Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
Omnipotence, Omnipresence, and Omniscience in Mormon Theology
Kent E. Robson
[p.67]Historically, Mormon theology has differed from traditional Christianity in many ways: ascribing to God a tabernacle of flesh and bones, teaching a plurality of gods, denying an ex nihilo creation, asserting that individuals and nature have necessary being, promoting the idea that God became God through a process of progression, and claiming that all nature (including spirit) is material. Given such differences, it is not surprising that most Mormons—at least until recently—have tended not to use terms such as omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnipresence (all-present) to refer to God.
But Mormon scriptures themselves say that “God knoweth all things.”1 The second lecture of the “Lectures on Faith” (which appeared in all editions of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921), regardless of its authorship, stated explicitly that God is omniscient.2 And the official LDS publication, Gospel Principles, reiterated this for Mormons in 1978.3 Certainly such assurances are sufficient for religious faith, but if one hopes to acquire a deeper understanding of God and his ways, he or she must ask if God’s knowledge, power, or presence is absolutely unlimited—if God is in time or outside of time.
[p.68]There are many different ideas of omniscience and omnipotence, and it is important in Mormon theology to decide which concept we have adopted and which we ought to adopt. The scriptures are not self-interpreting and must be approached cautiously and sensitively, for they were given in human language, to prophets who themselves have preconceptions and who may not have previously understood the idea being expressed in the revelation (see D&C 1:24).
Even in traditional Christianity God’s omniscience and omnipotence has rarely been assumed to be total and unlimited. St. Thomas Aquinas represents the theology that Mormon philosopher Sterling McMurrin describes as “the absolutistic tradition” (in contrast to Mormonism’s “finitist tradition”).4 Still, Aquinas did not believe in the total omniscience or omnipotence of God. For example, God cannot know or do (or be required to know or do) things that are not true, that cannot be done, or that are self-contradictory. Rather, God knows or does only those things which “in any way are”5—that is, only those things which can be known or done.
This same point was made by LDS church leader B. H. Roberts, perhaps the most perceptive of “official” Mormon theologians, when he wrote in the fourth-year manual of The Seventy’s Course in Theology that “the ascription of the attribute of Omnipotence to God” is affected by what “may or can be done by power conditioned by other external existences—duration, space, matter, truth, justice… . So with the All-knowing attribute Omniscience,” Roberts continued, “that must be understood somewhat in the same light … not that God is Omniscient up to the point that further progress in knowledge is impossible to him; but that all knowledge that is, all that exists, God knows.”6
We do not limit, in my opinion, the concept of omniscience or omnipotence in Mormon theology, or anywhere else, if we say that God cannot know or do what absolutely cannot be known or done. In fact, this is true by definition. Only those who would make of God an ineffable mystery, a totally other being, incomprehensible and uncomprehended, would suggest otherwise. Some writers may have adopted such views. Even in Mormonism, if O. Kendall White is correct, there exists such a temptation.7 But if one chooses this option, he or she must eschew rational theological investigation because God will be a total mystery. This is not my position.
[p.69]In orthodox Christian theology, Aquinas’s position has become the standard view, and includes concepts which traditional Mormon theology rejects: that God is totally aloof from time; that time is his creation and his knowledge, power, and presence are extra-temporal. For God, there is no past, present, or future. These are human concepts and apply only to finite men and women. As Aquinas says, God’s “knowledge is measured by eternity… . Things reduced to actuality in time are known by us successively in time, but by God they are known in eternity, which is above time.”8
The relevant question for Mormons is whether we should adopt this teaching or something like it as our doctrine or whether a unique “finitistic” answer emerges from traditional Mormon theology. In the past most Mormon theologians seem to have advocated finitism. At present, however, some writers seem to be advancing a more absolutist view. For example, Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote in 1980, “This great God, the Lord Almighty, … is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He has all power, knows all things, and by the power of his Spirit, is in and through all things.”9 To most, this definition would make God boundless in ways that equal, if not surpass, orthodox Christianity.
According to mainstream Christian thought, the only kind of omnipresent being that makes sense is one that is truly, as Paul Tillich put it, “the Ground of all Being” or “all-Being.” Elder McConkie used the term in a different way. He said that God is everywhere present “by the power of his Spirit.” Thus the Mormon view, according to Elder McConkie, is still one of a god who has a body, is located in time and space, and can influence all things by his spirit, whereas the traditional Christian view is one of a god who is only spirit or being and does not have spatial-temporal location.
A similar difference in definitions plagues the Mormon use of the term “omnipotence.” In traditional Christian doctrine omnipotence can be used only when God—as the only necessary, eternally existing being—creates something out of nothing, including all the material elements, all souls, and all moral and natural laws. Everything else is dependent or contingent on God. In this context, God has all power because he can make all things come into or go out of existence. God’s power is not limited in any way. But this is not the Mormon view. For Mormons, God “organized” previously existing [p.70]elements according to certain principles or laws which are themselves independent of him and are to some extent out of his control. What Mormons mean when they use the word “omnipotent” is that God has all of the power that any being can have and that his power is sufficient to save humanity.
Mormon writers who use traditional Christian absolutist terms—such as “omniscience” and “omnipotence”—do not realize the extent to which Mormon theology differs from Catholic-Protestant theism. Such misapplication can be confusing to both Mormons and non-Mormons trying to understand Mormon teachings about the nature of God. But as McMurrin has pointed out, while some Mormons “sermonize with a language” of absolutism, only one view of time represents the traditional Mormon view10—namely, that “God himself is a temporal being with a past, present, and future, a being genuinely involved in the processes of the world.”11 In fact, Joseph Smith’s 1844 King Follett Discourse, while not explicit on time, encourages a finitistic theology. Humanity is akin to God and Jesus Christ, for “God himself was once as we are now.”12 And since we are in time, so also are Christ and God.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mormon theologians Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts both affirmed that God is in time. “The true God exists both in time and space,” Pratt wrote. “He has extension, and form, and dimensions, as well as man. He occupies space; has a body, parts, and passions; can go from place to place—can eat, drink, and talk, as well as man.”13 Roberts stressed that God the son “became man,” that there was for him a “before and after,” and that “here there is a succession of time with God—a before and after; here is being and becoming.”14 Even knowledgeable non-Mormons assume that this is the Mormon position. Anglican theologian Edmond B. LaCherbonnier recently commented, “Mormons also conceive God as temporal, not eternal in the sense of timeless. This idea of a timeless eternity is incompatible with an acting God, for it would be static, lifeless, impotent. If God is an agent, then he must be temporal, for timeless action is a contradiction in terms.”15
In contrast, Apostle Neal A. Maxwell recently articulated a different position: “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 [p.71]seen somewhat more clearly” (emphasis in original).16 Realizing that this is probably difficult for most readers to understand, he explained, “When we mortals try to comprehend, rather than accept, foreordination, the result is one in which finite minds futilely try to comprehend omniscience.”17 Elder Maxwell suggested that God could not know what is in our future unless he is outside of time and knows all things simultaneously. Thus, God actually sees rather than foresees the future and is never surprised by what happens, although we often are. In support of this position, Elder Maxwell relied on several passages of scripture (see 1 Pet. 1:2; Moses 1:6; D&C 38:2; 1 Ne. 9:6; Al. 13:3).
Thus, if God is outside of time, then the past, present, and future are fictions since God’s extra-temporal omniscience demands a simultaneous knowledge of the entire creation. A difficulty with this, however, is that all knowledge must occur co-temporaneously—that is, everything in creation must be occurring at the same time everywhere. While such a position can be maintained, I believe that it is inconsistent with the scriptural claim that God has foreknowledge. One has to decide whether God has simultaneous knowledge or whether he has true foreknowledge. For if God has foreknowledge, there is such a thing as “before”-knowledge and “after”-knowledge.18
One could adopt the view that foreknowledge is only from our mortal perspective but that for God there is no such thing as foreknowledge or foreordination. The difficulty here, however, is again that the scriptures themselves speak of the “foreknowledge” and the “foreordination” of God. As I read them there is no hint that these concepts apply only to humans or to our perspective. On the contrary, some passages of LDS scripture indicate that God is, in fact, both in time and space (see, for example, Moses 1:7; D&C 130:4). The position we are thus left in is clear: we can either assert the simultaneity of God’s knowledge and abandon divine foreknowledge or we can assert divine foreknowledge which in some sense places God in time.19
Perhaps the biggest issue in the discussion of God’s knowledge—whether it is extra-temporal and simultaneous or successive—is the question, Where does such a view leave the freedom and agency of men and women? Are we truly free to choose if God already knows what our choices and actions are? Some writers have asserted that just as a father can predict for his children how they will act and what they will do, so God, who has enormously greater knowledge than we do and who has known us over a much longer period of time, foresees all of our future acts.20
This is a common analogy, yet I believe it is faulty. The fundamental difficulty with it is that a father can only know in a general way based on his child’s current dispositions and personality what that child will do in the future. He does not know when his child will do something, whether that thing will ever be done, or precisely in what way his child’s character will be manifested. In other words, a father cannot know the specific future acts of his child. Furthermore, a father only knows what his child’s future acts will be based on his knowledge of his child’s current disposition. He does not claim to know what the future factors are that may change those dispositions.
If we use this analogy with God, we have to say, in order to make a claim for his total knowledge, that he not only knows our specific future acts but in addition has to know in advance every single influence which could alter our dispositional state and would know these now and simultaneously with everything else known, so that they would not lie in the future from God’s perspective. But if we use such an argument, then the idea of human freedom is no longer coherent, for our apparent choices are not real choices and our freedom of action is only apparent.21
The issue is this: as Mormons we believe in freedom and free agency. In order for me to have freedom, I must have alternatives in my future that are truly open and not just appear to be open. Of course, I could think that I had alternatives when in fact God would know omni-temporally which alternative I would already select. But if it is the case that God knows that, then the future alternative choices I supposed to be open to me are not truly open. They are simply apparent alternatives. So, if God knows my every specific act, then I have no real and meaningful freedom.
The rebuttal is often made to this argument that God does not coerce or cause us to choose one alternative or another, and, therefore, we are still free even though God knows in advance which alternative we will select. I am willing to acknowledge the lack of coercion or force on God’s part. But there is a qualitative change in the argument in moving from a father who is occasionally able to guess in a general way what his children will do in the future to God [p.73]who knows all specific future acts and which are dated and located in time with regard to specific people. There is a profound difference between a father’s prediction and God’s totally accurate knowledge. This latter concept of knowledge is so strong that the analogy with the father breaks down completely. The difference between a father and God can be emphasized by saying that God is never surprised at anything.
In addition, given our free agency, it would be impossible for us ever to say, “We know that God expects us to be here on this day at this time doing what we are now doing, but we are going to reject this knowledge; we are going to attempt to foil God. We are going to rebel against what God knows as to what we will be doing here and now.” For if God is totally omniscient, we must assert that he would know of our rebelliousness at this time and place. Of course, we could then say that if God knows of our rebelliousness, then we are not going to rebel; but then God would have known that also. In fact, it would be impossible for God to be surprised, disappointed, thrilled, exhilarated, or overjoyed with what we do, because he would have known what every one of us would do in every specific action we ever undertake, now and in all of the future. Again, this argument is incompatible with free agency.
If human freedom is compatible with God’s omniscience—and there is no responsibility where there is no freedom—then we must choose which we consider to be more important: divine omniscience or human free agency and responsibility. Of course, one other alternative is to say: It is all a mystery and no one can understand how God can know in a totally omniscient way. But this is not an alternative I personally find attractive, because it seems to me that Mormon theology is commonsensical and rejects mainline Christian doctrines regarding the ineffability, incomprehensibility, and complete otherness of God.
Besides free agency, other Mormon doctrines are also incompatible with God’s being completely outside of time. These include Mormonism’s rejection of the traditional Christian concept of divine predestination; the belief that God experiences joy or happiness when his children obey his commandments or is angry or disappointed when they do not; the teaching that God is a personal being with body, parts, and passions; and the doctrine that we are of the same “race” as God. These, and other, ideas make up part of the very [p.74]bulwark of Mormon theology, and essential to them is the position that God is not above time or space.
It is ironic that at a time when some Catholic and Protestant theologians are beginning to seriously question the attributes of divine absolutism in regard to human freedom, the problem of evil, and other issues,22 Mormons who have not had to address these same dilemmas have begun to use absolutist terms. Mormons who are attracted to terms of absolutism should carefully consider what else they may unintentionally be embracing. They should consistently renounce such attributes or clearly distinguish between Mormon usage and traditional Christian usage. Unless this is done, I fear that absolutism may yet invade and perhaps change the uniqueness and very appeal of Mormon theology.
2. For the history and authorship of the “Lectures on Faith,” see Leland H. Gentry, “What of the Lectures on Faith?” Brigham Young University Studies 19 (Fall 1978): 5-19. According to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, the “Lectures on Faith” were removed from the Doctrine and Covenants because (1) they were never received by Joseph Smith as revelation; (2) they are only instructions regarding the general subject of faith and are not the official doctrine of the church; (3) their teachings regarding the Godhead are not complete; and (4) to avoid confusion on this point, they should not appear in the same volume as the commandments and revelations (quoted in John William Fitzgerald, “A Study of the Doctrine and Covenants,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1940, 343-45).
9. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Lord God of the Restoration,” Ensign 10 (Nov. 1980), 11:50, 51; see also Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly [p.75]Heresies,” typescript in my possession; and Bruce R. McConkie, “The Foolishness of Teaching,” Church Educational System, 1981.
16. See Neal A. Maxwell, “A More Determined Discipleship,” Ensign 9 (Feb. 1979), 2:69-73; and All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979). See also my “Omnis on the Horizon,” Sunstone 8 (July/Aug. 1983), 4:21-22, for additional discussion of omniscience in Mormon theology.
19. For additional discussion of these points, see my “Time and Omniscience in Mormon Theology,” Sunstone 5 (May/June 1980), 3:17-23. See also Gary James Bergera, “Grey Matters: Does God Progress in Knowledge,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982), 1:179-81.