Thursday, April 7, 2022

Natural Law, One Thousand Years Before Aquinas: Part One

This is part one of what will be three posts, all on the same topic and same source material.  Due to length, I have divided into these three parts.

A couple of months ago, I wrote regarding a lecture given by Fr. Michael Butler, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America.  His topic was natural law in the history of the Orthodox Church.  It is a topic most Orthodox Christians (frankly, Christians from all traditions – even Catholic) seem to want to run away from.  Yet here was an Orthodox priest, talking it head on.

I wrote to him, asking his for some of the materials he used in the lecture, as well as any other materials he could share on the topic.  He graciously replied, and this post is the first of several that will make use of this material.

The document is entitled QUOTATIONS FROM THE FATHERS ON “NATURAL LAW” & “LAW OF NATURE.  It is sixteen pages long, with countless dozens of quotes.  I will pull out some of the most specific references to natural law, and add some thoughts of my own.

To begin, and to be considered throughout this post – and in all my writing on the topic of natural law – natural law is an ethical standard, not to be considered a standard of law as the term is understood today.  Violations of natural law are ethical violations, some of which might be deserving of formal physical punishment (where the violation is against person or property; in other words, a violation of another’s natural rights), and others of which are to be considered ethical shortfalls, missing the mark…or sin, if you prefer. 

Such natural law violations, while not violations of another’s natural rights, do tear at the social fabric.  At minimum, this degrades society; eventually, it destroys any possibility for liberty.

From Fr. Michael’s introduction to the document:

The Fathers of the Church, both Greek and Latin, mention “natural law” or the “law of nature” in their writings. More often they speak of what is “according to nature” or “contrary to nature.” Below are some various quotations from the Fathers using all of these terms.

Fr. Michael presented the list chronologically.  I won’t do so, as I will want to connect like themes from the different authors.  The list of Fathers quoted is a who’s who of the early Church, and I will cite many of these.  Not all of these are sainted, yet this does not preclude the reality that they each have contributed to the understanding of the Church.

Why the Flood?

Genesis 6: 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

This was well before the law was given to Moses.  On what basis did God determine that man was evil?

St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202), Against Heresies 4.16.2-5: Moreover, all the rest of the multitude of those righteous men who lived before Abraham, and of those patriarchs who preceded Moses, were justified independently of the things above mentioned, and without the law of Moses. As also Moses himself says to the people in Deuteronomy: “The LORD thy God formed a covenant in Horeb. The Lord formed not this covenant with your fathers, but for you.”

Then on what basis were they justified…or others condemned?  Continuing with St Irenaeus:

Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant for the fathers? Because “the law was not established for righteous men.” But the righteous fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue written in their hearts and souls, that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbour.

The “meaning of the Decalogue” is the natural law.  They had this “written in their hearts and souls.”

There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates (correptoriis literis), because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves.

St Irenaeus continues that “this righteousness and love to God had passed into oblivion, and became extinct in Egypt…”  Hence, the Decalogue.  These commandments weren’t something new, just invented by God.  He put in written form that which the people had in their hearts but lost while in Egypt.

Arechlaus of Caschar (d. 3rd c.), Acts of the Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes 28: But inasmuch as only, few were able to rise by this medium to the height of righteousness, that is to say, by means of the traditions of parents, when as yet there was no law embodied in writing…

In fact, at one point only Noah…

But something else quite interesting is introduced: the natural law is passed down by parents and kept by tradition.  Natural law is a concept even an evolutionary biologist, an anthropologist, or a social psychologist could love.  Is it the natural law because it has been proven over time to be conducive to sustaining a civil society, or is it the natural law because God has written it on our hearts? 

Can it not be both, satisfying atheists and Christians alike?  Perhaps God created the world and the laws that govern all creatures therein in just such a manner that the answer to this question is a resounding YES.

…God had compassion on the race of man, and was pleased to give through Moses a written law to men, since verily the equity of the natural law failed to be retained in all its perfection in their hearts.

Fallen humans needed a reminder, a cheat-sheet, if you will.

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 14: Further, the restoration of this [unwritten natural law] by a written law, after it had been corrupted, was the work of grace.

St John Cassian (d. 435), Conference 8, the Second with Abba Serenus, 14: And therefore in the case of those who sinned before the law and even before the flood we see that God visited them with a righteous judgment, because they deserved to be punished without any excuse, for having transgressed the law of nature

But what of those who scream “it’s not fair!  God punished them without telling them the rules!”?  St John Cassian replies:

For as they had the sound and complete system of natural laws implanted in them they had no need of this external law in addition, and one committed to writing, and what was given as an aid to that natural law.

They knew right and wrong as God put it in their hearts.  It was lost when they lost (abandoned) God.

It is a lesson for our time, as has been the case since at least the Enlightenment, if not the Renaissance.  By abandoning God, and, therefore, the natural law He implanted in our hearts, we have fallen victim to evermore increasing written law.


  1. Wow. Good stuff. I think I will "borrow" some of that.

    I really like how these Fathers linked the idea of natural law and Mosaic law together with the story about the flood in Noah's day. Irenaeus has always been may favorite Father. I have always appreciated Chrysostom too, as much as I have read them.

    I also agree that the West started to abandon God in the Renaissance but it was finalized in the Enlightenment. I discuss that in a bit of detail in the links.

  2. Nice! This does make sense if we begin at the beginning. It does seem that Adam was as close as one could get. The after they chose to listen to the adversary it was sort of like a De- Evolution. Then the flood happened. Abraham, his sons.
    His sons were jealous of the youngest brother and sold him to slave traders. Later they had to go down to Egypt for food.
    Then is seems they reaped a harvest for selling their Brother ans they all became slaves. An interesting side note being a slave in Egypt was they worked and got paid but Pharoah took 20 percent. It that was slavery it seems like employee is the new modern word for forced Taxation. So along comes Moses and the Law he received. Now think on that how far mankind had gotten away from the original state. The Law of Moses was instruction on how to get back. It was not the end all but a Tutor as the Apostle Paul would write much later. The law was never meant to be the salvation but a tutor until the time came.