A Rational Theology: The Big Problem with a capital “A”

March 22, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 12:33 pm   Category: Theology,Widtsoe Reading

For the past two weeks I have been engaged in reading, thinking about, and reviewing John A. Widtsoe’s “A Rational Theology”. While I enjoy several of Elder Widtsoe’s concepts regarding the pre-mortal existence, the book is lacking in a few areas which attribute to the reason why it has not had a longer lasting impression on our religion, and why it has sort of gone away from our religion.

To Illustrate this point, I would like to begin with a few quotes from the book.

“Jesus actually came on earth, lived and taught the ancient Gospel again to the children of men, and in time suffered death so that the act of Adam might be atoned for and the earthly bodies of men might be raised from the grave.” (Chapter 8 )

“The plan of salvation, including the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the organized Church, the purpose and powers of the priesthood and the rights and duties of man upon earth, whether within or without the Church, was fully unfolded…In the course of human history and in accordance with the Great Plan, Jesus, the Son of God, appeared on earth, to atone for the act of Adam and Eve, who “fell” that men might be.” (Chapter 11)

“The candidate for baptism, presenting himself to one who has authority from Jesus Christ, is buried in the water and taken out again, as a symbol of the death and resurrection and the atoning sacrifice of the Savior.” (Chapter 17)

“All this can simply mean that the earth, as well as all on it, are subject to the fundamental Great Plan, including the atonement of Jesus Christ.” (Chapter 31)

“Bread is eaten and water is drunk as symbols of the body and blood of the Savior, given in the atoning sacrifice…God requires that the Sacrament be partaken of frequently, so that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus may be held before the people continually” (Chapter 33)

“Jesus, who on the third day rose from the grave, and after his sojourn among the children of men, took his body with him into heaven. This was the first fruits of the resurrection, made possible by the atonement of the Christ.” (Chapter 35)

So, you may be wondering what this quotes have to do with each other. This is every single reference to the atonement made in “A Rational Theology.” At no point in the book does Widtsoe connect Sin and the atonement. He only connects the Atonement and Death, and more directly, the atonement and Adam’s act, which causes death. The Section which goes most in depth on the need for a Savior,is the first instance above, and is as follows:

“The Need of a Savior. The purpose of the earth career was, however, two-fold: to learn to understand gross matter, and to acquire a body made of the essence of such matter for future advancement. The bodies laid in the grave must, therefore, be raised again. As the spirits, by their own act had not brought upon themselves death, so by their own act they should not be required to conquer it. It was necessary, therefore, that someone, in time, should reunite the broken wires and reestablish the flow of eternal life, and thus conquer death. For this work Jesus Christ was chosen. Jesus actually came on earth, lived and taught the ancient Gospel again to the children of men, and in time suffered death so that the act of Adam might be atoned for and the earthly bodies of men might be raised from the grave. By this work, the purpose of earth-life was completed, and Jesus Christ became the central figure in the plan of salvation.

Why death, so-called, should be necessary for us to achieve an intimate knowledge of matter, and why Jesus must die to permit the current of eternal life to flow freely between the earthly body and the eternal spirit, are not fully known. Through Adam man was brought on earth, subject to death; through Jesus, the Christ, the earth-acquired body will be lifted out of death to continue an eternal life in association with the undying spirit.” (Chapter 8 )

So, Why Gethsemane? What About Alma 7 and Mosiah 3 and “The Lamb of God who takes upon him the sins of the world?” What about Grace?

Without these important items, Widtsoe may be sharing with us “A rational theology.”, but he is either giving us an incomplete one or a pointless one.


  1. In all fairness, this book was written to be a lesson manual, not a theological treatise. If Widstoe had included significant non-consensus material he probably would have been asked to take it out. And unfortunately, the Atonement is not the sort of subject that lends itself to consensus theology.

    Comment by Mark Butler — March 22, 2007 @ 9:54 pm

  2. Did this come before or after The Truth, The Way, and The Life by Roberts?

    Either way, I think Mark makes a good point. The reason TWL was not used as a lesson manual and published by the church is that Roberts went to far in some speculative topics. Widtsoe was commissioned to write a lesson manual, and probably went out of his way to keep things fairly simple and safe.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 23, 2007 @ 5:35 am

  3. Eric, Robert’s TWL was rejected for some speculative discussion on science, not on the atonement. Robert’s wrote the 70s manuals of instruction at one point, and his teachings about the atonement there are rather in depth.

    Mark, Considering that Talmage was discussing the atonement in Jesus the Christ in the same year this was published, I’d say it’s safe to assume Widtsoe could have gone further.

    I’ve just done a review of some of Widtsoe’s other books, and while many of his earlier works present much of the same regarding the atonement, a few later works quote Roberts and one gives the following:

    Every human being will be resurrected through the atonement of Jesus Christ. That is, saint and sinner shall be placed equally on the highway of eternal progression. Nevertheless, all must pay some price for their past deeds. The atonement does not provide release from all punishment for our individual errors.

    By the atonement of Jesus Christ, by the shedding of His blood, every soul who accepts Him receives the forgiveness of his past sins. That is, these sins will not arise to hinder the man from achieving the highest gift of God, eternal life in His Celestial Kingdom. It is in that sense that the blood of Christ washes away all sin, and gives eternal hope to all mankind. However, if the atonement of Jesus Christ is to be effective, the Gospel plan must be accepted, and its requirements obeyed. Failure to do this nullifies the great gift of the atonement. Again, it is evident that the road to salvation is trodden by man’s feeble efforts, with the Lord’s loving and powerful help. Likewise it must be comprehended that though a man’s sin has been forgiven him, the effects of the sin may remain, until he has paid the required price. But, the sin will no longer, after Christ’s service, hinder the man in his eternal progress.

    (John A. Widtsoe, Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1937], 207.)

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 6:06 am

  4. I agree with you Matt. The title of the book implies that Widtsoe was attempting to capture our theology in a single volume. The absense of any serious discussion of the atonement seems like a pretty big omission to me.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 23, 2007 @ 8:29 am

  5. I agree that the title was poorly chosen. Something like “Introduction to Theology” would probably have been more appropriate.

    Comment by Mark Butler — March 23, 2007 @ 9:07 am

  6. Jacob J: The more I think about it, the more I really think Widtsoe at the time of writing this “Rational Theology” really only had this view of the atonement. It is also the view he has in “Joseph Smith:Scientst”. I want to examine his later works like “Evidence and Reconciliations” and “Man and the Dragon” and see what he says there.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 9:24 am

  7. I think you are probably right Matt. I think Widtsoe had some strong Pelagian leanings that show very strongly in his short comments on the atonement in this book.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 23, 2007 @ 9:41 am

  8. Does anyone know if Widtsoe’s Evidences and Reconciliations was compiled by him, or was it post-humously done by another?

    Widtsoe still holds the Atonement’s purpose as primarily connecting us to our eternal state, though he does caveat with the following:

    Jesus died that men, all men, may recover their earthly bodies from the grave. Despite our frailties, follies, or sins, our bodies will be raised from the grave and given to the waiting spirits. Every person born into the world will be so resurrected. The effect of Adam’s act is cancelled out by Jesus, by His willingness to pass through death and the resurrection. Men must do many things to win salvation in the kingdom of God. Jesus, the Christ, as head of the plan of salvation, under His Father, has many duties besides the resurrection of the bodies of humanity to perform for the blessing of man; and consequently has many titles. He is known as our Elder Brother, our Redeemer, our Advocate with the Father each title referring to a special service for man and meriting special discussion. His compensation for Adam’s necessary act, by which He brought about the resurrection, is the most direct meaning of His title, Redeemer.

    (Read President John Taylor’s The Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.)

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 9:47 am

  9. Geoff, I’d say you are right, from what I know of pelagius (which all come from reading that post and coments a while back). Not that there is anything wrong with that. He also seems to be a salvation by works guy (self-effort, he calls it.) and if Skousen is correct, when he does talk about the sin aspect of the atonement, it is of a “moral influence” persuasion. It’s actually not that bad of a model, though I have some concerns with it. I ahve to dig at the skousen a bit more and see if I can find some corraborating information, but it’s all pretty good so far.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  10. Actually, it would help explain why we hear so much from the GA’s that the resurrection is a free gift made available to all men by the grace of Christ, but Exaltation must be earned.

    Comment by CEF — March 23, 2007 @ 10:47 am

  11. CEF:

    I’ll have to take researching how often this is taught and what different views are taught on as a project when I can get to it. Maybe we can all evaluate the upcoming conference for what what atonement models are used in conference reports.

    I just read an anti-mormon article tearing appart Millet’s “Grace Works”, which I haven’t read, for pretending to disagree with McConkie and Widtsoe, but it quotes Hafen’s 2004 GC talk:

    If we must give all that we have, then our giving only almost everything is not enough. If we almost keep the commandments, we almost receive the blessings.

    Of cource, reading the talk, it seems Hafen’s point is not really in the works, but is in the state of mind, the effort of concecrating ourselves to God.

    So we must willingly give everything, because God Himself can’t make us grow against our will and without our full participation. Yet even when we utterly spend ourselves, we lack the power to create the perfection only God can complete. Our all by itself is still only almost enough—until it is finished by the all of Him who is the “finisher of our faith.” At that point, our imperfect but consecrated almost is enough.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 11:17 am

  12. Matt W.,

    Evidences and Reconciliations has an author’s preface plus a dedication initialled “J.A.W.”, which seems to indicate the book was compiled and prepared for publication by Elder Widtsoe himself.

    Comment by Mark Butler — March 23, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  13. Thanks MArk, I’d answered my own question already. Widtsoe lived until 1952 and E and R was published in 1940s

    Comment by Matt W. — March 23, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  14. One more Widtsoe Quote on the atonement. It is consitent with the others…

    He gave His life, and accepted His sufferings, voluntarily, for the consummation of His Father’s plan. He did no sin; in Him the Father was pleased; His blood was shed that the Father might be glorified; and that all who believe on His name might come to God, and have everlasting life. The act of His atonement did much else besides providing the resurrection from the grave. It has deep spiritual implications.

    Jesus gave “his life a ransom for many.” In that respect all are equal. But, the place, or degree of salvation, that may be attained in the hereafter is determined, under God’s merciful justice, by our acts. In that respect we may be unequal. Jesus died that we might recover our bodies, but, by righteous living, these bodies may be used for eternal progression. That is, all are granted eternal existence, but all may not convert that existence into rich and joyous eternal life.

    (John A. Widtsoe, An Understandable Religion [Independence, Mo.: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1944], 207.)

    Comment by Matt W. — March 24, 2007 @ 12:08 pm