Natural law as a concept in ethics goes back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelian and Stoic. These philosophers believed that there are natural laws, moral principles that can be discovered in nature (particularly human nature) by reason and conscience. Of course, Aristotle and the Stoics were not concerned about the role of Scripture in ethics. But early, medieval, and Reformation Christians, seeking to integrate Greek philosophy with the Bible, asked how natural law and Scripture are related in our ethical decisions.
The problem with this was especially difficult in Protestant theology was two fold. First, Reformed theology argued both for man’s total depravity – meaning that man, being dead in his sins and trespasses, uses his reason with an agenda in order to escape the God ordained meaning of the universe. Second a problem for Natural law in Protestant theology, is found in the Reformers insistence on both the sufficiency of Scripture and the authority of Scripture for all of life.
Dr. David VanDrunen who serves on the Faculty of a prestigious Reformed
Seminary defines natural law as
“the moral order inscribed in the world and especially in human nature, an order that is known to all people through their natural faculties (especially reason and/or conscience) even apart from supernatural divine revelation that binds morally the whole human race.”
Other definitions takes from assorted encyclopedias and and standard reference works define Natural law as,
“Human beings by their own reason, can gain knowledge of the ethically good without reference to God’s revelation.”
“… those absolute and universal value imperatives that are innate in the reason of every individual and necessarily come into the consciousness with the development of the mind … a means of emancipation from the supernatural ontology.”
Natural moral law – “the notion that there are true, universally binding moral principles knowable by all people and rooted in creation and the way things are made.”
“A body of law derived from nature and binding upon human society … discernable … by right reason… but not directly revealed.”
In all of these definitions the common theme is that fallen man, starting from himself, without presupposing the revelation of the God of the Bible, can interpret the world aright and come to proper conclusions regarding the order and meaning of reality. Man, by this theory, though he can not be saved by Natural law, he can, quite apart from the revelation of Scripture, order his life aright.
Of course we instantly begin to wonder how an attraction to and embrace of Natural Law escapes charges of some kind of humanism. We wonder this because the whole premise of Natural law is that man, starting from himself, quite apart from an acknowledged God or His revelation, can arrive at conclusions that are God honoring and respecting.
For the students in my Wednesday classes you need to know that this concept of Natural law as it came to be embraced by Christendom was largely the work of Thomas Aquinas. You see here some of what we spoke of last Wednesday and that is this idea of two ways to truth. One mediator of truth was Scripture but another mediator of truth was Natural law.
Today we are going to look at one of the texts in Scripture that Natural law theorists go to support their theories. I trust we will see that the text in Romans 2 in no way supports Natural Law thinking. However, before we start that I want us to see, in miniature that there are, from a Biblical understanding profound problems with Natural law.
1.) Though we concede that there is indeed General Revelation – the world is suffused with the reality of God and His truth – we do not concede that Natural law as a proscriptive model is a means of truth whereupon men can find meaning in the universe with the purpose of ordering their lives aright. We recall that Romans 1 clearly teaches that whatever Revelation God sends wicked men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Natural law is defeated by the truth that fallen men have an agenda to overthrow any agenda of God that is set forth in and by a putative Natural law.
Romans 1 says this explicitly’
26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
You see here that the natural use is exchanged for what is against nature. Natural law proclaims that men and women go together but fallen man, determined to overthrow God’s order, rebel against God’s natural law.
We see here that the problem with Natural law is not that God isn’t sending but the problem is that fallen man isn’t receiving. Fallen man is a radio receiver that is determined to pick up any channel except WGOD.
This brings us to our second overall problem with Natural law
2.) Natural Law doesn’t take seriously the reality of the fall.
The fall has vitiated all of man’s intellectual, emotional, volitional and psychological capacities. This is not to say that fallen man is as wicked as he could possibly be but it is to say that fallen man has determined that God shall not rule over him. If we take the consequences of the fall seriously than we would have to say that any project (like Natural Law) which posits that fallen man can order his life aright apart from Scripture is a project that does not take seriously the effect of the fall in terms of human depravity.
Scripture teaches in Romans 8:7 that the carnal mind is at enmity with God. Now how can a mind that is at enmity at God interpret God’s Natural Law aright? Scripture teaches that
“14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
How can someone who does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, because he is dead in his trespasses and sins, supposed to collect and know truth starting from himself in consideration of a God drenched universe that only has meaning in relationship to the meaning that God gives the universe?
The whole testimony of Scripture points to the reality that fallen man does not order his life aright via Natural Law. Here is one pertinent portion that reveals that,
17 This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
The Ephesians passage gives us a glimpse of what the fall looks like as it works itself out to its consistent end in the life of the pagan. No amount of Natural law can stem the unraveling of society and culture once the effects of the fall begin to follow their logical course.
3.) A third problem that Reformed / Biblical people have with Natural law is that it defies what the Scripture says about God’s Law.
Scripture teaches that not some amorphous, un-agreed upon Natural Law but Biblical law is the standard for men,
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Do not miss “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” I take every good work to mean every good work and not every good work circumscribed to some area that is religious that is cordoned off from some area that is secular. I believe that Paul in this passage in Timothy is just agreeing with the sentiments in Isaiah on the necessity to attend to the “law and to the testimony,” which is the corpus of Scripture.
Now we have looked at these problems but you need to know that Natural law theory has been embraced through the centuries by many leading lights in the Reformed world. Indeed, a case can be made that there is a sense in which Christian civilization was built upon Natural law. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time here but it is my contention that Natural law theorizing only worked because such theorizing existed in the context of a people who were grounded in Christian presuppositions and reared and saturated in a Biblical mindset. Natural law theory can work in that kind of societal order because the preponderance of people, being Christian or influenced by Christian categories, are going to read Natural law as communicating back to them their pre-existent premises with which they are reading the Natural law.
However, Natural law cannot work in a post-Christian culture, characterized by poly-pluralism, poly-faithism, and multiculturalism as a means of stabilizing a social order. In point of fact in that kind of setting – the kind of setting we live in today – Natural Law can only create chaos as each grouping of people insist that Natural law sets forth whatever ethics or lack of ethics that their respective faith systems advocate. The Muslim insists that it is self-evident that Natural law teaches Sharia law. The pagan insists that it is self evident that Natural law teaches homosexuality. The Christian insists that it is self-evident that Natural law teaches a Christian law order. Let the conflict begin.
Now all of this is then complicated a thousand fold by the reality that there is no one agreed upon theory on what Natural Law is or how it is arrived at.
The respected Natural Law theorist, Dr. Howard Kainz, was honest enough to admit in his writing that when you examine the Natural law theories of …
“Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, Aquinas, Surez, Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, Pufendorf, and Kant … there are major differences in the approaches and presuppositions and tenets, so that it would seem to be oversimplifying and misleading to talk about multiple applications of “the” natural law … One thinks of the various “natural law” movements taking place now … which have by no means tried to arrive at a consensus about what is meant by Natural law, or about which theory offers the best expression of Natural law.”
The German scholar Erik Wolf in 1955 counted over 120 conflicting definition of the words “nature” and “law.” A recent effort reached over 200 definitions before they stopped counting. One dictionary has 36 different definitions of the word “nature.” Is reason a part of nature or is nature a part of reason? Inquiring minds want to know. Is “nature” out there? up there? in there? in here? Natural law doesn’t seem to know.
It seems that Natural law does not even clearly reveal what Natural law itself is. If Natural law can not even clearly reveal what Natural law itself is then how can we expect Natural law to be a social order governing mechanism by which societies and cultures can be structured?
Now add to all this that Natural law has been invoked over the centuries to support everything from infanticide among the Romans to homosexuality among the Greeks to chattel man stealing slavery among the West and you begin to see that the house of Natural law is a old dilapidated thing that only the most desperate of people would like to inhabit.
And yet the Natural law project marches on and is experiencing a slight revival today in some obscure corners of the Reformed Church.
We believe that what Dr. Cornelius Van Til in a letter he penned to Francis Schaeffer regarding Natural Theology is equally true for Natural law,
“I think you will agree then, that no form of Natural Theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there. None of the great Greek philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle and none of the great modern philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, or Kierkegaard and others, have ever spoken of the God who is there. The systems of thought these men represent a repression of the revelations of the God who is there. However, no man has, from a study and of the facts of nature by means of observation and ratiocination, ever come to the conclusion that he is a creature of God and that he is a sinner in the sight of God, who, unless he repents, abides under the wrath of God.”
And John Frame,
“So the Biblical view of the natural world is intensely personalistic. Natural events come from God, the personal Lord. He also employs angels and human beings to do His work in the world. But the idea that there is some impersonal mechanism called ‘nature’ or ‘natural law’ that governs the universe is absent from the Bible. So is the notion of an ultimate ‘randomness’ as postulated by some exponents of quantum mechanics.”