Is God still learning?

Catch the September 26, 2012 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast about the Journal of Discourses on this topic:  Does God Increase in Knowledge? 

By Bill McKeever

The following was originally printed in the May-June 2010 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

According to LDS thought, mankind has always existed, though in various stages of development. This doctrine, called “eternal progression,” is a core teaching of the modern LDS Church that it claims affects all of humankind. Though Mormons use the expression “eternal God,” they are not to assume God was “eternally God.” Joseph Smith denounced that notion when he insisted that God was once a man like us. Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde stated that

“God our Heavenly Father was perhaps once a child, and mortal like we ourselves, and rose step by step in the scale of progress, in the school of advancement; has moved forward and overcome, until He has arrived at the point where He now is” (Journal of Discourses 1:123).

Consider the words of Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe who said

“if the great law of progression be accepted, God must have been engaged from the beginning, and must now be engaged in progressive development, and infinite as God is, he must have been less powerful in the past than he is today” (Rational Theology, 1915, p.23).

But how far does one take this concept? Brigham Young firmly believed that if progression was indeed “eternal,” that Elohim must continue to learn just as his offspring continue to learn. While unbiblical, it would seem that he is consistent within the context of Mormonism.

Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt dared to openly disagree with Young’s presupposition by insisting that the Father and the Son do not progress in knowledge “because they already know all things past, present, and to come” (The Seer, p.117). Young did not take this challenge lightly and on January 13, 1867, proclaimed,

“Some men seem as if they could learn so much and no more. They appear to be bounded in their capacity for acquiring knowledge, as Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful” (Journal of Discourses 11:286).

Young, by virtue of his supreme position as Mormonism’s “living prophet,” won this battle and Orson Pratt had to reluctantly recant. And even though Wilford Woodruff, Mormonism’s fourth president, also believed that “God Himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, p.3), time has vindicated Pratt. Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith, though careful not to mention Young or Woodruff by name, called the idea that God was lacking in knowledge “very dangerous” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:8). Smith’s son-in-law, Apostle Bruce McConkie, explained in his “Seven Deadly Heresies” speech:

“There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths. This is false-utterly, totally, and completely.”

Officially, the modern LDS Church has come to embrace Orson Pratt’s position (which in this case has biblical support). It has since rejected Young’s and Woodruff’s notion that God can learn new things though it has yet to clearly explain how the finite God of Mormonism eventually grasped infinite knowledge since it is, well, infinite. Still, when the “MormonMatters” blog site asked readers “Is God Still Learning and Progressing?” (2/23/10), 83% responded in the affirmative. It appears that heresies, even within the context of Mormonism, tend to die slowly.

For more on the topic of God and the nature of the Godhead, click here.