Answers to Mormon Answers on Moroni 8:18

We agree with moroni 8-18August 18 is observed annually with the message “We Agree with Moroni 8:18” by evangelical Christians who seek to share the biblical faith with Latter-day Saints. Moroni 8:18, a verse near the end of the Book of Mormon, states:

For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being;
but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.

This statement, dictated by Joseph Smith in 1829 and published in 1830 in the Book of Mormon, stands in stark contrast to a statement made by Joseph Smith in a sermon known as the King Follett Discourse near the end of his life in 1844:

In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.[1]

This statement from Joseph Smith is one with which evangelicals cannot agree, since we believe that God is indeed God from all eternity. Thus, we agree with Moroni 8:18 but not with Joseph’s later theology. As we see things, Joseph started with a belief that was fairly close, at least relatively speaking, to the traditional Christian conception of God, and we find this view reflected both in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph’s other early revelations. After he published the Book of Mormon and founded the new religion, however, Joseph’s theology underwent radical changes in the following 14 years.

Mormons are aware of the problem and in recent years have offered a variety of answers or explanations—or at least objections to the dilemma posed above. In this article, we’ll consider eight of these answers or objections.

  1. “From all eternity” in Moroni 8:18 doesn’t mean absolutely without any beginning but an eon ago, or an extremely long time ago, or something along these lines.[2]

Much could be said about this claim, but I will restrict my response to making two simple points. First, whatever “from all eternity” means in Moroni 8:18, it must correspond coherently with the mirror expression “to all eternity” that appears in the same clause (“from all eternity to all eternity”). Does any Mormon wish to argue that God will be unchangeable only for some future eon or some extremely long period of time, but will not be unchangeable forever and ever? I doubt any Mormon is prepared to argue for such a conclusion. But if “from all eternity” means only “from a very, very long time ago” or “from an eternity ago from our limited perspective” or however a Mormon wishes to redefine the expression, then “to all eternity” in the same context must mean “to a very, very long time in the future” or “until an eternity from now from our limited perspective.” So this redefinition just won’t fit the immediate context of the very clause in which it appears.

Second, there is no reason to think “from all eternity” means something different in Moroni 8:18 than it does in Joseph’s 1844 statement. Both statements concern the nature of God. One says that God “is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity”; the other says that people had “supposed that God was God from all eternity.” Both appear in texts that came from Joseph Smith. Unless there is some clear indication from the differing contexts of these statements that the expression “from all eternity” has two distinctly different meanings, we should acknowledge that the expression means the same thing in both places.

  1. It isn’t true that God changed from something less than God to being God as he is now; this is a misunderstanding of Joseph Smith’s theology in the King Follett Discourse.[3]

A full response to this claim is beyond the scope of this article. However, I will point out some glaring problems with this claim as a response to the dilemma. First, notice that this answer concedes what the first answer disputes: that Moroni 8:18 means what it seems to mean, which is that God has always, from all eternity, been God. If the Mormons who offer this answer are correct, then those who present the previous answer must be mistaken.

Second, without getting into too much detail here, those few LDS scholars who make this claim about Joseph’s theology being misunderstood assume that the version of the King Follett Discourse that has come down to us is unreliable. These scholars point out (correctly) that several individuals took notes about what Joseph said and that none of their accounts is complete or necessarily a perfect record of the speech (also correct). They then conclude that we may set aside the statement in the commonly used version of the speech that denies “that God was God from all eternity.” This is where these scholars’ argument goes off the rails. There are four problems with this proposal.

  • The entire line of argument in the King Follett Discourse presupposes the idea that God was not always God but became a God. The point toward which the speech drives is that we can and should become Gods by progressing from one stage to the next, “as all gods have done before you.” This idea clearly entails the belief that our God likewise became a God by the same type of progression. It is not possible to eliminate this idea from the speech.
  • In Joseph Smith’s subsequent speech, known as the Sermon in the Grove, he taught that our God the Father had a Father before him who was his God. This idea obviously presupposes the notion already presented in the King Follett Discourse that our Father was not always God but became a God.
  • The LDS Church’s subsequent prophets and apostles accepted the King Follett Discourse in the form familiar to us today, and they affirmed this idea that God had passed through a process of progression in order to become a God.[4]
  • The LDS Church has put its imprimatur or official stamp of approval on the King Follett Discourse in its traditional form. A curriculum manual published in 2004 stated that the King Follett Discourse as it appears in History of the Church (as well as the Sermon in the Grove) is one of a group of “approved and inspired writings that are not in the standard works” and that “should be used along with the scriptures.”[5]

For these reasons, the problem of the Moroni 8:18 challenge cannot be solved by rejecting the King Follett Discourse in its traditional form or as several LDS prophets and apostles have interpreted it since Joseph Smith.

  1. The “God” that is unchangeable from eternity to eternity is not a specific divine being but is the divine intelligence inherent in all things (D&C 93:29) and the infinite continuum or pantheon of all divine beings. “The attributes of deity have always existed, having no beginning and will have no end, regardless of who holds or shares these attributes.”[6]

That anyone would offer this explanation is shocking, to say the least. The claim here is that when Moroni 8:18 refers to “God,” it does not mean the divine Being we worship or obey, or any personal deity at all, but rather the divinity that is supposedly latent in the “intelligence” that underlies all things. In Mormon metaphysics, everything that exists, ultimately, consists of “intelligence,” a potentially divine substance or reality that takes form in intelligent beings, some of which have the potential to become fully divine beings like Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ.  Thus, ultimately “God” is not a specific, personal being at all, but the divinity that is present at least in rudimentary or incipient form in all things. There may have been an uncountable number of Gods before the being we call God the Father and there will potentially be an endless series of Gods emerging in the future, but all of these Gods are really just specific instances of beings in which the absolute God that is beyond being and personality takes form. Frankly, this is pantheism. Any Mormon taking this position is simply confirming the vast, unbridgeable gap between Mormonism and historic, biblical Christianity.

Notice again that this third explanation contradicts both of the two previous answers we considered. At least those two responses agreed that “God” in Moroni 8:18 is an actual divine Being, someone specific who is said to be unchangeable. This third explanation denies this idea altogether. The divinity potentially latent in all things is unchangeable from all eternity, but God the Father, the being we think of as our God, is not.

Here again, also, one wonders why “God” in Moroni 8:18 would have this hitherto unknown meaning of the divinity that has always existed in intelligence but not have the same meaning in the King Follett Discourse. Nothing in Moroni 8, or frankly anywhere in the Book of Mormon, lends any credence or plausible support for this interpretation of Moroni 8:18. Throughout Moroni 8, as throughout the Book of Mormon, “God” is one specific, personal being who is said to be revealing himself and his purposes through Moroni and the other prophets who preceded him. The reader is invited to read through Moroni 8 to confirm this simple observation.

  1. God is eternally unchangeable in his perfect moral character relative to human beings—his love, justice, and so forth—even if he has not always been fully God.[7]

Probably the most plausible answer I have seen from Mormons to the apparent contradiction between Moroni 8:18 and the King Follett Discourse is that Moroni 8:18 is only referring to God’s moral perfections, not to his metaphysical nature as deity. Mormons who offer this answer argue that God can and has changed in some ways (passing through mortality and becoming exalted to Godhood) without ever changing his character or intentions. They point out that in the immediate context of Moroni 8, Moroni is emphasizing that God’s will with regard to the salvation of little children has never changed (see Moroni 8:12). This explanation avoids the absurdity of claiming that “eternity” changes meaning within the same clause (answer #1), the problem of contradicting a sermon text from Joseph Smith that LDS prophets and apostles have repeatedly affirmed and that the LDS Church has stated is true (#2), and the bizarre claim that in Moroni 8:18 “God” does not refer to a personal deity at all (#3).

The mistake these Mormons make is that they confuse the significance of God’s unchangeableness with the meaning of God’s unchangeableness. In context, God’s unchangeableness is significant because it assures Moroni’s readers that God has always intended to save little children and will never change his purpose in this regard. However, the Book of Mormon presents Moroni grounding or basing this confidence on the unchangeableness of God’s nature “from all eternity to all eternity.” Notice that Moroni 8:18 says that God is “not a changeable being.” The use of the word being in this context makes his argument theological or philosophical. It is because God is not that kind of being that we can be sure that his intentions have never changed from all eternity and will never change in the future to all eternity. That is the argument that the Book of Mormon presents here.

We know beyond any reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith held at the time that God’s unchangeableness meant that he was unchangeably God from eternity to eternity. We know this is what he thought because he said so the very same year that the Book of Mormon was published, in the text now known as Doctrine & Covenants 20:

By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them. (D&C 20:17)

There is really no workable way around the problem. Joseph Smith clearly taught, both in the Book of Mormon and in D&C 20, that God is unchangeably God from eternity to eternity, from everlasting to everlasting. Fourteen years later, however, he had explicitly rejected that truth.

I agree with Moroni 8:18.

 

NOTES

[1] “King Follett Discourse,” April 7, 1844, as quoted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 345. The entire text of the discourse is on the LDS Church’s official website, in the April 1971 issue of the Ensign.

[2] Robert Boylan, “Moroni 8:18, Psalm 90:2, and the Latter-day Saint Understanding of Deity,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Dec. 10, 2014.

[3] This view is associated especially with Blake Ostler; see his treatment of the King Follett Discourse in Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought, Volume 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 438–42. See also David L. Paulsen and Hal R. Boyd, “The Nature of God in Mormon Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, ed. Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 246–59.

[4] See, for example, Brigham Young, 8 Oct. 1859, in Journal of Discourses 7:333–34; Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13 (Nov. 1909): 75 (an official statement of the First Presidency, reproduced in full in “The Origin of Man,” Ensign, Feb. 2002); Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 2:47; Marion G. Romney, “How Men Are Saved,” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 38 (a general conference address).

[5] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible, a Sealed Book,” in Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings Religion 370, 471, and 475 (2004), 123–32, quoted from A Symposium on the New Testament, 1984, 1–7.

[6] Robert Boylan, “Moroni 8:18, Psalm 90:2, and the Latter-day Saint Understanding of Deity,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Dec. 10, 2014.

[7] Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Foreword and Afterword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 114. See also Barry R. Bickmore, “Mormonism in the Early Jewish Christian Milieu,” FAIR conference, August 1999.

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2 Responses to Answers to Mormon Answers on Moroni 8:18

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. This reminds me of an encounter I had with the missionaries. They recommended I read III Nephi 11 where Jesus appears in North America, but I asked them about verse 17, in which the people worship Jesus, and they said they don’t worship Jesus. It was wonderfully awkward. It’s a surprise when they see how the theology changed from the BoM to later writings.

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