Prove It to Me

Alvin Plantinga has been described as the most important religious philosopher of the 20th Century. In this video he talks about reason, evidence and experience and their role in belief.

There’s a bit of humor in here for me that Mormons may have more in common with Calvin than they wish to admit.

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17 thoughts on “Prove It to Me

  1. Perhaps the thing which has most disconcerted me in interacting with Mormons is the similarity of Moroni’s promise as presented by LDS missionaries to things I’ve said myself to spiritual seekers. I’ve encouraged people who are not yet sure of the truth of Christianity to read the Bible and pray about it, being open to God revealing himself to them by his Spirit.

    I’ve also been inclined to say (much like Plantinga here) that, whilst there are plenty of supporting evidences corroborating my faith, whether from historical and philosophical apologetics, or from my own spiritual experiences, the assurance that I have that Christianity is true comes from the witness of the Holy Spirit within me (which I would distinguish from particular spiritual experiences I’ve had and identify as more of an ‘inner knowing’ than an ‘inner feeling’), which gives a stronger warrant than these other evidences. I’ve tended to back this up with Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

    The similarity of this approach to the LDS appeal to Moroni’s promise to support what I consider to be false beliefs has raised some questions for me about what the nature of the Spirit’s witness is, and what, if anything, distinguishes LDS claims to possess it with similar claims by more historically orthodox Christians. I’d welcome your thoughts on this.

    Incidentally, whilst we’re on Christian philosophers appealing to the inner witness of the Spirit, there’s an interesting article on the subject in Faith and Philosophy, the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers:
    William J. Abraham, ‘The Epistemological Significance of the Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit’, Faith and Philosophy, 7.4 (1990), 434-450.

  2. Makes me wonder if Evangelicals understate the spiritual witness they receive in front of Mormons only – as to take some sort of contrasting position against our overuse of Moroni’s promise (and other related “proofs”). More often I hear warnings against spiritual impressions – “the devil can deceive you that way” people say. For a tradition that traces its origins to Acts 2, I’ve always found this incredibly odd. Of course, there has to be much more justification than just a “feeling”, but to disregard spirituality as completely useless as a tool for truth seeking?

    At the end of the day, the very best that Jesus has to offer, is the stuff that’s the most difficult to prove…imho

  3. Mormons are for the most part hyper-Arminian when it comes to grace and works. However, when it comes to testimony, they are Calvinist, specifically the American variety.

    Calvinist theology posits a strong double predestination. The problem for the average Calvinist is then deciding whether they are among the saved or the damned. This also creates a problem for Calvinist pastors because when people ask how do they know which camp they are in, they need to give an answer. For the most part, Calvinist believers and pastors have fallen into one of two camps in responding to this answer.

    Camp #1 has held more sway in Europe, and it posits that you know you are among the saved because you are producing good fruit. Camp #2, the more American answer, posits that you know you are among the saved because you have had a conversion experience. Mormons change the vocabulary slightly (they talk about testimony instead of conversion), but the idea remains the same; I know because I can point to a powerful experience which vouchsafes my knowledge.

    To be fair to Calvin, I’m not sure how much of this Calvinism goes back to him.

  4. Makes me wonder if Evangelicals understate the spiritual witness they receive in front of Mormons only – as to take some sort of contrasting position against our overuse of Moroni’s promise (and other related “proofs”).

    An agnostic friend of mine was skeptically investigating Christianity. He complained at one point that rather than answer his questions all of his Christians friends just kept saying “You just need to accept Jesus into your heart and then you’ll know it’s true.”

    I responded that answers to his questions were available but his friends have had such powerful metaphysical experiences with Jesus that they want to lead him to the short cut. They all know that the answers pale in comparison to knowing Jesus personally.

    So yes, Evangelicals believe in spiritual experiences. They’ve been profound in my own life. I think the chief difference between us and Mormons is that Mormons will say that spiritual experiences are the only thing you can trust. Whereas Evangelicals will direct people to something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for a foundation of their faith.

    Now in reality, Mormons rely on the Quadrilateral as well. Internally they make appeals to it all the time. Using the KJV is even an appeal to the historic Christian tradition. But when they get pushed up against the wall on reason or history, they abandon it all and retreat to spiritual experience. Rhetorically, it’s a good device because it’s completely unfalsifiable. For evangelism purposes it can prove to be weak unless you can find a way to cause someone to have the same experience you did (in which case they aren’t experiencing God, they’re experiencing a formula).

  5. Then there is that Calvinist camp that believes that assurance comes from the covenant promises of salvation in the Gospel, and that this is built up from perpetual participation with the covenant community in hearing of the Word and receiving the sacraments and not from special revelation.

  6. But when they get pushed up against the wall on reason or history, they abandon it all and retreat to spiritual experience.

    Not at all–because their retreat to spiritual experience is only insofar as spiritual experience confirms the Church’s authority. That’s the real final redoubt–even when they say its because of spiritual witness, the entire process for seeking and evaluating spiritual experience in Mormonism is subordinate to and subject to the final arbiter of Church authority. When the two conflict, your spiritual experience is wrong, false, or incomeplte.

    It can be tricky to see because it’s happened in the formation process and is already hard-coeded into what they are willing to accept as a valid spiritual experience.

  7. “It can be tricky to see because it’s happened in the formation process and is already hard-coeded into what they are willing to accept as a valid spiritual experience.”

    This is, in essence, same with Evangelicals and Mormons on each point in the Weselyan Quadrilateral.

    When history contradicts or is insufficient you jump to tradition/authority (i.e. the canon.), When reason fails to satisfy you jump to spiritual experience, When scripture/authority bugs you rely on the spiritual experience associated with authority/scripture. Ultimately the goal is to defend the core that keeps you associated with the group and avoid alienation. The process seems driven by remaining part of the given orthodoxy.

    Platinga makes good points, its not unreasonable to rely on the merely plausible, or even to make critical decisions based on that. Likewise, it is certainly not unreasonable or unwarranted to conform your belief to the group that embraces you and to which you belong. Of course there are many individual variations on this theme but when you push a devout Mormon or Evangelical into any corner that puts the core belief in doubt or makes it implausible, they will inevitably jump to another pillar. When I examine myself as I did this as a Mormon, (and do this in many other areas of my life) is because adopting a position inimical to the group to which i belong or the doctrine I previously espoused would require a reordering of almost all of my positions. Few people can deal with this sort of flux and chaos, they will naturally seek to find another framework to order their intuition, experience, and spiritual experience. And generally it is manifestly unreasonable not to defend an adherence to orthodoxy. Belonging and stability is a needed as sleep. Spending sleepness nights resolving the difficulties in the framework where you order your spirituality may make sense to a point, but without certainty in experience and reason (a very elusive thing indeed), it is ultimately an arbitrary decision to eventually start sleeping easy.

    The problem I have is the radical distinction members of the two groups make between their spiritual experiences. What seems to me to be essentially the same type of experience is called demonic by one and divine by the other. Because of the stakes involved, it takes a very secure individual to acknowledge the similarity of the character of powerful spiritual experiences on the other side of the fence.

  8. But if demonic and heavenly experiences are spiritual aren’t they going to take on something of the same flavor? If the Bible is trusted in describing the spiritual realm, it says that Satan masquerades as a spirit of light. So in fact, those who trust the Bible WILL expect people to have similar experiences that lead them to different (false) conclusions.

  9. Either that, or you have to admit there’s just no compelling reason to think that your spiritual experiences are evidence of objective and exclusive truth. At least, that’s more intellectually honest.

  10. I certainly agree that spiritual experiences alone are not enough reason to believe in an objective and universal truth.

  11. But if demonic and heavenly experiences are spiritual aren’t they going to take on something of the same flavor?

    Not according to how I read the Bible. I am not talking about a supernatural vision, which is essentially just a historical event to those who did not have the experience, and very few claim such experiences as a basis of belief. I am talking about the run of the mill fruits of the spirit,. ala Galations 5: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If somebody has these fruit, don’t you have to give some credit to their tree?

    Also, how is this sort of discernment any more or less reliable than reason, or even interpretation of history. Bible believers also know the devil is supremely clever. Reason leads more people out of deistic belief than into it. likewise, interpretation of historical events can vary drastically as well as the interpretation of the weight of tradition. Shouldn’t believers also expect reason to lead the wrong at least as often as the fruits of the spirit and other experience?

  12. @David Clark: I don’t think this is a Calvinist/Arminian difference. Both Wesley and Calvin strongly emphasised the inner witness. Wesley’s thought on this subject is summarised in an accessible way in William J. Abraham’s Wesley for Armchair Theologians (You can read most of this on Google Books at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=BDLgAEOoPekC&pg – the relevant section is from page 92 onwards.)

    A summary quote from Wesley highlighted by Abraham:
    “There are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience. But perhaps one might say […] the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly ‘witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God’; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”

    Also, I would distinguish the experience of the witness of the Spirit from conversion experiences. I would say that I have a present experience of the inward testimony of the Spirit which is not based on inference from a memory of a past conversion experience.

    This is slightly off topic for this post, but, as I discussed in a previous comment ( https://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/how-christian-should-mormonism-strive-to-be/#comment-21692 ), I think that it is essential for each individually to be personally converted to faith to Christ (and not to rely on the faith of others or on their outward church membership), but that this does not always entail a conscious dateable conversion experience. This means that making the memory of a conversion experience the basis for believing yourself to be in a right relationship with God is highly problematic.

    (Sorry, I don’t know how to add a hyperlink in a comment – is this possible?)

  13. Tim said:

    There’s a bit of humor in here for me that Mormons may have more in common with Calvin than they wish to admit.

    And the humor for me is the flip side, that today’s Calvinists may have more in common with Mormonism than they (the Calvinists) wish to admit.

    I’ve always that that the apologetic argument used by many evangelicals against Mormons’ use of Moroni 10:4 was a bit misplaced; I know of no evangelical who is active in his or her faith who does not have some sort of confirmation of faith that comes through a spiritual witness of some sort. It would be awfully hard to live a Christian life (or the life of any other religion, I suppose) based on intellect alone.

    That said, I do agree that reliance on feelings or a spiritual witness has its limits. I think a spiritual witness is nearly essential in any conversion experience, and it’s also helpful when seeking God’s guidance in making major life decisions. But I don’t think it’s useful in determining facts such as the historicity of the Book of Mormon (or of Genesis, for that matter).

  14. I’m not sure there is much in reformed epistemology that is amenable to LDS theology. The spiritual confirmation as it is under understood by Mormons would clearly (in my opinion) fall under the term doxastic practices and not mystical experience (as those terms are used by guys like Plantinga and Alston).

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