Saturday, January 14, 2012

Our Agency, God's Foreknowledge and Omniscience

Beginning January 1st, I undertook another reading of The Book of Mormon from cover to cover. This morning I finished Helaman. I am reading from a worn copy of the original edition. The old Reorganized Church publishes it, and it can be obtained at Deseret Book if you're inclined to follow my lead.

The reason I love reading from the original text is that it reads like a long novel. There are very few chapter breaks, no verses, no footnotes and the typesetter at Grandin Press in Palmyra was the one who provided what punctuation there is. Many, many misspelled words can be observed in the original, grammatical errors and long run-on sentences abound. The familiar words flow freely, however, tumbling off the pages into one's brain with ease. The long narration flows as it fell originally from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith onto the transcript pages written primarily by Oliver Cowdery. You can almost sense those two at work in the room with you as you read. Here's but one example:

"And the angel of the Lord said unto me, Thou hast beheld that the Book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew, it contained the plainness of the Gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God; wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity, unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God; and after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles; behold, after this, thou seest the foundation of a great and abominable church, which is the most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the Gospel of the Lamb, many parts which are plain and most precious; and also, many Covenants of the Lord have they taken away; and all this have they done, that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord; that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, thou seest that after the Book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the Book, which is the Book of the Lamb of God; and after that these plain and precious things were taken away, it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity; and thou seest because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the Book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God; and because of these things which are taken away out of the Gospel of the Lamb, an exceeding great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them; nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations upon the face of the land, which is choice above all other lands, which is the land which the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father, that his seed should have, for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which is among thy brethren; neither will he suffer that the Gentiles shall destroy the seed of thy brethren; neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that state of awful woundedness which thou beholdest that they are in, because of the plain and most precious parts of the Gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, whose formation thou hast seen; wherefore, saith the Lamb of God, I will be merciful unto the Gentiles, unto the visiting of the remnant of the House of Israel in great judgment."

One long paragraph, and all one long sentence. That's the way 1 Nephi 13:24-33 was rendered in the original edition. The careful student when comparing today's version with the original will see a host of changes in capitalization, grammar, punctuation, even in the wording. So the next time you are tempted to tell a non-member investigator there are very few changes from the original text into today's version, be careful and hold your tongue. I wish I had a dime for every time I'd said that as a young missionary before I actually made the side-by-side comparison.

I may have come to a point in my life now where I prefer reading the original version more, for all the reasons stated above and more. Critics of the book will tell you they are skeptical because surely God could render a perfect translation in perfect prose and punctuation with grammatically sound language construction. However, I counter the original text gives authenticity to the story of its origins.

It came through an unlearned boy, and the imperfections in syntax, grammar and the total lack of punctuation is precise and compelling evidence that God used weak men to translate the dictated record and write it all down with a quill pen on scraps of paper. The flaws are those of men (including the type setter and the printer) as well as the translator and the scribe. That we have the record at all is a miracle because of the painstaking ancient engraving on plates of gold, the careful custody, and the generations of preservation. That we have it as nearly perfected today as it can be despite the errors of men is practically unthinkable. To say Joseph Smith produced it on his own, given the accounts of how it came forth, is impossible.

Reading the original text is a thrilling periodic interlude to other readings of the book in the modern edition. The "voices" of the various authors compiled and abridged by Mormon are distinct and easily discerned. There is little to impede a rapid read through the contents. Even Isaiah flows easily and fluidly in the original, rather than being so "difficult" in editions where it is highlighted and stands segregated from the rest of the text, giving rise to the normal sighs of agony for readers who encounter the usual barriers in their minds about how hard he is to understand.

I've had reinforced again how many times the words "eternal life" pop out at me, and how consistently the phrase is synonomous with "saved" and "salvation."

This additional observation: Not all the pages of The Book of Mormon are "doctrinally drenched," as Elder Neal A. Maxwell used to say. In truth, my least favorite part in the book is the war chapters at the end of Alma. Not much doctrine there.

One of the pleasant remembrances this time through is the recurring reality of the existence of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. It is Jacob, younger brother of Nephi, who first introduces us to the title "Christ" in the book. (See Jacob 1:4). Prior to that reference, other titles like Redeemer, Messiah, and Savior are used by Nephi. There is nothing more basic in their writings than this: God is omniscient. "O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it." (2 Nephi 9:20).

We often accept this simple truth on its face without thinking through the implications, however. It is fundamental to our understanding of God and how He intersects in our lives through His foreknowledge and our foreordination to certain gifts and mortal missions. Because His love for us individually and collectively is ever-present and never-ending, our growth, purification and sanctification would not be possible absent His omniscience about the atoning sacrifice of His Son. How could He succor us without knowing the eventual outcome in our struggles, and how could we petition for His help and sustaining influence if we did not believe He would understand, lead and guide us to the finish line?

Joseph Smith
The Prophet Joseph Smith in his Lectures on Faith stated God is perfect in the attributes of divinity. A primal attribute He possesses in absolute perfection is knowledge. We learn, ". . . seeing that without the knowledge of all things, God would not be able to save any portion of his creatures; for it is by reason of the knowledge which he has of all things, from the beginning to the end, that enables him to give that understanding to his creatures by which they are made partakers of eternal life; and if it were not for the idea existing in the minds of men that God had all knowledge it would be impossible for them to exercise faith in him." (Lecture 4:11).

In another Lecture, Joseph Smith revealed, "God is the only supreme governor and independent being in whom all fullness and perfection dwell; who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient." (Lecture 2:2).

Elder Marion D. Hanks
If the scriptures are true (and they are true), when we refer to the Son of God as "Alpha and Omega," a God who knows the end from the beginning, does that fact not presuppose He knows everything about the "in between" details too? I loved the phrase Elder Marion D. Hanks used, when he referred to our "muddling through the middle." That's where we are today, as individuals, as a nation that has lost its way momentarily, and as a world blinded by the abundant satanic influences surrounding and permeating mankind.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell
I loved this observation by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, because nobody can say it quite as well as he: "Below the scripture that declares that God knows 'all things' there is no footnote reading 'except that God is a little weak in geophysics!' We do not worship a God who simply forecasts a generally greater frequency of earthquakes in the last days before the second coming of His Son; He knows precisely when and where all these will occur. God has even prophesied that the Mount of Olives will cleave in twain at a precise latter-day time as Israel is besieged. (Zechariah 14:4.)" (Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, 7).

Look at these samples from the scriptures, illustrating our Heavenly Father's omniscience (this is Elder Maxwell's list among many that could be compiled):

"The Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all." (1 Chronicles 28:9).

The Lord's "understanding is infinite." (Psalm 147:5).

"Now we are sure that thou knowest all things." (John 16:30).

"The Lord knoweth all things which are to come." (Words of Mormon 1:7).

Job asked, "Shall any teach God knowledge?" (Job 21:22).

Alma described God's "foreknowledge" of all things and said also that God "comprehendeth all things." (Alma 13:3; 26:35).

Helaman wrote, "Except he was a God he could not know of all things." (Helaman 9:41).

The Lord said He "knoweth all things, for all things are present" before Him. (D&C 38:2).

We read, too, that "all things are present with me, for I know them all." (Moses 1:6).

So in the momentary agony of our moments of doubt and fear, isn't it just possible we can each bend our will a little more to conform more fully with His? He will always bow beneath the rod of the moral agency we have been granted, but when we bow beneath the rod of our afflictions and our trials, sore as they may be, can we not believe He will be there to meet us, guide us and give us the inspiration needed in the moment to help us overcome.? Of course we can.

His knowing does not dictate nor undercut our doing. But in His knowing there can be revelation to inspire our doing.

There is a very real veil of forgetfulness between us and God. Elder Maxwell offers these insights about what may happen without that insulating veil:

"Without the veil, for instance, we would lose that precious insulation which keeps us from a profound and disabling homesickness that would interfere with our mortal probation and maturation. Without the veil, our brief, mortal walk in a darkening world would lose its meaning, for one would scarcely carry the flashlight of faith at noonday and in the presence of the Light of the world!

"Without the veil, we could not experience the gospel of work and the sweat of our brow. If we had the security of having already entered into God's rest, certain things would be unneeded; Adam and Eve did not carry social security cards in the Garden of Eden!

"And how could we learn about obedience if we were shielded from the consequences of our disobedience?

"Nor could we choose for ourselves in His holy presence among alternatives that do not there exist, for God's court is filled with those who have both chosen and overcome — whose company we do not yet deserve.

"Fortunately, the veil keeps the first, second, and third estates separate, hence our sense of separateness. The veil insures the avoidance of having things 'compound in one' — to our everlasting detriment. (2 Nephi 2:11.) We are cocooned, as it were, in order that we might truly choose. Once, long ago, we chose to come to this very setting where we could choose. It was an irrevocable choice! And the veil is the guarantor that that choice will be honored." (Ibid., 10-11).

Consider these facts in light of today's political situation in America and elsewhere. God, knowing the agency of His children would be abused, made provision for wrong choices. It's called repentance. When we err in selecting leaders to lead us who trample on the God-given principles of the Constitution, He makes ample provision for changing those leaders every two years in free and open elections. We are governed by our Creed that the gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come from the Divine Providence of an all-wise Heavenly Father.

Elder Orson Hyde
God in His omniscience foresaw and prophesied the establishment of America as a nation, then the state of Israel. There can be little doubt in both cases, these bastions of freedom, one on this side of the world and the other in a different hemisphere, that their founding was at the very least "remarkable," at most "improbable." In the United Nations Security Council vote, both the United States and the former Soviet Union joined together to make the outcome of Israel's birth a reality. Soon thereafter a wave of immigration to the new nation-state followed and the Jews literally returned to the Holy Land and have made it blossom as a rose, all in fulfillment of ancient Biblical and modern prophecy, including Orson Hyde's inspired dedicatory prayer given on the Mount of Olives in the early days of this dispensation.

Daily we are bombarded with the predictions of wars and rumors of wars. There are only two possible choices historically for rebirthing a nation as drenched in debt as the United States: War or depression, and neither is pleasant nor desirable. Before the Second Coming we will undoubtedly experience both. But all of it is foretold by the omniscience of God through the inspired prophet-authors who have preserved His words. There are chilling prophecies about events yet ahead in the Middle East. (See Zechariah 14:2; Revelation 11).

Only a God who knows all things could make provisions for His children so His plan is not thwarted. He knew His Son would not buckle under the weight He bore in Gethsemane. The operative atoning sacrifice was accomplished. Because He knew, sin and death are conquered in accordance with His plan.

He needed to know the 116 pages of translation would be lost through the carelessness of Martin Harris and his wife. He made provisions for "these plates" (Nephi's small plates) to be preserved as an alternative. The charge given by fathers to sons who inherited the record is repeated again and again, "Take good care of these plates and see that they are preserved for a wise purpose known only to God."

Because He knows "all things," God can plan and make ample provisions so all His purposes are fulfilled. In July, 1828, He told Joseph Smith, "The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught." (D&C 3:1). However, in His knowing He does not compromise our individual moral agency. We cause the decisions of our lives, not Him. We can access His knowledge in varying degrees as we humble ourselves and take counsel from His hands (see Jacob 4:10), but we must decide and act, not Him. He merely knows the outcomes of our choices before we do. In that way He makes provision for all His children, and more particularly for His obedient and faithful children who eventually inherit eternal life. How many will eventually inherit the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom? He already knows,  but permits us to choose our own outcomes.

Whenever I raise this topic, some friends and family are troubled by the implications of the omniscience and foreknowledge of God. They assert incorrectly His knowing constricts our invididual choices and moral agency. How is it, they wonder, that God knows perfectly, but we don't. They, in effect, are telling me their view of this doctrine is better than God's.

I wonder how some can conclude that having spent billions of years (2.555 billion, according to Joseph Smith) in His presence in premortal worlds, where He has observed us, our personality traits, patterns of behavior, habits, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses wouldn't give God a perfect understanding of what we would do under a given set of circumstances - those very circumstances He already knows in advance. Our finite pea-sized brains can't possibly work out the calculus needed to compute all those outcomes, but His can. And once again, His knowing it all in advance has nothing to do with our doing it!

Ever to be emphasized, however, is the reality that God's "seeing" is not the same thing as His "causing" something to happen.

In this presidential election year, imagine the depth and breadth of His knowledge. He absolutely knows every voter in America. He knows right now, today, which candidate will win the Republican nomimation and He knows who will win the White House, every seat in Congress, and who the next dogcatcher in Timbuktu County will be.

But you still have to go to the polling booth and make your choice.

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