An Answer to Apparent Anomalies in the Attributes of God

Andrew J. May, “An Answer to Apparent Anomalies in the Attributes of God,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 101–116.

An Answer to Apparent Anomalies in the Attributes of God

Andrew J. May

For millennia, philosophers from Plato to Augustine and from Aquinas to William James have thoroughly debated the attributes of God. At times, much progress has been made in understanding and perspective, while at other times they have argued to a bitter deadlock. Even today theologians and philosophers return again to debating the fundamental contradictions of God’s attributes. How can he be unchanging and immutable and yet passible and succoring? How can he be entirely benevolent and yet allow evil to exist? How can his omniscience allow human freedom? Is he corporeal or omnipresent? Is he timeless or temporal? Is he three or one? Although Christian and Mormon theologians have argued both in favor and against these and other various characteristics of God on the grounds of apparent mutual exclusivity, they often overlook more commonly ascribed divine characteristics that are contradictory, like justice and mercy or mortality and immortality. Yet a perspective based on the Mormon conception of the Godhead and Atonement can help reconcile God’s seemingly contradictory characteristics found in classical Christian theism and Mormon theism. Although fundamental in its nature, this study is intended to renew interest in the analysis of these age-old predicaments. For Mormons and all Christians, the pursuit of knowledge of God and his attributes is the paramount purpose of their belief as shown in John 17:3: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Thus, it is a question that warrants constant examination.

The Problem and Common Demonstration of Mutual Exclusivity

The majority of questions about the attributes of God originate from the fact that many of the characteristics are mutually exclusive, or are related in such a way that each excludes or precludes the other.[1] Ironically though, many commonly held Christian beliefs are mutually exclusive that pertain to God’s divine nature. Understanding the harmonization of these commonly held paradoxical beliefs of the attributes of God will either allow for the possibility of other mutually exclusive attributes or force a reassignment of those commonly held beliefs as an illogical impossibility.

The possibility of the unification of two mutually exclusive principles is illustrated by examining one of the most basic Christian beliefs in God: God is both merciful and just. The Bible states, “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Psalm 89:14). Justice and mercy are held by most Christians as vital characteristics of God, but in any single relationship, mercy and justice are mutually exclusive and cannot both exist. In any single relationship if mercy is granted, justice is robbed, and if justice is served, there is no mercy. Not until another relationship is added can both justice and mercy be served. A classic parable from President Boyd K. Packer represents the problem well. In the parable, a young man makes a contract with a creditor and then is unable to pay his creditor on the day of reckoning. President Packer demonstrates the necessity of another person, a mediator, to intercede:

There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

“If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy,” the debtor pleaded.

“If I do, there will be no justice,” was the reply.

Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served and mercy also?

There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.

The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

“I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.” . . .

And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.”[2]

This parable has often been told to show Jesus as the ultimate source of mercy, like the debtor’s friend who vicariously fulfilled the debt. But it must be noted that Jesus was sent by his Father, “the Creditor.” Therefore, the Father retains both mercy and justice as his divine characteristics, notwithstanding the fact that they are mutually exclusive in any single relationship because Christ acts as a mediator to ensure that both mercy and justice are satisfied. This demonstrates the need for the Mormon configuration of the Godhead as a multi-entity community, which allows for multidirectional relationships. David L. Paulsen gives a philosophical definition of the Mormon Godhead:

“We believe in God the Eternal Father, in his son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost.” We reject the traditional, but extra-biblical, idea that these three persons constitute one metaphysical substance, affirming rather that they constitute one perfectly united, and mutually indwelling, divine community. We use the word “God” to designate the divine community as well as to designate each individual divine person. Thus our understanding of the Godhead coincides closely with what is known in contemporary Christian theology as “social trinitarianism.” This, we believe, is the model of the Godhead portrayed in the New Testament.[3]

As demonstrated in “The Mediator,” a single-entity God would not be able to appease the demands of mutually exclusive principles without the addition of another relationship. The multiple relationships that exist among members of the Godhead but can also be proffered to man are what the Prophet Joseph Smith called “[the] everlasting covenant [which] was made between three personages before the organization of this earth.”[4] The Book of Mormon prophet Alma explained the just and merciful attributes of God to his repentant son, Corianton, in this way: “The plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.” (Alma 42:15; emphasis added) According to Alma, perfection included these two attributes, and the following diagram shows how the Godhead can show forth both attributes and how both characteristics are shared by the Father and Jesus by virtue of the everlasting covenant.

Image 1 here

We learn from this scripture that Jesus did not atone only to give mercy to men but also to maintain or put at one in the Godhead the characteristics of justice and mercy, for it is necessary that a perfect God be absolutely just as well as merciful. Through Jesus’ Atonement, justice and mercy turn from being mutually exclusive to being mutually reinforcing. The prophet Jacob in the Book Mormon juxtaposed these two principles to illustrate their balance of them: “O the greatness and the justice of our God! For he executeth all his words, and they have gone forth out of his mouth, and his law must be fulfilled. . . . O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel!” (2 Nephi 9:17, 19; emphasis added).

As we deepen our understanding and appreciation of the justice of God, we will gain deeper knowledge of God’s mercy and vice versa. Because it is Christ who connects these principles, when we minimize the depth and greatness of one of these principles, the other becomes demeaned, and ultimately the Mediator or Atoner becomes demeaned. In fact, the denial of one of these characteristics can lead to a state that psychoanalyst Rudolf Brun terms as “oneness [which] by itself is intangible because wholes are concrete only through their tangible parts.” This means that these oppositions actually support and help define each other, like two sides of the same coin. Brun also suggests that everything exists as united diversity—as identity in difference.[5]

Most Christians have little difficulty accepting the principles of justice and mercy. Similarly, they have little trouble accepting the next two characteristics that demonstrate mutual exclusivity: death versus immortality. The question is, can someone who has died be immortal? Death is defined as “the irreversible cessation of organismic functioning,”[6] whereas immortality is defined as being “exempt from death.”[7] So Mormons and Christians would most likely agree to the following premises even though they are mutually exclusive:

1. Christ died (irreversible cessation of organismic functioning)

2. Christ is immortal (exempt from death)

3. Christ has experienced both death and immortality

It is true that Christ, through his Atonement, reversed the irreversible and voluntarily submitted to death, from which he was exempt. Could this very predicament, Christ’s death, be the source of Thomas’s doubt? Perhaps he doubted because Old Testament prophecy is extremely clear about the Messiah’s suffering but obscure in prophesying his literal death. It seems that others of Christ’s contemporaries had similar objections, shown in John 12:34: “The people answered him, We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever: and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up? who is this Son of man?” Thomas and others probably knew from the scriptures that the Messiah was immortal, and therefore exempt from death, and could not conceive that Jesus was that same God because of his death. The Apostle Paul’s exposition to the Corinthians gives added insight: “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:25–28).

Because Christ was resurrected by the power of the Father, death is now overcome for all men. It could be said that the law of death worked its work in Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion, while immortality has worked its work through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence, Jesus can be both experienced in death and immortality. Once again, mutually exclusive principles become mutually reinforcing. As we enlarge our understanding of the role of mortality, our understanding of immortality increases and vice versa.

The Application of Mutually Exclusive Principles to God

If God can have the previously mentioned mutually exclusive but reconciled characteristic based upon a mediator in Christ, the next question that Christians must answer is, which other characteristics are also possible through the Atonement? This is where I believe that many of the differences between classical Christian theism and Mormon theism can be harmonized. For the Atonement did not just make men one with God, but solidified the oneness of the Godhead itself and all the characteristics thereof. Hence, the words of the Apostle Paul concerning Christ: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (New International Version, Colossians 1:17). Though there are many possible extrapolations of this theory, I treat just one of the classical conundrums—immutability versus passibility—with the hope that it will be a pattern for an explanation of other difficult paradoxes.

In Lectures on Faith, there are six characteristics of God necessary for rational beings to have faith in him. One of these describes the passibility, or the ability to feel, change, or suffer. The other describes God’s immutability and insusceptibility to change. Lectures on Faith suggests: “[Firstly], That he is merciful, and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness, and that he was so from everlasting, and will be to everlasting. [Secondly], That he changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday to-day and for ever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation.”[8]

God’s being “slow to anger” suggests at least a degree of passibility or feeling that God has. Being “slow to anger” shows a change in the degree of intensity, while the second attribute describes an inability to change. Many Christian and Mormon theologians have taken one of these characteristics to override the other. Orthodox or classical Christian theologians choose immutability, with its implications of traditional and transcendent static omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, and so on as the preferred characteristics. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a concise summary of immutability in classical theism:

So Western theism’s Scriptural roots seem to deny DDI [Doctrine of Divine Immutability]. Yet by the first century A.D., DDI was central to the main theory of God’s nature, ‘classical theism.’ In such ‘classical theist’ writers as Augustine and Aquinas, being immutable makes God eternal, and eternality is God’s distinctive mode of being. So DDI is at the roots of such writers’ understandings of God’s nature. And ‘classical theism’ ruled the theological roost till the 19th century. So one wonders: what made DDI so attractive for so long?[9]

These classical characteristics created a great sense of awe in believers, because they could depend on the transcendence of God. This desired outcome caused the spread and preservation of Christianity in a typical climate of scarcity during the Middle Ages. Perhaps an appeal to an all powerful and unconquerable God that could deliver the oppressed caused the solidification of this doctrine during a time characterized by tyrants conquering tyrants. Classical theism produced a being that could deliver believers from bad health, economic difficulties, and political uncertainty. As a result, millions flocked to classical Christianity. Even Mormon scripture gives hints of immutability in scriptures similar to Moroni 8:18: “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.”

Contrastingly, Mormon philosophers have denied absolute immutability and leaned on the more pragmatically appealing passibility of God, made manifest in Christ’s condescension and suffering. Mormon philosophers David L. Paulsen and Matthew G. Fisher write, “The Latter-day Saint understanding of God is one of profound passibility. And while we, with openness thinkers, depart from the dominant theological Christian tradition by affirming a passible God who is affected, and often persuaded, by our pleas, we make no apologies since such a God is consistent with both the scriptural account and the way in which we experience God in our devotional lives.”[10] In addition, Mormon writer Blake T. Ostler writes of Mormonism:

Mormons believe that the scriptures contain a view of God at odds with some traditional views motivated by Greek metaphysics which require that God’s being is necessary in every respect. However, Mormons have rejected ideas of God premised on Greek metaphysics. . . .

Such a God cannot be characterized by perfection as an absolute upper limit in all respects. However, the biblical God who suffers qua God for the sins of Israel, or the Christian God who empties himself of his divine glory to suffer with, for and because of mortal sin and pain is regarded as greater than such an unmoved god by Mormons. The divine person who undergoes kenosis is surely subject to change, temporality and passibility in several respects.[11]

For Mormon philosophers, the passibility of God has become the preferred attribute choice over absolute immutability. Whereas absolute immutability creates awe for and dependence on God, passibility allows for an interdependent relationship in which believers recognize their own autonomy. But it is not until believers understand their own autonomy in the context of and in relationship with a transcendent God, that a truly efficacious and salvific faith can be produced. Passibility moves believers from the initial conversion and dependence on God to a heightened, more profound interdependence, just as a child in helpless infancy in the hands of seemingly all-powerful parents grows to an autonomous adulthood. It seems to be more than a striking coincidence that as political freedoms began to expand through the rise of democracies and republics, the more pragmatic and autonomous passibility attribute became more prevalent in theology.

Both characteristics are necessary for faith in God. God retains immutability and passibility in the same way that justice and mercy are reconciled. God the Father, in and of himself, can either show passibility towards his children through succoring, suffering, and feeling for them, or he can be immutable, unaffected by the world around him. Bring Christ into the equation, and he can be both. God the Father can remain immutable and just. So the only way for God the Father to show passibility is by sending someone other than himself. The Apostle John teaches this: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10; emphasis added). Notice how these scriptures do not say that God the Father came down, but rather that Jesus was sent. Jesus provided the passibility and even the suffering and love of a God. Jesus demonstrated absolute passibility when he not only suffered the consequences of sin, but also took on all pains and infirmities of everyone and, in essence, felt every feeling of every man, woman, and child of the Father’s creation. God the Father remained completely unchangeable, yet through the mission of his Son, the Father retains full passibility as a characteristic. The following diagram shows how the Godhead can express both attributes and how both the Father and the Son can retain both attributes by virtue of the everlasting covenant.

Image 2 here

Jesus is the essence and manifestation of God’s passibility, allowing God to be perfect, a passible and immutable God. This theory provides an answer to the problem of the Father’s irresponsiveness while Jesus suffered and begged for a passible response from his Father in, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). The Father’s will remained unaffected by the pleadings of his Beloved Son. How could God’s most faithfully perfect Son not elicit an action from his Father? Jesus had claim, merit, and even right to ask the Father for a passible response in his moment of greatest duress, but received the cold, empty, and deafening silence of immutability from the Father. This seemingly surprising silence contrasts with thousands of preceding examples of God’s passible responses. Jesus’ reviving of Lazarus, in which Jesus thanked the Father for hearing his prayer, is just one ironically dramatic example. The abandonment in the Father’s immutable response caused Jesus’ soul to cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The Father’s immutability had to be maintained to show that even the pleadings of his Only Begotten could not dissuade the Father from his will. Christ’s overcoming the immutable response through the Atonement made passibility a possibility. Because Jesus suffered the demands of immutability, his passibility can be the predominant characteristic we experience through scripture and in our personal relationship with the Father.

It should be noted that famous philosopher Charles Hartshorne and other process theologians have discussed similar dipolaristic outlooks when discussing opposing principles. Hartshorne takes a stance comparable to the Greek moderation philosophy, or in other words truth is found in the middle of the two extremes. His theology, though, uses a panentheistic explanation of the Godhead.[12] Though Hartshorne and I share similar outcomes, our means contrast greatly. Hartshorne nevertheless understands the value of maintaining both sides of the argument. In that context, the following is a theoretical dipolaristic representation of how Christ can hold together these principles and other possible characteristics:

Attributes of the Perfect God

Image 3 here

As the term perfect means “satisfying all requirements” and also “complete,” so too the circle above demonstrates a satisfaction of some of theoretical requirements of perfection and shows how Jesus’ Atonement makes the Godhead complete or whole.[13] While classical Christians preach the attributes of transcendence of God and Mormons philosophers preach of the condescension of God, both are necessary. The more God transcends, the more inspiring and faith promoting his condescension becomes. The more God condescends, the more practical his transcendence becomes. This is possible through Christ’s Atonement. Through the Atonement, transcendence and condescension become mutually reinforcing. Through the atonement, immovable God has compassion on man and faithless man can obtain perfect faith in God.

The Advantages of the Mutually Reinforcing Vision of the Godhead

Christians and Mormons alike must consider each attribute contradiction individually, with an understanding that mutually exclusive principles can be harmonized. This will create a need to rely on God as the ultimate determiner and revealer of his divine characteristics. If deduction suggests that God does not have a certain characteristic from the mere presence of another, then Christians need to return to the opposing principles of justice and mercy or mortality and immortality to see how God can maintain those contradictory attributes.

The implications of this dipolaristic theology reach into the contradictory debates of divine omnipotence, omniscience, free will, timelessness, and embodiment. Lectures on Faith contains a compelling quote that alludes to how Christ’s Atonement resolves contradictory problems. “The Son . . . descended in suffering below that which man can suffer; or, in other words, suffered greater sufferings, and was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be.”[14] Christ suffered powerful contradictions and can rightfully be named the Prince of Peace, for he can not only resolve these theological macro-problems but also our personal contradictions and incongruities. For this is the powerful symbol of Christ’s cross, two perpendicular or contradirectional lines united in harmony. The Apostle Paul emphasizes contradiction: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19). Perhaps these contradictions were what Paul was referring to that would destroy the wisdom of the wise. Those who perish find it foolishness to believe in a God that would have contradictory characteristics, but believers see it as the saving power. We, in our sins, are the contradictions. We must be reconciled to the perfection of God so that we can be like him.

G. K. Chesterton illustrates the benefit of believing in principles that seem to contradict each other. “He has always cared more for truth than consistency. If he saw two truths that seem to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.”[15] Through the Savior’s Atonement we get a multifaceted, fully developed vision of God. We do not just experience a flat, one-dimensional, single-attribute God, but the depth, hue, contrast, and harmony of a God whose beauty is all encompassing. God embodies the most defining characteristics that separate the living from the nonliving: agency and love. Through the Atonement, God is able to be the essence of agency. He is not dictated by his own laws; he is the law, and what he chooses is right. He has the power to choose in which cases to show forth mercy to his children and in which to show justice. This is how we can reconcile the God of the Old Testament—ruling with an iron fist over the spiritually weak Israel—and the God of the New Testament—setting forth the higher law of love for those of greater faith. God can perfectly tailor the demonstration of all these mutually exclusive characteristics so that man may gain faith in him and ultimately love him as he loves us.

Mormon theologians should not throw out years of theological analysis done by their classical Christian colleagues, but rather follow the directive of Joseph Smith to “receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”[16] Likewise, classical Christian theologians should not disregard the theological analysis done by more progressive Christians and Mormons alike on grounds of mutual exclusivity. I suggest that Mormon and Christian theologians follow the advice of Stephen R. Covey in solving these attributes of God anomalies, “There is security in knowing that Win/Win solutions do exist, that life is not always ‘either/or,’ that there are almost always mutually beneficial Third Alternatives.”[17] If God can have certain mutually exclusive characteristics, who can say that God cannot have others? Only God can.

Notes



[1] Merriam-Webster Online, “mutually exclusive.”

[2] Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, 54–55.

[3] David L. Paulsen, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph Smith: Defending the Faith,” http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2004_God_of_Abraham_Isaac_and_Jo....

[4] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2002), 194.

[5] Rudolf Brun, “Transcendentalism or Empiricism? A Discussion of a Problem Raised in E. O. Wilson’s Book Consilience,” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 40, no. 3 (2005): 769.

[6] David DeGrazia, “The Definition of Death,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/death-definition/.

[7] Merriam-Webster OnLine, “immortal.”

[8] N. B. Lundwall, comp., A Compilation Containing the Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake: N. B. Lundwall, 1834), 3:14–15.

[9] Brian Lefow, “immutability,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/immutability/.

[10] David Paulsen and others, “A New Evangelical Vision of God: Openness and Mormon Thought,” FARMS Review, no. 2 (2003): 440.

[11] Blake T. Ostler, “Worshipworthiness and the Mormon Concept of God” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 321–22.

[12] Dan Dombrowski, “Charles Hartshorne,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hartshorne.

[13] Merriam-Webster OnLine, “perfect.”

[14] Lundwall, “A Compilation,” 5:2.

[15] John Haldane, “Chesterton’s Philosophy of Education,” Philosophy 65, no. 251 (1990): 71.

[16] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 324.

[17] Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 1989), 298.