A growing (?) number of conservative evangelicals are becoming aware of natural law arguments in the public square. These arguments are attractive because
- We know from experience that bringing up the Bible directly in public debates won’t likely get us anywhere.
- The Bible itself gives pretty clear support for basic natural law ideas, such as the conscience (Rom 2:15).
I’ve been reading J. Budziszewski’s Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law and C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and I’m even more convinced that the natural law does exist. I have also been impressed with Ryan T. Anderson at Public Discourse, for example, in his arguments for monogamous heterosexual marriage. I think he’s hit some fruitful veins of reasoning on that topic.
But American natural lawyers are, I think, cheating a bit (without knowing it?). Their arguments seem more plausible in our society not merely because they accord with general revelation and the natural law but because of what Paul Helm says in an article you should read:
Because the second kingdom [i.e. the common or civil kingdom as opposed to the heavenly kingdom] is presently influenced not only by the natural law, but by the operation of a residue of beliefs which have been influenced by special revelation in one form or another, by ‘traditional Christian values’ as they are sometimes called, the influence of which still lingers. The tide of faith may be in retreat in certain places, but the beach stays wetted by it for a time.
I believe that the question of the Bible’s place in the public square is an all-important one right now as same-sex marriage comes to the cultural fore. I’m prepared—I’m thrilled—to use careful natural law arguments, because I do believe that I can tap into a residual knowledge of God in lost people, a knowledge they have suppressed.
But I know that what non-Christians in the public square and beyond it need is to hear from God, and who else will tell them but conservative evangelicals? Ultimately, even the authority of the natural law stems from God Himself. So at this point, though I’m happy to use natural law arguments, I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture for public theology.
Very thought-provoking, mainly because I haven’t thought much about natural law maybe. Do you think that natural law could also get us into trouble because it could go astray pretty quickly when it’s not explicitly rooted in Scripture? I wonder if some of our core Western values today (freedom, equality, justice, and the problematic notion of “rights”) which I think have roots in a Christian ethic aren’t going terribly awry.
If I were to continue discussing natural law, at some point pretty soon I’d have to distinguish various natural law schools. (Natural law schools… Do they study in the woods? Can you get a natural J.D.?) Not every theologian uses natural law in the same way. I was somewhat surprised to see J. Budziszewski, for example, speaking so clearly about the importance of special revelation.
Listen to a few other things he says:
I don’t yet fully know what to think about his argument that we can’t get far by proclaiming “The Bible says.” But I lean against it. And that’s the reason for the post above. At the very least, I want to preserve opportunities to say, “The Bible says” to nonbelievers—especially when I have to admit that I wouldn’t have come up with a given moral position at all were it not for special revelation.
I’d concur with Jeremy’s assessment. If you read the Reformed Scholastics on this issue you’ll find them very aware of the danger that you highlight. I would recommend Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003),1:270-308 for an overview of their thought.
Another positive use of natural law is that it helps account for why pagan nations are morally good in certain areas. This is the point made by Calvin in Institutes 4.29.16.