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.