Return to About Mormons home
by K. Codell Carter
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature and scope of knowledge. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no uniform position on the classical issues of epistemology, such as the relationship of the sources of knowledge, theories of truth, and modes of verification, but the superiority of knowing by revelation from God is commonly cited from the scriptures.
The word "knowledge" is used in different ways and has different meanings in different cultures. Different kinds of knowledge may be independent of each other.
The Western philosophical tradition, like Western thought generally, emphasizes knowledge in the sense of knowing facts. But this emphasis may not be appropriate, especially from a gospel perspective. Some scriptures teach that other kinds of knowledge may be more important. Thus, Jesus prays, "This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). This is knowledge by acquaintance more than "knowledge about" (cf. JST Matt. 7:32-33). There are also indications that factual knowledge alone is not sufficient for salvation: "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). At the request of President Spencer W. Kimball, a prophet, the words in a LDS children's hymn were changed from "Teach me all that I must know" to "Teach me all that I must do," because it is not enough just to know; one must do the will of the Lord.
A related gospel theme is that knowing comes from doing. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:17). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, "We cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received" (TPJS, p. 256).
In formal philosophy, "knowing," in the sense of knowing facts, is often defined to mean true belief together with good reasons. In other words, a person knows some statement X if and only if that person believes X, and if X is true, and if the person has good reasons for believing X. The European-American philosophical tradition recognizes two kinds of reasons that support the claim to know: rational argument and empirical evidence. Within the Church these are tacitly accepted as sources of knowledge, sometimes even of religious knowledge. For example, after reviewing the traditional arguments for the existence of God, James E. Talmage observed that some were "at least strongly corroborative" of God's existence (AF, p. 29).
However, there is a continuing tradition, based on the scriptures and reinforced by modern Church leaders, that specifically religious knowledge requires a different and distinctively spiritual source. "We believe that no man can know that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost. We believe in [the gift of the Holy Ghost] in all its fulness, and power, and greatness, and glory" (TPJS, p. 243; D&C 76:114-116). It is widely accepted by Latter-day Saints that gospel knowledge must ultimately be obtained by spiritual rather than exclusively rational or empirical means (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:3). Thus, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no clear counterpart to the Roman Catholic tradition of natural theology.
One of the most suggestive and frequently cited scriptures in LDS teaching makes the point: "And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things" (Moro. 10:4-5). This scripture is usually taken to apply to all knowledge. This suggests that both rational argument and empirical evidence, the two traditional approaches to knowledge, can be either supplanted by or encompassed within spiritual knowledge. Of course, the scripture does not say that knowledge comes only by the Holy Ghost. Yet, within the Church, it is often held that what might be thought of as secular learning, for example, modern scientific knowledge, is directly associated with the restoration of the gospel and is rooted in divine inspiration throughout the world.
[See also Faith in Jesus Christ; Prophets; Reason and Revelation; Science and Religion; Daily Living home page; Education and Work home page]
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Epistemology
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
All About Mormons