Monday, March 9, 2009

Which Revelation is True?

In a recent outreach attempt on a college campus, I had the opportunity to speak to a student who had become a Mormon while attending college. I then talked to a student who had been meeting with Mormon missionaries. He was thinking about being a Mormon as well. I do not doubt the sincerity of both of these students. Of course sincerity is not a test for truth. I have been sincerely wrong about many things. Anyway, after talking to both of them, they both said that the test for the truthfulness of the Mormon faith is a religious experience. In this case, the confirmation of the Mormon faith happens through the heart confirming through what is already true in the mind. In other words, the Mormon appeal to a religious experience sounds a bit like the Christian appeal to the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

This brings up an interesting point in apologetic dialogue. Which revelation is true? The apostle Paul uses the Greek word “plerophoria” which means “complete confidence, full assurance,” to indicate that the believer has obtained the knowledge of the truth as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work (2 Col 2:2; 1Thess 1; Rom 4:21; 14;5, Col 4:12). (1) But what epistemological rights does the Christian have in saying their faith is true? While we do not want to discount the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, critics object that several other religions that are not compatible with Christianity lay claim to a self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit. Do not all existential experiences need an external test for truth?

In appealing to the Book of Mormon the Mormon says:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye 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, real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (2)

And so we see with the Mormon, all that is required for truth is the subjective testimony of the Holy Spirit. How does the Christian explain the Mormon’s confidence that the burning in their bosom is really not an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit? Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed an angel appeared to him and directed him to what are called the golden plates. Smith then showed them to eleven others. Smith is supposed to be responsible for translating these plates into The Book of Mormon. Like the apostles of Jesus, Smith suffered and died for his beliefs. However, there is a major difference between the eleven witnesses to the gold plates and the apostles of Jesus. (3) While six of the eleven witnesses left the Mormon Church, we have no record of the apostles of Jesus (Paul, James and John, others) even leaving the early Christian movement. (4)

Atheistic philosopher Michael Martin has argued that religious experience cannot qualify as a test for truth. After all, the testimonies of Muhammad, as well as the founders of several religious movements such as Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon and Jim Jones all attest to having a testimony that God gave them a revelation from heaven. (5) While Martin makes the mistake of depending on religious testimony as the only source for testing the truthfulness of a religious claim within a historical context, his points are valid for the Christian. How could the Christian argue sincere people of other faiths do not experience God as some sort of Being or loving Father, in which they depend upon? Fortunately, Jesus has left his people with an external test to demonstrate He is the Son of God. One of the external evidences (and I emphasize one!) that the subjective experience that the Christian experiences is truly from God’s Spirit is Jesus' resurrection. We do want to avoid the rationalism associated with Enlightenment period which is what Francis Schaeffer termed "autonomous reason," which is the haughty human attempt to build a worldview without recourse to God. (6) However, the “revelation only” view has some criticisms. This is why it is impossible to avoid using reason in evaluating religious claims. In evaluating any religious claim, here are a few guidelines: 1. What does it claim to know? 2. How does it claim to know it? 3. What is the evidence for it?

We also should not forget the difference between certitude and certainty. Certainty is the confidence that something is true. Sometimes, certainty is distinguished from certitude. Certainty is objective, but certitude is subjective. A first principle or self-evident statement is objectively certain, whether a person is sure about it or not. Certitude involves a knower’s assent to that which is certain; it is a subjective acceptance of what is objectively so. In common usage the terms are used interchangeably. The difference is that certainty exists where there is objective reasons or evidence that are commensurate to the degree of certainty claimed. With certitude, however, there need to be a commensurate degree of objective reasons or evidence for the degree one possesses. (7)

I would conclude with the following:

Norman L. Geisler and and Paul D. Feinberg show the relationship between reason and revelation in their book Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective:

There is some truth in all of the basic views on reason and revelation: (1) “Reason is over revelation” is correct in that reason is epistemologically prior to revelation. The alleged revelation must be tested by reason. (2) “Revelation is over reason” is right in the ontological sense. God created reason and it must be His servant, not His master. (3) “Revelation only” is correct in the sense that ultimately and ontologically all truth comes from God. (4) “Reason only” has some truth, since reason must judge epistemologically whether the alleged revelation is from God. (5) “Revelation and reason” is correct because it properly assigns a role to each and shows their interrelationship. One should reason about and for revelation, otherwise he has an unreasonable faith. Likewise, reason has no guide without a revelation and flounders in error.

1. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith. Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984, 32
2. Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004, 27.
3. Ibid, 185-188.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 282.
6. Clark, D.J. Dialogical Apologetics: A Person Centered Approach to Christian Defense. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 1993, 14.
7. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1999, 124-125.

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