It is sometimes called natural law.
Before quoting the classic statement about natural or moral law from the fifth-century playwright Sophocles, in his play Antigone, here is the context.
Antigone’s brother Polynices attacked the city of Thebes and was killed, along with his brother Eteocles who, defending the city, fought against him–both brothers dead on the same day. Their uncle, Creon, takes the vacant throne of Thebes and orders that no one is to bury Polynices, but leave his body out in the open. To bury him brings the death penalty.
Antigone says no. Not even the gods of heaven deny the jurisdictions of the other gods. She ritually sprinkles the body with dirt and is caught. She is caught and hauled into the court. Creon asks why she disobeyed his recent decree.
She replies that natural justice is unwritten and unshakable, everlasting, from the first of time. Human laws are temporary and fluctuating.
It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation—not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light.
Though this excerpt come from pagan Greece, it reveals that natural or moral law is numinous and just seems to occupy the universe. It is unwritten. Antigone uses her conscience and reason to figure out that burying her brother is honorable and decent.
Let’s move to the Christian view of things.
It is “a moral order divinely implanted in humankind and accessible to all persons through human reason” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. p. 814).
From a theological standpoint, especially among Catholics, eternal law, which resides with God and his will, gets impressed upon humans, who potentially participate in their divinely appointed end or goal (“end” in this context means “goal,” as in “end zone” in football). Humans can either obey or disobey moral law.
People can deduce what moral law is by using reason and logic; it can be considered the law of doing good and avoiding evil, the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you), and the moral part of the Ten Commandments (i.e. honor your father and mother; don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t covet).
However, Protestants, generally speaking, are skeptical of human reason in figuring out moral law. Human reason is too badly damaged and warped. Some go so far as to say only Scripture can guide humankind, not logic and reason apart from Scripture.
But these same theologians also seem to concede that the main location in humankind to be impressed with moral law is the conscience. It is enough to give an awareness of all that God commands.
General revelation is also another aspect of this discussion. It is called general because it is available to everyone generally, not just to an elect few who get special revelation. General revelation comes through observing nature (e.g. death is unpleasant, so don’t murder); through seeing God directing history (we have developed new sources of food and technology); and through an inner sense of God’s existence and his law that “he has placed inside every person” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 7E). We could add human improvement in educational methods and child-rearing and family life. We have learned it is not good for the baby in the womb if the mother smokes and drinks alcohol; doing so is against the law, if not a civil law, then the moral law for sure.
It is a great blessing that humans have a sense of moral law because otherwise there would be no moral restraint. All humans can have a general sense of right and wrong, so believer and unbeliever alike can create civil law and community standards and ethical behavior, overturning bad laws (e.g. ones permitting slavery) and developing better ones (e.g. promoting legal equality regardless of racial background). Justice or a sense of fairness in dealing with other humans can be perceived or logically deduced from moral law.
Some more skeptical members of society don’t believe in the divine aspect of moral law. They assert that they can discover it by reason and trial and error along, without God impressing it on them. They know murder is wrong because experiencing it in your family is horrible and devastating. Inference: don’t commit murder. But experience is a cruel teacher–there’s a dead man laying on the ground. So it’s best to listen to special or biblical revelation, which confirms moral or natural law.
Either way, moral law is essential for society to function well. Without it, there would be chaos and a dog-eat-dog world, one of tooth and claw.
Moral law is essential for peace and harmony in the human’s conscience, in daily living and in society.
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