Criticizing the Critics

Where I would disagree, however, with Orthodox critics of natural law is the tendency to assume—as does Fr George in his essay—that natural law is (1) derived from empirical, scientific observation alone and that (2) the tendency to assume that the use of reason is somehow opposed or harmful to the life of faith.

Yes, certainly, there are those who have advanced an understanding of natural law that is divorced from Christian faith. And yes, some who have done so are themselves Christians. But I think the Orthodox rejection of natural law is (as I alluded to above) a rejection of a particular understanding of natural law that admittedly has deviated from the biblical and patristic tradition. Again, as so often seems to be the case, it is easy to reject a position if I compare my best to your worst. This I think is what has been done with Orthodox critics of natural law.

Pope John Paul II encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (Latin for “The Splendor of Truth”), offers Orthodox critics a biblically and philosophically sound defense of natural law and its relationship to conscience that would serve as a better touchstone for Orthodox critics of natural law. For example, in his reflection on Matthew 19:17 (“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments”), John Paul writes:

Only God can answer the question about the good, because he is the Good. But God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the “natural law”. The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”. He also did so in the history of Israel, particularly in the “ten words”, the commandments of Sinai, whereby he brought into existence the people of the Covenant (cf. Ex 24) and called them to be his “own possession among all peoples”, “a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6), which would radiate his holiness to all peoples (cf. Wis 18:4; Ez 20:41). The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf. Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf. Jer 17:1). In those days, “a new heart” would be given, for in it would dwell “a new spirit”, the Spirit of God (cf. Ez 36:24-28).

At least as articulated by the late pontiff, natural law is not the fruit of human reason operating in isolation, much less opposition, to divine grace. Rather, it is the product of the mysterious interplay of faith and reason. Natural law is born from the convergence of human freedom and creativity, one the one hand, and divine revelation and grace on the other. If the categories used are not immediately familiar to those trained in Orthodox theology, we nevertheless would do well to follow St Basil’s observation: “Dogma is one thing, kerygma another; the first is observed in silence, while the latter is proclaimed to the world.” (On the Holy Spirit ch. 27(66))

In my next post, I will try and fill in a bit of what I think is the biblical and evangelical character of Christian understanding of natural law.

Until then, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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