Christian Cyclopedia

About the Cyclopedia

Natural Law

(Lat. lex naturalis). 1. Term used in various senses and more or less synonymous with “natural justice” (ius [jus] naturae, ius [jus] naturale), the “law of nations” (ius [jus] gentium), and “natural rights.”

2. The concept of natural law was first developed by early Stoics, but the term was coined by later (Roman) Stoics (see Stoicism). Over against those who held that all laws of men are but the product of utility and convention, the Stoics, following Socrates* and Aristotle,* asserted that behind all changing laws of man is the changeless law of nature. They believed that nature has a rational basis and that human reason is a reflection of this rationality. They concluded that, by thinking rationally, man can know not only what is but also what ought to be. The content of natural law, they believed, is deducible from those rules of conduct that are similar among widely separated peoples. This concept of natural law was further developed by Roman jurists and embodied in the Institutes of Justinian* I (supplements to the Code of Theodosius* II). Roman jurists considered natural law the basis of civil law but rarely put it into practice. They called on it to supplement civil law but never invoked it to invalidate laws in conflict with natural law (e.g., those governing property rights and slavery).

3. Ch. fathers, esp. Lat., some of whom were deeply influenced by Roman law, shared this concept of natural law but identified it with the primitive natural revelation of God in man's heart, the innate knowledge of right and wrong, and regarded it as evidence of the truth of Ro 2:14–15.

4. This concept was further developed, but not fundamentally modified, by medieval thinkers. Thomas* Aquinas divided all law into 4 classes: (1) eternal law (exists only in the mind of God); (2) divine law (part of eternal law and directly revealed to men); (3) natural law (discernible by human reason and the knowledge of which has been moving from the imperfect to the perfect); (4) human law (implementation of natural law within the changing situations of life). But such thinking remained essentially speculative and had little or no practical effect on the development of law and govt.

5. Not till modern times was the concept of natural law implemented by pol. action. In fact, this concept more than any other supplied philos. justification for the great revolutionary movements that have marked Western civilization since the 17th c. The Prot. Reformation gen. accepted the patristic view of natural law. M. Luther* and P. Melanchthon* followed Augustine* of Hippo in regarding the decalog as the directly revealed codification of natural law. But the Renaissance, esp. in its humanistic aspects, deemphasized the divine and overemphasized the purely rational character of natural law. As a result, in the age of reason (see Age of Reason, 2) the concept of natural law was pressed into service as the ideological basis of “natural rights,” the “social contract” (see Government), constitutional govt. based on the consent of the governed, and the right of revolution. In one form or another this is the view of T. Hobbes,* J. Locke,* T. Jefferson (see Deism, III, 1; V), T. Paine,* and J. J. Rousseau.* The most typical and pol. effective expressions of this view are the Am. Declaration of Independence and the Fr. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (see France, 11). Early 19th-c. individualistic, liberal, democratic thought and action were largely the fruits of this concept.

6. The concept of natural law has been under increasing attack, esp. from 2 quarters: (1) the hist. school of jurisprudence regards law as nothing more than a product of hist. development; (2) positive soc. scientists regard law as nothing more than a result of personal and soc. relationships. Writers who profess to have rediscovered the spiritual and teleological character of the universe support the concept of natural law.

7. In Luth. theol., natural law is a remnant of the knowledge with which man was created. Because man's awareness of natural law was obscured by sin, God gave man the decalog and elaborated on it in the Bible. Acc. to the principle of sola* scriptura, the law from within (subjective morality) must be interpreted in light of the law from without (objective morality). WB

G. W. Paton, A Text-Book of Jurisprudence, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1951); R. W. Carlyle and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, 6 vols. (New York, 1903–36); K. G. Stöckhardt, Commentar über den Brief Pauli an die Römer (St. Louis, 1907).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

Internet Version Produced by
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
Concordia Publishing House
All rights reserved.

Content Reproduced with Permission

Stay Connected! Join the LCMS Network:

Contact Us Online
(Staff Switchboard)
(Church Info Center)
1333 S Kirkwood Rd
Saint Louis, MO 63122-7226 | Directions


Featured Publication

The Lutheran Witness

LCMS Communications

Interpreting the contemporary world from a Lutheran Christian perspective.
Visit TLW Online