St. Bonaventure’s View of Natural Law

Saint Bonaventure“The eternal law is the ultimate rule or measure of all human activity. Augustine identifies the eternal law with God’s wisdom. He writes: ‘That law which is named supreme wisdom cannot be otherwise understood than as unchangeable and eternal.’ This identification of the eternal law with divine wisdom and thus with the divine mind has profound implications for Bonaventure. The moral order of things is not rooted in the arbitrary rules of mercurial dictator; rather, the moral order reflects God’s rational plan for the entire cosmos. The moral law flows from the divine intellect and thus God’s plan for the whole universe.

Bonaventure seems to recognize that ‘natural law’ can be used in different senses. Some use it to refer to that law that nature has taught to all animals and dictates how each operates and conducts its activity. In another sense, ‘natural law is that which is common to all nations and this law is what right reason dictates.’ The natural law is a reflection of the eternal law; it is a collection of precepts. These precepts are known innately, much as the first principles of the speculative intellect, that is, the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of identity. Among these first-known precepts are such things as the golden rule – do not do to another what you would not have done to yourself – or that God is to be obeyed. If the will is naturally bound to this law, it seems that this law must be naturally known by the soul. In fact, at one point in his writings, Bonaventure defines the natural law as an impression (impressio) made in our soul by the eternal law. So deep is this impression that God will punish wrongdoers, even those without the written law (i.e., the written Mosaic law).

Bonaventure posits that there is a threefold way in which the natural law obligates. These differing modes of obligation correspond to the threefold status of human nature: before the Fall (status naturae institutae), after the Fall (status naturae lapsae), and after the written law or the law of Moses (status legis lapsae). The written law makes the natural law obligation explicit. Under the status of fallen nature, this obligation is implicit in the two precepts of the natural law: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. The obligation of the natural law under the status of created nature was both implicit and explicit. The precepts ordered to God obliged man explicitly: the precepts ordered to the neighbor obliged man implicitly. The precepts only unfolded after the multiple disorders that followed the first transgression.

The entire unfolding (explicatio) of the commandments of the Decalogue only came about after the first sin, on account of which the light of reason was obscured and the will disordered. Because of the multiple disorders of the fallen will, it was necessary to bind it through multiple commands. So, for example, it was only after the Fall that the wrong actions governed by the second table of the law became explicit. This is not to say that the natural law changed, but that it became explicit on these points.”[1]

– Christopher M. Cullen, Great Medieval Thinkers: Bonaventure


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Bonaventure, Cullen, Pg. 104, 105

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