Since Mormonism claims that all people lived in God’s presence in a “preexistent” state before they were born into this world, this verse is used to support the teaching that God had a relationship with Jeremiah (and all other humans) before birth. Is it possible that spirits previously existed before life on earth? Not according to this passage or the rest of the Bible. It needs to be shown that God is the one who “chose,” “set apart,” and “appointed” Jeremiah to be a prophet. So, while the sovereign God knew Jeremiah, there is no evidence that Jeremiah knew God in the same way. It is not a sound biblical principle to read a doctrine into a verse that the author intended to be meant.
Certain biblical passages have been used by Latter-day Saints to back premortality, though they have to be taken out of their context to do so. One commonly-used proof text is Jeremiah 1:5, which says,
“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”
Mormons believe in a preexistence, where spirits once existed in what is known as the First Estate. However, the emphasis in this verse is on God’s foreknowledge (“I knew thee”), not humanity’s knowing God. Saying this refers to God’s foreknowledge and not the existence of humans in a previous plan, BYU professor Charles R. Harrell explains that “most biblical scholars interpret this passage as having reference to only ideal preexistence.” (“This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, 203. Italics in original).
Christians believe that God is omniscient, knowing everything about each person before birth. The emphasis is on God’s foreknowledge (“I knew thee”), not humanity’s knowing God. In Job 38:4, God questions Job and rebukes him for his pride, asking, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” When God formed the world, Job 38:7 says, “The sons of God shouted for joy.” In effect, God was reminding Job how Job wasn’t even in existence when the world was created. Just as the clay should not talk back to the potter, so too Job had no business questioning God’s work (compare Jer. 18:1–6 with Rom. 9:18–26). Jeremiah is told by the sovereign God of the universe that He has a plan for the prophet, and that plan was formed before Jeremiah’s birth.
Does this mean that humans had a relationship with God in premortality? The answer is, quite simply, no. Notice that this verse says God knew Jeremiah before his birth; nowhere does it intimate that Jeremiah knew God. If God is omniscient (all-knowing) and sovereign, we would expect Him to know Jeremiah. The Bible is full of passages stating that God is in sovereign control, and, as such, His plans cannot be thwarted by anyone. In fact, it’s clear that God has a plan for everyone. It was God who determined who our parents would be (thus determining where we would be born), the color of our skin, the number of hairs on our head, and even our natural temperament. Nothing about our existence surprised God. He knew us, but nowhere is it inferred that we knew Him before birth.
Referring to the LDS interpretation, Christian theologian D.A. Carson writes,
The words of Jeremiah 1:5 could just about be taken that way if there were contextual reasons for thinking that is what they mean, but such reasons are completely lacking. What the Mormons are really doing is appealing to their book Pearl of Great Price for the content of their doctrine, and appealing to the Bible at a verbally ambiguous point and overspecifying what the text says in order to claim the Bible’s authority. (Exegetical Fallacies, 115)
Harrell concurs that Jeremiah 1:5 is not considered a good prooftext for preexistence, saying,
Most biblical scholars, however, see God’s question as rhetorical and intended to highlight the fact that Job was nowhere around during the creation. The whole tenor of the Lord’s query, when read in context with the entire chapter, is to emphasize the insignificance and fleeting nature of human existence. The Lord does tell Job, however, that the “sons of God” were there and “shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), but there is no indication that Job was numbered among them (“This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, 203).
For other passages discussing common passages used by Latter-day Saints, click here.