Natural Law: Fact or Theologians Fiction

A couple of weeks ago I casually mentioned in the Poiema ACG that the Ten Commandments are a basic summary of natural law – the moral law written in nature and on the human conscience. It certainly wasn’t a big point of conversation, but I was surprised to when my Scottish interlocutor (I mean, my friend Doug) said he thought the idea of natural law was nonsense made up by theologians. What surprised me is that the only group I knew of that denies natural law is certain segments of the Reformed community, particularly those from the Dutch Calvinist tradition influenced by Bavinck and Kuyper.

We didn’t take the time to hash out our difference of opinion that morning, but took up the discussion over lunch (Ancient Chinese Secret: bitter disagreements are easier to swallow at a Chinese Buffet). Interestingly, once we discussed it and defined terms carefully, there was little disagreement, though some still lingered on the use of natural law. This discussion reminded me that it isn’t a given we use terms in the same way (I should have known this after reading/teaching on Wright in Galatians!). So, here I want to take a few minutes to clarify what I mean by natural law and why I think it’s important.

First, by natural law I don’t mean laws of nature, as in gravity, etc. Obviously I believe in those too – last time I checked gravity still worked. But by natural law I have in mind the moral laws bound up in nature, especially human nature.

Second, by natural law I don’t mean laws that are bound up in nature apart from God. Not at all!!! By using the term natural law, I don’t mean to identify the source of the law, only it’s mode of communication. It’s natural in that God reveals his moral law to through nature as opposed to special revelation (the Bible). It is still God’s law and God is still the one who reveals it. Moreover, natural revelation is accessible to all universally whereas special revelation is not. All have been exposed to natural law, and all stand condemned by it. Not all have been exposed to God’s special revelation.

Third, by saying that natural law exists, I don’t mean to communicate we have perfect understanding or sense of it. Our intellects are fallen; our hearts are deceptive. Our sense of God’s law written in nature and the human conscience is warped and twisted as the image of God in us is warped and twisted. Therefore, questions can certainly be raised about the value of natural law for guiding us in morality. On the other hand, while our sense of natural law may be sckeewed, that doesn’t affect the objective presence of a natural law. If I’m not aware there’s a law prohibiting public nudity, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, or that I won’t be arrested for breaking it (thank you lucky stars I know there are such laws and wouldn’t dream of breaking them in a million bajillion years).

With those clarifications in mind, we can ask, “Is the idea of natural law biblical?” I think a strong case can be built for it, though I’ll be the first to admit you’ll look long and hard through your Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to find the phrase ‘natural law’. The best place to begin building a case for natural law is probably in the book of Genesis. Why Genesis? Because Genesis is before Exodus, and it’s not until Exodus that we get a detailed revelation of God’s moral law in the Mosaic Code (this isn’t the post to enter into discussions regarding the validity of parsing the law into civil, ceremonial and moral components; nor will I take up the question of the application of the Mosaic Law to culture today – the theonomic question). From the time of Adam to the time of Moses, mankind lived without an express moral command from God. But what we see in Genesis and early on in Exodus is that even apart from an express moral code, there is a law to which people are accountable.

For example, consider Cain. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel was a shameful thing – hence he evaded God’s questions regarding the whereabouts of his brother. In addition, it was a sinful thing – hence, God punishes Cain for crime. But what law did Can break if there was no law written in nature and on the human conscience?

Move ahead, in the days of Noah God sends judgment upon the earth for it’s utter wickedness and evil. The specific charge is that men were corrupt and violent. Oh, and then there’s the story of how Ham disrespected his father Noah and was cursed for it – and this prior to the command to Moses to ‘honor your father and mother’.

And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah, judged for their sexual immorality.

In these stories, God isn’t holding people accountable to a standard they knew nothing about. No, through nature and conscience their actions are revealed as violations of their Creator’s goodness and the laws he embedded within his creation. If they did not know these laws, it is a culpable ignorance (like choosing not to see the NO PARKING sign in front of your favorite coffee shop).

We could go pericope by pericope, but you get the idea. What is interesting, as Paul Helm has pointed out, is that even those outside the covenant community have some understanding of right and wrong. He writes,

“Some of these values [which exist without specific commands] were common between those who were members of the covenant, as Abraham, and – what is pf particular interest in this paper – some stretched across the covenant boundaries, such as those held in common between Abraham and Ahimelech, or (later) Noah [sic. Moses] and his father in law Jethro. We see that these laws have to do with property, with fair dealing, with sexuality, with parents, with life and death. And as we proceed to make the list of these norms, it suddenly dawns on us that they are the very norms that are expressed in the Second Table of the Moral Law as Moses received it”

Consider briefly the story of Abraham and Abimilech in Genesis 20. Abraham, fearing for his life, passes Sarah off as his sister. Abimelch takes her into his house. Before the king of Gerar approaches Sarah, God warns him. Here’s the exchange:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” (Gen 20:3-5).

Notice Abimelech’s defense isn’t “what’s wrong with taking another man’s wife?” Instead, he pleads ignorance because he was unaware she was Abraham’s wife, acknowledging that taking a man’s wife is evil, but he’s innocent. Moreover, when the king of Gerar confronts Abraham, he says, “You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (v. 9). By what standard was lying to Abimelech wrong? No specific, verbalized commands had come from God regarding lying yet.

Again, you could see this many times over in the Genesis and Exodus accounts prior to the giving of the law to Moses. The apostle Paul reflects on this period in human history in the book of Romans.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Ro 5:12–14)

As you can see, Paul treats the giving of the law as a kind of pivot point in human history. Adam broke the law by transgressing a specific command and through this lawbreaking/sin death entered the world because all sinned. Certainly it is true that all sinned in Adam’s sin, for he served as our covenant representative. From the time of Adam to Moses, death continued to reign over men – “even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam”. Again, Paul Helm comments on these verses:

“So – my first question is – what is sin that is not transgression-like, the sin that reigned before the law was given through Moses? What form does it have? And I think that it is not hard to answer that question. If it does not lie in a flouting of explicitly enunciated commands, then it must lie in the spurning or flouting of widely if not universally recognised norms, or values that do not have the form of explicit commands.”

That makes sense of what Paul has been arguing throughout the opening chapters of Romans. In these early chapters, Paul is seeking to firmly establish that none are righteous and all stand condemned in the court of the Ultimate Judge. Both Jews who had the law but didn’t observe it and Gentiles who didn’t have the Mosaic law but still had the light of nature and conscience stand condemned as sinners. Consider Romans 1:18ff:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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. 21 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. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error…

Notice a couple of things. First, this passage has to do both with the first table and the second table of the Moral Law – with our vertical duties to God and our horizontal relationships with other people. Paul teaches that mankind should have known, based on nature, that there was one true God and offered thanks and worship to him (first table). That they don’t do so is because they suppress such knowledge. Moreover, men and women should have known, based on nature and human conscience, that some sexual relations (second table) were right and others wrong. Second, notice Paul’s use of ‘natural relations’ and ‘unnatural relations’ – the wickedness of unnatural relations isn’t just that it violates a verbalized command of God, but that it violates the laws God embedded in nature and conscience. Third, mankind, even those who don’t have the Mosaic Law, receive the due penalty for the errors.

Consider one more passage from Romans:
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 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. 15 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 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-16)

The idea of natural law is one that I find compelling, biblical, and useful. Believing God has revealed something of his nature and his moral demands through nature and in human consciences has some pretty big implications. I won’t take the time to develop them now, but in a later post. Let me just mention three implications:
1. A belief in Natural Law has implications for God’s justice in judging unreached peoples.
2. A belief in Natural Law has implications for how we approach people from other religions.
3. A belief in Natural Law has implications for how we, as believers, engage in dialogue in the public sector.
4. A belief in Natural Law has implications for our understanding of justification by faith apart from works of the law (and hence our interpretation of passages in Galatians – which is how this whole discussion opened up to begin with)

I will try to unpack these implications later in the week. In the meantime, I welcome push-backs or requests for clarity. I am not a moral philosopher, nor the son of a moral philosopher.

For more on this, check out:
– Paul Helm, Natural Law and Biblical Law
– Paul Helm, Natural Law and Common Grace
– David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (short and nontechnical)
– David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (long and technical)