Friday, February 11, 2022

The Lost History of Natural Law in the Eastern Church


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:

-          An Orthodox Take on Scholasticism

-          Universals, Nominalism, and the Church

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.

Amen, brother.


  1. Romans 2 mentions law in the hearts of men. They know the law by nature. There nature means instinct. It is intuitive. You don't arrive at it by reason, but by avoiding the corruption of the world.

    I like the idea of the Ten Commandments as a guide for natural law. They are exactly that, but not complete. I do think applying reason to the Ten Commandments will illumine much more of the natural law. These logical conclusions should also align with the moral intuition mentioned in Romans 2.

    At its center natural law is knowing the Logos. The central idea of the universe. The originator of the universe, which means the originator of physical laws. Physical law covers the mechanical parts of the universe. Natural law covers the conscious parts of the universe, humans. But the Logos isn't an idea really. Logos isn't it. Logos is He. To understand natural law is to know Him. Jesus. 2nd person of the Trinity. Fully God, fully man. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

    This is why the world can't follow natural law. It won't follow Jesus. If Christians wield political power others will go along with it, but always itching to escape. That situation is sustainable. This is where we must find the remnant and build a world in the world but not of the world, a parallel world. That world interacts with the unbelieving world, but does not rely on it for life. Just like the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete who comes beside us to aid us. The parallel world comes beside the unbelieving world to aid it.

    1. " I do think applying reason to the Ten Commandments will illumine much more of the natural law. "

      You might want to check out the 10 Commandments section of "The Catechism Explained" by Fr. Spirago. Some good stuff in there. Also some bad. But see below for some of the good arguments involved with the 7th Commandment: thou shalt not steal.

      "Since it is the natural right of every man to preserve his own life, he is justified in gaining for himself and keeping as his own, those external goods which are indispensable to his existence. If every moment were occupied in providing for his own maintenance, he would be in the direst destitution, if sickness or misfortune befell him. The natural law prompts him to provide for such contingencies. Besides, were every moment engrossed with the business of self-maintenance, there would be no time to attend to his eternal interests. Furthermore, a man is bound to provide for those who are dependent upon him, and this he could not do if he himself lived from hand to mouth. God commanded our first parents in paradise to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. i. 28)."

      Did Hans Hoppe write this? ;)

      "Nature does not give man the right to certain goods; the right to possess them must be acquired. It is acquired in the first place by labor. God has ordained that the earth should not yield what is requisite- for the maintenance of human life without cultivation. It is a violation of all justice to deprive the cultivator of the soil of what he has won by the sweat of his brow (Lev. xiii.). If the earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell therein, because He is the Maker of it, that which man has made must rightly belong to him. Property as a rule, is gained by work, but sometimes it is a free gift."

      Could have been taken right out of the Ethics of Liberty (apart from the references to God).

      "Property is unjustly acquired by theft, robbery, cheating, etc."

      Here here!

      "Therefore if the State compels an individual to give up his property in the public interest, it is bound to give him compensation. Nor has the State the right to seize ecclesiastical property. To rob a man is theft, to rob God is sacrilege, and for this the penalty is excommunication."

      Some acceptance of Eminent Domain here, but I like how he immediately goes to the theft analogy.

      "He who has purloined from his neighbor or wronged him in his property, is under a strict obligation to restore the stolen goods or make compensation for the damage done (Lev. vi. 1-5)."

      Yup, yup, yup.

      "He who refuses either to give up the stolen property or to compensate for the loss sustained, will not obtain pardon of his sins from God, nor absolution from the priest."

      Here's a great example of social punishment.

  2. I hardly need religion and/or the history of religion to know that stealing is wrong, since property is an obvious and objective requirement of life.

    And if I know that stealing is wrong, I don't need the other 9 commandments.

    1. Your ignorance of how much your views are shaped by history and religion (Christianity) is not surprising.

    2. "I hardly need religion and/or the history of religion to know that stealing is wrong."

      So, what you are saying is, it is written on your heart.

    3. No, I said that property is an obvious and objective requirement of life. "Objective" means observable.

    4. John Howard,

      Assuming that property is an obvious and objective requirement of life (which may be true), it still does not explain why stealing is wrong. After all, thieves generally are not concerned with the lives (or the quality of life) of their victims. They are only interested in how much of their property they can take. What difference does it make to a thief if his victim lives or dies due to the theft as long as he gets what he wants?

      If stealing is wrong, then that means that not stealing is right. These are moral issues. Morality must be taught. It does not come naturally. Denying oneself for the benefit of someone else is not ingrained into the human psyche. Consider that newborns and very young children are only cognizant of their own needs and wants. They care nothing about anything else. They have to be taught self-control and the idea that others are just as important as they are, which takes years of education.

      You know that stealing is wrong because someone taught you that stealing is wrong. It may have been rudimentary and nurtured through years of reasoning, but you did not come by it naturally. You did not determine that stealing is wrong because property is an objective requirement of life. Instead you learned not to take someone else's property BECAUSE it is wrong--a moral distinction. The objective requirement understanding came later. You knew that stealing was wrong, now you know why.

      Ahhhh! Lightening has struck my brain!

      BTW, please don't leave. I enjoy crossing swords with you.

    5. I don't discount the possibility that an extraordinary mind can come to understand the universal or natural law properly without submission to Christ, but it is a rare occurrence. It is not a strategy we should rely upon for a large group of people in order to bring about and maintain a state of liberty.

  3. Your ignorance of how my views are shaped is not surprising. Christianity has not shaped my views. Neither Christians, nor even Jews invented the the idea of property and religion is not necessary to its full understanding.

    Your condescending psychobabble appears to be one of your very bad debate habits as you turn to it so often. Pretending to know things, however, is the essence of faith, so not at all surprising as a debate tactic.

    1. JH, this is a genuine question: Why are you here?

  4. Reason pointed in a certain direction could as easily say stealing is acceptable as it says it is wrong. Property is needed for life, my life. So I take from you to support my life. That is good.

    Apply that thought to groups of people and that is how many people lived for much of history. Commanches. Vikings. Huns. Mongols. There are many more examples.

    1. RMB, a moral code requires an initial purpose or goal in order to then formulate the rules governing behavior to serve that goal. Your example begins with the goal of surviving but disregards the extreme dangers of surviving by making enemies. The people in your examples remained primitive and were eventually destroyed by the very moral code they lived by.

      Obviously, a code that adopts the goal of surviving in a peaceful and prosperous civilization will result in prohibitions against stealing. Calling savagery "reasonable" isn't reasonable.

    2. And what exactly drives people to want to survive in a peaceful and prosperous civilization? You're consistently begging the question here, by assuming that such an outcome is naturally desirable to anyone with half a brain. It is not so, as broadly demonstrated by plenty of smart and capable people throughout history who chose otherwise.

      The idea that a "universally nice and neighborly" attitude arises spontaneously is an illusion that only those brought up amidst the ruins of Christendom have the luxury of believing. You look at the failings of Christianity and hold them up as proof that it is less than perfect and deserving of being tossed out wholesale - without bothering to take a good look at the context and what the alternatives imply. That's not rational, it's shortsighted.

    3. But for a law to be natural, it must be universal as well as reasonable. So stealing may sound reasonable to the thief, or rape to the rapist, because they benefit from these actions, albeit in base materialistic ways that do much damage to their own souls, but neither of these "ethics" can be made universal without obviously causing widespread social disorder, and as Hoppe would say, this defeats the very purpose of having norms of behavior.

      I would certainly agree with you that generally speaking reason isn't enough to get to a good understanding of natural law. Most need a lodestar to orient their logic. I think it is possible for a supremely gifted mind, such as Hoppe's, to arrive at the correct version of natural law without faith in Christ, just as a sailor may cross the Atlantic without reference to the heavens (or GPS). But we cannot expect many to make this perilous journey.

  5. "RMB, a moral code requires an initial purpose or goal in order to then formulate the rules governing behavior to serve that goal. Your example begins with the goal of surviving but disregards the extreme dangers of surviving by making enemies. The people in your examples remained primitive and were eventually destroyed by the very moral code they lived by."

    History says that they weren't destroyed by their code. They were defeated by disease or complacency. If they were destroyed by their own code, that proves my point. Other groups embraced us vs them morality. When you are weaker you lose, but when you are stronger you win.

    "Obviously, a code that adopts the goal of surviving in a peaceful and prosperous civilization will result in prohibitions against stealing. Calling savagery "reasonable" isn't reasonable."

    What civilizations adopted a goal of peace and prosperity? Babylon? Persia? Greece? Rome? All of those wanted peace and prosperity as a result of violently subjecting other people to themselves. Slavery, baby killing, adultery, government theft were virtues not vices. History says unbounded reason fails.

  6. Slavery, baby-killing, and government theft are not examples of peace and prosperity. Nor are they reasonable paths thereto. Reason needs application, not binding.

    No civilization that I am aware of has ever actually adopted reasonable moral rules in pursuit of peace and prosperity. They all appear to be based on stealing, which results in the opposite. Renaming stealing as taxation does not change its nature.

  7. " Slavery, baby killing, adultery, government theft were virtues not vices. History says unbounded reason fails."

    This is a great statement. I've tried to explain to multiple people that logically you could have never convinced Genghis Kahn of the virtues of the NAP on the basis that he benefitted greatly by doing almost the exact opposite. Devoid of morality, logic would dictate the he acted "appropriately" from his perspective/self interest as a conqueror.

    1. “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.” - G.K. Chesterton


  8. Mr. Mosquito,

    Thank you for your kind words and for bringing an old lecture of mine to light again. It's gratifying when old plants are able to bring forth new fruit.

    A couple of comments:

    The Orthodox resistance to the idea of natural law certainly has roots in an allergic reaction to Scholasticism on the part of modern Orthodox thinkers. Some recent work, demonstrating the reception of Scholastic thought in the late Byzantine East, might be changing that a little.

    I think the resistance comes more from associating natural law exclusively with the Enlightenment natural law theory and not appreciating its more ancient, and Christian, roots.

    Second, a couple of the passages from the lecture which you attribute to me are, in fact, quotations from books by my esteemed friend, Dr Jay Budziszewski, who was in the room when I first gave the lecture. It was a bit of a private joke between us for me to quote him to his face. I'd like to acknowledge my debt to him and recommend him to you on the subject of natural law.

    And lastly, if you're interested in the handout that went with the lecture and the quotations of the Fathers that I compiled, I'd be happy to send them to you.

    1. Fr. Michael, I would appreciate a copy of the handout. I am sure the additional information and quotes will be helpful in my further work on the topic of natural law and also in exposing this to an audience mostly different than yours.

      There is a "Contact Me" on the About tab located at the top of this page. Click the link and it will open my email address.

      Thank you

  9. "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."

    I wonder how analogous this is to my understanding of the hierarchy of standards or bars of conduct:

    1. Universal Law. The Non-Aggression Principle. The lowest bar in society which, if you can't get over it, you deserve to be hit with it. In a free world, it would constitute the law between and underlying each freely competing private law association and all other forms of voluntary legal order.

    2. Private Law. Positive Law. The middle bar. The differing laws within each private law association, which could be nearly infinitely variable depending on the preferences of individuals and families. These may, in certain cases, also be upheld by force so long as members have agreed to this upon entering the association. But most, I'd wager, will most likely be upheld by way of social punishments such as fines, probation, boycott and dissociation.

    3. Divine Law. The Law of Christ. The Beatitudes. The highest bar in the world which none of us will ever perfectly achieve but may approach, at least at certain moments in our lives. These laws will be encouraged by example, education, and exhortation and certainly not by force.

    I think the idea of natural law is comprised of and infused within all three of these 'bars' of conduct. But I could be wrong.

    1. ATL I think it doesn't quite fit, at least not how I have come to understand this topic (which, I am certain to be wrong, only unsure as to where!)

      Your first item of universal law is describing natural rights. Your second item describes voluntarily agreed-to items where force can be used to deter / punish.

      The third item seems to approach natural law - which, given the word "law," is confusing, as it is really an ethic. To the extent the Beatitudes and the greatest commandment (love God, love your neighbor) overlap, I agree that this is the highest bar, the aim, and from this all of natural law (ethic) can be derived...I think.

    2. Further confusing the issue is the fact that Aquinas in the Summa lists 5 different types of law: 1) eternal law, 2) the natural law, 3) human law, 4) old law, and 5) new law (with the 'old' and 'new' corresponding to the Old and New Testaments)