Revelation and Reason
The Historical Development of Rejection of Revelation and Dependence on
In his book, The Lord’s Way, Elder Dallin H. Oaks provides some historical notes
on the development of dependence on reason and the rejection of revelation. He notes
that Professor Hugh Nibley has commented on what he calls “the age-old struggle
between hard-headed realism and holy tradition.” Brother Nibley contrasts what he
calls the sophic, “the operations of the unaided human mind,” with the mantic, “the
prophetic or inspired, oracular, coming from the other world.” He dates the rise of the
sophic from the beginning of the sixth century. He attributes to St. Augustine the
dubious honor of “completing the process of de-Manticizing antique culture” (“Three
Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic,” The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled,
315, 333, 354).
Actually, within a century after Christ, the confrontation of Christianity with Greek
philosophy brought some compromises in doctrine and practice. One scholar has
characterized these as “denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human
intellect” (Stephen E. Robinson, “Warring against the Saints of God,” Ensign, January
1988, 39). Dr. Nibley quotes Henri Leclerq, a French Benedictine Monk: “From the fifth
century on, the church became an ‘intellectual entity’ and ever since, one sees in ‘the
church a thing of reason’” (Hugh Nibley, “Paths that Stray: Some Notes on Sophic and
Mantic,” The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled, 443). Goethe argued that “the
deepest, the only theme of human history, compared to which all others are of
subordinate importance, is the conflict of skepticism with faith” (Quoted in H. Curtis
Wright, “The Central Problem of Intellectual History,” Scholar and Educator 12: 52).
For some, this conflict was resolved during the “great medieval debate.” Richard
M. Weaver called it “the crucial event in the history of Western culture.” This debate
was a contest over whether “universal truths” (laws of God) really exist. Weaver
The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth
higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is
decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The
practical result of [what is referred to as] nominalist philosophy is to banish
the reality which is perceived by [revelation] and to posit as reality [only]
that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation
of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on
the road to modern empiricism (Ideas Have Consequences, 3).
Empiricism or rationalism holds that all knowledge is derived from sense
experience. This rational view excludes all that is supernatural. Another name given to
this philosophic bias is nominalism. The use of this latter title was explained by Bruce L.
Christensen. In an address to an audience of university students, Christensen,
president of the Public Broadcasting Service, described the consequences of this
empiricism or rationalism:
In other words, there was no absolute good. There was no
absolute evil, or for that matter, no absolute anything. All absolutes were
merely a convenience of thinking—they existed in name only (“nominally”),
but not in reality. The first principle of nominalism was that there is no
source of truth higher than, or independent of, man. The practical result
was to deny that knowledge may be gained by any means other than that
which can be perceived through man’s reasoned use of his senses.
Revelation was no longer an acceptable means of acquiring truth (Bruce
L. Christensen, “First Principles First,” Forum Address at Ricks College,
November 19, 1987, Rexburg, Idaho).
The Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained yet
other titles given to this same philosophy:
The mistake [in Western thinking] must be at the root, at the very
basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing
Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance
[14th to the 17th centuries] and found its political expression from the
period of the Enlightenment [18th century]. It became the basis for
government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic
humanism or humanistic autonomy; the proclaimed and enforced
autonomy of man from any higher force above him. . . . This new way of
thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the
existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the
attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on
the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. . . . We have
placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that
we were being deprived of our most precious possession; our spiritual life
(“Commencement Address,” Harvard University Gazette, June 8, 1987).
The History of Conflict between Religion and Science
The world has witnessed a long interaction between religion and rational science.
When conflicts occur, it has usually been religion that gives way. Professor H. Curtis
Wright explained: “The overall tendency of their interaction is always one-sided—
toward the naturalizing of religion, not toward the supernaturalizing of science or
scholarship” (“The Central Problem of Intellectual History,” Scholar and Educator: 53).
The “naturalizing of religion” denies the existence of any truths or values that cannot be
demonstrated by the scientific methods. The ultimate, exclusive reliance upon reason
that results from this denial is at the root of many public debates. One such debate is
the current controversy over teaching values in public schools. Another is the earlier
but continuing concern over whether universities can simply be involved in
disseminating knowledge or whether they must share responsibility for the probable use
of that knowledge (atomic weapons, for example).
The Rejection of Revelation in the Academic Setting
Over the centuries, the source of the ancient conflict between reason or intellect
and faith or revelation is the professor’s rejection of revelation, not the prophet’s
rejection of reason. One might assume that spiritual or religious experiences are
sufficiently common that most people would not be willing to reject their validity outright.
Professor Obert C. Tanner puzzled over this issue:
Here is a fact, yet one which defies intellectual analysis. It is a
strange thing that a [spiritual] experience so decisive as to influence a
person’s total life and commitment should [continue to] be described as
ineffable [incapable of being expressed], unutterable, indescribable . . . It
is no wonder that universities . . . are unable to deal with more than fringe
religion—[only] the ideas about religion, not the personal and private
experience of religion. It is no wonder that churches and free universities
are respectful but reserved toward each other (One Man’s Search, 151).
In a talk at Brigham Young University, Elder Boyd K. Packer observed:
Each of us must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation
in our lives. The gospel not only permits but requires it. An individual who
concentrates on either side solely and alone will lose both balance and
perspective. History confirms that the university environment always
favors reason, with the workings of the Spirit made to feel uncomfortable.
I know of no examples to the contrary (“I Say Unto You, Be One,”
Devotional Address at Brigham Young University, February 12, 1991).
The Appropriate Role of Reason in Revelation
Elder Oaks has written about authenticating revelation with reason:
There are at least three tests that reason can apply as a threshold
check on the authenticity of revelation. True revelation will pass all three
of these tests, and spurious revelation . . . will fail at least one of them.
- True revelation will edify the recipient [that is, it will make sense,
instruct, or enlighten. It must fit in to what is already known]. It must
therefore be in words that are coherent or in a feeling whose message can
be understood by one who is spiritually receptive. . . . In a modern revelation given to instruct the saints how to distinguish between the
Lord’s revelations and those given by the “false spirits, which have gone
forth in the earth, deceiving the world” (D&C 50:2), the Lord declared:
“That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23). . .
- The content of a true revelation must be consistent with the
position and responsibilities of the person who receives it. The Lord
taught this principle to the infant church in a revelation that explained to
Oliver Cowdery that no one was appointed to receive commandments and
revelations for the entire Church except the prophet Joseph Smith, “for all
things must be done in order.” Revelations being received by a member,
Hiram Page, were the deceptions of Satan, “for, behold, these things have
not been appointed unto him” (D&C 28:12-13). . . . According to these
principles, revelations for a ward come to the bishop; for the family, to its
head; for the person, to him or her directly. A neighbor does not receive
revelations for a neighbor, and one who has not been publicly called and
set apart according to the government and procedures of the Church does
not receive revelations to command or guide the Church or any group of
its members. One of the surest evidences of false revelations (those
based on mortal authorship or devilish intervention) is that their content,
judged according to reason, is communicated through channels other than
those the Lord has prescribed for that subject.
- True revelation must be consistent with the principles of the
gospel as revealed in the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets.
The Lord will not give revelations that contradict the principles of the
gospel. His house is a house of order (The Lord’s Way, 67).
There are strange and bizarre spiritual manifestations in the world. These do not
edify. Hence, one may know they are not from God.
The Relationship between Reason and Revelation Today
Elder Oaks observed the growing trend in today’s world to depend on pure
reason (without the influence of the Spirit) rather than revelation (the influence of the
Spirit) for learning truth:
Knowledge about the earth and its various forms of life is
expanding so rapidly that it can hardly be catalogued. But the world as a
whole is not experiencing a comparable expansion of knowledge about
God and his plan for his children. To obtain that kind of knowledge, we
must understand and follow the ways God has prescribed to know the
things of God. We [must] come to know God and the truths of his gospel
by study and reason and also . . . by faith and revelation (Ibid., 45).
Elder Oaks then called attention to a clear hostility and contemptuousness
toward even the idea of the existence of God and the existence of divine revelation.
Those responsible for this trend reject outright any concepts or ideas that assume the
existence of a God. They reject the assumption that God can directly communicate with
and influence man. The only ultimate authority to which they subject themselves is the
authority of rationality and reason. Brigham Young said: “How difficult it is to teach the
natural man, who comprehends nothing more than that which he sees with the natural
eye!” (JD, 1:2).
The Book of Mormon describes this same attitude among a people who
depended solely “upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom” and upon what
they could “witness with [their] own eyes” (Helaman 16:15, 20). Upon the basis of
reason, these individuals rejected the prophecies, saying, “It is not reasonable that such
a being as a Christ shall come” (verse 18). Applying that same attitude, a prominent
professor, at one point in his life, dismissed the Book of Mormon with the assertion,
“You don’t get books from angels. It is just that simple” (“An Interview with Sterling
McMurrin,” interview by Blake Ostler, Dialogue 17/1, 1984: 25).
The apostle Paul referred to the knowledge of these self-sufficient academics as
“knowledge puffed up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob
described the origin and consequences of this attitude: “O that cunning plan of the evil
one! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the
counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore,
their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi
Defining Religion without Revelation
When individuals attempt to understand, explain, or to criticize the doctrines of
Jesus Christ, the practices of the Lord’s Church, or the key individuals in his Church by
the method of reason alone, the outcome is predetermined. No one can find God or
understand his doctrines or ordinances without using the means he has prescribed for
receiving the truths of his gospel. That is why gospel truths have been corrupted. That
is why gospel ordinances have been lost. Their meanings and applications have been
left to scholars who reject the revelations and lack the authority of God.
Those who rely exclusively on study and reason reject or doubt all absolutes that
cannot be established through the five senses. They do not believe in good and evil or
the existence and omniscience of God. They tend to be self-sufficient, self-important,
and enamored of their own opinions. Reason is their god. Intellectualism is their creed.
It may be said of them as Stephen said of the children of Israel who made a calf in the
days of Aaron: They “rejoiced in the works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41). This worldly
worship of self and self-sufficiency is surely condemned by the eternal command, “Thou
shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
For these reasons, the Lord has often called his prophets from among the
unlettered. They are typically unspoiled by the reasoning of men. They are receptive to
the revelations of God. President Spencer W. Kimball explained: “The Lord seems
never to have placed a premium on ignorance and yet he has, in many cases, found his
better-trained people unresponsive to the spiritual, and has had to use spiritual giants
with less [academic] training to carry on his work” (The Teachings of Spencer W.
Kimball, 388-89). The apostle Paul explained this to the Corinthian saints. He told
them he was not going to preach the gospel “with wisdom of words,” because “the
preaching of the cross” was “foolishness” to the sophisticated (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).
But the sophisticated would come to naught, for, it was written, the Lord “will destroy the
wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1
Corinthians 1:19). In contrast, those who placed their faith in what Paul ironically and
with tongue in cheek called “the foolishness of preaching” would be saved (1
The modern manifestation of self-serving scholarship was prophesied by Nephi:
“The Gentiles . . . have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power
and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own
learning” (2 Nephi 26:20).
One example of the difficulty of explaining a spiritual topic in purely secular terms
might be a recent scholarly book on the life Prophet Joseph Smith. This is Richard
Lyman Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.
Bushman, a devout member of the Church and believer in the divinity of Joseph Smith’s
calling, purposefully wrote the book for a secular audience, particularly for his scholarly
colleagues. His book is a remarkable achievement. He was able to communicate
Joseph’s life and achievements in terms that met the approval of his colleagues. Yet, I
personally found myself conflicted, and sensed the author’s struggle, as I read his
mostly secular explanations for the spiritual events in the Prophet’s life. It is difficult to
truly understand Joseph Smith without acknowledging God, angels, and Joseph’s
personal and direct interaction with them.
The integrity of the spiritual life of each of us in the Church is completely
dependent on Joseph’s telling the truth about his First Vision. If he did not, in fact, see
and converse with God and angels, then he was hardly a prophet. Rather, he was a
manipulative and dangerous charlatan.
We do enthusiastically avow that Joseph was indeed a true prophet. But we do
so not because of any secular explanations. We believe wholeheartedly in his
supernatural experiences and in the divine origin of his calling.
I have witnessed, over the years, a few persons of scholarly inclination who have
written articles, given lectures, published journal articles, and organized symposia about
the LDS Church. Their avowed purpose has been to study the history and doctrines of
the Church, to reason about principles of the gospel, and share insights into the
application of gospel principles to contemporary problems. For a few, these efforts
have been less a prelude to or complementary of faith and revelation, and more a
substitute for them. An example of this phenomenon, in my opinion, has been some of
the church members who have participated in the activities of the Sunstone Education
Foundation. While this organization has contributed much to the understanding of LDS
culture and history, I have become less certain of their commitment to the Church as the
divinely restored Church of Jesus Christ and the very kingdom of God on the earth
- Michael J. Preece