Some time ago, I heard a knock on my door and was pleasantly surprised to see two young Mormon missionaries. Their crisp white shirts, stark black ties, and distinctive name tags instantly gave them away. Having spent time dialoguing with Mormons in the past and studying their beliefs and practices, I gladly invited them in. As we sat discussing important doctrines, they asked me a question that invariably arises in every discussion with Mormon missionaries: “Would you be willing to pray and sincerely ask God if the Book of Mormon1 is true?” I responded by saying, “No, I don’t think anyone should pray that prayer.” The reason I refused to pray it, and the reason I say everyone else should refuse, is that basing a belief on something so subjective is dangerous. In what follows, I will explain the inherent problems and dangers with this type of epistemology and demonstrate a biblical basis for testing religious truth claims.
The Essence of Mormon Epistemology
Epistemology is “the branch of philosophy that tries to make sense out of knowledge, rationality, and justified or unjustified beliefs.”2 In other words, it’s about what we know and how we know it. This is important because Mormons frequently appeal to subjective experience as important evidence for determining truth. They view it as an adequate means of gaining and grounding knowledge. The Book of Mormon states,
And when ye shall receive these things, 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. (Moroni 10:4)
Mormon missionaries regularly quote this verse and accompany it with heartfelt personal testimony about how the Holy Ghost bore witness to them of the truth of the Book of Mormon. They encourage potential converts to follow suit so that they, too, may know the Book of Mormon is from God. This is the essence of Mormon epistemology. Bruce McConkie, a doctrinal authority and former apostle within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote, “But the great and conclusive evidence of the divinity of the Book of Mormon is the testimony of the Spirit to the honest truth seeker.” While praying about the truth of a book may seem innocent, there are many inherent problems with this type of subjective test.
Problems with the Mormon Test for Truth
Whenever a Mormon suggests we should pray to find out whether the Book of Mormon is true, we should begin by pointing out that this idea comes from the Book of Mormon itself. This in itself is problematic and amounts to a logical fallacy known as “begging the question” or circular reasoning. Begging the question occurs when you assume in your argument the conclusion you are trying to prove. In this example, we have to assume Moroni 10:4 is true when it exhorts us to pray with sincerity about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. In other words, we have to assume the Book of Mormon is true in order to find out if it’s true. This is nothing more than circular reasoning.
The Mormons you’re speaking to may appeal to James 1:5 as biblical support for their approach: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Mormons assure us that we simply need to ask God if we lack wisdom concerning the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The problem with the Mormon’s use of this verse becomes apparent when we examine it in context. First, James is writing to those who are already Christian believers, not potential converts. These believers are experiencing trials (verses 2-4), and James instructs them to pray and ask for wisdom in the midst of their testing. Second, Christians here are encouraged to pray if they are lacking wisdom, not requiring knowledge. Wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. Third, nothing is mentioned in this passage about attempting to discover the truth of a book through a subjective test. This interpretation is contrived and must be read into the text.
Further, this sort of prayer test is specious since there are some things we don’t need to pray about. For example, everyone can agree we don’t need to pray about committing adultery or murder because Scripture has already revealed biblical commands prohibiting these. By the same token, God has already warned believers about the dangers of a false gospel. Paul states in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” To pray about such things as adultery, murder, or a false gospel is to test God because He has already revealed to us the truth in these matters. So, the more important question regarding the Book of Mormon is whether or not it teaches a false gospel.
Finally, what happens if there are objective facts and evidences that contradict a personal testimony?3 Is greater authority given to the objective data or subjective experience? In the end, there are simply too many problems with relying on such a limited and subjective truth test.
The Biblical Test
This is not to say religious experience can’t play a role in the justification of a belief. But relying exclusively on personal feelings can be downright dangerous, especially in the face of overwhelming objective evidence against your view. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Religious matters are eternal matters, and eternal matters are weighty matters. We simply cannot place the importance of eternity in what seems right to us at any given time. Fortunately, the Bible provides Christians with examples of how to test new religious claims.
One such example is found in Acts 17. In this passage, the apostle Paul and his companion Silas arrive in the city of Berea and immediately go into the synagogue to preach. Verse 11 describes the Bereans as follows: “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so [emphasis added].”
First, notice the Bereans are commended in Scripture for being noble-minded. Second, note the reason they were considered noble-minded. They did not simply accept what Paul said as fact, nor did they pray about the things Paul taught to see if they were really true. Instead, they took what Paul said and compared it with the Scriptures (Old Testament) to “see whether these things were so.” Here, the Bible presents a much more objective standard to adjudicate between differing truth claims and experiences: Scripture itself.4 Therefore, when presented with the Mormon gospel, we need to follow the example given to us in Scripture. We should not pray about it; rather we should examine it in light of the teachings of the Bible.5
Biblical Support for a Subjective Test for Truth?
In Doctrine and Covenants we read, “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 [emphasis added]; therefore, you shall feel it is right.”6 Many Mormons testify to having experienced a “burning in the bosom” after praying to see if the Book of Mormon is true. The Mormon scripture quoted above authenticates this experience for them. However, Mormons also appeal to the Bible to support this teaching. For instance, in Luke 24, the risen Christ appears to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus. In this passage, Jesus explains to them all the things concerning Himself from the Old Testament, and in verse 32 we’re told their reaction: “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?’” Mormons argue that this passage directly corresponds with the burning bosom experience. Upon closer examination, however, this passage is not in any way analogous.
First, notice these travelers on the road to Emmaus were already followers of Christ when their hearts burned within them. They were not non-Christians seeking to find out if Christianity was true. Second, the followers mentioned here did not pray about anything at any time. Third, the followers’ experience was the result of what Jesus taught them concerning Himself from the Scriptures. Consequently, this passage in Luke in no way supports the idea that we should pray and seek a burning in our bosom that confirms the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Rather, it shows us the importance of going back to the Scriptures as the standard by which we judge all religious truth claims.
Conclusion: Test the Spirits
The Mormon challenge to pray concerning the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is riddled with problems, both philosophically and biblically. The Bible provides Christians with plenty of warnings against trusting in oneself as an arbiter of truth. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The book of Proverbs cautions, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered” (28:26). We are even told that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light and prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (2 Cor. 11:14, 1 Peter 5:8). This is why we must constantly remain sober and vigilant. Rather than trust our feelings, Scripture continually encourages us to use our minds. God beckons us to come and reason with Him (Isaiah 1:18). We are told by the apostle Paul that we must examine everything carefully and hold on to that which is good (1 Thess. 5:21). We must “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
In summary, then, we should never be tempted to accept the Mormon challenge to pray about the Book of Mormon. Rather, we should use our minds to investigate its origin, examine its teachings, and compare it with Scripture. In so doing, we remain consistent with Scripture and subject a book that claims to be the Word of God to a factual and realistic assessment.