Nature, Law of
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Midgley, Louis C.
Rational inquiry into nature (physis ) was for Greek philosophers the way to know reality. The natural was originally radically distinguished from law (nomos ), which identified merely human conventions. Thus, for example, it is natural for humans to speak, but it is not natural to speak Greek. Hence, law was not initially thought of by such philosophers as natural, though it was natural for humans to be governed by such conventions. Later the terms "nature" and "law" began to be linked to describe a prepolitical golden age without rules, contracts, property, or marriage. Understood in this way, "natural law," after the decline from the golden age, did not provide the model for civil law, but instead identified a realm accessible to reason that transcends the world. Roman Catholic theologians eventually borrowed the expression "natural law" from pagan philosophy to ground a structured social ethic. Thomas Aquinas, in his Aristotelian restructuring of Christianity, distinguished four levels of law: eternal, divine, natural, and human. Eternal law, the mind of God and structure of reality, he held, is known both through revelation as divine law and through reason as natural law, and human law should strive to reflect the natural law.
Though Latter-day Saints sometimes speculate about the reasons for the positive law given through divine revelation and also about the moral sense of mankind (see Ethics), a moral natural law is not clearly delineated in the LDS canon. Some suggest that rough equivalents for a moral natural law might be elicited from scripture. But theology, grounded in philosophical speculation, is typically seen as a competitor to divine revelation. Such speculation remains tentative and problematic. Hence, there is little talk of a moral natural law among Latter-day Saints.
LDS scriptures, rather than relying upon notions of a moral natural law, speak of God's commandments, statutes, and ordinances, of God's will and plans and purposes, of the ordering of the world (including its metes and bounds) of law given by God, and so forth. The laws mentioned in the scriptures seem, instead, to be instances of divine positive law, though they are not arbitrary, since as moral prescriptions they form the terms of the covenant entered into in the hope that blessings will flow from obedience to God. It is assumed that God's commandments rest on reasons not fully accessible to human inquiry or explication.
There is, however, another strand of thought among Latter-day Saints, one that affirms what might be called the "laws of nature," where that term identifies the regularities found by the sciences. These laws are seen as descriptive, not prescriptive or normative. They are thought either to be set in place by God or to exist independently of God's will and hence function as conditions that must be managed as plans are worked out by man in cooperation with God. Such views are entertained by many Latter-day Saints, especially those trained in the natural sciences, but they have not been systematically set forth or integrated with the teachings in the scriptures.
It is the prophetic gift that makes available the terms of the covenant with God, and such covenants are accompanied by blessings and cursings. Latter-day Saints thus emphasize obedience to what amounts to divine positive law and not to the dictates of nature as known by human reason.
d'Entreves, A. P. Natural Law. London, 1951.
Madsen, Truman G. "Joseph Smith and the Problems of Ethics." In Perspectives in Mormon Ethics, ed. Donald E. Hill, pp. 29-48. Salt Lake City, 1983.
LOUIS C. MIDGLEY