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A Biblical Case for Natural Law: A Response Essay

Nelson D. Kloosterman

A Biblical Case for Natural Law, by David VanDrunen. Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics, no. 1. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute [2006], 75 pages, $6.00, paper.

Introduction

This response expands upon material published in New Horizons, vol. 28, no. 6 (June 2007), pages 22-23. Since that review of Dr. VanDrunen's monograph omitted any detailed exploration of the exegetical and theological nuances of a Reformed response to his work, I am grateful for this opportunity to expand and deepen that analysis in these pages. Once again, however, space limitations compel me to be far more concise than I wish. This essay has two parts, the first of which offers an exegesis of relevant key texts, while the second provides a theological analysis of VanDrunen's two-kingdom proposal.

1. Biblical Interpretation

Romans 1:18-21

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Of central relevance is the key phrase, "who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." Here "suppress" means to hold in restraints, to hold under. The phrase "the truth" (with the article) refers to all that is really true, to the inner essence of things—not simply to truth about God, but to all truth, in every area and in every respect, especially in its essential interrelatedness. The phrase "by unrighteousness" suggests that various forms of unrighteousness are used to enwrap and smother the truth, to push it down, so that people do not come to know the inner essence of things.

The apostle continues by saying that "what can be known about God" is manifest. The adjective "manifest" indicates the objective visibility or knowability, without including the suggestion that what is manifest is also subjectively observed, seen, and known (on a cloudy day, the sun is really visible, but not to those on the ground). Subjective seeing and knowing depend in part on the disposition of the person as spectator. The context suggests that people have in a sense observed this divine revelation, but have nonetheless failed to give it proper attention, and therefore have not come to the true knowledge and acknowledgement of God. God has indeed given revelation, but by their culpable inattention and sinful stubbornness, people have not allowed it to bring them unto the proper knowledge and worship and service of God.

Further explanation appears in vs. 19-20. The content and scope of divine revelation in nature are identified: "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world." God's attributes are imprinted on the whole cosmos, such that things are knowable as having been created by God's almighty power and wisdom. God has revealed himself (v. 19), so that his divine majesty is knowable when the works of his hands in the creation and governance of the world are ruminatingly beheld (v. 20). But unregenerate man refuses to be led by them unto the proper exaltation of God (v. 21). When the apostle observes that "their foolish hearts were darkened," this darkness and folly point to human depravity whereby the unregenerate person does not and cannot properly relate what must be connected, or reason properly, or rightly perceive the essential relationships among reality.

Summary: On the basis of this passage, then, our disagreement with contemporary post-Enlightenment Reformed advocacy of natural law is both epistemological and ethical. We deny that unregenerate sinners can derive a true code of morality from creation. The mind of the unregenerate person is darkened by sin, perverted by rebellion against God, and incapable of apprehending divine truth about right and wrong. Natural revelation communicates truth about God, about right and wrong, and about oneself; nevertheless, special revelation is absolutely required (positively) to apprehend these truths, and (negatively) to correct inevitable misapprehensions drawn by fallen creatures from natural revelation. In its doctrines of creation and human depravity, Scripture teaches that natural law can never (nor could ever) be rightly apprehended apart from special revelation. Second, as to the ethical objection, the will of the unregenerate person is incapable of conforming to a true code of morality derived from creation, since the natural man cannot, does not, and will not do what he in some measure senses to be good and right, since he actively suppresses all truth in unrighteousness.[1]

Romans 2:14-16

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Here, "nature" is contrasted to "law," the latter referring in context to the written Mosaic law. Frequently interpreters think Paul is invoking Stoic ideas that had passed through the Judaism of his day. The Stoics taught the existence of natural law, which by virtue of nature supposedly applies to all people and is essentially unchangeable.

From Paul's argument, however, it seems clear that, for him, "nature" is not the source of any moral norms, of which then the law was supposedly the objectification. Rather, precisely the reverse was the case: this doing "by nature" (note the Greek dative noun) what the law requires indeed demonstrates the power of the law. Therefore, nature does not and cannot function here as an independent source of "increated" or "innate" moral knowledge of God and his will. Paul is speaking here simply of a doing "by nature" or doing naturally that which the law demands; the phrase could almost be rendered: "doing spontaneously." Paul is not introducing here a notion of natural law alongside the Mosaic law. He argues that the pagans do by nature the things which the law requires, even as the Jews themselves know these things.

It is crucial to observe, regarding v.15, that Paul does not say that the law is written upon the hearts of Gentiles. This is a common misinterpretation, and leads interpreters in turn to misconstrue the teaching of Jeremiah 31:33, which speaks of the Holy Spirit writing God's law on the human heart—something that can be predicated only of those who believe in Jesus Christ. Rather, the apostle says that the work of the law is written on their hearts—referring to "the things of the law" stipulated in v. 14. The "work of the law" is best seen as referring to the moral commands contained in the Mosaic law (Berkouwer[2]; Moo; Schreiner). Paul is pointing out that the Gentiles know the commands contained in the Mosaic law. This matter is expressed well by Henry Stob who observed that since it is not the law, but the work of the law, that is written on the human heart, Paul is indicating that "in the consciousness of the unregenerate an effect of the law's 'operation' is registered."[3] The law of God makes its existence felt in the minds of the unregenerate, engendering an awareness of good and evil, a perception of some of the law's demands, and a certain capacity for evaluating their own conduct in terms of this awareness.

Rather than follow those who argue that Paul was borrowing concepts from surrounding cultures, on the basis of Romans 2:14-15 we would reverse the direction: that which we find in God's law written upon stone tablets and deposited in "the law and the prophets" is precisely what we rediscover among pagans, because it is the work of precisely that law, the work which they received from God written in their hearts. Calvin's assertion that the moral law is nothing other than a testimony of the law of nature which God engraved on the hearts of people,[4] we would formulate in the opposite direction: that which God engraved on the hearts of people is nothing other than a testimony of the moral law.

Summary: We will not misconstrue the "work of the law" which we discern everywhere in the world if we move from that work to the law itself—ending up not with natural law, but with the Bible. For there we find the hermeneutical key with which to interpret any good and any virtue which we encounter in the world around us. The universal is clarified by the particular, the general by the special, the human by the Christian—and not the other way around. By contrast, much contemporary approval of post-Enlightenment natural law ethics moves in the reverse direction, employing the lex naturae as the hermeneutical key for understanding the lex scripturae.

2. Theological Analysis: Two Kingdoms

Following Augustine, Luther divided humanity into two groups: those who belong to the kingdom of God, and those who belong to the kingdom of the world. The kingdom of God, over which Christ rules as King, is not of this world (John 18:36-37). In the kingdom of God, Jesus Christ through his Spirit rules by the Word, while in the kingdom of the world, God the Father rules by the sword. According to Luther, these two kingdoms must be carefully distinguished from one another. The gospel governs the spiritual kingdom; the law governs the worldly kingdom. Faith operates within the spiritual kingdom; reason operates within the worldly kingdom.

This duality is closely related to Luther's soteriology. In the spiritual kingdom we receive the righteousness which frees us from our sins, only through the work of Christ, which we receive entirely passively—through faith alone. This is the iustitia fidei, the righteousness of faith. But another kind of righteousness does involve our works, one which in no way functions as the basis for our salvation, but one which permits us to be busy in the world and to benefit our neighbor. Luther termed this "civil righteousness," iustitia civilis or iustitia politica. Iustitia fidei operates coram Deo (before God), while iustitia politica functions coram hominibus (before men). The former is an internal, the latter an external righteousness. Faith directs us to look above, while love impels us to look around. The gospel functions in the spiritual kingdom, and the law functions in the worldly kingdom. In order to safeguard the sola fidei of salvation, Luther distinguished these two realms so sharply. He broke with the higher-lower paradigm of grace-nature, and replaced it with the two kingdoms alongside one another, both under God.

Critics of Luther's two kingdom doctrine have alleged that it has led to a dualism, to an autonomous ethic in the worldly kingdom, and to a double morality (one Christian, the other secular). Although there may be some validity to these criticisms, we must nevertheless acknowledge that Luther's emphasis on vocation, on the Christian's task in the world, ought to have rescued his doctrine from such abuses. Although he distinguished these realms, he never hesitated to speak of Christians living in the worldly kingdom as Christians. Moreover, when Luther insisted that temporal and physical life must be subject to the dictates of reason, he meant that one cannot build a house or rule a nation simply with an open Bible. This seems acceptable, as long as reason is not declared to be autonomous reason—and we must remember that Luther lived and taught before the Enlightenment! Luther tied the exercise of reason closely to Scripture. Mankind, said Luther, has nothing better than the law of God which enlightens and directs human reason.[5]

So Luther distinguished sharply between iustitia fidei and iustitia civilis, between gospel and law, between faith and works, between faith toward God and love toward neighbor. Despite these sharp distinctions, however, Luther saw all of these as indissolubly connected in the Christian life. The righteousness of faith is the foundation, cause, and origin of all human righteousness manifested in life. Luther's view of Christian political life was christocentric.

But ... Luther stopped short of saying that the reins of the worldly kingdom rest in the hands of Jesus Christ. The sword of the civil kingdom does not fit with Christ's modus operandi. Christ serves, but does not rule, in this kingdom. If there is any "ruling" in the worldly kingdom, it is a rule by love. The kingdom of Christ, the spiritual kingdom, is the kingdom of the Crucified One. His regime is marked not by divine power, wisdom, and majesty, but by incarnation, by suffering, and by dying. Luther avoided using the phrase "the lordship of Jesus Christ," and subordinated the kingly office of Christ to his priestly office.[6]

When you read Calvin's Institutes, you will discover that this Genevan reformer stood entirely with Luther in distinguishing between spiritual and civil government (3.19.15; 4.20). One important difference between Calvin and Luther, however, is that Calvin developed more systematically what he saw to be the goal of government: "in short, that a public form of religion may exist among Christians, and humanity among men" (4.20.3).

In following Calvin rather than Luther on this point, we may ask: What benefits accrue to relating human politics (indeed, all of society with its cultural institutions) to Christ's kingship? Here is our answer: (1) we obtain a better sense of the unity between the spiritual and the worldly kingdoms; (2) we are in a better position to give an account and rationale for the diversity and integrity within and among the worldly and spiritual kingdoms. Within both kingdoms there is service and dominion, both of which have been demonstrated in their essential unity through Jesus Christ himself!

Perhaps it is better, after all, not to speak of two kingdoms, but rather of various offices. Parents, for example, exercise both worldly and spiritual power over their children. Illustrative of the problematic two-kingdom construction being advocated by VanDrunen is the question: To which of the two kingdoms, worldly or spiritual, must we assign marriage and the family? Far better to speak of various offices (husband, father, citizen, employer, etc.), each of which demonstrates its own unique manner of service and rule. A prince, a father, an employer, a minister—each of them rules, but in very different ways. We must speak in a more pluriform fashion than Luther did. No one office is more or less worldly or spiritual than another, but all have been integrated and ordered in Christ Jesus.

What Then of Morality and Virtue among Unbelievers?

In his 1985 essay Henry Stob registered the important observation that the law of God is one, it is single, it is unitary. It is constant and universal because it reflects God's self-consistent being and unchanging purpose. "It is because the moral law is singular that there is the amount of agreement that we do in fact observe in the moral judgments and practices of people everywhere."[7] This means, among other things, that when Christians enter the public square to proclaim and defend that unitary law of God as it has been most fully, clearly, and authoritatively revealed in Scripture, they should not think they are defending some "special" or "private" law, but rather they are setting forth something suited to all human beings by virtue of their creation by this God.

Why have Reformed theologians (and the Reformed Confessions) continued to speak of natural light, natural law, and innate law? Because of the existence among unbelievers of a certain regard for righteousness, justice, and love. Scripture itself observes such inclinations among unbelievers (Abimelech of Gerar, Gen. 20:4; Sergius Paulus, Acts 13:7; Felix, Acts 24:11; the kindness of Julius, Acts 27:3; the hospitality of Publius, Acts 28:7). Scripture contains guidelines pertaining to marriage, family, and treatment of servants that have much in common with extra-biblical instruction (which is not yet to say that Scripture writers "borrowed" from extra-biblical writers for their content). Jesus even indicated that often the children of this world show more wisdom than the children of light (Luke 16:8).[8]

All of this is related to the matter of the continuation of the imago Dei after the Fall. Is the unbeliever still the imago Dei? Along with many Reformed theologians, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. replies with a "yes and no." He makes a remarkable claim regarding the negative mode and functioning of the imago Dei:

But, apart from that [regenerative] working of the Spirit, being the image in no way alleviates or extenuates human sinfulness; being the image is the presupposition for being a sinner. The unbeliever remains the image of God, entirely, but only "in a negative mode." Every single capacity enjoyed as an image-bearer is engaged in rebellion against God.[9]

Gaffin's evaluation of the heart-orientation of unbelievers reflects John Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 1:20 and 3:19 (these comments have been omitted for space reasons, but they are truly important).[10]

Some Calvin interpreters who seek to delimit the place and function within Calvin's theology of natural theology and natural law will begin by saying: not unto salvation; such knowledge is not spiritual knowledge; such natural capacity and knowledge cannot save. Natural law has its limits; it cannot get one to heaven. But that does not at all render it unusable as the moral standard for the civil kingdom.

The reader will certainly find these caveats and limitations in Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 1:20. But reread Calvin on this passage, and notice that these caveats are followed immediately and directly with this evaluation:

It is also true, in other ways, that apart from Christ every branch of human knowledge is futile, and the man, who is well grounded in every aspect of learning, but is yet ignorant of God, has nothing. Furthermore, this must also be said, in all truth, that these fine gifts of God: quickness of mind, shrewd judgement, liberal sciences, knowledge of languages, all are in some way spoiled, whenever they fall into the hands of ungodly men.[11]

The problem, then, is not simply that natural knowledge cannot lead to knowledge of God in Christ—concerning this we agree with contemporary Reformed natural-law-two-kingdom advocates—but the problem is also that unbelieving man always abuses even the natural knowledge he possesses. Unless and until these gifts become subject to the Word and Spirit of God, they must be looked upon as vain and empty. This is the unequivocal teaching of the Reformed Confessions, especially Canons of Dort III/IV.4, Westminster Confession 6.4, and Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 96.

Excursus: A Case Study in a Reformed Application of Natural Law[12]

For some time now, Dr. VanDrunen has been pleading for the reconsideration of natural law theory. He is concerned to teach Christians how to make arguments in the public square about moral and political issues. VanDrunen argues that the moral standards of the natural law are known to every person, whether believer or unbeliever, to such an extent that most people would admit that murder, stealing, and lying are immoral.

Of all the contemporary public moral debates which could serve to illustrate the validity of appealing to natural law, surely legalized abortion is the preeminent issue. Let us observe how such an appeal to natural law could work, according to VanDrunen, who summarizes his position this way:

As observed above, nearly everyone, at some level, believes that life is valuable and therefore that lethal violence against others should be prohibited by law. Most people would also agree that this applies, perhaps especially, to those who are weak and unable to defend themselves. Based upon such convictions, people today overwhelmingly condemn infanticide as a terrible crime. Beginning from this widespread acknowledgment of natural law truth, we could attempt to show how these proper moral sentiments are inconsistent with a pro-choice abortion position.[13]

The italicized qualifiers are important to VanDrunen's position: nearly everyone, at some level, overwhelmingly agrees, on the basis of widespread acknowledgement, that infanticide is wrong.

But, really, how universally accessible and how functionally reliable is this "natural truth" when there are numerous societies throughout history that have practiced infanticide, even as a religious gesture?! Moreover, by what objective, transcendent, trans-cultural, and trans-historical standard are the moral sentiments which VanDrunen affirms (respect for life, aversion to violence, and defense of the weak) judged to be proper at all, whether by the social consensus or by VanDrunen? In other words, how can we know which social consensus to accept as normative?

His concluding encouragement is this: "Based upon the social consensus that infanticide is immoral, then, a compelling argument can be made, based upon observation of the natural process of fetal development, that life should be protected from conception on."[14]

This crowning sentence clearly embodies exactly what Reformed opponents of post-Enlightenment natural law theory have warned against.

Twice within the same sentence, we read that moral argument in the public square can be "based upon" something: (1) "the social consensus that infanticide is immoral," and (2) "observation of the natural process of fetal development." Here we have two fallacies within the same sentence, namely, the sociological fallacy and a form of the naturalistic fallacy. The former fallacy is committed by arguing from majority opinion to moral evaluation (social consensus is the basis for judging infanticide to be immoral), while the second arises when arguing from what "is" to what "ought" to be (the natural process of fetal development is the basis for judging infanticide to be immoral). What makes both of these to be fallacies is that they move from description to prescription.

Social consensus and natural process are unstable, varying, or open to differing interpretations. Some have derived from nature the notion that women should perform military duty alongside men, since nature teaches us that female animals fight ferociously to protect their offspring. Others argue from the behavior of bees in defense of human communal living without private property. Others appeal to the order of bee colonies to defend the principle of monarchy. Nature teaches virtue, it is claimed. But nature also teaches vice, when we observe the negative behavior of animals. Some animals eat their offspring, rather than defend them.

What, then, qualifies "natural" behavior as virtuous or vicious? Answer: we come to nature with our previously endorsed scale of values. Because industry is already considered a virtue, we exalt those creatures that display it. Because monarchy is already thought preferable to aristocracy or democracy, bees are a good moral example. It is simply not the case that people "read nature" objectively, but rather they engage in circular reasoning.

Someone could construct a "compelling argument," analogous to VanDrunen's case against abortion, in order to defend legalizing homosexual marriages. Here it is: "Based upon the growing social consensus that homosexual intercourse is morally acceptable, and based upon observation of the personal physical and emotional satisfaction derived from such a practice, every consensual form of homosexual expression should be legalized and afforded every civil protection." Why not?

With deep concern, and with all due respect, I ask: Is this, then, the best moral argument that natural law can supply to us Christians who must work and witness in the public square alongside unbelievers blinded by sin and rebellious in heart?

Conclusion

Dr. VanDrunen's monograph provides us all with an opportunity to converse about some very important issues involving our use of moral argument, the church's function within culture, the nature of the Christian's public testimony and cultural engagement, and the like. During recent decades we've been offered an array of programmatic answers, including Bahnsen's theonomy, Niebuhr-style cultural transformationalism, the Christendom of Christian Reconstruction, the modern Anabaptism of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and now VanDrunen's NL2K.

In contrast, with his teaching in the areas of apologetics, epistemology, and ethics, Cornelius Van Til has shown us the mistaken assessments and answers supplied by non-Reformed thought, including those proffered by a coalition of Roman Catholic and post-Enlightenment theorists who have joined together in denying the absolute necessity of special revelation for properly apprehending and rightly using general revelation. Somehow, Van Til's enduring contribution needs to be integrated into this conversation.

So, let the conversation continue!

Endnotes

[1] See Peter J. Leithart, "Natural Law: A Reformed Critique," Premise, Volume III, number 2 (1996).

[3] Henry Stob, "Natural Law Ethics: An Appraisal," Calvin Theological Journal 20, no. 1 (April 1985): 63.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. (1559 repr., Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.20.16.

[5] Martin Luther, WA 40, 1, 306, 5ff.: homo non habet maius in terris quam legem, quae illuminat et dirigt rationem humanum. For the analysis offered above, see J. Douma, Politieke Verantwoordelijkheid (Kampen: van den Berg, 1984), 76.

[6] E. Mülhaupt, "Herrschaft Christi bei Luther," in Reich Gottes und Welt, ed. By H.H. Schrey (Darmstadt 1969), 435; for discussion of this thesis, see J. Douma, Politieke Verantwoordelijkheid, 77-87.

[7] J. Douma, Natuurrecht—een betrouwbare gids? (Groningen: Vuurbaak, 1978), 67-68.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., "Some Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor 2:6-16," Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 121 (103-124).

[10] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. by John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960 [reprinted 1989]) 38-39, 81.

[11] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 39.

[12] David VanDrunen, "Natural Law and Christians in the Public Square," Modern Reformation 15, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 12-14.

[13] VanDrunen, "Natural Law and Christians in the Public Square," 14; italics added.

[14] VanDrunen, "Natural Law and Christians in the Public Square," 14.

Nelson D. Kloosterman, an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches, is professor of Ethics and New Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. Ordained Servant, December 2007.

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