Natural Law

by Feb 21, 2013Culture, Mission, Preaching, Theology3 comments

A growing (?) number of conservative evangelicals are becoming aware of natural law arguments in the public square. These arguments are attractive because

  1. We know from experience that bringing up the Bible directly in public debates won’t likely get us anywhere.
  2. 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.


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  1. Jeremy Patterson

    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.

  2. Mark L Ward Jr

    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.

    Now it may be asked why a Christian should be interested in natural law at all. If one already has the Bible, what use is it? At best it would merely repeat in cursive a small part of what God had already written in great block letters. Moreover, like any other person the Christian may well doubt whether there is such a thing as natural law at all. If there were, wouldn’t people act more as though they knew it? It may seem as though the Bible is not only the surest and most complete but the only source of moral knowledge. Surprisingly, Scripture itself gives a different account of the matter. The Bible maintains that God has not left himself without a witness among the pagans (Acts 14:17). In contrast to special revelation, provided by God to the community of faith, this may be called general revelation because it is provided by God to all mankind. According to Scripture it comes in at least five forms: (1) the testimony of creation, which speaks to us of a glorious, powerful and merciful Creator (Psalm 19:1-6; 104; Acts 14:17; Romans 1:20); (2) the fact that we are made in the image of God, which not only gives us rational and moral capacities but also tells us of an unknown Holy One who is different from our idols (Genesis 1:26-27; Acts 17:22-23); (3) the facts of our physical and emotional design, in which a variety of God’s purposes are plainly manifest (Romans 1:26-27); (4) the law of conscience, written on the heart, which, like the law of Moses, tells us what sin is but does not give us power to escape it (Romans 2:14-15); (5) the order of causality, which teaches us by linking every sin with consequences (Proverbs 1:31).

    Listen to a few other things he says:

    What is the use of the natural law? The main use of general revelation, including the natural law, is apologetics: giving a reason for the hope that lies within us. I do not mean that in apologetics we always refer to the natural law but that we depend on its existence.

    The moral variety of apologetics finds its occasion when we engage in ethical persuasion or counsel. We use the political variety, its special case, to leaven the civil law we share with our nonbelieving neighbors—for instance, when we seek agreement that life in the womb should not be destroyed, that sodomy should not be granted legal equivalence with marriage, or that sick people should be cared for and comforted instead of starved or pressured into suicide. In this area we can hardly get far by proclaiming to nonbelievers “The Bible says!” But we can get somewhere by proclaiming extrabiblical truths which we know, on biblical authority, that the nonbeliever really knows too.

    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.

  3. Brian Collins

    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.


  1. Natural Law and the Public Square | Exegesis and Theology - [...] also the recent post on natural law by my colleague Mark [...]