Archive E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law

Natural Law in Romans 2:14-15: Tertullian

Now we turn back the clock by a couple of centuries to include a very interesting passage from Tertullian’s De corona militis, written around the turn of the third century. Tertullian emphasizes strongly here that there is a natural order that is naturally perceptible to us even now, in spite of the Devil’s marring of creation. It is available “out there” in the world and “in here” in our hearts. What is perceptible is not only the law-aspect of nature, but the existence, supremacy, goodness, and righteousness of God, nature’s creator and orderer, whom we invoke as judge “according to nature.” Tertullian thus admits of both a natural ethic and a natural theology. We should bear this traditionalist streak in mind when we encounter one of the ubiquitous references to his “Athens/Jerusalem” dichotomy.


Quaeres igitur Dei legem? Habes communem istam in publico mundi, in naturalibus tabulis ad quas et apostolus solet provocare, ut cum in velamine feminae: “Nec natura, inquit, vos docet?”, ut cum ad Romanos, natura facere dicens nationes ea quae sunt legis, et legem naturalem suggerit et naturam legalem. Sed et in priore epistula naturalem usum conditionis in non naturalem masculos et feminas inter se demutasse affirmans ex retributione erroris in vicem poenae, utique naturalibus patrocinatur. Ipsum Deum secundum naturam prius novimus, scilicet deum appellantes deorum, et bonum praesumentes et iudicem invocantes. Quaeris an conditioni eius fruendae natura nobis debeat praeire? Ne illa vi rapiamur qua Dei aemulus universam conditionem, certis usibus homini mancipatam, cum ipso homine corrupit: unde eam et apostolus invitam ait vanitati succidisse, vanis primum usibus, tum turpibus et iniustis et impiis subversam. Sic itaque et circa voluptates spectaculorum infamata conditio est ab eis qui natura quidem omnia Dei sentiunt, ex quibus spectacula instruuntur, scientia autem deficiunt illud quoque intellegere, omnia esse a diabolo mutata. Sed et huic materiae propter suaviludios nostros Graeco quoque stilo satis fecimus. (De corona militis 6)

Will you therefore seek the law of God (Dei legem)? You have the shared one (communem istam) available publicly in the world (in publico mundi), in the natural tablets to which also the Apostle is accustomed to call attention, as when, in the matter of the veiling of a woman, he says, “Doesn’t nature teach you?”, as when to the Romans, saying that the nations by nature do the things which belong to the law, he suggests both a law that exists according to nature (legem naturalem) and a nature that exists according to law (naturam legalem). But also in the earlier part of the letter, affirming that men and women have exchanged among themselves the natural use of their created condition (naturalem usum conditionis) for an unnatural one from the repayment of their error through the recompense of punishment, he clearly defends what is by nature (naturalibus).  God himself we know first according to nature (secundum naturam), naming him God of gods, both assuming him to be good and invoking him as judge. Do you ask whether nature ought to be leader for us for enjoying his [i.e., God’s] arrangement of creation (conditioni)?–[Yes, it should,] in order that we may not be carried away by that violence by which the enemy (aemulus) of God has corrupted all ordered nature (universam conditionem), subjected to man for sure uses, along with man himself: whence  also the apostle says that it, unwilling, fell victim to vanity, overthrown first by vain uses, then by shameful and unrighteous and ungodly ones. Thus, therefore, likewise in the pleasures of the shows (spectaculorum) has the natural arrangement of creation (conditio) been disgraced by those who perceive that all the things from which the spectacles are prepared belong to God by nature, indeed, but who are wanting in the knowledge (scientia) to understand the following fact as well: that all things have been changed by the devil. But in fact we have treated this material sufficiently on account of our play-lovers in a Greek work too. (On the Crown of the Soldier 6)1



  1. The text is that available here; the translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.