The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Since the topic has come up in correspondence, and some things I’m writing (both for a book and for this blog), I happened to come across this article in my reading, and thought it was good enough that I wanted to share it: “The Omniscience of God” by Roger Terry.

I wanted to share it, however, not just for what it addresses about God’s omniscience and relationship to time (though those are very worth reading), but also for some profound points it makes at the end, some profound points that I think often get overlooked in such debates:

Thus far we have talked about God’s omniscience primarily in the sense that He sees everything and has all information present before Him. But all the knowledge in the universe would not make our Heavenly Father a perfect or even helpful God without His other attributes, such as love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, and kindness. One attribute in particular that enables Him to use His infinite knowledge to bless His children is His wisdom. Wisdom is actually an important aspect, or product, of God’s knowledge. Wisdom, we might say, is knowing how to apply knowledge correctly. Thus, because He has perfect wisdom, God always knows which choice will create the greatest eternal good for His children. His wisdom prevents Him from ever misapplying His knowledge, as we imperfect mortals often do.

President Marion G. Romney, First Counselor in the First Presidency, wrote:

‘Since knowledge is an “acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts”; and “wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts; especially in their practical” application “to life and conduct,” it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and is dependent upon knowledge.
The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to his knowledge. Speaking of God’s plan for the salvation of men, Lehi says, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). Thus, . . . God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things.’

Certainly, His wisdom is a product of His knowledge, but it is also a product of His goodness, for knowledge alone does not automatically produce wisdom. Lucifer had great knowledge, but that knowledge did not lead to wisdom. Indeed, Lucifer’s unwise choices prevented him from attaining greater knowledge. It is God’s perfect knowledge combined with His perfect goodness that makes His perfect wisdom a reality. And because God has perfect wisdom to apply His perfect knowledge, He is able to perform His work and enjoy the associated glory in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

In debates about omniscience and omnipotence, it should be remembered that while these are necessary qualities for God to do all that he promised and for us to have confidence in him, they are not all that defines or characterises God. We likewise should not forget his love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, kindness and his wisdom.

Read the whole article at The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Mosiah 2

Several passages stood out to me today.

Firstly, in verse 9:

And these are the words which he spake and caused to be written, saying: My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.

I was struck by the force of this earnest appeal. The Gospel and the Scriptures are not something that we can simply sit back and engage with cognitively, and hope to understand. Nor is it something we can simply live without giving too much thought to it. To understand and to follow the gospel requires us to use all our faculties: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. We can perhaps paddle in the scriptures, seeking only that which we already know or live, without rising to the challenge and deploying everything we are and possess to comprehending them and making them a part of ourselves. King Benjamin’s appeal neatly addresses that.

Secondly, in verse 21:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

This is a very clear statement that we can’t earn anything from God; we cannot put ourselves in credit with him. Which is a basic but most powerful truth that we may sometimes lose sight of. But what stood to me today was twofold. On one hand, the statements that he is “preserving you from day to day” and “supporting you from one moment to another” gain in significance when we think of these things in the light of what Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants has to teach us about how the power and influence of God is continually extending life and light and law to all things. Were that influence to stop or be paused for any reason, our very elements would devolve into chaos.

On the other hand, I have a renewed personal appreciation of this verse. As alluded to on some other posts, I’ve been experiencing some health challenges lately, which came as a surprise after not needing see a doctor in 14 years. Earlier this year I had a case of flu which became quite serious, and for the first time in my life, really found it difficult to breathe, something I had hitherto taken for granted. But I remembered this verse, about the Lord “lending you breath”, and felt a renewed appreciation for the times in my life I could breathe. Of course, who knows what else I take for granted, but which others struggle with, and which is ultimately a gift or loan from God. For as this chapter also states in verse 25:

Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him that created you.

Everything we have is his.

Mosiah 1

As always, these posts are not, and do not claim to be, exhaustive overviews of the chapters in question, but simply a reflection of what I happen to pick up or think upon as I am personally reading them. Sometimes that ends up being quite a bit, like last time, and sometimes its quite brief, like today. That’s not a reflection on the chapter itself, simply of what impinged on me during my reading.

As it happens, it was actually the very first verse that made the most impact on me today:

And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people who belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days.

This life often isn’t easy, and it isn’t meant to be easy. While the gospel ultimately offers happiness, we’re not promised continual happiness in this world. We need at times to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:23), to truly follow Christ and be glorified with him we also need to suffer with him (Romans 8:17), and then there’s simply the trials attendant to living in a fallen world surrounded by other people who have agency too. This life is often unfair, as Christ himself – who received a death sentence due to false witnesses and a corrupt court – could tell us.

Yet while it is important to bear these things in mind, and not have false expectations that living the gospel should bring ease, I believe it’s also important not to go the other way. This life often isn’t one of unremitting trial. Lehi and family experienced trials crossing the wilderness and the great deep, but found sanctuary at Bountiful in between. King Benjamin here has had to deal with foreign invasion and internal sedition, and the peace that followed came at the cost of great effort on his part and the part of the prophets (Words of Mormon 16-18), but he did get to experience peace. Those moments do come, the oases of life do exist, even if sometimes they can feel so remote and hard to come by.

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

Jarom

Re-continuing this oft-paused and oft-begun series, some observations on my personal reading of Jarom.

I often get the sense that the small, single-chapter books like Jarom and Omni tend to get overlooked between the longer and more notable books of Jacob and Mosiah. Enos tends to get a bit more notice, because of the strong narrative core of Enos’ own search for spiritual succour, but Jarom and Omni are not so striking. Omni I’ve already written about, but one thing I didn’t mention is that I think it’s pretty easy for people to glance over it as much of it is this succession of record-keepers adding their own imprint. My impression there is that – understandably – attention is drawn instead to the brief account of Mosiah that forms the latter half of that book/chapter and verses like 26, which for some reason I did not quote:

And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved.

In my brief reflection on that book, however, hopefully it was clear that I think one can do some reading between the lines on the first section, that there’s still stuff we can learn. In particular I noted that one of the record keepers, Abinadom, claimed to know of no revelation than what was written. This was, I noted, a contrast to what is said in this book, where Jarom states in verse 4:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

One lesson being that – if we are not stiffnecked and have faith – we too can and ought to have communion with the Holy Spirit and have revelations.

But all this I have spoken about before, which I guess takes me to what really caught my eye reading this book/chapter today, in verse 2:

And as these plates are small, and as these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites, wherefore, it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.

I guess a question that sticks with me is whether Jarom was right? He was labouring under logistical limitations (he mentions here, and also at the end of the chapter in verse 14 that he was working with limited space). But he likewise seems influenced by the thought that there’s little he could write that others have not already written about, and perhaps better. He’s not in the same situation as some of those in Omni: he receives revelations and he knows of many who do, but he’s not sure about writing them for a wider audience.

This speaks to me because it’s a thought I often have, not about revelations, but about writing things in general. One reason I maintain this blog is I often feel driven to write about certain things, including gospel topics. There are several book projects I am working on because of the same feeling. But I also often wonder if its worth writing them? Have others written about the same things, but in a better way? Even if well written, will anyone read them considering the deluge of written material that’s out there? The very tagline of this blog is taken from Ecclesiastes 12:12: ‘… of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Even then: prior to the invention of printing, prior to the invention of paper, there were those who felt that in some respects there were simply too many books. I do wonder what the preacher would make of now, where one can find a positive mountain full of stuff appear every day, at least some of which probably shouldn’t.

But on the other hand, the Preacher clearly didn’t feel that nothing should be written, or Ecclesiastes itself would not exist. Indeed, when we read all of Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, we get a better understanding of what he was saying:

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

There are indeed many books, and one might weary out the flesh trying to keep up with them, but what the Preacher was counselling was to seek out the words of the wise, to be selective in that reading and pick rightly. Counsel that’s probably even more relevant today, when anyone can publish (including me), than it was back then.

But back to Jarom’s dilemma, I’m not sure I even have an inkling of an answer. I can certainly empathise with that feeling, since I’ve felt it, and I think it’s all the keener when one is talking about writing sacred things, as he most especially is. If space were limited, would he writing more risk us missing Omni 1:26? But aside from any immediate logistical issues God clearly felt that further writings after Enos was useful, since he continued to inspire prophets to write. Perhaps there is something Jarom could have shared, that perhaps he might take for granted, or feel that others wrote better, but which in his words could reach some people better than others’ words would have? Something to ponder about, I guess.

 

Printed Book of Mormons for Journaling now publicly available at cost

Last year in response to queries by a friend, I created a PDF of a wide-margin Book of Mormon, prepared from the Project Gutenberg public domain text, with the intention that people, particularly members of the Church, could print and bind this file as desired so that they could have a copy of the Book of Mormon text suitable for journaling and other such projects. I produced this in both A4 and A5 formats, and the files are available to download on the linked page.

At the time, I also used Lulu to produce my own printed copies, as seen below:

IMG_20180804_104640655IMG_20180804_104417273

After due consideration, these printed copies are now publicly available from Lulu, and are sold at cost. I’m always anxious about such things (so I don’t make any money from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible either), but particularly for this project, I wanted it to be clear that this is on a completely non-commercial basis. The PDFs remain available and as public domain may be freely copied, shared, and printed without restriction, so if you want to create your own printed copies with snazzier covers you may of course do so. But if you simply want to get a printed copy without dealing with PDFs and printers, this is now the easiest option.

The A4 version is available here: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-book-of-mormon-for-journaling/23178941

The A5 version is available here: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-book-of-mormon-for-journaling-a5/23179482

The text is of course identical to the downloadable PDFs. It was prepared from the public domain Project Gutenberg text, which follows the 1981 LDS edition but without copyrighted materials such as chapter headings, footnotes and so on (book headings, where part of the original 1830 text – and presumably the plates – are of course included). As a disclaimer, this work is not officially endorsed or distributed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (though hopefully its not displeasing), and I of course am not laying any claim to ownership of the text.

2019 Re-issue

It’s been almost two years since I published my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. Since that time I’ve become aware of a few niggling errors. None of these were major, but they were annoying, so I’ve taken the opportunity to fix these and republish the book in all formats. The new version is available as a PDF from this blog, in paperback and kindle versions on Amazon (and Amazon.co.uk et al), and in hardback form from Lulu (with expanded distribution for the latter available shortly). Once again, the prices are set at cost, or in the case of the Kindle version as low as I can get them (and any royalties from the latter, as little as they are, will be donated).

The errors are minor enough that if you already have a copy, I would not suggest replacing it. Aside from typos (of which there were not many, and the majority of which had already been fixed), the two most consequential differences are the following:

On p. 331  in chapter five (p. 333 in 2017 hardback & all 2019 editions, due to additional blank pages), 3 Nephi 21:21//Micah 5:15 is quoted as ‘And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.’ This has been corrected in the 2019 printings to ‘And I will execute vengeance <in anger> and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.’ Micah 5:15 includes the phrase ‘in anger’ which is not found in 3 Nephi 21:21, and this is now properly indicated in triangular brackets.

On p. 406 in appendix one (p. 410 in hardback & 2019 editions), the word cities in verse 9 of 2 Nephi 15//Isaiah 5 should be in bold, as it is not found in the KJV. Again, this is now properly displayed.

One other superficial change is that the paperback’s cover has had to change! The original was produced via Createspace, but this has since merged with Kindle Direct Publishing. Unfortunately, their cover creation tools are incompatible, so the old cover was lost. Which is a shame, as I quite liked it, but hopefully the new one will be serviceable, and we learn by doing.