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I can see two ways in which one can see natural (physical) laws (three, actually):

  1. God creates his creation, and natural laws, then His creation autonomously acts according to those laws

  2. God creates his creation, and natural laws, but He himself is the one--for lack of better words--pushing the stones around making it appear as if they follow that law

  3. (Less prevalent or relevant option I would guess) Natural laws co-exist alongside God, and any creation would need to follow them

Did pre-Reformation theologians address this question? Has this perception changed since the reformation among Catholic theologians?

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  • 3 seems to imply that God would not be God, because the natural law would not then be derived from Him and His Act of Creation. 1 sounds like deism. Jul 28 at 14:56
  • @SupportiveDante Yeah that's what I thought so I suppose 3. is going to turn out not relevant for the question. I just decided to include it for completeness sake.
    – kutschkem
    Jul 28 at 15:12
  • 2 would be more Cartesian. #1 is closest to Catholic understanding
    – eques
    Jul 28 at 16:41
  • 1
    @MikeBorden I mean natural laws in the sense of physical laws, not anything related to morality.
    – kutschkem
    Aug 1 at 5:42
  • 1
    @MikeBorden I need to scope somehow and I thought scoping to catholics would be most likely to produce results. And I expect this view to change from 2 to 1 the further in time we get. So in my naive assumption that theologists of the past mused over many questions, I thought getting a historical perspective might be nice. If that scope is too narrow, it's fine for me to broaden it.
    – kutschkem
    Aug 1 at 12:34

2 Answers 2

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First off, let me state that I'm answering in the assumption that "natural laws" means "laws of nature" (i.e. laws of science), i.e. not any sort of inherent moral laws. In other words, gravity, inertia, thermodynamics, and so forth.

I don't know of any pre-Reformation sources attempting to address this question. I'm not sure their understanding of science would have been sufficient to even know to ask such questions... so I'm just going to take a crack at what I think. Note that this is my own take, which may or may not be correct, but I'll give my reasons to help you think about this yourself.

Let's start with...

Option 3:

Natural laws co-exist alongside God, and any creation would need to follow them

What does the Bible say?

Hebrews 1:3
[Christ] upholds all things by the word of His power.
Colossians 1:17
[Christ] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
Psalm 135:6-7
Whatever the Lord pleases, He does,
[...]
He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth;
Who makes lightnings for the rain,
Who brings forth the wind from His treasuries.

The Bible teaches that God is omnipotent. Certainly we know that God is not bound by natural law. But if God is not the source of natural law, what is? The above verses would seem to imply that God indeed is the source of natural law, and the fine tuning of said laws would seem to further indicate that they aren't an "accident".

One article goes so far as to state:

"[...] The steady will of Christ constitutes the law of the universe and makes it a cosmos instead of chaos, just as His will brought it into being in the beginning." (Theologian A.H. Strong)

All things are indebted for their existence to the continuous sustaining action of God exercised through his Son. Nothing exists of its own inherent power of being. Nothing in all creation stands or acts independently of the Lords will. The so-called laws of nature are nothing more than the physical expression of the steady will of Christ.

Thus, as we probably expected, it would seem that Option 3 is Not A Winner.

Options 1 and 2

  1. God creates his creation, and natural laws, then His creation autonomously acts according to those laws.
  2. God creates his creation, and natural laws, but He himself is the one — for lack of better words — pushing the stones around making it appear as if they follow that law.

Interestingly, our arguments against Option 3 seem to make a strong case for Option 2! But is that really the case? The God of Option 2 might as well be Randal Munroe; indeed, such a God might well be indistinguishable from an entity manually running a simulation.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a God is shuffling all the bits personally, or employing some sort of assistance, there are issues with this approach.

First, because it represents Creation in terms we can comprehend, it begs the question "where did God come from?". It also clashes with the idea that God is omniscient, knowing past, present, and future. The Bible repeatedly teaches that God is not bound by time as we are. This works when one understands that time itself is Created, and does not act on God the way it does on us. (Another problem with the Simulation Hypothesis is that it doesn't directly account for Free Will. Humans will cannot be the result of strictly material processes, or Free Will can't exist. Thus, humans must have some level of spiritual existence that is not wholly bound by the laws of nature.)

However, even if we've established that God exists outside of time, we've still shown that He is pushing all the bits around... right?

Well, hold on:

Psalm 33:6,9
By the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ the heavens were made,
[...]
[God] spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.
Genesis 1:3
God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.
Genesis 2:2
[O]n the seventh day God finished his work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.

The image of God's Word having power is present throughout the Bible. He speaks, and it is accomplished. The picture we are given is not one of a micromanager, but one of a God whose power accomplishes His Will as easily as we might move an arm or a leg. We don't stop to think about our heart beating to pump oxygen-rich blood into the cells. We don't think about the complex mechanisms by which our cells turn food and air into energy, ultimately causing muscle fibers to contract. We just... move.

In the same way, my belief is that God isn't consciously directing every single atom. I believe He can do so, and I believe Creation would immediately cease to exist (or at least go catastrophically awry) if not for God's continued Power sustaining it, but I also believe the image of God having to actively and consciously "push all the bits around" Himself isn't accurate.

In other words, I would argue that the answer is neither Option 1 nor Option 2, but something in between, and possibly beyond our comprehension.

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  • Clarification! Just what was needed, and so clearly put that even I can follow the line of reasoning. But, just to remove all doubt: your answer to the main question "Is God a Legislator, or Executor, or both?" is, it's "something in between" 1 & 2. You do say 'Neither', but does 'Both', or a bit of both, have a chance of consideration?
    – Anne
    Aug 1 at 10:00
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    @Anne, "neither" and "both" are the same in this case. I'm using "neither" in the sense that (I believe) neither (1) nor (2) is exclusively correct.
    – Matthew
    Aug 1 at 13:51
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Everything you have said seems to be a human looking at the matter from a human point of view. Scripture references, or any sources given to show where you got the ideas from, would be helpful. But if this is just your opinion, the danger of just getting opinionated answers arises. As a minimum, it would be necessary to define "natural laws" so that we are all on the same page. It may seem obvious to most people what "natural laws" are, but there was once a political party in Britain that used that phrase and boasted that some of their members could levitate from a crossed-legged sitting position, purely through meditation.

To answer your main question, "Is God a Legislator, or Executive, or both?" the Bible certainly shows him stating his laws which apply to humanity. That makes him a Legislator. The Bible also shows him carrying out his stated punishments on those who keep violating his laws - e.g. bringing about a global flood to deal with an incredibly wicked generation of people. He is also shown in the Bible blessing (rewarding) his covenant people when they keep his laws. He also is seen executing punishments on his covenant people when they persist in breaking the covenant (and the blessings and warnings of the consequences were written down alongside the laws they agreed to keep). That makes him an Executor. The answer to your main question then, is "He is both".

If, however, you refer to "the laws of physics" which humanity has only discovered comparatively recently, the entire material universe runs according to those laws of the Creator. This seems to be what you are thinking of when you ask if God is "pushing the stones around making it appear as if they follow that law".

Really, I can make no sense out of that question. If you refer to illusions in the material universe, then that question needs to go into an appropriate section, which isn't 'Christianity'.

You asked if "pre-Reformation theologians address this question". Did they even ask that question? If you can quote somewhere that suggests they did, more could be said.

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  • 1
    I think the OP is asking "is gravity a real phenomena (1), or is God constantly pushing on things (2) in a way that's consistent with the Law of Gravity?". IOW, "law" here is being used in the scientific sense, i.e. laws of physics.
    – Matthew
    Jul 29 at 20:24
  • The question is tagged Catholicism and this answer notably does not include any reference to that denomination's views. "Did they even ask that question?" Certainly, the questions around how does nature and motion work occur quite often in pre-Reformation intellectual thought
    – eques
    Jul 29 at 23:17
  • @Matthew How astonishing that a Q about gravity (in pre-Reformation religious thought) does not mention either 'gravity' nor the fact that this invisible, universal force was not discovered until around the era of Newton, cusp of the 18th century). He discovered the law of gravity. Maybe that's why the OP does not mention that critically important word. Your comments appreciated.
    – Anne
    Jul 30 at 9:44
  • @ eques Point appreciated; I could hardly quote any Catholic views on the philosophical ideas about nature and motion working, when no refence to that was given by the OP! It’s a bit frustrating when questions assume an almost esoteric knowledge of what’s being asked about. None of us are mind-readers. As this is about natural philosophy, really, the Q might best be placed there. I still cannot see how pre-Reformation religious philosophy, that had no knowledge of Newton and Einstein, can be asked about here.
    – Anne
    Jul 30 at 9:56
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    Sorry for being unclear. Yes I indeed meant physical laws such as gravity. Morality was out of scope but I see that it was ambiguous. I guess the same could be asked about laws in the sense of morality, but that wasn't the intention.
    – kutschkem
    Aug 1 at 5:45

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