Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)


“According to the foreknowledge of God”

The Interpreter has published an article, in which the author suggests a new interpretation for Alma 13, particularly verse 3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

This has often been taken as referring to the foreordination of those ordained to the priesthood, on account of faith and good works in the pre-existence. The author (A. Keith Thompson), challenges this on three grounds:

  1. That this teaching would not have served Alma’s rhetorical purposes in encouraging them to repent, since it would have suggest their unworthiness was a continuation of their state before mortality, and that “unbelieving Ammonihahites were unworthy to receive the priesthood from before the foundation of the world”.
  2. He claims that it was the “worthiness standard” that was foreordained, rather than individuals. He argues further that the manner of ordination is “intended to offer an example of how those on earth should live to qualify for redemption by the Son of God”.
  3. He states: “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin.”

As it happens, I think it’s quite likely that Alma is not referring to the pre-existence when he talks about ‘their exceeding faith and good works’ (Alma 13:3). At the same time, I still consider it very likely that its referring to foreordination, and I don’t think the essay adequately deals with the context of what Alma is speaking about, the rest of Alma’s statement in Alma 13:3 nor this issue of priesthood bars. I, alas, do not have large reserves of time at present to fully engage with this in detail, but will outline some points below:

Alma’s intent

Thompson states:

It is submitted that it is much more likely that Alma2 was explaining that the people of the city of Ammonihah could qualify for ordination to the holy priesthood after the order of the Son of God as had the people of the city of Melchizedek before them.

And further:

he intended them to contemplate how they could repent and live worthy mortal lives so that they could also qualify for the privilege of ordination to the Priesthood in mortality

I believe this both misunderstands how the priesthood worked in Alma’s context, and Alma’s intent on bringing up the topic here.

Firstly, it should be recognised that the modern LDS practice of ordaining every worthy male is just that: modern (albeit directed by revelation). Priests were a minority of the men in the Church in Alma’s time. His father, for example, ordained one priest to every fifty members (Mosiah 18:18), and there’s nothing to suggest that practice changed. Likewise in Alma 13, there is nothing to say that Melchizedek’s people, after repenting, had qualified for or received ordination to the priesthood. The sole mention of them is that they  wicked (Alma 13:17) and then repented at Melchizedek’s teaching (v.18). I suspect here that there may be a projection back of current LDS practice (something I believe I’ve seen with approaches to the Temple too), so that such ordinations are being inferred. But they are not there in the text. There is nothing here necessarily encouraging qualification for ordination, since such general ordination for all worthy males is not on offer (even Alma 13:4, with its suggestion that if some had not been unfaithful “they might have had as great privilege as their brethren” has the crucially qualifier “might”).

Such, therefore, is not Alma’s intent. So what is it? I believe Thompson is right to recognise that a lot of importance is being placed on the “manner” in which the ordinances are given, and right that this is not referring to the physical means or things like sacrifice. I think his mistake is to conclude that the primary intent is that these high priests and the manner after which they were ordained were a type of the believer, “of how anyone might qualify to receive blessings or privileges from God”. Yet it is not Melchizedek who the the people of Ammonihah are being compared to, but rather explicitly his people, of which nothing has been spoken concerning priesthood: “yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was a high priest after this same order which I have spoken” (Alma 13:14). That Alma happens to be high priest over the Church suggests *he* is the one to be compared to Melchizedek, who is preaching and offering repentance. Alma, like the high priests of verse 6, is called and ordained “to teach his commandments unto the children of men”.

Alma goes further though:

Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.

(Alma 13:16)

Thompson interprets this as saying “that the manner in which men are ordained to the Priesthood demonstrates, to those who observe their example, how to prepare for and benefit by the Son of God’s atonement”. But it is not clearly saying this. It is saying that the priesthood is a type of Christ’s order (and is his order), and so its ordinances are given in a way so that people might “look forward on the Son of God”. “Look forward” is repeated twice here, something hardly likely to be coincidental when a major theme of Alma and Amulek’s teaching in Ammonihah, and Alma’s teachings in Zarahemla and Gideon, is the future coming of the Son of God. “Look forward is also used in verse 2, again so that the people “might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption”. It is “types”, amongst other things, that allow one to look forward to their antitype, or fulfilment. What I suggest Alma is saying here is that the priesthood is a type of *Christ*, not the believer. Thus the manner in which the priesthood is ordained is intended to allow people to “look forward” towards the coming of Christ. That Melchizedek is promptly referred to as “the prince of peace” (Alma 13:18, deriving said title being the point of referring to him as king of Salem and reigning under his father) emphasises this by making Melchizedek personally a type of Christ. It is no accident that Alma moves decisively back to the topic of Christ’s coming in verse 21 onwards.

I suspect that there are many ways in which this is the case, and many things which could be considered (and should be). However, one pertinent way in which the manner the priesthood were ordained, under a more classical reading, points forward to Christ is that he too (as Thompson readily admits) was foreordained before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Knowing that Christ has already been chosen and selected, and will carry out his mission as others who have been chosen and selected have done so, provides one powerful way that the priesthood and the manner of its ordination is a type of Christ.

Alma 13:3

Perhaps a minor quibble before moving on to Alma 13:3 proper. Thompson suggests that Alma 13:1’s reference to “the time the Lord gave these commandments unto his children” and “ordained priests” is a reference to the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments, something he supports by noting the reference to “the first provocation” in Alma 12:36. However, while “the provocation… in the wilderness” in Psalm 95:8-11, Hebrews 3:8-11 and Jacob 1:7 are all clearly referring to the Exodus (indeed the latter two passages are quoting Psalm 95), Alma 12:36 refers to “the first provocation” (my emphasis). Moreover, throughout Alma 12 (from v.22 onwards) Alma has been speaking of primordial times following the fall. Thus he specific reference in 12:31:

Wherefore, he gave commandments unto men, they having first transgressed the first commandments as to things which were temporal, and becoming as gods,knowing good from evil, placing themselves in a state to act, or being placed in a state to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good—

While the quotation of 12:33-35 closely resembles Psalms 95:8-11//Hebrews 3:8-11, it is also clearly set – unlike the biblical passages, and Jacob 1:7 – in primordial times. Alma 12:37, furthermore, closely follows Alma’s remarks about the first provocation by appealing for his audience to repent so “we provoke not the Lord our God to pull down his wrath upon us in these his second commandments which he has given unto us” (my emphasis). The term “second” clearly sets these apposite the “first commandments” mentioned in 12:31, namely the commandments given prior to the fall. In Alma 12:36, then, it is the fall that constitutes the “first provocation”.

Onto Alma 13:3:

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

(Alma 13:3)

Thompson suggests that “being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God” is a parenthetical statement, that refers to the manner (which he interprets as “the worthiness standard”), as opposed to individuals, being called and prepared from the foundation of the world. Yet there are problems here. While Alma 13 is a complicated text, the Book of Mormon tends to be much more overt about such parenthetical statements. Furthermore, as he himself admits, “being called” is an odd description of a manner, and while he appeals to verses 4, 5, 6, 8, and 11, stating they refer to an ordination in mortality, it doesn’t change the fact that every one those verses is referring to people being called. It is much more likely that it is “they” who “were ordained” are the object of being called.

It is furthermore difficult to see why “the worthiness standard” would require the foreknowledge of God. It is clear, however, what would when these clauses are not taken as a parenthetical statement, for in this case the verse states that this calling and preparation according to God’s foreknowledge was because of “their exceeding faith and good works”. God’s action in calling and preparing is because of his foreknowledge of the faith and works of those called.

Now, one point where I feel Thompson is right: such foreknowledge also cannot be referring to acts done in the pre-mortal existence. God would not require foreknowledge about those either. This faith and works must then referring to acts in mortality, which God foreknows, and upon which he acts. I agree with Thompson that other verses, such as verse 8, are largely referring to ordinations in mortality. Yet once again the appeal is to God’s “foreknowledge of all things” (v.7). That these ordinations are done in mortality, however, and based on God’s foreknowledge of mortal acts, does not undo the fact that he is acting on his foreknowledge, and that people were foreordained. This isn’t accepting Calvinist predestination, as Latter-day Saints have always sharply distinguished between foreordination and such Calvinist concepts (which is clearly what Joseph Smith is referring to when he speaks of rejecting God ‘foreordaining everything’: God knows, but does not necessarily will everything that happens and certainly everything we do in life. But that is no rejection of God foreordaining people to callings). God’s foreknowledge of how people will act using their agency – and his response in turn, even if chronologically prior – does not deprive men of their agency. Since Thompson freely accepts God’s foreknowledge, he presumably recognises this.

Likewise, that verse 9 is referring to ordination on earth by which they “become high priests forever” does not diminish that those ordinations were foreordained according to God’s foreknowledge. Thompson presumably recognises this, as he admits that at least some have been foreordained to certain callings in mortality, and presumably recognises that the fact that some of those on his list were likewise ordained in mortality doesn’t mean they weren’t foreordained to those callings. Likewise a foreordination does not mean that there isn’t a need for ordination on earth. A proper reading of this passage, then, can easily accommodate both being called and prepared from the foundation of the world (though on account of what God foresees, rather than pre-mortal acts), and being ordained in mortality.

So Thompson is, in my opinion, likely right to question the idea that faithfulness in the pre-existence is the primary basis Alma 13 gives for foreordination. However, I believe close reading of this passage must reject the notion that it’s not speaking of foreordination at all.

Priesthood bans

A final comment about Thompson’s views regarding the pre-1978 priesthood ban. Thompson rightly notes that certain explanations – such as the notion that some were barred because of lack of faithfulness in the pre-mortal life – were disavowed (indeed, his quotes indicate that even some holding to them – such as Joseph Fielding Smith – recognised them clearly as “not the official position of the Church, [and is] merely the opinion of men”). However, Thompson himself appears to go further. He suggests that there is no reason that “believed any of God’s mortal sons could not qualify themselves to receive the priesthood according to the foreordained worthiness requirement” and that “to interpret this passage any other way is to return to the ideology that underlay LDS practice before 1978 that denied the priesthood to some men on account of their race or ethnic origin”.

Thompson’s views are unclear, but he seems to be suggesting that concepts of foreordination motivated such a ban (or the continuation of it, since historically speaking this explanation emerged some time after the restriction was in place), and even more that this ban – or any such ban – was wrong.

The various reasons (and they vary, and are in some cases contradictory) that have been given for the pre-1978 restriction have been disavowed. But a false inference based on ideas of foreordination does not in itself show foreordination is incorrect (especially since Thompson accepts it for some things). Furthermore, while the circumstances for its initiation are unclear, the restriction itself for its time has not. The letter of June 8, 1978, quoted in OD 2, makes reference to ‘the long-promised day’, a concept that loses considerable coherence if such a restriction is held to be entirely due to the faulty understanding of men. Furthermore, setting the pre-1978 restriction aside, scripturally there have been other examples of the priesthood being restricted on grounds other than worthiness. As mention, in Alma’s time priests would have constituted a small minority of the Church. Under the law of Moses, only Levites bore the priesthood. And in the Book of Abraham, Pharaoh “is of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood”, even though (unlike his successors) he himself is “a righteous man” who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days”. For whatever reason in God’s wisdom, and despite his personal righteousness, this man was prohibited from having the priesthood on other grounds. I highly doubt that this man, or non-Levites, or non-priesthood holding males in the Church at Alma’s time, were barred from salvation.

There is no reason to reject the idea, taught clearly in scripture, that God does foreordain people, or to reject the notion that in Alma 13 Alma is discussing those called to the priesthood as “called and prepared from the foundation of the world” (remembering, perhaps, that not all those called are chosen). There is good reason to reject any easy assumptions that such foreordinations, or any of our earthly circumstances, can be directly and easily traced from our pre-mortal conduct which we can easily infer. And Thompson is likely right that in any case Alma 13 is not talking of pre-mortal conduct. But there is no reason to throw out the foreordination with the bathwater.

As it happens, I suspect our circumstances in the pre-mortal life do have a great effect on the circumstances in which God has placed us; however, I suspect that they are so personalised that we have absolutely no way of knowing, from our own mortal perspective, what that connection is. The same circumstance or blessings or deprivations may be influenced by very different factors. But whatever God has in store for us, and whatever he’s based that on, our role of having faith in Christ, repenting and obeying remains the same, knowing that in the eternities nothing will be withheld from the righteous. God, the author of our plan of salvation for each of us, knows us each so thoroughly, both in pre-mortality and in his knowledge and foreknowledge of our mortality, that he is capable of acting in ways that are beyond us, and yet are best suited to personally propel us along the path that leads to eternal life.


“The place of martyrdom”

There’s a rather intriguing piece of wordplay in Alma 14. After being arrested by the authorities in Ammonihah, Alma and Amulek are taken to somewhere the text calls “the place of martyrdom” to witness the burning both of the scriptures but especially the wives and children of those who had believed their words, an understandably horrific scene. Where the wordplay comes in is that the word martyr is derived from the Greek word μάρτυρ (martur), meaning witness. Its later meaning of dying for the faith derived from the fact that many of those who bore witness to the faith in the early Christian period paid the price with their own life:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

(Revelation 6:9-10; the Greek word translated as testimony in verse 9 is μαρτυριαν – that is in transliterated form: marturian)

Which leads us on to Alma and Amulek:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9–11, my emphasis)

Alma and Amulek are lead to this “place of martyrdom” precisely so they can “witness” those being burned by fire. As if to emphasise that this choice of word is not a coincidence, we then have Amulek lamenting that they must “witness” this atrocity, and Alma assuring him that the  blood of those so murdered will “witness” against their murderers when God judges them at the last day (that it is also said to cry also appears to echo Revelation 6:9-10 quoted above).

The immediate and then persistent use of the leitwort “witness” argues against this being a mere accidental choice of words: it is indeed a place of martyrdom, in the original greek sense, for Alma and Amulek both witness the price their converts are paying for their witness, and the crime committed at that place will be a witness against those who persecuted them.

How this piece of wordplay ends up here, of course, is another question. Critics are likely just to ascribe it to Joseph Smith, but I’m confident that he both lacked the knowledge and the sheer time for this sort of thing (in the same way that its taken me far longer to write a chapter examining Jacob 5’s use of the Bible than it took to dictate the entirety of the Book of Mormon). Furthermore, were any human author of the time responsible for this sort of cleverness (and many other such examples), you’d think they’d point it out. They didn’t and haven’t: in fact I can’t find any record of anyone else spotting this.

On the other hand, this wordplay rests on the history of the word μάρτυρ in Greek and its subsequent course in European languages including English. So what precisely is going on here? On one hand, I have been inclined at various points on the basis of this and a few other details to indulge in wild speculations on Greek influence in the book of Alma. But that’s necessarily extremely speculative, and in any case the description here (including whatever meant “place of martyrdom” on the plates) was written by Mormon, hundreds of years later. It should also not be forgotten that the Book of Mormon is doubly inspired (i.e both in composition and in translation), and in the Book of Mormon’s case that inspiration can and does extend to quoting people hundreds of years in the future (see 1 Nephi 10:7-8).

For a more emotive take on this passage, and an understanding as to why Amulek in particular was so pained, it might also be worth considering that there is every possibility that his own wife and children (Alma 10:11) are amongst the martyrs.

But God ceaseth not to be God

I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up: For some recent examples, consider the references to “ultimate reality” being “constituted by moral natural laws as well as physical natural laws” that are “prior to Divine Will” in this interview by Ralph Hancock of Terryl Givens, or in a very recent example, the comment following this article on having confidence in the prophets attempts to disagree with the article by suggesting that there are “celestial limitations” such as “there are physical and moral laws that he cannot break (or he would cease to be God)”.

I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations. I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.

I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. In short, Section 88 is very explicit about God being the source of law for all things, and God’s power being the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). In fact Section 88 appears to be pointing at a very different set of metaphysics than by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate reality. The latter appears to be a simple extension of very common Western metaphysics (as witnessed by those – such as Stephen Hawking – who assert such such laws can entirely explain the existence of the universe, when those very laws postulate initial conditions under which physical laws break down). Section 88 seems to have more in common with Islamic metaphysics than Western metaphysics. We should certainly not assume our culture has gotten such questions right, and we should be very careful about imposing our cultural expectations upon what scripture actually says.

But I believe many of these issues are not just down to importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. While there may be other issues (I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), I think that when it comes to the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” that this is due to the misreading of one chapter in particular: Alma 42.


Alma 42

The influence of this chapter can even be seen in the comment cited above, which paraphrased Alma 42:13 (and 22 and 25) with its talk of God ceasing to be God. There has been much speculation, based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“, that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.

Yet these ideas are wrong. They are, as I plan to show, logically inconsistent, carry implications at odds with what we know of God, His works and His character, and I believe seriously misunderstand Alma’s statements. Above all else, however, they seem to lack a full understanding of what makes God God.


Justice is not a law

Firstly there seems to be a profound misunderstanding in the sense of justice as this eternal, self-regulating, natural law. As previously stated, scripture affirms that God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and sustained by the power of God. If justice, however, has the power to “demote” God, or if God’s power is somehow dependent upon justice, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful that God. God would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one?

Yet there is no sign of such a natural, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given by God. It is God who shall judges us at the last day, it is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14). It is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgement for us, or for Hitler, or for anyone else.

Moreover justice is not a law, in and of itself, but is a moral ideal (though oft-misunderstood). Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). But there can be just laws and unjust laws. Law can be administered justly or unjustly. God, however, gives both just laws and administers them justly. Yet there would be no need for Him to do so were there some impersonal “law of justice”. And if God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?

Skousen’s interpretation is a little different, but has its own problems. His idea places final moral judgement – judgement over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? Yet while God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, Skousen places supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.


Misreading the chapter

Another problem with these interpretations is the way they misread the chapter as a whole. Two points here are worth pointing out. Firstly is the question of who the chapter means when it speaks of God. Many espousing the the ideas I’m discussing seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.

More importantly, however, is the question that motivates the existence of the entire chapter. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn that Corianton doubts “concerning the justice of God” (Alma 42:1), specifically in reference to the punishment of the sinner. This chapter is therefore not attempting to explain (as some have supposed) the atonement of Christ. Rather the question being addressed is whether God is just. The Atonement is used here to explain the justice of God, not the other way around. And this remains the key point throughout the chapter, for in verse 30 Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“. Yet the interpretations offered above would have Alma’s defence of the “justice of God” be the assertion that God is just because He is kept in line by some law superior to Himself. Yet the claims that God is just only because he is forced to be by an impersonal law or that his power is subject to the veto of the rest of the universe are terrible defences. The claim that God is just because He is forced to be is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3).


Logical Inconsistencies

These approaches are also logically inconsistent. To take a key example, it is worthwhile noting the “if” in all three statements – if the works of justice are destroyed, God would cease to be God. It appears then that the works of justice can be destroyed – such is the precondition. But if justice was a natural law, supreme above even God – indeed if He were dependent upon it – this would be impossible. How can God destroy the works of justice, if he can be overridden and demoted by it?

A similar logical inconsistency lies when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above are logically inconsistent on this very point. They argue strongly that God’s power is limited – that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.


What makes God God?

To understand what Alma was getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?

The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of His knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), His wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), His goodness (Mosiah 5:3), His eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), His truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed His mercy (Alma 26:35) and His justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of His character – and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question – would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?

It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because He lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to His “goodness” – His character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of Himself – again a denial of His character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is His goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if He were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if He were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of His omnipotence and omniscience (though He is those, and they are essential) but also because of His goodness, love, mercy and justice. We believe in God as God because He is good. Were He to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

I believe this is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist and in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8). Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal – not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.


There was some disagreement with this blogpost on facebook, arguing that this was mainly an issue of semantics, appealing to the idea of eternal regress of divinity (i.e the idea loosely based on the King Follett discourse that God was made a God by another God, and so on forever), and suggesting that God may embody justice through his choices though it be an independent law. My reply is effectively as follows:

1) Obviously I disagree that this is a mere issue of semantics – ideas have consequences, and semantics don’t usually require counterarguments.

2) On supposed LDS beliefs in eternal regress, I asked for chapter on verse on this. Because the King Follett discouse a) isn’t canonical scripture and b) does not go that far. The KFD cites John 5:19 as its prooftext, which would make the Father’s incarnation similar to that of the Son’s. The Son, of course, being divine prior to his mortal birth. But that whole topic (i.e on a mortal incarnation of the Father) is one on which very little has been revealed, which is precisely why President Hinckley said we didn’t really know very much about it. But even if one grants an eternal regress scenario, it is still divinity that is the eternal constant and any eternal laws are those given by divinity – they are not independent (there’s also the issue that this thinks of eternity as simply time going forever, but that’s an issue for another day).

3) This still leaves what Section 88 says about God being the provider of Law to all things, which is a canonical revelation. Now I’d certainly describe God as embodying justice and mercy et al – in an earlier version of this article I used that very term. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are ideals, and not actual objects, nor make justice a law, nor make it a force *independent* and *superior* to God.

4) Finally there was the suggestion that this doesn’t make any difference. Yet I’ve seen plenty of examples, where people were talking of God being limited, or that there’s no such thing as actual miracles (especially when the BoM spends so much time warning against such ideas) to see that if taken to their conclusions certain ideas can be damaging to faith. Yes, what we need to most understand is that God’s promises are sure. But to know that requires us to know He has both the desire and the capacity to fulfill them.

“Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us?”

I came across the following passage today which made me think:

Therefore, as Aaron entered into one of their synagogues to preach unto the people, and as he was speaking unto them, behold there arose an Amalekite and began to contend with him, saying: What is that thou hast testified? Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us? Behold are not this people as good as thy people?
(Alma 21:5)

The interesting and the ironic thing about the challenge at the end is that the time Aaron saw an angel (and which he is doubtless describing) was when he, his brothers and Alma the Younger were intercepted by an angel as they sought “to destroy the church” (Mosiah 27:10-19). Neither Aaron nor his brothers nor Alma could be described as a good person at that time, and so the angel’s appearance had nothing to do with their personal righteousness.

But it does make me wonder what made the difference – why did an angel appear to them but not the people in this verse. Perhaps God’s knowledge of how they would react played a role? Or perhaps it was the faith and likely prayers of their fathers? And how many spiritual blessings come into our own life undeserved by any goodness on our part, but because of the faith and devotion of others, or God’s extending to us unexpected opportunities?