This page provides a range of key resources on natural law. Most, but not all, of these are available online (some though requiring a subscription to be accessed).
The opening section refers to articles in dictionaries and readers and then material relating to Scripture and natural law are offered. The next section looks at Aquinas on natural law. The final section points to contemporary discussions in different Christian traditions.Last Updated on 10 March, 2021 by Andrew Goddard
Dictionary Articles & Readers
- “Natural Law” in IVP Dictionary, pp. 619-21.
- “Natural Law” in SCM Dictionary, pp. 412-14
- “Natural Law” by James T. Bretzkein The Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics
- “Natural Law” by Adrian Hastings in Oxford Companion to Christian Thought
- “Natural Law” by Gerard J. Hughes in Bernard Hoose, Christian Ethics, An Introduction.
- Stephen Pope, “Reason and Natural Law” in Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, pp. 148-64. An exploration by leading Roman Catholic moral theologian, Stephen Pope, of the relationship between natural law and reason and some of the scholarly debates in recent moral theology.
- Stephen Pope, “Natural Law and Christian Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, pp. 67-86. A short extract from this is here summarising common objections to natural law and some responses.
Scholars debate as to whether there is anything similar to appeals to natural law evident in the biblical texts. Among the key texts are Rom 1.19-21; 2.14-15; Mt 7.11; Mk 10.1-9; Jer 8.7; Amos 1.3ff and commentaries on these, especially Romans, may be helpful.
On the possible OT basis for NL see the work of John Barton, such as
“Divine Commands or Natural Law ?” in Barton, John. Ethics and the Old Testament, pp. 58-76.
“The Basis of Ethics in the Hebrew Bible” in his Understanding Old Testament Ethics, chpt 3 (esp pp. 48-50). Chapters 2 and 6 also touch on this.
A major recent defender of a biblical basis for natural law from a Reformed Protestant perspective is David Van Drunen. His short discussion (59pp) is A Biblical case for natural law. (2012, Grand Rapids, MI : Acton Institute). This summarises Divine covenants and moral order: a biblical theology of natural law. (2014, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans). Van Drunen offers his own short overview of that book here.
Another short guide focussed on Scripture is David Haines & Andrew Fulford. Natural law : a brief introduction and biblical defense. (2017, New York : Davenant Press). Fulford’s arguments, especially with reference to Scripture, can be read online in a number of blog posts – Introduction, OT, Extra-canonical Jewish literature, NT, Conclusion.
Aquinas on Natural Law
Aquinas is the classic text and worth trying to understand, especially Summa Theologiae (ST) Ia IIae, qq 90-94 (if very keen you may want to look at whole section on law, qq90-97). This covers the essence of law (q90), the different kinds of law (q91), the effects of law (q92), the eternal law (q93), and the natural law (q94).
Links to the text of the relevant questions in both original Latin and in English are here. An alternative, recent transation by Alfred J. Freddoso is online for q90, q91, q92, q93 and q94 and there is also Timothy McDermott (ed), Summa theologiae: A summary translation (pp. 280-307 gives a summary translation of key text in ST)
Helpful secondary reading on Aquinas on natural law would include:
- Alfred J. Freddoso (recent translator of the treatise on the law) who offers a summary of the treatise on law questions 90-94.
- William May, Introduction to Moral Theology (2nd edn), Chpt 3 (pp. 71-86)
- Stephen Pope, The Ethics of Aquinas, especially Kossell article pp. 169-93.
A helpful short introduction advocating a natural law ethic by Claire Brown Peterson and 3 responses critiquing that position can be found in Christian Ethics: Four Views, chapter 2. Peterson also offers “natural law” responses to the other three views which shows how a natural law advocate relates to those. A summary of each of the views in the book can be found in a series of blogs including the chapter on natural law but do try to read the chapter itself!
An overview which is more philosophical and legal in focus by the leading Roman Catholic philosopher and New Natural Law theorist, John Finnis, can be found at Natural Law Theories.
For contemporary Roman Catholic thinking in the Thomist tradition look at:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (Chapman 1994), pp. 425-432 [Pt 3, Chpt 3, Article 1, 1949-86].
- Germain Grisez & Russell Shaw, Fulfillment in Christ: A Summary of Christian Moral Principles (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), pp. 38-85. Grisez’s work is discussed helpfully in May, Introduction to Moral Theology, Chpt 3 (pp. 93-118)
- Stephen Pope, “Natural Law in Catholic Social Teachings” shows how this works out in practice – it summarises the ancient and medieval origins of natural law thinking, especially Aquinas (pp 41-45), the rise of modern law (pp 45-48), a more detailed and less relevant discussion of papal teachings relating natural law to society (pp 48-60) and a summary of more recent teaching such as new natural law (pp 60-63) before applying natural law to contemporary social questions (pp 63-66).
- Kevin Flannery, “The Natural Law in Catholic Ethics” in Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology, pp. 388-401.
For Protestant approaches and debates look at –
- Carl E. Braaten, “Protestants and Natural Law”. See also his “Reclaiming the Natural Law for Theological Ethics” and the response to this offering a Lutheran critique of natural law (with reference to sexuality debates) by Ryan P. Cumming.
- Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, pp. 51-64 offers a critique of natural law from a major narrative/virtue ethicist with a very helpful summary of his objections at the end.
- J. Daryl Charles (author of a book and number of articles defending natural law) – Protestant Bias Against the Natural Law: A Critique. There is also an audio of a lecture by him on natural law and the Protestant Reformation.
- A review article of three recent books on Protestants and natural law – Natural Law and Protestantism: A Review Essay – by Jordan J. Ballor
- Stephen Grabill, author of a major thesis on the history of Protestant views of natural law (excellent review of published book of thesis by Daryl Charles here) has two helpful short overview articles:
- David Van Drunen summarises the heart of his arguments in a number of works (see above under Scripture) in Why Protestant Christianity Needs a Theology of Natural Law
For Anglican perspectives see:
- W.J. Torrance Kirby, “Richard Hooker’s Theology of Natural Law in the Context of Reformation Theology” – A major scholarly article exploring Hooker on natural law in relation to wider Reformation approaches to natural law
- Oliver O’Donovan “The Natural Ethic” in Wright, David F. Essays in Evangelical Social Ethics, pp. 19-35 and especially his Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 85-87. This is a reworking of the natural law tradition from an evangelical perspective.
- Stephen Holmgren, Ethics After Easter, Ch 3, pp. 41-60 offers another Anglican perspective.