The Mormonization of American Christianity
Most of the Christians I polled ended up describing faith as a feeling or experience. Though we don't find this language in the Bible, we do find it in the writings of Joseph Smith.
In 1835, just a few years after the initial release of The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith published a supplemental volume called Doctrine & Covenants in which he claimed to have received the following revelation from God:
Cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things; did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?… 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: therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings…1
This, of course, is the origin of the popular Mormon doctrine of the “burning in the bosom.” As a result of this verse, most of the Mormon missionaries who’ve arrived at my doorstep over the decades have encouraged me to pray to God, asking him to confirm the truth of The Book of Mormon by means of an internal experience of this kind.
What’s fascinating is that last year when I conducted a poll of nearly a hundred Christians at a variety of different events here in the St. Louis area, the majority of those I interviewed ended up describing faith as a kind of subjective feeling or experience. When I discussed this topic on Episode 4, “Is Faith a Feeling,” I mentioned the fact that in my own study of this issue, I wasn’t able to find a single occurrence of the word “feeling” anywhere near the word “faith” in most English Bible translations. Even when I searched for different versions of the verb “to feel,” and substituted alternatives for the word “faith” (such as “faithful,” “belief,” “believer,” etc.), I still couldn’t find a single passage in which “faith” and “feelings” were within 200 words of each other.
On the most recent episode, I discuss the relationship between “faith and experience,” and in preparation for that program, I decided to run a search for any appearance of the word “experience” within 200 words of “faith.” Only one verse appeared across a variety of English Bible translations, namely, 1Peter 5:9. Beginning at verse 8 this passage reads as follows: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (ESV). Rather than justifying anything close to the popular belief that faith is somehow rooted or grounded in personal experience, this verse specifically encourages believers to remain faithful, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, such as suffering and persecution.
Another verse that came up much less frequently in my search was Ps 143:8, which according to the CSB and HCSB2 says, “Let me experience your faithful love in the morning, for I trust in you.” In this case, the word “experience” is actually a very loose translation of the Hebrew word shema (to hear), which is why the more literal ESV renders David’s words this way: “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love…” But even if we end up adopting the more contemporary translation of Ps 143:8, this verse still doesn’t come close to justifying the claim that the Christian faith is rooted in personal experience. While it’s certainly true that believers can have authentic experiences with God, the question I’m seeking to address is whether the Bible ever makes the claim (similar to the one above from Joseph Smith) that personal experience can be used to authenticate one’s faith.
There were a handful of other verses that came up in my search, such as the NRSV translation of Hebrews 11:5, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death…”, however, all these verses (including this one), failed to make the connection between faith and experience that seems to be so popular in the contemporary imagination.
It’s interesting to contrast the approach we find in Doctrine & Covenants with the instructions that God gave Moses in Exodus 4. When God appeared to him at the burning bush and told him to speak to the elders of Israel, Moses replied by saying, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’” (Ex 4:1). This would have been a perfect opportunity for God to reassure Moses by saying, in effect, “Fear not, for at the moment you speak, I will give them a sense of my presence, and their bosoms shall burn within them.” Instead, God actually promises to confirm his word through Moses by means of numerous external signs (cf. Ex 4:8-9, 28-30, 7:9, 19:9, Dt 4:34).3
When we look at the claims of the apostles recorded throughout the New Testament, they appear to follow this same approach. Rather than appealing to their own feelings or internal experiences, they continually pointed to that which they heard with their ears, saw with their eyes, and touched with their hands (1Jn 1:1, 3). In Acts 2:22, Peter says: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested4 to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.” In verse 36 he went on to say that we can know “for certain” that Jesus is the promised Messiah, not because God will reveal this to each of us through some kind of personal encounter, but because Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection were seen by numerous eyewitnesses, and also happened to be foreseen by the Hebrew prophets of old.5
But if this is the approach we actually find throughout the Bible, then why is it that so many Christians in our day end up following the apologetic methodology of Joseph Smith? If personal experience determines truth, then what should we tell the Mormon missionaries who arrive at our doorstep? Would it help if we told them that perhaps Christian bosoms burn at significantly higher temperatures than Mormon bosoms?
How did we even get here?
If you’re interested in exploring this question further, I discuss this topic with J.R. Miller on Faith & Experience, (Part 1) and (Part 2). Dr. Miller teaches Christian Worldview at Grand Canyon University and is the co-founder of The Center for Cultural Apologetics. His recent book, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, traces the history of “the subjective turn” that has taken root in so many Christian circles over the past few centuries.
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Doctrine & Covenants, sections 6 & 9.
Christian Standard Bible (2017), and Holman Chrisitan Standard Bible (2009).
In Greek, this word is apodeixnumi, which can also mean “to prove” (cf. the ESV translation of Acts 25:7).
The best example of this approach is found in 1Cor 15:3-8.