God would not violate his own laws

It is still a remarkably common objection to miracles, or to other than excessively-rare miracles, that God would not violate the laws of nature that he himself commanded. Not uncommonly, to allow for miracles arguments are made that show that God need not actually break the laws to do them.

This whole way of thinking is covert scientism at a number of levels, as can be seen by comparing the laws of science with the laws of God as understood in Biblical terms, that is as God’s commands to Israel or mankind. This, remember, is the exact link that early-modern scientists drew when they replaced Aristotle’s understanding of the properties and natures of teleogically-endued objects as the cause of nature’s regularities with that of inert matter obeying divine laws, directly drawn from the parallel of the laws of Moses.

But in the first place, God was never subject to the laws of Moses that he himself should obey them, a point that is routinely overlooked. Rather, the laws were ways in which the attributes of God such as love, justice, faithfulness and wisdom could be expressed in the specific physical circumstances of his rational creation, mankind (and, I would argue, in a strict socio-political setting). At the detailed level, God never had a “spreading mildew from God” in his house, that he should obey the purification laws for such circumstances. He never committed sin requiring him to make a sin offering.

At the level of the greater points of the law in the Ten Commandments, everything in the first table about offences against God was impossible for him. He has no father or mother to honour. He commits no murder, but one reason for that is that our life and death are in his hands. He has no wife that he might commit adultery, and it is no such thing when the power of his Spirit overshadowed the virgin Mary. He owns all things, as theor Creator, so abstaining from theft or coveting is meaningless to him. And as the Judge of all, false witness is alien to him. God is love, but he has no neighbours that he ought to love – his way of loving is unique to himself, and gratuitous rather than a mutual obligation.

The strongest argument behind the idea that God would not break natural laws is that of his denying himself. If he has “commanded” heavy object to fall according to gravity, then for him to “coerce” them into rising up instead would be self-contradictory. The argument is specious, of course. Using a mechanical anlogy, if I make the weight of a pendulum clock to drop gradually and thus turn the mechanism, I am hardly contradicting my design by winding the thing up by lifting the weight. “I command you always to fall” is not in the least contradicted by, “I will occasionally lift you.”

And so God is not subject to any laws he might freely impose on his creation, approriate to its own creaturely nature.

The more important, point, though, is that the whole idea of natural laws, when one brings God back into the picture, is presumptuous and arrogant. What “laws of nature” actually are is a problem that gets deeper the more philosophers of science examine it, as I’ve dealt with before (eg here).

At root, though, is the fact that the laws, qua laws, are entirely man-made: regularities are perceived in nature, formulated in some verbal or mathematical way, and then deemed to be binding on nature and – here’s the presumption – on God. But our calling a regularity a law does not make it one in God’s view.

Suppose you approached constructing the moral law of God in the same way, having lost, for the sake of argument, your copy of the Pentateuch. You would have to do the work “scientifically”, by observing regularities of human behaviour, at which point you might say that whatever is consistently discovered will be found in the Law of God, once you can lay hands on it again. You can see already where this will go wrong.

For a start, you will notice that everyone usually walks on their hind legs, unlike most animals, and will conclude that this must be decreed somewhere in Exodus. But you would be wrong. More significantly, you would certainly soon discover the common truth that “all men are liars”. But drawing a conclusion that lying is therefore a command of God is scarcely correct.

The fact is that, though one may well get good mileage out of the concept of “God’s two books”, God has never said that the book of nature is a law book. And if it isn’t, God is under no obligation to treat it as such just to please those with a 17th century view of science. So apart from any other arguments for miracles, you can insist that any detractors give you a divine written source for any law they accuse God of violating.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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