Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

“Agents unto themselves”

Posted by Robert C. on September 12, 2007

JakeW wrote in on our “submit a question” page the following:

(D&C 29: 34-35) Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created. Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual.

If read in light of the ever-speculative Adam-God doctrine, this scripture presents many interesting ideas. Christ, the speaker, states that he created God the Father. In other words, sons weren’t originally intended by fathers, but vice versa. Laying aside all that fascinating Adam-God hullabaloo aside, however, I’d like to bring up what seems to be a problematic in verse 35. Christ first states that he gave unto Adam that he “should be an angent unto himself,” but in the very next phrase Christ states that he “gave unto him [Adam] commandment.” It’ interesting that in the church “free” agency is always talked about, but what seems to be interesting in the agency described here is that is an explicitly binding contract of sorts. In other words, one doesn’t become an “agent,” at all, if you will, until one has taken upon themselves some Other Law. So I’m very puzzled by the phrase “agent unto himself,” or even just simply “unto himself.” What does that mean?

I think this is a fascinating topic and question. My first inclination is to read “agent unto himself” as establishing a contrast to a complete, deterministic system. That is, as JakeW is correct, I think, to point out, the word agent by itself seems incomplete—agent of whom? In this sense, agent seems almost synonymous with slave, but if we are a slave to a master, then we might think that we are simply cogs in a deterministic machine, slaves to our fate or destiny. So, I’m inclined to read this phrase (which seems such a common notion in the Book of Mormon and the D&C, but almost entirely absent in the Bible, except in terms of some notion of slavery, as I’m trying to bring in here…) as both establishing a radical limitation of our free will (if such a thing exists), but emphatically establishing the existence of something like free will. That is, to a certain extent we are all slaves of circumstance, thrown into a lone and dreary world in which we are subject (or slaves) to hunger, pain, etc. And yet, the manner of our being, whether it is unto death or life (per our Sunday school reading schedule, Paul’s discussion of the spirit and the letter of the law are in the forefront of my mind here) is entirely up to us—the devil entices us toward sin, but Christ entices us toward life, and there is no way to determine which we will be enticed by. Whether we are agents of the devil or agents of Christ is something indeterminate, only we can choose whom we will be an agent to.

Hmmm, that’s all pretty vague and incoherent, and probably quite problematic, but that’s my first stab attempting to think about the question. Others’ thoughts?

24 Responses to ““Agents unto themselves””

  1. Robert C. said

    By the way, I remember somewhere hearing (perhaps even in a Conference talk?) that “free agency” is a tautological misnomer because our agency isn’t really free—that is, when we choose an action we cannot choose the consequence separately from our choice of action. But this strikes me as exactly the wrong way to think about the scriptural phrase “agents unto themselves” because it suggests that agency is the word that suggests we have free will, and that free is trying to somehow radicalize the power of this free will in a way that is not true (viz. that we cannot alter the consequences of our choices). In contrast, I’m suggesting that “free agency” is a coupling of two contrasting words (i.e. we choose whom to be slaves or agents to).

  2. JakeW said

    Thanks, Robert. That seems to be exactly what the next verse implies. Verse 36: And it came to pass that Adam, being tempted of the devil–for, behold, the devil was before Adam, for he rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power; and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency;

    What’s most interesting about the last phrase “because of their agency,” is that it implies that Satan isn’t an agent, but he is rather the contract to which the third of the hosts of heaven submits. It’s almost as though from the very beginning, even before the Devil was the Devil (so says verse 37; and thus came the devil and his angels), he was in such a position that he was not one to submit, but one to be submitted to. It paints the Devil as being equal in authority, but directly opposite, directly opposing God’s authority. And it continues in verse 38 “And, behold, there is ap lace prepared for them from the beginning, which place is hell.” Now, I don’t pretend to know what the “beginning” is supposed to really mean, but this all seems to tie very nicely into Lehi’s 2 Nephi 2 logic of the creation. But then, it seems like everything goes back to 2 Nephi 2 for me. So it would seem then, that yes, to be an “agent unto one’s self” is to simply decide which contract to sign. And yet what is most interesting about this is that this whole structure is wrapped up under what could summarily be labeled “God’s Law.” It’s God who structured the whole thing. It’s almost as though God granted Satan this temporary Power to fulfil his plan, only to take it away at Judgment Day. So when Satan is finally bound up and cast away, will there be any more wickedness in the Universe? In short, will anything actually exist after that?

  3. Robert C. said

    JakeW, can you elaborate on what you mean by “God’s Law”? I guess I’m thinking that there seems to be an undermining of any meta-law going on here. In fact, I think Rom 2:14 is very interesting in this sense: I understand Paul to be saying that if the Gentiles, who have not been given the law like the Israelites have, do good, then they become “a law unto themselves” in the sense that they have chosen to subject themselves to that which is good independent of God. That is, the Gentiles who act in this way are, in a sense, “more free” than the Israelites who have been given the law, so the Gentiles doing good is less related to anything God has done or given them. (Is D&C 88:35, then, describing the opposite side of this same coin, that if we Gentiles act in a way contrary to law, then we are still a law unto ourselves, but in a damning rather than liberating sense??)

    I think I’m getting away from what you meant by “God’s law” (presumably more about how the Devil was granted power, or something), but I’m nervous about sweeping these more anarchic types of issues under the rug when we start thinking in terms of God orchestrating everything from the beginning. I guess this is sort of touching on the notorious philosophical problem of God’s “foreknowledge” and man’s free will: if everything is simply being dictated by some totalizing Law of God, in what sense are we really agents unto ourselves in any meaningful sense that doesn’t amount to us being cogs in God’s mechanistic universe? (If I sound like I’m trying to ask a leading question that I already know the answer to, I’m not—I’m genuinely curious about this tension because I tend to fluctuate back on forth on how I think about it….) Actually, phrasing the issue this way makes me think about the image of the word of God as a sword that divides asunder (which I’m taking to mean “in two” for now)—perhaps we ultimately can make only one of two decisions, to became slaves of God or slaves of sin, and it is our response to the Word that determines this. Hmmmm.

  4. JakeW said

    Well, D&C 88:35 seems to be talking about the Sons of Perdition, those who have willingly broken the Law, and turned altogether therefrom (is therefrom a word?), since the preceding verses talk about Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial Glories respectively. This seems to be a far cry from what Paul it referring to in Romans 2:14. The major distinction I see is that some “seek to become a law unto themselves,” while some simply “are a law unto themselves.” In other words, those without Law are necessarily a law unto themselves, since that’s all they have been given, and those who choose to do good on their own “conscience” if you will, are indeed better than the Jews who Paul is speaking to. This is pointed out in verses 25 and 26 quite nicely: “For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” It’s interesting that Paul would use explicitly covenantal language, however, almost as if they [gentiles] are actually being “grafted in” to the Law, regardless of whether or not they know it. Paul even may be suggesting that being under the Covenant is completely undermined by one’s own individual righeousness. In other words, everybody is indeed affected by God’s Law, for after all, “every tongue shall bow and every knee shall bend,” sooner or later. But now I feel like I’m losing track of what I originally was trying to say.

    “I guess this is sort of touching on the notorious philosophical problem of God’s “foreknowledge” and man’s free will: if everything is simply being dictated by some totalizing Law of God, in what sense are we really agents unto ourselves in any meaningful sense that doesn’t amount to us being cogs in God’s mechanistic universe?”

    On the issue of God’s foreknowledge and determinism, I have no idea what to think. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in an indeterminate determinism, But I won’t deter from terminating any determined terminology on the subject. Okay, now I’m just having fun. Plus, I’ve thought very little about determinism and all of it’s implications.

    God’s Law. If it’s not totalizing, what is it? How else is such a thing supposed to be thought? Also, could you explain what you mean by meta-law? I fail to understand what that means, exactly.

  5. Robert C. said

    Regarding Romans 2:14 and D&C 88:35, the phrasing is so similar in these two passages that I think we must read the D&C verse in light of Romans 2:14, at least somewhat. But this is directly related to the issue I was sort of pointing to by using the term “meta-law”—how in general are we to understand the term law in the D&C? I’m thinking in the context of the Enlightenment as well as in a Pauline context. For Paul, I’m not sure he has any meta notion of law in mind. That is, it seems for Paul that law is that which God speaks (e.g. as commandments, as in the Torah, or Decalogue, or even in the Garden of Eden), not something that is more intrinsic to the universe or even to God himself. In contrast, in a post-Enlightenment context, the term law seems to connote something that is intrinsic in the universe (whether, say, a law that is “co-equal with God,” or a law that “God Himself is subject to”—scare quotes because I think these are all rather problematic concepts to be thinking about in this way…).

    So, my thinking is that D&C 88 is sort of playing with these various ways of thinking about law by using the concept of light (cf. esp. 88:13). If we act in accordance with the light of Christ, then this is like the law written the hearts of the Gentiles which Paul is talking about (presumably alluding to Jeremiah 31:33 and/or Isaiah 51:7). Thus, whether we are Gentile or Jew, Church member or not, there is still some light that we have been given that, perhaps, functions as a law unto us. But, if we reject the light(/law) of Christ completely, then it is like we are trying to become a light/law unto ourselves. This, however, seems to be an impossibility since the light of Christ is in all things and gives life to all things etc. (cf. e.g. v. 13)—and so, I think you are right to point to the “seeketh to become a law unto itself” in 88:35 in contrast to the “are a law unto themselves” in Rom 2:14….

  6. J. Stapley said

    Trying to read Adam-God back into Joseph’s revelations is anachronistic and Jake’s reading of the verse in light of Adam-God is an ahistorical misreading of the heresy.

    The simple answer is that being an agent unto ones’ self is tantamount of some form of free will. There are those in the Church hierarchy that don’t like the term “free agency,” but that really is a game of semantics and will pass when they do.

  7. JakeW said

    J. Stapley: I’m interested to hear why any ahistorical reading of any revelation is somehow inherently misread. If not read as though outside of time, how are (or how can) the scriptures supposed to be interpreted? As some progressive, or evolutionary theology? Also, I’m interested to hear why you think the Adam-God doctrine is heresy.

    Robert: D&C 88 certainly does complicate things, (as though they were simple before). I’m not sure how to think Christ into all of this Law business. In His mortal ministry, He talks of coming not to break the law (of Moses, presumably), but to fulfil it. At the time of His Atonement, when Christ had taken upon Himself the sins of the world and “descended below all things,” as verse 6 of D&C 88 puts it, did something, at that very moment in time, structurally change in the Law? It’s almost like at that very moment, when Christ Atoned, Christ Himself became the Law. In other words, the Law as we ought to understand it is no longer some set of rules and regulations, but now it is physically embodied in a living Being, namely the Creator of the Universe. Christ as being the Law completely boggles my mind, though. Another interesting note is that verse 13 equates light, law and power as being the one and the same. “The light which is in al things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.” The Law (Christ) here is being equated with power of God, which makes sense enough. But anyway, to answer your question that began your third comment; what I mean by God’s Law is Christ, even though I didn’t know at the time that’s what I meant. I wonder if this’ll help meander us back to discussing agency and the Adversary’s role in it all.

  8. Robert C. said

    Regarding Adam-God, I haven’t looked into the historical issues of this very much, so I don’t know how likely it is that Joseph Smith actually taught something similar (although my understanding is that Brigham certainly did, and since he was closer in time to Joseph Smith than any of us, I’m willing to consider quite seriously the possibility that this teaching wasn’t inconsistent with what Joseph thought…). It seems modern Church leaders have rejected this teaching, so I tend not to discuss the matter much (at least in public forums) because it tends to create a sort of “he said she said” tension leading to contention etc. Nevertheless, even if we consider Adam “only” the father of us all in mortality, I think JakeW points to an interesting play in the text between Christ who is the Son and Adam who is a father (even if not the Father…). By the way, Alain Badiou discusses this idea in his book on Saint Paul (and I’m sort of guessing that JakeW got this idea from Joe Spencer who got it from Badiou—although credit to Jake or Joe for coming up with it on their own, it’s certainly not a completely original idea in Badiou, though I think he develops this idea very nicely).

    Regarding Christ fulfilling the law, I think this is a fascinating topic also, and something that is indeed related to all of this in a very important way. In fact, I think this highlights the contrast I was thinking about above between law and meta-law. That is, I think that in most scripture law should be taken as something rather specific, i.e. what God has said (esp. by way of “commandment,” which is a very important term in the small plates, as Joe’s forthcoming book discusses at length…) whereas in D&C 88 we have something different going on in terms of the law of the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial kingdoms, something that seems much broader than simply “what God said” (emphasis on “seems” because I think light is the metaphor which “allows” this shift to come about; but perhaps it’s more than “just” a metaphor—again, Joe has got me thinking a lot about the spiritual vs. the temporal which seem to be key concepts/terms in both Alma 36 and D&C 29, and “spiritual” in general seems be a term that collapses distinctions; without getting into the ways in which this plays out in Alma 36, I’ll simply point to the temple where we are all to consider ourselves Adam and Eve, or to the way Christ says he is everybody we help or don’t help in our lives; I think this typological way of thinking also casts the very idea of the Adam-God theory in a different light than the way it is normally discussed—that is, what seems important in scripture and religious thinking more generally, is not what is “literally” true, but what is typologically and metaphorically true; I’m not suggesting we read scripture as not being historical, but I don’t think it’s meant to be read as merely historical either…).

  9. Robert C. said

    Oops, that parenthetical got too long and I didn’t get back to what I wanted to say about law—but I have to run now, hopefully I can get back to this later today.

    The more I study this, however, the more I think that D&C 29 can really help us make sense of D&C 88 (which I think is an incredibly rich, complex, and difficult section!).

  10. J. Stapley said

    President Kimball said it was heresy and all the First Presidency statements during the 20th century have stated doctrine contrary to it. I stated that reading it back in is anachronistic, because it is. Doctrine does evolve over scripture, just look at the doctrine of Child Salvation.

    I said ahistorical, because the details of Adam-God as presented in the historical records aren’t consisted with the reading you gave.

    During Joseph’s life, there is a rich tradition of view Adam as a Patriarch (or father), even being the patriarch. The idea of Christ as Father and God the Father as Father are quite prominant. Ultimately, polygamy is perhaps helpfully viewed as an extension of Fathership. There are also lots of son relationships.

  11. Seanmcox said

    Honestly… Adam-God theory is the archetypical Mormon heresy. There are other heresies, that have more to do with practice, that will quickly get you excommunicated. This one, however, is simply a purely doctrinal heresy. (That is, I’ve never heard of a resultant practice other than obstinate refusal to listen to church leaders.) Though, I certainly think Brigham Young taught it.

    Aside from the issue of whether or not it’s a heresy, J. Stapley is also correct that the Adam-God “theory” here is misapplied. One problem with the whole theory is that it involved no creation of Adam at all. God, who already had, a body, is asserted to have come down and brought with him one of his many wives. Per the theory, he did not discorporate and then wait for Christ to reincorporate him. The Adam-God theory, as a heresy, was not a statement of symbolic equivalence between the two figure, but of actual physical equivalence.

    Nevertheless, symbolic equivalence has often been used to try to explain away some of Brigham Young’s statements. Perhaps that is what he meant, but the record, as we have it, looks quite contrary to such a reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph Smith made a statement regarding symbolic equivalence that was misinterpreted, however (by Brigham Young).

    In any case, we have Adam-God theory, the heresy, and perhaps what you might call neo-Adam-God theory, which is what Jake seems to apply here. I don’t think there has been a judgment on that, but if you want to avoid getting your bishop unduly upset and giving people the wrong impression, you might do well to not call it Adam-God theory.

    They’ll probably still smell a rat nonetheless. Whenever there is something evil that comes along, people tend to react by rejecting anything remotely similar to it. The problem with that is, that Satan’s evils are usually designed to look like truths. Consequently people reject the truth along with the evil. He gets his way no matter what.

  12. Seanmcox said

    In any case, the post, I think, was originally centered on this idea of agency and whether or not that indicated indeterminism. (Actually, it was probably more broad, but that’s the part that interests me.)

    I think we’re over-mystifying things here. The Lord said they were agents unto themselves. Hence, they were not implicitly agents unto/of “the law”, or of any other being, but rather their master was themselves. That a law was given, and that they were commanded does not implicitly indicate that they were agents of the law. They were agents unto themselves, so “the law” did not deterministically control them. (That is you can’t say “here’s the law and here’s the individual, so the individual will do such and such”.)

    I do not, however, mean to suggest that the universe is not deterministic. I think that’s still something of an open question, though for myself I strongly believe that the universe is, in fact, deterministic. (Being fully aware, as a physicist, that many people have jumped to the conclusion that quantum mechanics “proves” otherwise.) I view our agency as being a lack of constraint from God sufficient to allow us make choices between good or evil on the basis of our internal characters.

    I can’t say that I’m fully settled on the matter, however, because I leave room for the possibility that there is a third option, on top of simple determinism and non-determinism, that might also account more fully for our consciousness. Particularly, intelligences, I consider, might have an altogether different nature than man has considered. (Don’t ask me what that might be. I still rather think things are deterministic.)

  13. Robert C. said

    Regarding free will and determinism, I do think that the way the philosophical problem is typically framed (by analytic philosophers) is somewhat problematic. Here is a pretty interesting excerpt by Thomas Nagel that I think nicely (and rather succinctly—that is, you can get the gist by just reading the web-author’s introduction, and perhaps the first section of the excerpt from the introduction) exemplifies the problem. That is, a scientific (and, similarly, many philosophical approaches) to the problem requires that there is a cause—otherwise the phenomenon is unexplainable by definition. So, if I’m hungry and I eat a candy bar instead of a carrot, an outsider might say that my desire for a candy bar was stronger than my desire for a carrot and caused me to eat the candy bar. But the way I experience this is that I chose the candy bar instead of the carrot. What is most true depends on my perspective and presuppositions (that is, if the observer is a determinist, he will always be looking for causes, but if the observer believes in free will he will always say the causes were not determinative—I’m not sure there’s a way to show that one of these two views is more true than the other because it depends on the presuppositions…).

    Anyway, back to law: I think Paul tells us that the law and the prophets were sent (or given to) Israel, in the same way creation was given to us for our benefit, apart from anything we could do. These were manifestations of God’s graciousness toward us, although incomplete manifestations. Christ, on the other hand, is the complete manifestation of God’s graciousness. Complete in several different senses which I’ll only vaguely point to since I think this is also a huge question: a complete sacrifice on the Father’s part sending his Only Begotten and Beloved Son; complete suffering; a completely innocent/unblemished sacrifice, etc. So, I think the law is fulfilled in Christ because the law must point to this complete sacrifice given out of complete love, completely undeserved by those of us in the world. Paul, then, is chastising his congregation in Rome for not interpreting the law in this way, whereas Nephi (esp. 2 Ne 25) is describing a correct way of interpreting the law as an initial manifestation of the Father’s complete and unconditional love for us (or at least Israel—how the Gentiles figure in is, I think, not that straightforward…).

    As a footnote to the Adam-God stuff (which I don’t want to get too sidetracked on . . . nevertheless . . .), I am not aware of any “official” repudiation of the Adam-God theory wholesale. My (super-)quick little search only revealed Pres. Kimball saying something like this as reported by the newspaper, and Bruce R. McConkie making strong statements to this effect in private letters and at a BYU address. I’d be interested in a source for “the most official” repudiation of this theory/doctrine. Regardless, it raises the question of our canon as accepted by common consent vs. the authority of whatever “official” statements are made. After all, I’m not really sure what “heresy” is or means in our Church—at least I strongly associate the word only with Catholicism, and it’s meaning seems quite loose apart from that, sort of equivalent I guess to “heretical,” but I think there are many true beliefs that many members would consider quite heretical. Actually, I think the more appropriate term in this case is “apostate” (at least they used to use that term in temple recommend interviews, I’m not sure if they still do or not), and I think “apostate” has much more to do with the way and spirit in which ideas are talked about (i.e. abandoning or attacking the community and its leaders) rather than the content of any particular ideas. Actually, I think this is all related to the fact that we don’t have an official creed, so I think it’s very hard to pin down any particular doctrine as being true or not in the Church. What is more relevant is the way in which we sustain the prophet and even local leaders (and I think it’s obvious that doctrinal disagreement with any local leader constitutes apostasy…), and I think mere “intellectual assent to particular metaphysical concepts” is the least important connotation of the word sustain, if it is connoted at all (which I doubt). If this idea continues to generate comments, I’ll start a new thread on the topic, since I think this notion of sustaining is very important in scripture. I have Isa 29:13 particularly in mind here, where it is the heart that matters not what lips utter, and I think doctrines in the form of metaphysical claims like the way the Adam-God theory is being discussed much closer to what the lips utter than the condition of one’s heart—this is closely related to the reasons why I try to be careful but not strictly avoid discussing the Adam-God theory: I have no idea whether it has any truth in it or not so I would try to respectfully consider anything a fellow brother or sister said on the topic, after all, it seems Brigham thought there was something of value in it even though several later leaders thought not. But, if I was asked by leaders not to discuss or publish anything about Adam-God, I would happily comply in my effort to sustain these leaders, even if I did have a strong belief that the theory were true….

  14. Seanmcox said

    Wikipedia has some good coverage of the denunciation by Kimball with better sources than a news report, the best of which would be the conference report of October 1976. I imagine those disinclined to flatly reject the doctrine will not be persuaded, but I thought reliable sources (meaning, sources which were accurate in recording President Kimball’s words) were worth mentioning.

    (“Heresy” is not hard to define, it is simply hard to prove. In comparison, “apostasy” is relatively easy to prove, though we might sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Heresy is still, however, dangerous, often enough leading to apostasy.)

  15. Robert C. said

    Sean, thanks for the reference. (I do find it a bit ironic that we are quoting a “past General Authority” who is cautioning against teaching false doctrines “of the General Authorities of past generations”—but Kimball denounces Adam-God theory and I don’t think this denouncement has not been denounced, so I think you make a good point that we might therefore conclude that this denouncement still stands, at least in some sense….)

  16. J. Stapley said

    There are also all the First Presidency letters and messages constructed to controvert Adam-God. Any effort to rehabilitate Adam-God today must necessarily be ahistorical or reject all current Church doctrine on the Godhead and plan of salvation. I also second Sean’s (#14) comments regarding definitions.

    Regarding free will, I think Blake’s writings (while I don’t end out agreeing with him on all things) are the best entre.

  17. brianj said

    seanmcox, “I think we’re over-mystifying things here. The Lord said they were agents unto themselves. Hence, they were not implicitly agents unto/of “the law”, or of any other being, but rather their master was themselves.”

    That explanation seems so simple, so clear, so understandable—that I wonder if anyone here has a rebuttal or change to it. What I mean is, I couldn’t really follow most of the rest of the discussion without really spending time thinking on it (time I do not have), so I don’t know if everyone here agrees with Sean. I’d like to agree, since it seems quite right to me.

  18. JakeW said

    Well, the verse actually just refers to Adam being an “agent unto himself,” so I don’t even know how much to apply this to mankind as a whole, although most things said about Adam are understood to apply to us as well. What I’m most curious now about that whole account is the role of the Adversary, as some sort of necessary antithesis to Christ in order to set up Law. I don’t have enough of a philosophical base to think it correctly (at the very least, leave it unthought, anyway). That’s why I throw things out here into the blog where people can tear up my thinking.

  19. Robert C. said

    BrianJ #17, I think there is much truth in the “simple” view Sean is describing. However, I don’t think this view does a very good job explaining, for example, 2 Nephi 2:16:

    Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

    That is, why do we need to be enticed in order to exercise our free agency? If we were simply “agent unto ourselves” in the sense Sean seems to be describing, this “save it should be” clause seems superfluous at best (at worst, a direct undermining of Sean’s view). Also, looking again at D&C 29:39 (and 40) from Jake’s original question:

    And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet—Wherefore, it came to pass that the devil tempted Adam, and he partook of the forbidden fruit and transgressed the commandment, wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation.

    Again, why this “it must needs be that the devil should tempt” us in order for us to be agents unto ourselves? Also, this is immediately followed by a discussion of becoming subject to the will of the devil, what seems to be the very opposite of free agency. So, it seems to me that these verses are describing a free agency that is rather limited, that we can only choose to follow good enticings or bad enticings, and that our free agency is not as radical and unconditional as Sean is describing.

    Also, part of the complications I’m trying to think through above have to do with my attempt to understand Romans 5-7. Consider, for example, Romans 6:16-18:

    Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

    It’s this idea of becoming a servant or slave to the sin or unto righteousness that I am trying to think simultaneously with the notion of “being enticed” in 2 Nephi 2, and I don’t see how Sean’s simple view can make sense of these passages (though, again, I think Sean’s view has much truth in it and that this sentiment can be found in other scriptural passages…).

  20. BrianJ said

    Robert C: I may have missed a lot of Sean’s point, because I don’t see how what you say is really an affront to it:

    “…for example, 2 Nephi 2:16: Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

    “Why do we need to be enticed in order to exercise our free agency? Also…D&C 29:39…:

    “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet—”

    I don’t see the problem because as I understand Sean, our agency means that we get to choose for ourselves rather than have the choices made for us, but more importantly, we are meant to choose for ourselves—meaning, our choices should be self-serving, in a sense, not serving the law, etc. We are not merely extension or appendages (i.e. agents) of God’s law.

    The limitation on our agency that I see from these verses is that we do not create our choices or options—those are provided by God or Satan (I’m thinking of a free agent in sports: he does not create new teams to go and join, but he is able to freely select from the existing teams (yes, I realize that analogy breaks down quickly)). Nevertheless, we choose what we actually want. The most radical doctrine in all of this, I think, is that Satan never really gets to ‘trick’ us: if we choose evil it’s because that is what we really wanted and not because Satan hid the fine print. “The devil made me do it” won’t fly on judgment day because the Lord will reply, “Not so: you were an agent unto yourself.”

    I confess that I don’t understand the complication you describe in your last 3 paragraphs.

  21. Robert C. said

    Brian, I quite like your sports analogy of free agents, I think it makes a very good point, and it makes it quite clearly. And it illustrates one of the points I’m trying to make, that our agency is limited in precisely this sense, that we can’t “create a new team.” But, I worry you (and Sean) are contradicting this point when you say:

    [O]ur agency means that we get to choose for ourselves rather than have the choices made for us, but more importantly, we are meant to choose for ourselves—meaning, our choices should be self-serving, in a sense, not serving the law, etc. We are not merely extension or appendages (i.e. agents) of God’s law.

    Appropriating your analogy, I’m thinking of us as free agents who can choose either “team Satan” (represented by sin in Roman 5ff) or “team God” (which is represented by the law in Romans 5ff). Our choice is “merely” between these two teams, we can’t be a team unto ourselves. In this sense, to say that we are “free agents” is to say that we are free only to choose which team we will be an agent for (i.e. represent or serve, or “be slaves to” in Paul’s more dramatic terminology).

    Perhaps what is making this confusing can also be illustrated by your analogy: the athlete who is a free agent makes a one-time choice of which team to play for (at least for a given year) and signs a contract and then the athlete is no longer a free agent (by the way, I think we could still call the athlete an agent, but the agent for a given team, or even the “servant” of a given team, not a free agent anymore…). This is how it seems to me that Paul is talking about agency in Romans 5ff. However, we might think that this is where the analogy breaks down and, in reality, we are free agents in this sense in every choice that we make, and we never really “sign contracts” that specify which team we play for. Rather, we show our allegiance in every choice that we make. I’m, roughly, proposing the former kind of interpretation of free agency, like a one-time signing event (for each “season”), whereas I’m thinking about Sean’s view in the latter sense, we never really sign contracts and we basically have to choose which team to play for in every game, or even every inning.

    Hmmm, this way of thinking about the issue is actually very helpful for me. And now I’m more inclined to think that the Book of Mormon and the D&C indeed talk more in terms of Sean’s view, whereas Paul is talking more in terms of the view I’ve been trying to articulate (signing a lon-term contract with a team rather than choosing who to play for on a game-by-game basis).

    I’m not sure I can articulate this very well, but it also really helps me think about the interesting phraseology in Alma 12:24: “there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent” (note, Clark talks about this in some depth here). The word space is used frequently in the Book of Mormon to denote time (e.g. “for the space of fourteen years” or “for the space of an hour”), so I’m now thinking about this our mortal probation in terms of this choosing which team to sign with (and Final Judgment being the deadline for player trades, or something to that effect…). This also, I think, is an interesting way to think about Paul’s “already-but-not-yet” notion in Romans 5ff where this life is sort of an overlapping of epochs, Adam’s (the first Adam) and Christ’s (the second Adam, in Paul’s language): we are still playing for Adam’s team because we are “in the flesh,” but we have an offer on the table to play for Christ’s team next season, in the resurrection—in fact, we might even think of baptism as the signing of this new contract with God’s team (cf. Romans 6), if that doesn’t put things to blasphemously….

    Thanks, Brian, for wading through all of my overly-philosophical musings in this post and helping me think through this better.

    (Jake, by the way, I don’t think that not knowing philosophy should ever be a hindrance to reading scripture. I like the ways in which philosophy helps me think more carefully about scripture, and in this sense I think philosophy can help us read the scriptures better, but I think it can actually be dangerous, in the sense of wresting the scriptures, to read scripture in order to understand philosophy better—sort of like I don’t put much stock in this little sports analogy of free agency, but I do think it’s helpful in terms of thinking about scripture….)

  22. BrianJ said

    Ahhh, I get it now. The point I was getting from Sean is on the reason we are agents—God does not protect our agency so that we can institute his rituals and ordinances on the earth (“…no delight in burnt offerings…”), rather he protects it for our own benefit. Thus, our agency is for ourselves. The fact that we can choose to become agents to God (i.e. his slaves) is one option before us, and we get to choose whether that is what we really want.

    In the sports analogy, the free agent chooses the team that will pay him the most, give him the most minutes, etc. But once he chooses, he works for the team, and the team’s interests take precedence over his own. Over time, however, he eventually (at least in decades past) becomes so much a part of the team that the interests of the team are synonomous with his own. Can we apply this to us and God?

  23. Joe Spencer said

    Four days too late! Rats.

    I’ll see if I can’t muster up some thoughts on all of this soon.

  24. CORIANN said

    Had you not posted your musings on ‘agency’, I would not have seen them. Having seen them, I exercised my agency in reading them. Having read them, I again exercized my agency by replying. Interesting discussion. One of my favorite observations is that if I can’t find a team I want to join, I may embark on creating one, so my agency is not limited to existing teams, either, or even the same sport, or any sport, or any other interest or pursuit. As I drive down the road, I can turn to the right or the left or go straight or stop, and absorb the consequences of whichever I choose. What laws apply? Too many to list here, physically or philosophically. What a gift – to choose. And most of us do it rather haphazardly, which is, in itself a choice. Thanks for the exercise.

    As to better understanding the doctrines and principles upon which they are founded, (like the hymn suggests), “Let the Holy Spirit Guide”.

    LuvYa, Coriann

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