The scriptures teach us about the importance of faith in our belief system, but the world does not use faith, it uses logic and the intellect to try to find truth. Sometimes the practice of using logical arguments, even when they are not all that logical, is referred to as a sophism or sophistry. The Lord is not happy when we abandon practicing faith to learn His truths. This article will talk first about what sophistry is then we will go back and look at how the Lord prefers we learn His truths.
The Dangers of Sophistry
For the last 10 centuries Western culture has been governed by religious absolutism. That is a fancy way of saying that we believe that there are moral absolutes, unchangeable values declared by God to exist that apply to all of humanity. What God requires does not change just because you live in a different country and have been raised in a different religion. He expects each person to learn His will and conform their lives to it. That is a form of religious absolutism, the belief that there are absolute, final truths out there, and they should govern our lives. This is why Christians engaged in missionary work, it is to share the absolute truths of God’s laws and blessings with the rest of humanity. This is also why most non-Christian faiths do not do missionary work; they do not believe there are any absolute laws and truths, and that most things are relative.
Sophism was at the heart of the Greek culture even before Christ’s time. Sophistry comes from the Greek word meaning “wise.” Every argument had two sides, and should be able to be argued equally well from either perspective. There was no such thing as an absolute anything. With sophistry everything is relative. Everything depends on one’s viewpoint. No view is more or less correct than another’s point of view.
Those who were great philosophers (philo – friend, and sopher – wisdom, or friends of wisdom) were people like Socrates and Aristotle. They tried to teach people how to think and reason, to search for truth by the merits of that truth. But there were others who earned their living by teaching paying students how to reason and argue. Their aim was not truth, but more paying students. They learned that it is possible to create arguments that sound good, are difficult to argue against, yet are completely hollow and without any substance. Aristotle sarcastically used the word Sophists (those who practice wisdom) as a pejorative or insult to them. The insult stuck.
Aristotle called the nature of argumentation used by the sophists “wisdom in appearance only.” Even among people who did not believe in absolute truths, Socrates and Aristotle could spot faulty logic and tricks of the trade. This was how these men made their living, and some of them were very good at what they did. This, by the way, is partly the basis for our own Western legal system, the concept that it is possible to defend someone who is truly guilty of a crime. The idea behind this system that any argument has two sides, and that truth can only be arrived at once both sides have been explored, is of Greek origin. Unfortunately, this method of argumentation was not passed down to us in its pure form. The sophists of today generally do not seek true wisdom, but seek to use logic and the methods of persuasion to convince and “convert” their followers to their way of thinking. It has become the basis for marketers, spin doctors, apostates, atheists, humanists, scientists, etc. Everything can be argued, painted in the correct light, tinted, and plastered over. Using sophistry as a basis for argumentation these days is more like painting a pretty face on a corpse. The act only hides the death behind the mask. William Cowper in “The Progress of Error” said,
“As creeping ivy clings to wood or stone,
And hides the ruin that it feeds upon,
So sophistry cleaves close to and protects
Sin’s rotten trunk, concealing its defects.”
Desolation of Nehors
Sophistry existed in the Book of Mormon as well. Listen to the arguments of Nehor, Korihor, and others of their persuasion. In Alma 1:3-6 we get our first glimpse of sophistry among the Nephites with the introduction of Nehor. After King Mosiah set up a system of judges to rule the people, instead of a monarchy, Satan lost no time in perverting the teachings that Mosiah had so faithfully taught the people. Here is the account of Nehor’s rise to popularity.
3 And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.
4 And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.
5 And it came to pass that he did teach these things so much that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.
6 And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to establish a church after the manner of his preaching.
Here are the elements of sophistry at work:
1. Instead of the priests, who taught the people the gospel, caring for themselves and their own families with their own labor, Nehor taught that because of their pious works people should support them and care for their needs.
2. Nehor taught that the difficult doctrine of repentance was misunderstood. He used the scriptures to show how the Lord had promised salvation to the people, and he taught them not to fear any punishment from God, for He was a loving God and would not punish His people, but would save them all.
The only way to teach what Nehor taught is to focus on certain doctrines, ignore others, use false reasoning, but smooth arguments and slick specific examples to illustrate your points. Those who have not found firm footing in the doctrines of the gospel of Christ through solid testimonies are easily deceived by such practices, and they are led away from the truth to do whatever wickedness their new teacher feeds them. For their new teacher uses cunning arguments, impassioned pleas, and a promise of an easy path back to God to lure in his hapless victims.
This form of preaching is called priestcrafts. In priestcrafts men are promoted publicly, and supported by the funds of the people, becoming popular and wealthy because of the size of their following. The people are taught to feel good about whatever they do, because their loving God will save them in the end. This is false doctrine and apostasy at its finest. The Book of Mormon tells us later in this same chapter that the death of Nehor did not stop the priestcrafts he started. People saw that they could make good money by pretending to believe what Nehor had taught, and the people seemed hungry to accept an easier way, so the teachings of Nehor spread.
Eventually, those who followed his teachings and would not be reclaimed to the truth, were excommunicated from the Church. There arose great contentions between those in the Church and those who had left the Church to embrace Priestcrafts. In verse 32 of the first chapter it reads,
32 For those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness, and in babblings, and in envyings and strife; wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes; persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness; nevertheless, the law was put in force upon all those who did transgress it, inasmuch as it was possible.
Please note that what is described in verse 32 is not what Nehor overtly taught, but this is what his teachings led to. By removing the witness of the Holy Ghost, and everything that gives us a testimony, like service, sacrifice, prayer, study, covenant keeping, etc., the people devolved from a saved people to a people who engaged in “persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness.” This is what makes people like Nehor and Korihor, who taught after the manner of Nehor, so dangerous to the members of the Church.
The Further Wickedness of Korihor
A number of years after Nehor we meet Korihor in Alma 30. Korihor ramped up the teachings of Nehor by approaching the gospel from a purely academic angle. It is not possible to know the future. If you cannot see it, it does not exist. The practices of the Church are just foolish traditions passed down from generation to generation to control the people and exalt those in leadership. He planted doubt. Doubt was his main weapon. He wanted the people to doubt their testimonies, doubt what their parents had taught them, doubt the Church leaders, doubt the scriptures, doubt everything but their own superiority. Here are the verses from Alma 30:13-18.
13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.
17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.
These people lived in a culture of absolutism. God set the rules, and it is our responsibility to conform ourselves to His wisdom and instruction. It is either that or suffer the eternal consequences of ignoring His wisdom and commandments. Korihor was a sophist. He taught that “whatsoever a man did was no crime.” He taught that since it is not possible to know the future, there cannot logically be a Christ, for no Christ had yet come. He used reason and logic to humiliate and embarrass those members of the Church of God who could not “show” proof of a God or of Christ. Because of his slick arguments and reasoning, even though it was seriously flawed, he was able to seduce many members and destroy their testimonies. Before long they were lifting up their heads in their wickedness, or in other words, they were taking pride in their perversions. They had become shameless in their evil. Korihor made it all seem so “simple” and logical.
The Lord’s Method
Both Nehor and Korihor did the same thing in their preaching. Both of them cut out any use of the Holy Ghost and personal revelation, as well as any use of faith. This alone should give us a good clue as to the importance of these things. Here is a verse from Doctrine & Covenants 133:62.
62 And unto him that repenteth and sanctifieth himself before the Lord shall be given eternal life.
Notice that in order to be given eternal life we must first repent, which takes faith, then we must sanctify ourselves before the Lord. To sanctify ourselves means that we must become pure and holy, which is what happens when we continue to repent and strive to live the commandments and love the way Christ loves. Notice also that I did not mention anything about logical arguments, dealing in facts, taking the easy road in our behavior, anything about abandoning the commandments or about taking advantage of others because of their weaknesses.
God is the possessor of all knowledge, and all wisdom. In other words, He not only knows it all, but knows how, when, and where to use that knowledge to the best advantage of everyone involved with any decision that He makes. And all of His decisions are based on his own laws of love. We have been told that if we want that knowledge and that wisdom, it will have to be revealed to us line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. To those who receive this knowledge and wisdom, and use it for the good of others, He gives more. To those who abuse what knowledge they have, He takes it away, and they live in ignorance and spiritual darkness.
We cannot understand the things of God without exercising faith in Him and in the commandments we have been given. The value of the commandments can only be experienced through revelation by the Holy Ghost and because of the experiences that living those commandments affords us. The more we put the commandments to the test, the more we prove God in all things, the more He reveals to us, and the more sound our testimonies become. This is the way the Lord works. There is no other way to receive the riches of eternity, except to have them revealed to us one piece at a time as a result of our obedience and faithful execution of the Lord’s commandments.
Beware. There are many, even within the Church, who claim to be upstanding members who practice the profession of Nehors, priestcrafts. They tell us they teach Gospel Doctrine class or are former Bishops. They claim to be solid members of the church who follow the prophets. Yet for all their claims, they take exception with what the prophets teach, they use logic and reasoning, church history, quotes, in short, all manner of persuasive arguments to teach false doctrine. The only safety is to be found on our knees and in the scriptures. No matter what we read, we need to take it back to the Lord for confirmation. If it is true we are promised that He will tell us. If there is falsehood there, we will experience the stupor of thought promised in the ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
There are many out there in the Facebook groups, Google Communities, and every other place people meet on the Internet, who have found rich soil for planting doubt and discord among the members of the Church. You will find everyone with an axe to grind or who has lost their testimony, who believes that God has revealed to them, in the temple no less, that their gayness is not only approved, but applauded by the Lord. These all claim to be good, faithful members of the Church. There is only one source to go to when you wonder if what you are reading or hearing is the truth. Seek the Lord through study of the scriptures, the words of the prophets, prayer, and relying on the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. All of them will give you the words of Christ. Attend the temple often, fulfill all your Church commitments. Be obedient.
These are dangerous times, and will get worse. Only through personal revelation will we each be able to withstand the wiles and craftiness of those who are, frankly, smarter than us, more crafty, more slick, more clever than us. The Lord will protect us, but we have to seek truth in the Lord’s own way, not by way of man’s methods. That is what we do when we obey and exercise our faith in His word and His prophets.
Have you ever encountered someone who used the tools of logic to cast doubts in your mind on your own testimony?
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