How divine law differs from natural law

Those who have followed the Family and Life Academy’s course on natural law and gone straight on to the course on divine law cannot but notice the difference between the disciplines. Having traced the natural law tradition from the Acropolis of Athens to the present day, covering the key theses, antitheses and syntheses of its development and ill-fated abandonment by western thinkers, and the case for its revival in the twenty-first century, we now graduate to the subject of divine law. Having come so far and attained a more or less firm grasp of the relevant philosophical tools, the layman must be humbly disposed to find himself further back than he began — not at the Acropolis, but in Eden — with a whole new set of theological tools to get to grips with, and even more subtle tasks to tackle

For those approaching the divine law course with fresh eyes, Fr Thomas Crean OP began the course lesson with an admirably clear definition of divine law as that category of revelation in which God reveals “how human beings in general, or some particular group of human beings, are to act”.

“We can see straightaway how divine law differs from what we call natural law. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that natural law depends upon “the light of natural reason, by which we discern what is good and what is evil”. For example, by the light of natural reason, we know that we should honour our parents and that we should be loyal to our friends. Natural reason, of course, is itself a gift of God, just as our arms and legs are a gift from God. But natural reason is not revelation; it is just a part of human nature as God originally made it — just as our arms and legs are a part of human nature. Revelation means something that comes to us from God once we have already been constituted as human beings — with arms, legs, natural reason and everything else that goes with being human. Revelation is something additional to human nature; and when God reveals what He wants us to do, we call that divine law.”

Fr Crean explained that, despite these fundamental differences, both natural and divine law have God for their Author, and certain precepts of the natural law are found repeated in divine law — not that they are thus “revealed” but they bear repeating to man’s dull and wounded heart. He illustrated this further with reference to man in the state of original justice.

“God, I think, did not need to reveal to Adam any of the precepts of the natural law … since the light of Adam’s natural reason was perfectly intact, not disturbed by any unruly passions, bad habits or bad examples, and so Adam already knew those things perfectly well. But God gave to Adam a precept that he could not have worked out just by looking at himself, or at the world around him; namely, that he was not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why did God act in this way? One reason is that He has created us for a happiness that far surpasses the powers of our human nature to attain. God has created us for the supernatural happiness of seeing Him as He is, and thus sharing in the joy of the Blessed Trinity. But this supernatural happiness, as the word “supernatural” indicates, is not owed to our nature. God could have created human beings without inviting them to share in His nature and become His sons and daughters. He could have left us as merely rational animals. If He had done that, then we should still have had food and drink, and friendship and music and philosophy; but still, that way of life would have been infinitely remote from sharing God’s friendship and being clothed with His nature, and the very possibility of doing so would probably never even have occurred to us. As St Paul says, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).”

Fr Crean went on to explore why God required man to “acknowledge the gratuity of God’s offer of eternal life by obeying at least one commandment that goes beyond what natural reason itself can see as fitting”. While this condition of our participation in eternal beatitude with God remains ultimately mysterious, the failure of our first parents to meet this condition, and the effects of their fall, are all-too-well known to every human being who has ever lived. 

The questions of mankind’s wounded nature and the supernatural destiny, which God did not revoke after the fall but prepared to restore by means of divine law, were also discussed in some detail by Dr Joseph Shaw in the natural law course, and are emphasised still more by Dr Alan Fimister in his course on parents as primary educators, where they presented in terms of what Pius XI called “the order of providence” and with special reference to man’s social nature. This last point, taken up by Fr Crean, proves to be so crucial to divine law that there is a sense in which there might be no “law” without it.

“A precept or command can be given to just one person, as God gave to Adam the precept not to eat from the tree, whereas by law, strictly speaking, we mean something promulgated for a whole group of people in order to regulate the manner in which they live together, to unite them and lead them all to some end. And it is true that it is only from the time of Moses — so, from the book of Exodus onwards — that we find a divine law in this sense.”

In this way, Fr Crean traced the development of divine law from the precepts given to Noah and the other Patriarchs to what is properly called the old law; that is, the covenant (a term fleshed out with scholarly precision) through which God established Himself in the position of adoptive father of the people of Israel; undertaking, like any parent, the education of His children. “Wherefore,” St Paul says, “the law was our pedagogue in Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). As we also learn from Dr Fimister, this has a social as well as spiritual dimension.

“Why was the law given? It was given to unite the Israelites into a single people, as opposed to just a large number of individuals descended from a single man… In the light of faith, we can say that the law was given to the Israelites in order to prepare them for the coming of the Saviour of the world, the Word made flesh, who was to be born one day as a Son of Israel. Ultimately, the purpose of the law of Moses, as of all divine law, was to bring about a union between God and man.”

In establishing the character of the mosaic law, given firstly to the Israelites who left Egypt and then, through the “second law”, to their children who alone would enter the Promised Land, Fr Crean gave an overview of the general division of these two law-codes into ceremonial, moral and judicial precepts. Thus he concluded the first lesson, promising to explore the law of Moses in greater detail, and in view of particular moral questions, in lesson two.

Having established the foundation in the first two lessons, the rest of the course will be devoted to the new covenant, as exposed by scripture and the tradition of the Church. If the difference between natural law and the divine law-codes of the Old Testament has been so dramatic, it is reasonable to suppose that greatest transformation is still to come. In fact, this was indicated by Fr Crean himself when, at the end of lesson one, he addressed the elephant in the virtual classroom.

“I have not yet said anything about the most important part of divine law, which is not the law of Moses, but rather the new law, which we also call the gospel. The new law is compared to the old law as the perfect to the imperfect, or the adult to the child. As we will see, the new law is not primarily a matter of precepts, even though it does contain some, but rather the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling in our hearts. As St Paul says: ‘The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who is given to us’ (Rom 5:5)But why is that called a law at all, and how does it relate to all the other precepts that God had revealed earlier, or which are part of natural law. Those are questions that will have to wait till another time.”

The course on divine law by Fr Thomas Crean OP continues tomorrow, 1 December 2022, at the Family and Life Academy. Enrol today and catch up with lesson one before joining us live for lesson two at 6pm (UK time).