, there is no arguing with Jonathan. Mormons reject these beliefs in rather dramatic fashion. We are so set on the necessity of baptism and other priesthood ordinances for salvation that we hold it as our duty to perform these ordinances for every soul who ever lived, in case s/he should choose to convert in the next life. We believe a specific restoration of priesthood authority was so important that John the Baptist, the apostles Peter, James, and John, and even the prophet Elijah had to return in angelic form and visit Joseph Smith to restore their distinctive strains of authority. We believe in three different books beyond the Bible as scripture, in some ways superior to it, and believe such revelation will continue from time to time until Christ reigns on Earth.

Yet there is much more to the story than a simple rejection.

While rejecting the idea that priesthood ordinances are unnecessary, by in principle making them available to all people, we render the decisive factor faith after all. Further, we explicitly teach that people will be judged by those principles they had available to them, implying that even those who never heard of Christ during their lifetimes could nonetheless exercise saving faith in the right: “good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience” (Alma 29:5). Fundamentally we are saved not even just by faith in Christ but much more broadly by our desires for goodness.

While rejecting the idea that specific ordination and a formal priesthood line is unnecessary, Mormons in fact confer the priesthood on all right-living male members of the church at the appropriate age (the case with women is disputed, since history and temple practice vary substantially from the exclusively male priesthood of the Sunday church). One could perhaps argue that the Mormons have out-Luthered Luther in this, making the priesthood of all believers not merely implicit but explicit and formal. Further, the responsibility for sacred service by all church members is vitally integrated into every function of our congregations, making the Lutheran institutional reliance on clergy look positively Catholic.

While rejecting the idea that the Bible is sufficient to instruct us in true doctrine and practice, Mormons embrace in dramatic fashion two corollaries that went with this for Luther, and which may have loomed large among his motives for teaching sola scriptura. First, we reject the idea that human tradition was sufficient to carry forward the true work and teaching of the church after the time of the original apostles. Of course, Catholics do not concede that the tradition was merely a human effort, believing the Holy Spirit to be active in the church as the body of Christ. However, Mormons agree with Luther that the tradition was not sufficiently faithful, even if the Holy Spirit did continue to exert some influence, and indeed here too we out-Luther Luther, regarding the tradition as having gone even farther astray and requiring even more radical correction, in the form of a Restoration and not merely a Reformation.

Second, Mormons regard each individual’s direct relationship with God and his word to be vital to the achievement of true knowledge and faith. It was as an ordinary seeker that Joseph read the Book of James, went to the woods, and prayed for guidance from God. We might regard Joseph’s experience as a fulfillment of Tyndale’s prophecy: “ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou [of the Roman clergy] dost!” In a similar manner, Moroni invites all of us to pray for knowledge from the Holy Ghost, by whose power “ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). No human agency can substitute for an ongoing, revelatory connection to God.

Clearly, the Restoration through Joseph Smith is a profound break with traditional Protestantism, and Mormons have perhaps been especially conscious of our differences with Protestants because it is in the U.S., where Protestants have dominated the Christian scene, that we have experienced our most serious and sustained friction with traditional Christianity. Yet our breaks with Protestantism have arguably honored its impulses as much as violated them. While our embracing of good works as essential to salvation, a formal priesthood, and scripture and revelation beyond and after the Bible may seem to make us more sympathetic to Catholicism than to Protestantism from a certain perspective, the specific manner in which we develop these points of teaching and practice looks rather Protestant by comparison with the Catholic versions.

I suggest, therefore, that to say that Mormonism is a reaction against Protestantism, in the direction of Catholic principles, as suggested by several comments on Jonathan’s post, is to misunderstand the complexity of Mormonism. Rather, Mormonism represents a radical reworking of elements and impulses from both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, producing a surprising kind of synthesis while moving beyond what either one could begin to countenance on its own terms. Mormonism is a kind of Aufhebung, an overcoming or subsumption of both Catholicism and Protestantism, and the conflict between them, in which the truth present in both is preserved, while being recast to comport with radically new truths hardly suggested by either. In Hegelian terms, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Mormonism thus are Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis, where the Synthesis represents the recapture of a larger, harmonious truth of which the Thesis and Antithesis are partial and partly misleading fragments.

This is, of course, just the sort of thing one should expect given Mormon teachings on God’s revelations across the ages, “grant[ing] unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8), but bringing all of these truths together in the “dispensation of the fulness of times,” i.e. the dispensation to Joseph Smith and the church he founded. It reflects the Book of Mormon teaching that over the centuries many truths were lost from the original message of Christ, though much value remained in the book of the Lamb of God that went forth among the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:28-29).

Casting this relationship in Hegelian terms presupposes, controversially, that Mormonism is more true and complete than either Catholicism or Protestantism. As a Mormon, of course, that is what I believe. Even for those who will want to set that point aside, however, I think it is fair to say that to regard Mormonism as a move away from Lutheran principles and back toward a more Catholic version of Christianity obscures more than it illuminates. Mormonism is a radical recasting of Christianity that is, in various ways, a Protestantization of Catholicism, a Catholicization of Protestantism, more Catholic than the Catholics, more Protestant than the Protestants, a Judaization of both, and a stunning leap into the unexpected beyond, in pursuit of the original, simple spirit of Jesus’ teaching.

9 Responses to Joseph Smith and the Aufhebung of the Reformation (and of Catholicism)

  1. Chris on April 22, 2013 at 8:22 am

    In short, many things about Mormon “theology” are contradictory, just as much of life is contradictory, just as the concept of God, the atonement, etc are contradictory. It seems like If we can embrace these contradictions within reason and moderation(itself a contradiction) we can navigate the rough waters in life that would lessen our faith.

  2. Adam Greenwood on April 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I’ve much enjoyed this back and forth. More please.

    *we render the decisive factor faith after all.*

    I dunno. Both D&C 132 and some of what the prophets said about being born within the covenant make the ordinance of sealing sound invincible. These aern’t ideas that have been fully worked out, but they are there. I also think that the Catholic position on the relation between faith and ordinances/sacraments is pretty much like the one you ascribe to Mormonism. The Catholic position is in a way a reaction to the Reformation, so it doesn’t undermine your larger point that some critical Reformation doctrines are a synthesis.

  3. katie88 on April 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Great post. Thank you. I see the Church moving more and more to a Protestant theology regarding the atonement (see Brad Wilcox’s book, The Continuous Atonement) and becoming perfect verses becoming whole. President Kimball urged Saints to work to become perfect in this life while President Hinckley said that just won’t happen. That is a theological shift that is most welcome.

  4. Steve Smith on April 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    What’s with the advertisers/scammers making comments on 3 and 4? [moderated--BH]

    Oh yeah, great observations by the way, Ben.

  5. Jonathan Green on April 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Sounds good to me.

  6. Ben Huff on April 22, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Hey Jonathan, we’ve gotta come up with more fireworks than that for Adam! Lemme think . . .

    Adam, when you describe the Catholic position do you mean that they say people will be judged by what they know? You’re right that we do seem to get some special comments about the sealing ordinance. I’m not sure just how clear we are on what those really entail. David Paulsen of course has a book in the works about the many ways in which various Christian voices seem to be moving toward positions more like ours, expanding on his work in his BYU Studies article, “Are Christians Mormon?”.

  7. Adam G. on April 23, 2013 at 12:27 am

    Ben H.,
    Catholics are quite clear that the sacraments without faith is null (at least officially). Your question about being judged by what you know is less clear in Catholicism as far as I can tell, though the baptism by desire notion is roughly analogous.
    My guess is that there are Mormonizing tendencies in mainstream Christianity, though I bet its a structuralist response to modern times and beliefs that we just got to first, being a new religion and all, instead of it being a steady drip of Mormon notions into the underculture. But who knows? I really like the notion of leavening the loaf a little.
    Finally, on “You’re right that we do seem to get some special comments about the sealing ordinance. I’m not sure just how clear we are on what those really entail.”, I agree. This is actually a fairly interesting question, though, because it points to a larger tension. Ordinances/sacraments/formal church hierarchies are just subsets of the larger category “things we can do or fail to do that make a difference for other people”: the more things there are, the more meaningful our choices and the greater scope we have for consequential action, but the less fairness there is. I am not aware of any Christian faith tradition that has really grappled well with this dilemma, except for some Protestants who deny the possibility or desirability of meaningful human action.

  8. Dave on April 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Great post. I expect there will be continued productive reflection on where the LDS Church falls in relation to Catholic and Protestant doctrine and practice as leaders and academics increasingly interact with peers in other denominations. This is all good.

    However, I’m not sure how valid is the implied idea that there is a spectrum of Christian doctrine and practice that runs from Catholic to Protestant, then asking where LDS doctrine or practice falls on that spectrum. In particular, within any religious tradition (Catholic, Protestant, LDS) there is a lot of variation. A conservative Catholic may have more in common with how conservative Protestants and conservative Mormons view religion than they do with many fellow Catholics.

    Furthermore, American religion has its own way of doing things. I suspect some of the differences identified as Mormon vs. Catholic or Protestant are actually picking up American versus European differences. We often miss this as LDS: in the LDS Church, American religion is normative, but that’s not the case for most other denominations.

  9. Ben Huff on April 23, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Adam, I quite agree that the most likely explanation for convergence is not directly causality as though people are moving in a certain direction because we are already there. As you say, there are certain questions and issues that are typically modern and/or on which it is particularly easy to move or hard not to move in a modern context. Moves toward greater universality, egalitarianism, and individual autonomy, a more positive view of human nature, a conception of the life of faith as involving change and progress and of God as more accessible and more like us all reflect some of these modern currents. An optimistic way to read it is that the world is that much more ready to hear these truths now than, say, a thousand years ago, and so they were both revealed to Joseph and are being subtly absorbed and intuited in the Christian world more broadly, with those aspects of the ancient teachings coming more to the fore.

    Dave, I think that the Catholic-Protestant polarity is an important one given the prominence of these two segments of Christianity, but I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is somehow the polarity in terms of which to define the range of possibilities. I meant to suggest a movement away from that way of defining the spectrum in the last sentence of my post. Judaism introduces a quite different set of themes and reference points. I actually thought about mentioning Buddhism there as well but decided that might be a bit much . . . As I read 2 Nephi 29, it is an invitation to see Mormonism as a recasting of strands from all major world religions, while also holding open the possibility that there is a larger synthesis waiting to be revealed, a further and greater Aufhebung, which includes a wealth of wisdom from other world religions that is not currently reflected much in Mormon teaching.

    Perhaps I should go back and reaffirm to a degree, then, the relevance of Protestantism and Catholicism as the polarity in relation to which Mormonism (as we know it right now) is an Aufhebung. It seems to me that Mormonism reflects a fairly thorough recasting of the relevant material from Judaism and historical Christianity, preserving what we want to preserve of their central principles and letting go what we regard as mistaken. This is not to say that there aren’t lots of more peripheral figures, voices, texts, and ideas from these traditions that we could gain a lot from, but perhaps they would not call for any unsettling of our core principles. 2 Nephi 29 suggests that there are truth-bearing traditions scattered farther abroad, though, which have yet to be forged into one like the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph have been. Could they call for another round of transformational progress/revelation? I suspect we would at least expect a significant shift or expansion if/when the sealed portion of the gold plates is opened to us, so in principle another round or two of Aufhebung is not out of the question if the process whereby “my word . . . shall be gathered in one” (2 Nephi 29:14) is not yet complete.

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