2 Nephi 2, Part Two — Opposition in All Things, 19th Century Context

In Part 1, I summarized Lehi’s argument for opposition in all things. In this post, I will summarize the theological setting of its original audience as an interpretive aid.

III- Lehi’s Argument in Its 19th Century Setting

Rev. Asa Shinn

a-Since the time of the Middle Ages theologians have argued what God’s omnipotence could mean. It seems to involve contradictions. Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? In either case, God would not be omnipotent. By the time of the Scottish philosophers, some had concluded that the only thing that God could not do was cease to be God, which is the premise of several indirect arguments in the Book of Mormon. This was a common assumption used in indirect arguments of Joseph Smith’s day. In 1812, Methodist minister Asa Shinn gives us a typical indirect argument used by both Calvinists and Arminians to defend the satisfaction theory of the atonement, as Lehi does in 2 Nephi 2:

Justice is an essential and eternal attribute of God. Its demands must therefor be fully and entirely satisfied; otherwise the Almighty must relinquish a part of his nature, and consequently cease to be God.[1]

This is essentially replicated in the second half of Lehi’s argument as well as its sister arguments in Alma 42. In the twin arguments in Alma 42, Alma uses “God would cease to be God” three separate times as part of his indirect arguments discussing justice and law. Lehi also discusses justice and law, but does not use the exact same phrase, only the same concept of God ceasing to be. Lehi’ s indirect argument would have been perfectly comprehensible to the original 19th century audience.

b-Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, and the Legal Base of the Plan of Salvation

Why do Lehi and Alma start their sermons by emphasizing the legal characteristics of the plan of salvation? By the broken law of the fall and personal disobedience humans will all die and go to infinite suffering in hell. Anselm of Canterbury postulated that sin is infinite since it is against an infinite Being. Therefore only an infinite atonement by an infinite Being, God, can satisfy the law.  Yet, since the sin was by humans, only a human could satisfy the demands of justice. Therefore, only a God/man could satisfy the ends of the law through the atonement. This basic legalistic argument by Anselm was very popular in the 19th century. So both Lehi and Alma start their arguments by emphasizing the temporal and spiritual punishments of broken law in the plan of salvation. As Alma states it in Alma 42:17, “How could there be a law save there was a punishment?” Both Lehi and Jacob, among others in the Nephite record, make the same point. Hence, the Book of Mormon argues for a legal theory of the atonement.

But this satisfaction theory was not universal. The famous Universalist, Hosea Ballou, did not believe in hell or the devil and was an advocate of a governmental view of the atonement. In this theory, God acts as our great governor who governors only with love, not law. By seeing God’s love for us in the death of Christ, we are reconciled to God. The atonement is simply that—the renewal of love. In 1806, Ballou denies the reasoning used by Lehi and Alma that (in Ballou’s words) “a law cannot exit without a penalty.”[2] Ballou argues that the satisfaction theory of the atonement has done more damage to Christianity than all of its persecutors. In short, Lehi argues for an objective view of guilt while Ballou argues for a subjective view. The whole frame of Lehi’s argument assumes a legalistic view of the plan of salvation. The doctrine of opposition is intended to defend not only the law and its punishment, but the existence of the devil and hell against such thinkers as Ballou.

The Book of Mormon is filled with typical personifications of Justice and Mercy interacting with themselves and humans. Hence, the Nephites describe Mercy as incapable of robbing Justice, and Justice grasping human beings with His/Her hands. This is typical 19th century religious imagery. But it is more extensive than in the Book of Mormon—Justice and Mercy are found kissing, or embracing, etc. in various American religious texts of the time. This is a literary interplay within the general satisfaction theory of the atonement.

c-To Act and Be Acted Upon—The famous New England Calvinist, Nathaniel Emmons, argued that everything has a cause, and yet we seem to also make free choices. Hence he argues for a middle ground between Arminians and Calvinists—that freedom and determinism are compatible ideas. In the language of the time, he concludes that humans “both act and are acted upon.”[3] In verse 26, Lehi takes a strictly Arminian position of free will when he states that humans “act for themselves, and are not acted upon,”   except by the last judgment.

d- Goal of Existence—Generally, Calvinists tended to be God centered. The purpose of our creation was to glorify God. The famous American Calvinist, Samuel Hopkins, argued for a disinterested benevolence—we should be willing to gladly be predestined to hell if it helped glorify God. In contrast, Joseph Smith attributes the following words to God when speaking to Moses on the mount, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—-to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) Arminians, like the Book of Mormon, also held to the glory of God as an ideal. But utilitarianism in the form of maximizing human happiness, was becoming more prominent as a purpose of creation. The founder of utilitarianism, the influential writer, Jeremy Bentham, wrote in 1776 that the fundamental maxim of utilitarianism was to establish the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The famous New York revivalist, Charles Finney, took a middle position. In Lecture XIV of his lectures on revivals of religions, Finney stated that the highest good and goal in the universe is God’s “promotion of his own glory and happiness . . . A subordinate end, is the virtue and happiness of his creatures. . . The Bible declares that God governs all things for his own glory.” In his commentary on Esther 1, Mathew Henry (an 18th century biblical commentary popular in 19th century America) discusses how God seeks to “promote his own glory, and the safety and happiness of his people.” On the other hand, Lehi emphasized the basic utilitarian ideal of creation when he stated in 2 Nephi 2:25, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

These are just a few of the many phrases and theological positions in which Lehi’s sermon in 2 Nephi 2 appeals to the ideals of his original 19th century audience to defend his Arminian position against the Universalists and Calvinists.

Part 3 will discuss if this argument about opposition in all things is valid.

[1] Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation (Baltimore: 1813), 267-269.

[2] Hosea Ballou, Treatise on the Atonement (Randolph: 1806), 130.

[3] Nathaniel Emmons, Sermons on Some of the First Principles and Doctrines of True Religion, vol. 1 (Boston: 1815), 156 ff. See Shinn’s use of this terminology in Asa Shinn, op cit, 217-218.


2 Nephi 2, Part Two — Opposition in All Things, 19th Century Context — 7 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this, Mark, especially since Arminian readings of the Book of Mormon are a hobby of mine. I was particularly intrigued by your point about the “God would cease to be God” logic being typical 19th century fare. For me, that was one of those “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” moments. I was also impressed by your commentary on the Book of Mormon statement that people “act for themselves, and are not acted upon,” as well as the personification of Mercy and Justice in the rhetorical question “do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice?” I agree that these were loaded phrases for the Book of Mormon’s original 19th century audience, and they would have evoked some fairly specific theological meanings and associations.

    Concerning the popular personification of Justice and Mercy in nineteenth-century American discourse, this was a classical reference to the Roman goddesses Justitia and Clementia. Lady Justice, in particular, was appropriated as a fixture of the American civil religion. Christians of the day saw no conflict in drawing on classical pagan religious imagery that they obviously felt no temptation to take literally. I think that by personifying justice and mercy, the Book of Mormon employed a motif that would have been particularly evocative for nineteenth-century Americans, since it drew on the stuff of their national identities as well as their religious ones.

    I also applaud your framing of the series (in Part 1) as a rhetorical analysis rather than a debunking. I agree that since the Book of Mormon directly addresses a nineteenth-century audience, you don’t have to believe it’s a nineteenth-century production to find this sort of analysis important and useful.

  2. Thanks for adding your insights into the Roman goddesses Justitia and Clementia. I was unaware of this connection. For all its claims to the ideal of simplicity, the Book of Mormon is dense with allusions, which are often ironic or at least shocking. For example, nearly every page of the book is dense with biblical allusions, paraphases and echoes. The book covers horticultural practises, the theory and practice of war, prophetic and evangelical imagery, and numerous oral and literary forms. In many respects, the serious interpretaion of the Book of Mormon has yet to begin. We are too busy using it as a hammer, (a tool to attack each other) to calm down and carefully listen to its voice.

  3. I’m really enjoying Mark’s posts. Looking at the Book of Mormon from a 19th century perspective always produces fascinating results.

  4. Well Mark may be doing the impossible here: getting me to read the Book of Mormon again. I have a passage, or rather an interpretation of a passage, that I’d like to get a range of input on before I decide how to incorporate it in my own work. This sounds mysterious, but I’m going to try to craft it into a future blog post, so….to be continued….

  5. Mina,
    Here is something I would love you literary people to tackle—-the Book of Mormon as an oral document, especilaly the sermons. The book can be aweful. But it can be most eloquent as well in a folksy way. Here are some samples: The Jaredite metaphor in the book of Ether “And the wind never did cease to blow toward the promised land.” (I love it.)

    Or the sermons which are often intensely emotional and poetic like Helaman 12:

    “And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions,

    yea, except he doth visit them with death
    and with terror,
    and with famine
    and with all manner of pestilence,
    they will not remember him.

    4 O how foolish,
    and how vain,
    and how evil, and devilish,
    and how quick to do iniquity,
    and how slow to do good, are the children of men;
    yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one,
    and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world!

    5 Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride;
    yea, how quick to boast,
    and do all manner of that which is iniquity;
    and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God,
    and to give ear unto his counsels,
    yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! . . .

    7 O how great is the nothingness of the children of men;. . .”

    (I can hear a speaker speeding up on the “quick” lines and slowing down on the “slow” lines. The Book of Mormon was meant to be spoken, not read. I believe that it bears the marks of an oral performance.)

  6. Mark, I once spoke to Don Bradley about the Book of Mormon and/as performance. IIRC, it was the very night we met. It will take me a while to recall anything of use from that conversation, as well as reacquaint myself with much of the Book of Mormon itself. At the moment I am more familiar with the “Cliff Notes” style plot summaries which Captain Sir Richard Burton published in an appendix to The City of the Saints. I need to find an older copy of it as the recently minted paperback is a horror of garbage editing and I hate to even touch the thing, so high is my regard for Burton.