A Gift that Was Never Given?

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on September 22, 2008
19Comments

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “Restored Doctrines and Free Will,” I explained that Heavenly Father revealed the doctrine of “intelligences” in order to help us understand how created beings can have free will and thus personal accountability. Through the lens of creation ex nihilo, humans seem like mere puppets that act out the will of their divine puppeteer, or dominoes that merely fall because they were pushed by another domino from behind. It’s difficult to see how humans have a will of their own, because every part of their makeup was determined by the Creator, and thus every “choice” is just the inevitable result of the initial set of conditions they were created with.

But when we understand that a part of us, “intelligence” as used in the standard works, has always existed, then it’s easy to see that we have a will of our own. While Heavenly Father may have intimately designed our personalities, identities, inclinations, and characters at spirit birth, making each of us a unique child of his, he still included one ingredient that he did not create or design. Thus, we are not puppets acting out a script that was predetermined at our moment of creation; we have genuine free will—and therefore we are also accountable for how we use it. That seems to be what Heavenly Father wanted us to understand when he revealed the doctrine of eternally existing “intelligence,” for right after revealing that it is uncreated, he says, “Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:31).

Do Intelligences Bring Agency with Them?

This raises a question, which was put so well by an attentive reader:

If this explanation is going to work though, I wonder if it is necessary to assume that intelligences bring some form of agency with them. … [Elder] McConkie wrote that he did not think that intelligences have agency, but then added that we don’t know the answer to this question. … I tend to agree that intelligences do not have agency in the way that spirits possess agency. … I’ve wondered about God giving organized spirits their agency in the pre-existence. Could he “give” agency to entities that already possessed agency?1

In other words, does intelligence inherently possess agency? If uncreated intelligence is the ingredient that makes agency possible and comprehensible, does that mean intelligence possesses agency all along?

The Dilemma

If the answer is no, then we have a problem. It seems as though uncreated intelligence doesn’t really solve the problem of free will, and we are right back to the original question of how people can truly have agency. But I’ve already explained the passage in which the Lord seems to be saying that because intelligence exists eternally, “here is the agency of man.”

If the answer is yes, then we have another problem. Consider the following three verses:

  • That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. (D&C 101:78)
  • Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down. (Moses 4:3)
  • The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency. (Moses 7:32)

The scriptures are clear that Heavenly Father gave us our agency. Even in modern times, “Church leaders consistently call agency a gift of God.”2 How can something be a gift if the receiver already possessed it? How can you give something to someone who has always had it? The fact that agency is a gift from God requires that agency not be an intrinsic trait possessed by uncreated intelligence, for if not, it would be meaningless to call it a “gift.”

Thus the question on the table is, Does intelligence (as used in the scriptures) inherently have agency, or does intelligence first acquire agency at spirit birth? In my next post, I hope to answer this question by again appealing to the words of modern prophets. It might be only one of several ways of resolving this dilemma, but it tastes right to my head and my heart because it explains how agency stems from the uncreated nature of intelligence and yet is still a gift from our Creator.



Notes

1. Dave Collingridge, reordered combination of two comments on “Restored Doctrines and Free Will.
2. C. Terry Warner, “Agency,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1.

19
comments so far
  1. The Moses scripture quoted (Moses 7:32) brings up another interesting question: Was agency only given to man at Eden? In other words, did we not have agency in the pre-mortal existence? Was it not agency that enabled Lucifer to rebel? If Lucifer has his moral or free agency as a spirit, then didn’t we all? If so, then what was it that was given to man in the Garden?

    Can both statements be true, that agency is a component of intelligence and is thus eternal, and that agency is a gift given to us by Him and is thus not eternal? What if we break agency down into two parts, namely the ability to choose and the ability to act on such choices? Could it not be that our spirits are the conduit or mechanism through which we act and interact, and that our physical bodies bring this ability to another level?

    Slightly off topic and wildly speculative, but what if this sheds some light the nature of Outer Darkness? What if Outer Darkness is what one experiences when his ability to act on his choices is taken from him? The essence that makes an individual a distinct individual and make choices still exists, yet the ability to do anything as an individual is taken away — an eternal Hell.

  2. No idea how you’ll write your next post but if one equates agency and free will (and I’m not at all convinced we ought) or even moral freedom then it’s easy to explain this.

    Agency is only agency when there are actual morally significant choices before one and the reasonable ability to choose between them. Thus one could argue that these options have to be provided in order to be a significant agent.

    This then would tie into the common Mormon folk doctrine that in heaven there wasn’t a real ability to chose between good and evil since good was so powerful on us. (Of course that folk doctrine runs quickly into the problem of 1/3 finding a way to make a choice – but I’ll leave that problem alone)

  3. M: The Moses scripture quoted (Moses 7:32) brings up another interesting question: Was agency only given to man at Eden?

    Yeah, that scripture raised questions for me, too. It’s obvious (to me) that we had agency in the premortal life, like Clark said. I think there are at least a couple ways to harmonize that fact with Moses 7:32. (1) The Lord was using agency in a more general sense of “I gave mankind a choice to make.” (2) The veil removed Adam and Eve’s knowledge of good and evil once they received physical bodies, so they were suddenly operating without one of the required ingredients for agency. When they regained knowledge of good and evil again, they had agency in its fulness again. I’ve kind of discussed this a little more in the next post, scheduled for Monday.

    What if Outer Darkness is what one experiences when his ability to act on his choices is taken from him? The essence that makes an individual a distinct individual and make choices still exists, yet the ability to do anything as an individual is taken away.

    Yeah, that kind of makes sense. [Wild speculation warning.] You’d have the gift of individual-hood, but you left God’s universe because you refused to submit to his laws. So you’re stuck in a Nowhere, with no way to exercise your agency. Almost like how you started out, as uncreated intelligence, but now with consciousness, identity, memory, and personality. In that situation, it would be horrible—a hell! Maybe that’s why D&C 76:32 says of sons of perdition, “It had been better for them never to have been born.”

    Clark: [There is a] common Mormon folk doctrine that in heaven there wasn’t a real ability to chose between good and evil since good was so powerful on us.

    I agree—that makes no sense to me. The Lord makes it clear in Moses 4:3 that we had agency in the premortal life: “Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard that folk explanation before. I guess that’s a good thing, because maybe it’s not that prevalent anymore. :-)

  4. Nathan,

    That folk-myth takes the form of “We had to leave God’s presence to come to earth to be tested… because we could not be tested in God’s presence because we would always do right while God was looking over our shoulder.” Something to that extent. I’ve heard it a billion times.

  5. OK, I see what you mean. I agree with the first idea—that being tested required leaving God’s presence. But to conclude that his children always do right when in his presence, or that because of that we didn’t have agency—I don’t think either are merited. Lucifer is the obvious example. And you don’t get condemned to outer darkness if you’re not an agent who’s accountable.

  6. “While Heavenly Father may have intimately designed our personalities, identities, inclinations, and characters at spirit birth. . .”

    Is that the same as creating our choices? How can a choice have any meaning outside of the context of personality, identity, inclination and character?

  7. I think this topic is fascinating. If one believes material determinism must necessarily rule out choice (I’m on the fence with this one), the addition of “intelligences” doesn’t really solve the problem of free will. It would be dualism all over again.

    And if intelligences aren’t physical, and nonphysical objects with no momentum and mass cannot directly influence physical objects, the only readily available explanation is that God bridges the gap between our spirits and bodies, thus allowing us to indirectly influence our choices.

    But this creates a problem for people who believe that an act is immoral because of the act itself and not because of the intent or desire behind it (Jeff, I’m looking at you). For if the desire to sin is independent of the action and God himself causes the action to happen then he’d be the one sinning, not us. This is plainly impossible by any stretch.

    Provocative Question Man, up, up and AWAY!

  8. Why are you looking at me?

  9. It’s a common expression meaning that you were an example of the group I was referring to in the same sentence. (*Cough*, Jeff) would have been equivalent.

    Your Hobbes avatar matched particular well with your last statement. . .

  10. Yeah, but why would I be an example of that group? :)

  11. Sigh. . . because you believe that actions are immoral in and of themselves (i.e. because the action ITSELF is inherently wrong) than because of the intent behind or effects of the action.

    Maybe your qualm is with the “intent” part of this equation (I know you’re with me on the “effect” part). The “intent” behind an action refers to the desired outcome as a result of performance of that action. Because the eventual outcome cannot justify one’s performance of an action one believes is “wrong” by your philosophy, then ruling out effect in judging actions also quashes intent.

  12. I think intent has a HUGE role to play in morality. For example, I do not believe killing out of self-defense is wrong, but I do believe that killing out of malicious intent is. Malice turns even the best actions into a sin.

    I’m also not so sure that ruling out “effect” also rules out intent. For example, because I love others, I share with them the gospel. I have no idea what the actual effect of my efforts will be, and thus the actual effect isn’t what makes my action right. However, that doesn’t make intent (love for others) irrelevant.

  13. But if you love others, aren’t you sharing the gospel because you hope to help them in some way? Not really minding what then happens to them only because you know that sharing is right wouldn’t be right at all, would it?

  14. Are we talking about intended effects, or actual effects? If we are talking about intended effects, then really we are only talking about intent, not effects, right?

    In the end, however, by intent I mean not the goal or intended purpose of the action, but whether the action is motivated by love or malice. That has a lot to do with morality. Everything? I don’t know. But certainly a lot.

  15. When the scriptures say that God gave agency, it is in the context of giving agency to man (or mankind). That is, God gave agency to “man”.
    When speaking of man’s agency or the agency of man, the scriptures may be referring to the agency given to mortals.

    Consider the following scriptures:

    2 Nephi 2:25–26
    Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
    And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.

    Alma 12:27
    But it was appointed unto men that they must die; and after death, they must come to judgment, even that same judgment of which we have spoken, which is the end.

    Alma 42:4
    And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.

    The above scriptures refer to mortals. It would be hard to apply them to the third who followed Lucifer and were denied physical bodies. We commonly say that all men will be resurrected, which is true as long as we mean all mortal men. It would be incorrect to say that all of God’s children will be resurrected, because the third who are denied physical bodies will not.

    Scriptures which reference God giving man his agency, might only refer to God giving (or granting) agency to beings in this present “sphere” of existence (mortality) without saying anything, one way or the other, about the existence of agency in other spheres.

  16. Matthew: Scriptures which reference God giving man his agency, might only refer to God giving (or granting) agency to beings in this present “sphere” of existence (mortality) without saying anything, one way or the other, about the existence of agency in other spheres.

    Great point, Matthew. Sometimes passages the explain the gospel are referring only to “the family of Adam,” not necessarily the “family of Elohim” (e.g., 2 Ne. 9:21; Morm. 3:20).

    I think you could make a case for that with two of the passages in this article. But what about Moses 4:3? It’s talking about Lucifer during the war in heaven, trying to destroy the agency that the Father had given to man. To me, that makes it sound like we already had agency during the war in heaven.

  17. In Moses 4:3, God may be speaking of a future event (giving mortal man his agency) as a done deal. He knows His plan will be carried out, that Adam will fall, and that mortals will be given their agency.

    A similar thing happens with Abinadi. His testimony (or knowledge) is so sure that Christ will come that he speaks as if it has already occurred:

    Mosiah 16:6–7
    And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come, there could have been no redemption.
    And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection.

    It’s possible that a similar thing is happening in Moses 4:3.

    That’s just a possibility—something to put on the bookshelf of ideas.

  18. Great point—kind of like “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” refers to the atonement’s effects even in the premortal life. I’ll have to think about that.

  19. Excellent example. I’ll bet there are quite a few others if we started looking.

    Let me also add that Satan’s proposal seems to require the destruction of agency in mortality (the trial period). I don’t know that he sought to destroy agency in the pre-mortal estate.

    Anyway, I see my above idea as one possibility for explaining things.

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