What is Divine Law?

J.E. Holloway

In religious and legal philosophy, divine law is any law believed to have been revealed directly to humans by a higher power. Some experts view this concept as related to that of natural law, the belief that there are universal ideas of right and wrong inherent to the human condition. Belief in divinely-revealed law can be found in many cultures. Some religions have extensive bodies of this type of law, including Orthodox Judaism, which attributes many of its rules directly to divine revelation. Others may have a smaller set of laws or principles, but they may be no less influential: the secular laws of a culture may be influenced by citizens' beliefs in divine law.

A Bible.
A Bible.

The ideas of divine law and natural law are philosophically connected. Natural law is an eternal law, inherent in the nature of the world and humanity, which can be discovered by human reason. Religious philosophers, then, may view natural law as divinely revealed, while secularists locate the origins of natural law in the human consciousness, rather than in a deity. There is often considerable overlap between the two, however. For instance, in Christianity and Judaism, many of the Ten Commandments, such as the prohibitions against murder and theft, are believed to be divine law but are also present in the natural moral law.

Members of the Jewish faith believe that the Ten Commandments handed down by Moses are divine law.
Members of the Jewish faith believe that the Ten Commandments handed down by Moses are divine law.

Although many cultures consider natural law to be divine, not all divine law is natural law. Divine law can change over time because of new revelations or new interpretations, or according to some divine purpose. The Catholic Church, for example, considers the numerous ritual and dietary laws laid down in the Old Testament to be superseded by the teachings of Christ.

Belief in divine law can sometimes lead to clashes with temporal or secular law. Believers have argued that since such laws are the work of a divine power — whereas secular law is the product of human reason — the human construct is invalidated if it conflicts with revelation. For instance, Christian abolitionists in the nineteenth-century United States opposed slavery on the grounds that, although legal, it conflicted with the teachings of the Bible. The belief these laws transcend political decisions about law is known as belief in rule according to higher law.

Not all cultures treat divine law and human law as necessarily contradictory. In some societies, religious law and secular law are separate. Throughout much of the medieval period in Europe, the church was governed by its own set of laws, with the right to have its own courts and to carry out its own sentences. Other religious minorities, including members of the Jewish community, were sometimes permitted to observe their own religious laws in private life as long as they obeyed secular law in public matters.

For many people, the Ten Commandments are believed to be divine law.
For many people, the Ten Commandments are believed to be divine law.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- One of my favorite movies, and such a fascinating plot. Even more recently in English history is the troubles of Henry VIII. He wanted sons, and wanted a wife who would provide them. Only his first wife was too old, so he wanted a divorce. The Church would not grant it, so he separated England from the Catholic Church, thus beginning the English Reformation.

The United States wrangles about the separation between church and state. Divine law, moral law and civil law sometimes dovetail into each other, but mostly, they seem to stand apart.


If you've ever seen the movie "Becket," the clash between civil and church law is a major point of the movie. In the movie, a priest is accused of messing around with a young girl, and a nobleman arrests him and imprisons him, rather than handing him over to the ecclesiastical courts.

The nobleman is eventually excommunicated for not seeking absolution for what he did, which is to subject a man of the Church to civil law, rather than ecclesiastical law. Divine law is examined in that movie, to very good effect. Even though Becket is Archbishop of Canterbury, he is also Chancellor of England. Where do his loyalties lie -- with the Church or with King Henry? It's a great study.

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