Mormon epistemology, part 1
If you've ever talked to Mormon missionaries or if you've ever even breathed the air around Mormons, you've probably caught wind of something about their epistemology. Maybe you've heard about their "burning in the bosom," or how their feelings cause them to believe that the LDS church is the true church of Christ. Well, personally I've been hearing a lot of different things lately. I haven't got it all sorted out just yet, but I wanted to share with you the wide variety of things I've been hearing on the subject from Mormons and from their scriptures.
The most common thing that comes up is Moroni 10:4. Moroni was supposedly the last living Nephite after the Lamanites exterminated the rest of them (except for the three disciples Jesus promised would never die). The book of Moroni contains some of Moroni's last words before burying the golden plates that Joseph Smith found and that supposedly the Book of Mormon was translated from. Chapter 10 of Moroni is the last chapter of the Book of Mormon. Moroni was writing about the Book of Mormon itself, and he said:
And when ye shall receive these things [i.e. the BOM], I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.If you look carefully, all this passage says is that if you ask God whether the BOM is true, he will let you know. It doesn't say anything about feelings or burnings in the bosom. It doesn't say anything about how God will let you know it's true, only that he will. Maybe he does it through feelings, burnings in the bosom, audible voices, exposing you to convincing evidence, or directly zapping your brain with belief.
So where does the idea come from that God reveals truths to people by way of feelings or burnings in their bosoms? I spent some time this morning looking for references in the index of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine of Covenants and came up with a few references. I'm going to bring some of them up, but keep in mind that I don't know for sure that Mormons use all of these to justify their views. I'm only bringing up the ones I think they might use.
1 Nephi 17:45In this passage, Nephi is speaking to his unbelieving brothers. I'm not sure what it means to feel words. I get the impression that since they heard the words but did not feel them, it probably just means to believe them or take them to heart.
Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words.
2 Nephi 4:12This passage uses two phrases--"feelings of his heart" and "Spirit of the Lord"--to describe the sources from which Lehi spoke. It could be that these are two ways of saying the same thing. It is the Spirit of the Lord who speaks to Lehi through the feelings of his heart. That's one way to look at it. Another possibility is that they are distinct, and the author is saying that some of the things Lehi spoke, he spoke because of the feelings he had for his household, and some of the things Lehi spoke, he spoke because the Spirit of the Lord commanded him to.
And it came to pass after my father, Lehi, had spoken unto all his household, according to the feelings of his heart and the Spirit of the Lord which was in him, he waxed old. And it came to pass that he died, and was buried.
3 Nephi 11:3This is the first reference I found to anything like a burning in the bosom. In this case, though, it isn't the burning in their hearts that communicated information from God. They already heard the voice. They just didn't understand it. And the heartburn didn't cause them to understand it either. It was simply the result of hearing it. I suppose you could say that since voices from God cause your heart to burn, then you can tell from your heartburn that a voice is from God. The argument would look like this:
And it came to pass that while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.
If God speaks, then your heart will burn.
My heart burns.
Therefore, God is speaking.
But this argument commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent. A person's heart can burn for a variety of reasons--something you ate, how you feel about what is being said (e.g. fear, excitement, enthusiasm, etc.), or the conviction you feel because of what is being said. The burning in the bosom, by itself, doesn't give you any information.
D&C 9:8-9This is a prophecy given through Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdry concerning Cowdry's ability to translate or write for Joseph Smith. The burning in the bosom is how Cowdry was supposed to be able to tell whether a message or translation was coming from God or not, but notice it also says he should first study it out in his mind. I don't know whether you can universalize this passage so that it applies, not just to Cowdry, but to everybody. And I don't know whether you can universalize it so that it applies, not just to translating, but to any kind of message from God.
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
If I were a Mormon, I'd be reluctant to universalize it because of how Smith tells Cowdry how he can know something is not from God. It says he will forget the thing that is wrong. If that were universalized, Mormons would not be able to remember what other Christians teach or believe, or what they've read in Christian literature about Christian doctrine.
The Mormon fellow I mentioned in my previous blog entries told me that he thinks it applies to us as well. He also told me that "We should use our hearts and our minds to learn truth. One with out the other can (as history shows us) often leads men astray."
There are also a few Biblical passages Mormons use to justify their epistemology.
Acts 2:37This passage doesn't really say they were pierced to the heart and therefore believed what Peter had just told them. My impression is that it's the other way around. They were pierced to the heart (i.e. convicted) as a result of believing what Peter was saying. So the belief came before the piercing.
Now when they heard this [Peter's speech], they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?"
Luke 24:32This comes from the passage in Luke where Jesus was walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and he explained the Scriptures to them. Again, the passage doesn't tell us whether they believed because their hearts burned or whether their hearts burned because they believed. I get the impression that their hearts burned because they believed. After all, it says that Jesus "explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures" (v.27). It's the explanation that clarified things for them, not the heartburn. The heartburn was a result of having it explained. They had just explained to Jesus (who they didn't recognize at the time) how they had high hopes that Jesus would be the one who would redeem Israel, and how they had been disappointed. By explaining the Scriptures to them, Jesus was restoring their hopes. Of course their hearts would burn!
And they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking to us on the road, while he was explaining the Scriptures to us?"
There are many sciptures Mormons use to justify their heart/feeling epistemology. They aren't unique, either. Many evangelicals use the same scriptures to make the same points. Rather than go into detail about all of them, I just want to recommend Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson. Or, if you don't want to read all of that, get Greg Koukl's MP3's or CD's on Decision-Making and the Will of God.
There's one last scripture I want to mention because the Mormon fellow I've been talking about brought it up.
James 1:5I wrote kind of a lengthy response, so I'm going to save my comments for a future blog entry.
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.