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Rethinking Natural Law

John Macquarrie

(From Readings in Moral Theology, No.2: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics, ed. C. Curran and R. mcCormick, New York: Paulist Press, 1980) p. 121 - 145.)

Let us explore the common ground between Christian and non-Christian morals; and in doing this, we shall at the same time be advancing our consideration of the question of whether, at least under present circumstances, the most appropriate way of doing Christian ethics is the way that sets out from the nature of man, rather than ways that begin from distinctively Christian concepts.

The next step after our discussion of contemporary human nature is to consider the notion of natural law. A recent important symposium, Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ended with a thoughtful essay by the editor, the Bishop of Durham, on the theme: "Toward a Rehabilitation of Natural Law."1 Although my own approach will differ from the Bishop’s, I agree with him about the need for a rehabilitation of natural law, or, at least, for the recovery of what was of abiding value in the notion of such a law. Indeed, I believe that a viable account of natural law could make a vital contribution toward solving three major problems—the linking of Christian and non-Christian morals, the shape of a contemporary Christian ethic, and the relation between faith and morals. But natural law—like the corresponding natural theology—is in bad repute nowadays. For a long time it has been under fire from many Protestant moralists, who prefer a christocentric approach. More recently, even some Roman Catholic moral theologians have begun to doubt whether in their tradition too much stress has been laid on natural law and too little on the New Testament. Much of the criticism of natural law has been justified. Any attempt to reformulate it in a better way will be neither an easy nor a popular undertaking. But I believe that such an attempt is urgently required.

A good starting point for our discussion is the assertion, often heard nowadays among theologians who are interested in the relation of Christianity to the secular world, that to be a Christian is simply to be a man. Presumably the expression is an echo of Bonhoeffer:

"To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint) but to be a man."2 "To be a Christian is to be a man"—what does this mean? Certainly, this statement when made without qualification can be misleading, and it often is. It can be understood as diluting Christianity to the point where it loses all identity; and it can also be understood in the objectionable sense of "annexing" all men to Christianity. Yet, although it can be misunderstood and oversimplified, the statement is, I believe, true in a fundamental way. So far as Christianity offers fulfillment or salvation, it offers a full humanity—or, at least, a fuller humanity.

An illustration of something like this point of view is to be found in the work of Paul Lehmann. In his view of Christian ethics, the policies of the believer should be determined by "what God is doing in the world."3 If we ask, "Well, what is God supposed to be doing in the world?" Lehmann repeatedly gives this answer: "Making and keeping human life human!" Obviously, this expression is not intended to be a mere tautology, and therefore we must assume that the word "human" is being used in a different (though related) sense on each of its two occurrences. It is in fact fairly clear that God is said to be making and keeping human life "truly human" or "authentically human or "fully human"; and that there is therefore implied in this assertion a criterion by which a truly human or fully human life may be recognized.

Lehmann does indeed tell us what his standard of such a true humanity is—it is the "mature manhood" of the New Testament, to be tested by being set against the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."4 The "fullness of Christ" therefore is, for Lehmann, the criterion of the fullness of humanity, and so—although at first sight his idea that the business of Christian morals is to join in the work of making human life authentically human might seem to provide a liberal formula for relating the Christian ethic to general moral principles—he offers a strictly christocentric definition of authentic humanity. Furthermore, he has very few good things to say about secular moral philosophy.

However, I do not think that one must take up a christocentric position. Even if the Christian ethicist holds (as presumably he does) that authentic humanity is to be judged by the standard of Jesus Christ, there is a kind of reciprocity involved in this assertion, so that one might also say that Jesus is recognized as the Christ because he has brought to fulfillment the deepest moral aspirations of mankind. There is a hermeneutic circle here: Christ interprets for the Christian the meaning of authentic humanity or mature manhood, but he is acknowledged as the Christ or the paradigm of humanity because men have interpreted him as such in the light of an idea of authentic humanity that they already bring to him and that they have derived from their own participation in human existence. No doubt the Christian fnds that his idea of authentic humanity is enlarged, corrected, and perhaps even revolutionized by the concrete humanity of Christ, yet unless he had some such idea, it is hard to see how Christ could ever become Christ for him.

At this point we may profitably turn to some of the current trends in christology. Among all theological schools there is widespread agreement in placing a new emphasis on the humanity of Christ. The attempt is made to think through from his humanity to his deity, thus following a route opposite to the traditional one, which speculated on how the divine Logos became flesh.

To put the matter in another way, Christ does not contradict but he fulfills our humanity; or, better expressed, he both contradicts it and fulfills it—he contradicts our actual condition but fulfills what we have already recognized deep within us as true human person-hood. These christological considerations are obviously of the highest relevance to our task of trying to relate Christian ethics to the moral aspirations of people who are not Christians. One can agree with Paul Lehmann that the moral criterion for the Christian is Jesus Christ; but if Jesus is recognized by Christians as the Christ because they acknowledge him, in Rahner’s phrase, as "man in the fullest sense" or, in Jenkins’ way of putting it, as the "glory of man," then the distinctively Christian criterion coincides with the criterion which, even if only implicitly, is already guiding the deepest moral aspirations of all men—the idea, however obscure, of an authentic or full humanity. In traditional theological language, this implicit image toward which man tends in transcending every given state of himself is the imago Dei.

In what sense, however, can the Christian believe that Christ does in fact fulfill the potentialities of man, so that his christhood can be considered as a kind of self-transcending humanity which is also the very image of God? 8 What kind of "fullness" or "perfection" can be attributed to him, so that he may be taken as the criterion of "mature manhood"? Of course, it must frankly be acknowledged that there are some humanists and others who find Christ much less than a paradigm for mankind. Yet even today it is remarkable how many non-Christians join with believers in acknowledging the stature of Christ. The usual complaint against Christians is not that they take Christ as the measure of human existence, but that they fail so miserably to do so! But why does the Christian make the claim he does for Christ, in his humanity?

It is quite obvious that Christ was not perfect in the sense of fulfilling all the potentialities of humanity—indeed, the very notion of this kind of perfection would seem to be self-contradictory, for no finite person could realize in himself within a limited life-span all the possibilities of human life. As far as we know, Christ was not a great painter or a great husband or a great philosopher or statesman. One of the most human of all activities is decision. Everyone, in the limited time at his disposal, has to make choices, to take up one vocation rather than another, to marry or to remain single, and so on. To decide (Latin: de-cidere, to cut away) is precisely a cutting away of some possibilities for the sake of the one that is chosen. Decision is to be understood as much in terms of what is cut away as in terms of what is chosen. In a finite existence, self-fulfillment is inseparable from self-denial.

Perhaps when we talk of the "fullness" of Christ, we have to look for it in this very matter of decision, so that the fullness is, paradoxically, also a self-emptying, a renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of that which has the greatest claim. We recall the parable of the merchant "who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it." 9 Can we say that Christ’s fullness or perfection is attributed to him because he gave up all other possibilities for the sake of the most distinctively human possibility of all, and the one that has most claim upon all men, namely, self-giving love? And can we also say that because this love is the most creative thing in human life (for it brings men to freedom and personhood), then Christ manifests the "glory of man" by becoming transparent to the ultimate creative self-giving source of all, to God? And if indeed Christ is understood as the revelation of God, then this surely strengthens the argument for a basic affinity between Christian and non-Christian morals, for what is revealed or made clear in Christ is also implicit in the whole creation. In saying this, I am not annexing" the whole creation to Christ but rather claiming that what is already present in the whole creation is gathered up in Christ. In other words, I am trying to link Christian and non-Christian moral striving not on the ground of a doctrine of redemption but on the ground of a doctrine of creation.

Christianity, I wish to assert, is not a separate moral system, and its goals and values are not fundamentally different from those that all moral striving has in view. Yet it cannot be denied that there are some ways in which the Christian ethic differs from non-Christian ethics. It seems to me that the differences have to do with the different ways in which the several groups or traditions perceive the goals that are implicit in all moral striving, and the means to these goals; or with the different ways in which they understand and engage in the moral obligations laid upon all; or with the different degrees of explicitness to which the idea of an authentic humanity has emerged in the several traditions.

Of course, there are often differences of prescription between Christian and non-Christian morals. For instance, Christianity prescribes monogamy, while some other traditions do not. But the question of judging between these prescriptions would be settled by still deeper moral convictions shared by the two or more traditions, namely, by asking which prescription best protects and enhances the true humanity of the persons concerned. A distinctive ethical tradition may help its adherents to perceive some aspects of the general moral drive with a special clarity, though equally it may dull their perception of other aspects. For instance, it could be argued that in developing its marriage institutions, the Christian tradition has been more perceptive of what makes for a true humanity than has the Islamic tradition; but one could claim on the other side that Islam has shown itself more perceptive than Christianity in fostering good racial attitudes that put human dignity before color or ethnic background. But fundamental to both traditions is respect for the human person and the desire to enhance human well-being, and this is the implied standard in any comparison of their actual prescriptions and institutions.

We are saying then that what is distinctive in the Christian ethic is not its ultimate goals or its fundamental principles, for these are shared with all serious-minded people in whatever tradition they stand. The distinctive element is the special context within which the moral life is perceived. This special context includes the normative place assigned to Jesus Christ and his teaching—not, indeed, as a paradigm for external imitation, but rather as the criterion and inspiration for a style of life. The context further includes the moral teaching of the Bible, and the ways in which this has been developed and interpreted by the great Christian moralists. There are also the practices of prayer and worship, which are formative for the community and its members. And, not least, there are the many ways in which the moral life is influenced (and, as I hope to show, supported) by Christian faith and hope.

Can we now try to spell out more definitely the nature of that common core which, as I have claimed, underlies and relates all the several moral traditions of mankind? Here we must return to the theme to which a brief allusion was made earlier—to natural law. I said that this proposal would not be very popular in some quarters, and yet, when we inquire why some Christian ethicists object so strongly to the idea of natural law, we find that they give very strange reasons. They seem to be afraid that to allow any weight to natural law would somehow infringe on the uniqueness of the Christian ethic. They seem to be afflicted with an anxiety that Christianity must somehow be distinct and perhaps even have some kind of monopoly of moral wisdom.

For instance, Paul Ramsey in one of his early books asked the question: "By what is Christian ethics to be distinguished from generally valid natural morality, if some theory of natural law becomes an authentic part and, to any degree, the primary foundation of Christian morality?"’10 This question is best answered by a counter-question: Why should we really want to distinguish Christian ethics from generally valid natural morality? I see nothing threatening in the possibility that the foundations of Christian morality may be the same as the foundations of the moralities associated with other faiths or with nonreligious beliefs. On the contrary, the more common ground Christians can find between their own ethical tradition and what Ramsey calls "generally valid natural morality," the better pleased they ought to be. For means that there are a great many people who do not profess themselves Christians but who are nevertheless allied with Christians in their moral strivings and ideals. With them the Christian can cooperate with a good conscience—and not just as a tactical matter in some particular situation but because at bottom they share the same moral convictions.

Although Paul Lehmann identifies the end of the Christian with a true or mature humanity, he too attacks the notion of natural law and criticizes the idea of a philosophical ethic. 11 However, he does not enter into details of his objections to natural law, promising to do this in a future book. For the present, therefore, it is impossible to engage in a discussion with him on this matter.

A further objection made to the doctrine of natural law is that it does not take sin with sufficient seriousness. It assumes an innate tendency toward the good, failing to recognize the fallen condition of our human nature. I certainly have no wish to deny the fact of sin, and the question will be fully discussed later.12 But I do not think of sin as having utterly destroyed the imago Dei or as having totally extinguished the drive toward authentic humanity. There is in man original righteousness as well as original sin, a tendency to fulfillment which is often impaired but never quite abolished; for if it were, the very consciousness of sin would be impossible.

Thus, although the idea of natural law is an unpopular one among many writers on Christian ethics today, their objections do not seem to be persuasive. Natural law, in some form, offers good hope of establishing a bridge between Christian ethics and general ethics. Indeed, I shall go further and claim that natural law is foundational to morality. It is the inner drive toward authentic person-hood and is presupposed in all particular ethical traditions, including the Christian one.

What is natural law? The expression is ambiguous, and misleading in many ways. Nowadays it might suggest to many people the uniformities of natural phenomena, though in this sense it is more customary to talk about "laws of nature." It is very important to make plain that natural law, as an ethical concept, is quite distinct from any scientific law of nature. It is true that some moral philosophers, especially those belonging to evolutionary and naturalistic schools of thought, try to derive moral laws from biological laws. It has sometimes been argued that in the course of evolution cooperation has proved more successful than competition, and it is inferred that one should therefore be altruistic.13 But this rests on a confusion between the idea of law as uniformity and law as a norm of conduct which can be accepted and obeyed by a responsible agent. To put the matter in another way, the confusion is between what is the case and what ought to be the case. One cannot proceed from statements of fact to value judgments, unless indeed one has already smuggled a value-judgment into the alleged statement of fact, as when one says that cooperation is "more successful" than competition. Theodosius Dobzhansky seems to be correct in saying that what can be established biologically is not the content of an ethic but simply "the capacity to ethicize. 14

We must therefore turn away from biological conceptions of natural law to the strictly ethical sense of the expression. The expression "natural law" refers to a norm of responsible conduct, and suggests a kind of fundamental guideline or criterion that comes before all rules or particular formulations of law. It will be useful to pass in review some of the classic historical statements concerning this idea.

Like natural theology, natural law has its roots in the Greek rather than in the Hebrew contribution to Christian and Western reflection. Perhaps the first trace of the doctrine is to be found in a somewhat obscure saying of Anaximander in which he talks of things "paying the penalty" and "making atonement to each other" for their injustice. Commenting on this saying, Werner Jaeger remarks: "Here is no sober rehearsal of the regular sequence of cause and effect in the outer world, but a world-norm that demands complete allegiance, for it is nothing less than divine justice itself. 15 Incidentally, this comment further clarifies the distinction between "law of nature" in the scientific sense and "natural law" in the ethical sense.

Another early Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, was much more explicit on the subject of a natural law. He tells us that "all human laws are nourished by the one divine law; for this holds sway as far as it will, and suffices for all and prevails in everything." Jaeger’s comments 16 are again very illuminating. He points out that Heraclitus seems to have been the first to introduce explicitly the notion of law into philosophical discourse, and, in doing so, he identified "the one divine law" with the logos, the primordial word or reason in accordance with which everything occurs. "This theological aspect," claims Jaeger, "makes very clear how profoundly the law of Heraclitus differs from what we mean when we speak of a ‘law of nature.’ A ‘law of nature’ is merely a general descriptive formula for referring to some specific complex of observed facts, while Heracitus’ divine law is something genuinely normative. It is the highest norm of the cosmic process, and the thing which gives that process its significance and worth." Jaeger has some further interesting remarks on the reciprocal kind of interpretation done by the Greeks, who used social and human models such as law (nomos) to elucidate the cosmos and then in turn sought to throw light on social structures from the order of the cosmos. Such interpretation is not, of course, "merely circular," but can provide some useful reciprocal illumination.

Moving on to Aristotle, we read: "Law is either special [idios] or general [koinos. By ‘special law’ I mean that written law which regulates the life of a particular community; by ‘general law,’ all those unwritten principles which are supposed to be acknowledged everywhere. 17

Some of Cicero’s remarks on natural law are worth quoting. He provides a more detailed statement than does Aristotle, and especially interesting from our point of view is his theological interpretation of natural law, viewed within the context of Stoic philosophy. He writes: "There is indeed a true law, right reason, agreeing with nature, diffused among all men, unchanging, everlasting.... It is not allowed to alter this law or to derogate from it, nor can it be repealed. We cannot be released from this law, either by the magistrate or the people, nor is any person required to explain or interpret it. Nor is it one law at Rome and another at Athens, one law today and another hereafter; but the same law, everlasting and unchangeable, will bind all nations at all times; and there will be one common lord and ruler of all men, even God, the framer and proposer of this law. 18

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, "Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, in so far as it itself partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and others. Therefore it has a share of the eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end; and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the ‘natural law.’ 19

One last quotation comes from Richard Hooker, in the Anglican tradition. "The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself. For that which all men have at all times learned, Nature herself must needs have taught; and God being the author of Nature, her voice is but his instrument. By her from him we receive whatsoever in such sort we learn. Infinite duties there are, the goodness of which is by. this rule sufficiently manifested, although we had no other warrant besides to approve them. The apostle St. Paul, having speech concerning the heathen, saith of them, ‘They are a law unto themselves.’ His meaning is, that by the force of the light of reason, wherewith God illuminateth everyone which cometh into the world, men being enabled to know truth from falsehood, and good from evil, do thereby learn in many things what the will of God is; which will, himself not revealing by any extraordinary means unto them, but they by natural discourse attaining the knowledge thereof, seem the makers of these laws which indeed are his, and they but only the finders of them out." 20

A great many ideas are to be found in the passages quoted. The natural law is said to be unwntten; it is not invented by men but discovered by them; it is a kind of tendency rather than a code; it has a constancy or even an immutability. I certainly have no intention of attempting the defense of all the ideas contained in these quotations, even if they could be harmonized among themselves. But I do believe that something can and must be recovered from this pervasive notion of a natural law, and that it can be very relevant to some of our current problems. In the rest of the article, therefore, we shall try to see what is possible by way of reinterpretation and reconstruction.

The discussion will fall into two main parts. In the first, we shall consider the theological or ontological foundations of natural law and endeavor to interpret these in such a way that this law can in-deed be seen as a common ground for the different ethical traditions. This discussion will inevitably raise in a provisional way the question of the relation between faith and morals. In the second part of the discussion, we shall consider what can be done toward reinterpreting natural law so that it takes account of the change and development which are characteristic not only of man’s images of himself but of his very nature and of the world around him.

1. It is acknowledged as a matter of fact that during most of the course of human history, religion and morals have been closely associated with each other. It is true that there have sometimes been religions with inhuman elements, practicing cruel and degrading rites. It is true also that there have been and are many highly moral persons who have disclaimed any religious convictions. Yet, on the whole, we are bound to say that the bond between religion and morals has been a close one.

How are we to understand this connection? Is it an intrinsic one, or is it merely an external and almost accidental one? Was it, for instance, appropriate that in the earlier stages of human development morals should be protected and inculcated by religion, but that as man becomes increasingly adult, morals should be detached from any connection with religion? This would parallel in the ethical field what has been true in many other fields of human activity, in which arts and sciences that were once pursued under the aegis of religion have become secularized and now flourish in complete autonomy.

Some of the traditional ways of explaining the bond between morality and religion were so inadequate and even repellent that, rather than stay with them, one would prefer to see morality break free from its religious associations. I refer especially to the view that religion provides the sanctions for morality and so the motivation for moral conduct, with its promise of reward for those who do good and its threat of punishment for evildoers. Such beliefs were widespread in ancient societies and persisted right down to the Philosophers of recent centuries. John Locke could write: "The view of heaven and hell will cast a slight upon the short pleasures and pains of this present state, and give attractions and encouragements to virtue, which reason and interest, and the care of ourselves, cannot but allow and prefer. Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and may defy all competition. 21 Few people today believe in heaven and hell in the traditional sense, but they seem to be neither more nor less moral as a result. Even if there was the need for such a doctrine to buttress morality in earlier times, it would seem to have no place in the sophisticated societies of today. But more than this, I think we would say nowadays that to appeal to religion on the ground that it provides the sanctions for morality is to degrade both religion and morals. Religion is reduced to becoming a mere incentive to the moral life, while it is also suggested that men will not be moral apart from a system of ultimate rewards and punishments— surely a very cynical idea.

I believe that there is a connection between religion and morality, and that this connection is intrinsic and important. However, we must look for a way of interpreting it which will not do violence to the integrity of either religion or morality and that will not impugn the undoubtable achievements of secular morality. It can never be a question of subordinating religion to morality, or the other way around; nor can there be any question of claiming that morality is dependent on religious faith, in view of the plain fact that many nonreligious people are highly moral. Let me suggest, however, that natural law provides the link.

Though a religious faith is not to be identified with a metaphysic, it nevertheless always involves its adherents in some vision of the whole, in some fundamental convictions about "the way things are." Natural law too claims to be founded in "the way things are," in ultimate structures that are explicitly contrasted with the human conventions that find expression in our ordinary rules and customs. But natural law need not be given a theological or religious interpretation, and the conception of natural law is by no means incompatible with secular morality, and is indeed implied in some forms of it. Natural law is an ontological ground, common to the various forms of morality, receiving in some of them a religious interpretation, in others a secular. I would say that natural law (or something like it) is implicit wherever an unconditioned moral obligation is recognized. Perhaps this is implicit even in Camus, for in an absurd world it is apparently not absurd to be moral and to pursue the fulfillment of humanity.

That most people do seem to believe in something like natural law may be seen from a simple consideration. There is no human law, not even that promulgated by the highest authority, about which someone may not complain that it is unjust. There seems to be found among most people the conviction that there is a criterion, beyond the rules and conventions of human societies, by which these may be judged.

Every social group or association has some rules. These will normally be founded on the convenience of the members. If someone finds these rules unfair, and is unable to persuade the group to change them, he may have recourse to some superior set of laws to which the group itself is subject. There is always, so to speak, a higher court of appeal, a hierarchy of justice. There may be appeals through a whole series of courts, but even when the highest court of appeal has pronounced its judgment, it still makes sense for someone to say that its ruling was unjust. It is hard to see how this could be the case if justice has a purely empirical origin, explicable in terms of sociology, psychology, biology, and similar sciences.

Some jurists have held that the state is the ultimate source of law, so that what it decrees is ipso facto just and right—a theory, incidentally, which is no more arbitrary than the belief that what God decrees is therefore right. Such a positive theory of law, which was grounded in the state, was held in recent times by Nazi jurists in Germany. The state (or nation) was for the Nazi, absolute. But most people would hold that there is an even more ultimate standard than the state, and that the state’s laws and decrees can be unjust. According to Vernon J. Bourke, West Germany, Italy, and Japan are countries which have made considerable use of the natural law concept in reconstructing their legal and political institutions in the years following World War II. 22 It is surely significant that the three countries named were precisely lands that had for a time totalitarian rule. The concept of natural law is, among other things, a safeguard against the usurpation by the state of unlimited power.

Sophocles provided a dramatic account of the conflict between the laws of the state and the demands of "natural" justice:

CREON: Now, tell me thou—not in many words, but briefly— knewest thou that an edict had forbidden this?

ANTIGONE: I knew it. Could I help it? It was public.

CREON: And thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law?

ANTIGONE: Yes, for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the Justice who dwells with the gods. Nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth. 23

This scene from Greek tragedy antedates by some five hundred years a scene in the New Testament in which it is reported: "Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ 24

Of course, both of these excerpts, like the one quoted from Cicero earlier, are explicitly theological in what they say about the "higher law," and we should clearly understand that a doctrine of natural law does not necessarily commit one to a theistic belief. Governments which allow conscientious objection to military service only on religious grounds are acting unjustly. Indeed, one might even argue that to explain natural law or fundamental morality in terms of a divine Lawgiver is the most primitive and mythological way of expressing the idea. In the Old Testament, Moses receives the Decalogue, the basic laws of human conduct, at the hands of Yahweh. Likewise Hammurabi is depicted in Babylonian art as receiving the law from the god Marduk. In more recent times the natural law has sometimes been understood as the "will of God." But in such cases, God has been conceived on the deistic model, as an absolute monarch in the heavens. The natural law is not the "will of God," if this is understood to mean that God’s arbitrary decree determines right and wrong. Men have sometimes complained that God has been unjust to them. Their complaints may have been unfounded, but it is interesting that such complaints can even be made, for it indicates that those who make them do not identify justice simply with what God wills. Justice is such an ultimate notion that it cannot depend even on the will of God. This does not mean that it is more ultimate than God, but rather that it is not external or subsequent to God, for it belongs to his very being or nature.

The point has been put so clearly by E. L. Mascall that I can do no better than quote some sentences from him: "To the Scotists, who taught that the formal constituent of God was infinity and that will was essentially superior to intellect, it was natural to say that the moral law rested simply on the arbitrary decree of God and that actions are good because God has commanded them; to the Thomists, on the other hand, it wasbeingthat was fundamental, with the necessary corollary that the moral law is neither an antecedent prescription to which God is bound by some external necessity to conform, nor a set of precepts promulgated by him in an entirely arbitrary and capricious manner, but something inherently rooted in the nature of man as reflecting in himself, in however limited and finite a mode, the character of the sovereign Good from whom his being is derived. The moral law is thus in its essence neither antecedent nor consequent to God; it is simply the expression of his own self-consistency. To say, therefore, that God is bound by it is merely to say, from one particular angle, that God is God. 25

In any case, it would be hard to imagine a more abused phrase than "the will of God." People have committed all kinds of wickedness and folly in the belief that they were carrying out the will of God. In milder but no less objectionable ways, they still pressure other people into adopting their policies by representing their own idiosyncrasies as God’s will which it would be wrong to disobey—a favorite tactic in ecclesiastical debates. How right Ian Henderson was when he wrote: "To enthrone the will of God in ecclesiastical party politics is to drive out love. For the point in calling your party policy the will of God is just that it enables you to give hell to the man who opposes it. For does that not make him the enemy of God? And what a wonderful opportunity to enable you, Christian that you are, to give vent to all the lovelessness in your nature. 26 Can we be surprised if many decent secular people are suspicious of any attempt to relate morality to any transcendent reality?

Yet we have seen that most people do indeed appeal to a "natural justice" beyond any human court of appeal. The Christian theologian will no doubt seek to link this notion eventually to his concept of God, but he will do so in more sophisticated ways than by the traditional appeal to the will of God. But it is possible to hold a natural law doctrine without giving it a theological formulation, though hardly without some ontological or metaphysical formulation. For the Stoics, the natural law was understood in somewhat pantheistic terms, as the demand of the logos dwelling both in man and in the cosmos. Likewise, in Eastern religions, the Hindu dharma and the Chinese tao are immanent and impersonal principles, not the decrees of a transcendent deity. In modem Western philosophy, one would be more likely to found natural law on a Kantian or neo-Kantian basis of an objectively valid rational order, which grounds moral values just as it does logical values. In each case, the foundations are taken to have an ultimacy and objectivity about them. They are not just "human convention," explicable psychologically, sociologically, and anthropologically. These sciences do explain the actual empirical forms in which morality appears, but not the ultimate demand of morality. Not even the state and not human society as a whole (if this expression refers to anything) can serve as the foundation of morality, but a transhuman order so that, as Hooker expressed it, man is not so much the maker of laws as their discoverer. 27

Though the acknowledgment of a natural law that judges every human law does not, as we have readily agreed, imply a definitely theistic understanding of the world, nevertheless it points to an onto-logical interpretation of morality which has at least some kinship with the religious interpretation. For, in both cases, it is supposed that moral values do belong to the very nature of things, so to speak, and are not just superimposed on an amoral reality by the human mind. But surely to recognize that morality has this ontological foundation is already to perceive it in a new depth. Without such a depth, it is hard to see how there could ever be an unconditioned obligation to which one simply could not say no without abandoning one’s authentic personhood. There could be only relative obligations, imposed by the conventions of a particular society. Conversely, as has been pointed out by Fritz Bud, where there is no ontological or religious grounding of morality, there is also no sin and "one can speak only of relative but not of unconditioned evil. 28

The Nazi regime, when man (or superman) decided moral values, should remain as a terrible warning against that complete slide into relativism and subjectivism in which morality has been entirely cut adrift from an ontological basis. The notion of human responsibility and answerability, when explored in its many dimensions, implies an order which man does not create but which rather lays a demand on him.

Although therefore one must nowadays abandon such oversimplified and frequently misleading notions as that the moral law is the will of God or that religion provides sanctions for strengthening the moral law, this does not lead to abandoning all belief in an intrinsic connection between morals and religion; and one can, moreover, see a parallel to such a religious morality in a secular morality which acknowledges a natural law. In both cases, if morality is founded in "the way things are," as natural law doctrine has maintained and as religious faith has maintained, then the moral demand has about it an ultimate character that can hardly fail to let it be experienced with an enhanced seriousness. 29

2. In the second part of our discussion, we have to take up the question of how far the traditional idea of natural law can be adapted to the thinking of an age whose concepts are dynamic rather than static. So far we have talked of "unconditioned demand" and have sought a stable foundation for morality that could safeguard us from the vagaries of a thoroughgoing relativism. But it is equally important, in the light of our earlier discussions about man, to try to reinterpret the idea of natural law in a way that allows for flexibility and growth, so that it really does protect and foster the fulfillment of human possibilities. Are we perhaps asking the impossible? Demanding elements of both constancy and stability, while also wanting to acknowledge the pervasiveness of change and to set everything in motion? Or is there a way of embracing both sides?

First of all, I think we should be clear about what we are looking for. We are not looking for some extended system of rules. Just as the substance of faith can never be adequately or precisely formulated in dogmatic propositions, and just as all such propositions have time-conditioned elements that need to be expressed in new and different ways in new historical situations, so the content of the moral life is never exhaustively or adequately formulated in rules and precepts.

The fact that natural law cannot be precisely formulated is already implied in some of the classic definitions and descriptions quoted above. The natural law is "unwritten" (Aristotle). In fact, the very term "law" is misleading, if it is taken to mean some kind of code. The natural law is not another code or system of laws in addition to all the actual systems, but is simply our rather inaccurate way of referring to those most general moral principles against which particular rules or codes have to be measured. It is well known that St. Thomas formulated the first precept of the natural law in extremely general terms: "Good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided. 30 At first sight, one might be tempted to ask whether this statement says anything or is just a tautology, in the sense that it simply repeats what is already contained in the notions of "good" and "evil." I think, however, we shall find there is more to it than this.

It is assumed that one can go on to elaborate other precepts of the natural law, though these would be of a general kind. Perhaps we could reckon among them the very broad prohibitions which Bishop Robinson accepts as possessing something approaching universal validity. 31 But the really important point in Robinson’s statement has to do not with the actual prohibitions which he lists but with the fact that the prohibited activities are all, as he says, "fundamentally destructive of human relationships."

The Decalogue, setting forth the basic demands of the moral life, might be taken as a kind of transcript of the fundamental precepts of natural law, even though the Decalogue itself is supposed to have been "revealed." But simple and basic though the Ten Commandments are, one finds even in them relative and time-conditioned elements. What, for instance, is one to say about the command concerning Sabbath observance?32 Even with so basic a statement of the fundamental moral laws, there can be disputes as to what really belongs to natural law and what to the historical circumstances under which the statement was formulated. This reinforces our point that the natural law cannot be formulated, and that it is not so much itself a "law" as rather a touchstone for determining the justice or morality of actual laws and rules.

We may consider a more recent example. Sir David Ross lists some half-dozenprima facie duties, as he calls them: duties of fidelity (such as promise-keeping and truth-telling), duties of reparation, duties of gratitude, duties of justice, duties of beneficience, duties of self-improvement, and, negatively, the duty of not injuring others. These duties are called prima facie to allow for the situational element in morality. In an actual situation, there may be more than one claim on me, and then one has to take precedence over the other. But it is assumed that everyone is aware of the prima facie claims and that they are distinct from my fallible personal opinions about more peripheral ethical questions. "The main moral convictions of the plain man," writes Ross, "seem to me to be, not opinions which it is for philosophy to prove or disprove, but knowledge from the start. 33 I am inclined to agree with Ross that there is this kind of fundamental moral knowledge, given with human existence itself. Although he does not use the expression "natural law," I would think it quite appropriate. Furthermore, I would doubt whether the natural law could be particularized much beyond the half-dozen or so general duties which Ross details. And even these are prime facie duties, which may be superseded in an actual situation.

We have dwelt at some length on the difficulty of formulating the natural law with any precision and have seen that time conditioned elements enter into such formulations as there are, and situational elements into its actual application. To this extent, we have already come into conflict with some of the classic descriptions of natural law, especially in their use of such words as "everlasting" and "unchangeable." But we are only at the beginning of our criticism. The notions of change and development have to be taken much more seriously than just allowing that there are changes and development in formulation. The notion of the unchangeableness of natural law was rooted in the idea of an unchanging nature, both in man and in the cosmos.

But if we acknowledge—as we already have done—that man’s nature is open, and that he is always going beyond or transcending any given state of himself, and if we acknowledge further that this open nature of man is set in the midst of a cosmos which is likewise on the move and is characterized by an evolving rather than a static order; then we must say that the natural law itself, not just its formulations, is on the move and cannot have the immutability once ascribed to it. But what has perhaps more than anything else discredited the natural law concept is the tacit assumption that there was a kind of original human nature to which everything subsequent is an accretion. This is the confusion of what is natural with what is primitive. One has only to ask the question, "Is it natural to wear clothes?" to see the absurdity of trying to think of man’s nature in terms of a primitive given. It is certainly futile to try to erect rules or maintain prohibitions on the basis of a "nature" that has long since been transcended. Man’s very nature is to exist, that is to say, to go out of himself, and in the course of this he learns to take over from crude nature and to do in a human (and humane) way what was once accomplished by blind natural forces (both in man and outside of him) working in a rough and ready manner. An obvious example is population control, which need no longer be left to the hazards and diseases of nature without or to the tribal warfares prompted by the aggression of nature within. We have got beyond that kind of nature, and as I claimed in our discussion of man, the pill and the condom are now part of his nature.

But in admitting this, have we not cut away any ground for the other side of our argument concerning natural law? How can natural law provide a kind of criterion for evaluating particular laws? If this natural law is itself variable, can there be any reliable criterion at all? Or is everything reduced to relativism, subjectivism, and pragmatism? of a law but of a direction. So again we have to say that the word "law" is not entirely appropriate to describe the kind of thing traditionally meant by "natural law." What is meant is rather a constant tendency, an inbuilt directedness. To think of nature in dynamic terms is not to abandon all structure and reduce everything to flux. Although we talk much nowadays about change-and some people even talk about the "celebration of change"—it need hardly be said that change can be for the worse as well as for the better. The only kind of change we might want to celebrate would be change for the better. Teilhard de Chardin uses the expression "genesis as a more precise way of saying what is meant. "In Teilhard’s mind," writes Christopher Mooney, "we are not simply face to face with ‘change’ in the world but with ‘genesis,’ which is something quite differ....... The word applies to any form of production involving successive stages oriented toward some goal." 34

The movement that is envisaged, whether we are thinking of human nature or of cosmic nature, is a movement with direction, an ordered movement. But the movement in the cosmos is very different from the movement in man. The first kind of movement is unconscious evolution; the second has become a conscious moral striving. This corresponds to the difference between "laws of nature" and "natural law" in an ethical sense. 35 We should be quite clear that what we are talking about has nothing to do with the doctrine of an automatic progress of the human race, or with any complacent optimism. As soon as the transition is made from natural evolution to man’s responsible self-development, the movement becomes subject to the risks of moral choice and to the actual reversals of sin. It is not like the unfolding of an oak from an acorn. This is something that happens, but in the case of man’s development, it is a question about what ought to happen. At least in general terms, we know where we ought to be going, and we experience guilt when we go in some other direction. We know where we ought to be going because to exist as a human being is to exist with a self-understanding. This is an understanding both of who we are and of who we might become. It involves an image which summons us. To employ theological language for a moment, we might speak of the imago Dei both as fundamental endowment and as ultimate goal. Natural law is, as it were, the pointer within us that orients us to the goal of human existence. Actual rules, laws, and prohibitions are judged by this "unwritten law" in accordance with whether they promote or impede the movement toward fuller existence. Natural law changes, in the sense that the precepts we may derive from it change as human nature itself changes, and also in the sense that man’s self-understanding changes as he sharpens his image of mature manhood. But through the changes there remains the constancy of direction.

This dynamic understanding of natural law is already implicit in St. Thomas’ talk about the rational creature’s having "a natural inclination to its proper act and end," while his awareness of the difference between a merely natural development in the world and man’s conscious self-development is shown by his acute observation about the difference between a general providence in the world and the creature which has become itself provident. 36

The directedness of moral striving has a constancy which prevents any lapse into sheer relativism. Even the relativisms of actual historical moral codes have often been exaggerated. Patrick NowellSmith claims that the more we study moral codes, the more we find that they do not differ in major principles. 37 All have the same direction, as it were. They aim at the development of a fuller, richer, more personal manhood, and to this extent they are in accord with and give expression to the natural law.

The Christian, we have seen, defines mature manhood in terms of Jesus Christ, and especially his self-giving love. But Christ himself is no static figure, nor are Christians called to imitate him as a static model. Christ is an eschatological figure, always before us; and the doctrine of his coming again "with glory" implies that there are dimensions of christhood not manifest in the historical Jesus and not yet fully grasped by the disciples. Thus discipleship does not restrict human development to some fixed pattern, but summons into freedoms, the full depth of which is unknown, except that they will always be consonant with self-giving love.

But the "natural" understanding of morality leads to conclusions not far from those of the Christian. For if man’s nature is to exist, then he exists most fully when he goes out of himself. Here we strike upon the paradox of the moral life, perceived in many traditions-that the man who would "save" his life, that is to say, preserve it as a static possession, actually loses it, whereas the man who is prepared to venture out beyond himself and even to empty himself attains the truest selfhood. 38

The discussion of this article, focusing on the concept of natural law, suggests that there is no conflict between the ideals of a Christian ethic and the moral ideals to be found in humanity at large. Rather, there is a fundamental similarity. Christianity does not establish a new or different morality, but it makes concrete, clarifies, and, above all, focuses on a particular person, Jesus Christ, the deepest moral convictions of men. Christ declared he was fulfilling the law, not abolishing it. 39 According to W. D. Davies, even the so-called "antitheses" in the Sermon on the Mount (those passages in which Christ explicitly contrasts his own moral teaching with that of the Mosaic law) do not annul the law but carry it to "its utmost meaning. 40 It is obvious that this view of the matter agrees very closely with the one expounded here. Christian moral teaching is an unfolding of the "natural" morality of all men.

What for want of a better name has usually been called "natural law" is still a very useful concept. We have seen that it provides a firm basis for moral cooperation and community between Christians and non-Christians. We have seen further that natural law, even if it is not explicitly interpreted in theistic terms, nevertheless allows us to see moral obligation in a new depth, as ontologically founded. It safeguards against moral subjectivism and encourages moral seriousness by locating the demand of moral obligation in the very way things are.


1. Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: S.C.M. Press, 1966), pp. 382—96.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, tr. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 222—23.

3. See p. 40.

4. Ephesians 4:13.

5. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 1, tr. Cornelius Ernst, OP. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd; Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), p. 184.

6. David Jenkins, The Glory of Man (London: S.C.M. Press; New York: Scribner, 1967).

7. Ibid., p. 79

8. Cf. Hebrews 1:3.

9. Matthew 13:45—46.

10. Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (London: S.C.M. Press, 1953), p. 86.

11. Lehmann, op cit., p. 148.

12. See Three Issues in Ethics, pp. 119 if.

13. Cf. Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature (London: Cambridge University Press, 1940).

14. Theodosius Dobzhansky,The Biology of Ultimate Concern (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. 86.

15. Werner Jaeger,The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers,tr. E. S. Robinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 36.

16. Ibid., pp. 115—16. Translation of Heraclitus from Jaeger.

17. Rhetoric. I, 10. Translation from The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 1359.

18. Cicero, De Republica. III, 22—23. Translation from John Salmond, Jurisprudence (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1930), p. 28.

19. Summa Theologiae, Il/I, 91, 2. Translation from Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. A.C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), Vol. II, p. 750.

20. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I, vii,3 (London: J. M. Dent, Everyman’s Library, 1907), Vol. I, pp. 176—77.

21. John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: A. & C. Black, 1958). p. 70.

22. Vernon J. Bourke, "Natural Law," A Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. John Macquarrie (London: S.C.M. Press; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 224—25.

23. Sophocles, Antigone, 450—57. Translation from The Complete Greek Drama, ed. Whitney J. Qates and Eugene O’Neill (New York: Random House, 1938), Vol I, p. 434.

24. Acts 5:29.

25. E. L. Mascall, He Who Is (London: Darton, Loagman & Todd, new edition, 1966), p. 122.

26. Ian Henderson, Power without Glory: A Study in Ecumenical Politics (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967), pp. 94—95.

27. See p. 95.

28. Bun, op cit., p. 14.

29. It may be noted that both Buri and Bultmann in their writing seem to come near to interpreting the meaning of the word "God" as that unconditioned or ultimate element which we experience in the awareness of moral obligation. This seems to reverse the traditional procedure, by deriving an understanding of God from morality rather than morality from an idea of God.

30. Summa Theologiae, II/I, 94, 1.

31. See Three Issues in Ethics, p. 37.

32. Herbert Richardson has recently claimed that the Sabbath does belong to natural law, because it is related to the creation story and the "rest" of the seventh day. "This explanation of the commandment must be interpreted as implying that the Sabbath is binding not only upon Israel but also upon all other creatures. ... it is in the same category as the commandment not to murder—it is a universal moral law." Toward an American Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). p. 114.

33. David Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1930), p. 19.

34. Christopher Mooney, Tellhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (London: Collins, 1966), p. 51.

35. See p. 92.

36. See p. 94.

37. Patrick Nowell-Smith, Ethics (London: Penguin Books, 1954), p.

38. Cf. Mark 8:35.

39. Matthew 5:17.

40. W. D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 29.