In my previous discussion of “A Rational Theology” by John Widstoe, I discussed two methodologies of deriving a full LDS theology in use during the time Widstoe was writing this book. We then compared such strategies with modern church apologists. In this installment, I’d like to discuss the first four principles and ordinances as we view them today, and contrast them with what Widstoe lays out in his rational theology.
Article of Faith 4 reads:
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
While these verses lay out the principles/ordinances, they do little to explicate what these terms actually mean. And indeed, the confusion over these principles is the subject of many theological debates in Christianity. In Mormonism, however, I think we have some fairly clear explanations for how these principles/ordinances are used in our theology. For example, to establish a definition of faith, most Mormons will refer to Hebrews 11:1, or perhaps Alma 32:21 (not quoted for sake of brevity). Additionally, at least to me, I sense a kind of loose cultural consensus for what faith is, and is not. For baptism we can look to D&C 20:73. As for the Gift of the Holy Ghost, modern revelation confirms the method of the “laying of hand by those who are in authority,” and we have a ready explanation of the difference between the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the influence of the Holy Ghost.
I confess, I find some of the typical Mormon explanations of these principles and ordinances somewhat (okay, at least for faith very) unsatisfying. Faith, when described as “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” leaves me wondering about the difference between God and electromagnetic waves or general relativity! In the case of Alma, it is worse because we bring a new term “knowledge” into the mix without an appropriate definition. After such standard definitions it is little wonder to me why we argue over semantics, and describe those who either fall away, or reject the church, as “faithless.” Faith often becomes the lynchpin for anyone who doesn’t see things our way!
Likewise, even the explanation for baptism in D&C 20 leaves me wanting. What is so magical about immersion in water? Is it entirely clear from the New Testament that Jesus was “completely submersed” in the water like we believe is necessary in LDS theology? It feels like there should be more to this ordinance than simply a bath! Even coupling it with repentance (as it should be) just clouds the waters of my mind.
In “A Rational Theology,” Widstoe lays out a compelling alternative for these standard definitions. Not that he repudiates them, but he explicitly differentiates between the abstract meanings of the principles and ordinances, and the concrete implmentation on terra firma. I think his words are enlightening:
In God’s Plan for life on earth is a system of laws representing eternal realities, to which man must conform. Such a law, for instance, is faith, which, in its simple, universal meaning, is man’s certainty that in the universe is found everything he may desire for his upbuilding and advancement, and that the eternal relations of universal forces will prevail in the end for his good. Another such fundamental law, to which man must conform, is that of repentance, which in its larger sense is merely faith made active. Passive faith can do little for man’s advancement. Yet another such law is that of baptism, which is essentially obedience to existing laws. And still another such law is that of the gift of the Holy Ghost, which perhaps means that a man may place himself in touch with the whole of the universe, including the beings of superior intelligence that it contains, and draw knowledge from forces beyond the earth. – John A. Widstoe, “A Rational Theology” pp 42-43
Here, it is clear that the first four principles and ordinances of the Gospel are eternal laws, are independent of the LDS church, earth, priesthood, or any other convention, organization, or authority in the universe. I believe this offers us perspective on the larger context in which the specific LDS implementation resides. It also makes allowances for God’s other non-terrestrial children to experience different forms of these basic laws and principles.
Widstoe goes on to say:
Life on earth deals directly with gross matter and the forces pertaining to it. The laws formulated for the guidance of man are especially devised for earth conditions, and belong to the earth. For instance, water baptism, the symbol of obedience to God and acceptance of his love, is essentially an ordinance of and for this earth. It is not thinkable that water baptism is practiced in a future estate for water is an earth substance. If this be true, then all who enter upon the earth-career, and who desire the perfected joy derived from the Gospel, must have baptism on this earth. – John A. Widstoe, “A Rational Theology” pp 44-45
Then the all-encompassing explanation provided formerly, couched in the reality of earth life, offers a surprising explanation of vicarious ordinances, necessarily performed here, on behalf of those who did not receive them while “in the flesh.”
Should some of the spirits refuse, while on earth, to accept the Gospel, or fail to hear it, baptism, belonging to the earth, must be done for them, vicariously, on earth, so that they, having had the work done for them here, may accept or reject the ordinance in their life beyond the grave. This is the motive of the work for the dead. The earth ordinances must be done by or for every soul born upon the earth so that the earth-experience may not be in vain, should the Gospel be accepted in the remotest day of eternity. This view becomes more important when it is recalled that the ordinances of the earth, belonging primarily to the earth, stand for vast, eternal realities, indispensable to man’s progress. – John A. Widstoe, “A Rational Theology” p. 45
For me, I find the deeper theology here enriching, satisfying, and meaningful, particularly in my state of uncertainty with regard to the plenitude of truth claims in the LDS church.
So how do you view Widstoe’s rational “first four principles and ordinances”? Do his explanations provide you with more insight? Is he right? Or is this just another attempt by an “apologist” to justify his belief system? Is there scriptural backing for his claims? We do not emphasize such distinctions in the church today. Is this because we don’t really know, or is it just not important?