LDS theology and natural law

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2014 (c) 2014

"Natural law" in a science-religion context is the notion that our world and universe is largely, if not exclusively, governed by natural laws. Such a philosophy does not insist that science encompasses all reality, but many still fear that such a notion utterly negates any possibility for a God.

Most Judeo-Christian religions believe some form of the "omni" doctrines: omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence (although it is worth noting that these terms do not appear anywhere in the Bible). Difficulties arise when one takes such notions to their logical extreme, in an absolute, sweeping sense. For instance, the website of one religious organization declares, "Omnipotence literally means 'all-powerful.' When we speak of God as omnipotent, this should be understood to mean that God can do anything that is consistent with being a personal, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, wholly good, and necessary Creator." [NAMB2009]. It is clear that such a theology, when taken to an extreme that does not permit God to be constrained by natural law, will inevitably be at war with modern science.

Although LDS theologians have mentioned the "omnis" from time to time, they have nonetheless taught that God works, in some sense, within the realm of the real universe and natural law. For example, as early as 1842, John Taylor (President of the LDS Church from 1880-1887) wrote that there are "immutable and eternal laws" by which the universe is governed [Taylor1842, pg. 46 (15 Dec 1842)]:

True science is a discovery of the secret, immutable and eternal laws, by which the universe is governed; and when practically applied, sets in motion the mighty wheels of useful engines, with all the various machinery which genius has invented, or art contrived. It ameliorates the condition of man, by extending the means of intellectual, moral, social, and domestic happiness.

In 1869, Brigham Young (the second President) was the among the first in LDS discourse to dismiss the traditional notion that miracles are contraventions of natural law [Young1869, pg. 140-p.141 (11 Jul 1869)]:

Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant -- that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this -- they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings.

A year later, in 1870, he elaborated further, emphasizing that God himself works in accord with these eternal natural laws [Young1869, pg. 302 (13 Nov 1870)]:

It is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author.

Apostle Parley P. Pratt, writing in 1891, was even more explicit [Pratt1891, pg. 102]:

Among the popular errors of modern times, an opinion prevails that miracles are events which transpire contrary to the laws of nature, that they are effects without a cause. If such is the fact, then, there never has been a miracle, and there never will be one. The laws of nature are the laws of truth. Truth is unchangeable, and independent in its own sphere. A law of nature never has been broken. And it is an absolute impossibility that such law ever should be broken.

This sentiment prevailed into the 20th century. LDS Apostle James E. Talmage, author of The Articles of Faith, wrote the following [Talmage1899, pg. 220]:

Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order.

With this more flexible theology, any lingering reasons for a "war" between science and religion totally evaporate. This may be part of the reason that so many LDS people have pursued careers in the field of science. For example, a 1974 study found that disproportionately large numbers of students who graduated from undergraduate programs in scientific fields in Utah (where the LDS Church is quite strong) went on to receive doctorates in these fields [Hardy1974].

Even today, large numbers of graduates of Brigham Young University (the flagship LDS university) go on to gain doctoral degrees, not just in scientific fields but in other academic fields as well, ranking #10 among universities in the U.S., according to a recent ranking [Walch2006]. Evolution and related scientific theories are taught at Brigham Young University, without apology. Two areas in which BYU researchers are particularly noted are the collection and analysis of dinosaur fossils (see BYU dinosaur museum) and bioinformatics, i.e., the sequencing and analysis of DNA for studies in evolution, medicine and other applications (see BYU bioinformatics program).

The LDS philosophy of natural law by no means answers all questions in the science-religion arena. The majority of LDS Church members, like those of other Judeo-Christian denominations, still have great difficulties accepting the full spectrum of modern science, from evolution to big bang cosmology. But the LDS faith does have a theological framework to approach these issues from a rational basis.

For some additional discussion on this topic, see the article Natural law. References

  1. [Hardy1974] Kenneth Hardy, "Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars," Science, vol. 185 (9 Aug 1974): pg. 497-506.
  2. [NAMB2009] North American Mission Board, "A Closer Look at the Mormon Concept of God," available at Online article.
  3. [Pratt1891] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 1891, reprinted by Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1965.
  4. [Talmage1899] James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, 1899, reprinted by Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1966.
  5. [Taylor1842] John Taylor, Times and Seasons, vol. 4, 1842.
  6. [Walch2006] Tad Walch, "Many BYU Graduates Go on to Gain Ph.D.s," Deseret News, 16 Aug 2006, available at Online article.
  7. [Young1869] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Liverpool Publishers, London, UK, vol. 13, 1869-1870.