Attributes of God: part I

The Attributes of God
Part I: Immutable; Omnipresent; Impassible

Related posts: Omniscience and Fate ; Omniscience and divine learning ; The Fall of Man Part II ; Whence God? Talking about God

In this six part series I explore Mormon conceptions of the attributes of God and compare them to traditional Christian beliefs. By conceptions I mean that Mormonism has no prescribed conception of the attributes of God. There are guidelines but few specifics. We don’t adhere to the traditional belief that God has one essence and three personal distinctions; we don’t accept God’s plurality and unicity. Not in any traditional sense at least. We believe the Godhead consists of three separate persons, each a God. (See Godhead: God or Gods?) Though we believe they share an intimate unity such that they may be spoken of as God, our language is along the lines of social trinitarianism; generally, that is the sense of our unqualified monotheistic language. In the posts comprising this series, when I use the word God in an LDS context it is in this generic sense.

Conventional Christian theology asserts that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. Omnipotent: God has all power, or infinite power. Omniscient: perfect knowledge of all things past, present, and future. Omnipresent: is free from all spatio-temporal limitations. Omnibenevolent: possesses perfect love for all his creatures. While these omnis evoke a sense of awe and wonderment they also provoke very difficult theological questions. If God is benevolent how could he allow wars to happen? or the Jewish holocaust to have occurred? If God cannot be wrong and foreknows history, where does that leave free will? Does God play with his human toys? If the future is as God knows it to be, is he powerless to change it?[1] If God created all things, did he create evil? And why doesn’t he, according to Philip Appleman’s so-called humble advice, “make the bad people good—and the good people nice”?[2] Or is it as Nickles complained in the play J.B., “I heard upon this dry dung heap that man cry out who cannot sleep: ‘If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd, I would not sleep here if I could.’”[3] In a more formal statement, “The problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists” (J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, vol. 64, no. 254, April, 1955).

Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with those questions for centuries. If the answers were easy the debate would have ended long ago. Though the Mormon belief about God doesn’t resolve all difficult theological questions, it accords to the LDS philosopher a straightforward way in approaching many of them. In reading this post it will quickly become obvious that in many ways the Mormon conception of God differs from the traditional Christian one. Yet there are similarities. I hope the reader will realize our understandings of God are reasonable, not irrational, and even satisfying on many levels.

These posts will focus on the omnis already mentioned as well as the problem of evil as illustrated above. These topics are highly interrelated so discussing one tends to involve the others. Each of the topics covered is quite a large subject, so my treatment of them is very pedestrian—which is all I’m presently qualified to do. The point of this blog is to give people a sense of how Mormons think and believe, not to provide polished presentations of theology—not that there are many of those in Mormonism anyway. I have written this series as much for myself as for others.

Immutable; Omnipresent; Impassible
The doctrine of immutability entails that God cannot change. According to the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “To think of God otherwise than as unchangeable is to think of Him otherwise than as perfect.” Any change would deviate from perfection. God cannot be improved or diminished. Moreover, because change exists in time, God must be timeless and eternal. “The notion of eternity follows immutability, as the notion of time follows movement,” wrote Thomas Aquinas. Now suppose God has a physical body. If so, he could move from region A to region B, which happens in time; boundaries can also change in time. Consequently, if God is timeless he must be free from spatial and temporal boundaries. God is therefore omnipresent and incorporeal.[4]

An immutable being cannot change. An immutable God cannot change or be changed. So God is impassable, free from external influences that affect or change him, such as human suffering or petitionary prayer. God is perfectly happy to eternally contemplate himself. The Westminster Confession says “[God is] without body, parts, or passions... immense”—by passions it means susceptible to external influences. The 1905 Catholic Encyclopedia says, “[it is] God’s immutability that prevents Him from suffering” (“Sin”). On this subject Thomas G. Weinandy (author of Does God Suffer?) writes,

God is perfectly compassionate not because he suffers with those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. The absence of suffering in God actually liberates God from any self-love that would move him to act to relieve his own suffering. The absence of suffering allows God’s love to be completely altruistic and beneficent. What human beings cry out for in their suffering is not a God who suffers, but a God who loves wholly and completely, something a suffering God could not do. [5]

What Mr. Weinandy has not answered to my satisfaction is how God’s suffering would diminish his love or make him selfish? He continues,

Michael Dodds has perceptively written that “if it were my friend’s compassionate suffering itself that brought me consolation, then I would be in the peculiar situation of reacting in quite the opposite way to my friend’s suffering from the way that he reacts to mine. For I would be taking some sort of joy in his suffering while he reacts rather with sadness at my own.”

Sadly, Mr. Dodds believes if he were to suffer emotional or physical pain, and his loving friend was pained by his suffering, he would be “taking some sort of joy” in his friend’s condolences. This is rather sarcastic, but Mr. Dodds’ friend would be better off with a new friend. Such empathy does not diminish love nor does being comforted by a good friend qualify as abuse. According to Weinandy, “Suffering is caused by the loss of some good.”

Needless to say, his belief is by no means universal. Dennis Ngien, Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale Seminary, wrote,

If love implies vulnerability, the traditional understanding of God as impassible makes it impossible to say that “God is love.” An almighty God who cannot suffer is poverty stricken because he cannot love or be involved… If friendship means allowing oneself to be affected by another, then this unmoved, unfeeling deity can have no friends or be our friend. (“The God who Suffers,” Christianity Today, vol. 41, no. 2)

And philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote in his spiritual autobiography,

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong…we don't know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.

Along those lines, the strongest argument for the passibility of God is the suffering of Jesus. Paul tells us that “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and to day, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Yet Jesus wept (John 11:35; Luke 19:41-42), was moved with compassion (Matt. 19:36), and pleaded for relief (Matt. 26:39). Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5), distressed and troubled (Mark 14:33). And yet he is one with the Father (John 10:30). Jesus made it clear that he takes the suffering of others upon himself: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink” (Matt. 25:35).

If God is omniscient he knows my suffering. And it stands to reason that he knows how my suffering feels to me. If so, then God is affected by my suffering.

One way around the difficulty of how Jesus can suffer and yet God not suffer is the dual nature of Christ. Christ has two natures, one human (Jesus) and the other divine (God). Christ’s human nature suffers, but the divine nature does not suffer. God does not suffer as God. But as I pointed out above, the idea that God does not suffer is not universal in Christendom. The two natures of Christ is not a doctrine found in Mormon belief. (See The Nature of Christ.)

What do Mormons believe?
Divine immutability is intimately connected to ideas about divine perfection. God is perfect. If God changed he would be imperfect. But God cannot change. He is immutable, timeless, ubiquitous, and impassable.[6] The Mormon conception of deity is that of a God with body, parts, and passions. Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said,

The consequences persist in the various creeds of Christianity, which declare a Godhead of only one being and which describe that single being or God as “incomprehensible” and “without body, parts, or passions.” One of the distinguishing features of the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its rejection of all of these postbiblical creeds. (Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995)

Now suppose God has boundaries; suppose he is corporeal.[7] If so, it follows that he can be in region A at time t, then in region B at time t+ .[8] God therefore exists in time. If God exists in time then perhaps he can change in other ways besides location. Firstly, Mormons do not believe that God’s person is ubiquitous. We believe the Father and Son are corporeal: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22).[9] But what about scriptures that say God fills heaven and earth? (Jer. 23:24.) We believe that God has an organic connection to all things, a kind of spiritual immanence. The Doctrine of Covenants teaches, “[God] comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever” (D&C 88:41; see also Moses 1:6; D&C 93:35; 88:5-13; Jer 23:24). At first glance this appears the same as conventional omnipresence,[10] but conventional omnipresence arises from God’s freedom from all limitations of space and time. The Mormon conception of spiritual “omnipresence” is not related to the everywhereness and everywhenness of God. It simply means an “organic connection with the creation” (see footnote 10). I believe most Mormons would not accept that an organic connection extends to the past and future. Gods connection with creation does not extend to temporal immanence.

Mormons also believe that God’s feelings (and possibly his decisions) are affected by external influences such as human suffering and wickedness, and petitionary prayer. A good example of this is found in the book of Moses:

[Enoch] beheld Satan; and he [Satan] had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness…And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept…And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy. (Moses 7:25-31; compare to D&C 19:16-19)[11]

Evidence of divine passability is plentiful in the Old Testament: “God’s anger was kindled” (Num. 22:22); “the LORD was angry with me for your sakes (Deut. 4:21); “The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (NASB, Gen. 6:6); “O LORD God of hosts, how long wilt thou be angry against the prayer of thy people?” (Ps. 80:4); “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (NASB, Jonah 4:2); “the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14); “I [God] have had a change of heart; My compassion is stirred!” (HCSB, Hos. 11:8). (These passages also imply temporality to God.)

To me this means that God can change in some ways, but also that he possesses essential qualities such as holiness, loving kindness, and mercy. God is ethically immutable. His compassionate qualities, such as love, mean he is passable. We believe, along with our more traditional Christian cousins, that “God is love.” And yet loving a person involves suffering because of the wrong actions or suffering of the one who is loved. I imagine that God’s suffering is analogous to that of a grieving parent who suffers with their suffering child.[12] They would not suffer if they did not love. And yet, because God’s goodness is immutable, because his eternal purposes cannot be frustrated, because he cannot do evil, because he has power to save those who believe in him, we can have total faith in him.

End Notes____________________________

[1] According to David Hume, Epicurus (supposedly) framed it thus: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (This quote is from Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” part 10.)

[2] “O Karma, Dharma, Pudding and Pie,” from Five Easy Prayers for Pagans.

[3] J.B. was written by Archibald MacLeish. It is a modern adaptation of the story of Job.

[4] If God is omnipresent, he must needs be omniscient; but he is omnipresent; this supposes the infinite and immensity of his being, from which follows the ubiquity of his presence; heaven and earth include the whole creation, and the Creator fills both (Jer. 23:24). (Matthew Henery’s commentary on Psalm 139:7-16)

[5] His argument could be problematic to a belief in the Trinity. If God is free from self-love and God consists of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the Father loves the Son, then God is not free from self-love.

[6] Actually immutability does not require impassibility. If God knows all that will happen, and can feel all emotions simultaneously, then he can at once suffer for all sins past, present, and future. So long as the suffering never began and never ends then God can both passable and immutable.

[7] If from the local element entering into the description God's subjection to the limitations of space were inferred, then one might with equal warrant, on the basis of the physical, sensual elements entering into the representation, impute to the writers the view that the divine nature is corporeal (“Omnipresence,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915).

[8] If God is visualized as a nebulous mass then one can believe God’s boundaries can be subject to change.

[9] I have said that God is corporeal, but what I specifically mean is that God has a physical body. Most Mormons would accept that the Holy Ghost is corporeal, but does not have a physical body.

[10] This is something LDS philosopher and General Authority B. H. Roberts (d. 1933) points out.

It may be thought that “immanence” is but the restatement in another form, of the attribute of omnipresence in Deity--simply an affirmation of his every-whereness; and it must be admitted that there is at least a close resemblance if not identity between the two things for which the two terms stand. And yet there is a difference between immanence and omnipresence. The latter means merely the every-whereness of God, “present in all places and at the same time.”

Immanence means that, too; but it means more than that. It means presence accompanied by power; or presence plus power; presence accompanied by doing, or act, leading to manifestations of God’s power. In modern philosophy the word is applied to the operations of a Creator conceived of as in organic connection with the creation…These declarations go at least as far as to establish the omnipresence of God, not of his bodily, but of his spiritual presence. (B. H. Roberts, Seventy's Course in Theology, vol. 5, p. 2-3)

[11] In the Book of Mormon, God gave his prophet Nephi tremendous power (Hel. 10:6, compare Gen. 18:23-33 and Matt. 16:19). When his people become embroiled in devastating wars he pleaded with God to bring a famine on his people to stop the bloodshead and hopefully save his people from destruction (Hel. 11:1-4). After the people relented and the war ceased Nephi prayed that the famine be abated:

O Lord, thou didst hearken unto my words when I said, Let there be a famine, that the pestilence of the sword might cease; and I know that thou wilt, even at this time, hearken unto my words, for thou saidst that: If this people repent I will spare them…O Lord, wilt thou turn away thine anger, and try again if they will serve thee? And if so, O Lord, thou canst bless them according to thy words which thou hast said
. (Hel. 11:14-16)

[12] Some might say that God cannot have human-like emotions, or that it’s more appropriate to say human emotions are a bit like God’s emotions. Blake Ostler has argued that our way of understanding involves what we experience. If we try to speak of God as wholly unlike man then we strip ourselves of the possibility of any understanding of God.

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