Ranking the Laws of God

Many times in my life, I have heard it said that “Obedience is the first law of heaven”. So who ranked the laws of heaven, and in what sense?

What is the Greatest Commandment?

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The word commandment is a translation of the Greek word ἐντολή, which typically means an order, command, charge, or precept. All of these are close to what we might understand a law to be.

Jesus responded “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

These are often interpreted as the top two commandments, ranked in order of greatness, by Jesus himself. However, when Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus it is because one commandment is in Deuteronomy and one in Leviticus. They are not ranked there. Jesus says the second is ‘like unto’ which might actually mean equivalent to the first, rather than ranked second greatest. Such equivalence is suggested in Jesus teachings “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” and also King Benjamins sermon “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

Even if Jesus is not providing a ranked list of two commandments, he appears to be teachings that love of God and man ranks greater than all other commandments.

The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel

A principle or ordinance is very similar to a law in the religious sense. The fourth article of faith lists the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. I’ll paraphrase them here; faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. The fourth article of faith doesn’t specify the sense in which the principles are ranked. Are they ranked by greatness, or ranked in time, or something else? Sometimes I have heard them described as faith leading to repentance, and repentance leading to baptism, etc. Perhaps this means that all other gospel principles follow on from the first four. This sounds remarkably similar to what Jesus said about the greatest two commandments, neither of which are included in the fourth article of faith. Which is supreme though, faith or love? How can faith be first and love be greatest? Can all the law derive from love and all the principles of the gospel result from faith?

Obedience is the First Law of Heaven

Elder Bednar lists the five laws people currently covenant to keep in the temple endowment, in the order in which the covenants are made:

“… the law of obedience, the law of sacrifice, the law of the gospel, the law of chastity, and the law of consecration”.”

David A. Bednar, Prepared to Obtain Every Needful Thing, Ensign May 2019

In 1873, Joseph F. Smith was a counsellor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency. During the October General Conference Joseph F. Smith taught about obedience, alluding to teachings in the temple. Recent changes in the temple endowment mean that women no longer make the specific covenant President Smith refers to, but he taught:

“So sisters, do not flatter yourselves that you have nothing to answer for so long as you may have a good husband. You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven. Without it the elements could not be controlled. Without it neither the earth nor those who dwell upon it could be controlled.”

Joseph F. Smith, 1873 October General Conference

This is as early a quote as I can find saying “Obedience is the first law of heaven.” I assume Joseph F. Smith refers to the first law women covenanted to keep in the temple endowment because he directs it to women, and earlier in his talk says that ‘man is the head of the woman’. Like the elements, President Smith taught, women needed to obey the priesthood. The phrase “obedience is the first law of heaven” took a life of it’s own as President Smith was later quoted by David O. McKay, Bruce R. McConkie, and others, but without the temple context and without specifically addressing women.

Even without the female-specific context, as Elder Bednar taught, all people in the temple endowment make covenants to obey God. This is still the first law of heaven in the sense that obedience is the first law people commit to keep in the temple endowment. The primacy of obedience in the temple over sacrifice echoes the old testament. Consider Samuel telling Saul “to obey is better than sacrifice”. But does the teaching that obedience is the first law of heaven conflict with Jesus teaching that love is the greatest commandment or that the first principle of the gospel is faith? Are they ranked on different scales? It’s not clear to me.

Spherical Cows

Some of you know that I am studying physics, so here is a physics joke that I promise is relevant. You don’t need to understand any physics to get the joke, all you need to know is that physicists often reduce a problem to the simplest form they can imagine.

Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum”.

Highly simplified models of complex phenomena make the calculations easier and in many cases make the calculations actually possible, but the simple model may be very different from the complex reality. This often still produces acceptable results.

I remember reading Preach My Gospel on my mission, about how simple the gospel was. I thought it really wasn’t. When I discussed it with other people, they thought that the better you understand it, the simpler you can explain it. I agreed with that, but it didn’t sound like it meant that the gospel was simple, only that the better your understanding, the better you can simplify it.

In physics, much can be achieved without modelling all the complex details in reality. Likewise, the simple principles of the gospel can result in many blessings even though the complexity of the gospel may not be understood. In many circumstances, it may not be worth the effort to add details to a model. How simple or complex the model is may depend on what is needed from the results. For some problems, the shape of the cow is actually important. For missionaries introducing the gospel to people, simpler is usually better. There are sufficient gains for the least effort. Converts and life-long members alike may spend the rest of their lives trying to understand the temple or apply the scriptures or find their purpose in life. This does better their lives and bless those around them, but perhaps not with the same magnitude as the simple principles they first learned.

Conclusion

A complex reality may be simplified in many different ways. I wonder if Jesus simplified the law when he said what he did about love. I wonder if Joseph Smith simplified the gospel when he wrote a letter to Wentworth. I wonder if the temple endowment simplifies the laws of heaven. If so, these all appear to be quite different simplifications of God’s law. They seem to disagree. I’m not sure how to make them mesh, or if it’s even worth the effort. Perhaps it’s better to juggle them than to fixate on one. Keep them all in the air at the same time and apply whichever simplification will yield the greatest blessings at the time. At the same time, if we are aware that they are simple, we can pay attention to the tension we and others experience between love and obedience and faith.