Early LDS views of God and Law

Today's post is one of my infrequent LDS-centric posts. Just 3 months before his death, when his theology and beliefs were most mature, Joseph Smith gave a sermon to 20,000 early Latter-day Saints. The sermon took place shortly after the funeral service of a man named King Follett. That sermon is commonly known as King Follett's Discourse. In this sermon Joseph Smith said,

"God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits."

What is the nature of these laws that God instituted?

To answer this question I will try to answer what we mean by the word "law". To clarify the word law, I will invoke a distinction made in my last post—the distinction between observer-independent facts and observer-relative facts. Laws can refer to both distinctions. An observer-independent law is a universal principle that is independent of consciousness. I use the word consciousnesses similar to the word intelligences. Consciousnesses refers to all beings that have consciousness include human beings and Gods. Examples of observer-independent laws include the laws of thermodynamics, the law of non-contradiction, the Pythagorean Theorem, Boyle's law, etc. An observer-relative law refers to rules of conduct and behavior to be enforced by social institutions. Examples include traffic laws, contract law, the law of Moses, etc.

These two uses of the word "law" are very different. But, using these 2 senses of the word interchangeably is the source of much confusion.

Are the laws instituted by God observer-independent, observer-relative, or both?

Let me reference some of the laws of God. In this context, I think "law" and "commandment" are the same. Here is a partial list:

  • “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  • “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. …
  • “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. …
  • “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. …
  • “Honour thy father and thy mother. …
  • “Thou shalt not kill.
  • “Thou shalt not commit adultery. (The law of chastity)
  • “Thou shalt not steal.
  • “Thou shalt not bear false witness. …
  • “Thou shalt not covet.”
  • The law of tithing
  • The law of consecration
  • The word of wisdom
  • Love God. ...
  • Love thy neighbor. ...
  • Care for the poor

All of these laws are observer-relative because they only exist as a result of a conscious agent. Observer-relative laws can be adjusted for different social contexts. For example, the law of Moses was done away through Christ. Likewise the law of polygamy served a temporary purpose in different periods of history.

But, did God institute any observer-independent laws such as the law of thermodynamics, or the pythagorean theorem? Since God is an observer himself, it would be contradictory to say that God instituted laws that were independent of him. But some might argue that those laws of nature are independent to everyone but God.

All the laws that God has shared with us have been observer-relative laws. There is no reason to believe that God created any laws that appear to humans to be observer-independent.

Furthermore, Joseph Smith taught that God himself cannot transcend any law that is independent of Him. (I have posted here and here on this topic.) The apostle John A. Widsoe in his book Joseph Smith as a Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy wrote:

"The interesting fact about this matter is, naturally, that in this conception of God, Joseph Smith was strictly scientific. He departed from the notion that God is a Being foreign to nature and wholly superior to it. Instead, he taught that God is part of nature, and superior to it only in the sense that the electrician is superior to the current that is transmitted along the wire. The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God cannot transcend them."

These immutable laws are not the laws that God instituted. His laws are observer-relative laws are instituted within the framework of the immutable laws of reality. That means that observer-relative laws are based on observer-independent laws. For instance, the fact that God's observer-relative laws help us grow in knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence is an observer-indepdendent fact. This is a more complex subject which I will address in a later post.

In conclusion, God's laws are observer-relative and they are not observer-independent. Mormons can be confident that their beliefs will not conflict with any of the observer-indepedent laws so far discovered by science.