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.
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).
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.