The Oddity of God’s Promises

June 12, 2008 | 29 comments
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I basically pay my mortgage by thinking about contracts and promises. It is a tough job, but someone has to do. Of late, I’ve gotten to thinking about God’s promising. Consider these two quotes:

“I the Lord am bound when you do what I say but when you do not what I say, ye have no promise.”

–Doctrine & Covenants 82:10

And

“But ’tis certain we can naturally no more changer our own sentiments, than the motions of the heavens; nor by a single act of our will, that is, by a promsie, render any action agreeable or disagreeable, moral or immoral; which, without that act, wou’d have produc’d contrary impressions, or have been endow’d with different qualities. It wou’d be absurd, therefore, to will any new obligation, that is, any new sentiment of pain or pleasure; nor is it possible, that men cou’d naturally fall into so gross an absurdity. A promise, therefore, is naturally something altogether unintelligible nor is there any act of the mind belonging to it.”

— David Hume (emphasis in original)

In the first statement, God speaks unproblematically of being morally bound by his own promises. In the second, Hume points out the very strange nature of promising. In a nutshelll, promising seems to be this mysterious practice by which I can commit myself to some future action and thereby render what was morally neutral morally obligatory. How is this possible? How do we transform the moral universe by our own actions?

One answer that has been given over the centuries is that promising somehow binds our wills. Hume’s argument is that it is impossible to find in the action of promising any sort of intention or action of the will that would correspond to this “binding.” There is nothing about saying “I promise” that somehow changes my will or my soul so that it is now “bound.” Hume’s response was simply the promising was useful, and that we tend to condemn promise breakers. This answer is a bit question begging, as it doesn’t really explain why promising is useful or what we condemn those who break promises. John Rawls offered a different account. Promising, he said, is a social practice, as such it is structured by certain norms. When we participate in the social practice and enjoy its benefits, we become bound by its norms. To do otherwise is a kind of cheating. (The argument here is very similar to Searle’s claim to be able to derive “ought” from “is” although Rawls wrote a decade or so before Searle.)

How does this apply to God? Take the Rawlsian account. We would say that God is bound by his promise because of his participation in the practice of promising and his enjoyment of its benefits. Of course, one of the things that seperates Mormonism from traditional theism is that we are much more radically committed to the notion of God’s personality even at the cost (in the eyes of traditional theology) of his transcendence. God’s emphasis on promising, however, rests not only on his personality, but also on the sociability that personality makes possible. It would be pretty non-sensical to suggest, for example, that the ground of being or the unmoved mover might engage in a social practice. God’s recourse to promising, however, also raises some interesting questions about the meta-ethics of Mormonism. In particular, if Hume is right that we cannot find a “natural” — i.e. metaphysically foundational — account of promising, God’s resort to promissory morality may suggest a certain divine skepticism about foundationalist ethical projects.

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29 Responses to The Oddity of God’s Promises

  1. Bob Stocks on June 12, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I think that what Heavenly Father says is actually a very safe and smart promise. After all, how often do we actually do what he says? In fact, he\’s only promising the natural course of events. The people that consistently do the Father\’s will by their very nature have earned the blessings that come from that obedience because they\’ve actually changed themselves to a higher way of living/thinking/feeling. Obedience allows the Spirit to be with us always. That closeness to the Spirit brings an increase in personal revelation and added confirmations, as well as enhanced spiritual power, both personally and in the priesthood.

    To the measure that we\’re not obedient, those natural consequences are not available to us and we either stay at the level we\’re currently at (i.e. no progression) or we lose that portion of the word that we previously had.

    So whether or not it\’s a \”morally binding\” promise is almost irrelevant (no disrespect intended), but rather, Heavenly Father is merely stating the natural course of events in a way that will make sense to us regular folks.

  2. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Promising is odd for us, but I’m not sure its odd for God.

    When God makes a promise, it could just the functional equivalent of stating ‘I am the kind of being whose nature and purposes do not vary with time.’

  3. Benji on June 12, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Nate, I’ve often been struck by the line in Nephi that God would cease to be God if he were to lie. In what sense is this true? Presumably he has the power to lie; he just chooses not to. But Nephi’s comments raises some questions: if God were to lie, would he be thrown from the heavens and stripped of his power? If so, by whom?

  4. Nate Oman on June 12, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Bob: The question is not whether or not God is reliable or will keep his promises. The question is what the fact that God promises tells us.

    Adam: Your restatement of God’s language, it seems to me, does violence to the words the He actually uses. In effect you change statements like “I promise…” into statements like “I predict that in the future I will…” This, it seems to me, is to miss the core feature of promising, namely that it commits us to action rather than merely making statements about future intentions. I take God at his word when he says that he has comitted himself, as opposed to merely making a prediction about his behavior.

    Benji: Who knows! ;->

  5. clark on June 12, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Adam (#2) I think that begs the question of why God’s nature and purpose don’t vary. I think it hard for Mormons to take an essentialist view of God’s nature. Rather it is an eternal nature that is contingent and much of its contingency seems tied to the performance of God’s making promises. (I think Blake touches upon this point several times in his books)

    So I think that what is odd is how promising for the Mormon God makes his nature and purposes constant. As such it really is more odd than our promising.

  6. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    N.O.,
    “Prediction” is a paltry word. When God says ‘I am the same yesterday, today, and forever’ he isn’t just guessing about the future, he’s making an important statement about who he is and his nature. Our obligation to keep our promises is in part an obligation to ourselves to be whole, the past man and the future man united into a continuity, but with God that is less an obligation than it is a certainty.

  7. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Clark,
    I don’t understand your philosophical vocabulary entirely, but as you know from prior conversations we have had about whether libertarian free will extends to God, I believe God is inalterably what he is. Its not promises that keep him reigned in.

  8. Nate Oman on June 12, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Adam: I think that you are equivicating on the two ways in which promises bind. First, they might be signals of future behavior. Second, they might be practices that create reasons for future behavior. The question is not whether or not God will behave as he indicates in the future. Rather, the question is whether his promise creates a reason for his behavior that did not previously exist. Ordinarilly this reason providing function is what we understand promises to do, so to suggest that when discussing God’s promises the question of how the promise creates a reason is beside the point is to do some violence to our ordinary understanding of language.

  9. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    N.O.,
    One angle on promise-keeping that I don’t see explored a lot is the old association keeping promises had with honor. Honor isn’t just a synonym for morality or obligation though there is overlap. In the context of honor I think promise-keeping had something to with demonstrating your manly force of will.

  10. Nate Oman on June 12, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Adam: I think that you are right about the connection of promising and honor. I think of Atilius Regulus, the captured Roman general who was sent by the Carthaginians to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with Rome on condition that he swear an oath to return if he was not successful. Regulus went to Rome and then gave an impassioned oration in the Senate against the exchange, which he thought was not in Rome’s interest. Then, consistent with his oath, he retured to Carthage where he was executed by being forced to stand in a spike filled wooden box until he died.

    Here we start straying into aretaic theories of promising, which I confess that I don’t know all that much about. Certainly, what you are saying makes sense of something like Karl Maeser’s famous chalk circle story. Of course, part of this also goes back historically to the notion of oaths, which allowed one to place one’s eternal soul at risk. Don’t know how to work out the theology of god swearing an oath.

  11. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    N.O.,
    I’m hardly doing more violence than, say, the D&C’s take on ‘eternal punishment,’ but never mind. The thing is, from my perspective promise-making creates an obligation to someone. It either creates an obligation to some other entity or class of entity, in which case that entity can excuse the obligation. Since in my mind we are all subordinate to God and any obligations to us really accrue to Him, so to speak, I don’t see how there really can be a promissory obligation to us.

  12. Nate Oman on June 12, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    “Since in my mind we are all subordinate to God and any obligations to us really accrue to Him, so to speak, I don’t see how there really can be a promissory obligation to us. ”

    Then why is God constantly making promises to people?

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Here we start straying into aretaic theories of promising, which I confess that I don’t know all that much about.

    I don’t know anything about anything, so we’re even. To the extent promising is about honor or proving manhood, I see two components. In the first the kept promise demonstrates one’s force of will and in the second the kept promise demonstrate’s one’s potency (one’s ability to accomplish that which one has promised). God’s promising would then have the purpose of demonstrating that he is God by showing his unparalleled force of will (his unparallelled constancy) and his unparallelled potency. God’s promise lets you know the inconceivable extent of the I that speaks to you, extending as it does throughout all the future, and that this I has sufficient power to accomplish its word. Why God would need or want to make this kind of statement is another question.

    Don’t know how to work out the theology of god swearing an oath.

    Uh, me either.

  14. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Then why is God constantly making promises to people?

    Beats me. To the extent I think of a promise as an obligation to someone, I guess I assume that even though ultimately God knows that in justice we will acknowledge that any obligation accruing to us is rightfully his, we aren’t in that position yet so promises can motivate us. Dunno.

  15. Clark on June 12, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Adam, I don’t think one need be a libertarian to see the issue of God being God freely. That is libertarianism is one theory of what it means to be free. I don’t think one need embrace that notion of freedom to say within Mormonism that God could freely choose to do something undivine.

  16. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I would say, Clark, God has no *external restraints* on his ability to choose to do something undivine. I would also say, however, that is is impossible for God to choose to do something undivine.

  17. StillConfused on June 12, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I think of God like energy. There are certain laws/promises/whatever that happen in a cause and effect relationship.

  18. Bob Stocks on June 12, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Bob: The question is not whether or not God is reliable or will keep his promises. The question is what the fact that God promises tells us.

    Nate: That’s actually what I was trying to convey, and must have failed miserably. :) I see God’s promises as his way of telling us how Nature (temporal or spiritual) works. The fact that he does it in the form of a promise shows his perfect understanding of how our imperfect minds/social structure etc works. We have developed this “code” of integrity that says, “When someone promises, we can expect it to happen.” When God, being an integral person, says, “I promise” we respond with faith and believe it will happen.

    The truth is, everything God says is a promise. He can’t say something that isn’t true, whether it’s “Repent or be destroyed” or “I love you,” or “if ye do what I say then I am bound.” It’s his nature.

    Anyway, I’m still not sure I did my thoughts justice, but there it is.

  19. Clark on June 12, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Since in my mind we are all subordinate to God and any obligations to us really accrue to Him, so to speak, I don’t see how there really can be a promissory obligation to us.

    Can’t one be subordinate and engage ones superior in obligations? I don’t quite see the reasoning here. If you are arguing for something more like the classic Christian view of God where is the the absolute mover and unmoved then I strongly disagree. While I’m not sure I buy the “most moved mover” view I do think that our relationship with God to be a true relationship must be two way. That entails, I feel, the need to promise and engage in obligations that are beyond ones own thinking.

    To me the more interesting example of this in LDS history is the loss of the 116 pages by Joseph Smith.

  20. Clark on June 12, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    “Prediction” is a paltry word. When God says ‘I am the same yesterday, today, and forever’ he isn’t just guessing about the future, he’s making an important statement about who he is and his nature. Our obligation to keep our promises is in part an obligation to ourselves to be whole, the past man and the future man united into a continuity, but with God that is less an obligation than it is a certainty.

    Sorry to continue to be so picky Adam. But that last statement just seems a category mistake. It confuses what is a performative act (doing something to someone else in a relation) with what is an epistemological state (knowing some fact about the matter).

    I also don’t quite understand about human obligation. I don’t see how promises are tied to uniting a past man and a future man unless you mean in the trivial sense that to promise is to bind some future performance.

    This gets into the oddity of promises though. Clearly there are promises where we aren’t obliged to act. The ethical call (whatever that is) can be seen to override our ability to promise. So, for example, if I make a promise to kill my wife’s killer and then come to realize that this promise was unethical am I still under the obligation to kill? I don’t see that I am.

    Maybe this is the move you are attempting to make relative to God. To argue that for God there are no surprises and therefore one can’t make promise because there is no risk. Now obviously this demands a particular view of God’s foreknowledge not everyone will necessarily share. But even if one buys an exhaustive foreknowledge it seems to confuse risk with ignorance, epistemology with performance.

  21. Ray on June 12, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    1) I make promises so others can plan their lives around what I have promised; I want to be able to do the same thing when others make promises to me.

    I see God’s promises to me as the motivator of my efforts – the foundation of my faith. The fact that it is a *promise* means I can build my life around what He has promised. If it weren’t framed as a promise, I’m not sure I would be motivated to pursue the blessings He . . . tells me I *might* obtain.

    2) “There is nothing about saying “I promise” that somehow changes my will or my soul so that it is now “bound.”

    Not for the natural man, but there is IF I am committed totally to doing whatever I say I will do – if my very nature is to only *promise* what I know I will do. The ability to make and keep promises is an obvious indicator of character – and, according to our canon, the development of character appears to be the definition of the process of becoming like God.

  22. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    I don’t see how promises are tied to uniting a past man and a future man unless you mean in the trivial sense that to promise is to bind some future performance.

    Its not making promises but keeping them that makes you integral (have integrity) through time.

  23. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Can’t one be subordinate and engage ones superior in obligations?

    In general, yes. With God its different because we find ourselves under total obligation to Him, as if we received a promissory note from someone to whom we had mortgaged everything we owned or would ever acquire.

  24. Gary on June 12, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Nate: Is it possible that God does not really make promises in sense you are using the term. He is not performing an act which binds his will, or which creates a reason for his future actions which did not previously exist. Instead, maybe he is simply resorting to the language we typically use because by doing so he induces certain behaviour and attitudes on our part. When we hear “promissory” language, we react by trusting in the promissor, especially if that promissor is God. So he uses that kind of language, and he hopes that clever people like you don’t think too hard about the issue so as not to ruin it for everybody else.

  25. Clark on June 12, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Adam could you clarify how and why it is different with God? That is what is the nature of total obligation as you see it and why does it entail this?

  26. Jim F. on June 12, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Nate, isn’t the problem that Hume has that he believes in a very atomistic universe: promises don’t make sense if they are merely promises to myself which, as I understand Hume, is what he takes them ultimately to be–as well as a naturalist, an additional problem for him since “natural” means something like “empirical.” Rawls is less atomistic than Hume, but he remains an atomist, taking the individual to be singularly important in his analysis.

    However, Genesis 2:18 (describing an event that occurs before the creation of human beings is finished) suggests that to be human is to be faced with another human being (and Genesis 4:1–describing an event after the creation of human beings–suggests that it is to be part of a larger family). If human being is not atomistic, if we cannot be what we are except in relation to others, then promises have to be understood as acts which establish relations between oneself and another. Relations are real, though not in the way that Hume would require. To promise is to create a particular relation with at least one other; it is to be joined to that person, to be self-sealed to him or her, if you will.

    An individual who has promised is not the same person as the one whom he or she would be had that promise not been made. Having made a promise, a certain course of action is now part of my being. That is why Adam’s point that honor has something to do with this is right.

    (Sorry to wax French-philosophical on you, but I can’t help it. It’s part of my being.)

  27. Jim F. on June 12, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Adam, I understand well why you take the position you do regarding God. It is not, however, one that fits well with the “classical” Mormon understanding of God. That doesn’t mean it is wrong, of course, but I suspect that most Mormons who think about these things would disagree with you on the point you make at #23.

    However, your point at #22 is, to my mind, a very important one: promise-making is like a species of testimony. I am the one who bears witness of my life. To have integrity, to be integral, is for that testimony to be integrated. Making promises but not keeping them would be bearing false witness of who I am. I create a relation with another and then deny that I have done so.

  28. Kathryn Lynard Soper on June 13, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Why does God keep making promises?

    So that we can have faith. We come to trust God as we experience him keeping his word. As we trust his promises, we enable them to come to pass (through that trust), and then we have greater trust. It’s an upward spiral that begins with pure desire: we want to believe, a la Alma 32.

  29. clark on June 13, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    My personal feeling, which I’m not sure I expressed, is that God makes promises – even promises ‘beneath him’ (to follow Adam’s approach) is to develop a relationship with us.

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