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

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’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

Jacob 4

Jacob 4 is a chapter I’ve gone over a lot recently, as it plays a significant role in my thesis and revising chapter four (which covers Jacob 4-5) took some time. So I wasn’t quite sure what would catch my eye this time around, and there’s so much in this chapter I could talk about: Jacob’s foreknowledge of Christ, and how he explains this, the reason the Old Testament isn’t so clear on the topic (and it is not because of human tampering), the Book of Mormon’s approach to causality (namely that God is not bound by it), and the definition of truth. But there’s a couple of other things that caught my eye this time.

Firstly (and I’m quoting these as they appear in the 1830 edition, because in some cases the different punctuation and paragraphing helps bring things out):

Now behold, it came to pass, that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people, in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates,) and we know that the things which we write upon plates, must remain; but whatsoever things we write upon any thing save it be upon plates, must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethen, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers.

I was struck when reading this by the emphasis placed on the impermanence and perishability of records that were not recorded upon the plates. I think it’s a human tendency to imagine a lot of the things around us as permanent institutions. But most human acts, governments and cultures are so impermanent that they will not only one day fail, but will for the most part be so forgotten no one will know that they’ve been forgotten. Anything that is not rooted in something eternal will fade away and perish, and yet we put so much emphasis on those things. Likewise, it took considerable effort (part of which Jacob refers to above) as well as divine aid to preserve the words of the Book of Mormon for later millennia, yet at the time it must have seemed to some that such efforts were unnecessary. Jacob, however, was blessed with a far longer perspective.

The second bit which caught my eye is definitely partly the result of how it is formatted. I think in previously reading Jacob 4, the potential implications of the passages around it have caused me to read over verse 11 more lightly. In the 1830 edition, however, verse 11 comes at the end of a paragraph, and moreover is a continuation of a sentence from verse 10, so it is clearer to see how it is a continuation of the thought expressed there:

Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know, that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works; wherefore, beloved brethren, be reconciled unto him, through the atonement of Christ, his only begotten Son, that ye may obtain a resurrection, according to the power of the resurrection which is in Christ, and be presented as the first fruits of Christ, unto God, having faith, and obtained a good hope of glory in him, before he manifesteth himself in the flesh.

Personally, I found it a little easier to see this time how knowing that God counsels in wisdom, justice and mercy can encourage us to seek to be reconciled to him through the power of Christ (and how it did for them, even before he appeared in the flesh). Likewise, it’s interesting (and perhaps emphasises elements of his redeeming power that we are prone to miss) to see this described as “the power of the resurrection which is in Christ”. By having faith in Him and seeking reconciliation through Him, we may obtain a hope that we too may be resurrected by this power of His and presented to God in the first resurrection.

2020 edit:

It’s funny for me when I go over these chapters that I’ve made posts on before to note what I spot relative to what I’d already written. Sometimes there’s things that are apparently wholly new to me, and at other times I’ll have a couple of verses in mind that really stood out as I was reading them, and they’ll turn out – like today – to be the two verses that had really stood out to me 4 years beforehand.

This is also a chapter I’ve expended a lot of ink on elsewhere (i.e. chapter four of The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible). There I particularly look at the “stone” texts in verses 15-17 and their connection with what follows (the question of the gathering of Israel, which the allegory in Jacob 5 addresses). I also look at the question of the Nephites knowledge about Christ, in which verses 12-14 are of particular interest.

While I do quote it above, I was quite struck again by verse 10’s “seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand”. How often do we want something, ask for something, when God knows that’s not actually good for us or has something better in store? While he has commanded us to ask for the things we need we must always be alert, I guess, to what his will actually is, and to not insist on our own way but humbly seek to do whatever he’d have us do.

Verse 6 is always somewhat striking:

Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.

… that’s quite a bit of faith. Jacob – true to form – is quick to then speak of their “weakness” and speak of such miracles as an example of God’s grace and “great condescensions” (v. 7).

As mentioned, I’ve spent some time writing about verse 12 elsewhere, but I think it and verse 13 are profound:

And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come?

Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

Verse 12 really underlines what God can reveal to us: for these people, it was hundreds of years before the coming of Christ, but God – whose knowledge and power is not circumscribed by the limitations of time – is perfectly capable of knowing and revealing about things many years hence, as he is about things beyond even the end of the world itself. We should not limit in our minds what God is capable of communicating to us, nor what his warnings or his promises can address.

Verse 13 follows on addressing the truthfulness of prophecy – “for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not” – and then gives a beautifully simple definition of what that truth can encompass: “wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be”. Compared to a lot of the academic wrangling over the subject (and of course increasingly it’s fashionable to deny the existence of objective truth), this statement comes as something clear and refreshing. Truth is things as they really are (no matter what we might think them to be) and as they really will be.

1 Nephi 9

1 Nephi 9 is another piece of editorial commentary by Nephi. In my thesis I briefly look at how the Book of Mormon really consists of a number of layers, with things like sermons or Lehi’s vision embedded in a narrative, but that the narrative itself is almost punctuated by the narrators such as Nephi or Mormon (who, incidently, wrote most of the Book of Mormon; a pet peeve of mine is when people quote something from the book of Alma and fail to realise it is Mormon who is speaking).

Anyhoo, what caught my eye today was the following:

Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.
But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.

1 Nephi 9:5-6

Nephi was obviously commanded to make the small plates for a good reason, but that reason (the 116 missing pages) lay thousands of years in the future. Obviously that says a lot about God’s omniscience, but Nephi never knew that reason. Likewise the Lord often has us doing things for reasons that appear unfathomable. And that can be uncomfortable, especially when stuff happens that appears to make what we want or what we think the Lord wants further away.

I have to confess that while I’ve gained an appreciation for the hymn Lead Kindly Light in the last decade, I’m not at the stage where I can bring myself to say “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Because I often still find myself wanting to see the distant scene, wanting to know how everything fits in, wanting to know that I haven’t irreversibly messed up and that there is still hope. But I gather, both from scriptures like this and my own experience, that often God wants something different. What He wants is for us to obey Him, to keeping taking those single steps into the darkness, trusting in his power and that all His actions are “for a wise purpose in him”, even if we know it not.

2020 Edit:

There is something about the way that Nephi says “And all these things did my father see, and hear, and speak, as he dwelt in a tent, in the valley of Lemuel” in the 1st verse, that tickles at my mind so that I am sure more could be read from that, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s worthwhile noting, however, that Nephi has explicitly given us an abbreviated account:”…and also a great many more things, which cannot be written upon these plates”.

As I mentioned in writing the original post, Nephi’s narratorial interruption here is linked to the creation of the small plates (which hasn’t actually happened yet at this point of the narrative, but is what we are reading from), which of course was in anticipation of the episode of the missing 116 pages, which as I’ve written about elsewhere is one of the most defining examples of God’s omniscience and what might be termed foreknowledge of all things. As I noted originally, Nephi isn’t let into any of this, however (“which purpose I know not”, verse 5). We sometimes think of the gospel answering questions, and it does indeed answer to a degree some of the biggest questions in life, but very often the gospel will ask things of us, as the Lord asks Nephi, to do things we’re not in a position to understand yet, and may never be in this life, which reminds me of a Harold B. Lee quote:

It is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give us courage through faith to go on in the face of questions to which we find no answer in our present status.

It’s also worth thinking about how – while he did not know it, and had no way of working it out – Nephi’s actions were to have pivotal influence 2,400 years later. We don’t know the future influence and role of our own actions, especially those that we have been inspired to do but which seem to be having little effect on the present.

Speaking of God’s omniscience, however, the last verse really caught my eye again, not for addressing the fact of his omniscience, but address why it is important for us to know and/or believe that he is:

But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.

(1 Nephi 9:6, my emphasis)

We we may not understand his omniscience (although I think episodes like this can be very illustrative), but it’s important to know/believe because it is tied to his capacity to perform his works and to fulfil his words, including his promises to us. If he did not know “all things from the beginning”, there’d be a chance he’d gotten things wrong, a chance that his promises wouldn’t come true. But he does, and so there isn’t. And so, to quote a revelation from the end-point of the saga of the small plates and 116 missing pages, because of God’s knowledge of all things:

The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.

(Doctrine & Covenants 3:1)

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 judgment 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 judgment – judgment 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.

Edit:

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.

Meeting the Challenges of Today – Neal A. Maxwell

But make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; in the months and years ahead, events will require of each member that he or she decide whether or not he or she will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions (see 1 Kings 18:21).

It may well be, as our time comes to “suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41), that some of this special stress will grow out of that portion of discipleship which involves citizenship. Remember that, as Nephi and Jacob said, we must learn to endure “the crosses of the world” (2 Nephi 9:18) and yet to despise “the shame of [it]” (Jacob 1:8). To go on clinging to the iron rod in spite of the mockery and scorn that flow at us from the multitudes in that great and spacious building seen by Father Lehi, which is the “pride of the world,” is to disregard the shame of the world (1 Nephi 8:26–27, 33; 11:35–36). Parenthetically, why—really why—do the disbelievers who line that spacious building watch so intently what the believers are doing? Surely there must be other things for the scorners to do—unless, deep within their seeming disinterest, there is interest.

Thus foreordination is clearly no excuse for fatalism or arrogance or the abuse of agency. It is not, however, a doctrine that can simply be ignored because it is difficult. Indeed, deep inside the hardest doctrines are some of the pearls of greatest price. The doctrine pertains not only to the foreordination of the prophets, but to each of us. God—in his precise assessment, beforehand, as to those who will respond to the words of the Savior and the prophets—is a part of the plan. From the Savior’s own lips came these words: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” (John 10:14). Similarly the Savior said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). And further in this dispensation, he declared, “And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts” (D&C 29:7).

It does no violence even to our frail human logic to observe that there cannot be a grand plan of salvation for all mankind, unless there is also a plan for each individual. The salvational sum will reflect all its parts. Once the believer acknowledges that the past, present, and future are before God simultaneously—even though we do not understand how—then the doctrine of foreordination may be seen somewhat more clearly.

There are clearly special cases of individuals in mortality who have special limitations in life, which conditions we mortals cannot now fully fathom. For all we now know, the seeming limitations may have been an agreed-upon spur to achievement—a “thorn in the flesh.” Like him who was blind from birth, some come to bring glory to God (John 9:1–3). We must be exceedingly careful about imputing either wrong causes or wrong rewards to all in such circumstances. They are in the Lord’s hands, and he loves them perfectly. Indeed, some of those who have required much waiting upon in this life may be waited upon again by the rest of us in the next world—but for the highest of reasons.

Properly humbled and instructed concerning the great privileges that are ours, we can cope with what seem to be very dark days and difficult developments, because we will have a true perspective about “things as they really are,” and we can see in them a great chance to contribute. Churchill, in trying to rally his countrymen in an address at Harrow School in October of 1941, said to them:

Do not let us speak of darker days; let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days

Full talk found here. Link thanks to Daniel Peterson’s blog here.