Astronauts without Planets

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post (Restored Doctrines and Free Will), I explained that the Lord apparently revealed the doctrine that intelligence has always existed in order to help us understand how it is possible that we have agency. Because a part of us was not created by him, we can truly make choices, rather than merely acting out a script that he wrote into our souls at spirit birth. In a following post (A Gift that Was Never Given?), I discussed a question that is raised by this notion. The question is, Does this mean that intelligence inherently possesses agency, before it is organized into a spirit body?1 If the answer is yes, then how can mankind’s agency be something that “I, the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3). How can agency be a gift from God if intelligence already inherently possesses it? If the answer is no, then how do we explain that intelligence is the source or explanation for our agency, while simultaneously not having agency all along?

The exact answer might not have been revealed yet, but I have some thoughts that, once again, come from section 93. In short, I’d like to posit this solution: (1) intelligence does not possess agency before spirit birth, because (2) agency is more than just the power to choose.

Ingredients of Agency

Although the words “agent” and “agency” are only used in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, the principle of agency is taught throughout the standard works. Father Lehi discusses several elements required for agency to exist (2 Ne. 2), and Bruce R. McConkie summarizes them into the following list:

Four great principles must be in force if there is to be agency:

  1. Lawsmust exist, laws ordained by an Omnipotent power, laws which can be obeyed or disobeyed;
  2. Oppositesmust exist—good and evil, virtue and vice, right and wrong—that is, there must be an opposition, one force pulling … the other.
  3. A knowledge of good and evilmust be had by those who are to enjoy the agency, that is, they must know the difference between the opposites; and
  4. An unfettered power of choice must prevail.

Agency is given to man as an essential part of the great plan of redemption.2

Thus, power to choose is not in itself agency. The ability to make a choice is only one of several ingredients necessary for agency.

Imagine for a moment a situation in which only some of these ingredients were present. The potential for agency would exist, but agency in its fullness would not be functioning. If I tell you to choose whichever candy bar you want, but I only offer you a Butterfinger, agency is not in force. When you complain that you don’t like Butterfingers, imagine if I said, “Then why did you pick it?” I may remind you that you are accountable when exercising your power to choose, but it’s a farce of agency, because you didn’t really have anything to choose between (opposites).

Perhaps intelligence, before it is organized at spirit birth, constitutes such a situation, in which not all the ingredients necessary for agency are present. I wonder if intelligence has the raw potential to choose, but until spirit birth, it has nothing to choose (opposites), no system governing the outcomes of joy and misery (laws), and thus perhaps no opportunity to discern what is right (knowledge of good and evil).3 If such is the case, then intelligence would inherently possess one crucial attribute necessary for agency (power to choose), but intelligence alone could not actually act independently.

This may be what the Lord was getting at in section 93. He does not necessarily say that all intelligence is independent to act for itself. Rather, he says, “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30). There are several ways of interpreting this scripture (this is a very deep section), but allow me to posit one interpretation by paraphrasing: “Intelligence can only act for itself once it has been placed within a sphere of creation. Intelligence is independent once I organize it through spirit birth and give it laws, opposites, and knowledge of good and evil. Until then, it has nothing to act upon. It has the power to choose, but nothing to choose.”

“Free” from Everything

An analogy might better illustrate this. Is an astronaut free to move about if he is handcuffed and tied to the wall of his shuttle? Of course not. Likewise, the scriptures say that Satan seeks to “bind” us and destroy our agency. But there is an equally unpleasant scenario—being unconnected to anything. Remove not only the astronaut’s bonds, but also the shuttle, the space station, the planets, and every celestial object there is. Now the astronaut is floating in space, unfettered. Is he free to move about now? No.

For one thing, he has nothing to push off of in order to propel himself. With nothing to interact with, he cannot act. But even supposing he still had his shuttle, is he free to go any place he likes? No, because there is nowhere to go. In such a state, he could press on the accelerator for hours and never know how fast he was going or whether he had turned full-circle, because he would be the only thing around. He is not really free to choose his destination because there are no destinations to choose from. He’s not even really free to stay put, because how can you really stay in a position that is undistinguishable from all other positions? Thus, his ability to move is meaningless until he has somewhere to move to.

Likewise, intelligence’s power to choose is meaningless until it has things to choose. I wonder if intelligence, before spirit birth, is like an astronaut floating unfettered in space. Perhaps intelligence can be thought of as the potential to choose and act, but until spirit birth it has nothing to choose among, and nothing to act upon.4 Thus, it has the raw potential for agency, but does not actually have agency until Heavenly Father gives intelligence all the other ingredients at spirit birth, by placing it in a “sphere” of influence, in which there are now laws, opposites, and real good and evil to distinguish. Having been placed in a situation to interact with matter and other agents, intelligence now has all the ingredients of agency.


I offer this as an explanation for how agency (1) is possible only because of intelligence’s uncreated nature (D&C 93:31), while it simultaneously (2) is a gift we obtained from God (Moses 4:3).

Note: This post has been filled with a lot of “perhaps” and “supposes” and “maybes.” I keep qualifying my remarks because I try not to take my own ruminations too seriously. Only the Father, speaking through prophets, could settle a matter like this, so I always stay open to other explanations. But I also feel the Lord expects us to ponder his revelations, and that the answers to the most important questions are in there, if we just look hard enough.


1. “Through that birth process, self-existing intelligence was organized into individual spirit beings.” Marion G. Romney, “The Worth of Souls,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 13.
2. Bruce R. McConkie, “Agency,” Mormon Doctrine (Bookcraft, 1966), p. 26; quoted in “The Fulness of the Gospel: Agency,” Ensign, Mar. 2006, p. 18–19. This list was the basis for an outstanding seminary video about agency.
3. I recognize that in this section I may not be using Elder McConkie’s terms in the way he defined them. I hope I am, but even if I’m not, I think the point remains: power to choose is not the same thing as agency.
4. This pre–spirit-birth condition may be what Lehi was describing when he said that without opposites, “all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death” (2 Ne. 2:11).


  1. I see Elder McConkie’s four necessary principles for agency to exist as necessary to moral agency, not just agency.

    To me, agency is the principle upon which accountability rests—the legal framework, if you will. Moral agency is more precisely the type of agency we have been given in mortality which allows us to ultimately chose eternal life or everlasting death.

    The word “moral” has reference to both good and evil, therefore, moral agency is our ability to do good or to do evil. We can use agency to drink a glass of water, but since that action is neither good nor evil, we did not “excercise” a moral agency.

    Back to McConkie. If you reread the 4 things with the view of being able to act in moral (good or evil) ways, then it takes on a different meaning.

    Acting (primary agency), in and of itself, is not the big thing needed to make God’s plan work. His plan requires moral agency. It requires good and evil. He intends to give men [mankind] the choice of eternal life or death (i.e., exaltation or something else).

    Thus, Opposites (good and evil) must exist in order to have “moral” agency. Law must be established with corresponding rewards and penalties associated with each good or evil act. A Knowledge of good and evil, and free Choice are required for Him to justly hold us accountable to the Law and offer the corresponding rewards.

    God’s plan was not just to give us the freedom to choose in a generic sense, but it was to give us the ultimate choice: Eternal Life or Eternal Death. (And Law is one of the four necessary principles Elder McConkie gives upon which that plan is based.)

  2. Matthew,

    I think I agree with you in concept. I would agree that moral agency is not just making a choice, it is making a choice that has moral and eternal consequences. I think that is essentially what Nathan is arguing. Thus, while we may have had the capacity to choose among options, we did not have the capacity to make a moral and significant difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us until God placed us in a sphere with morally significant choices to make. In this way, moral agency is a gift from God, even though the innate potential for it always existed.

  3. Excellent post. Sound logic in providing a possible explanation to this perceived quandary. If your explanation is correct, why did God not say: “I provided man with an opportunity to exercise his agency.”? This would have been more straightforward. . .okay, I went and re-read Moses 4:3. He is speaking about this agency as a sidenote, in the context of Satan’s attempt to take away our agency. AH, I just noticed something interesting. God did not say that Satan was seeking to “take away” our agency, but to “destroy” our agency. Perhaps the use of the word “destroy” is a key to further understanding. Satan can effectively destroy man’s agency by removing one of the four conditions described above. Yes, I DO like your explanation.

  4. Aaron: Satan can effectively destroy man’s agency by removing one of the four conditions described above.

    Yeah, I think that’s such an important point. One folk doctrine that gets repeated in the Church a lot is that “sought to destroy agency” means Lucifer intended to force us to do good. But this assumes that force is the only way to destroy agency. Removing any of those four ingredients would destroy agency. I think it’s much more likely that Lucifer wanted to get rid of law, so that he could revel in any sin he wanted without any consequences. Jeff talks about this is Law and Moral Agency.

  5. Matthew: I see Elder McConkie’s four necessary principles for agency to exist as necessary to moral agency, not just agency.

    That’s an interesting distinction—I think you may have something there. My friend and I talked once about whether animals have agency. It’s obvious they make choices, but it’s also obvious that there’s something qualitatively different between our choices and theirs. Maybe the difference is that we have moral agency. And maybe that’s the main point made in the Eden story when Adam and Eve eat the fruit—of all God’s creatures, we are the only ones with knowledge of good and evil, and thus a moral component in our choices.

    That brings up an interesting possible interpretation in D&C 93:30. There are actually two things that are “independent in that sphere in which God has placed it”: intelligence and truth. [Wild Speculation Warning] Is there a second uncreated/eternal entity that can lead to agency? Intelligence and “truth,” as used here?

    Craig Ostler pointed out something interesting in D&C 93:36, which says that intelligence is “light and truth” together. Perhaps truth (placed in a sphere of creation) can have agency, while truth plus light can have moral agency. That would mean that many of God’s creations could have agency, but only humans, who have the light of Christ (knowledge of good and evil), can have moral agency.

    Light + Truth = Intelligence (D&C 93:36).
    Truth + A sphere = Agency (D&C 93:30–31)
    Light + Truth + A sphere = Moral agency

    Hmmm. … One weakness of this is that a lot of this revolves around the term “moral agency,” and that term is really only used one time in the scriptures (D&C 101:78). But whatever the case, this is definitely adding dimensions to my reading of section 93.

  6. I entered this blog by referring to a question raised in the first comment, so now I’d actually like to go back to the original post and comment about a few things. I’ll break each item into a separate comment.

    First, I really enjoyed the analogy about the astronaut. Restrain him and he is not free. Remove everything around him (which might sound like ultimate freedom) and he is unable to act in meaningful ways. Very interesting.

    This reminds me of 2 Nephi 2 where Lehi teaches of the importance of opposites then has this to say:

    2 Nephi 2
    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.

    The astronaut can act, but without the inanimate objects which can be acted upon what good is it? I guess we need those opposite things which don’t act so that those things which do have meaning.

  7. Nathan: Thus, power to choose is not in itself agency. The ability to make a choice is only one of several ingredients necessary for agency.

    That idea is what caught my attention to your blog in the first place. This is the first time I have found others who talk about agency similarly to the way I do. In fact, I thought your words sounded very familiar. This is what I wrote several years ago:

    Many in the church would say that, “an unfettered power of choice,” describes agency, but Brother McConkie says that it is only one of several foundational principles needed for agency to exist. Agency cannot be the same as free choice if free choice is only part of agency! Either McConkie is wrong, or agency is more than the ability to freely choose. Although this paragraph does not define what agency actually is, it does contain some very valuable information about it.


    Bruce R. McConkie gave free choice as only one of four principles that had to be in force for agency to exist. How can agency be equated with free choice if free choice is a separate, underlying principle of that agency? It may be that saying agency and free choice are the same thing is like saying faith is no more than belief, when belief is actually a component of faith.

  8. I think that intelligence(s), spirit beings, mortal beings, and spiritual beings all have agency, but the quantity and quality of that agency differs according to the sphere in which they reside.

    The “agency of man” is different in my mind from the agency of spirit beings.

    Let me frame it this way: I think that the agency, laws, and maybe even truths associated with a telestial kingdom (sphere) are different from the agency, laws, and truths of a terrestrial and also a celestial kingdom (sphere). I further think that beings in these various spheres are able to experience the fullest agency possible within those spheres according to the laws and truths by which they are governed.

    Therefore, I would not describe intelligence(s) as having potential agency. Instead, I would say they have agency in the fullest, realest sense they can, but it is not the same as what you and I know, because we have been “added upon” (i.e., with each progressive sphere or estate we enter, we have gained greater abilities and opportunities).

    Warning: I can only explain this in generalities based on principles, since it’s more a gut feeling, rather than any hard knowledge.

  9. Matthew: This reminds me of 2 Nephi 2. … “Both things to act and things to be acted upon.”

    Yeah, that’s one notion I had in mind as I thought about all this.

    Agency cannot be the same as free choice if free choice is only part of agency!

    Other general authorities have made similar distinctions, too. Dallin H. Oaks said, “Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph’s freedom, but he did not take away his free agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency” (“Free Agency and Freedom,” BYU devotional, 11 Oct. 1987). If anyone finds similar quotes elaborating on the different ingredients, I’d love to get a copy!

    I think that intelligence(s), spirit beings, mortal beings, and spiritual beings all have agency, but the quantity and quality of that agency differs according to the sphere in which they reside.

    That is a really interesting way to put it. Maybe it’s related to the doctrine taught when the Lord says, “There are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space” (D&C 88:37).

    I would say they [intelligence(s)] have agency in the fullest, realest sense they can, but it is not the same as what you and I know.

    It’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t that create the same problem—how can agency be a gift if we always had it, even to a lesser degree?

    Or there’s this thought: perhaps the various kingdoms constitute “spheres” of different laws, and thus different types or qualities of agency. But perhaps intelligence starts out with no sphere—in a place that is not a “kingdom” or “space,” and thus has no “law,” as used in D&C 88. So while there may be many kingdoms and corresponding laws and types of agency, there is also a condition of no kingdom, law, or agency.

    Warning: I can only explain this in generalities based on principles, since it’s more a gut feeling, rather than any hard knowledge.

    A big amen on my account, too! It’s nice to bounce ideas off someone else who’s thinking about this, too, though. 🙂

  10. Nathan,

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks. You have given a lot of information to reflect on. The idea that intelligences do not have agency because all the 4 essential ingredients are not present is intriguing. As as side issue, I am impressed with Lehi’s philosophical contributions in 2 Nephi chapter 2. He made some profound statements long before notable intellectuals like Pythagoras, Confucius, and Socrates.

    Your thought experiment of an astronaut in empty space is similar to Newton’s water bucket thought experiment. Notwithstanding its obvious limitations, he used the spinning water bucket to support his idea of absolute space (i.e., the water in a spinning bucket would only become concave if it were moving relative to some other object in space). Similarly, as you point out, agency would only exist if there are choices present.

    I would like to know how free will vs. moral agency factor into what you wrote. Is is fair to say that inanimate matter has free will in the sense of being able to choose whether to go to point A or point B? But, it lacks moral agency which is the power to choose between good and evil. For instance, Data’s cat “Spot” (Star Trek) has the power to choose whether to sleep on the couch or on the floor, yet it does not have the power to choose whether to help the Romulans by chewing through the wires causing a core breach that destroys the Enterprise.

    Assuming Spot does not have moral agency, if he does chew through the wires and destroy the Enterprise, it is a meaningless act in terms or right vs. wrong because he was not enticed by evil Romulans to carry out the act.

    Live long and prosper!

  11. Dave,

    Are you a Trek fan? If so, Awesome!

    I have no intention of speaking for Nathan, but here’s a thought. As I understand, Dave, “free will” is a philosophical concept essentially Greek in origin. “Moral agency” is a term found in scripture. (People have tried to combine the two into “free agency”, which is found nowhere in scriptures and has problematic implications)

    I believe in moral agency, but I think the traditional philosophical baggage that comes with “free will” is very problematic. If Joe needed to make a choice between x, y, or z, on what grounds will he make that choice? If the grounds for his decision (such as rational analysis, social habit, genetic determinism, whatever they be) exert a strong influence on his choice, then is it really a free choice? And if his choice is completely disconnected from the grounds upon which he would normally make the decision, then is his decision not random and therefore meaningless?

    I’ll be writing a post soon that will address this issue. I think that it is likely that we need to re-evaluate using “free will” as the definition of moral agency (because of many problems I will explain in my future post), but rather treat moral agency as something deeper and more subtle.

  12. Jeff,

    Perhaps ancient Greek conceptions of free will could not dig deeper into the realm of moral agency because their concept of a supreme law-giver was under developed. Sure some greek intellectuals were monotheists, most notably Xenophanes and Aristotle, but their conception of a supreme being was limited.

    In order to recognize moral agency one must acknowledge that there is an absolute foundation for judging things good and evil. Relativistic concepts of truth that dominated the thinking of the ancient Sophists would not suffice. A society needs to recognize that there is an absolute truth about good and evil, and that it is found in a final arbiter of truth who wrote the laws (God). The ancient Greeks had no such beliefs.

    Perhaps this is why they could only deal with the more superficial issue of free will.

  13. Nathan: . . . how can agency be a gift if we always had it . . . ?

    This is the basic question I was trying to answer for myself a number of years ago.

    Here are some pieces of the puzzle with which I was working:

    “In this connection, let us say that unless there is absolute freedom of religion and of worship, there is no salvation. Unless men have their agency—given of God in preexistence, given anew in the garden of Eden, and given again after the fall—unless men are free to choose, they cannot gain liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men.”
    — Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985], p. 664.

    I wondered what it could mean that agency was given over and over again. It seems to open a door to a possible solution.

    D&C 93
    29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
    30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
    31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.

    I begin with the proposition that intelligence does in fact have agency. I haven’t spent much time figuring out why. It’s just the way I read the above verses. (As a philosopher, this must just drive you nuts!)

    In my mind, the first half of verse 30 talking about truth being independent and able to act for itself is enough to establish the tie between intelligence and agency. For instance, verse 29 (and other places) tie intelligence to truth in various ways (also light, glory, fulness, etc.).

    But there’s more. The second half of verse 30 where it says, “as all intelligence also,” seems to me to implicitly tie intelligence to the preceding idea that was expressed about truth—that intelligence is also independent and can act for itself (don’t ask me how—that’s one of the things I can read and agree with, even though I can’t explain how things work in other spheres).

    Back to McConkie. With the idea of independence, acting for itself, and agency (which I think are more or less similar) being defined within a sphere (or kingdom, estate, state), I then noticed that each time McConkie says that agency was given (pre[mortal]existence, Eden, and after the fall) we have a new sphere of existence as follows:

    1) pre-mortal existence / spirit body / celestialish (?)
    2) garden of Eden / spiritual (?) body / terrestrial
    3) after the fall / physical (mortal) body / telestial

    I would say that after the resurrection, agency will again be given. It will be the agency associated with the particular body/sphere we inherit.

    I’m not a true philosopher (I don’t even play one on TV—or even in the blogs for that matter), so I can only explain the process I used to get there.

    Your ideas about intelligence are equally interesting. If you read McConkie’s quote above his first mention of agency is the “preexistence”, so he doesn’t address the “intelligence sphere” one way or the other, so I can play with your ideas without much grief.

    By the way, I take D&C 88:37 to exclude the idea that intelligence is in a non-kingdom, but I find that an interesting possibility as well. My reading of D&C 93:30, however, puts intelligence in a sphere (in my mind at least).

  14. Or, Matthew, a possible way to read D&C 88:37 and D&C 93:30 is that for intelligence not to have a moral agency of at least some kind is to be removed from a sphere of existence (that is, have all planets taken away, in the analogy). If it is in a sphere, as you say, then it would have to have the kind of moral agency associated with that sphere. In that sense, the “astronauts without planets” would be a hypothetical condition, with no instantiation in reality.

  15. Sorry—I didn’t keep up on the discussion and I’ve not read all the comments yet.

    One quick thought about Elder McConkie’s assertions. It seems to me that he assumes that morality is tied to laws. But we then have the spirit vs. letter of the law situation. Put another way, you can see laws as outlining rules for what you should do. Or you can see laws as providing a way of indicating values we ought have. The problem is that there is a conflict between these two. (The most obvious place to see the conflict is in the Adam and Eve story as seen through LDS eyes)

    My sense is that Elder McConkie’s background as a lawyer made him see the value of rule of law. But sometimes (as in civil disobedience) it’s good to violate the law. Making sense of this is non-trivial.

    All this then gets one into the question of meta-ethics. I personally don’t think there are good answers to most meta-ethical questions. But clearly the very meaning of morality will change if one is a consequentialist or a Kantian. Which would seem to suggest that the question of ethics is itself determinative of the question of agency.

    To say that it’s a matter of laws is almost to take the more Kantian approach. That in turn raises the question of whether laws are just and whether they are just because God states them or God states them because they are just.

    Put simply, there’s a lot of ontology lurking in the background of this question.

  16. In 2 Nephi chapter 2, Lehi described the basic concept of agency, that man can, “act for himself.” This chapter is also full of the four principles that McConkie relates to moral agency:

    1. Law (verses 5, 7, 10, 13, 26)
    2. Opposites/Opposition (verses 10, 11, 15)
    3. Knowledge/Know (verses 5, 18, 23, 26)
    4. Choice/Choose (Free) (verses 26, 27, 28, 28, 30)

    Alma chapter 42 also contains those four concepts related to agency within it:

    1. Law (verses 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23)
    2. Opposites/Opposition (verse 16)
    3. Knowledge/Know (verse 3)
    4. Choice/Choose (Will/Freely) (verses 7, 27)

  17. In this setting, Clark, I’m not sure if I see laws as universal abstractions that codify all moral behavior, or simply God’s unique instructions for us in this place and time. For me, at least, I don’t see moral behavior as that which adheres to a universal abstraction (so I’m not really a Kantian); rather, moral behavior is being responsive to God, and immoral behavior is being rebellious against God, whatever the occasion may be (I mean this is a Levinasian sort of way, with God representing the Other. Of course, this may differ from Levinas himself). Without divine instructions to follow or grate against (even if they are only for our unique context), neither reaction to God is really possible. Thus, divine instructions provide an occasion for us to fulfill our ethical obligation to the divine, or to resist it.

    Now, this may be different than the way McConkie uses the term, but if I were to define law as God’s instruction to me in my particular place and time, then it certainly fits.

    That’s the best answer I can give right now. There are a lot of unanswered questions that I have about the issue.

  18. But being responsive to God tells us what is ethical but not why. Then there’s problem of what it means to be responsive. Of course that’s my problem with Levinas. The move to the ethical as opposed to the responsibility for the ethical is underdetermined.

  19. Clark: …Whether [laws] are just because God states them or God states them because they are just.

    Yeah, that’s something I’ve been mulling over since high school. It’s so easy to assume the latter, that there is a standard higher than God to which he adheres in order to be God. But something in me has never let me totally embrace that.

    The best I can articulate it is, I think that godhood is a mysterious point at which a person becomes indistinguishable from a principle. They become one and the same—a personified precept. And so to ask whether something is first good or first Godly is redundant. Just a feeling I’ve had.

    But being responsive to God tells us what is ethical but not why.

    Have you read C. S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man“? One main point he makes is that in order for there to be a universal, non-relative Good, there must be at least one thing that is good for its own sake, without some reason behind it.

    Honesty, selflessness, humility—for any virtue, we can keep trying to back up another step and say, “But why is that good” (and I think that’s a valuable activity). But Lewis asserts that there has to be something that is inherently good, without a further-back reason for it. I find that really compelling. I wonder if Heavenly Father has something to do with that.

  20. Matthew, thank you for that list from Alma 42! I’d found those in 2 Ne. 2 before, but not in Alma 42. Cool stuff!

    Rachel, I agree. Isn’t this fun? We’re glad to have you. (By the way, how did you become an guide for the Church?)

  21. Clark: …Whether [laws] are just because God states them or God states them because they are just.

    Nathan: I think that godhood is a mysterious point at which a person becomes indistinguishable from a principle. They become one and the same—a personified precept.

    When I first read Clark’s statement, something inside me wanted to thwart the “what came first the chicken or the egg” nature of the question.

    I felt that when an individual person progressed to a point where they were so united (or “one”) with the Eternal laws of the universe, then they would be said to have reached Godhood. At that point the individual person is so united with Truth (like the inseparability of the physical and spirit bodies after the resurrection) that it’s impossible to say which came first, since they are one at that point.

  22. Nathan: I was very blessed to become the guide, and I know the Lord prepared me to be ready when the position opened up. The previous guide was there for 5 years, and when she was getting ready to quit I applied. I then went through a three week orientation/training after which I was approved and became the guide. It’s been 6 years now (which I can hardly believe), and I have truly been blessed with such a wonderful job.

    And just to clarify, in case there’s any confusion, I don’t work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I am not an official site, but am considered a media resource. I’ve worked with the Church’s internet department a few times and am on the Church’s email distribution for media contacts.

    And yes, this is fun!

  23. Fascinating topics, non-heretical tone–I think I’ve found my favorite LDS doctrinal discussion blog. One point to consider:

    An “agent” is one who represents another; hence the scriptural statement: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business (D&C 64:29).” PR Agent, sports agent, real estate agent–all are empowered to represent the interests and will of their client. Is not agency simply the condition or situation wherein one acts as agent?

    In this light, our agency to God is most certainly a gift (one which does not remove our will, but rather alligns it with his). If an earthly king offered an undeserved commoner an appointment as Minister of State, who would fail to see this “agent opportunity” as unwarranted generosity. In a similar fashion the Father of Lights (James 1:17) offered to appoint us his agents–reflections of his very image and purpose–through spiritual then physical (then spiritual again, one could argue)birth. I see no reason to believe our will as intelligences is invented through these proceses, but rather channelled and amplified.

  24. Now that is an interesting take. I’d been thinking of agent by its definition of “one who has decision-making power,” but I hadn’t thought of applying the representative aspect of the common definition of agent. It certainly adds insight to why sin makes us feel bad—we’re violating God’s will, which our own will would be an extension of.

    Good to have you here, Michael. We hope you stick around! Please be patient with some of the site navigation and archiving—we’re still figuring out some of the software that makes articles easier to find.

  25. Michael: An “agent” is one who represents another.

    Thank you for pointing that out. In my first comment above I referred to the idea of acting as “primary agency.” What I didn’t say was that the idea of acting for and in behalf of another is “secondary agency.” I use these terms to describe the two major categories of Agency. A dictionary may have many definitions for Agency, but it seems to me that they all stem from either the primary or secondary definition. I once asked Jeff and Nathan (and others) how they would define the word “agency.” I was hoping that it might bring out this definition from someone, but it didn’t, so I did not pursue it any further.

    Michael: Is not agency simply the condition or situation wherein one acts as agent?

    I agree. The words agent and agency are related—an agent has agency and one who has agency is an agent. I think the scriptures use the terms in this way as well. Men (mankind) are said to have agency and men are also called “agents unto themselves.”

    Michael: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business (D&C 64:29).”

    This is a good example of the law of agency, and is very useful for describing the concept. I think we need to be careful, however, when using this verse. Here is something I wrote about this verse some time ago:

    Taken by itself, this verse sounds like a general principle, that the Lord’s servants act as his agents, but verses 26-30 seem to provide a more limited context. Verse 26 refers to Newel K. Whitney and Sidney Gilbert and verse 30 says that the agents mentioned previously are to provide for the saints, “that they may obtain an inheritance in the land of Zion”. Both men were called to be agents to help the people of Ohio in their migration to Jackson county, Missouri (the land of Zion). Brother Gilbert was called to be an agent to purchase lands in Missouri (see D&C 57:3-6) and Brother Whitney was called to send money to the land of Zion and to be an agent and provide for the needs of those who tarried in Ohio (see D&C 63:42-46).

    Even though this verse seems to be directed to Sidney Gilbert and Newel K. Whitney specifically, the principle expressed in this verse can still be applied generally to all members of the church. When agents act in accordance with the will of their principal, it becomes the principal’s business. As agents of the Lord, members of the church are in His employ. When acting according to His will, they are doing His business.

    The principle that we can act as agents of the Lord is a correct principle, and it seems like you allude to the idea of becoming the Lord’s agent though the baptismal covenant since you mention the second spiritual birth (being born again).

    I would say that there are different types of agency mentioned in the scriptures. The doctrinal type wherein men are specifically said to be “agents unto themselves.” A common/general type, such as Sidney Gilbert and Newel K. Whitney having a specific calling to act as agents for the church. And types of agency that are implied, but not specifically declared, such as baptized persons who covenant to be agents for the Lord, priesthood holders for God, etc.

    I could say more, but I’ll wait to see where the discussion goes from here.

  26. I would say that there are different types of agency mentioned in the scriptures.

    I agree with that, especially the D&C references talking about the person representing the legal interests of the Church. When the living prophets talk about agency in general conference, etc., do you think they are usually talking about one of these types more than the others?

  27. I think the living prophets use Agent in the sense of, “one who has decision-making power,” like you said above, although I don’t think you can find that definition in the dictionary. Agency, in the church, is usually used in the sense of a freedom, right, or ability to choose. Again, I don’t think you can find that in the dictionary. (Try it)

    You can find those ideas connected with Free Agent and Free Agency in the dictionary—sometimes. More often than not, I think you will find the definition of Free Agent more along the lines of a professional athlete who is able to negotiate a contract with whomever he wants (which is an interesting gospel idea, although we know that the scriptural term is agency/agent not free agency/free agent).

    The leaders of the church and church materials are beginning to define it more as the idea of a freedom, right, or ability to choose and act, thus tying the primary definition of Agency (acting) to the traditional definition that was used in the past which usually focused mainly on the choice aspect. At least this is a slight change that I’ve detected in the last 20 years. Another slight change is that it seems that the idea of accountability is being brought more to the forefront when discussing agency.

  28. “No astronauts without planets and no agents without principals!” the man proclaimed as he rent his t-shirt and brandished it in the air.

    I mock my own zeal, of course. I campaign for the representative definition of agency, simply because it’s the oft-neglected element. Both the “power to act” and the “authority to represent” meanings were present during Joseph Smith’s time.

    Webster’s 1828 Dictionary—

    1. An actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act; as, a moral agent.
    2. An active power or cause; that which has the power to produce an effect; as, heat is a powerful agent.
    3. A substitute, deputy, or factor; one entrusted with the business of another; an attorney; a minister.

    1. The quality of moving or of exerting power; the state of being in action; action; operation; instrumentality; as, the agency of providence in the natural world.
    2. The office of an agent, or factor; business of an agent entrusted with the concerns of another; as, the principal pays the charges of agency.

  29. By the way, Matthew, I loved your comment from 1 Oct. 2008, 12:02 pm. I don’t think I ever really responded to it.

    I wondered what it could mean that agency was given over and over again. … I then noticed that each time McConkie says that agency was given (premortal existence, Eden, and after the fall) we have a new sphere of existence.

    I really think you’re on to something. I think that’s probably the basic idea the Lord intended when he talked about intelligence being placed in a “sphere” of existence—different “estates” almost.

    I’m not a true philosopher … , so I can only explain the process I used to get there.

    Amen, brother. You might have noticed how by-the-seat-of-my-pants some of my posts are. I’m at best an armchair philosopher who’s still learning how to be thorough.

    I take D&C 88:37 to exclude the idea that intelligence is in a non-kingdom, but I find that an interesting possibility as well.

    I can see how you might read it that way. I’d always read it a little differently, like this:

    There is no space in the which there is no kingdom;
    and there is no kingdom in which there is no space.
    [But there may be some things that are not in a kingdom or space, like intelligence or truth.]

    Kind of like this reasoning:

    There is no steam that is not vaporized water;
    and there is no vaporized water that is not steam.
    [But there may be some things that are not steam or vaporized water, like chipmunks.]

    My reading of D&C 93:30, however, puts intelligence in a sphere (in my mind at least).

    I can understand that reading, too. I guess tend to focus on the phrase “in which God has placed it,” which could imply that there was a time before it was placed in a sphere, or that some have not been placed in a sphere.

    But you’re right—heaven knows, when we’re dealing with profound truths that are only mentioned in a handful of brief passages, we can’t get too attached to any one interpretation until a prophet clears things up. But man, it’s fun to think about, hah? 🙂

  30. I personally really love the representative view of agency. Personally, because I utlimately define agency as living truthfullly (even though I don’t always use the word that way), I see agency as the ability to be true to commitments or obligations. To be true or false to others is the only real choice in this world, and all our other decisions are essentially manifestations of this fundamental decision. Since in the baptismal covenant we take upon ourselves the name of Christ, to be true to that commitment we must represent him.

    As Nathan explained in one of his posts, most people (not deliberately) see agency as a freedom from hindering obligations or commitments; I see obligation and commitment as a crucial element of agency, for without it, there is nothing to be true to or false to.

  31. Michael, glad to hear from you again.

    I agree that the idea of agents and agency as used in LDS scripture should be interpreted using the definitions from the 1828 dictionary. I could go with either the primary and/or secondary definitions of agency, but I do prefer the idea that agency describes the principal/agent relationship. I think it provides many insights into gospel principals and is the ‘legal’ foundation upon which accountability is built.

    I’ve had a reprodution of Webster’s 1828 dictionary for 17 years. The definitions of Agency found therein are what I’ve been using since that time. When did the dictionary idea of agency hit you instead of the common ‘freedom to choose’ definition? I’ve been searching the internet trying to find if there were any others who had a belief that was similar to mine. Have you read the book, “Satan’s War on Free Agency” by Greg Wright? I found his ideas very similar to what I’ve been thinking for many years, although he arrives at his idea by a different route. I’ve found a few others on the internet from time to time as well. Welcome to the club!

  32. The story of concentration camp survivor, Victor Frankl, recounted by Steven Covey ( deeply influenced my personal view that an intelligence’s power of choice is innate and irrevocable (and thus distinct from the more complex covenant-based agency). A business law course first acquainted me with the traditional definitions.
    That being said–when I hear over the pulpet that the power to choose was the hot-topic of premortal debates, I can conceive of no other tool that Satan would have exploited more readily than this innate irrevocable power to be flaunted in the face of the Father. He still does it today, presenting ‘some other way’ and ‘broad roads’ to deter us from our covenants.

  33. Here’s the scriptural logic behind my “power of choice is innate and irrevocable” statement:

    D&C 93:30… All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.]

    [Note: An intelligence’s independent ability “to act for itself” is a precondition of existence, without which, “there is no existence.” This power is held inviolate in whatever sphere we are placed.]

    Abraham 3:18…if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.
    [Note: Before God’s involvement with us, eternal intelligences which “have no beginning” existed, and therefore possessed the requisite power to act.]

  34. An intelligence’s power of choice is innate and irrevocable (and thus distinct from the more complex covenant-based agency).

    Many scholars have recognized that the “power to choose” (volition) and agency may be related but different things. The war in heaven may have been about agency, which is very related but something more than the volitional “power to choose.”

    It’s a great insight, huh?

  35. I think I knew that the traditional definition of Agency commonly used in the church was not the one found in the dictionary. During college I too had a Business Law class. I though that some of the concepts of the law of agency were very interesting when applied to the gospel in general and to individual agency, but I didn’t think much more about it at the time.

    One day while in a bookstore I was bored, so I decided to see if the LDS definition of Agency was in the dictionary, since they are constantly adding new ones all the time. I was actually surprized that it had not yet been added. I have since looked in many dictionaries, and have not yet found it.

    Wikipedia actually has a separate entry for “Agency (Mormonism)” which recognizes that the LDS definition is different from the non-LDS world. I think our definition actually came in from the philosophical definition of “free agency” and the protestant arguement over determinism versus free will (a “free” agent versus a “necessary” agent). I think we have got so hung up on the Free aspect of Free Agency, that we forgot what the word Agency meant by itself.

    Last month in my search for others on the internet who spoke of agency as something other than free will/free choice, I found a guy named Sam Sneed on the following blog I left several comments there, along with the 1828 dictionary definitions like Michael has done here. Anyone interested can see what was said there. Sam’s comment that caught my attention is #69. I don’t know what the discussion was about before then, I just jumped in from that point on.

  36. Jeff, when you talk about scholars recognizing that volition and agency are different things, are you referring to people within the church, or to people in philosophy and other studies? It seems to me that in the church free will/free choice and agency are generally equated, although there seems to be a slight shift in the emphasis over the last 20 years.

    I’d be interested in hearing more of what you have in mind, as I enjoy trying to understand the various meanings behind the terms used in the revelations.

  37. Matthew,

    Richard Williams has written some fascinating articles explaining why volition and agency cannot be the same thing. He says they are certainly related, but presents compelling reasons as to why they cannot be synonymous.

    The “free will” debate is an interesting one. Richard Williams, Ed Gantt, and others argue that the traditional definition “free will” and its *equation* with agency makes the notion of agency difficult to defend. They argue that a more powerful and et more easily defensible notion of agency can be formulated if we separate the two (and perhaps revise our definition of free will, since it presently connotes choice independent of any antecedent events or influences, which would make the choice random, capricious, and meaningless).

    I can name more scholars, but I must go to bed. I might write more tomorrow.

  38. Jeff, Matthew, Nathan –
    Your insights have proven valuable to me — thank you. I’ll scavenge some more fruit from you, if I may:

    Have any of you encountered or conceived a model which demarcates the volitional roles of intelligence, spirit, heart, mind, and body?
    We know the brain has ’emotional’ and’rational’ centers — which might lead one to regard the physical organ itself as a sort of’heart-mind’. However, having personally experienced powerful, involuntary, thoracic-centered responses to emotional and spiritual stimulii, I am left to ponder, “What is my heart?”

    When I read D&C 131:7 and 77:2, I am convinced the constitution of the spirit body and the physical body mirror each other in form and function. If this is the case, whatever volitional functions we attribute to one, should be present in the other, correct?

    “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.”

    “…that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual; the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created.”

  39. I doubt I have much to contribute to your questions, Michael. Some scripture speak of receiving answers by feelings and/or thoughts, while other say they come to the heart and/or mind. I tend to think that the heart is conceptually the center of the feeling part of us, while the mind is the center of the thought part. I don’t know what the actual breakdown is. They may both provide some type of physical pathway to our spirtual self.

    Here’s something odd I’ve noticed, showing how confused or interconnected our thoughts and feelings are at times. Have you ever noticed that men talk about their thoughts more than their feelings and with women it is the complete opposite? That’s a common thing. But how about this: Men will often refer to things they feel as their thoughts (really they have no logic or reason to back them up), while women will often refer to things they think as their feelings (they still may call it a feeling even though they have actual knowledge about it).

  40. Let me first say that I believe that the meanings of the words Agent and Agency in LDS scripture are different from the way the terms are commonly used by philosophy. Having said that, I would still be interested in reading a copy of Richard Williams’, “The Freedom and Determinism of Agency.” I’ve searched the internet using the title and some of the quotes you’ve referred to, but I haven’t found an online copy of it.

    The way philosophy uses the words Agent and Agency today seems to me more narrow and specialized than the common definitions found in dictionaries. As a reminder, here are Noah Webster’s definitions from his “An American Dictionary of the English Language” (published in 1828) for Agency related words:

    A’GENCY, n. [L. agens. See Act.]
    1. The quality of moving or of exerting power; the state of being in action; action; operation; instrumentality; as, the agency of providence in the natural world.
    2. The office of an agent, or factor; business of an agent entrusted with the concerns of another; as, the principal pays the charges of agency.
    A’GENT, a. Acting; opposed to patient, or sustaining action; as, the body agent. [Little used.] Bacon.
    A’GENT, n. An actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act; as, a moral agent.
    2. An active power or cause; that which has the power to produce an effect; as, heat is a powerful agent.
    3. A substitute, deputy, or factor; one entrusted with the business of another; an attorney; a minister.
    A’GENTSHIP, n. The office of an agent. [Not used.] We now use agency.

    You will notice that the above definitions are all related to the ideas of acting and action, and make absolutely no mention of the cause behind the action. But when philosophy uses the idea of Agency it usually focuses on the causes of human actions (i.e., determinism v. free will).

    In the early 1800s, philosophical debates about determinism and free will were couched in terms of necessity and free agency. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary recognizes the idea of a Free Agent in the following definitions:

    NEC’ESSARY, a.
    4. Acting from necessity or compulsion; opposed to free. Whether man is a necessary or a free agent is a question much discussed.
    NECES’SITY, n.
    2. Irresistible power; compulsive force, physical or moral [i.e., intellectual – my comment]. If man’s actions are determined by causes beyond his control, he acts from necessity, and is not a free agent. Necessity compelled the general to act on the defensive.

    Notice, however, that the Lord did not use the philosophical terms Free Agent and Free Agency in any of the revelations. He used the common, simple word Agency. A common word with a definition known to and understood by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries.

    Church History contains many examples of the words Agent and Agency used in standard, non-philosophical ways. I can find no sermon or pronouncement in early church history where the words are redefined in a way inconsistent with the dictionary. I can, however, find many examples today where that is the case. Apparently, early members of the church understood the words without having them constantly defined for them.

    Over time the church began to adopt the philosophical term Free Agency, until, by about 1900, the term Free Agency was being used more than the scriptural word Agency. And not only was the word Agency replaced, but the definition of Free Agency (a specific type of agency – i.e., being able to act from one’s own free will) became the predominant definition for doctrinal Agency.

    In recent years the word Agency has made a comeback, but the philosophical definition of Free Agency is still being used instead of the dictionary’s definition.

    [I’ll write more in a few days.]

  41. I think this is so interesting, because it shows how subtley we can let the assumptions of the world miscolor our pure understandings of the gospel. That’s really one of the main reasons for this site, to reveal those mistaken, unwitting ways we dilute restored doctrines.

  42. I think that the Lord speaks to men in their own language so they can understand (D&C 1:24, 2 Nephi 31:3, Ether 12:39). When discussing Agents and Agency in the scriptures, I think we should use the definitions found in the dictionary, and not the traditional definition of “free agency,” which is a term borrowed from philosophical debates and describes a certain type of agency (not determined by necessity or constraint) but does not define what Agency actually means.

    In the church we generally define Agency as the, “freedom to choose,” therefore, we figure that an Agent is one who is free to choose. This approach seems backwards to me. I would first define the word Agent. Fortunately, Webster did this for us back in 1828 (see the dictionary definitions I’ve included above). After we determine what an Agent is, and understand how the Lord used the word, we will then know more about Agency.

    The primary meaning of Agent is acting, as shown in the 1828 Dictionary (see above). Webster says that Agent, as an adjective, means acting, and that the opposite of Agent is Patient, or that which sustains the action. A definition from an 1805 dictionary links the ideas of Agent and Patient with wording similar to that found in the Book of Mormon:

    A’GENT. adj. [agens, Lat.] That which acts: opposed to patient, or that which is acted upon.
    — A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1805. [bolding throughout is mine]

    The Book of Mormon does not contain the words Agent or Agency, but the concepts of Agent and Patient are found in 2 Nephi chapter 2:

    2 Nephi 2
    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.

    Man, or course, would be categorized as a thing which acts, i.e., man is an agent. If you read the scriptures using just the primary definition of Agent (an actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act) you will find that it fits rather well. We do not need a different definition of Agent.

    D&C 58
    28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

    Notice that the ideas of power and doing (acting) are also present in the above verse.

    Agency can mean power, action, operation, or instrumentality under its primary definition. Try substituting the word Power or Instrumentality in place of Agency in the scriptures, and it too fits quite well.

    Moses 4
    3 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;

    One of the easiest ways to interpret the above verse is to say that if Satan were able to save all mankind, it naturally would destroy their instrumentality in God’s plan, because they would not have to do anything! Also, I find it interesting that in the same verse where Satan would have taken away man’s agency (or power) he also wants God’s power as well.

    It may take a while for your mind to switch from automatically reading these verses the way you’ve always read them, but if you can get past this, I think you will find that the dictionary definitions work quite well, even though the meaning of the verse may shift a bit with this different point of view.

    If you care to try the experiment for yourself, the five verses in which man is doctrinally referred to as an Agent are D&C 29:35, D&C 29:39, D&C 58:28, D&C 104:17, and Moses 6:56. The five verses which speak of Agency in a doctrinal sense are D&C 29:36, D&C 93: 31, D&C 101:78, Moses 4:3, and Moses 7:32.

    [I’ll address the secondary definition of Agent and Agency later.]

  43. A while ago Jeff and Nathan addressed their Favorite Posts from 2008. Jeff picked this one [Astronauts without Planets] as one of his favorites, and said, “. . . I was impressed with the distinction made between the innate capacity to choose, and having choices to choose from.”

    I am grateful for the plan of salvation and the atonement which makes the ultimate choice, eternal life, possible. Without the atonement, this mortal life would be a dead end (literally).

    One of the things I have gained from the Book of Mormon is that the ultimate choice we have is the choice between eternal life and everlasting death (2 Nephi 10:23), a choice that is only possible because of the atonement of Christ (2 Nephi 2:26-27). To me, the idea of “acting for oneself” (as expressed in the Book of Mormon) is a more correct definition of agency than the more common definition of “freedom to choose,” although the ideas are certainly related since choice is a necessary part of agency as Nathan has shown early on in this post.

    In the three main Book of Mormon passages which talk about acting for oneself, the idea of choosing is always represented as a choice between life and death (see 2 Nephi 2:26-29, 2 Nephi 10:23, and Helaman 14:30-31). The Book of Mormon does not specifically equate agency (acting for oneself) with everyday choices, instead, it testifies that through the use of our agency in doing good or evil (Helaman 14:30-31), men ultimately choose their eternal reward of either liberty and eternal life or captivity and death (2 Nephi 2:27).

    This is possibly another way in which agency was “given” to us, because without the plan of salvation and the atonement which makes it all possible, we could not effectively choose between eternal life and death.

    [I hope the scripture links above work. I still plan to address the secondary definition of Agent and Agency, hopefully by next weekend.]

  44. [I can’t get my whole comment to save, so I’ll try to do it in segments]

    [Part 1:]

    To pick up where I left off, that we should use the definitions found in the dictionary to understand Agency, I want to mention the secondary definition of Agents and Agency, which is based on the idea of acting for another (see my comment above for Webster’s 1828 Dictionary definitions).

    You can see that the Lord uses the word Agent in the Doctrine and Covenants according to the secondary definition of the word many times, as in the various agents who were called to act for and represent the interests of the church. The word Agency, describing the office, business, or function of an Agent (one who acts for another), is also clearly used in this manner in D&C 64:18, as was pointed out above by Michael Wheeler. (There are two other places I know of where the Lord uses Agency in this manner, but they’re not in the scriptures.)

    There are five examples in the Doctrine and Covenants where a secular agent is spoken of as being an agent “unto” the church or a group of people. In the scriptures, the keyword “unto” is used to separate and define the principal from the agent. Although conceptually an agent acts “for” a principal, the scriptures always designate the individual as an agent “unto” their principal. In other words, the person or group of people for whose benefit the agent acts always follows the keyword “unto”. (See D&C 51:8, D&C 53:4, D&C 57:6, D&C 58:49, and D&C 63:45)

    [Part 2:]

    In a similar manner, each time the scriptures speak of men as Agents in a doctrinal sense, it is always followed by the keyword, “unto”. This similarity in usage provides a link between the concepts of secular and doctrinal Agents. Each time the agent’s principal is designated, the keyword “unto” is used (five examples from the secular agents and all five times for the doctrinal agents). If the Lord used the same definition for a doctrinal Agent as He used for a secular Agent, then it would follow that the principal would be the person who follows the keyword, “unto.”

    Every place the word Agent is used in a doctrinal sense, it is always followed by either, “unto himself,” or, “unto themselves” (see D&C 29:35, D&C 29:39, D&C 58:28, D&C 104:17, and Moses 6:56). In other words, the individual is always designated as their own principal. The five scriptures which refer to men as being ‘agents unto themselves’ seem to use the secondary (or legal) definition of one who acts for another, except that the Lord described men as agents, “unto themselves,” that is, they act in their own behalf; they are their own principal; they legally represent themselves.

    Agency, then, would become a description of the ‘office’ that we hold, which the Lord gave to all mankind (i.e., to be “agents unto themselves”).

    [Part 3:]

    Now, let’s look at the legal idea of an Agent (i.e., one who acts for another). This is often called the Law of Agency:

    Agent One who agrees and is authorized to act on behalf of another, a principal, to legally bind an individual in particular business transactions with third parties pursuant to an agency relationship.
    — West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, Volume 12: Dictionary and Indexes, West Publishing Co., Minneapolis/St. Paul, 1998, p. 17. [bolding mine]

    . . . the agent represents the principal and is subject to the principal’s control. More important, the principal is liable for the consequences of acts that the agent has been directed to perform.
    — West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, Volume 1, West Publishing Co., Minneapolis/St. Paul, 1998, p. 124.[bolding mine]

    The Lord understands this legal definition of Agents. Speaking of men called to be secular agents He said the following, which refers to the legal concept of an agent as described above:

    D&C 64:29 Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business. [bolding mine].

    We, as agents unto ourselves, are able to act in our own behalf and to be held legally accountable for our actions, just as a Principal is legally bound by the actions of his Agent.

    If man is called an Agent unto himself in the scriptures, then Agency would describe that relationship; it would be the office, function, or business of an Agent (the secondary definition from the dictionary). Remember D&C 64:18? It is the same definition.

    [Part 4:]

    I think Agency, then, is used to describe the legal foundation upon which our accountability and the justice of God rests. Without it, the plan of God would not work (remember Lucifer?). It combines the idea that we can act for ourselves (as the Book of Mormon puts it) with the concept that our actions immediately bind us to the consequences (through the Law of Agency). God gives us the opportunity to represent ourselves, to be autonomous, and to control our own actions, but because of the principles found in the Law of Agency, we are also legally liable and accountable for those actions. They are two sides of the same coin.

    I think we should use the concepts of Agents and Agency as defined by the dictionary and apply them to our scriptures. The Lord used those words for a reason. He could have said Choice, Freedom to Choose, Free Will, or even the philosophical term “Free Agency” for that matter if He had wanted to, since those ideas were known to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, but He did not. He chose Agents and Agency, and I think we should take him at His word (literally).

    I think the dictionary gives greater meaning and insight into our scriptures which speak about Agents and Agency. Here are some of those insights (they are not new ideas, but applying the dictionary’s definition of Agents and Agency adds greater depth and meaning to them, in my opinion): Each man is accountable (as a principal) for his own actions (as an agent). The law of agency affirms individual autonomy and responsibility. Agency is the basis for the law of restoration and for God’s justice in punishing sinners. Agency is based upon free will (but not synonymous with it); men can carry out, or act upon, their own free wills. Agency cannot be lost nor taken away through sin, although its free and unconstrained exercise can. Because of agency, a person can enter into contracts (i.e., covenants) which are then legally binding. Our Agency can be used to enter into a legally binding agreement with Christ so that we become His agents in striving to do His will and He becomes our Agent in the payment of sin.

    That’s enough writing for me (and probably more than enough reading for you), although there’s more that could be said. This will probably be the last thing I leave on this post unless someone starts up the conversation again. Anyone wishing to continue may post a comment here, or click on my name above to leave a comment on my blog site.

    See Parts 1-4 above for my complete comment.

    (Sorry I had to break it up, but I couldn’t get it to save as one complete unit and I’ve been trying on and off for over two weeks. Even breaking it in half wouldn’t work, so I broke it into four parts.)

  45. No worries Matt, I combined them into one long comment for you. Sorry you were having trouble! If anything like that happens again, just email us and we’ll make it fit.

    And I plan on commenting on what you said—I just want to take the time to read it and think about it.

  46. Fantastic series. I had one question though. I admit I only read half of the comments but did some browser queries and didn’t find any of the important keywords in my question.

    If agency exists only under those 4 requirements, what of the Millenium, when Satan is bound? Will our agency thus be destroyed?

  47. That is an awesome question that I have really wondered about as well. Is Satan necessary in order for sin, temptation, and opposition to exist? Is Satan needed for the plan of salvation to work? I’m not sure whether the question can be fully answered with what the Lord has presently revealed, but here are some thoughts I’ve had.

    The question assumes that Satan is the only source of moral opposition. Granted, there are many passages of scripture that seem to say this, such as Moro. 7:12, which says, “All things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil.” But there are two questions that make this view problematic. If moral opposition requires an external, personal tempter,

    • Who tempted Lucifer? In the premortal realm, he was initially an angel of God, who freely chose to rebel.
    • Who tempts little children? “They cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me” (D&C 29:47). And yet, not only do we see children do mean or selfish things sometimes, I personally remember being allured by the cookie jar or wanting to hit my sister in kindergarten.

    Because of these two questions, I have often wondered whether opposition requires a personal, external tempter, or whether situations themselves can be tempting enough to provide the opposition required by agency. While some passages seem to talk about all temptation and moral opposition as coming from Satan himself (e.g., Hel. 6:30; D&C 29:39), I wonder if they’re meant to be taken typologically. Because other passages seem to allow the idea of temptation or opposition just coming from our environment or opportunities. For example, in D&C 46:7, the Lord says, “That ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils” (see also 2 Ne. 10:24; 3 Ne. 27:11). Of this verse, Neal A. Maxwell said,

    Don’t people simply make choices rather than always being drawn by the devil? Are there not some ideas and impulses that originate only with man? Yes. The Lord distinguishes between the ‘doctrines of devils’ and ‘the commandments of men.’ One may be more sinister than the other or more invidious in its motivation, but the consequences of following an incorrect principle are the same, regardless of its source. (Deposition of a Disciple [SLC: Deseret Book, 1976], p. 13)

    Granted, in this view, having personal tempters constantly whispering in our ears and titillating our lusts certainly enhances and piques the opposition and temptations we have, but it’s not necessary for the opposition and temptations to exist in the first place.

    In theory, then, the plan of salvation could be completed without Heavenly Father requiring that at least one of his children rebel. (To me, this seems much more just and holy than the idea of Heavenly Father sitting around in the premortal realm thinking, “Gosh, I’d like to get this plan going and start giving my children bodies and all, but I can’t do that until someone rebels. Right now, they’re all just being too good and obedient.”)

    However, since several of his children did rebel, and were already worthy of outer darkness, maybe he decided, “Well, my children could complete their mortal probations with just the temptations of situations and surroundings, but since I have these sons of perdition available, I might as well put them to use tempting people, intensifying the natural temptations so that people can be fully tested in a briefer amount of time.” Shoot, maybe that’s why our mortal probations only last about 80 years instead of 800.

    You could think of it like a person who has a block of ice in a metal tub and wants to convert it to water. He doesn’t need a stove to do that; he could just set it on the counter and it would eventually just melt into water because of the heat of its surroundings. But if there were a stove available, he might as well use it, since it’s there.

    I had actually considered writing up all these thoughts in an article before, but it was all too speculative. I’m glad for the chance to share it, but also glad it’s in a comment section, which is where fuzzy musings probably belong. These are just some of the thoughts I’ve had on this subject. Anyone else want to chime in?

  48. Nathan, thanks for your response. I hadn’t thought of those scenarios and really, I think you nailed it for me. I’ve only been browsing this site for a week or so, but it has provided plenty of reason to stay, so far. Keep up the enlightening work!

  49. As a post-script to my previous comment, here is a quote that illustrates the potential problem of assuming that a personal, external tempter is necessary for agency. This is from William Shunn, a returned missionary who unfortunately has left the Church:

    If this … is really true, then you and I are treading toward heaven on the back of someone who is paying an even greater price than Jesus. … In other words, there had to be a Lucifer. There had to be a chump who took the real fall while the nominal Savior suffered for a day and then waltzed back home to Heaven. God’s plan for us wouldn’t have worked any other way. For a God who claims to be just and fair, isn’t that just a little bit underhanded? …

    But Lucifer chose to rebel, you say. … Sure, okay, he chose it. But someone had to. The theology demands it. If it hadn’t been Lucifer, then it would have had to have been someone else. And if no one else had taken the job of the opposition—well, what would have happened? Would someone have been coerced into the role? Might it have been you? Or me? How much do you like the idea of necessary opposition now?

    If you’re not convinced, then consider a parallel situation—the part Judas Iscariot played in Jesus’s death. …

    Is it possible that Lucifer actually knew what he was getting into? That he opposed God’s plan specifically in order to help complete it?

    I find this reasoning especially insidious. But this devilish problem only causes trouble if we assume a personal tempter is necessary. One solution seems to be offered by Elder Maxwell, by not accepting that assumption. (And I don’t claim that this is the final word on the matter; there may be other ways of resolving this dilemma that I haven’t encountered.)

  50. Another interesting addendum: I was reading in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, and he shares an idea similar to that of this article, that agency requires not just power to choose, but also opposites among which to choose.

    The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

  51. Great series. Regarding intelligences and the origin of free agency, I believe Matthew hit the nail on the head in his comment regarding “added upon” (dated September 30, 2008, above). I lightly touched upon this whole matter in footnote 46 of an article I wrote:

    Steven Montgomery, “The Perfect Law of Liberty,” online at

    The footnotes states:

    Within the plan of salvation, wherein we can progress and become like God, there are three stages of life we must enter into. Each of which involves a “birth process”. Consider what the Lord told Abraham, “They who keep their first estate shall be added upon” (Abraham 3:26), which implies that each stage of progression is preceded by a “birth” whereby the individual is “added upon” with greater powers of life. Each of these three stages are:

    1. The Spirit birth (see for instance Acts 17:28–29, where Paul states that we are the “offspring” of God, or Hebrews 12:9, where Paul speaks of God as being the “Father of [our] Spirits.”);
    2. Mortal birth;
    3. A “Spiritual” birth, which enables us to enter into the Kingdom of God and gain Eternal Life (see John 3:3–5).

    Spirit birth brings life as a Spirit, with a Spirit for a body. Physical birth brings physical life with a physical body. Spiritual birth brings about a “Spiritual Life” with a “Spiritual” body. A Spiritual body is one which has been glorified and sanctified, thus D&C 88:26–28 states, “Wherefore, it [the body] shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it. For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body. They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened.”

    Baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost comprise what is called the “gate” to this spiritual birth. Consider the experience of Adam when he was baptized:

    By reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified; Therefore it is given to abide in you; the record of heaven; the Comforter; the peaceable things of immortal glory; the truth of all things; that which quickeneth all things, which maketh alive all things; that which knoweth all things, and hath all power according to wisdom, mercy, truth, justice, and judgment.

    … And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man. (Moses 6:59–61, 64, 65)

    It is thus the power of the Spirit that “quickens” or gives life, as the Lord said in a revelation to Joseph Smith that the comforter, or Holy Ghost, “is the promise which I give unto you of Eternal Life” (D&C 88:4) or that the “power of my Spirit quickeneth all things” (D&C 33:16).

    The powers of the Spirit are powers of intelligence and life, and when a person obtains the Glory of God he has an endowment of “Life” which other beings do not possess. Eternal Life, therefore, is more than just being in the presence of God or living the way that God lives, but it is an actual added endowment of life. Parley P. Pratt expressed it this way:

    An intelligent being, in the image of God, possesses every organ, attribute, sense, sympathy, affection that is possessed by God Himself. But these … attributes are in embryo; and are to be gradually developed.

    The gift of the Holy Ghost adapts itself to all these organs or attributes. It quickens all the intellectual faculties, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections; and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and features. It tends to health, vigor, animation and social feeling. It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. It strengthens, and gives tone to the nerves. In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being.” (Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, p. 61)

    Pratt, in the same book mentioned above also said, “The flesh, bones, sinews, nerves, all the organs, all the particles of the celestial body, must be quickened, filled, surrounded with that divine and holy element which is purer, more intelligent, more refined and active, fuller of light and life than any other substance in the universe” (p. 86).

  52. Thanks for those thoughts, Steven. (I hope you don’t mind that I did a little reformatting to make it easier to read.) I like your list of the three kinds of birth. You may be interested in the chart I made for the article “The Three Pillars of Eternity.”

    I have one question about something you said. You said, “Spiritual birth brings about a “Spiritual Life” with a “Spiritual” body. A Spiritual body is one which has been glorified and sanctified.” Are you defining “spiritual body” as synonymous with “resurrected body”? Or are you defining it as “resurrected body with celestial glory”? Because later you say, “Baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost comprise what is called the “gate” to this spiritual birth.” Do people who go to the telestial kingdom have a spiritual body? If so, how can baptism be a requirement for a spiritual body? I’m just trying to understand what you’re saying.

    By the way, the classes you teach at that private school sound really cool! I would love to take classes like that!

  53. Nathan, I don’t mind the reformatting. Thanks.

    Both Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph F. Smith defined a “Spiritual body” as a resurrected body. So I guess I was a little confusing. However, we learn in Section 88 (and others) that Celestial bodies are “quickened,” that is brought to life, by a “glory,” that is Spirit, that is Celestial. So, if my understanding is correct, Celestial Resurrected beings have a more glorified and Spirit filled body than those who inherit the Terrestrial or Telestial glories. Resurrected Sons of Perdition die spiritually, have no glory, no Spirit, and thus are not “added upon” in their life.

    Oh, and regarding my teaching at a private school–I’m retired. So I no longer do that. But you may want to look into George Wythe University.


  54. Oh, it was at George Wythe? I’m actually very familiar with it. One of my best pals since junior high, Dan, used to work there, and my brother (teaches at a private LDS school in Idaho) used to bring his high schoolers down there for debates. It’s a fantastic school!

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