This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 40, number 06 (2017). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The use of testimony by Mormons is praiseworthy, but its misuse by Mormons is blameworthy. Testimony as a legitimate form of knowledge has solid philosophical and biblical grounding and can be rhetorically powerful in evangelistic conversations. To communicate effectively, we must know our audience. Authority is important in Mormonism, but what often is missed by Christians and tends to carry the most weight for the average Mormon — even deflecting sound argumentation — is not their prophets or scriptures. It is, instead, the authoritatively existential phenomenon known as “the testimony.” It is considered a good deed, deployed as a psychological defense mechanism to reinforce their beliefs and also as a core tactic in their evangelizing of non-Mormons. While evangelistic efforts by Christians to Mormons should always focus on the essentials (God and salvation), little progress will be made on those topics unless the need to undermine their faith foundation is taken seriously and addressed early. We must challenge their misuse of testimony resulting in illegitimate confidence so that they are open to other important challenges on theological essentials. Doing so via imagination through illustration with the help of Socratic dialogue has the greatest potential for undermining the Mormon testimony and making room for biblical truth to be heard in dialogue with Mormons. After subtly creating a place of doubt rather than reliance on their testimony, we can exploit their high esteem for testimonial knowledge by deploying our own proper use of testimony in conjunction with powerful objective testimony.
“I bear you my testimony. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God! I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God. And I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true church!”
It is referred to simply as “the testimony,” often followed by challenging the “investigator” (prospective convert) to pray on the basis of a promise made in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4) that, if sincerely prayed, he too can receive the testimonial knowledge of the truth of Mormonism. It is often delivered with such expressive tenacity that one might be tempted to conflate it with veracity. Although tenacity does not entail veracity, many Christians are nonetheless so perplexed on hearing it — and with such frequency — that they often become confused about how to respond.
Having grown up in Utah as a sixth-generation Mormon with ties to Joseph Smith, being a philosopher, and a student of rhetoric in evangelism, I have come to assess the Mormon testimony a bit differently than some others. I will provide a strategic approach to exploit the testimony in sharing the gospel with Mormons.
An Initial Assessment of the Terrain
First, despite its misuse, I want to affirm the proper use of testimony. We need not discount the value of testimony in general, or religious testimony in particular, as a legitimate form of knowledge. There is not only strong philosophical grounding and biblical precedent underwriting testimonies but also rhetorical power in sharing our testimonies.
Second, we can initially commend (rather than attack or dismiss) the LDS person’s bearing of her testimony as a means of locating common ground. Rhetorically speaking, it helps to position someone in a receptive rather than a defensive
posture by mentioning agreement before disagreement.
Third, we want to use Socratic dialogue rather than direct frontal assault to engage, assess, and ultimately bring about the greatest potential for doubting the testimony. Asking thought-provoking questions helps foster reflection rather than deflection. People are often better persuaded when they arrive at conclusions on their own than when they are pointed to them by others. Most active LDS members see themselves as having the repository of religious truth. Many are former missionaries having been in the role of a teacher. Let them think they are “teaching,” and then lead them to the truth.
Fourth, given the influence the LDS testimony has, we will make little progress in discussing other essential matters such as God and salvation if we do not first undermine confidence in their testimony.
Scripture is replete with passages that speak positively about the value of testimony properly used, where God’s Spirit testifies with our spirit and where the testimony of our assurance of eternal life is denoted as some sort of knowledge (cf. Rom. 8:16; 1 John 5:9–13). Jesus says that eternal life consists in knowing God (John 17:3). Given the Holy Spirit (John 14–16) in the life of the New Testament believer, one is expected to know existentially and experientially — not merely intellectually — that God is present in, and independent from, the world He created. While we do not need to be able to show that Christianity is true in order to know rationally that it is true (God can, after all, communicate directly without external evidence), “showing” may be necessary in order to remain rational in the face of considered potential defeaters. In other words, a subjective testimony is fine, but it must in principle be in harmony with objective testimony.
The intuitive problem many people have with testimony as a form of knowledge is that it seems so subjective by nature. Multiplying divergent accounts seems only to exacerbate this problem such that they cancel each other out. The problem with this objection, however, is that not all evidence is equal — including alleged direct religious testimonial evidence. Evidence, including external evidence relative to the subjective encounter, needs to be weighed in each case, including background assumptions and evidence fitting for such claims. If such beliefs involve contradictions with other known truths, then they would be false. The problem is not that testimony is subjective, but that it is sometimes merely subjective, as in the LDS case. Only testimonial reports that contradict truth or fail to be supportable by sound reason and evidence are problematic.
Acknowledging the Strongman in
Order to Bind the Strongman
Christians are sometimes baffled after presenting what they take to be knock-down arguments against Mormonism, only to hear the Mormon double down about how they know it is true regardless, as if they are saying, “Never mind the facts; I’ve got a feeling.” Despite authorities in Mormonism such as prophets and scriptures, it is usually the testimony that proves to be most influential on the average Mormon. They deploy it in defense when cornered, or on offense for rhetorical power to impact an investigator. LDS people aspire to “bear testimony” (i.e., a personalized, deeply felt, public declaration). They want to know that a particular set of stock religious beliefs making up the LDS testimony are true.
LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said, “A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it. Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosophers call it”1 (emphasis in original). Given the pervasive influence of testimony in Mormonism, it is surprising that the way to discover it is simply by repeating it.
Elsewhere, Packer reveals the nature of testimony: “Bear testimony of the things that you hope are true, as an act of faith.”2 It seems to be the sort of faith atheists such as Marx and Freud ridiculed as wish fulfillment. LDS apostle Dallin Oaks cites the Mormon Scripture Doctrine and Covenants 9:8–9 to denote the testimony as a “burning in the bosom,” defined as that which “signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity.” Another LDS general authority encourages its deployment in evangelism: “Sincere feelings conveyed from heart to heart by means of testimony convert people to the truth where weak, wishy-washy, argumentative statements will not.”3 An official LDS church manual proclaims, “In order to know that the Book of Mormon is true, a person must read, ponder, and pray about it. The honest seeker of truth will soon come to feel that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”4 Another LDS apostle-turned-prophet even warned that the failure to bear testimony frequently may result in a loss of merit points toward the heavenly goal.5 It seems as though the more expressively the testimony is told, the truer it becomes. Apparently, it is impenetrable to argument. It is that powerful!
Promoting Doubt, Making Room for Truth
Given the stranglehold testimony has on Mormons, it is important to undermine confidence in it to open new possibilities. I find it helpful using a “police lineup” illustration. A police lineup is a process by which a witness’s putative identification of a suspect is confirmed on some level according to which it can be admissible as evidence in a court trial. The suspect, along with several foils — people of similar height, build, and complexion — stand side-by-side, facing the direction of the witness who is behind a one-way mirror to allow witness anonymity. This bunch of considered suspects stand in a line and one by one are examined by someone seeking to identify the real culprit in contrast to mere look-a-likes who are eliminated in the process of consideration. The person behind the glass must determine which of these people, if any, is responsible for the act. We are considering the testimony of Mormonism, which claims to be the true representation of God. But which Mormonism? There are numerous competing sects to line up, all whose testimonies disagree.
On venturing in this direction, the Mormon will sense familiarity, since LDS people commonly retell the story of an experience alleged to have occurred to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove in 1820. During that time, many different Protestant churches were holding revivals, each seeking to attract people. Smith is said to have gone into a grove, prayerfully seeking an answer for which to join. God replied (in one version) not to join any, since all were apostate, failing to possess authority to represent God. Smith is then called on to restore what was lost. The two necessary assumptions for any legitimacy of Mormonism are the Apostasy and the Restoration. LDS missionaries recount this story to people in their first missionary discussion. They often note that the multiplicity of denominations existing today is confusing. Accordingly, they maintain that we need modern revelation through a living prophet to guide us through the confusion.
We want to exploit this familiarity because it resonates. Mormons are in the “Grove” when we lovingly challenge them about the diversity of their movement and the reliability of their testimonies. It is rhetorically powerful because we are using “Mormonese,” the language of experience, subverting their misuse of testimony while preparing to use our own testimony properly — a likewise subjective testimony but one that corresponds to the objective testimony of Scripture, which is historically reliable.6
Mormons typically assert rather than defend the assumptions of a Total Apostasy and the Restoration. But there is a steep burden of proof often left unchallenged. It requires one to believe that for nearly two millennia following the death of the last apostle, millions of Christian thinkers and devotees have been misinformed, misled, or otherwise severely lacking until Smith emerged, conversing with God and restoring it all. Before illustrating the “police lineup” concerning the Restoration, I begin to suggest the problem relative to the Apostasy by appealing to their imagination: “I appreciate what you’ve shared, but suppose we were out in the wilderness together and I briefly journeyed off on my own. Returning, I inform you that I just encountered God. I saw Him! He spoke with me! Moreover, he told me that all allegedly Christian sects, including Mormonism, were apostate and in need of restoration.” Now, obviously, this follows closely Smith’s story. I then ask, “Would you believe me if I made the claim to have seen God, then asked for you and all other people to leave their religions, begin tithing to my restored movement, and follow me as leader?” Try to get a response, even though it might not be forthcoming because they may now anticipate the direction where you are heading. Follow with this: “Joseph Smith’s vision entails that for millennia millions of seemingly brilliant and godly Christians were actually bereft when it comes to a saving knowledge of God.” And ask, “What seems more credible: one man’s claim to have seen God literally, entailing this great historical loss, or that this one man himself was lost by accepting and teaching a view of God(s) and salvation that departs radically from the Bible? If my encounter in the forest sounds incredible, and you would not believe me, then how is this different from committing yourself to the words of Smith now and asking me to do the same?”
This reveals, and makes one “feel,” the steep burden of proof to establish the Total Apostasy and to place all one has on one man over and against history, especially in light of Jesus’ statements denying any such total apostasy (Matt. 16:18 and 28:18), even if mentioned on a small scale elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Tim. 4:1–3). The Mormon may bear her testimony in response, creating an opportunity for the “police lineup” illustration relating to the Restoration. Use it even if she does not bear testimony. Remember, the goal is to undermine her confidence in her subjective testimony such that every time she ponders bearing it going forward, with or without you present, she will be unable to feel confident, given the residue of doubt. She will be more open to consider other things.
If not already apparent, the LDS testimony is significantly problematic. One problem is that a subjective testimony is taken as a sole criterion for truth, which leads to a sort of subjectivism. Consider the fact that there are dozens and dozens of Mormon splinter groups. The Salt Lake City–based Church is usually the one people think of when hearing the term “Mormon.” But it is not alone. Most Mormons know this, even if unaware of how many competing sects exist, each fully loaded with their own prophets and apostles claiming title over the Restoration, which excludes all others. Furthermore, they all have access to the same Mormon claim of the promise to receive a testimony about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and their particular authorized and restored version, attended with great feelings of warmth and serenity.
To illustrate the problem, suppose you inquire regarding which of the Mormon sects you should join. You need only name a few. Hypothetically, you gather one representative from each in a room to bear you his testimony. Whether lining up four or five or fifty representatives, they all sincerely bear testimony and yet they all contradict each other at serious points — not to mention that each thinks the other to be apostate.7 The Sacred Grove is recollected once again.
How might an investigator conclude which of all these Mormon sects is true? Logically, since each one contradicts the others, at best only one can be true and all others false. At worst, they are all false. Invoking imagination via illustration again, one could ask, “Suppose I was standing before a lineup of various sects of Mormons, each with their own set of prophets and apostles bearing testimony. How would I determine which is true? How do you know your Church is true and not another? As I see it, you have a few options. Either you can judge their hearts as liars or insincere people — which you probably would not want to do, or you can claim that, while sincere, they are somehow deceived by a lying spirit. Which do you opt for, given that you must assume your testimony is true: insincerely lying or sincerely deceived?” Get a commitment. Likely, given our cultural aversion to making judgments about people, they will choose the latter.
Continue probing the issue, asking, “How do you know that it is not you who are sincerely deceived in your testimony? It’s hard to forget the apostle Paul’s warning that we can be deceived even by an angel (cf. Gal. 1:6–9; 2 Cor. 11:14). How do you know that you are not the one who is deceived when competing Mormon sects testify of an equally emotive feeling of peace and serenity? It seems to me that a subjective testimony cannot be relied on as the sole criterion of truth. Furthermore, if Mormonism teaches a foreign God(s) or means of salvation contradicting the Bible, then biblical Christians should no more pray about this than whether we ought to murder. God has already spoken. Suffice it to say that while knowledge of God can be transmitted via testimony, it is not wise to rely on a merely subjective testimony as the sole criterion of truth especially if our eternity hangs in the balance. Would you agree?” If the conversation gets this far, a gospel presentation is in order.
Clinching the Conversation
Having undermined their testimony and shared the gospel, I culminate by deploying my testimony and the most explicit statement in Scripture testing the legitimacy of a testimony (1 John 5:9–13).8 Speaking with tenacity, “I testify that in Jesus Christ, and Him alone, I have eternal life and will be with my Heavenly Father for eternity.9 I’d like to share Scripture that explicitly details a true testimony in terms of divinely approved knowledge:
We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
I then inquire, “Do you have this testimony? If you died today, do you know that you would experience eternal life with Heavenly Father? If not, is God a liar? I do know that I have eternal life because I trust in Christ’s work alone, doing good works in grateful response to the salvation I have solely on the merits of Christ. I know this by the Spirit and the testimony of Scripture. Mormonism does not offer the confidence that my testimony has in harmony with God’s testimony, namely, that whoever ‘has the Son’ can know that eternal life with Heavenly Father is assured.”10
Corey Miller, PhD, is president and CEO of Ratio Christi: Campus Apologetics Alliance and teaches adjunct in philosophy and comparative religions at Indiana University- Kokomo. He is co editor of Is Faith in God Reasonable? Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric (Routledge, 2014) and coauthor of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds (Ratio Christi/Kregel, 2017).
- Boyd K. Packer, That All May Be Edified (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 340.
- Boyd K. Packer, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign (January 1983): 55.
- Gene R. Cook, “Are You a Member Missionary?” Ensign (Conference Edition) (May 1976): 103.
- 4 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Preach My Gospel: A Guide to MissionaryService (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2004), 38.
- Here is just one of Spencer W. Kimball’s comments: “Monthly there are testimony meetings held where each one has the opportunity to bear witness. To by-pass such opportunities is to fail to that extent to pile up credits against the accumulated errors and transgressions.” See The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 204–6.
- For evidence supporting the historical reliability of the Bible, see Corey Miller and Lynn Wilder, Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds, chap. 6 (Grand Rapids: Ratio Christi/Kregel Publishers, 2017).
- For example, the FLDS (fundamentalists) think that the Salt Lake Church went apostate over polygamy for the sake of political expediency, over its denial of the Adam-God doctrine taught by Brigham Young, and for other reasons. The Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) denies that Brigham Young was a legitimate prophet, since prior to Joseph Smith’s death, they argue, his choice was to pass the priestly authority on to his son, Joseph Smith III, who eventually became the prophet of the nearly 300,000-member congregation based in Independence, Missouri, where Smith’s first wife, Emma, and their son remained. The Salt Lake Church has its own idiosyncratic points at which it contradicts many of the other sects as well. It will not be necessary to point out all the differences. The Mormon will know by mentioning just these three.
- NIV is used here. To see my approach on presenting the gospel using the Book of Mormon (and the Miracle of Forgiveness mentioned above), for problems on the Mormon concept of God, and for greater depth of treatment on the nature and value of testimonial evidence, see my Leaving Mormonism, chapter 2.
- The notion “eternal life” in Mormonism denotes celestial glory (Doctrine & Covenants, 14:7).
- “Has” is present tense in Greek.