Opposition, 9.1 – “All Things” in Scripture
Posted by joespencer on November 21, 2012
In my last post, I took a close look just at the word “opposition.” Here I want to look just at the phrase “all things.” I’ll be doing one more narrow post like this on the first line, on, specifically, “it must needs be.” Then I’ll follow this brief miniseries up with a study of the first sentence of 2 Nephi 2:11.
So the task: What should be said about the meaning of “all things”? Here, we don’t really have much to learn from dictionaries—we all know the basic meaning of “all,” and “things” is far too complicated when it comes to things like definitions and etymologies even to begin to address it in those terms. Instead, what we need to do here is look at the meaning of the whole phrase, “all things.” We’ve seen in looking at the various translations of 2 Nephi 2:11 that there are several ways this phrase can be interpreted. The task now is to look at those several possibilities, and to wager an interpretation of what’s at stake.
Although we can’t find much help in dictionaries and the like, we can look at other instances of this phrase, and I’ll begin by doing that.
As it turns out, “all things” appears very often in scripture—583 times, to be exact! How are we to sort through all those occurrences? First, I think we can ignore every qualified instance of the phrase—that is every instance of the phrase where “all things” is qualified by a “that” or a “which” or an “as” (“all things that are X” or “all things which do Y,” etc.). Lehi uses “all things” in an absolute construction, so we’ll pay attention just to those instances. Second, I think we can avoid dealing in any detail with instances of “all things” that might be said to be untheological—that is, instances where “all things” just seems to refer to “everything” in an indiscriminate manner. What will interest us is instances of “all things” where there seems to be some sort of theological significance. Of course, that still leaves us with hundreds of instances to make sense of.
One very obvious and common use, to be found throughout scripture, concerns creation. Thus in the Old Testament “all things come of [God]” (1 Chronicles 29:14), “all things” is used in parallel with “the works of [God's] hands” (Psalms 8:6), and God is described as the one that “hath made all things for himself” (Proverbs 16:4; cf. Isaiah 44:24) or the one “that formed all things” (Proverbs 26:10; cf. Jeremiah 10:16; 51:19). Similarly, God is, as Lord of creation, the one who gives all things or blesses in all things (Genesis 9:3; 24:1) and thus the one who requires the firstfruits of all things and a recognition of “the abundance of all things”—with punishment to follow those who don’t respond accordingly (see Deuteronomy 28:47, 48, 57; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Ezekiel 44:30; Zephaniah 1:2; cf. Jeremiah 44:18). Similar references can be found in the New Testament: John opens his gospel by saying that “all things were made by [the Word]” (John 1:3), the book of Acts speaks of God’s creating the world “and all things therein” (Acts 14:15; 17:24-25), and several authors refer to God creating “all things” (Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 4:11). In a not dissimilar vein, Peter speaks of “all things continu[ing] as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Peter 3:4).
Unsurprisingly, similar usage appears in the Book of Mormon. Apart from 2 Nephi 2, to which I’ll be coming in a moment, there are three circumstances in which this usage appears in Nephite scripture: (1) it appears four times in King Benjamin’s sermon (Mosiah 3:8; 4:2, 9; 5:15); (2) it appears in both of the exchanges between Nephite missionaries and Lamanite kings (Alma 18:28-29; 22:10-11); and (3) it appears in references to the creation as a kind of “witness” to God’s existence and the truth of the gospel (Alma 30:44; Helaman 8:24). That this sort of usage in the Book of Mormon is so specific, almost compartmentalized, is curious and distinct. The Doctrine and Covenants, for its part, relatively infrequently refers to the creation with “all things,” this despite it being the volume of scripture that most frequently employs the phrase (see D&C 20:17; 38:3; 45:1; 88:42; 93:10; 104:14, 17; 121:4). It appears with more frequency, unsurprisingly, in the creation narrative of the Book of Moses (Moses 1:35; 2:10, 12, 18, 21, 31; 3:2, 5, 7, 9; 6:63).
How relevant is all this to 2 Nephi 2? Very relevant, it appears. While it isn’t entirely obvious to what “all things” in 2 Nephi 2:11 refers, either in the first or in the third sentence, most of all the other references in 2 Nephi 2 to “all things” seem to have something to do with creation. This is made clearest in verse 14: “there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.” Similarly verse 15: “after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition.” Again, verse 22: “And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created.” Of these passages, verse 15 may be particularly important, since it connects “all things,” clearly associated with the creation, with the fact that “it must needs be that there was an opposition.”
Of course, there are a few other references to “all things” in 2 Nephi 2 that are a little more ambiguous. Verse 13 speaks in the vein of verse 11, simply stating that without law and its consequences, “all things must have vanished away.” Verse 24 also speaks ambiguously: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” And verse 27 only hints at the creation: “men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man.” None of these references would be incompatible with the idea that “all things” has reference to the creation, specifically. But it isn’t entirely clear that that would be the best interpretation. For the moment, then, it is probably best to assume that “all things” in 2 Nephi 2:11 refers to the creation as such, but it would be a good idea to look at other theologically significant uses in the meanwhile, just to see how they might help to offer further nuance or even radical revision.
There is a most interesting treatment of “all things” in the Book of Ecclesiastes, one that is not unconnected with talk of creation but one that nonetheless complicates the story. Importantly, “all things” appears more often in Ecclesiastes than anywhere else in the Old Testament—six times in just a few short chapters. And there is good reason to pay attention to the nuance of these references, since they appear in the context of a wisdom discourse directed by a father to a son, a situation not at all unlike the situation in which Lehi speaks with his son Jacob.
Early on, and following a list of those natural features of the earth that move in circular patterns (generations of people, the rising and setting of the sun, the whirling about of the winds, the cycle of the earth’s water, etc.), the preacher announces that “all things are full of labour” (Ecclesiastes 1:8), yet without accomplishing anything. As I said before, “all things” here again seems to indicate the creation, but it does so in a much more dour spirit than elsewhere in scripture. Thus, a few verses later, the preacher describes his quest “to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven,” a quest he can only describe as a “sore travail” that God gives “to the sons of man” (Ecclesiastes 1:13)—since “all is vanity and vexation of spirit” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). In the same depressed tone, the preacher later explains that these searches precisely have made him realize the essential injustice of the world: “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). “All things” here seems to have reference to everything human beings don’t want to countenance—the whole story.
This last usage begins to gesture in the direction of Lehi’s sermon, it seems to me. The “all” of “all things” seems to refer specifically to both sides of an essential opposition. Indeed, it might be said that the “all” of the preacher’s “all things” is meant to suggest that opposition isn’t ultimately worth much, since “all things” end up about the same in the end. Such, at any rate, he goes on to argue a little further along: “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath” (Ecclesiastes 9:2). Here again “all things” refers to a set of things (supposedly) ordered and organized by a series of fundamental oppositions—”righteous” versus “wicked,” “clean” versus “unclean,” “him that sacrificeth” versus “him that sacrificeth not,” “he that sweareth” versus “he that feareth an oath,” and so on. “All things” make up what these oppositions should divide up and differentiate—but fail to, since all things happen to all. (Is it significant that every one of these oppositions is ethical, rather than ontological or existential?) At any rate, the preacher believes this is a universal situation, as he explains in the next verse: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).
Lehi’s discourse is, of course, characterized by a rather happier tone than the preacher’s, but the two seem to be related. In the end, Lehi and the preacher would seem to be on opposite sides of a kind of debate. Both recognize the fact that the world as they know it—the created order of things—is structured by a series of oppositions. (Lehi seems to go a little further than the preacher in this regard, recognizing existential as well as ethical opposites.) But while both seem to see opposition as giving shape to the world of experience, the one argues that all such oppositions are mere phantasms, while the other argues that all such oppositions betray a still more fundamental, apparently ontological “opposition” (or inconsistency) at the root of things. That is, where the preacher sees all the structuring oppositions of the world to be differences that make no difference, given the apparent indifference of God-as-rewarder to ethical goodness and ethical wickedness, Lehi sees all the structuring oppositions of the world to be rooted in a fundamental—if nonetheless indiscernible—law, a law that, rather precisely, guarantees the fundamental opposition between punishment and happiness.
It’ll be necessary to see how Lehi and the preacher can come to such radically distinct conclusions about the oppositions so apparent in the world. In the end, their differences have to be a question of how they understand grace. What seems to make the preacher skeptical about the deep-rootedness of opposition is the lack of any connection between action and reward. Oppositions are so many surface appearances for him because it doesn’t seem to be one’s works that save one. For Lehi, on the other hand, it is grace precisely that marks the ultimate difference between punishment and happiness—even as one can’t trust in one’s own works: it’s Lehi who says, after all, that “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). Perhaps it is for this reason that the preacher’s last reference to “all things” is profoundly pessimistic and, frankly, materialistic, and thus most profoundly opposed to Lehi’s theological commitments. The preacher concludes by asking what’s to be done, given the indifference of grace to one’s attempts at mastery. His answer? “Money answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). Such is the miserable wisdom of the preacher.
But if Lehi is so confident about grace, where does his confidence come from? And what connection does it have to the phrase “all things”? Here it might be worth looking at yet another set of theologically significant uses of the phrase “all things,” these from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Jacob Taubes apparently gave a series of lectures on the use of the word “all” in First Corinthians—lectures that weren’t recorded, unfortunately. Since learning that he had given those lectures, I’ve wanted an excuse to look at “all” in the letter, and here I’ve got a bit of an opportunity, at least to look at “all things.”
The occasion for Paul’s writing of the letter in the first place seems to have been that some in Corinth were claiming that the essence of the Christian gospel was, precisely, that “all things are lawful,” and they were using this claim to justify unseemly behavior (in particular fornication and the eating of meat offered to idols, two of the things forbidden to Gentiles according to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15). It seems that it was this formula—”all things are lawful”—that set Paul’s theological task in writing his first letter to the Corinthians, and that gave him to focus profoundly on the phrase “all things” (as well as other uses of “all”). At two different points in the letter, Paul quotes the Corinthians’ own words and then counters them: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12); and then: “all things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Corinthians 10:23). The basic point of contention, it seems, is that the Corinthians understood the differentiating law that governs the basic opposition between “good” and “evil” to have been in some sense canceled by the advent of grace (in the Christ-event), the result being that they were free to do as they perversely pleased. Over against this, Paul contended that the event through which the law (of Moses) was deactivated introduced a new differentiating law—the law of love. The result of the Christ event is less that “all things are lawful” (though that’s true) than that “all things are new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Notice a kind of connection between the Corinthian saints and the preacher of Ecclesiastes. The latter claimed that observational evidence betrayed a kind of arbitrariness about God’s dealings, a lack of any consistent link between human behavior and divine reward, and so claimed that all oppositional differentiation is mere surface appearance. The former claimed something similar, but pointed to a specific de-differentiating event, a fundamental disruption of the link between human behavior and divine reward in the grace of Christ. Paul claims that the story is more complicated than that. It is less that “all things” have become undifferentiated in Christ, rendering the world much like the pessimistic preacher of Ecclesiastes had conceived of it, than that “all things” are to be newly differentiated because of Christ. The created order is to be reworked, as the old order of things passes away (see 1 Corinthians 7:21). Paul’s position might be summarized thus: What the Christ event reveals—if not brings about—is that most of the oppositions human beings believe to order and organize the world as experienced are actually false oppositions, dichotomies of human origin set up in the first place in order to keep God and His grace from meddling in affairs; in light of the revelation of God’s love in the Christ event, the task of faith is to rework the world so that all false oppositions collapse through the establishment of genuine oppositions.
Hence, “all things” are “of God” (1 Corinthians 11:12), but Christ opens up the possibility of transforming them. Thus this curious formulation: “God, the Father, of whom are all things” and the “Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). How does the process of transformation get underway? The Father “hath put all things under [Christ's] feet” through the event of the resurrection, but the actual submission of all things remains to be accomplished to a certain extent (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). In the meanwhile, “the Spirit searcheth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:10), and “he that is spiritual judgeth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15). At the same time, the Christians are “the offscouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13), such that their task of assisting in the transformation of all things amounts to a kind of travail: their love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). In a word, even though “all things are [the Christians']” (1 Corinthians 3:21), they “suffer all things” (1 Corinthians 9:12). Christians have the difficult task of attending to “all things” with particular care (see 1 Corinthians 9:25; 14:26, 40).
All things are to be made new, and the Christians—thanks to Christ—have a role to play in that process. The entire creation is to be oriented by the most fundamental opposition of all, the inconsistency between life and death, between the order of selfishness and idolatry and the order of grace and praise. That is, ironically, only accomplished as every apparent opposition is canceled, is shown fundamentally to be no opposition. How does Paul suggest the Christian is to do this? The genuinely faithful are to be “made all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22), to “please all men in all things” (1 Corinthians 10:33). The oppositions that divide the world—Greeks versus Jews, wisdom versus foolishness, honor versus shame, bondage versus freedom, male versus female, and so on—are all to be overshadowed and reworked in the light of the Christ event. The Christian splits these differences, establishing the crucial, core opposition. And it seems to me that some or most of this is implicit in 2 Nephi 2.
Echoes of these uses of “all things” appear in the rest of the Pauline literature, as well as in the remainder of the New Testament—particularly in the Gospels. I won’t review them all, since I think the idea is clear. The question now is how all this compares to the Book of Mormon more generally.
Most uses of “all things” in the Book of Mormon are without major theological implications. But there is one consistent use that deserves attention. From the beginning to the end of the Book of Mormon, “all things” is used in connection with God’s revelation to human beings. That is, apparently because “the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning” (1 Nephi 9:6), as well as “all things which are to come” (Words of Mormon 1:7; cf. Alma 13:7)—indeed, because “he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it” (2 Nephi 9:20; cf. Alma 7:13; 18:18; 26:35; Mormon 8:17; Moroni 7:22)—when God reveals, He reveals “all things.” At times the revelation thus referred to is clearly a revelation of the whole of world history (see 1 Nephi 14:26; 22:2; 2 Nephi 27:10, 22; 3 Nephi 26:3; Ether 3:26; 12:21). At other times, it is clearly more limited, though the phrase “all things” is nonetheless employed (see 1 Nephi 19:21; Mosiah 8:17; Alma 9:20; 3 Nephi 5:2; 23:2). Whether any particular revelation concerns the whole of history or only a part of it, there is constant talk that it will all be revealed universally at the end of history (see 2 Nephi 27:11; 30:16, 18; Mormon 5:8). And particular prophets confess their ignorance before God of, precisely, “all things” (see 1 Nephi 11:17; Words of Mormon 1:7).
This revelatory focus is tied specifically to the question of writing. Christ claims that “all things are written by the Father” (3 Nephi 27:26), and others point out that “all things” are also to be found in the “written” records piled up “from the creation of the world” (2 Nephi 6:3). This seems to be particularly true of Isaiah (see 3 Nephi 23:3; cf. 3 Nephi 26:1). At the same time, however, one of the gifts of the Spirit is simply to speak—not to write—”all things” (see Mosiah 5:3; Mormon 8:12; Ether 13:2; Moroni 10:5, 13; cf. Helaman 9:14). Whichever way it appears, “all things” clearly has reference to what God knows and chooses to reveal in various ways and at different times.
How might this theme give us to think anew what appears as “all things” in 2 Nephi 2? This, I think, isn’t clear. And for the moment I want just to raise the possibility that it should influence our interpretation—though I don’t see how it should do so yet.
So much, for the moment, for what we find of “all things” in scripture. We’ve definitely gotten somewhere with all this study (and my apologies it has taken so long for me to work this post out—it turned out more complicated than I imagined). Before leaving “all things,” I want to turn to the various possible interpretations of “all things” in and of itself, so to speak. That I’ll do in my next post.