A Rational Theology: Law, God, and Value

March 20, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 11:47 am   Category: Theology,Widtsoe Reading

1915 must have been a great year to be a literate Mormon. Talmage produced his Opus, “Jesus the Christ”, for use in Sunday School Classes, and John A. Widtsoe produced “A Rational Theology” for the manual for Priesthood. I would like to take some time to evaluate how Widtsoe’s teachings have held up over time and what we can learn today from his “rational theology”. I thought it would be fun to see how my conceptions of the book evolve while I read through, this being my first full introduction to Widtsoe. This post will review Chapters 5-7 for those interested in turning to the source. I previously discussed chapters 1-4 here. The book is available for free here.

The Great Law– Chapter 5 sets up the underlying “great law” of the universe. As a preface to this, Widtsoe reminds us that the universe is ordered. He calls it “a universe controlled by intelligence under the law of cause and effect.” This means that the same act, under the same conditions will produce the same results. Thus the universe is not chaotic or filled with confusion, though it may be extremely complex and lacking “quiescence” [ie- to be still, inactive or dormant]. In fact, dormancy is impossible in a universe where matter, energy, and intelligence are eternal. Per Widtsoe, this lack of dormancy among learning intelligent beings means that there is an increase in complexity as reactions or changes take place among the basic components of the universe. “Each set of new effects becomes the cause of still other effects…increasing complexity or variety would seem to be the resultant law….this is the great law of nature…”

This law of increasing complexity is also called by Widtsoe the “law of progression” and the “law of development”. All other laws contribute to this greatest law. Man is subject to this law, in that he “is constantly acting upon and is constantly being acted upon by universal materials”.

My first impression while I was going through these laws was to wonder about how agency affected them. After all, if all beings increase in complexity because they are acting and being acted upon, won’t all beings progress? Does this mean Unitarian salvation for all? If the law of cause and effect holds true, is there really libertarian free will? After all, if we are acted upon, and we are under a certain set of conditions, there is a guaranteed result which will occur, accord to the law of cause and effect, so where is our agency in that?

Widtsoe’s immediate answer is as follows:

The extent of man’s growth or progressions will depend upon the degree his will is exercised intelligently, upon the things about him. It is conceivable that by misuse of will, man may lose some of his acquired powers, the negative of the law of progression…Those who do not conform to the law of progression are abnormal and do not exert their power, to the requisite degree, in the right direction.

Put simply, free will’s choice is just another condition in the complex setup for the law of cause and effect. If we choose not to learn and progress, we will not learn and progress. Widtsoe goes on to describe this process for man’s development, noting that it does not matter where man is or what he is doing, only that he “offers himself, man and body, to his worthwhile work.” Worthwhile work is learning, doing, and concerning the self “vigorously and properly with the things about it.”

God– God is distinguishable as God, first of all, “by an obedient recognition of the conditions of the law of progression.” So, in other words, Widtsoe says God is “subject to eternal universal laws.” He just knows and uses the laws better than anyone else. God has not always been God and due to the law of progression, where there can be no “quiescence”, God is even now engaged in progressive development. God has already conquered the universe, in Widtsoe’s opinion. Currently “The will of God is directed for conquest towards himself as towards his children.” I am not sure how this lines up with McConkie’s explanation of God’s progression, but find it important nonetheless.

Widtsoe spends a lot of ink letting us know that God is beyond our ability to comprehend. After all, “His intelligence is as the sum of all other intelligences. There can be no rational discussion of the details of God’s life or nature.” Except of course that this is a “Rational Theology” and God is at the center of it, and the purpose of the book is to discuss it.

Another way to think about God being God is to examine his relationship with us. After all, he wouldn’t really be God without us. We are all at different points along the path to perfection. Some are approaching God in power, and others are very far from him. For Widtsoe it is “a logical necessity to believe that there are many beings so highly developed that they are as gods.” However, there does not appear to be an infinite regress. There is no room for “God the grandfather,” etc. in a universe where God’s intelligence “is as the sum of all other intelligences.”

Anyway, for Widtsoe, “the progress of intelligent beings is a mutual affair.” If God does not contribute to our growth, it is difficult for us. God offered to help the other spirits to progress so that “they need not traverse the road that he traversed, but might find other and perhaps simpler opportunities of universal existence.”

He devised plans of progression whereby experiences of one person might be used by an inferior one. Each person should give of his experience to others, so that none need do unnecessary work. In that manner, through the united effort of all, the whole race of progressive beings receives an added onward impetus.

I am not sure I agree completely with Widtsoe here. I don’t know that we would have even have been able to traverse the road God traversed. I think it would have been impossible for us.

One interesting note for followers of NCT is how Widtsoe understands the D&C usage of “eternal”.

To analyze the supreme intelligence of the universe, the God whom we worship, is a futile attempt, to which men of shallow minds, only, give their time. That which is infinite transcends the human understanding. The Gospel accepts this condition, calmly, knowing that, in the scheme of things, greater truths will come with increased power, until, in the progress of time, we shall understand that which now seems incomprehensible. For that reason, eternal, or everlasting, or infinite things are things understood by God, the supreme and governing Power, but not understood by us. Thus, “eternal punishment is God’s punishment; endless punishment is God’s punishment.” Likewise, everlasting joy or endless blessings are God’s joy and God’s blessings. Man acknowledges in this manner that all things are relative to God.

Value– Why should we want to progress? Why should God want us to progress? More Generically, why do we want to go to “heaven”? For Widtsoe, the increased power is not a sufficient return on investment.

As would be expected from any attempt to explain Mormon theology, we are all in this so we “may have joy.” Widtsoe’s version of this is that pleasure and pain have always existed. We have always experienced pain for going contrary to the “laws of nature” and have always experience satisfaction from conforming to the law. In other words, “Intelligent beings can not rejoice in pain; therefore, from the beginning, to avoid pain an to secure joy, they have searched out and obeyed the law.” The more power we gain, the more joy we can have, and so we want to progress to experience more Joy. God wants us to progress so that he may have Joy as well, as our personal progression increases the variety of the universe and thus increases those things which God can enjoy. “God, standing alone, cannot conceivably possess the joy that may come to him if hosts of other advancing and increasing workers labor in harmony with him.” Full Joy, to Widtsoe, is true freedom which comes from “complete recognition of law and adaptation to it. Bondage comes from ignorance or opposition to it.”

Widtsoe then uses the estates we know and understand to illustrate the progression of how we increase our Joy. Our first estate educated us in the substance of spirit (Widtsoe terms it imponderable matter). Our second estate is to educate ourselves in the substance of gross matter (or ponderable matter). The third estate is to be when we finally come to the point of having “bodies, composed of both kinds of universal matter….Such then are the three estates, and, so far as known, all the estates of man.”

Something that came as sort of a non-sequiter to me is that Widtsoe, after developing things the way he has, in the middle of describing the first estate, throws out in an off the cuff manner:

We are begotten spirits of God, who thus became our Father, and we his sons and daughters.

Suddenly, there seems to be some sort of dividing line between the fist estate and man’s primeval condition. This does not fully compute for me with what has come before, so I will leave it be for now, and look for future explanation in the oncoming chapters.


  1. …Except of course that this is a “Rational Theology” and God is at the center of it, and the purpose of the book is to discuss it…

    Ha ha. Good line. Another good write-up, thanks Matt.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 20, 2007 @ 1:49 pm

  2. One notable aspect of these chapters is how many theological questions Widtsoe doesn’t answer — or even offer opinions on. He seems to keep things really vague in most of this book. One gets the sense he does so on purpose of course. But it is a bit odd to have a theology book where the author spends so much time avoiding actually engaging theological question… (Don’t get me wrong — I really like this book. But I end up frustrated with it as often as not because of this avoidance issue.)

    Comment by Geoff J — March 20, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  3. Thanks for the link to the e-text. I didn’t read the whole thing but it really is vague.

    Comment by Clark — March 20, 2007 @ 5:13 pm

  4. There are many good things about the book, and I think it isspeaking froma very high level, which is good because it can remain authoritative and non-speculative by doing that. It does have some problems witha capital A, which I am going to have to take it to task for in my next post, but all in all, I find myself in agreement with much of it up to this point.

    The only two things I have a disagreement with in chapters 1-7 are:

    1: I don’t believe man would have been able to progress like heavenly father did, because man was unable to perfectly obey the “law of the universe”

    2: Widtsoe says man is Eternal, but uses the term “in the beginning” every three lines or so. Widtsoe says when God says Eternal he simply means those things which are effable to God but ineffable to man, like the infinite. So does Widtsoe believe man is without beginning or does he believe man’s beginning is simply ineffable to man? I want to believe he means “without beginning” but it is getting harder and harder to hold that position…

    Comment by Matt W. — March 20, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  5. Clark, credit where it’s due, Geoff found the E-text…

    Comment by Matt W. — March 20, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  6. If anyone reads this I would appreciate clarification on a couple of issues. I believe the D & C states that “God is the same yesterday, today and forever”

    As far as the law of eternal progression goes (God is always progressing) does not progress equal change?

    Moreover, if God is perfect, why is there need for progress or even room for progress?

    Comment by Michael — February 21, 2009 @ 7:56 am

  7. Michael,

    I think the simplest answer to your question is that the One God is essentially unchanging, but the divine persons who unify to make up the One God can and do change over time.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 21, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  8. Michael, there are tons of ways to answer these questions.

    My interpretation is to say God being the same yesterday today and forever is inclusive of the way he progressed the same way yesterday, today, and forever.

    Also, I think it is error to have a hyper literalist reading of “same” in this context.

    Lastly, to me God could be perfect in a number of different ways. I tried to discuss a number of ways progression works here.

    Also, are you familiar with the very common “Mormon Doctrine” answer to these questions.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  9. The hyperliteralist reading also contradicts any conceivable Christology, notably his birth, death, and resurrection, the doctrine of exaltation, and so on.

    I have always read that passage as referring to the necessary character attributes of God. Beyond that we have entertain deep questions that the Church hasn’t taken a substantive position on since the time of Brigham Young, if that.

    Although I take deep issue with his identification of the status of divine attributes (as did Brigham Young), I agree with Orson Pratt that LDS theology practically entails that godliness is logically prior to exaltation.

    Charles Penrose was uncomfortable with the idea, but there is nothing about LDS theology that rules out the possibility of a time before “God became God”, or what one might fairly call the D&C 121:46 theory of exaltation.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 22, 2009 @ 12:18 am