2 Nephi 2, Part One — Opposition in All Things, An Indirect Argument

2 Nephi 2 is one of the most famous sermons in the Book of Mormon. The central theological claim of the Book of Mormon is that it claims to be an ancient document addressing a 19th century audience. In three posts, I will demonstrate how an understanding of the theology and language of the original 19th century audience helps us interpret this famous sermon. Let me make it clear that I have no interest in demonstrating when the Book of Mormon was written. As fiction or as history, the Book is scripture by definition, because it is a vehicle for the holy for a believing community. Either way, one cannot ignore its original 19th century audience if one wishes to understand this sermon.

I—Lehi’s Sermon in 2 Nephi 2 begins with the popular 19th century rallying cry of conservative Arminianism: “Salvation is free” (verse 4). In this sermon, Lehi uses the phrase to counter Calvinist and Universalist positions. This rallying cry probably derives from the sermons of John Wesley (the founder of Methodism—the most enthusiastic proponents of conservative Arminianism in the early 19th century) who stated that salvation was “free in all and free for all”—a declaration of divine grace and universal human freedom.[1]

John Wesley Preaching from atop His Father’s Grave

Old School Calvinists and Conservative Arminianism both believed in innate depravity from the fall; but Arminians were advocates of free will and a universal atonement for all who accepted it; Old School Calvinists believed in atonement for the elect only and in determinism.  In verse 9-10, Lehi states that God “maketh intercession for all” (Arminianism), and argues for the necessity of good versus evil, happiness versus punishment in hell, heaven versus hell so that not all will be saved (versus Universalists). He argues that evil and hell exist necessarily. He contrasts the Book of Mormon dualism versus the monism of Universalists. (see verses 5-10, 28-30) In the end, all come to God to be separated to either heaven or hell based on the dualistic principle of opposition (verse 10).

II- The Argument of Universal Dualism—or Opposition in all Moral, Biological, and Definitional Things

This is a formal or deductive argument, which means that if the premises are true and the argument is valid, the conclusion must be true. An indirect argument is one kind of formal argument used since the Dialogues of Plato. It consists of hypothetically assuming that the negation of a statement is true, and that this assumption leads to a contradiction and absurdity. Therefore, the negation of the statement cannot be true. We thereby prove indirectly that the statement is true.[2]

Here is the form of the argument in 2 Nephi:

Premise A:

God is all-powerful and the only thing an all-powerful God cannot do is to cease to be God. (See Alma 42 for three uses of this premise in a non-ontological, indirect argument.)

Premise B:

We humans and the earth exist.

Indirect Argument:

Proposition P: The world is inherently dualistic—everything has an opposite (therefore, good and evil, happiness and misery, heaven and hell exist)

If not P,

(or as Lehi states it, “If not so . . .”

if the world is not inherently and thoroughly dualistic),

Then Q

The world exists as a monistic system and God exists as a monistic Being (a “compound in one”— verse 11).

And not Q

If the world and God are monistic, the world cannot exist and God ceases to exist, since the world and the concept of God imply concepts of dualism (the very concept of a verbal definition implies D and not D— the opposites in a dualistic world).

Conclusion: P is the case

There is opposition in all things.

Anti-Universalist Theorem Derived from the Conclusion:

Evil and hell exist necessarily. If God were to eliminate evil and hell, he would cease to be God, which he cannot do.[3]

Final Exhortation of the Sermon Based on the Conclusion:

Choose eternal life and not eternal death in hell (verses 29-30)

In part 2, I will examine this argument in its 19th century contcxt.


[1] John Wesley’s published sermons and his Notes on the New Testament were the theological foundation of early American Methodism. For other 19th century American examples of “free salvation” as an Arminian slogan, see David Marks, Autobiography (Limerick: 1831),  91, 154, 237; Nathan Bangs, Errors of Hopkinsianism Detected and Refuted (New York: 1815), 62,152; Peter Cartwright, Autobiography (New York: 1956 reprint), 43-47, 115; James Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life (Toledo: 1884), 5-11, 94-98, 253-254(Erwin discusses the use of the phrase in central New York in the 1820’s); Abel Thornton, The Life of Elder Abel Thornton (Providence: 1828)  8; Methodist Magazine (1819): 71-72; The History of American Methodism, vol 1 (Nashville: 1964), 297, 357; William McKendree, Substance of a Sermon (New York: 1817), 10; George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference from 1788 to 1828 (New York; 1860), 5-11, 77-78; Lorenzo Dow, Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil (New York: 1854) vol 1, 31, 41, 48, 65, 70, 75, 135, vol 2, 67-68, 135, 266. Dow’s work is a compilation of writings dating as early as 1800. As a further note, in the 1820’s, select New Haven Calvinist theologians began denying innate depravity, and began utilizing the vocabulary of free salvation.

[2] This is a Proof by Contradiction (reductio ad absurdum) which follows the if/then proof known as Universal Modus Tollens in deductive logic:

For every x,

[P(x) > Q(x) AND ~Q(x)]

Therefore, ~P(x).

[3] This theorem is apparent from the sermon itself. But it is also apparent from 19th century rhetoric. For example, in 1828, John Sellin referred to evil as “the principle of opposition” in his discussion of hell. See John Sellin, Series of Sermons on the Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment (Canandaigua, New York: 1828), 30.

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