A lecture on natural law by Fr. Michael Butler was offered to me by Walt Garlington. Sure, you think, a Dominican discussing Aquinas – there’s a shocker! Nope. The title is Orthodoxy and Natural Law, and Fr. Butler is an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America. I offer: this is one of the better presentations on Natural Law I have heard from anyone – Catholic or otherwise.
As you know, I have found little, if any, support from the Orthodox Church for the idea of Natural Law. I offer some of my writing on this here:
I also recently touched on some comments by Jonathan Pageau, comments which continue to confuse me as he seems to be dancing all around natural law without ever saying the words or diving into the ethic. Well, after reviewing this lecture by Fr. Butler, I grow evermore confused about Pageau – and will explain why in good time.
From the introduction:
Eastern Orthodoxy has been ambivalent about natural law. This lecture considers how natural law thinking might work in distinctly Orthodox ways of considering the relationship between faith and reason and examines some implications that might be useful today.
So, on to the lecture. Strap in. It really is good. Please note: where I state that Butler is citing from an earlier source or Church father, I am reasonably sure this is the case. Given I do not have the handout the he offered to the audience, there are times I cannot be certain.
I have been asked to talk this evening on the subject of Orthodoxy and Natural Law. That’s a little bit hard to do…
Making this work even more remarkable.
The Jews tend to think natural law is a Christian thing. Protestants tend to think it is a Catholic thing. Catholics sometimes think it is a medieval thing. In medieval times, some people thought it was a Roman thing. And the Romans thought it was a Stoic thing. And Orthodox, when they think about it at all, think it is a Western thing.
Yes. Man’s rebellious heart wants to run from natural law.
What is natural law? It is the rule of conduct prescribed to us by God and by our constitution as rational creatures.
Then, he cites Thomas, “the Angelic Doctor”:
Natural law is the human being’s participation in the eternal law, which is present to us through the light of natural reason whereby we discern what is good and what is evil. All men know the truth to a certain extent, at least as to the common principles of the natural law, and every knowledge of truth is a kind of reflection of our participation of the eternal law which is unchangeable.
The first principle of natural law is that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All the other principles of natural law are based on this. The general principles of the natural law cannot be blotted out from the human heart: there are some things that you can’t not know.
The serial adulterer may be numb to the fact that what he is doing is wrong, yet he still hides this fact from his spouse.
Many consider the Ten Commandments to be a summary of the natural law. Either stated, implied, or presupposed. I recall a lecture by Hans Hoppe, where he openly stated this reality:
I do not want to appeal with this only [to] libertarians, however, but a potentially universal or “catholic” audience, because the same ideal of social perfection is essentially also the one prescribed by the ten biblical commandments. [For purposes of this lecture, he focuses on the second table.]
Returning to Fr. Butler, he offers how each of the ten commandments presuppose certain things: for example, for there to be adultery, we have to presuppose marriage, and that to abuse this relationship is wrong; or to not bear false witness presupposes just courts. He offers a long list of such relationships / presuppositions: a rational basis for people’s common, moral sense.
But what about the Scriptural basis of natural law?
The main New Testament source of natural law teaching is the passage in the second chapter of Romans.
He then cites, beginning with verse 12. Basically, the law is written on man’s hearts. Early Church fathers understood this passage to mean that for the Jews, the law came from the Torah. For the Gentiles, it was the natural law – the natural human capacity to know God, and the ethical conduct that is written on man’s hearts.
Fr. Butler then lists several Scriptural passages that bear witness to the natural law. Further, citing Augustine, any human laws that violate the natural law are unjust and we are not obliged to obey them. Butler also apparently handed out some outlines that include several comments from the Patristics on the subject of natural law – in keeping with or contrary to natural law.
He only touches on a few. I only offer the sources, and not the comments related to each – I only want to show the extent to which this general topic was discussed in the earliest Church fathers.
St. Justin Martyr, Origen (Butler recognizes he was not a Church father, but he did offer key insights on this topic), St. John, Chrysostom, St. Augustine. He then skips over Maximus the Confessor, who is next chronologically, as he will go into some real detail on his comments (as will I, and for reasons that will become clear).
There is comment in the later Greek fathers, but, while faithful to the earlier Patristics, there is nothing really new: St. John of Damascus, St. Elias the Presbyter, and St. Gregory Palamas.
Clearly the idea [natural law] is present in Scripture, it’s present in the early Church, it’s present in the Greek speaking Eastern Church throughout the Byzantine era, as I have shown.
Butler then lists another dozen or more Eastern fathers that also have mentioned natural law in their writings, but without providing any specific quotes. His point, in other words, is that natural law isn’t just post-Aquinas “Catholic” or Western. The Eastern Church has a long and well-documented history with natural law.
He then returns to Maximus:
As Aquinas is to the Roman Church, and Luther and Calvin are to the Protestants, so is Maximus to the Eastern Church.
And this is rather important, and important to the connection with Jonathan Pageau. Pageau regularly identifies Maximus as the Church father most influential in his journey to Orthodoxy. Which, as will be seen, makes it even more confusing as to why Pageau cannot see (or will not say regarding) the connection of the lack of a natural law ethic to the crisis in the West.
Per Butler, Maximus synthesized everything that came before him in the Eastern Church, and on whom everything is built after him. “He was the genius of his century.” And, it sounds like, of many centuries!
In Maximus we have the only systematic teaching on natural law that I have found in any of the Greek fathers.
This section begins with about 29 minutes left in the lecture. I will touch on a few points, but it is quite detailed and I will not do it justice – so if you have an interest, just go to the source.
Quoting Maximus: “by general laws I mean the law of nature, the written law, and the law of grace.”
To the first, the natural law, it is engraved in nature. Not simply in the human soul, but in the entire cosmos and all its parts. …By contemplating nature, the wise person can acquire the knowledge of the natural law of God who established the natural law according to divine intent.
Now…how Thomistic does that sound? As a non-scholar and a non-theologian, I can say with complete confidence that this statement could be attributed to Thomas just as easily as to Maximus. Keep in mind: Maximus was on the stage about 700 years before Thomas! This tradition was in the Church well before any schism.
Maximus sees three laws in a hierarchy, with natural law at the bottom, written law above it and Christ as the capstone. From Maximus:
The natural law lays the necessary groundwork to receive the written law, and the written law includes the natural law. And the natural law and the written laws lay together the groundwork for the spiritual law – which incorporates them by encompassing them and surpassing them.
While set in a hierarchy, Maximus insists that all three are necessary. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the natural law and the written law are equally valuable in the third. Both the natural law and the written law teach the same thing in complementary ways.
Earlier in the talk, Butler asked: under what law was Cain punished, or all the earth save Noah and his family, as these were before the written law? There was a law already, and this is the natural law. Again, from Maximus:
The natural law leads everyone, without instruction, to recognize the common humanity in people. …That is, it reveals in us the Golden Rule. So common humanity demands of us behavior that is consistent with our human nature. …The natural law consists in reason assuming control of the senses.
Enough of Maximus. Fr. Butler begins to get more specific. How did early fathers consider Romans 1: 26-27?
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Tertullian offers that Paul’s description and penalty for the unnatural proves the natural. Then Butler offers:
Here we find the natural law in support of natural marriage. Is it not a pity that in our day we have to qualify the word “marriage” and to speak of it as “natural”?
The Church fathers give us language we can use for our time and our generation. The next generation of churches will be shaped by bad morality only if that bad morality remains unanswered (and I add, often even supported via many so-called Christian leaders).
From St. John Chrysostom:
What is contrary to nature had something irritating and displeasing about it, so they cannot even be getting genuine pleasure about it. For genuine pleasure comes from that which is according to nature. But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside-down. Thus, not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was, too.
Butler offers: what is pleasurable is what is according to nature. Then, citing another early (unknown) Church father, who rebukes those church leaders who allow such unnatural acts to go unchallenged: “Consent is participation.” He expands on this:
To consent to other people’s shameful practices is to participate in them. And I tell you, if you have people in your churches, in your Sunday school programs, in your para-church organizations, who are espousing moral positions that are contrary to the word of God, and they are saying these things in public, or on social media, to the harm and the scandal of other people in your church or the world at large, you need to counsel them to stop and get them to stop.
Butler asks forgiveness of his audience, as he is passionate on this topic. He has had to confront such people, who still would not stop, thereby causing scandal to others in the church, including children.
He then cites Romans 2, beginning at verse 12:
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Origen comments on this. The laws of Sabbath, etc., are not naturally on the hearts of men, but laws about murder, theft, etc., are known to them. Origen quotes the second tablet of the Decalogue – a summary of natural law principles. The earliest fathers would comment on Exodus, and the arguments were all natural law arguments.
Chrysostom offers, when considering these verses, that conscious and reason take the place of the law for the Gentiles. Butler points out, this view is in agreement with Aquinas.
Butler offers several pastoral opportunities. First:
The language of natural law is essential for the Church to defend traditional Christian doctrine, for example on human nature and natural marriage.
It is through an understanding of natural law that one can get past the bastardized “love” for those who seek lifestyles not in accord with the creation act of God.
How can you say “Christ is one person in two natures” if you deny that there is a human nature for Him to have assumed?
He offers, there are many references to natural marriage in Scripture, up to and including that the Church is the bride of Christ.
Second, he understands that natural law arguments will likely hold little sway in the broader society:
But within the Church, our own faithful people, whose beliefs are under assault every single day, are looking for reasonable, common-sense arguments, to affirm what they already believe about marriage, sexuality, family life, the common good, justice, freedom and authority. The importance of personal morality, intellectual virtue and human flourishing.
For these people, you are going to find that natural law arguments are really welcome. They want the clarity that such arguments provide.
Third: Don’t look to the Orthodox literature that is practical for monastics. Natural law speaks to those who live in the world. In other words, those who live under the care of a priest like Fr. Butler.
Fourth, natural law demonstrates that the teachings of the Church – and the teachings of the Gospel – are reasonable. Young people don’t want to merely accept arguments from authority.
Fifth, if we get good talking about life in reasonable, natural law, terms, it will confirm for others that our churches are truth-telling institutions. In other words, the church will become attractive for those who seek the truth.
Last, speaking in natural law terms will give our people a fuller and more moral vocabulary. Not only will they be comforted in knowing why their beliefs are reasonable, but then they can be equipped with simple language that will help them defend it for themselves.
Fr. Butler concludes:
I don’t have a formal conclusion to this talk, but what I wanted to show is that the Scriptures speak in natural law terms, the fathers speak in natural law terms. The fathers, in explaining the Bible, speak in natural law terms, and show the reasonableness of what the Scriptures say.
This stuff preaches.