In 2006 the official Mormon Ensign magazine launched “A series of articles explaining basic beliefs of the restored gospel” entitled The Fullness of the Gospel. Although they cover a lot of big ideastheseideas are contained in the briefest of articles and there is precious little explanation, more description than explanation in fact, and the author assumes the reader will accept uncritically what is written. We will look in more detail at the claims being made, compare them with the Bible, and investigate these things for ourselves. The series begins in the January issue with the following quote:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has many beliefs in common with other Christian churches,” said Elder Dallin H Oaks of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “But we have differences, and those differences explain why we send missionaries to other Christians, why we build temple in addition to churches, and why our beliefs bring us such happiness and strength to deal with the challenges of life and death.” (Ensign, January 2006, p.50)
Mormonism then does not bring what might be recognised as the traditional Christian gospel, but a very different message. This third article (February 2006) addresses the Mormon concept of ‘Agency’.
To a Mormon ‘agency’, or free will, means ‘an unfettered power of choice’. Everything in our lives is contingent upon the choices we make. Even the decisions and activities of God are a response to those choices.
Building on the teaching of our pre-mortal existence, the article says that we, like God, are eternal beings, and that we enjoy the same freedom of choice as God himself, “Agency is an eternal attribute of all intelligent beings”. They define four conditions required for agency:
“1. Laws we can either obey or disobey.
“2. There must be opposites – good and evil, right and wrong.
“3. Knowledge of good and evil;
“4. We must possess an unfettered power of choice.” – McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (1966), p.26.
“We must also be accountable for our choices if we are to enjoy agency fully. The laws that exist must bring consequences…[bringing] blessings from God if we obey them and punishments if we do not.”
Satan is portrayed as attacking this agency by, among other things, encouraging disobedience that can blind and enslave us and teaching us the popular message of ‘saved by grace’ which denies consequences to our actions and accountability. When we use our agency to choose righteousness then God rewards us with more freedoms and responsibilities. They describe a meritocracy in which rewards and punishments follow swiftly on obedience or sinfulness.
On this issue it is easy to fall into the trap of following what you instinctively feel must be true. These ideas would feel right to many people with a homespun philosophy and approach to justice. We must, however, approach these things scripturally not intuitively. It is not about what philosophy appeals to my limited reason but what God says in the Bible.
“Most Christian churches believe God created his children ex nihilo – out of nothing”, they say and this would make God responsible for our sins because he “created us with flaws and weaknesses.” They then assert that God did not create out of nothing, we already pre-existed and God placed us in a world he made out of pre-existing matter. There are several problems here.
Firstly, if anything coexisted with God, matter, spirit or ‘intelligence’, it would be eternal like God and would challenge God’s independence and sovereignty. This is a form of dualism in which God and the material universe eternally exist side-by-side. This would mean that there were two ultimate forces in the universe, God and matter, that something existed apart from God of whom Scripture declares, “In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Col.1:16) “For you created all things, and by your will they existed” (Rev.4:11). How could God be omnipotent if something existed apart from his will? This challenges His lordship over creation, His ultimate will for creation and His glory in creation. How could we know that God, and not another eternal force, is ultimately in control? But this is exactly what Mormonism presents us with, i.e. a ‘Plan of Salvation’ to which even God is subject.
Secondly, God did not create us with flaws and weaknesses. When God finished His creation He declared everything He had made, “very good”. The fall of man, not the God who created man, brought sin into the world.
Finally, and most importantly, the Bible clearly shows in many places that God created everything out of nothing and that nothing in creation pre-existed or was fashioned from pre-existing materials. Before God created the universe nothing else existed except God.
“For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” – Col.1:16, c.f. Ge.1:1; Ps.33:6,9; John 1:3; Acts 17:24; Heb.11:3; Rev.4:11.
Purpose in Creation
To Mormons God’s purpose in creation is that His children should progress to become like Him. This progress is dependent on their adherence to the ‘Plan’ that God has for them and that God Himself followed in order to become God. How they use their agency is key to their progress. The emphasis is very much on the creature.
The Bible emphasis is on God’s glory and makes clear that God’s purpose in creation is for His own glory. He speaks of His sons and daughters, “whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:7 c.f. Ps.19:1). We are further told that God, “created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created” (Rev.4:11). God did not create according to some foreordained ‘Plan of Salvation’ to which He Himself was bound. He created us because it was His will and pleasure.
Agency is one of many ‘eternal principles’ in Mormonism. The idea of eternal principles is itself problematic. The reason has already been stated, i.e. if anything coexisted with God it would be eternal like God and would challenge God’s independence and sovereignty. The problem is compounded by the fact that in Mormonism not only do principles coexist eternally with God but also the God of Mormonism is himself subject to these principles. Indeed, the Mormon God has not always been God but these eternal principles have always been eternal principles. In this God’s sovereignty is compromised since He is a changing being (man become God) subject to unchanging principles!
The article insists that without this principle of agency God is “a deterministic God – that is, one who determines in advance the eventual fate of his children.” The Mormon God acts in accordance with the Plan (a form of determinism surely?) and acts towards His children according to His perfect foreknowledge. “[God] may use this foreknowledge to guide us or even to warn us, but He does not use it to pre-empt our agency.”
“[God] knows what each will do under given conditions, and sees the end from the beginning…He sees the future as a state which will naturally and surely will be; not as one which must be because He has arbitrarily willed that it shall be” – James E Talmage.
There are several problems with this view. One is that it doesn’t free us from determinism altogether or create the ‘unfettered power of choice’ so beloved of Mormons. Rather it turns the tables and causes God’s choices to be determined by our actions, again robbing God of His sovereignty. Another problem is that foreknowledge does not make our choices any more free, it still pre-empts them. If God knows now what we will choose in the future, that choice is already fixed and determined, otherwise God could not foreknow it.
As I sit here writing I might consider the question of what I might do with the rest of my day once this article is completed. Does God know what I will do? Let us say that God ‘knows’ that I will visit a friend but then I change my mind and stay at home. God’s ‘knowledge’ in that case is wrong. But God cannot be wrong because He is – God. And it is not in his nature to be wrong about anything. In which case, if I am to truly have the unfettered freedom Mormons speak of, God cannot know until I decide. In which case God would not be omniscient; i.e. He wouldn’t know everything. But omniscience is part of God’s nature and Scripture declares that He does know the end from the beginning (Isa.46:10) and Mormons agree. If He knows what I will do am I then robbed of my freedom to choose? Are my choices predetermined?
We have seen that God is the all-powerful creator and that all else exists at the word of His command (Col.1:16 c.f.) All that He has created, the Bible says, He preserves and governs according to his perfect will. God is said to “uphold all things by His word of power” in Christ, and “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together” (Col.1:17)
This is called God’s providence; i.e. God’s continued provision of life and order in the universe. If anything existed apart from God then God could not be said to be “before all things” nor that all things hold together in Him. Some things would be self-sustaining. The Bible makes clear that if Christ ceased for a moment to uphold all things then all things except God would cease to exist.
We enter into a world created, ordered and sustained according to God’s perfect will and purpose. Our decisions, then, are already contingent upon the sovereign will of God for His world and for the people in it. It is not a question of whether God “pre-empts our agency”, nor does God “arbitrarily” will our future. This is a gross misrepresentation of the biblical message. God has a purpose in creation, does nothing arbitrarily, and we are not in a position to pre-empt and frustrate that pu
The Bible tells us that God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph.1:11 c.f. Ps.139:16;Jer.10:23). This does not mean, however, that we are robbed of choices. Nor are we absolved of responsibility for our actions.
God is said to “cause the grass to grow” (Ps.104:14); to direct the stars in the heavens (Job:38:32); “makes His sun rise…and sends rain” (Matt.5:45) and yet that does not mean that there are not also natural explanations for these phenomena. God is said to direct – “accomplish all things according to the counsel of His will” – and work through the distinctive properties of created things so that it can be said these things bring about the results we see. God is sovereign and nature is ‘natural’.
In the same way God achieves His perfect ends through the choices and actions of men who make choices for which they are rightly accountable and which can be said to have real effects on the world God made. This is no better illustrated than in the account of the crucifixion. In his speech at Pentecost Peter declared:
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23.
God decreed that Christ would die but men killed him and are accountable for their actions. There is a tension between the sovereign will of God and the genuinely free choices of men that we see in Scripture and that we must recognise. Both sovereignty and a degree of free choice are compatible in God’s plan but God alone can understand and perfectly reconcile them.
We must not misunderstand ‘free will’ however. Our freedom to choose is restricted by natural circumstances, where and when we are born and in what circumstances, as well as by God’s ultimate sovereignty. No one enjoys “unfettered power of choice”. But we are free to choose and remain accountable for our choices. We might distinguish between free will in the sense of being able to do good in one’s own strength and the ability we have to voluntarily co-operate with God’s purposes – or not. But we cannot frustrate or change those purposes.