Monday, April 11, 2022

Natural Law, One Thousand Years Before Aquinas: Part Two

Continuing with an examination of QUOTATIONS FROM THE FATHERS ON “NATURAL LAW” & “LAW OF NATURE, as compiled by Fr. Michael Butler, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America.  Part One can be found here.

In Our Nature

Tertullian (d. 225), The Chaplet 6.1: If you demand a divine law, you have that common one prevailing all over the world, written on the tablets of nature, to which also St. Paul is accustomed to appeal.  …Again, in saying in his letter to the Romans that the Gentiles do by nature what the law prescribes, he hints at the existence of natural law and a nature founded on law.

One cannot read the first chapters of Romans without coming to understand that there is a natural law, known to or knowable by all men.

Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235), Against Beron and Helix, Fragment 1: …His divine will remaining unalterable by which He has made and moves all things, sustained as they severally are by their own natural laws.

If non-human animals, without the gift of reading tablets, are sustained by such laws, why not humans?  After all, all things are sustained by their own natural laws. 

Novatian (d. 258), De Trinitate 8: For, under the yoke of the natural law given to all things, some things are restrained, as if withheld by reins; others, as if stimulated, are urged on with relaxed reins.

The natural law is given to all things.  This would, of course, include humans.

Methodius of Olympus (d. ca. 311), A Synopsis of Some Apostolic Words from Methodius of Olympus (from St Photius of Constantionople, Bibliotheca, codex 234): For there are two kinds of thoughts in us; the one which arises from the lust which lies in the body, which, as I said, came from the craft of the Evil Spirit; the other from the law, which is in accordance with the commandment, which we had implanted in us as a natural law, stirring up our thoughts to good, when we delight in the law of God according to our mind, for this is the inner man…

The natural law, implanted in us, stirs us to the good.  We need not a written law to know this good.

St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), Explanation of the Twelve Psalms 36.69: The law of God is in the heart of the righteous. Which law? It is not the written law but the natural law, because “the law was not laid down for the righteous but for the unrighteous.”

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on Romans, Homily 6 (on Rom 2.25): For there is a natural law and there is a written law. “For when the Gentiles,” he says, “which have not the Law.” What Law, say? The written one. “Do by nature the things of the Law.” Of what Law? Of that by works. “These having not the Law.” What Law? The written one. “Are a law unto themselves.” How so? By using the natural law.

The written law of God (the Decalogue) is nothing but a codification of the natural law that is known to all men as determined by God in His creation.

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on Romans, Homily 12 (on Rom 7.12): Now neither Adam, nor anybody else, can be shown ever to have lived without the law of nature. For as soon as God formed him, He put into him that law of nature, making it to dwell by him as a security to the whole kind.

This law of nature is inherent to our creation.  Man was never man without this law.

Oecumenius of Trikka (d. late 10th c.), Commentary on the Apocalypse 22.15-19: Everything against nature is false. Virtue is according to nature, since from the beginning the Creator has implanted in our makeup the seed of virtue, and so vice is against nature. For just as health is natural to our bodies and sickness is unnatural, and just as seeing and hearing are natural while blindness and deafness are unnatural, so also virtue in our souls is natural and evil is unnatural.

Even Our Highest Purpose Accords with Our Nature

Our highest purpose, our telos, is to love God and love our neighbor.

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies concerning the Statues, 13: Now we have a natural law implanted in us, by which we distinguish between what is virtue, and what is vice. Hence it follows, And as ye would that men should do unto you, do ye also to them.

But if they are commanded to love men, which is a natural admonition, wherein lies the difficulty, since even the wolves and lions observe it, whom a natural relation compels to love one another. It is manifest then that Christ has ordained nothing surpassing our nature, but what He had long before implanted in our conscience, so that thy own will is the law to thee.

Once again, an example of God (Christ) putting into words that which He implanted in our nature.

St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), On the Duties of the Clergy 1.46: Next it is shown that what is according to nature is virtuous, and what is otherwise must be looked on as shameful.

This can only be true if we understand “nature” as conforming to our purpose.  Otherwise, many shameful things can be thought to be “natural.”

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on Matthew, Homily 80 (on Matt 26.6-7): For when they regard not their fellow countrymen, their friends, their brethren, in a word all men, and with these even themselves, this is to live against nature. Whence it is evident that the vice and disease of covetousness, wherein Judas, being entangled, became a traitor, is contrary to nature

The Most Contrary to Our Nature

St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), On the Duties of the Clergy 3.4.28: For what is so contrary to nature as not to be content with what one has or to seek what is another’s, and to try to get it in shameful ways.

Hence, natural rights.  I only have a natural right to my person and my property.  We do not have a natural right to all things required in natural law.  For example, natural law commands us to act charitably, but I do not have a natural right to force others to act charitably toward me.  That would be shameful, as per St Ambrose.

Available to All Men

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on Romans, Homily 12 (on Rom 7.12): But the law of nature was not given to us by the Spirit. For barbarians, as well as Greeks and other men, have this law.

St John Chrysostom (d. 407), Homilies on Romans, Homily 5 (on Rom 1:28): When referring here to Greeks, Paul does not mean those who worshiped idols but those who adored God, who obeyed the law of nature, who kept all the commandments without fail apart from the Jewish observances, which contribute toward godliness. Melchizedek was one of these people, and so were Job, the Ninevites and Cornelius

St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), Letter 157: Since there is a law in human reason, written by nature in the heart of everyone who enjoys the use of free will, and this law suggests that a person do no evil to another that he would not wish to suffer himself, therefore, according to this law all are transgressors, even those who have not received the law given by Moses…

St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), Fragment 280: Jesus indicates by this that all souls have been illuminated by God through innate and natural laws but also indeed by the laws written by Moses.

These passages require no further exposition.


  1. I am surprised how much the Fathers wrote about natural law and applied Romans 2 to the idea. Previously, I thought natural law was a Thomist innovation. But now it is obvious he was building on earlier theology. That makes me more confident in believing it myself and teaching it in the church. Thanks for sharing the information.

    1. One more post from this source coming on Friday. It will also include a few statements on other doctrinal issues that I found worth noting.