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Fr. Michael Butler: Orthodoxy and Natural Law

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Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler gave an engaging lecture on the subject of Orthodoxy and natural law. Despite the contemporary ambivalence among many Orthodox (if not hostility) toward natural law, Fr. Michael argues that it is present in the Eastern Tradition from the ancient to the medieval and modern periods, focusing especially on the thought of the seventh century Byzantine Saint Maximus the Confessor.

A few months ago, I observed,

While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not.

Fr. Michael’s research further strengthens this statement and helpfully highlighted some of the similarities and differences between natural law in St. Maximus and that in Aquinas. The audio of his lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I will briefly share some of Fr. Michael’s insights here. It’s a little heady, but worth consideration.

For St. Maximus, the natural law, written law, and the spiritual law or law of grace are all revelations of the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. The natural law teaches the Golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. The written law teaches to love your neighbor as yourself. And the law of grace teaches to love your neighbor more than yourself.

The natural law is given in creation, the written law in the Scriptures, and the spiritual law in Christ himself, who is the Logos of God incarnate. The natural law is rooted in the self differentiation of the Logos (the divine Reason by which the world was made) as many logoi (or ordering principles) in all created things by which they take their form and are guided to their purpose.

This brings up one distinction. Rather than divine ideas located in God, the natural law is rooted in the self-differentiations of the Logos, who remains one in himself, in creation. This is a rather technical philosophical and theological difference, though not for that unimportant. However, it does not impede the great similarities between St. Maximus and Aquinas in both theory and practice.

Fr. Michael gave a list of seven overlapping convictions about natural law, which I will reproduce here from his course notes:

Th Aq: Natural law is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.
Max Conf: Natural law is participation in the Logos via the logoi.

Th Aq: All men know truth to a certain extent.
Max Conf: Natural law is evident to all without instruction.

Th Aq: Principles of natural law pertain to practical reason.
Max Conf: Principles of natural law pertain to natural reason [which is the same as practical for him].

Th Aq: First principle of natural law is “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.”
Max Conf: First principle of natural law is the Golden Rule.

Th Aq: Natural law includes pursuing knowledge and living in society.
Max Conf: Natural law includes pursuing knowledge and living in society.

Th Aq: Virtue is natural to man and natural law is the same for everyone.
Max Conf: Virtue is natural to man and exists in everyone equally [presumably in potentia].

Th Aq: There is some variance in [human] laws derived from the general natural laws.
Max Aq: Failure to discern the logoi in creation turns the natural law into the law of the flesh or of sin.

Fr. Michael helpfully pointed to natural law in later Orthodox writers as well, such as St. John of Damascus (eighth century), St. Elias the Presbyter (twelfth century), St. Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century), Vladimir Solovyov (nineteenth century), Stanley Harakas (present day) and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (present day), among others.

The inclusion of St. Gregory Palamas on this list might be surprising to some, but Fr. Michael pointed to his teaching on conscience in this context. This makes sense, however, given St. John Chrysostom’s teaching on the subject: “when God formed man, he implanted within him from the beginning a natural law.” He goes on:

And what then was this natural law? He gave utterance to conscience within us; and made the knowledge of good things, and of those which are the contrary, to be self-taught.

The teachings of natural law, known through the conscience, are furthermore connected with the basic teachings of the Ten Commandments in yet another parallel to the Thomist tradition. Thus, since at least St. John Chrysostom, if not St. Paul (see Romans 2:15), natural law has been connected with the witness of conscience and the commands of the Decalogue in the Orthodox Tradition. When later writers, such as St. Gregory Palamas, comment on the conscience we should not be surprised to find once again a testimony to an Eastern affirmation of natural law.

Much more can be said on such an important and involved topic, but for now I would commend my readers to stay tuned to Ancient Faith Radio for the audio of Fr. Michael’s lecture.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Fr Michael B


    Thanks for the great summary and write up. I would clarify one of the points I made.

    You noted St Maximus’s statements that virtue is natural to man and exists in everyone equally, and then you add [presumably in potentia]. Most people would think virtues exist in us all in potency, but in fact Maximus says the opposite: virtue is natural to all of us and exists in all of us to the same degree, not potentially but actually. Here is the whole section of the exchange from the Disputation with Pyrrhus where his discussion on natural virtue takes place:

    PYR. What? The virtues are natural?

    MAX. Yes, they are natural.

    PYR. If they are natural, why does not everyone have them to the same degree?

    MAX. They do exist in the same degree in everyone who has the same nature.

    PYR. Then why is there such a great disparity between us?

    MAX. Because we do not all put into operation to the same degree what is natural to us. For if everyone put into operation what is natural – as we were created to do – then there would appear in all not only one nature, but also one virtue, not susceptible to more or less.

    PYR. If what is natural in us does not proceed from askesis [asceticism] but from creation, and virtue is natural, why do we acquire virtues through toil and askesis, seeing that they are natural?

    MAX. Askesis, and the toils that go with it, was devised by the lovers of virtue for the sole purpose of purging the seduction that sensation introduced into the soul, not to introduce virtues de novo from the outside, for they are in us by creation, as we said. Therefore, as soon as seduction has been perfectly dispersed, immediately the soul exhibits the brilliance of its natural virtue. For the one who is not a fool is wise, the one who is not cowardly or rash is courageous, the one who is not lusty is temperate, and the one who is not unjust is just. In accordance with nature, reason is wisdom, judgement is justice, the irascible is courage, and the concupiscible is temperance. When we take away what is contrary to nature, that which is according to nature – and that alone – is wont to appear, just as when rust is removed, the natural gleam and brilliance of iron appears.

    I hope that helps to clarify Maximus’s thought. Thanks again for all your work during Acton U.

    May Paradise consume us.

    (V Rev) Michael Butler

  • RogerMcKinney

    Very interesting. It seems there are three laws, natural, conscience and revelation. They should all agree on the major points, though revelation would have preeminence. Natural law and conscience can fill in where revelation is silent. It seems they are three approaches to one objective.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Well, yes, assuming I follow you. I think most fathers would, like St. John Chrysostom, equate conscience and natural law. All three laws (natural, written, spiritual) are forms of revelation, but the nature of that revelation varies by degree (Golden rule, love your neighbor as yourself, love your neighbor more than yourself) and form (creation, Scripture, Incarnation). That does not, of course, rule out any overlap between them.

    • Isa Almisry

      “Natural law and conscience can fill in where revelation is silent.”

      Maybe it is silent for a reason-to shut the Pharisee impulse up.

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  • Fr Michael B

    You got it.

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  • Todd Moore

    I am a bit late to this discussion, but I thought it might be relevant to offer one suggestion as we consider natural law. Though I am not disagreeing with the notion in general, I wanted to offer the suggestion that St. Paul, by his reference to “Gentiles” in Romans 2 and especially by what he has observed about them, is more likely referring to his Gentile Christian converts, who have the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Romans 2 reference can be explained by his later statement in Romans 8:1-4

    “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
    For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
    For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
    in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

    Romans 2:14-15 fits neatly into St. Paul’s argument of vs 13-16 (which forms a chiastic structure -see below)

    a. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

    b. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

    b’ They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

    a’ on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

    a. God’s Future Judgment
    b. Righteous Requirement of the Law Fulfilled Gentile Christian’s in the Present
    b’ Righteous Requirement of the Law Fulfilled Gentile Christian’s in the Present
    a’ God’s Future Judgment