The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

St. Paul on road to Damascus

St. Paul on road to Damascus (Photo credit: bobosh_t)

Christian J pointed out in the discussion of my last post that he thought the Mormon model of seeking spiritual confirmation of doctrine was biblical. I think he is right. When I was LDS, I was very impressed by Paul’s discussion in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2.  It captured perfectly my view of the core of Missionary work.  Those interested in Mormonism would do well to understand how Paul’s words are lived by LDS today.

He starts out by explaining that his message should be judged and honored because it evokes a demonstration of the Spirit:

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

(v. 4-5.)

He goes on to point out that there is plenty left for God to reveal spiritually, urging his audience to keep an open mind even though the social and religious leaders of the day had rejected his message. (v. 6-9) He also underscores the primacy of the Spirit in theology and religion. He describes the Spirit as the companion of the believer and devotee, something that reveals knowledge about the deep things of God– things that may not jibe with human wisdom or judgments.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

(v. 10-16)

I took and lived by Paul’s advice for a long time. I continue to see LDS shape their lives around the phenomena Paul is describing. What LDS describe as the Spirit is an active, persistent, part of their lives. These sorts of experiences, in fact make people more articulate, sincere, and convincing when they teach about the Church. Again, I think these sorts of passages present a very distinct challenge to non-Mormon Christians. Should they attack this part of Mormonism, as they generally to, or follow its example in embracing Paul’s view of the Spirit and its relationship with understanding the truth?

The Conversion of Saul circa 1986


46 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul: the first Mormon?

  1. I think that St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians could be directly addressed to the Mormons. Especially the parts about believing adding onto the finished work of Christ by things that we ‘do’ or ‘don’t do’.
    He said “If an angel from Heaven brings a different gospel than the one that I have preached to you, let him be accursed.” I immediately think of Moroni.

    His letter to the Galatians is a full on assault on Christ + anything else.

  2. Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I certainly wouldn’t accept the claim that I don’t embrace “Paul’s view of the Spirit and its relationship with understanding the truth.” In response, I would argue that it is facile to equate Paul’s view with the LDS view. Evangelicals and other Christians don’t reject the internal or subjective witness of the Spirit. I have had my own experiences that I ascribe to the Spirit. But we weight those experiences differently than Latter-day Saints do.

    At least in conversations I’ve had, Latter-day Saints tend to make the subjective experience the final arbiter of truth. The experience is unassailable. For evangelicals, the subjective experience has to conform with objective truth to be deemed valid. After all, in the context of 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul puts the emphasis on a particular message with particular content. as seen in verse 2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He would never accept an experience as being from the Spirit unless it confirmed that message. By contrast, he says (1:22), the Jews expect to receive a sign – which I understand to mean a validating experience. So I guess it could be argued that the LDS approach is akin to the Jewish approach Paul objects to. But my point is, for Paul, an experience has to be consistent with a clear-cut proposition of truth or it is invalid. It seems to me that for LDS, a proposition has to be consistent with an experience or it is invalid. But Paul says in Galatians 1:8 that if you hear a different message from an angelic visitor, don’t listen. Even the powerful subjective experience of an angelic vision does not trump the propositional message of Christ and him crucified.

    The LDS approach raises two significant questions for me. First, on what basis do we interpret a subjective spiritual experience? I would argue that no subjective experience is self-interpreting. We only know how to understand a particular experience because we have developed some framework of interpretation that is outside of the experience itself. We’ve been told by our family and church that when we feel a certain thing, it will mean a certain thing. You and I can have the same sort of experience and ascribe distinctly different meanings to it. In my mind, that takes us back to the position that the experience itself is not primary. So we really need to be talking about the validity of the framework of meaning – the theological or worldview framework, if you will – rather than the experience. Second, can we always be certain that what we experience is from the Spirit? God seems to have wired us as human beings to experience blissful moments in many different settings: when we see video of the troops coming home, when our child performs in her first school play, etc. Atheists have those kind of experiences, too. So how do we know if an experience is from the Spirit or from our own emotional nature? (This goes back to interpretive framework again.) Also, the Bible suggests that there can be genuine spiritual experiences which are not from God (such as Gal 1:8, Deut 13:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3). Such experiences are tested by the validity of the propositional message associated with them – not vice versa.

    So as a non-Mormon Christian, I believe in and value a subjective witness of the truth by the Spirit to the heart. But that experience is not the final arbiter of truth, and must be tested against propositional truth such as is revealed in Scripture.

  3. Ross, I appreciate your comments.

    I think you lay out a standard Evangelical response to LDS spirituality. I like that you point out that the fundamental question is about interpretation of experience.

    The standard LDS response may be something like:

    If the final arbiter of truth is what is revealed in Scripture, and the final arbiter of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, then Evangelicals, in fact, place ALL of their faith on experiences with the Holy Spirit– just like Mormons.”

    so. The “rock” that Evangelicals build their faith on–i.e. the inspiration and authority of the Holy Spirit– is no different in name than that of the Mormons.

    Mormons emphatically believe that the spirit that they guide their lives by confirms Paul’s message and is the same Spirit that led him to write the scripture here.

  4. Paul said of the religious Jews that “they have a zeal for God, but are seeking to establish a righteousness of their own instead of relying on the righteousness of God.”

    I know Mormons, more than a few, who actually believe that they are keeping the 10 Commandments.

    St. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that it cannot be done. And that we will not to
    live by them. “No one does good, no not one.”

    He even tells us that the Law written on stone (the 10 Commandments) is “the ministry of death”. But that does not seem to deter Mormons who are on a quest to keep them and keep them perfectly. We know, however, that “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.” (also St. Paul)

    He is so un-Mormonlike that it is not funny.

  5. Great question, Jared!
    Certainly, evangelicals should never criticize Mormons for living by the Spirit or for seeking an understanding by the Holy Spirit of “what God has freely given us.”

    Good feelings can come from various sources. Sin brings good feelings for a season; a financial raise brings good feelings temporarily. But the Spirit brings a unique, lasting, and superior peace that cannot be reproduced by Satan or any other being in existence besides the Father and the Son!

  6. What phenomena Paul is describing?

    He doesn’t appear to expect people to keep an open mind because the natural man is incapable of understanding the cross, it can only be spiritually discerned.

    Without over thinking this it seems like Paul is describing the Holy Spirit as the source of revelation and understanding of the mysteries of God. No argument from me.

  7. Paul appears to state that the spiritual power of the words is the reason they should be believed. This is a very typical Mormon approach to teaching the Gospel, including the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

    I suppose I am trying to see if there is a common language of experience on this point among Evangelicals and Mormons. And, if so, when does it break down and why?

  8. Where does he say there is any spiritual power in his words? 1 Cor 2:4, 5 Paul’s words were not even plausible without the Spirit and the power of God. In this case the phenomena Paul appears to be describing is belief.

    Of course there isn’t a common language between Mormons and Protestants or Orthodox, or Roman Catholics. We use the same vocabulary with different definitions, that’s why you can continue to call the Holy Spirit an it.

  9. The spiritual power is contained in the Word. “It will not return void, but will accomplish that for which it sets out to do.”

    (and the Word just doesn’t mean the Bible, although that is certainly an aspect of the Word)

  10. @Gundek- Paul says: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

    Here he describes the words as the medium of the Spirit’s power.

  11. Jared,

    Sure. I would word it slightly differently but you will not get an argument from me that the power of God is demonstrated in the Spirit enabled reception the word preached. My point was that the spiritual power resides with God, not Paul’s words.

  12. The Word is NEVER absent of the Holy Spirit.

    But as Jesus told Nicodemus, “the Spirit creates faith when and where It wills.

  13. Jared,

    Are the “demonstrations of the Spirit’s power” that Paul is referring to the same sort of demonstrations of power you saw on your mission? Are they frequent and common for Mormons? The experiences you described in your previous post seem to be nothing like the demonstrations attributed to Paul’s missionary journeys.

  14. My experiences with teaching the gospel and hearing it in the taught in the LDS Church, both on my mission and off, track with Paul’s description here. I saw it as a model for my teaching and I consistently felt like Paul did, like the Spirit was teaching me and those I taught. I don’t think Mormons would report it happen in every church meeting, but they would generally say it happens consistently.

    I may not be describing my experiences correctly. I really am only vaguely referring to them– and that may be the problem. I am also not distinguishing different types of experience. But from my experience, what Paul describes here is a type of spiritual experience that is very common in the LDS Church.

  15. Paul’s “demonstrations of power” were not feelings of the Spirit being present; rather they were miraculous healings and exorcisms. At one point people are being remotely healed by handkerchiefs that Paul had once touched. This was your experience on your mission? These experiences happen consistently in LDS church meetings?

  16. Does he mention those here? I don’t believe that these sorts of miracles are what Paul was talking about here in context. Especially because he focuses on how the Spirit is interacting with him as well as the hearer, i.e. teaching him what to say.

    I have heard first-hand stories of those sorts of miracles and I have had people tell me they were healed after blessings I have given, but I was actually very skeptical of these sorts of miracles and didn’t really include them at all as a basis for faith.

  17. The Book of Acts goes into those details. Even a quick read of Acts will give these words the context he’s referring to.

    My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

    Also remember, Paul didn’t consider himself a strong public speaker, (for example, as compared to Apollos).

  18. I’m willing to be as generous and charitable as possible in evaluating Mormon spiritual experiences. . . but comparing a feeling of the Spirit’s presence to a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” seems to be a considerable stretch.

    Especially when similar experiences that contradict LDS truth claims are soundly rejected by Mormons. If they can so easily be dismissed, they don’t seem to contain much power.

  19. I’n not trying to nitpick but in your earlier post you described an “overwhelming emotional and spiritual response”, being “filled with magic” that would “fill the room like a thick mist”.

    And herein lies the rub, I agree that Paul recounts a mutually shared spiritual experience with the Corinthian church but the experience he recounts is faith and the description he uses “weakness and in fear and much trembling” just doesn’t present the same picture you did.

  20. Tim, Re: interpretation of the text-

    I am not arguing over whether my Mormon interpretation was correct, because my interpretation worked and works all the time in LDS Churches.

    When I read this passage as a Mormon, and as I read it now as a non-believer I don’t see that Paul is referring to descrete miracles– there may be plenty of stories of Paul as miracle worker but Paul is not pointing out his miracles here, nor would it be characteristic of him- he doesn’t usually boast. It seems like he is explaining HOW he taught the Corinthians them and why his teaching was convincing, i.e. they felt the Spirit. He is explaining that it wasn’t the wisdom of his words that was compelling, but their spiritual power.

  21. Tim and Gundek, RE: truth claims and spiritual experiences

    Its probably worth describing in more detail my Mormon spiritual experiences for you. I’ll try to do that later. But keep in mind that the point of my discussion is not to bolster the LDS claim that these sorts of experiences verify their truth claims. I don’t think they do, the truth claims narrative seems like a patina on top of what is going on. (I recognize that by calling Paul a Mormon I am implicitly invoking Evangelical and Mormon truth claims, but forgive the provocative title.)

    The point of my inquiry is to see how non-Mormon Christians describe these sorts of experiences and to give them some insight about Mormonism.

    I suppose my problem is that I have attended other churches only a few times and I haven’t been close to very many devoted believers of other churches (and most of those discussions were debates rather than discussions of spiritual life.)

    I also see some misunderstandings about the day-to-day spiritual life of some/many devout Mormons.

    Especially when similar experiences that contradict LDS truth claims are soundly rejected by Mormons. If they can so easily be dismissed, they don’t seem to contain much power.

    I don’t the experiences can be easily dismissed, I just think that the interpretations are not verifiable by the experiences.

  22. Gundek,

    I had many experiences within Mormonism that I would have described as coming from the Spirit. These were some of them. Some were like a mist, some were like a fire, some were like a wave. As you may understand, it’s a challenge to describe them in precise terms.

  23. There was a correlation between the phenomena and certain ways I was approaching life as a Mormon. The experiences were related in that they confirmed a certain worldview. I don’t necessarily believe these things are caused by a single thing. Again, I don’t believe they verified a particular religious proposition.

  24. “I concluded that they were variations of a single phenomena confirming my worldvierw because my worldview told me so.”

  25. Understood. Me too. But unlike you (apparenlty) I no longer struggle with trying to reconcile the experiences I had as a beliver with my current unbelief (or more appropriately, my now-different beliefs). I basically laid out why in the comments to your last post (and have done so on my own blog before), but in short:

    1. You can train yourself (or be trained) to have “good spiritual feelings” in a Pavlovian manner, so in the Mormon context, where “good spiritual feelings” are promised, expected and deliberately sought out, they are extremely suspect;
    2. The Church sets a conclusorily low bar for what counts as “feeling the Spirit”;
    3 Many “spiritual experiences” are really just emotional experiences, and human beings have unreasonable emotions all the time; and
    4. The mystics of all the world’s religions have consistently reported qualitatively similar experiences of the presence of God.

    What does that mean about the spiritual experiences I had as a Mormon? Lots of them–meaningful though they were to me–probably were not really bona fide mystical experiences of the presence of God. Some of them might have been bona fide mystical experiences of the presence of God, but that doesn’t prove Mormonism true (even if Mormons insist that it does).

    The universality of mystical experience also doesn’t prove the world’s religions equally true or equally false. By their own terms, most of the world’s religions don’t assert that your personal mystical experiences are a sufficient and overriding proof for the veracity of their truth claims.

    I think that you accuse the world’s religions of asserting the veracity of their truth claims by an appeal to the beliver’s mystical experience only because you are used to thinking of “feeling the Spirit” in Mormon terms, i.e., broadly enough to include literally anything.

  26. Am I “accusing” the world’s religions of asserting the veracity of their truth claims by an appeal to the believer’s mystical experiences?

    We are not talking about descrete, simple facts–each theological proposition is loaded with thousands of years of assumptions about the way things are. I don;t think that most of their “truth claims” are easily falsifiable or verifiable in the way that you can falsify or verify that the sky is blue. (We verify that the sky is blue because we ALL talk about it that way, this is not the case with theology)

    Biblical Christianity is founded on the belief that Paul was given actual authority from the resurrected Jesus to explicate Christian theology. His mystical experiences and the spiritual impact of his teaching (described in 1 Corinthians 2) seem the best, but not only evidence of this. I find it strange to hear anybody who believes in Paul’s writings as scripture discount them because they cannot be proven in a scientific sense.

    Christianity does not overtly base its truth claims on Paul’s experiences, just as Mormons don’t overtly base their primary truth claims on mystical experiences of Joseph or any other person. But these experiences are not irrelevant either. I am trying to find a way to talk about them that makes sense. One step in that direction is to figure out where Evangelical spirituality coincides with Mormon spirituality and understand how these groups see these experiences differently.


  27. The Resurrection–which, even by Paul’s admission, is the ultimate fact on which Christianity must rest–is definitely falsifiable.

    As is the historicity of the Book of Mormon, fwiw.

  28. Even conceding the resurrection, you still need Paul’s authority to get you to Christianity as it is now.

    Just as even if the Book of Mormon is truthful, it doesn’t mean the Church is true.

    The theology and authority sit on top of the facts.

  29. Jared, I like the premise. I also think that any plain reading of Acts will show the influence of the Holy Spirit to be absolutely essential to the growth and vitality of that movement. (obviously)

    Of course, this seems to have turned into a discussion of how Mormons use their “feelings” to gauge the accuracy of their church’s unique truth claims – confusing everyday emotions with messages from God. And I have to absolutely agree that Mormons do have a problem with ascribing a wide range of emotions and events with the influence of the Spirit (Of course religious people of all stripes give God credit for all kinds of things that may or may not have anything to do with divine intervention). And I agree that this makes what they commonly call revelation or feeling the Spirit seem diluted or fake.

    However, any discussion of Mormons and the Holy Spirit must deal with the influence of spiritual gifts that fueled early Mormonism and still carries on today – at the very least as an aspirational state of faith. Based on my own reading of the history, the early message going out was not that there’s this guy Joseph Smith that you need to join up with. Instead, it was the restoration of spiritual gifts as well as apostles and prophets – the same as in the early church – that drew much of the early excitement. And there are numerous accounts of these gifts being manifested as a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. The most prominent example being the the Kirtland Temple dedication:

    I met the quorums in the evening, and instructed them respecting the ordinance of washing of feet, which they were to attend to on Wednesday following; and gave them instructions in relation to the spirit of prophecy, and called upon the congregation to speak, and not to fear to prophesy good concerning the Saints, … Brother George A. Smith arose, and began to prophesy, when a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues, and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels, which fact I declared to the congregation. The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple) and were astonished at what was transpiring.

    Of course, you don’t have to actually believe any of this for the point to be made: these people believed and bore witnesses to these events and it fueled their fire for the movement. Mormons, from a very young age (article of faith 7) are taught about this heritage and either fail or succeed to live up to it based on their own individual faith and experience today. A critique of the way Mormons use or misuse this concept is fair game IMO. But I don’t think Christians who take the Bible seriously, can explain away the whole of Mormon spirituality quite so easily.

  30. I think that its pretty clear that the practical religion in the church today is from Brigham Young mixed with later conservative later leaders.

    When I was LDS I thought a lot about the change in spiritual experiences post-Joseph, especially because LDS generally ridiculed emotive emotional spiritual experiences of the Pentecostal variety. I think they show that there is conceptual room in Mormonism for this sort of thing even if the practice has been abandoned.

  31. Jared, It seems that Mormonism has gone through various peaks and valleys of spiritual fervor. Ironically (in the context of this post), when Heber J. Grant and others were pushing for a more “reverent”/subdued worship, it was a deliberate attempt to align with American Protestant mores of the time.

  32. To me you all over analyze feeling the spirit. Anything that moves you to do good is of God and His influence. A person just knows when they are drawing (feeling) closer to God or if you are becoming estranged from Him. Peace can not be imitated by Satan or even by the ways of the world. I like what Cal said. The spirit that a Mormon feels is the same spirit that any other Christian feels. God is the same. Jesus Christ is the same Son of God and Savior to all of us and the Holy Ghost is a witness of truth in what ever degree it comes. Good is just good. As we live by the precepts of Jesus Christ’s teachings we continue to gain His light into our soul and to emulate that light to others however dim or bright it is. God is working with all of us to bring us to Him, through the light of Christ, through the teachings of Christ (as we apply them),through the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost (another member of the Godhead). I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints (Mormon) I have many Christian friends that I love dearly. Without debating who feels the real spirit(we both acknowledge that we both feel His spirit) we share of our love and trust in God. We share of our praying together to Him. We share that He answers all of our (His Children’s) prayers no matter what faith you are. He loves us all and will continue to guide and direct us all. We all have so much more in common than most people think. Paul was a child of God. I am a child of God. Every person is a child of God. When we feel His spirit it is to confirm His love and nurturing influence on us. I know, I have felt it. I have felt a lack of light and peace verses light and peace. I have felt the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness and peace help me to feel closer to God and to have a pure love for others that I can not deny when I feel it. That is God’s spirit upon me and anyone of any faith can feel it. It is that influence of the spirit that guides our path and the critical decisions of our lives. It is so much more simple than many people think.

  33. God is the same. Jesus Christ is the same Son of God and Savior to all of us and the Holy Ghost is a witness of truth in what ever degree it comes.

    That’s pretty much all just demonstrably untrue. An eternally self-existing trinity that is wholly outside of time and space which he created, the second person of which entered into creation and became fully man as well as fully God in order to redeem and glorify it is really not the same thing as a man who achieved his exaltation through obedience and organized many worlds from existing matter and foreordained one of his spirit children to atone for the sins of his many spirit children so that they can pass through the trials of mortality in order to also be exalted and become gods. At all.

    We all have so much more in common than most people think. Paul was a child of God. I am a child of God. Every person is a child of God.

    Also not really true. We’re God’s creations, not his children, but we can become his children.

  34. Also not really true. We’re God’s creations, not his children, but we can become his children.

    In my mind, this is a very significant difference between the Mormon and the traditional Christian worldview.

  35. In my mind, this is a very significant difference between the Mormon and the traditional Christian worldview.

    Agreed. There is a whole lot to unpack there.

  36. Roman,

    I like what you are saying, I think it represents a very common strain of LDS thought. I would have said something very similar at many points in my life.

    Over-analysis is a very common path to blindness, one that often find myself taking. However, I think it is important to recognize that the level of analysis is a really big divider amongst Christians. Traditional Christian theology is a very sophisticated analysis of the world and the scriptures. The LDS church was founded as a rejection of this analysis, and in some ways, a rejection of that type of analysis altogether. I think this difference has led to fundamental theological misunderstandings between them.

    I don’t think you need to understand traditional Christians to love and be friends with them, or recognize the influence of God in their lives, but if you want to really understand their religion you have to engage in their brand of over-analysis. Likewise, from an internal LDS perspective, it may be helpful to understand the over-analysis in order to understand how the Restored Gospel changes the game.

  37. Everyone who thinks about God is doing theology. Going good theology means believing more deeply and more accurately. There may be such a thing as “over-analysis” when it comes to God, but good theology ain’t it.

  38. There may be such a thing as “over-analysis” when it comes to God, but good theology ain’t it.

    I think the only problem I have with what you are saying is that if “good theology” means “deeper belief in accurate explanation” the strength of the theology lies in how it takes into account the data AND what data are most important to take into account. Theology may be very different, yet in some sense equally accurate, depending on what data set is being explained or analyzed.

    “Bad” over-analysis when it comes to God could be characterized as placing a lot of faith in the analysis of a limited data set without taking into account how the analysis would change when other data are considered. In this way, from an LDS perspective, traditional theology is over-analysis of a limited data set. LDS theology is more primitive and often stops analysis far earlier.

  39. ““Bad” over-analysis when in comes to God could be characterized as placing a lot of faith in the analysis of a limited data set without taking into account how the analysis would change when other data are considered.”

    What your describing isn’t over-analysis it is under-analysis unless of course there is a reason to reject the authenticity of the additional data set.

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