Credo in Unum Deum

I Believe in One God

The Ten Commandments and Natural Law

The Decalogue has been often called the Law of God, with overtones of Divine Inspiration and Revelation. It may seem that what is being asserted is that the Ten Commandments belong to Supernatural truths that are not accessible to natural reason. That is, we couldn’t by any amount of thinking hard or reasoning from what we already know arrive at the Ten Commandments. But clearly this is false. For to assert this would be to assert, logically, that man cannot reason to or know that God exists, which he can do. And if we can reason to or know in some other way that God exists, then it is a short step to the first two precepts of the Decalogue*.

Many natural law thinkers have said that the Decalogue is a divinely inspired collection of Natural Law truths. This means that God didn’t give us anything new in the Ten Commandments. These were given because what had been clear in times past had been obscured by the sinfulness of men. But natural law finds its basis immediately in human nature and ultimately in the eternal law. Budziszewski and Rice have called the natural law basically a user manual for attaining the end for which man was made. While I have certain problems with that formulation, I think it captures the basic idea that is important. It tells us how to act as humans and directs us towards our end.

But if these laws or precepts are rooted ultimately in the eternal law, what about the question of dispensation?  For instance, can the precept Thou shalt not kill be dispensed; that is, can God either himself kill somebody or command that somebody be killed– especially the killing of an innocent (as in the case of Abraham and Isaac)?

Some have argued that the precepts of the Decalogue cannot be dispensed since they belong to the natural law strictly speaking.  This means that the precepts of the decalogue are either self-evident or are inferred from from these self-evident precepts.  This is the take that those in the Thomist tradition usually endorse.  Scotus argues that only the first two commandments belong to the natural law strictly.  But is that to say that the others do not?  Not at all.

Scotus says that the Second Table (precepts 4-10) belong to the natural law in an extended sense.  That is to say that these precepts, while not following with any logical necessity from the first two precepts, are in “exceeding harmony” with the self-evident precepts of the First Table.**  Since then these precepts do not possess the necessity of the First Table, then it is possible for these precepts to be dispensed.

Now regarding Thou shalt not kill, Thomas says that when God has commanded it or the state performs a just execution or there is a Just War, then this is not a violation of the precept since the precept is directed towards an undue or unjust killing.  Since God’s commands are just, a just death penalty is (well) just, and Just War is (again) just, then these are not dispensations.  Scotus says that these would constitute dispensations, but that is alright since the precept isn’t self-evident or derived from self-evident principles.

There is the interesting question about what is meant exactly by self-evident.  And the additional question of how it is that the precept against adultery is not necessary given human nature and the nature of sexuality.  Or say the precept (not in the Decalogue explicitly) against homosexuality.

Let’s explore those questions next time…
When I have had time to work them out myself!



* I will be using the traditional (Catholic and Lutheran) numbering of the Decalogue. See the following link for the enumeration of various religious groups.
** Scotus suspends judgment on whether the 3rd precept concerning Sabbath observance belongs to the natural law strictly speaking or not.  I will not go into the discussion here, but it is very, very interesting.  Therefore, when referring to the First Table, let the reader understand that I mean the first two precepts.

August 7, 2008 Posted by | Religion | 2 Comments