Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Authority (Part 14: The Source of God's Authority)
The previous two posts about the unsettled doctrine of premortality have brought us to the main point I am trying to make about God’s authority, but let us be clear about one thing: the notion that our basic personal essence and individuality have always existed is not just fodder for fascinating gospel speculation. It has some significant ramifications. At a fundamental level, it defines our relationship with Deity, our relationship with each other, and the source and nature of God’s authority over us. By logical extension, it should also influence how we view our own authority and the way we exercise it.
Joseph Smith’s “Heresy”
As a church, we claim to have been organized by men who had first received authority from divinely commissioned messengers. The Savior himself always grounded his own authority in the claim that he was sent by his Father and always executed the Father’s will (see 3 Ne. 27:13; John 7:28–29; 8: 28–29, 42; 12:49). Regarding the gospel and the Restoration, everything is thus dependent on correct authority that can be traced back to God. But this leads to an even more fundamental question: What is the source of God’s authority? Although on the surface this query may appear either obvious or blasphemous, if we are to achieve a correct gospel perspective on authority and on the nature of our relationship with Deity, this is a question we must address, for its answer reveals the foundational pattern upon which all authority in the Church, and even the Savior’s own authority, must rest. Let me clarify here that when I talk about God’s authority I am not referring to his power over the physical universe. That is unquestionably a consequence of his perfection and intelligence. I am instead referring specifically to his authority over us. Why and how does he have authority over us?
I am no expert in the beliefs of other religious traditions, but I assume the customary Christian answer to this question would be that since God is omnipotent and omniscient and since he created all things, including us, either ex nihilo (out of nothing) or ex deo (out of himself), then we are no different from any of his other creations and he can do whatever he pleases with us. His authority needs no source, because he is the source—of everything. Interestingly, if we as Latter-day Saints accept the theory proposed by Brigham Young, that we did not exist as self-aware individual entities before our spirit birth, then our answer to the question regarding God’s authority would be quite similar to the traditional Christian answer, and because of nebulous doctrine here, LDS authority figures sometimes do make statements that lean toward this view of our relationship with Diety.1 But I believe Joseph Smith suggested a radically different response to this question, a response most Christians would consider heresy. Indeed, shortly before Joseph’s death, he completely redefined not only the nature of mankind but also the nature of God and of our relationship to him, which in turn circumscribe our ability to exercise authority in his name. In William Clayton’s notes of the King Follett Discourse, we find the following, some of which has already been quoted in a previous post:
Another subject—the soul—the mind of man—they say God created it in the beginning. The idea lessens man in my estimation. [I] don’t believe the doctrine—[I] know better—God told me so. . . . We say that God was self-existent who told you so? It’s correct enough but how did it get into your heads—who told you that man did not exist upon the same principle. . . . The mind of man—the intelligent part is coequal with, God himself. . . . Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet have a beginning because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end—good logic—illustrated by his ring. All the fools and learned & wise men that comes and tells that man has a beginning proves that he must have an end and if that doctrine is true then the doctrine of annihilation is true. But if I am right then I might be bold to say that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself—Intelligence exists upon a self-existent principle—is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it. . . . That God himself—find himself in the midst of spirit and glory because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.2
If Clayton’s notes from this sermon are accurate, it seems quite clear that Joseph believed God did not create the essence of man—his spirit or intelligence, his mind. Our spirits, writes Abraham, “have no beginning” (Abr. 3:18). God came down among “the intelligences,” he told Abraham, and made some of these “spirits” his rulers (Abr. 3:21–23).3 This does not mean, however, that God came down among the weaker intelligences and forced them to accept his plan and his laws. Such a notion runs counter to everything we know about our Father in Heaven. It also runs counter to every notion we possess of behavior that is moral and appropriate or authority that is exercised righteously. If, as Joseph boldly declared, we are eternal beings whose minds or intelligence could not be created, and if, as the account of Abraham suggests, God came down in the beginning among a group of already existing beings, then we were, in a very real sense, self-existent and independent, and God, no matter how much more intelligent or perfect he was, would have had no right to dictate to us how we were to exist. To put it in modern corporate terms, he did not conduct a hostile takeover of our eternal spirits or intelligences. No, this is not how God would behave. More consistent with the pattern he has established in all his dealings with us, he likely entered into a covenant relationship with his future children. Seeing his glory and intelligence when he “came down,” we naturally desired to become like him, so we accepted his offer to become our Father, and he promised to place us in a “sphere,” or repeated spheres (see D&C 93:30), where we could progress, where he would institute laws that would enable us to advance. We were not forced into the premortal “sphere,” where we were his spirit children, but accepted it freely as the price we had to pay to progress. And in both the premortal sphere, where we purportedly lived with and learned from him, and in this mortal sphere, where we are tried and tested away from his presence, we have always been free to obey or disobey his commandments and to accept the consequences of either choice. Because God did not create us ex nihilo or ex deo at either our mortal birth or our “spirit birth,” our relationship to him is not that of puppet to puppeteer. Nor do we exist merely at his whim and pleasure. Ours is a relationship founded on the principles of free choice, covenant, and accountability.
Significantly, this redefined relationship of humanity to Deity also redefines the source of God’s authority over us. If I am correctly assessing what Joseph was trying to teach toward the end of his life, then God’s authority does not come from the mere fact that he is perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent or from the mistaken idea that we were created at his caprice for his own purposes. Rather, his authority must be a consensual matter. He has authority over us only because we granted it to him. Truman Madsen suggested as much: “In all-important ways even He, the greatest of all, can only do with us what we will permit Him to do.”4 Now, I am not suggesting that we can escape God’s authority simply by declaring we are no longer answerable to him, nor am I implying that our relationship with him is in any way democratic, even though he has built this feature to a certain degree into his Church, at least on a theoretical level (see D&C 20:65; 26:2). Of course God has great authority over us. That issue was settled long ago—in the “beginning,” I assume. If he wishes to, he can punish us or even end our earthly sojourn. All I am concerned about here is the source of this authority. Where did it come from? Must it not exist because we elected at some point to grant him this authority, trusting him to use it perfectly in helping us attain our full potential? If so, this explains why he is so careful about our free will, why Jesus insisted that authority among his disciples was to be exercised differently than the authority wielded by unbelievers (see Matt. 20:26–28), why Joseph Smith outlined strict parameters within which priesthood authority is valid (see D&C 121:34–42), and why the human race is so compelled to seek freedom and so abhors oppression. Thus, the source of God’s authority is not power or force or position. He is neither tyrant nor dictator. He is the ultimate Leader because we chose to follow him. And apparently, this pattern is the one we should emulate, not the opposite pattern, the one so common in the world, a pattern of usurping power and exercising it unilaterally. Those who chose to not follow God—Lucifer and his followers—were, in essence, reneging on their part of the covenant they had made that granted God authority over them. Consequently, they were cast out of heaven and will eventually be consigned to a place where they are cut off from all light, because they chose to reject the course that would have led them onward and upward to eternal glory and perfection.
Coming Full Circle
The picture I have painted in the past three posts presents, I believe, a sound argument in settling some unresolved doctrinal questions regarding our premortal existence. If God did indeed, at some point, create us as sentient, individual personalities from some sort of impersonal spirit element, then in a very real sense we are his creations—his property, as it were—and he does not need our consent to do with us as he pleases. He can place us in the most awful circumstances and refuse to help us or even give us any understanding of why we are going through disease, disaster, and destitution. In such a universe, God is indeed the source of all intelligent beings and of all authority, as well as the source of all weakness and suffering. But according to this theory, since he created us so imperfectly, with inherent flaws, how can we possibly trust him to perform his works of salvation perfectly? Something in this view of eternity, to put it in Joseph’s terms, tastes bad.5
What I have attempted to establish in these last three posts is the idea that we have always been sentient, individual beings, which leads inexorably to the conclusion that God’s authority over us and his relationship to us is far different than if we assume he created our individual personalities, or minds, out of raw material (or out of nothing). In other words, I am arguing that he is not the source of his authority over us—we are. I have also attempted to demonstrate that this idea is central, even essential, to Mormonism’s unique message, because without it, our relationship with God is not fundamentally different than that imagined by traditional Christianity, our belief in premortality and in an embodied God notwithstanding. This unique Mormon understanding of our eternal nature implies that as individuals we have certain eternal, unalienable rights, and it is apparent from God’s dealings with us that he strictly honors these rights, two of which are the freedom to choose and the accountability for our choices (see 2 Ne. 2:26–27; D&C 101:78; Gal. 6:7). Why he has refused to reveal more about our premortal relationship with him is another matter altogether.
I began this long series of posts by discussing two basic types of authority—personal and institutional. God’s authority over us is certainly personal, unless he is merely an officer in some larger, eternal organization. In that case, we should not be worshipping our Father but some other superior God who gave him authority over us. We would have a hard time supporting this notion. But personal authority, as I pointed out earlier, is an influence over others that comes either through consent or force. If what I have suggested above is true, then God’s authority comes from the fact that we consented to it. If we toss this idea aside, the only alternative we are left with is that he usurped authority over us by force—unless we accept the idea that God created us, or our consciousness, out of either nothing or out of himself. In either case, we run into the inevitable conclusion that it is God, not we, who is responsible for our sins.
So I see no other reasonable alternative than the conclusion I have reached in this post—that God’s authority, and the authority he granted Joseph Smith through divine messengers actually originated with us. In other words, the authority he gives us comes from us in the first place.6 If this seems like circular thinking, look at it through an analogy: The president of the United States has authority, and that authority comes from the citizens of the country. He can use that authority to appoint individuals to perform certain functions that are legally binding upon all citizens, whether they agree with the actions and decisions of those appointees or not. It is similar with God. We granted him authority over us. He is therefore free, limited only by his perfect grasp of moral parameters, to use that authority to appoint servants to carry out his purpose, which is to save our souls, and sometimes we may not like the way that authority is exercised. In the case of the U.S. president, we can get rid of him after four years if we do not like how he and his appointees exercise the authority we granted him. In the case of God, there is no such termination clause. But we knew that when we signed on as his children.
If, however, this interpretation of our relationship with God is inaccurate, then we must toss out the King Follett discourse, other statements by Joseph about the eternal nature of spirits, and the assumption that we have always been sentient, self-aware beings. In this case, we would be just what mainstream Christians claim we are—creations of a God who can exercise arbitrary authority over us because he created our consciousness. Thus, the ramifications of our view of premortality are enormous. In other words, this is a question we really need to settle.
1. For instance, we quite often hear God referred to as “the Governor of the universe” or “the great God of the universe.” LDS Bible Dictionary, 681; Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Bear Witness of Him,” Ensign 28, no. 5 (May 199O): 71. But if we believe statements from earlier prophets—“As man now is, God once was”; “he has passed the ordeals we are now passing through”; “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”—then God is not the Governor of the universe. These quotes are from Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), 83; Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 30; and Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 40. How could he be the great God of this universe if he was once a mortal inhabitant of a world in this universe? The only possibility is if we accept the multiverse theory, but no prophet has ever gone on record with such a claim. If we reject the multiverse theory and accept doctrine taught by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Lorenzo Snow, we must admit that our Father is the Governor of a part of this universe. Does this diminish him? No more than Joseph’s assertion that he was once as we are now. Certainly, being the great God of even one galaxy such as ours is consistent with his own statements about himself. “My works are without end. . . . And worlds without number have I created. . . . [A]nd innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them” (Moses 1:4, 32, 35). Here God is obviously claiming that his worlds are without number to us. They are too many for us to count. And that statement is certainly true of the Milky Way galaxy. We have only vague estimates of the number of stars in our galaxy and even more uncertain estimates of the number of planets, and no mortal could live long enough to count them, even if we were able to see them all.
2. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 359–60, William Clayton Report.
3. Abraham records that the Lord showed him “the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones” (Abr. 3:22). Some have interpreted “organized” here to mean that God organized the intelligences into spirits, but a more plain reading is that God came down among intelligences or spirits who were then (or perhaps already) organized socially. Indeed, this is the way the Prophet Joseph repeatedly interpreted this statement. Charles Harrell gives five different examples of this interpretation between 1839 and 1843, then concludes, “The only organization of intelligences envisioned by the Prophet in these statements is a social organization and not an organization of intelligence into intelligences. Joseph taught that spirits, like God, are self-existent.” Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 86.
4. Truman Madsen, Four Essays on Love (Provo, Utah: Communications Workshop, 1971), 57.
5. Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 346, quoting Wilford Woodruff’s journal: “this is good
d doctrin, it tastes good, I
can taste the principles of eternal life, so can you.”
6. One inevitable question arising from the conclusion I have reached here is relevant to the current discussion in the Church about women and priesthood ordination: If 100 percent of us consented to give our Father authority over us, why should we think it is somehow appropriate that he then share that authority again with only half of us? Somehow the circle here seems incomplete.