Natural and Revealed Law

This examines the historical context in which we may view Old Testament Law.

Is the Law in the Old Testament simply something commanded by God in special revelation to Israel or does it have some connection with some innate sense of right and wrong, given to society?

A medieval theology class with Duns Scotus

If you had sat in a theology class at the time of Duns Scotus you may have been asked to answer something like the following:

Do all of the commandments of the Decalogue (Ten Commandment) belong to the law of nature?

The point of the question might be to ask if we need the special revelation of the Laws of Moses or if we have some other means of knowing what is right or wrong built into our make- up.

We today recognise that cultures before Israel and others far removed from the time and place of Israel have produced written or oral laws to govern society, to govern relationships and to deal with things that may be disruptive to the social groups. Law codes and morality have developed specifically in different locations but this possibly points to some sense of moral reasoning and order that developed in human consciousness and social groups. (See also article on Moral and Eco Man). In this respect something of moral values and laws have arisen naturally. Or is it the case that God has given something to human consciousness in our development as an intelligent species with the ability to choose one behaviour or another?

Two examples of “natural law” (non – scriptural law)

  • The Code of Hammurabi

As a first example of a possibly naturally developed code outside of the OT laws we should consider briefly one of the most famous ancient law codes; the Law of Hammurabi. It dates from about 1754BC, about 500 years before Moses.

There are laws relating to theft and the punishments for such acts. This seems to be common feature of many law codes down to the present day. There is a sense that there is some self- evident right to acquire things from one’s labours and that those who take it away without payment have trespassed in their social relationship. The punishment for many kinds of theft and other crimes, and especially murder, included the death penalty. The law code also included the punishment for violence against a person. Again this seems to have become a self-evident ethic that the individual has some right to their life and that injury or death is to be accounted for. The origin of such a penalty in society is hard to trace. It was perhaps as an attempt at a supreme penalty to act as a deterrent for various crimes to underline the severity of the wrong that had been committed. It is only in the last 100 years in western society that the death penalty has been seen as something that is no longer fitting even in extreme cases and should be abolished.

The law code put forward regulations a  with respect to paying for a bride, and the circumstances that may prevail in the case of death or illness, and the taking of new wives. There were severe punishments for adultery, often with the death penalty. The code had a strongly patriarchal and stratified element. While women and slaves had certain rights there is a strong element of male power and ownership

Added to these are laws against false testimony and false witness, lying and false accusations, trying to subvert the law.

 Native American moral traditions

My research into this found a very different society far away from Middle Eastern origin. The native people of course had moral codes, oral rather than written, that allowed the functioning of society, albeit along different lines to Europeans.

It appears that most restrictions and punishments rested on communal effects of shame and honour. There were sanctions related to ridicule and hence the avoidance of shame. It worked well in societies of closely knit groups where people knew each other and needed each other and hence the need to remain part of the community for survival and individual flourishing. Banishment was an ultimate punishment rather than death, which was considered humane, with the possibility of return. It was possibly an ultimate sanction because in fact the banished person, cut off from family and support was in a very dangerous situation trying to survive in the wild.

Betrayal of the family group, or clan was considered a form of treason and in this case was a reason for the death penalty. However occasions for the death penalty were extreme situations.

Murder in most societies is a serious crime.  The whole clan of the offender bore the responsibility and hence this has a restraining factor since the offender had also to answer to their own family or clan for their actions.  Thus native people were able impose law and order without resorting to the death penalty. All parties acknowledged the crime and allowed for a means of atonement or reparation. It was a communal recognition of wrong and communal responsibility to put things right.

Historical Contexts

 From these two instances of different types of law in society it shows that humanity has developed laws in the very varied context of their situations. Much of Old Testament scholarship now also tells us that it is probable that the “Laws of Moses” were not all a sudden revelation within a few years but were further developed over the centuries that followed in adaption to new situations and we must take this into consideration whenever we think of the revelation of the law.

A view from Duns Scotus

My full examination of DS on this issue is not complete. Meantime I include here a consideration of Scotus own answer the question posed at the beginning as it occurs in Ordinatio

Do all of the commandments of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) belong to the law of nature?

He states that the natural law in the strict sense contains only those moral propositions that are self-evident along with whatever propositions can be derived from them by logic and reason. He also points out that if humanity existed in a state of innocence then no law would be needed because the person does what they should. To put it another way, in a perfectly developed society where people live with a far more powerful desire to be beings of love it would be perfectly “natural” not to have any prohibitions because none would be needed. Humans have created Law to cover our own self-evident failures and to limit the damage done to society by those who transgress particular boundaries of what is felt acceptable.

Scotus states there are necessary truths (from God) that we know and the natural law in the strict sense does not depend on God’s will but on what we already know to be right. It is for this reason that all the Ten Commandments are according to Natural Law because they are self-evidently right and society could have arrived at them by our own interior knowledge. There are things in the God’s law that are self- evidently to promote goodness and evidently protect from evil and they are quite reasonable and could derive from the self- evidently good of society. We have already seen that many societies have laws against theft, murder, adultery and false witness that are contained in the Decalogue.

I have an objection to this in that it seems to me that if Israel could have arrived at these laws “naturally” then why did God have to use Moses to reveal them and others to the people of Israel? Of course having a sense of law does not make a person obey it and perhaps that both underlines the need of law and some special statement of it as a controlling element. Knowing what we should do does not always make us do it. In another place Scotus writes of two directions for our wills towards God’s doing God’s Justice or doing our own self –will. Self –concern and selfish motives may overcome any other sense of interior right or wrong.

Scotus thinks that the commandment to love God and have no other god’s is “natural”, so also with the Sabbath Day commands. To which I would reply that granted that people might regulate natural times of freedom from labour. Yet it was not evident to Israel they should “love” their God completely until after God had already revealed Himself in special ways. The Decalogue is spoken to Moses and the people after the acts of deliverance from bondage in Egypt and other signs and wonders in the desert. Loving God, revealed as Lover and Redeemer, may be self-evident after revelation of God’s nature as their loving patron, but not before, when surrounded by many other transcendent powers and options for worship. “God is to be loved” only makes sense after the revelation that God is Love and does not occur naturally.  The Decalogue and the other laws of Moses (and all other later developed law) are recorded and recalled later in the very knowledge of the past history of Israel as very often disobedient to what were the transmitted and recorded laws of God. People did make other choices of deity and worship of other powers that seemed to shape their lives. There were other choices of deity to be chosen and we have to see this as something related to historical and ever present decisions as to whom we will love and give our allegiance to.

Scotus is restricting himself in this question to a discussion of the Decalogue and thinks it is all natural. As we have seen with the human relationship related commands this seems right. But I wonder what Scotus would have written about the commands in Leviticus 25 about the release of slaves and the remission of debts, the leaving parts of the fields to the foreigner that lived among them etc. It seems to me that such laws may not be “natural” at all in a stratified society with human acquisitive instincts. To me such laws only make sense after the prior revelation of God who is lover and redeemer and on the side of those who are in bondage and have the least. Such laws came by way of special revelation given to individuals for the sake of the whole and they may not be “natural” at all. I am not saying that societies could not arrive at such laws in a natural way but is does to make more sense in the light of revelation from a God who is one who drops debts against Him, wants each to have their dignity and place in life and that none should be in bondage to another, and something of love that also transcends tribal boundaries. It is becomes self-evident that such laws are good after the revelation has already taken place, but not before. Jewish Law and indeed Christian view of Law only makes its truest sense in the light of what God does and reveals and is not seen as binding commitments outside of the communities of faith. It seems to me that the truest and best law only occurs in the light of revelation and not without it. Otherwise human law may be utilitarian or just an expression of what this or that society believes to be true for itself.

A view from Bonaventure

From what I have read Bonaventure seems to have a different approach to Natural and Divine law, based upon a belief of the inner endowment of our reason but also God’s giving of His law externally in revelation. According to Bonaventure God has provided us with certain powers of the mind by which we can know and examine the world. On the one hand we can recognise that Truth is the Truth, and we may discern the Truth because by our natural abilities. We can see that something is good or bad. But on the other hand our minds are changeable and we can be misled by our minds to satisfy our selfish desires. We have a power to know the good, but may equally be misled away from it.

There is an Eternal Law of God that is the ultimate measure of all human activity. This Eternal Law is not some arbitrary set of standards but is part of God’s reasonable plan for the entire cosmos and flows from Perfect goodness. All the Law flows from the Divine Intellect. Even those without our specific Jewish-Christian revelations may know something of what is right and good from reason and from an inner sense. This has some relation to what Scotus says of some inner natural sense, and as we have seen has some manifestation of some law making in ancient societies and from societies far removed from Middle Eastern law codes. We may also consider that St Paul writes in Romans 1 that God has revealed things to all humanity about the way they should be. There is a general revelation to the whole of humanity in various ways. Indeed if we hold that the Word that comes in Jesus Christ was already the Eternal Word that has always enlightened humanity, then we see that the Word of Law given on Sinai and other parts of the Old Testament is also part of what is given to all people. There is continuum between the special revelation and the general revelation because it is the same Word expressing the Eternal Law.

It follows also that despite some inner potential of an inner sense of law the written and revealed Law in scripture is that which is revealed to make even more explicit and more certain God’s eternal will and plans for our lives and the entire cosmos. In other words God has supplemented our inner potential sense of the right and goodness with His special revelation, because we need it because of our waywardness. We need the more explicit divine revelation (through Moses, the prophets and Christ etc) because our inward tendencies are flawed and natural laws- originating in the Eternal Law is subverted and obscured. Individuals and society can become self-centred or subverted to powerful interests and distort to law to personal or group advantage. There needs to be some external revelation of the law outside of the normal means of apprehending it.

Back to the original question

Do all of the commandments of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) belong to the law of nature?

Bonaventure does not answer the specific question that Scotus poses but I think that for the moment I slightly favour Bonaventure’s general answer to the relationship between natural and divine laws. God has given a sense of Law in society with our growth in conscious decision making and we may know some level of what is right. However we need God’s special revelation to supplement our inner knowledge, holding before us an even better measure of the Right and the Good, because we are sinners and underdeveloped in our reasoning. We may have some knowledge of Good but we need something greater than us to lead us to greater altruism and God’s goodness. We need the fullest revelation of the Divine Word who is Love that undergirds all the other perceptions of law needed for society. Without it law can become self serving and the manifestation of powerful interest groups, to protect the rights of the strong. God’s revelation is in the opposite direction with the protection of the weak from the tyranny of the strong.


Thy Word conveys to us in various ways in a self and in society that there are laws for our good. They have come down to us through ages and they Love would lead us further on.

Thou most Good and most gracious, knowing our self-concern that twists our inner sense of right and wrong. Thanks be to thee who sets before us a better path that flows from Thy eternal character of love. O that we may know it and walk in it.