The Conflicting Commandments Theory: After Widtsoe
This post is part IX in the Understanding the Fall in Mormonism series. See all parts here.
What is the conflicting commandments theory? As we saw in the last post, John A. Widtsoe formulated a new narrative of the fall. His writings explicitly introduced the notion that God could give contradictory commandments. On the one hand, he seems to argue that the contradiction has a necessary purpose. On the other hand, he sought to eliminate the contradiction by downplaying the literal language of the scriptures, converting the “commandment” into a “warning”. The lynchpin of his argument is to insist that Adam and Eve were incapable of children before the fall, overturning Orson Pratt’s long-held teaching that Adam and Eve were able to have children before the fall, and were in fact commanded to do so. Without this important element, Widtsoe’s entire narrative would be impossible.
After Widtsoe, Mormon interpreters continued to insist that God provided contradictory commandments in the Garden. Orson Pratt rejected this approach on ethical grounds. Yet Widtose and others began to argue that not only did God in fact do this, but that this in no way compromises God’s ethical character. In this post we will explore how the conflicting commandments theory functions within Mormon thought.
In 1948, Milton R. Hunter, a Seventy, published “Pearl of Great Price Commentary.” There Hunter writes:
It was pointed out in the last chapter that when God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden He gave them two great commandments, namely: first, “to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth;” second, not to partake of the fruit “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” commonly referred to as “the forbidden fruit.” It was impossible for the first parents of the human race to obey both of God’s commandments. If the first and most important one was observed, the second one of necessity must be broken. In other words, Adam and Eve could not bear children until they became mortal beings. Then why did God give them what seem to be two conflicting commandments? The most important reason was that they might have a choice to make and thereby exercise their free agency.
Following Widtsoe’s new narrative framework, Hunter succinctly elucidates the logic of the conflicting commandments theory. He seeks to explain the need for contradictory commandments by appealing to agency. Without choice, one could argue, agency could not exist. Yet, there does not seem to be any particular need for God to offer contradictory commandments. Lehi, for example, argues that the forbidden fruit was necessary to give man a choice in the Garden. In fact, Lehi explains the choice as between God and eternal life on the one hand, and the devil and eternal damnation on the other hand. It would seem nothing inherently requires that God provide commandments with the hidden intention that only one of the commandments be obeyed.
Hunter expresses in the Preface appreciation to Joseph Fielding Smith for providing suggestions on the manuscript and therefore, let us turn to Smith’s writings on the subject.
Like John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote a regular column in the Improvement Era. Beginning in 1953, in a spot titled “Your Question Answered by President Joseph Fielding Smith” Smith wrote on a range of gospel topics. These entries were later compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., along with other answers never published in the Improvement Era but which were published in five volumes titled “Answers to Gospel Questions (1957-1966).
One question, which appears not to have been published originally in the Improvement Era, appears in a chapter familiarly titled “Was the Fall Inevitable?” (1958):
Question: “Was the ‘Fall’ inevitable and necessary to the human race? Our whole hope of salvation rests on the character of God the Father, does it not? If he is just and consistent we are secure. If he is unfair or changeable we have no security. If God ever gave man contradictory commandments did he not at that point rob man of his free agency? We are repeatedly told we are free to choose between good and evil; between obedience and disobedience; but if a situation was set up in which two commandments contradict each other, then man [Adam] was free to choose only between two disobediences. Is that fair? If God ‘framed’ man and then cursed him and punished him for something he could not help doing, what assurance have we that when we do our very best we won’t find ourselves cursed and cast out for doing the very thing God meant us to do? Is this justice? Is that free agency?”
One must give credit to Smith for giving these concerns a fair hearing. This question encapsulates common objections to the conflicting commandments theory. It calls God’s ethical character into question. It would make God the “author of sin.” The fact that Smith feels it necessary to write on this topic is perhaps an indication that many held such concerns. Would Smith succeed in explaining this theological riddle?
Widtsoe’s influence here is easy to detect. Like Widtsoe, Smith begins from the pre-mortal existence and explains that Adam and Eve’s mission was to initiate the Plan of Salvation and to “commence the race.” Like Widtsoe, Smith explains that the Fall of Adam and Eve was not a sin.
The transgression of that law, contrary to the view of many, was not a sin. It was not a sin any more than the transgression in the laboratory by a chemist in combining two substances and creating another entirely different from the first. It was not a sin to bring to pass mortality, a condition which was essential to the eternal welfare of man.
All of this had come because of the Fall. Yes, it was “inevitable”; it had to be. If there had been some other way, you and I may both be agreed that our Eternal Father would have chosen it. God is not the author of death nor sin. There may be some things that we have to accept on faith, and we should prepare ourselves to accept all things which the Lord reveals, whether we fully understand them or not.
Like Widtsoe, Joseph Fielding Smith characterizes the eating of the forbidden fruit in amoral terms. Widtsoe described the act as the cutting of a wire, and Joseph Fielding Smith characterizes the act as a chemist combining two substances. In other words, Widtsoe and Smith empty Adam and Eve’s choice of any sort of moral content. It could not be wrong or sinful.
Ultimately, Joseph Fielding Smith asks his reader to accept the conflicting commandments theory on faith. He asserts that God is not the author of sin or death but at this time does not attempt to offer any explanation.
Four years later in 1962, Smith publishes in the Improvement Era an answer in response to the question, “Was the Fall of Adam Necessary?”:
The Bible has come to us through many translations, and there is no original known to man. In the copying of the ancient records and the translations by uninspired men, many errors crept into the ancient writings. The Book of Mormon makes this clear. This has led Bible commentators to speak of Adam and Eve as having frustrated and defeated the original plan of the Father, and they have spoken of the partaking of the fruit as “Man’s Shameful Fall.” Therefore there is a prevalent notion that if Adam and Eve had not partaken of this fruit, they and their posterity would have dwelt upon the earth in perfect peace and happiness without the trials and temptations that have become so prevalent through the generations of time, and there would have been no death.
The simple fact is, as explained in the Book of Mormon and the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the fall was a very essential part of the divine plan. Adam and Eve therefore did the very thing that the Lord intended them to do. If we had the original record, we would see the purpose of the fall clearly stated and its necessity explained.
Again, Smith retreats from explaining the conflicting commandments theory. He argues that we lack the original record that could answer these questions. Yet, no attempt is made to formulate an answer. How does this affect God’s moral character? Was this a special one-time event in the history of God’s dealing with his children? Does God still provide contradictory commandments today? How were Adam and Eve to figure out that what God wanted them to do was different from what he told them to do? Is it possible that all commandments from God can be ranked in terms of higher or lesser laws? Was not Adam still punished for disobeying a lower law? These questions are not explored.
Widtsoe’s ideas continue to endure long after his passing in 1952. During the 1967 general conference, Delbert L. Stapley repeated elements of Widtsoe’s narrative:
As we advance toward perfection, there will be higher laws revealed to our understanding and benefit that will replace those of a lower order. This truth was first taught to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, when the Lord gave them two choices: (1) not to partake of the forbidden fruit; and (2) to multiply and replenish the earth, which choices call for obedience to a lesser law or a higher one. They chose to fulfill the higher law.
Stapley argues from a perspective of priority. Each commandment is compared with other commandments. The goal is not to obey all commandments simultaneously, but to obey the highest commandment at any given time, even if that means one must disobey lower commandments. Under this paradigm, not all God’s commandments must or can be obeyed absolutely. We are free to pick and choose which commandment is the greatest. Theoretically, it could be unwise to obey a lower commandment at the expense of ignoring the higher commandment.
The focus on higher and lesser laws allows for a new kind of narrative, one where Adam and Eve are converted from symbols of humanity’s disobedience to exemplars of obedience.
The Role of the Conflicting Commandments Theory
At this point in the historical record, the conflicting commandments theory is articulated as followed: Two commandments were given to Adam and Eve: have children, and do not eat the fruit. Adam and Eve could not have children unless they ate of the fruit. This sets up an apparently unwinnable scenario, a cosmological Kobayashi Maru, where both commandments cannot be obeyed. If Adam and Eve obey one commandment at the expense of another, they are both rewarded and punished, and their acts cancel each other out, making them neither particularly obedient or disobedient. The solution is that Adam and Eve are forced to riddle God’s hidden intention by recognizing that one law is higher and one law is lesser. By choosing the higher law, Adam and Eve become obedient to the higher law but disobedient to the lesser law. The result is that Adam and Eve end up more obedient overall.
The question we should ask is how the conflicting commandments theory functions in Mormon thought. What needs does it serve? What interpretive work does it perform?
It is clear that there was a need to redeem Adam and Eve from the traditional fall narrative. After the introduction of Adam’s role in the premortal existence and childbirth as the gateway for spirit children to begin the plan of salvation, there was too much dissonance between the traditional fall narrative and Mormon thought. Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, detested the header “mankind’s shameful fall” found in his version of the King James Bible. These forces urged Mormon exegetes to search for a way to make Adam and Eve obedient rather than disobedient. Widtsoe’s solution was to find the first parents obedient in their disobedience.
In the 1970s, attention would turn from Adam to Eve. Widtsoe did not construct a separate narrative for Eve, but his framework provides the space where such a narrative could be created. Women scholars and theologians would seek to elaborate on the narrative, and provide Eve with her own story in the Garden. We will examine these developments in the next post.
 Milton R. Hunter, Pearl of Great Price Commentary (Salt Lake City, Utah: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1948), p. 114.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1958), pp. 211-217.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, “Your Question Answered.” Improvement Era Volume 65 (1962), p. 230. Reprinted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 4 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1963), pp. 79-83.
 Delbert L. Stapley, General Conference, 1967.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, General Conference, October 1967. “So the commentators made a great mistake when they put in the Bible at the top of page 3, as I think it is (it may not be the same page in every Bible), the statement ‘Man’s shameful fall.’” Smith referred to this heading in his April 1964 and October 1966 General Conference addresses as well.