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_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 0 – Context

Posted by joespencer on June 1, 2012

I want to begin this series with a few words about the context in which Believing Christ appeared. I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense to read this book apart from its original setting. It would, at any rate, be a bit uncharitable to criticize any part of Robinson’s book as “unscriptural” without trying to get a sense for what exactly he was trying to address.

Douglas Davies, a religious studies scholar who has given particular interest to Mormonism over the past decade or two, has suggested that Stephen Robinson (along with others like Robert Millet) wrote in response to a very specific tension, a tension to which Davies gives the name “the Mormon cultural dilemma of salvation.” Here’s how he describes it (this can all be found in his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation):

On the one hand, orthodox Mormonism needs to retain the activist system of temple ritual that seeks to foster deity within individuals but which can lead either to a degree of nominal action or a sense of the impossibility of ever achieving the set standards. On the other hand, it needs the passive mode of reception of divine power that, itself, brings a sense of authenticity of the religion and furnishes the very spiritual energy to engage in the active life of endeavor.

Notice that “traditional” Mormonism here can veer off, as it were, in two problematic directions. On the one hand, one can “go through the motions” or do the supposed “minimal requirements” to be an active Saint, faking one’s way through the Church. On the other hand, one can experience serious “burnout” or feel constantly frustrated by one’s own incapacity to do all that Mormonism demands. It’s for this reason, according to Davies, that there emerges the need for a “passive mode of reception of divine power,” something that corrects the one deviation by “bring[ing] a sense of authenticity to the religion” and corrects the other by “furnish[ing] the very spiritual energy to engage in the active life of endeavor.” What a too-activist Mormonism produces is a profound need for grace.

This problem came to a kind of head in the 1980s, I think. I wish I had a better sense for why it was then that the real problem seems to have surfaced. I’ve got guesses but no real answers. At any rate, the 1980s seem to have been the decade when burnout and spiritlessness became prominent enough as cultural phenomena to draw the attention of LDS authors. The result was, a few years before Robinson’s Believing Christ, a cluster of LDS publications on grace. 1989 in particular was a watershed year. Robert Millet published By Grace Are We Saved that year; Brent Top published Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet that year; and Bruce Hafen published The Broken Heart that year. All three books were focused on the doctrine of grace, though each had a somewhat different emphasis. Top was, for instance, more concerned about people going through the motions, while Millet was more concerned about burnout. But all three authors weighed in rather crucially on the matter of grace, arguing particularly against a too-common LDS belief that grace was “what the other guys believe in” and not a part of the Mormon doctrine of salvation. All were focused on the “balance” between grace and works, as they put it, on the joint roles played by grace and works in the salvation of human beings.

Talk of balance was nothing new. Bruce R. McConkie in particular had had plenty to say about salvation being a matter of grace and works. But what these authors argued for, all at the same time, was an understanding of the relation between grace and works focused on covenant. Whereas talk of grace and works before had largely been focused on works preceding grace—we travel our part of the road until we’ve accomplished it, and then Christ carries us senseless from that point to the road’s end—these several authors were setting forth a vision of a kind of weave of grace and works: every step of the road to salvation is traveled hand-in-hand with Christ. This is most radically stated in Hafen’s interesting gloss on Nephi’s “after all we can do” statement in 2 Nephi 25:23: “the Savior’s gift of grace to us is not necessarily limited in time to ‘after’ all we can do. We may receive his grace before, during, and after the time when we expend our own efforts.” Grace is the divine attendant of righteous works, not the divine response to them.

All three of these works were responding to an essential problem, but they didn’t do so with a whole lot of effectiveness. They were at times too practical, at other times too abstract. They were written in a too-sterile tone. And they didn’t bring out with enough force the idea of the covenant. They introduced it, but they padded it with so much quotation from earlier authors and authorities that what was revolutionary in their message didn’t really come out. That task was left to Robinson’s Believing Christ. Robinson would articulate the crucial underpinnings of these other authors’ claims, and he would do so more or less without references to previous authors or authorities, and he would do so in a tone that was so conversational that one can’t help but fall in love with the author. Robinson brought out what was astir in the last years of the 1980s, and he did so with a force that allowed his book to be felt like a bomb in Mormon culture.

We’ll see why, I hope, over the remaining posts I’ll be writing (and here‘s a link to the next one). We’ll also see, I think, what limitations the book inevitably had.

23 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 0 – Context”

  1. […] “The Commandments Written in Your Hearts”; Literary Allusion in Mosiah 13:11? _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 0 – Context […]

  2. Jacob said

    Thanks for this Joe. BC was the first “theological” book in Mormonism I ever devoured. This will be extremely interesting.

  3. YvonneS said

    I have never liked the parable of the bicycle. There are other things about the book that bothered me as well. Since I discovered a discussion of all the various ways the atonement has been explained by Christians since the earliest times I have come to regard most o of them as part of the picture that I have had since the 1960s when Hyrum Andrus explained to my religion 101 class that grace is a true principle. I was never taught that I was working my way into heaven. I have been totally mystified as to where this idea came from. I think all of the books about the atonement written in the past several years obscure more than they enlightened.

    • Jim F. said

      If you heard about grace during that time, I think you were the exception. I was a convert in 1962 and remember how surprised I was almost never to hear anyone talk about grace (nor to know anything about the scriptures, for that matter). I took my Book of Mormon classes in the mid-60s and both of my professors made it clear that we don’t talk about grace unless we add to it “which works make possible” or the equivalent.

      • YvonneS said

        Everyone in my class heard about it. Dr. Andrus was at the time the most popular religion teacher on campus. He taught a lot of students.

    • joespencer said

      I’m too young, unfortunately, to know firsthand what things were like in the 1960s (neither of my parents even joined the Church until the 1970s!), so I have to rely on what others say, but there seems to be abundant anecdotal evidence that grace wasn’t much talked about. That said, Hyrum Andrus seems to have been among few who were talking this way (others being David Yarn and Hugh Nibley) beginning in the late 1950s and the 1960s. There’s a terrible little book on “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy” that provides some helpful history of these developments published by Signature Books in the 1980s or so….

  4. Ben S said

    I think it was a culture counter-balance to the perception of “cheap grace” among Protestants, a kind of theological cooties. Robert Millet told a story at the Worlds of Joseph Smith conference, in which he was preparing for his mission and came across grace in the Book of Mormon. He asked his Dad, one of the local people knowledgeable in history and doctrine, “do we believe in grace?”

    Sharp answer back, “No!”

    “Why not?” “Because the Baptists do!”

    • YvonneS said

      Ben: I can empathize with your dad. I lived next door to a baptist minister. I was friends with his daughter. We spent considerable time together. The minister’s wife often told me about the shortcomings of my church. She told me that I didn’t believe in grace. She said I believed in works. She also invited my sisters and I to the summer Bible school where one of my sisters went up to the front to be saved. So I understand about the Baptist kind of grace where confessing Christ is mandatory but baptism itself is optional as are any other kinds of works. Good works are all right but they only put more jewels in the crown of one who has confessed and accepted Christ into their life. If that is what grace means then I don’t think that is what we believe grace is.

  5. DavidH said

    I would include in the background history the first and second editions George Pace’s book (which I read and liked at the time) What It Means To Know Christ. The first edition of the book upset Elder McConkie, and he gave a very public rebuke of Brother Pace and his book in a BYU speech. http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6843 The rebuke did not relate to grace, but it did seem like a very stern warning to avoid becoming too “evangelical” in one’s teachings. Thus, I am sure those writing the new books relating to “grace” in the next few years might, at least, have kept in mind that if Elder McConkie did not agree with what they wrote, they would hear about it, perhaps in a public way. I am sure that added some pressure on them.

    • joespencer said

      I think this is important history, David. I suspect that talk of “covenant” was a way of getting at what Pace had said without using the language of “personal relationship” (which is the language Elder McConkie used in his criticisms)….

  6. rameumptom said

    Thanks Joe. Perhaps I can give, from my personal experience, the struggles that came to a head in the 1980s. I joined the Church at the age of 16 in 1975. Through reading Miracle of Forgiveness, Mormon Doctrine, and other books written in the previous decades, I came to believe that I had to earn my own salvation. Elder McConkie basically convinced me that the atonement was mostly just the resurrection, and then a little atonement to make up the difference if I did absolutely everything to wear myself out in being perfect right now. I recall a stake president asking a show of hands on how many members believed they were saved. Only a handful raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them, because I doubted it. Elder McConkie and others convinced me that the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms were just nicer versions of hell and Outer Darkness.
    When Robinson describes his wife’s crisis at the beginning of the book, I knew that feeling exactly. I’d experienced it personally. I came to personally believe that the atonement was accomplished and Christ’s mission was basically over, and as Elder McConkie taught, I should focus my worship on the Father, and not a relationship with Christ. The best thing to occur in the Church in the 1980s was Pres Benson’s call for us to study the Book of Mormon. As I began doing so, I figured some things out: one that how Elder McConkie had taught salvation was incorrect. He pushed way too much on our own obedience, and very little on the atonement of Christ. To read “saved by grace after all [we] can do” meant we had to works our keisters off and hope for the best. Now I understand it to mean that we are saved by grace in spite of all we can do (Elder John Taylor’s German translation used it in this manner). As D&C 76 notes, even the Telestial Kingdom is a kingdom of salvation, and the atonement is near universal.
    With such an understanding, it makes the gospel worth living. As for the early efforts to get grace, atonement and salvation back on track, Believing Christ and other such books were a very good stepping stone to where we now are, and where we are going. We can now understand keeping commandments as a natural outflow of faith and the mighty change of heart. We can understand all of it in context of covenant.

    • rameumptom said

      I should note that I do appreciate many things Elder McConkie wrote, especially in his later years. I don’t want it to sound like he was terrible. He was a great teacher of righteousness, but there was a strong focus on obedience for several decades. In the last several decades, we’ve come to study faith and grace more, and how the workings of the Spirit can motivate us to good works.

    • YvonneS said

      I find this very interesting. My mother told me that I was just as saved as my Baptist neighbor. And I have always known that Brigham Young said that if we are on the path we are saved all the time. We don’t have to wait until the end. I have that written down somewhere. I don’t want hunt for it. I found it quite different than anything McKonkie said. I don’t put much stock in McKonkie anyway.

  7. Roberta said

    This will be a very interesting series of posts. I’m so looking forward to reading them! I, too, have had silent arguments with the parable of the bicycle and don’t accept it, even though I understand what Robinson was trying to say. I don’t agree that grace requires us to give our “all” for salvation and then Christ makes up the difference. That implies that I have some small fraction of power within myself to save myself, and it’s that point that I take to task, However I do believe that becoming Christlike and developing Christlike attributes requires me to give my “all.” Two years ago in Stake Conference our Stake President told the whole congregation that he believed the parable of the bicycle “was a misnomer” and that grace already “took care of the whole bicycle,” but riding it was something else. I have never forgotten that because I was so happy to hear those words. (I don’t mean to bash Robinson at all, and I still own and re-read his books.) But I’ve spent the last ten years correcting lessons and messages my daughters hear at church that confuse or contradict the message of the grace of Jesus Christ for their entire, complete, and whole salvation. Now when I hear something “off” at church (or anywhere else for that matter) and I turn my head to correct the message to my daughters, they are already nodding back at me that they caught it and know what I’m going to say. Good. Good.

    I will be reading your posts very carefully and I’m curious what you will bring to the table.

    • Roberta said

      My apologies if my comment comes across too sharply or too intense. I’m very much looking forward to reading this discussion! :-)

  8. NathanG said

    I’m interested in what this discussion produces. Quite recently I came to the conclusion that I need to stop using an Evangelical view of grace as my own benchmark for understanding grace. Ben’s use of “cheap grace” was the grace I always argued against as a younger me, but over the last several years I have come across others who seem to have a much more sincere and deeper respect for Christ’s atonement and his grace than I personally possessed. Any formulation of grace I would come up with would have to be measured against this view of grace that was not widely taught in the church. But now I think I’m coming to a point where any reference to the benchmark hinders further understanding. Assuming of course that I understand anything at all.

  9. Keith said

    Two things for context as well: more serious reading of the Book of Mormon, more interaction with those of other denominations.

    I’m a little puzzled by your statement that Millet and Hafen’s work weren’t all that effective or influential. MIllet’s work changed many people’s minds in Religious Ed and Hafen’s work brought out, perhaps better than the others, the ways that the atonement works for things other than sin–“Beauty for ashes”. I know that portions of Robinson’s books (both Believing Christ and Following Christ) were published in the Ensign, as were chapters (two if I remember right) of Hafen’s book.

    One way or another, this period marked a significant (and welcome) change. Note this talk by Elder Oaks in which he footnotes MIllet, Robinson, and Hafen. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/03/another-testament-of-jesus-christ

    • joespencer said

      Sorry, Keith, I should have been clearer. I think Millet’s work eventually had a profound effect, but I think his later books (especially Alive in Christ) had a much greater impact. His influence has been one of constant intervention; Robinson’s came as a kind of powerful blow all at once. As for Hafen: I agree that his book had a pretty serious impact as well, but nothing like what Robinson’s book would have a couple years later. My somewhat anecdotal experience is that Hafen’s book came to have a stronger effect after the publication of Believing Christ.

      I didn’t know about parts of Hafen’s book appearing in the Ensign. I’ll go look at that. Robinson’s book began as a devotional at BYU in 1990, and then that devotional appeared in abbreviated (and correlated!) form in the Ensign in 1992, just months before the book itself appeared. That’s right. But still, I think it was the publication of the book that had real force. That more humble point is all I meant to suggest.

      And concerning the other two things for context: you’re absolutely right. I realized after I put this post up that I hadn’t said anything about the role President Benson’s push for reading the Book of Mormon had on all this, but it was certainly crucial. And more interaction with those of other denominations: yes, though that’s something I hadn’t been thinking about. Of course, it was Millet and Robinson, among others, who were spearheading those “ecumenical” efforts.

  10. […] BMGD #23: Alma 8-12 | Times & Seasons on GD BoM Lesson 23, Alma 9:5-6joespencer on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 0 – Contextjacob 5 on Book of Mormon Lesson #13: “The Allegory of the Olive Trees,” Jacob 5-7 […]

  11. […] deal with in this post. Here he tells the story of his wife’s burnout. I said a few things in my first post about this problem. Notice that Robinson doesn’t come to it until this point. Burnout […]

  12. […] mentioned in my first post that the discussion concerning grace that begin in the late 1980s but came to a kind of culmination […]

  13. Jonathan B. "Jack" Sevy said

    Pivotal discussion here. I’m a blog hopper, and may not return, but hopefully my thoughts will not be an irritant.

    “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Eccl 3:1)

    The brethren, perhaps more so in their personal, unofficial writings, seem to focus on the immediate interests of the Saints. I was a teen during the ’60s, when “if it feels good, do it” came back into fashion with a vengeance. If there was stress on obedience and righteousness by LDS writers, I think it was very appropriate.

    Did the Saints over-react, leading to checklist religion and burnout? Unfortunately, even the humble followers of Christ err, being taught by the precepts of [the World.] And by each other.
    That’s OK, though. “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, [even other members of the Church] let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

    The doctrine, however, is clear in the standard works: We must rely wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation, while doing all that we can do in wisdom and order. King Benjamin pointed out that our Father in heaven repays us “immediately”, so that we will be indebted to him forever and ever. In fact, Christ taught repeatedly that he, Jehovah, the Almighty, could do nothing of Himself. One of the most striking things about 3rd Nephi is that the resurrected Jehovah prays! Where did he learn that?

    My 20-something born-again step daughter was railing on us one day about faith vs. works. I asked her to explain her beliefs. She said, “The important thing is faith. Now, if there are no works, there is no faith, but the critical thing is faith in Jesus.”

    Profound! “If there are no works, there is no faith.”

    The question never has been “faith or works”, as joespencer pointed out at the onset. Not in any writings of the brethren since the world began, that I can recall. At the foundation of all LDS writings is implicit understanding of Christ’s scriptural teachings:
    The Father works, and I work. Of myself, I can do nothing. Without me, you can do nothing. I am the vine, the Way. Take up your cross and follow me. That person who overcomes I will set down with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father in His throne.

    This doctrine is humble and humbling; “the beginning of sanctification”, John Donne said. To accept it is absolutely counter-cultural to any 20th century industrialized society I have experienced. A broken heart, a contrite spirit and a Savior are too humiliating for the World, and this childish arrogance has permeated many in the Church. Does that surprise us? It shouldn’t, given the prophecy of 2 Nephi 28:11-14.

    CONCLUSION (In finé): The mysteries of godliness are not found in Deseret Books, but in prayerful pondering of the scriptures, being spiritually minded in our solution finding, and in magnifying our callings (order, ordinances, ordaining) at home and in the Church.

    PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: I have found for the past 28 years that just by turning off the news I have freed up immense time and energy for prayerful pondering of the scriptures, being spiritually minded, and magnifying our callings, as well as playing the guitar, singing, dancing with my wife, and serving my communities.

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