The Danger of Disregarding Natural Law in Orthodox Christian Theology

off the cliff

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

Popular morality in current American culture is heavily in debt to both the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages and the Voluntarism of the Enlightenment. Since I regard this debt as deplorable, it might be good to begin with a brief explanation of these terms.

According to the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages, our concepts are the creations of our thought. Following this theory, we take information derived from our senses, and we use this data to give coherent form to those abstractions known as “ideas.” That is to say, “truth” is a creation of our thinking processes. We share the common “names” (nomina) of things, but not the very truth to which the names refer.

This theory of knowledge forms the basis of Enlightenment Voluntarism. According to this moral school, the human will (voluntas) creates moral norms, rather much as the human intellect creates abstract concepts. Moral reasoning serves a commitment of the will, and moral norms are validated by moral choices. The moral law is based on a moral decision.

Apart from this decision there is no moral law, just as there is no “truth” transcendent to human conceptions of it. The only “moral principle” is an act of decision. All ethics are chosen ethics. There are no abiding moral norms that are really—in re— “out there.” There is nothing “existent” that can dictate precepts to the conscience.

The thought of Kierkegaard comes to mind here. Although faith and morality are different things for Kierkegaard, both rest on personal choice, and neither is based on a rational perception.

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Ethical theories of this sort are attractive to certain kinds of Christians. I am thinking of those believers for whom-in moral terms-the guiding principle is simply, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” My “following,” that is to say, depends utterly on my “deciding.” If I have made no decision with respect to Jesus, then there is no imperative for me to follow him. I am free as a bird.

Is there really—in rebus—no universal moral law, however? Are Christians so different from other people that they share no moral principles or moral perceptions?

According to certain recent Orthodox commentators, one might think so. Let me cite a single example of a moral concern about which some Orthodox voices are making major contributions to the confusion: the nature of marriage.

Our dogmatic agreement is clear enough: According to Orthodox sacramental theology, marriage is a sacrament that unites a man and a woman in a holy union which forms an icon of Christ’s union with the Church. No Orthodox Christian—certainly not myself—would question this. My trouble is not the sacramental theology of the Orthodox Church.

I have a great deal of trouble, nonetheless, with those Orthodox Christians who pretend that marriage outside the Church can be whatever society or the State wants it to be. Thus, they recognize no problem in the recent disposition to alter the structure and nature of marriage. (Theories like this seem designed to make the Orthodox Church completely irrelevant to a larger moral discourse; we are limited to talking theology among ourselves, while the world around us starves for moral guidance. We chosen ones have decided to follow Jesus, and everybody else can go to hell.)

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I wonder how much this intellectual vacuity and social surrender have to do with the distressing disregard for Natural Law current among Orthodox Christians (I would feel less distress if I thought they were devoted to a more intense study of Kierkegaard.).

Here is my simple thesis: man’s capacity for moral perception is native to his created being. Whether or not his perception is enlightened by the Gospel and elevated by divine grace is irrelevant to its origin; there are laws to which all men are bound by reason of the created order.

Moreover, the created structure of marriage—to stick with the same example—is presupposed in the sacramental understanding of marriage.

I invite Orthodox Christians to look more closely at the teaching of St. Maximus the Confessor with respect to the Natural Law in the moral life, because the perception of this law this is what we share with others, and about which we can discourse with others. There is moral inequality among us, wrote Maximus,

“because we do not all put into practice (energein) what is natural. If we all equally did what is natural according to our human origin, there would be evident among us, not only one human nature, but one human nature admitting no degrees of “more’ or ‘less'” (Disputation with Pyrrhus 93; cf. Gnostic Chapters 58).




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Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator. Blog; Facebook;Twitter

5 thoughts on “The Danger of Disregarding Natural Law in Orthodox Christian Theology”

  1. A nuance: the state has the power to define marriage any way it wants. However, when the state disregards the natural order of things, their authority no longer exists. The state has become illegitimate. All that is left to them is tyranny, the will to power.

    We Christians then must live in this world, but not of it and witness to the illegitimacy of the state by our greater virtue. To the extent that we Christians recognize and witness to the moral bankruptcy of such a state, the tyranny will fall on us.

    Sooner or later such a state will fail outwardly as it has already failed inwardly. It has to. This is abundantly clear in history. In the meantime, we must refuse to give a pinch of incense to Caesar.

    1. A nuance to what Michael Bauman wrote: In the United States, we citizens, including Christians, ARE the state, i.e., the government. And when our elected and appointed representatives of the state disregard and pervert the natural order of things, including the concept of marriage, it is the responsibility of citizens, including Christians to work to correct these injustices and perversions, elect and appoint just men as our representatives, and bring the evildoers to justice.

      The state’s authority still exists, even though its representatives disregard the natural order of things and subvert the government and give aid and comfort to the enemy by weakening the character of the United States.

      In this case it is the responsibility of citizens, including Christians, to seek to bring those who have legislated, issued court opinions for, and aided efforts to destroy the natural order of marriage to justice for indictment, trial, and conviction as traitors to the United States of America.

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