Francisco Suarez

De Legibus, book 2, chap. 6

Is the natural law truly a preceptive divine law?

1. The statement of the problem. The problem posed by this question arises from the foundation of a previous position laid out in the preceding chapter. The problem was posed there and has not yet been resolved. For as was shown in book 1, there is no proper and preceptive law without an act of will on the part of some lawgiver; but the natural law does not depend on the will of any lawgiver; therefore, it is not properly speaking a law.

The minor premise is proved from what was adduced in chapter 5, namely, that the dictates of natural reason, in which the natural law consists, are intrinsically necessary and independent of any act of will--even a divine and conceptually prior act of will by which that will freely wills something such as that God ought to be worshipped, that parents ought to be honored, that lying is bad and ought to be avoided, etc; therefore, the natural law cannot be called a true law.

This is confirmed as follows: The natural law is not a true precept; therefore, it is not a true law. The antecedent is clear from the fact that the natural law either (a) is a precept that a man gives to himself, and this is not so, because such a precept would be either (i) nothing but a judgment that exhibits the truth regarding some matter or (ii), if it does involve an act of will (that is, a choice) that has already been made, then it is not per se necessary for the operation [of the will] and does not induce an obligation, but instead induces the execution [of the choice], and so it is not sufficient for, and does not contribute to, either the truth of a law or its proper force, or else (b) it is the precept of some superior, and this likewise cannot be said in light of the argument already given; for even if every act of will on the part of a superior has been ruled out, the natural law still dictates what is good or bad.

2. And from this it likewise seems to follow that the natural law cannot be properly called a divine law, that is, it cannot be said to be given by God as a lawgiver.

I say "as a lawgiver" because it is clear that natural reason and its dictates are a divine gift that comes down to us from the Father of Lights. However, it is one thing for this natural law to be from God as a first efficient cause, and another thing for it to be from God as a lawgiver who prescribes and obligates. For the first of these is absolutely certain and part of the Faith--both because (a) God is the first cause of all natural goods, among which a great good is the use and light of natural reason, and also because (b) it is in this way that every manifestation of truth is from God, according to Romans 1:18: "God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the wickedness and perversity of men, who in their perversity hinder God's truth." And explaining why he calls it "God's truth," Paul adds, "For what is known of God is manifest to them, because God has manifested it to them"--namely, through the natural light of reason and through visible creatures, through whom the invisible things of God can be known. Thus, it is in this sense--that is, in the sense of efficient causality and majesty (as I will put it)--that Chrysostom interprets this passage from Paul in homily 3 [on Romans] and, more fully, in Ad populos, homilies 12 and 13. The same holds true for Theophylactus in his commentary on this same passage from Paul; Ambrose (in the same place); Cyril in Contra Julianum, near the end in the paragraph beginning "For the whole ....."; and especially Augustine in De verbo Domini, sermon 55 and in De sermone Domini in monte 2, chap. 9, where he says, "Who but God writes the natural law in the hearts of men?"

So there is no doubt that God is the efficient cause and, as it were, the teacher of the natural law. But it does not follow from this that he is the lawgiver. For the natural law does not involve God as lawgiver, but rather indicates what is good or bad in itself, just as an act of vision directed at a given object indicates that it is white or black, and just as an effect of God's points to God as its author, though not as its lawgiver. This is the way, then, that one should think of the natural law.

3. The first position, which affirms that the natural law is not a properly preceptive law. On this question, the first position is that the natural law is not a properly prescriptive law, because it is not a sign of the will of any superior, but is instead a law that indicates what ought to be done or avoided--that is, what by its own nature is intrinsically good and required or intrinsically bad.

Accordingly, many authors distinguish two sorts of law: one that [merely] indicates and another that prescribes. And they claim that the natural law is a law in the first sense, but not in the second. Thus, in Sentences 2, dist. 34, q. 1, a. 2, Gregory [of Rimini], a little after the beginning of the second corollary, cites Hugo of St. Victor, De sacramentis, lect. 1, pt. 6, chaps. 6 and 7. In this he is followed by Gabriel Biel, Sentences 2, dist. 35, q. 1, a. 1, by Almain in Morales 3, and by Corduba in De conscientia 3, q. 10, ad 2.

As a result, these authors will, it seems, concede that the natural law is not from God as a lawgiver, since it does not depend on God's will; and so with respect to the natural law God does not behave as a superior who prescribes or prohibits. Indeed, Gregory claims--and the others follow him--that even if God did not exist or did not use his reason or did not judge correctly concerning things, nonetheless, if there existed in man the same dictate of right reason--dictating, say, that it is bad to lie--then that dictate would embody the same type of law that it now does. For it would [still] be a law indicating the badness that exists intrinsically in the object.

4. The second position, which affirms that natural law is truly divine and preceptive. The second position, completely contrary to the first, is that the natural law is found entirely in a divine command or prohibition that proceeds from God's will as the author and governor of nature, and that, consequently, (a) this law, as it exists in God, is nothing other than the eternal law insofar as it prescribes or prohibits in the relevant matters, whereas (b) this same natural law, as it exists in us, is the judgment of reason insofar as that judgment signifies to us the will of God concerning what should be done and avoided with respect to those things that are consonant with natural reason.

This position is taken from Ockham in Sentences 2, q. 19, ad 3 and 4, given his claim that (a) no act is bad except insofar as it is prohibited by God and that (b) there is no bad act that could not become good if it were prescribed by God, and vice versa. Hence, he presupposes that the entire natural law consists in divine precepts issued by God--precepts that God himself could abolish and change. And if someone objected that such a law is not a natural law but is instead a positive law, he would reply that it is called a natural law because it is proportioned to the nature of things and not because it is not imposed extrinsically by God.

Gerson inclines toward this position in De vita spirituali, pt. 3, lect. 1, corollaries 10 and 11, and in Alphabetum divini amoris 61, E and F. This is why he claims in De vita spirituali, lects. 2 and 3 that the natural law which exists in us is not only a sign of the righteous dictate of the divine intellect but a sign of the divine will as well. Peter D'Ailly defends this position at length in Sentences 1, q. 44, a. 3, where he claims that the divine will is the first law and so is able to create men who use reason without any law at all. This same claim is developed at great length by Andreas de Novo Castro in Sentences 1, d. 48, q. 1. a. 1. These authors also add that the entire reason for good and bad in things that pertain to the natural law is found in God's will and not in either the judgment of reason--even God's own judgment of reason--or the things themselves that are forbidden or prescribed by the law.

The basis for this position seems to be that actions are not good or bad except because they are prescribed or prohibited by God. For it is not the case that God himself wills to prescribe or forbid such-and-such an act for a creature because the act is good or bad; rather, the act is just or unjust because God wills that it be just or that it not be just--this in keeping with what Anselm says in Proslogion, chap. 11. Hugo of St. Victor is also of this opinion in De sacramentis, pt. 4, chap. 1, as is Cyprian in the book De singularitate clericorum, which is attributed to him.

5. First assertion: The natural law is not just indicative of good and evil, but also contains the prescription and prohibition of them. Neither of these positions is satisfactory to my mind, and so I believe that we must hold to a middle way, which I take to be the position of St. Thomas as well as the common position of theologians.

I assert, first, that the natural law is not only indicative of bad and good, but also contains its own proper prohibition of what is bad and prescription of what is good.

I take this from St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 71, a. 6, ad 4, where he says that if we are thinking of human law, then it is not the case that every sin [with respect to that law] is bad because it is prohibited, whereas if we are thinking of natural law, which is contained primarily in the eternal law and secondarily in the indication of natural reason, then every sin [with respect to that law] is evil because it is prohibited. And in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 100, a. 8, ad 2 he says that God cannot deny himself and so cannot abolish the order of his own justice--meaning that God is unable not to prohibit those things that are bad and contrary to natural reason. Bonaventure is of the same opinion in Sentences 2, d. 35, dub. 4, circa litteram, and so, explicitly, is Gerson in De vita spirituali, the whole of lect. 2, where he defines natural law as follows: "The preceptive natural law is a sign given to every man who is not impeded in the due use of reason, and it makes known the divine will insofar as it wants the rational human creature to be bound to do something or not to do something in pursuit of his natural end." This definition may include more than is necessary, but for now we are using it just to the extent that it serves our present purpose. The [first] assertion is likewise assumed by the authors of the second position and is defended at length by Vittoria in De pervenientibus ad usum rationis, nn. 8ff.

6. The first assertion is confirmed by arguments. This assertion is proved, first, from the properties of law. For the natural law is a law properly speaking--this is what all the Fathers, theologians, and philosophers think and say about it. In contrast, the mere cognition or proposal of an object that exists in the mind cannot be called a law, as is obvious in itself and from the definition of law given above. Therefore, etc.

Second, this point is clear in the case of acts that are bad because they are prohibited by human law. For with regard to such acts, in order for a man to sin, there must be a prior judgment of the mind that indicates that the object in question is bad. And yet this judgment does not have the character of a law or prohibition, since it only manifests what is contained in the object, wherever it might come from. Similarly, then, even if, in order for one to act well or badly in matters that pertain to the natural law, there must be a prior judgment indicating the goodness or badness of the object or act, this judgment does not have the character of a law or prohibition. Rather, it is merely a cognition of what is taken to be already such-and-such. Hence, the act in question, which is known to be evil through a judgment of the sort in question, is not evil because it is judged to be evil, but is instead truly judged to be evil because it is evil. Therefore, this judgment is not a standard of badness or goodness; therefore, neither is it a law or prohibition.

Third, if this were not so, then even God would have a law that is natural to him with respect to his own will. For in God, too, the judgment of the mind conceptually precedes the act of will and indicates that lying is bad and that keeping one's promises is altogether right and necessary; therefore, if this is sufficient for the notion of law, then even in God there will be a true natural law. For it will not be problematic that God has no superior, given that a natural law is not imposed by any superior. Nor will the identity [of God's intellect with his will] be a problem, since a conceptual distinction between them is sufficient for God's will to be truly said to be carried toward that which is made manifest by his intellect, and since that is in fact the way things stand. Therefore, this will suffice for there to be a law, since, after all, [the proponents of the first position] claim that this is sufficient for the notion of law.

Then, too, a judgment that indicates the nature of an act is not itself the act of a superior, but instead can exist in an equal or in an inferior who has no power to obligate; therefore, this judgment cannot have the character of a law or prohibition. Otherwise, a teacher who pointed out what is bad or good would be imposing a law--which cannot be claimed. A law, then, is a command that can induce an obligation, whereas the sort of judgment in question does not induce an obligation but instead makes manifest an obligation that has to be presupposed. Therefore, in order to have the character of a law, the judgment must indicate some command from which the relevant obligation might emanate.

7. But perhaps someone will object that these arguments have a bearing only on the word 'law', and so they can be easily subverted by conceding that the natural law is not called a law in the rigorous sense according to which a law is said to be the universal precept of a superior; instead, natural law is called law in a broad sense, since it is a standard of moral good and bad in the way that law usually is.

In reply to this I argue further that what is contrary to the natural law is necessarily contrary to the true law and prohibition of some superior; therefore, natural law, as it exists in man, not only indicates its object in itself but also indicates that object as being prohibited or prescribed by some superior.

The inference is clear from the fact that if natural law intrinsically consists just in the object alone in itself, or just in the indication of that object, then a violation of that law will not per se and intrinsically be contrary to the law of any superior. For given the absence of any law on the part of a superior, a man would violate the natural law by acting contrary to the dictate [of reason].

The antecedent is proved from Augustine Contra Faustum 22, chap. 27, where he defines sin as "a thing said or done or desired contrary to the eternal law," adding that "the eternal law is the reason or will of God." Thus, he believes it to be part of the essence of a sin that it is contrary to the law of some superior. Hence, in De peccatorum meritis et remissione 2, chap. 16, he says: "Nor will it be a sin--whatever it might be--unless God commands that it should not be." And later: "How can it be forgiven by God's mercy if it is not a sin, or how can it not be forbidden by God's justice if it is a sin?" He means that it is no less absurd that there be a sin and that it not be prohibited by God than that someone should need forgiveness and not have sinned. This same claim is confirmed by Ambrose's definition in De paradiso, chap. 8: "Sin is a violation of the divine law and disobedience with respect to heavenly commands." But a sin against the natural law is truly a sin; therefore, it is a violation of a divine and heavenly command; therefore, the natural law, insofar as exists in man, has the force of a divine command insofar as it indicates that command and not just insofar as it indicates the nature of the object by itself.

Finally, the words of Paul in Romans 4 are consonant with this truth: "Where there is no law, there is no transgression." But here he is explicitly speaking of the whole law--not just the ceremonial and judicial precepts, but also the moral precepts that belong to the natural law. For Paul's doctrine--namely, that the law by itself and without the spirit of grace works unto wrath--is about all law, even insofar as it is natural law. And it is in this way that the passage in question is commonly interpreted, since otherwise the Apostle's teaching would be incomplete, as I will explain more fully later in the material on grace. Therefore, he means that every sin is contrary to some law. And this has to be interpreted as applying to properly prescriptive law, both because (a) he is constantly speaking of this sort of law in the chapter referred to, and also because (b) one should not interpret his words in an improper sense in the absence of some authority or compelling necessity.

8. The first assertion is further clarified by an a priori argument: All the things that the natural law dictates as bad are prohibited by God through a special precept and act of will by which he wills to bind and obligate us by the force of his authority to obey those dictates; therefore, the natural law is a properly preceptive law, that is, it involves proper precepts.

The inference is obvious. The antecedent is proved, first, by the fact that God has perfect providence over men; therefore, it is proper to him as the supreme governor of nature to forbid what is bad and prescribe what is good; therefore, even given that natural reason indicates what is good or bad for a rational nature, nonetheless, God, as the author and ruler of such a nature, commands us to do or avoid what reason dictates should be done or avoided.

Second, whatever is done contrary to right reason displeases God, and the opposite pleases him. For because God's will is supremely just, what is evil cannot please him and what is righteous cannot fail to please him. For God's will cannot be irrational, as Anselm said in Cur Deus homo?, chap. 8. Therefore, natural reason, which indicates what is per se bad or good for a man, thereby indicates that it is God's will that one thing should be done and another avoided.

9. Objection and reply. You will object: "From the fact that God's will is pleased or displeased it does not follow that his will obligates in the manner of a precept. For, first of all, we are not for this reason bound to conform ourselves to every divine volition that is a simple preference. In fact, we are not even bound to conform ourselves to every 'well-pleased'--that is, efficacious--willing on God's part. Rather, we are bound to conform ourselves only to a volition by which God wills to bind us, something I infer from Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 19. It is for this reason that even though works of counsel please God, it does not follow that his will prescribes them. Second, whatever I do contrary to reason will displease any just or beatified man, and yet such a man's will is nonetheless not preceptive."

I reply, first, that I am not talking about just any sort of pleased will, but only of that will which something good pleases in such a way that the contrary act--or an opposite omission--displeases it as something bad. But works of counsel do not please God in this way; rather, they please him in such a way that there is no badness that displeases him in the omission of such works. And so his being pleased in such a case is called a simple will. However, in the first sort of case, where one thing pleases him in such a way that the opposite simply displeases him, his being pleased is instead judged to be an absolute will. Hence, I claim that this latter sort of will should be thought of as existing in God insofar as he is the supreme ruler and not as something that might be found in a private person who is just, whether he be beatified or [still] a pilgrim on earth. For in having this sort of absolute pleasure or displeasure, God wills absolutely that the deed in question be done or not done in his role as supreme ruler. Therefore, this sort of will is such that through it he wants to obligate his subjects to do something or not to do it. For there cannot be an efficacious willing that a given deed be done or not done absolutely, since otherwise no deeds would ever be done in any way other than the way God wills--which, as is obvious, is not the case. Nor does God's efficacious will pertain to his role as ruler, in keeping with which he (a) wills good deeds in such a way that he permits bad ones and (b) allows free secondary causes to use their freedom expeditiously and without hindrance. This, then, is what an obligating volition must be. For thus he provides for his subjects in a manner that befits his righteous and prudent providence.

10. The assertion is thus confirmed by the fact that sins against the natural law are said in Sacred Scripture to be contrary to God's will. Thus in De voluntate Dei Anselm says, "Whoever violates the natural law is disobeying God's will." A manifest sign of this is that one who transgresses the natural law is in God's judgment worthy of punishment; therefore, he is a transgressor of God's will. For as is said in Luke 12, the servant who does not do his master's will will be flogged with many stripes. Therefore, the natural law includes God's will.

Conversely, In Matthew 6 and 1 John 2 the kingdom of heaven is promised to him who does the will of God. This has to be interpreted as God's preceptive will, since it says: "If you wish to enter into life, obey my commandments." Therefore, whoever obeys the natural law is doing God's will; therefore, the natural law includes God's will as lawgiver.

This is further confirmed by the fact that the signed will that theologians posit in God likewise extends to things that fall under the natural law, as one may infer from St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae 1, q. 19, last article, along with the Master [of the Sentences] and others in Sentences 1, dist. 45, and as is known per se. For whoever violates the natural law turns away from the will of God, and when we say "Thy will be done" in the Our Father, we are likewise asking that God's will be done in obedience to the natural law. Therefore, the natural law as it exists in us is a sign of some volition on God's part. Therefore, it is a sign especially of that volition by which God wills to obligate us to obey that law. Therefore, the natural law includes this sort of will on God's part.

This is confirmed, third, by the fact that a sin against the natural law is offensive to God and because of this has a certain infinity; therefore, this is an indication that it is opposed to God as lawgiver. For it contains a virtual contempt for him. Therefore, the natural law includes God's will, because without his will there is no legislation.

Then, too, the obligation that pertains to the natural law is a true obligation. But this obligation is a certain good that exists in reality in its own way. Therefore, it must be that this very obligation is from God's will insofar as it wills that men be bound to obey what right reason dictates.

11. Second assertion: The prohibition or precept is not the whole reason for the goodness or badness found in obeying or transgressing the natural law. Second, I assert that (a) this will--that is, prohibition or prescription--on God's part is not the whole reason for the goodness and badness that is found in obeying or transgressing the natural law, but that (b) the natural law presupposes in the acts themselves a certain necessary uprightness or evil, and (c) it adjoins to these a special obligation of divine law.

This assertion is taken from St. Thomas in the places cited above. The first part of it is taken from the common axiom of theologians that certain bad things are prohibited because they are bad. For if they are forbidden because they are bad, then they cannot have the primary reason for their badness from the prohibition. For an effect is not a reason for its cause.

This axiom has a basis in Augustine, De sermone Domini in monte 2, chap. 18, where he says that certain acts such as promiscuousness and adultery cannot be done with an upright intention, and more clearly in De Libero Arbitrii 1, chaps. 2 and 3, where Evodius claims that it is not the case that adultery is bad because it is prohibited by law, but just the opposite--a point that Augustine tacitly approves of. The same view is affirmed by the scholastics: by Durandus in Sentences 2, dist. 47, q. 4, nn. 7 and 8; by Scotus, Gabriel and others in Sentences 3, dist. 37; by Cajetan in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 100, art. 5; by Soto in De justitia 2, q. 3, art. 2; and by the other theologians cited above. This is the explicit view of Aristotle in Ethics 2, chap. 6, where he says, "There are some passions that by their very names are connected with depravity, such as malevolence, impudence, and envy, and a number of acts, such as adultery, theft, and murder. For all of these and others are so called because they themselves are evil."

The assertion can be founded on the metaphysical principle that the natures of things are immutable with respect to their essences, and, as a result, they are also immutable with respect to what is consonant with and dissonant with their natural properties. For even if a thing is capable of being deprived of a natural property or of taking on a contrary property, it nonetheless cannot be such that this status is connatural to it--as Vittoria explains at length in Relectiones de homicidio, dist. 4ff, and as Soto notes in the place just cited, and as we ourselves have explained concerning created essences in Disputationes Metaphysicae, disp. 31, at the beginning, and in De Trinitate 9, chap. 6.

This is confirmed a posteriori by the fact that if, say, an act of hating God did not have an intrinsic type of badness prior to its being prohibited, it would be able not to be prohibited. For why should this not be possible, if the act is not evil of itself? Therefore, it is able to be permissible or even righteous--which is plainly absurd.

Next, the second part of the assertion has a sufficient proof in the posing of the problem at the beginning of the chapter, along with the foundations for the first position that were put forth in the last chapter. And we will say more in discussing the impossibility of a dispensation from the natural law.

12. The last part of the assertion is taken from what was said in defense of the [first assertion]. For the natural law prohibits things that are bad in themselves; but this law is a true divine law and a true prohibition; therefore, it must add some obligation to refrain from a bad act that is bad of itself and by its nature.

Likewise, there is nothing absurd about adding to an act that is upright in itself an obligation to do it, nor about adding to an act that is evil an obligation to refrain from it. In fact, given one obligation, another can be added, especially if it has a different rationale, as is obvious with vows, with human law, and with similar things. Therefore, it is also possible for the natural law, insofar as it is a true divine law, to add a proper moral obligation that arises from a precept over and above the natural (as I will put it) badness or uprightness that the matter of the precept has in itself. In a moment this will be explained more clearly in the replies to the contrary arguments.

13. Third assertion: The natural law is a true and proper law, with God as its lawgiver. From what has been said I conclude and assert, third, that the natural law is a true and proper divine law whose lawgiver is God.

This assertion clearly follows from what has been said and is drawn from the Fathers already alluded to, from Epiphanius and Tertullian in the places to be cited below, and from Plutarch in his commentary In principe requiri doctrinam, near the beginning.

And it is made clear by the fact that the natural law can be considered either as it exists in God or as it exists in us. In God, according to the order of reason, the natural law presupposes the judgment of God himself concerning the propriety or impropriety of various acts, and it adds to this God's will to obligate men to follow what right reason dictates. All of this has already been sufficiently explained. Perhaps this is what Augustine meant to intimate in Contra Faustum 22, chap. 27, when he said that "the eternal law is God's reason and [vel] will commanding that the natural order be conserved and forbidding that it be disturbed." For it is customary for the particle 'vel' to be taken for the conjunction 'and', especially when it is placed between things that are connected in such a way that they may not be separated. But so it is with the divine reason and will with regard to the natural law, and thus Augustine is including both of them. Thus, one should disapprove of the claim made by certain doctors who will be cited below, namely, that (a) the divine act of will by which the natural law is ordained does not presuppose a dictate of the divine reason that dictates that a given act is upright or evil and that (b) this divine act of will does not presuppose in the object an intrinsic consonance or disonance with a rational nature by reason of which it wills that one thing be done and another avoided. For from what was said in the second assertion it is clear that this is false and contrary to the nature of the natural law. Therefore, even though the obligation that is added by the natural law insofar as it is properly preceptive comes from God's will, nonetheless, that will presupposes a judgment about the badness of, say, lying and other similar acts. However, since a proper prohibition or obligation of a precept is not induced by the sole force of the judgment (for this cannot be conceived of without a volition), an act of willing to prohibit the act is added because the act is bad.

And thus it is, finally, that the natural law, insofar as it exists in us, not only indicates the evil but also obligates us to avoid it. And hence the natural law does not just represent the natural disonance of such an act or object with a rational nature, but is also a sign of God's willing to forbid it.

14. A reply to the foundation of the opposed views. It remains for us to reply to the foundation of the other two positions. The matter revolves around this hypothesis: "Even if God did not prohibit or command those things that belong to the natural law, it would nonetheless be the case that lying is bad and that honoring one's parents is good and fitting."

Two things should be considered regarding this conditional. The first is what would follow, given the hypothesis [that God did not prohibit or command those things that belong to the natural law], while the second is whether the hypothesis itself is possible. 

On the latter point, in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 18, art. 1 Medina replies that the hypothesis is impossible, since if it is posited, a contradiction follows, namely, that (a) lying, say, is not a sin, because it is not prohibited by any law, and that (b) it is a sin because it is contrary to nature and per se dissonant with natural reason.

But against this one might contend that such an act is bad according to the order of reason prior to its being prohibited by a proper law; therefore, even if the hypothesis were posited--namely, that the act is not prohibited by God--it would not follow that the act is not bad, since it has badness in the absence of a prohibition; therefore, no contradiction follows.

15. Medina's reply is ruled out and a more appropriate reply is given. To this one could retort that even though the negative proposition ['Lying is not a sin'] does not follow a priori or on intrinsic grounds (as they say), it nonetheless follows a posteriori and by an extrinsic principle. For if the act were not prohibited by God, then it would not be displeasing to him, and consequently it would not be bad. And yet for other reasons it is assumed to be bad, and so a contradiction follows. This is made clear by analogy: If God willed that I should hate him, then hating God would surely not be bad; and yet if it is an act of hating [God], then it is necessarily bad, and so a contradiction follows. Again, if God willed that fire should be cold by nature, then it would be; and yet since a contradiction would follow, God cannot will this.

Thus, this reply presupposes that it is impossible for an act to be bad in itself and yet not prohibited by God. However, I do not see how this can be correctly proved by deriving the contradiction that the deed is simultaneously bad and not bad, since the proof begs the question and argues in a circle. Therefore, the impossibility has to be proved in some other way.

So from the hypothesis--regardless of whether it is possible or impossible--all that can be inferred is that a certain type of badness that attaches to a human act or to its omission does not formally consist in its lack of conformity with a proper precept, that is, with a law that forbids and prescribes. Hence, if the thesis is posited, then it rightly follows that the act is both bad and not prohibited. Still, it cannot be inferred from this that [being bad and being prohibited] are in fact separable--which is the only point relevant to the matter under discussion.

16. But you will object: "It follows, given the hypothesis just by itself and in the abstract, that an act is bad without a law prohibiting it. Therefore, it follows that the act is morally bad as well. For the act is assumed to be free, and the badness that a free act has through its dissonance with a rational nature as such is moral badness. Therefore, the act in question is morally bad even without a law prohibiting it; therefore, it is also a sin, even prescinding from its lack of conformity to a law prohibiting it. And so the whole foundation of your position is brought to ruin."

As Medina notes in the place cited above, some authors reply to this objection by distinguishing a bad act from a sin. For [the notion of] a bad act is obviously broader, and an act can be bad without being opposed to any law, whereas this is not true of sin. Hence, these authors concede that in the case at hand the act would be bad, but they deny that it would be a sin.

However, this is a problematic distinction, and it does not seem compatible with the teaching of St. Thomas. For a sin is nothing other than an act that is bad because of its deviation from a due end--that is to say, despite the fact that the act is done, or should be done, for some end, it is not correctly ordered to that end or tends away from it. Hence, if the act is a moral act and a human act, then by the very fact that it is bad because of its deviation from right reason, it is also a sin--as St. Thomas teaches in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 21, art. 1. For such an act deviates from the proper end for which it should be done, and so it is bad and, consequently, a sin.

In light of this, others reply that it is indeed a sin (peccatum), but that it is not a fault (culpa).

But this, too, seems to conflict with St. Thomas in the same q. 21, art. 2, where he says that in the case of free acts sin and fault are equivalent, and that they differ only in relation and denomination. For an act is called a sin because of its deviation from an end, whereas it is called a fault in relation to the agent to whom it is imputed. But a free act, by the very fact that it is free, is imputed to the agent; therefore, if it is both free and bad, then it will be both a sin and a fault. So, too, in the case under discussion, even if God's law were excluded, the act would still be a fault. And thus all of the proposed arguments are undermined.

17. The correct reply to the problem. My own reply is that in a human act there is a type of goodness or badness by dint of the object, considered just by itself, insofar as it is consonant or dissonant with right reason. And, accordingly, the act can be denominated as bad and as a sin and as a fault in the senses noted above--even excluding any relation to a proper law. Beyond this, however, human acts have a special sort of goodness and badness in relation to God, given the addition of a divine law that prescribes or prohibits them. And, accordingly, a human act is denominated as a sin or fault in a special way, with respect to God, by reason of the transgression of God's own proper law. This special badness seems to be what Paul meant by the term 'transgression' when he said, "Where there is no law, there is no transgression." Hence, a human act that is contrary to a rational nature would not have this type of deformity if we posited the hypothesis that God does not prohibit it. For in that case it would not embody the sort of virtual contempt for God that the transgression of a law has with respect to the lawgiver.

Basil testifies to this in his commentary on Psalm 28, "Give glory and honor to the Lord," and it is consonant with what Paul says in Romans 2: "By transgressing the law you dishonor God." That explains why in De vera religione, chap. 26, Augustine said, "A prohibitive law redoubles all the sins committed." He clarifies this by adding, "For it is not just a mere sin, not just something bad, but also something forbidden."

18. And it is in this way that St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 71, art. 6, ad 5, seems to distinguish sin insofar as it is contrary to reason from sin insofar as it is an offense against God, where sin in the first sense is considered by moral philosophy and in the second sense by theology. So in the case under discussion a bad act would be a sin and a fault morally speaking, but not theologically speaking, that is, with respect to God. It is in this same way, it seems, that we should understand what St. Thomas says in his reply to the fourth objection, namely, that in relation to the eternal law such sins are bad because they are prohibited, that is, they are bad with a theological badness (as I will call it) that an act would not have unless it were prohibited.

This, too, is apparently the way to understand the argument he then adds--an argument that could otherwise seem obscure. For after having claimed that in relation to the eternal law every sin is bad because it is prohibited, he adds, "By the very fact that such an act is disordered, it is contrary to the natural law." For this argument seems to prove that the act is prohibited because it is bad rather than the other way around. This is true, as long as we are speaking of the badness of being morally disordered; yet it is by reason of this disorder that the eternal law is added, along with the divine prohibition to which such a sin has a special repugnance. And from this it follows that the sin has a special disorder that it would not have were the divine prohibition not in place--a disorder by reason of which the notion of a sin, taken theologically, is satisfied, along with the notion of a fault, absolutely speaking, before God. This seems to be the way to interpret what Vittoria and several other theologians say, and this is why the replies made above do not work if they have more than merely verbal import.

19. Therefore, from the [original] hypothesis, thus explained and conceded, nothing can be inferred against our position or against the arguments by which we have proved it. For even if we concede the conditional in the sense explained, it is still the case that the natural law in fact truly and properly prohibits whatever in human acts is bad or disordered in itself. And without such a prohibition an act would not have (as I will put it) the full and complete character of a fault and offense against God--a character that cannot be denied in acts which are contrary to natural law in the precise sense.

20. Whether God was able not to have prohibited through a proper law those things that are contrary to natural reason; the first opinion, which affirms that this is possible. In order to make perfectly clear how this divine prohibition could pertain intrinsically and per se to the natural law, we must explain the second point, namely, whether the hypothesis under discussion is possible, that is, whether God was able, through a proper act of his will, not to have added a proper law that forbids or prescribes those things that fall under the dictates of natural reason.

On this matter, there are two possible lines of thought. The first is that (a) God is indeed able by his absolute power not to issue any prohibitions, since this does not seem to imply a contradiction--a point apparently proved by all the arguments that Ockham, Gerson, and the others bring to bear in favor of their own position--but that (b) God is not able to do this in accord with the ordinary law of divine providence that is consonant with the natures of things--for at least this much is proved by the arguments to the contrary made on behalf of our own position and supported by the testimony of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. And this, it seems, can suffice for the claim that the natural law includes a proper precept on God's part. For the natural law is a law that conforms to the natures of things.

21. The second opinion, which denies that this is possible. The second possible reply is that the hypothesis is altogether impossible, since God is unable not to prohibit that which is intrinsically bad and disordered in a rational nature and is unable not to prescribe the contrary. This is the explicit opinion of St. Thomas in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 72, art. 6 and more clearly at q. 100, art. 8, ad 2, insofar as he claims that the decree of divine justice concerning this law is immutable. This cannot be understood as merely an immutability on the assumption that the decree has been made, since in this sense any divine decree with respect to any positive law is immutable. Therefore, St. Thomas is talking here of immutability in the absolute sense. Hence, he is claiming that God is unable to abolish the order of his justice in this matter, in just the way that he is unable to deny himself or in just the way that he is unable not to be faithful to his promises.

The same opinion is clearly presupposed by Medina in the place cited above, and by Vittoria in the aforementioned Relectiones de pervenientibus ad usum rationis, nn. 9 and 10, where he claims that it is neither plausible nor intelligible that someone could sin without having a superior and the precept or law of that superior. Hence, he believes that it is just as impossible for God not to forbid things that are bad in themselves or not to prescribe things that are necessary for natural uprightness as it is for a man with the use of reason not to be able to sin or not to have a superior.

Then, too, the argument by which we proved that God in fact proposes the natural law proves that this law is absolutely necessary. For it is impossible that such an act should not displease God in a way that is consonant with his goodness, justice, and providence.

22. An objection, along with an unsatisfactory reply made by some authors. To clarify this argument, suppose that someone objects as follows: "A divine precept is an act of will, or presupposes an act of will, and takes its origin from this act; but the divine will is free in all actions with resepect to things outside itself; therefore, it is likewise free in this particular act; therefore, it is able not to have this act; therefore, it is able not to impose a precept of the sort in question."

Some reply that what suffices for the natural law is a natural dictate of God's intellect by which he judges that certain bad things are to be avoided and certain good things are to be done. For with respect to things that are per se and intrinsically good or bad this dictate is not free but necessary. And from this dictate of divine and eternal law in such matter there necessarily emanates a participation in that law for rational creatures, assuming the creation of such creatures. And it is because of this participation in and derivation [of the law], without any other act of the divine will, that a special obligation redounds upon a rational nature as a sort of natural consequence, by reason of which that nature is bound to follow right reason insofar as it indicates the eternal rule that exists in God. And so whatever the case might be with respect to a free act of the divine will, this obligation and prohibition follows altogether necessarily from the divine reason.

However, this reply is unintelligible, since a dictate of the intellect without any act of will cannot have the character of a precept with respect to another and cannot induce a special obligation in that other. For an obligation is a certain moral motive to act; but to move another to operate is the work of the will.

Again, this entire 'obligation' does not as a whole transcend the force of an object that is per se good or bad--that is, the force by which the act has the character of being per se good or bad--and the judgment of reason has the role only of applying or exhibiting such an object.

And, lastly, natural reason, insofar as it [merely] exhibits what is good and bad, does not have more or greater obligatory force by reason of the fact that it is a participation in the divine reason than the obligatory force it would have in itself or thought of as existing by itself.

23. The proper reply to the objection, which shows how, despite the divine freedom, God is unable not to prohibit through some law those things that are intrinsically bad. Thus, following Cajetan in q. 100, art. 8, I claim that even though the divine will is absolutely free with respect to things outside itself, nonetheless, on the supposition of one free act it can be necessitated with respect to another act. For instance, if it promises absolutely, then it is necessitated with respect to fulfilling that promise; and if it wills to speak or to reveal, it must necessarily reveal the truth. And, analogously, if it wills to create a world and to conserve it in relation to some end, it is unable not to have providence over that world and, presupposing the volition to be provident, it is unable not to have a providence that is perfect and consonant with its goodness and wisdom. And so once we presuppose that God wills to create a rational nature with cognition sufficient to do good and evil and with sufficient concurrence on God's part for both, then God was unable not to will to prohibit intrinsically bad acts for such a creature and unable not to will to prescribe upright and necessary acts. For just as God is unable to lie, so too he is unable to govern foolishly or unjustly; his providence would be wholly foreign to the divine wisdom and goodness if it did not prescribe or prohibit such acts for his subjects.

So, then, a distinction must be drawn with respect to the minor premise of the argument. For, absolutely speaking, God was able to prescribe or prohibit nothing at all, and yet on the supposition that he has willed to have subjects with the use of reason, he was unable not to be their lawgiver, at least in those matters that are necessary for natural moral uprightness. Likewise, the argument intimated above is sufficiently plausible, namely, that God is unable not to have hated the evil that is contrary to right reason. But he has this hatred not just as a private person would, but also as the supreme ruler. Therefore, by reason of this hatred he wills to obligate his subjects not to do that evil.

24. Another objection along with the reply, where it is shown what intimation of the divine natural law God is bound to provide in order for men to be obligated. A second objection goes as follows: "The will of the lawgiver is not sufficient for a law unless there is some indication or intimation of that will; but there is nothing that necessitates God's intimating such an act of his will; therefore, he is able not to intimate it, since this is a matter of freedom for him; therefore, he is able not to propose the law and not to obligate through it, since without the intimation there is no obligation."

I reply, to begin with, that if this act of will on God's part is necessary for the appropriate and prudent providence and governance of men, then by dint of that same providence it is necessary that this same act of God's will should be made known to men. And this is enough for the notion of a precept and of a law, nor is any other intimation necessary.

One may further claim that the very judgment of right reason with which man is naturally endowed is of itself a sufficient sign of the divine will and that no other intimation is necessary.

This is proved by the fact that the judgment of reason of itself indicates a divine providence that befits God and is morally necessary for his complete dominion and for the due subjection of men to him--and it is within this providence that the relevant legislation is contained.

Again, for this reason it is through the natural light that it is known that (a) God is offended by sins that are committed against the natural law and that (b) it is his role to punish and judge those sins. Therefore, the natural light is of itself a sufficient promulgation of the natural law, not only because it manifests the intrinsic consonance or dissonance of those acts that the uncreated light of God has made known, but also because it intimates that man's contrary actions are displeasing to the author of nature as the supreme Lord and caretaker and ruler of that same nature. This, then, is sufficient for the intimation of such a law, as St. Thomas claims in Summa Theologiae 1-2, q. 90, art. 4, ad 1. And it is in this sense that the natural law is called the law of the mind, as Epiphanius notes in Haereses 64, in the words from Methodius he refers to at the end of that section, and as Tertullian notes in Contra Judaeos, chap. 2.

25. There could still have been some rather obscure problems and questions left over at this point. One is whether a transgression of the natural law, in the sense we have explained, has a special badness distinct from that which the act has simply because of its lack of conformity with natural reason taken by itself, as the act is considered in the hypothesis discussed above. Again, if that badness is special, what is it and how great is it in light of the force of the natural law? Again, could someone be invincibly ignorant of this special notion of the natural law? Or, given such ignorance, would an act committed against the natural law be offensive to God? Again, would it have an infinite badness, that is, would it be a mortal sin?

But these questions have to do more with the material concerning sin, and so I will pass over them for now, lest we digress too much from what we proposed to do here. In the meantime, one can consult Vittoria in the aforementioned Relectiones de pervenientibus ad usum rationis and Gerson in the aforementioned De vita spirituali, lect. 2, a little before the first corollary, as well as the other authors mentioned above.

Translated by 
Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame