Mormonism, Christianity and the Role of Experience

One of the methods that Mormon missionaries use is to get people to read the Book of Mormon and then to pray and ask if it was true.  If one receives the “burning in the bosom,” that is God’s way of telling you that you should become a Mormon.  Whatever doubts you have about the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are overcome by your confidence in your initial experience with God.

Some Christian apologists react to this kind of reasoning by suggesting that experience has almost no role in choosing a worldview or religion.  A religious faith should be chosen solely on rational investigation and research.  I am not convinced of that.  Experience did play an important role in my own conversion to Christ, although it was not the only factor.  Also, the New Testament is full of people’s experiences with Christ.  It is never downplayed for the sake of rational philosophy.

So what do we do with all this?  Should a religious faith be solely rational or solely experiential?  Neither.  I recently taught a course that focused on the Gospel of Luke.  I noticed something very interesting, especially in the resurrection appearances.  It was a major worldview change for the disciples to accept that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead.  How did they come to accept this?  It was through experience.  They did not just study the Bible and then come to the conclusion that Jesus must be risen somewhere.  They experienced the risen Jesus.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus met with the risen Christ.  But then noticed what happened:  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27 ESV)  The rest of the disciples experienced the risen Jesus, and again what happened?  “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45 ESV)  Their acceptance of the resurrection of Jesus took place with both experience and an understanding of how this fit with the Scriptures.  Experience is not just tolerable, it is very important.  But that experience cannot lead to an acceptance of a view contrary to Scripture.

How does this fit with our Mormon friends?  There is nothing wrong with a “burning bosom.”  The question is: does the worldview, philosophy or theology that this sign points to line up with the revelation of the Old and New Testaments?  In the case of Mormonism, it does not and so we must encourage our Mormon friends to look beyond their experience.  This is not just a corrective for Mormons but a warning for all of us to make sure experience and Scripture line up.



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