Enquiring of the Lord

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the reliability of a spiritual witness here and elsewhere. My position in a nutshell is that a personal spiritual witness is important and encouraging in directing a person toward faith in God, but it is not enough by itself in isolation of all other things.

This quote by Joseph Smith perfectly sums up the reason why I think that’s true.

When a man enquires of the Lord concerning a matter, if he is deceived by his own carnal desires, and is in error, he will receive an answer according to his erring heart, but it will not be a revelation from the Lord.

John Wesley has been credited with something that’s been named the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which I think is a useful tool in helping us discern what is from God and what is from our own carnal desires. When we seek spiritual inspiration and direction we rely on:

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience

What do you think? Are spiritual revelations enough or do we need more?


12 thoughts on “Enquiring of the Lord

  1. I think everyone believes we need more – no matter what extreme rhetoric they might use occasionally in Internet debates.

    Usually the debates boil down to disputes over emphases, proportions and percentages.

  2. I agree with Wesley 100% on the quadrilateral. I think Wesley is absolutely correct, and I think this Wesleyan prima scriptura view is a massive improvement over sola scriptura in being able to justify and unify practice. And I think in practice (though not in theory) this is what most Protestants do.

    The problem is the quadrilateral doesn’t solve the canon / revelation issue. The quadrilateral is designed to solve the interpretation of revelation issue not what is valid revelation. That is how to determine what is revelation, and how to determine how to interpret revelation are two very different questions.

    There has to be other stuff in place for the quadrilateral to work, in particular:

    a) You already need at least a pre-existing subset of scripture to use scriptural evidence.
    b) You need some sort of definition of a church community and a view of history to make claims as to what is tradition.

    You can see this in Westminister, Sproul’s quip “a fallible list of infallible books”

    Westminister I.V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

    I personally think the 3 remaining sides resolve (a). That is tradition, reason and experience allow one to derive a canon but that is certainly a contentious position. But (b), the definition of the church is an unsolvable problem within the Wesleyan framework. Worse different choices for (b), that is different views of the historical church, alter the results of (a). Include different groups and you end up with a different canon, the different canon then results in different doctrines…

    Finally, as Aaron rightly notes, the LDS takes a prima ecclesia view (at least in practice). This system doesn’t work for them. They approach this problem much like the Catholics do, find the correct church and the doctrinal issues fall out. Protestants are focused on the doctrinal issues because they have already rejected the idea that there is in any meaningful sense a “correct church”.

  3. This is an issue that I’m trying to work through, and it’s one area where interaction with Mormons has caused me to question my previous understanding of my own faith (i.e. if a sense of a spiritual witness can lead people to what I believe to be erroneous beliefs, can I trust my own sense of the inward witness of the Spirit or use it as a ground for faith?)

    This passage from the Westminster Confession is one that I like. My reading of it is (or has been) that whilst a multitude of evidences such as those used by Christian apologists demonstrate the high probability that the Bible is the word of God, our certainty (“full persuasion and assurance”) that this is so comes from the inward witness of the Spirit experienced in conjunction with the words of the Bible.

    The Westminster Confession quite explicitly gives tradition an important role but one subordinate to Scripture, tradition being fallible and Scripture infallible. In general, personal spiritual experience (“private spirits”), along with human reasoning, is also placed below Scripture in the Westminster Confession’s hierarchy of authority:

    The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF I.x)

    However, how it establishes Scripture to be God’s infallible word seems to be by appeal to the inner witness of the Spirit. (I would read the Westminster Confession itself as part of fallible but helpful Christian tradition, so wouldn’t assume it’s always right in its approach.)

    Tim, do you think there is such a thing as certainty in spiritual matters, or do you think we are wagering our chances of eternal life on something we think has high probability but of which we are not 100% certain?

  4. Interesting discussion. I have never thought about these issues in the context of the LDS. But here are a few things that come to mind.

    There are scriptural precedents for spiritual witness taking a sort of primacy above the canon. One example in the Hebrew Bible comes from the revival under Josiah, when the lost “Book of the Law” (presumably Deuteronomy) was discovered. It was the prophetess Huldah who confirmed with a word from the Lord that book was to be considered authoritative (see 2 Kings 22 & 2 Chronicles 34). In the New Testament we see the Apostles make an epic, unprecedented shift in interpreting the Scripture when the Jerusalem Council changed the rules for Gentile believers in Acts 15.

    If one wanted to apply the rules of Wesley’s so-called Quadrilateral to the Book of Mormon I see a problem with the area of Experience. We tend to think of experience in a very narrow, individualistic way. But Wesley never taught the authority of that sort of experience. He wrote and spoke about experience that was much more closely tied to the area of Tradition. That is, it speaks of the collective experience of the church throughout history. If you look at the scope of Christian history there is no precedent for an individual experience bringing about such a significant change in canon.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  5. Johnathan

    If you look at the scope of Christian history there is no precedent for an individual experience bringing about such a significant change in canon.

    What about Marcion’s decision that Christianity was a new faith and needed a new testament to go along with it in place of the LXX. He had this idea of structuring this testament as a union of 10 works of Paul’s along with a gospel. Essentially the invention of a what we today call the New Testament came from an individual whose experience led him to induce substantial change in the canon.

  6. A preliminary question:When inquiring of the Lord, is it possible to receive an answer that you can trust implicitly, without reference to any other source?

    If so, such answers should be the basis of your opinion regarding scripture and tradition. Right?

  7. I’ll second Seth R. once again.

    Just as there is a Trinity within God, he has provided us with a trinity of witnesses: the written Word, the living Word, and experience.

    If we use nothing but the written Word, we’re no better than the devil, who used the written Word when he tempted Jesus (Luke 4).
    If we listen for the voice of God (or gauge the strength of his presence) but never read his written Word, we’ll eventually hear the devil and think it’s God speaking.
    If we go on experience alone (or logic alone), we’ll never know Jesus because salvation comes through hearing the gospel (Romans 10:17).

    If we utilize all three together, success and victory are around the corner!

  8. For me, things made much more sense (everywhere) when I admitted that speech and scripture are both (very) fallible. I agree with those who say that God (nature, life) is a mystery. I mistrust anyone who claims to understand that mystery, especially when he then seeks to impose his understanding on other people (however kindly).

  9. For clarification, when I say “speech” above, I am referring to (1) tradition and (2) things that I or anyone else may say in an attempt to innovate. I do not implicitly trust tradition (any tradition, in anything). I do not implicitly trust any attempt to improve on or replace tradition (any tradition). The God who has meaning for me is an emergent principle, irreducible to rule, larger than any human tradition or scripture.

  10. I ran across a classic line by Derek Prince, who was a world renown Bible teacher/scholar and man of integrity who was followed by signs and wonders done by the power of Jesus. It fits this discussion:

    “God does not scratch an itching intellect. He satisfies a hungry heart.”

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