Sunday, February 01, 2004

Faith, works & causation

Does faith cause good works or do good works come from faith?I ran into this question as I was browsing an evangelical site that was teaching people how to respond to questions from members. I thought I would start under the assumption that both views are scripturally plausible, and focus on the implications of the two ideas, rather than bible bashing to try and convince people of one or the other.

If we take a common view of faith acceptable to both sides, we may consider it to be a correct belief in the power of God to accomplish something. I can not have faith that God will sin, because it is an impossibility. Satan does not have faith in God because he does not accept the power of God. While he acknowledges it he has chosen not to accept the obvious. From some evangelical views, Mormons can’t have faith in Christ because they do not have the necessary interpretation of who he is and what he does. Mormons often feel that many other religions limit the amount of faith people are able to exercise because they are limited to what they can know about God.

Now, as I understand it, the evangelical view is that faith in God will naturally result in the individual accomplishing good works. Based on the previous definition of faith it then follows that (1) if an individual has a correct understanding of God, (2) has accepted God’s power in their life, then (3) the works they do must be good. This line of reasoning fails if it can be shown that understanding the individual has of God is incorrect (the usual Mormons are not Christians type of attack), or that accepting God’s power in one’s life doesn’t mean it has to get used, or show that things done under the influence of God are not always good (I would say most evangelicals would reject this point, some liberal mormons may argue on a greatest possible good). I would, however, say that the Mormons would tend to interpret each step in the chain in a more relativistic way than most evangelicals.

(1) Correct understanding of God

Perhaps this point, as it relates to how faith is used, isn’t stressed as much in Evangelical churches as it is from the Mormon perspective. As far as I can tell from my superficial understanding of evangelical churches, a basic understanding and acceptance of the identity, mission and power of Christ are pretty much what is needed to be born again or have faith in him. Thus, as long as the basic conditions for belief and acceptance of Christ exist, anything that needs to be accomplished through God’s power can,. It is pretty much up to God to decide what happens as a result of this faith. Faith then opens the door to let God affect one’s life with his power. According to my understanding, being party to a spiritual experience would increase one’s knowledge of God. Once we are open to God’s power in our lives, we will continue to have or maybe to recognize spiritual experiences that help increase our knowledge of him before we forget past events. Recognizing these events is enough to open the door for more. God carries you along once you open the door and start looking around and accept what is happening.

From my perspective of mormon theology, I would say that faith, as it depends upon an understanding of God is more linear. Events like being born again do provide opportunities for substantial leaps in the process, but only if people choose to do something with them. Spiritual experiences provide a motivation. From a mormon perspective knowledge about God doesn’t come from seeing or experiencing a miracle, but from doing something with that experience. The difficulty, and I believe the confusion fro the two camps come from the fact they humans can think in the abstract. We can think about something that has not happened as if it has. Hence it may be argued that a physical act is not required. Ultimately though, abstractions have to be based on some initial experience. If they are not, this world can be thought of as a dream world. Existence doesn't matter.

Perhaps an example as a baby illustrates this. I have learned enough to open my eyes. What I see is unrecognizable. I have no schemas to interpret the shape of object, orientation, color, depth, etc. Imagine the whole horizon being a solid color of similar material. There is a light where you are. You see something bright, and reach out and touch it. You come to the conclusion that where things are bright, they are close. You see something dark. You reach out to touch it but can’t. You come to the conclusion that where things are dark, they are far away. Now someone could have told you that light things are close, and dark things are far away, but you need to have already experienced what near and far are for this to make sense. For a mormon, God can tell you anything, but until you have a schema for interpreting what it means, it will be without context, hence without meaning, hence unintelligible. Things become intelligible as you see where they do and don’t apply.


Evangelical doctrinal beliefs are more weighted to an observational approach to knowledge. In specific, knowledge of God can be obtained by a cycle of observation and acceptance. Acceptance can be based on an emotional state, or abstracted action. New schemas are concretized through the power of God. God power – activated through belief – gives the extra impetus necessary for us to rationalize new knowledge about God. Physical actions are a byproduct of acceptance, they are not required before it.

Mormons are more inclined to an experiential approach to knowledge. Active use of knowledge is necessary because emotional or intellectual acceptance is not durable enough. Abstraction of ideas is usually not powerful enough to create new schemas. God’s power is demonstrated when it is being used, not when it is being accepted.

I wonder if the difference could be summed up like this. Evangelical – God open up doors to lets us move. We move. Mormon – We move. God opens up the door as we move. I think this has very strong implications. For mormons it means that we have never really known God. As we move toward him we see more and more of who he is. We are not following a path we are forging it. This makes Christ so important because he has been the one who is figuring out where to go. We are following his path. It is inevitable that in doing something new, someone must go first. For us it is Christ.

(2) has accepted God’s power in their life
I think both religions pretty much have the same view here. The big question is does accepting God’s power mean that something has to be done with it? Does power only exist in actualization or does it also exist in potential?

(3) Then the works they do must be good

I believe this is where the big difference between the religions lie. From my understanding of an evangelical point of view, having God’s power in your life must necessarily cause good works to occur. From a philosophical point of view, for this to occur, the individual in whose life the power is occurring can not make a choice as to its outcome (it is a necessary outcome). If they could, they could over ride God’s power by choosing to use it to do something that was not good. I think most evangelicals would be extremely hesitant to ascribe more power to free agency than to God.

From a mormon perspective, this is not necessarily the case. When people have the influence of God in their lives (usually saying they have the spirit), they do not necessarily cause good works to occur. (the example of satan is a perfect one. He had God in his life in the pre-existence, but obviously didn’t do any good with it – unless of course you view that the existence of evil actually leads to an greater good-a definite possibility) They have the freedom to do nothing, some, or lots of good with it. The individual is responsible for deciding whether or not to use the power of God in their lives. If they do nothing with it, it is eventually removed, if they do something with it, they can get a better understanding of God, and hence are able to use more faith. Now this requires that the agency of man be greater than the power of God. Fortunately there is an escape from this. The agency of man, the choice to use or not to use power and knowledge given from God, is independent of him. This is a point most evangelicals hate. From a mormon perspective, there are things that God can’t do. I think the standard example is can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? Omnipotence is limited to things that are logically possible. For a mormon then an example of a logical impossibility is not being able to choose whether or not to do good works with God’s power. I think most mormon’s would cite Satan’s power as a prime example. If he has power from God (or even just the fact that God isn’t stopping him), then how can he use it to do something that is not good. I think evangelical would use the idea of the greater good to answer this questions, mormons do not need to rely on it as heavily. God has not chosen the greater good. It exists as a result of the way the universe is. The universe exists as the greatest possible good. Does God create the universe, or does the universe exist because God is there.

From this it can be seen that for a Mormon view of the faith work’s debate to be consistent, they must adopt an idea of God’s power existing both in potential and actualization, they must also accept a limit on God’s omnipotence based upon logically possible events. They must also accept the idea the idea that a lack of free agency is a logically impossible event.

From my rather sketchy and poorly informed views of evangelical, for their position on the faith work’s debate to be logically consistent, they must conclude that accepting God’s power in your life means that the act of acceptance either actualizes the power, or the power must only be of the actualized sort. It would also appear that the ability of a person to use God’s power supercedes individual agency. Thus there are no limits to God’s omnipotence.

It is ironic that the evangelical view of God is much more omniscient that what the Mormons feel necessary. This increase of omniscience also tends to go hand in hand with an idea of a more hands on God.