Natural Law is Not New

The Natural Law Tradition of the Catholic Church is often criticised by some Protestants and more often by secularists. Some think of it as merely an invention of the scholastic period. Others (esp. some of the Protestants) think we should limit our discourse to the Scriptures alone. But Catholicism has always seen God’s revelation in broader terms that Scripture alone. To be sure, Scripture along with Sacred Tradition is revelation it is clearest manifestation. But creation too is revelation from God and speaks to his will and to his attributes.

Natural Law, far from being an invention of the Middle Ages is enshrined in Scripture. We find it in the Wisdom Tradition of the Scriptures and also in the New Testament. Most clearly, St. Paul points to it in the Letter to the Romans:

What may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles],  because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20)

Notice that St. Paul does not speak of murky sort of revelation vaguely noticeable in creation but rather a revelation that can be “clearly seen.” Paul does not call this revelation “natural law” (that designation would come later) but what we now call Natural Law is what Paul is speaking of here.

Further, the concept of “Logos” present in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel also enshrines Natural Law premises. The ancient Jews, particularly those who collected the Wisdom Tradition in the Scriptures (Books such as Wisdom, Sirach, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs etc.) understood that the created world has a Logike (a kind of Logic) based on the fact that God made it through his Logos (Word). When God spoke creation into existence through his Word (Logos) his Logos sets things forth with a Logike(logic) that is discernible and could be studied to make one wise in the ways (the logic) of God. We have come to call this scriptural teaching, Natural Law. In effect we can discern a logic of rationality to what God has made and come to know of God and his will for us.

As a final example of the antiquity of Natural Law in the I would like to share excerpts from one of the Church Fathers, Athanasius who teaches on in his great work, “Against the Arians.” In this excerpt Athanasius uses the term “Wisdom” but the teaching, as you shall see is the same as the Logos tradition and what we have come to call “Natural Law.”  Here are excerpts:

An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works. Therefore, the true Wisdom which shaped the world claims for himself all that bears his image…Wisdom himself is not created, because he is the Creator, but by reason of the created image of himself found in his works, he speaks [of himself] as if he were a creature, and he says: The Lord created me in his works, when his purpose first unfolded.   The likeness of Wisdom has been stamped upon creatures in order that the world may recognise in it the Word who was its maker and through the Word come to know the Father. This is Paul’s teaching: What can be known about God is clear to them, for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature has been there for the mind to perceive in things that have been made….So there is a wisdom in created things, as the son of Sirach too bears witness: The Lord has poured it out upon all his works, to be with men as his gift, and with wisdom he has abundantly equipped those who love him….and in the light of this wisdom the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. –  Discourse “Against the Arians” by St Athanasius

Hence we see a valuable and very ancient pearl in what we have come to call Natural Law. In these secular times the testimony of Natural Tradition gives us something of a basis to address a world that rejects the authority of Scripture. The use of Scripture may still be best in the circle of believers, (though even there the testimony of Natural Law should not be overlooked), but Natural Law can provide a possible basis for discussion with non-believers. Even here, there are challenges today. In an age as “skeptical” as ours the plain testimony of “reality” is not so plain to some who radically doubt that we can or should derive moral norms from things that appear in creation. Still Natural Law at least provides some navigating points for a discussion with most non-believers.

One of the glories of the Catholic Church is our rich appeal to several sources for truth. Scripture surely ranks first but Sacred Tradition supplies us additional revelation in addition an interpretive key for the Scriptures. Further, Natural Law, attested to in the Scriptures also supplies a witness to the truth about God and it reveals his glory. This is the broad and beautiful foundation upon which the Catholic faith rests.

The following video sets forth the challenges that a radical skepticism poses and illustrates why the Natural Law is a precious gift to be recovered and respected.

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

8 Replies to “Natural Law is Not New”

  1. St. Justin arrived at Christianity via Greek Philosophy (Plato). Even after he converted he continued to wear the Philosopher’s garb because he saw himself still as a philosopher – it’s just that he had found the source of all true philosophy – Christ. He has a great quote where he says that both kinds of wisdom (natural and supernatural) belong to Christianity because Christ is the source of both.

    St. Clement (originally from Athens) who became the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria wrote beautifully, describing philosophy as the handmaiden of theology. He suggested that the rise of Greek Philosophy in the years prior to Christ wasn’t without God’s providence, preparing that part of the world for the Gospel in a way analogous to the Prophets in Israel (although, of course, to a lesser degree). It’s interesting to note that history confirms this since this was the area in which Christianity first took deep root.

  2. I appreciate this article. Sometimes, however, Catholics enter the ethical conversations of our day using a version of natural law which is separate from the proclamation of the gospel. This problem arises in a pluralist society because we want to find “common ground” or work for the “common good”, terms which evoke Catholic social teaching but really miss the point of what it is about. The notion of natural law can never be divorced from its ultimate root, the incarnation of Christ. So anytime folks make natural law arguments which are in tension with and often opposed to the central ethical teachings of the New Testament and the Church of the apostolic age, I believe that they are fundamentally confused as to what exactly natural law is and why it really matters. This comes out most clearly in the ambiguities surrounding just war theory and its application. It seems that the USCCB, in its 1983 letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response”, attempts to deal with this tension, but it still remains a problem that some of the fundamental assumptions of just war theory, which are based on natural law, simply are not found in either the New Testament or the early Church (i.e., the supposed right of a nation-state to defend itself). Hence I believe it is up to the Bishops to more clearly work out the relationship between reason and revelation, between natural law and the gospel. If the two are separated, then natural law becomes a vacuous humanism akin to vague modern notions of “human rights” which have nothing at all to do with humans.

    1. I generally agree with wha tyou say here. I think we have to be careful to define what we mean by natural law. Just as we use the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament, so we should also use it to understand natural law. I have also expressed concerns to Church leaders in the past that sometimes our official positions rely too much on natural law. This is especially true when the bishops and diocese communicate to the faithful regarding issues current today. I think that when the Catholic faithful are adressed internally, the communication should be rich in scripture. Often they are not. I understand when writing to a governor or legislature, that the bishops will use more natural law and arguments from reason. But as for our internal teachings, we should be more scriptural than we currently are. Otherwise, as you point out, we devlove into a kind of secular humanism that is unbecoming and can also be inauthentic to the gospel. We need both but scripture and sacred Tradition should strongly influence our understanding of natural law.

  3. Our Lord cautions us against using tradition and the doctrines of men to the detriment of His commandments in the gospel of Mark 7.7 so we must be careful.

    1. You are right Jen. We should be very careful in using the traditions of mere doctrines of men.
      Instead, we should be following the Tradition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised to give (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:13-14; 17:17-19) and has given to the Church.

      1. Well, as long as you both use words like careful. It is not wise to simply exclude natural Law since scripture itself attests to its validity as does the Tradition of the Church. So as long long as you both use the word careful, I’m on board but we ought not simply refer to Natural Law as the “doctrines of men”.

Comments are closed.