Thomistic Distinctions

The medieval canon lawyers placed the natural law in divine revelation as testified to in the two Testaments of Scripture. Thomas Aquinas, while not denying the position of the canonists, placed the natural law in creation itself. Aquinas distinguishes between the divine law found in Holy Scripture, and the natural law found in creation. This distinction is an important one. By placing the natural law in Scripture, its reach is limited to a particular time and place. However, if the natural law is placed within creation itself, this particular imprint of God on the human person is and has been available to the whole human race in every age.

Note, then, that whereas for the canonists the Scriptures are the first location of the natural law, for Thomas, of course, without denying the ultimate origin of the ius naturale in God, the order of nature has been distinguished from revelation, and, so far as we are concerned, is the first locus of the natural law. We might say that the canonists’ conception was more dominantly theological or undifferentiated, and in this sense we can see that Thomas’s view allows for a universe in which a natural order has sufficient integrity to be read by man without immediate recourse to revelation.

Far from unlinking natural law from the God of revelation, however, Thomas’s distinction between divine law and the natural law brings to full articulation an idea that had long been developing, namely that the path to holiness revealed in Scripture is not a positivistic decree only fideists can accept, but has a purchase on the inner rational structure of human nature. Thomas’s account of the relation between natural and divine law, it seems to me, reveals its deepest meaning when read against the background of his doctrine, rediscovered in our day by Henri de Lubac, that nature, as such, desires a fullness that it can attain only within the context of gracious elevation to the visio beatifica.

— Glenn W. Olsen, “Natural Law: The First Grace,” Communio XXXV (Fall 2008)

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2 Responses to “Thomistic Distinctions”


  1. 1 peacefulrevolution May 12, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    I like it. If I read correctly, Thomas is saying we’re all responsible before God for being good and doing the right thing, and God expects this of all of us, not just those who are fortunate enough to have had access to the Bible.

    “The natural law is found in Creation”. This is pretty much what Paul says in Romans. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities .. have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse .. Indeed, when gentiles (non-jews)who do not have the law (ten commandments etc.) do do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves .. since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” Romans 1:20, 2:14,15.

    Our beautiful planet tells us God is good, and our consciences tell us (or should!) that we ought to be kind to our fellow human beings and all creatures.

    Have I interpreted the post correctly.. or over-simplified it?

    • 2 Mark May 13, 2009 at 5:59 am

      Now, I am no Thomist or an expert on natural law, but that’s what I got out of it. If natural law is placed within revelation then it’s reach is limited. Then what does this mean for those before Christ who had not the law or the prophets or those who never heard of Christ? Are they “out of luck” simply due to their geographical location? Or are all of their sins excusable? This seems ludicrous to me. There has to be a place for a natural knowledge of God and good and moral behavior, even if we cannot put the natural law on par with the divine law (i.e. revelation).


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