Return to About Mormons home

Divine And Eternal Law

by Carl S. Hawkins and Douglas H. Parker

LDS revelation emphasizes the existence and indispensability of law. The relation of divine law to other species of law has not been given systematic treatment in Mormon thought as it has in traditional Christian theology (e.g., the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas). But distinctive observations about divine law and eternal law may be drawn from Latter-day scriptures and related sources.

Aquinas identified four categories of law: (1) eternal law, which is coextensive with the divine mind and with the overall purpose and plan of God; (2) natural law, which addresses mankind's proper participation in eternal law but is discovered by reason without the assistance of revelation and promulgation; (3) divine positive law, also a part of the eternal law, which pertains to the sacraments and ordinances necessary to the attainment of mankind's supernatural end made known by revelation; and (4) man-made positive law, which regulates the affairs of mankind not specifically addressed by God's law (e.g., laws that regulate such things as corporations, stocks, bonds, wills, and trusts) or which mandate the natural law with the power of the state.

LDS sources affirm laws roughly corresponding to each of these four types. Unlike traditional Jewish and Christian theologies, which place God outside of, and antecedent to, nature, however, LDS theology places God within nature.

"Divine" laws are instituted by God to govern his creations and kingdoms and to prescribe behavior for his offspring. Such law, in the terms of Acquinas's categories, would be divine positive law (i.e., law existing by virtue of being posited or enacted by God). Some Latter-day Saints believe that "eternal" law is self-existent, unauthored law, which God himself honors and administers as a condition of his perfection and Godhood. It should be noted that the adjectives "divine" and "eternal" do not have fixed usages in writing (see Time and Eternity).

Latter-day scriptures and other sources do not explicitly state that eternal law exists independently or coeternally with God. This characteristic of eternal law is sometimes inferred, however, from two concepts that do have support in scripture and other LDS sources:

1. God is governed (bound) by law. Latter-day scriptures state that "God would cease to be God" if he were to allow mercy to destroy justice, or justice to overpower mercy, or the plan of redemption to be fulfilled on unjust conditions (Alma 42:13). Scriptures further state that "I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say" (D&C 82:10), implying that God by nature and definition—not by any external coercion—is righteous and trustworthy. Some Church writers have said that "[God] himself governs and is governed by law" (MD, p. 432) and that "the Lord works in accordance with natural law" (DS 2:27). They likewise speak of "higher laws" that account for providence and miracles.

2. Intelligence and truth were not created; they are coeternal with God. "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence" (D&C 93:29-30). Joseph Smith expanded upon this teaching in his king follett discourse, stating that "we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos…. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element…had no beginning, and can have no end…. The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coeternal with God himself" (TPJS, pp. 350-53). If truth and intelligence were not created by God and are coeternal with him, it may be that they are ordered by and function according to eternal laws or principles that are self-existent. This may be implied in Joseph Smith's phrase "laws of eternal and self-existent principles" (TPJS, p. 181).

Consistent with the eternal laws, God fashions and decrees laws that operate in the worlds he creates and that set standards of behavior that must be observed in order to obtain the blessing promised upon obedience to that law. Joseph Smith taught that "[God] was the first Author of law, or the principle of it, to mankind" (TPJS, p. 56).

Latter-day scriptures emphasize the pervasive nature of divine law: "[God] hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons" (D&C 88:42). "This is the Light of Christ…which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne" (D&C 88:7, 12-13).

These same sources suggest, however, that divine law operates within the domain to which it inherently pertains or is assigned by God and, therefore, has limits or bounds: "All kingdoms have a law given; and there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom. And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions" (D&C 88:36-38).

The above references apparently pertain to descriptive law—that is, the divine law that operates directly upon or through physical and biological orders (see Nature, Law of).

Other laws of God are prescriptive. They address the free will of man, setting forth standards and rules of behavior necessary for salvation and for social harmony. Latter-day Saints embrace such prescriptive commands of God as found in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Latter-day revelation also confirms that blessings and salvation come through compliance with divine laws: "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20-21). "And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a Terrestrial Kingdom, or that of a Telestial Kingdom" (D&C 88:21).

Of these prescriptive laws or commandments of God, LDS teachings tend to emphasize the following characteristics: (1) the extent of the divine laws revealed to mankind may vary from dispensation to dispensation, according to the needs and conditions of mankind as God decrees; (2) they are given through and interpreted by his prophets; (3) they are relatively concise, but "gentle" or benevolent, given to promote the happiness he has designed for his children (TPJS, pp. 256-57); and (4) they are efficacious for mankind as God's harmony with eternal law was, and is, efficacious for him, and will bring to pass the exaltation of his righteous children.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica 1266-73, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London, 1915.

Widtsoe, John A. A Rational Theology. Salt Lake City, 1952.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Law, Divine and Eternal

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons