Saturday, September 27, 2008

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 17:45
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.
In 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.
2 Nephi 4:12
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.
This 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.
3 Nephi 11:3
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.
This 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:

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 9:8-9
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.
This 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.

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 2:37
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?"
This 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.
Luke 24:32
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?"
This 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!

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 1:5
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.
I wrote kind of a lengthy response, so I'm going to save my comments for a future blog entry.

Part 2


At 9/28/2008 8:50 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

I do believe that your over analyzing something that is very basic. God can and does speak to our soul. Don't put limits on what God can do. How and why god speaks is his concern not ours. The holy ghost is the 3rd member of the Godhead. God works through the Holy Spirit to reveal to man those important details of life. It is ultimately about bringing souls to Christ. If you choose to spend your energies about the inadiquate language so be it. Serving one another and bringing souls to Christ is the higher law.

At 9/28/2008 10:50 AM , Blogger Sam said...

Jeff, I don't think I've said anything about what God can or can't do. My concern is what he does do, and I don't have any reason to believe that God communicates with us by giving us feelings. And if he did communicate with us that way, I still don't think it would be a reliable way to get information from God since apparently these same kinds of feelings can easily be counterfeited. What Mormons describe as an undeniable experience that gives them certainty is no different than the sort of testimony you hear from Muslims and charismatic Christians.

At 9/28/2008 4:32 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Jeff, I submit that you also would put limits on God's voice. Do you suggest that the voices which drove Andrea Yates to drown her children were revelations from God? It is not enough to hear voices or have feelings; we must test these against what has already been established to be God's will. I'm sure that the feelings that many reference are less profound than an angelic visitation, but remember that Paul said that even if angels from heaven did appear to us, we are not to believe them if they preach another Gospel. There is also great warrant to the idea that many fallen angels would love to do just that. If we do not apply discernment here, how, then, can we ever know what feelings echo the truth and what feelings drive us to error?

In addition, I think it is important to qualify what you mean by "bringing souls to Christ." This is a very generic statement that has been fleshed out in many unique ways by a number of groups. In fact, if there were no differences worthy of the concerns Sam has, then the "Christ" and the "bringing" of the historic church would be just as good as that offered by the Mormons — thus begging the question, Why the need of Joseph Smith to break with the church and insist that it had lost its way?

At 9/30/2008 2:29 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Paul says....."There is also great warrant to the idea that many fallen angels would love to do just that. If we do not apply DISCERNMENT here"

Paul I would ask by what or who's discernment. Yours, your preacher's, the Popes, mine or God's, the Bibles ( which bible?) (what interpretation of the bible) so DISCERNMENT falls into the same category...God must reveal the truth in our hearts. The scriptures are full of discerning ways to determine the good spirit from the bad spirit. Man's intellect will never triumph over the testimony from the holy spirit. Joseph Smith taught that revelation is not just the good feeling in the busom but it must also quicken the mind and brings truth to the intellect. It must move us upward.

Sam...I would suggest that Muslims and charismatic Christians are able to receive the spirit of Christ just as you or I. Rightiousness and purity of heart are not exclusive to a religious persuasion.

Paul...bringing souls to Christ is indeed on a grassroots level is serving each other, having compassion, caring for the poor, hungry and downtrodden. This is the heart and soul of the gospel, thereafter the savior did establish a church with a Priesthood, the sacrament, the atonement, missionaries etc. Joseph Smith brought forth a restoration of that same Church by those same men who lead the Ur Church. That being said, those are meager events if you & I do not engage in the service of humanity.

I appreciate the fact that Mormonism for most Christians is strange. The answer is ...we did not splinter from other forms of Christianity. We can disagree on the nature of that beginning. I hope we have common compassion in our obligation to our fellow man. Beyond that the truth is out there for us to discover. God has revealed his truths to man from the beginning of time and does so today. We only need to listen.

At 9/30/2008 5:46 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Jeff: I would ask by what or who's discernment. Yours, your preacher's, the Popes, mine or God's, the Bibles ( which bible?) (what interpretation of the bible) so DISCERNMENT falls into the same category...God must reveal the truth in our hearts.

So, you are implying there is no hope of sorting out the mess and that your feelings about what God has revealed to you trump all.

Jeff: The scriptures are full of discerning ways to determine the good spirit from the bad spirit.

But now I'm confused: do we use the Scriptures as a guide or not? If we do not, then everyone's feelings are as good as another. I have strong feelings too, which I attribute to the Spirit, but they commend ideas to me that are in contrast to yours. But if we do use the Scriptures to test our feelings (as it suggests we do), then there are grounds for questioning the source or veracity of our feelings.

Jeff: bringing souls to Christ is indeed on a grassroots level is serving each other, having compassion, caring for the poor, hungry and downtrodden. This is the heart and soul of the gospel

It would seem, then, that even an atheist can be a Gospel preacher, since there are many who advocate such humanitarian causes.

Here is where our experiences of God have led us apart. The Spirit has led me to the understanding that the most important thing is to lead the poor and downtrodden (actually everyone) into the kingdom of God, and that their temporal needs may be attended to as acts of compassion which God commends to us, but are only incidental to the problem of a creation in rebellion to its creator. I have assurance in these feelings because of the fact that Scripture does indeed teach such things. My experience leads me to believe that you have mistaken peripheral matters to be the "heart and soul" of the Gospel.

In light of these and other substantial differences that we have over spiritual truth (and the differences only increase when bringing in adherents of other religions), what can we say about our individual feeling in these matters? Can we be mistaken about our feelings, or does God reveal conflicting truth to individuals? Should our feelings be subordinate to some higher authority, or must we reject reason in our religious thinking?

We may both agree that "God has revealed his truths to man from the beginning of time," but it does not follow that every feeling about truth is actually an instance of revelation. If this were so, then my feelings are just as valid as your own and we can have nothing further to discuss.

At 9/30/2008 10:21 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Sam...I would suggest that Muslims and charismatic Christians are able to receive the spirit of Christ just as you or I.

Jeff, I was talking specifically about what Mormons refer as their testimony from the Holy Spirit that the Book of Mormon is true or that Joseph Smith is a true prophet. Muslims describe the exact sort of thing when referring to their testimony that the Qu'ran is true or that Muhammad is a prophet of God. Surely you don't think the same Holy Spirit is at work both in the Mormon and in the Muslim in those situations.

At 10/05/2008 4:21 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Sam & Paul...we don't seem to making much headway. I believe that all men have the right to the spirit of Christ. The Holy Ghost as we understand it is that being that permeates our spirit so God can speak to our soul (heart & mind). The gift of the Holy Ghost is however a priesthood blessing of constant companionship based on worthiness giving by one with authority. (not self imposed) Have you had a personal witness that your understanding of God's will is the one and only way. Or is it entirely intellectual? Here we must agree to disagree as you say "we have nothing further to discuss" I don't consider humanitarian causes peripheral matters. If we can't take care of these issues all else is trivial. As I listened to the VP debate...there was a candidate that actually does something for families sitting around the table with big obstacles while the other candidate has big words but little in the way of real action.


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