>One of the strange questions in Christian legal philosophy is why most Protestant Christians no longer believe in the doctrine of natural law – the idea that there is an unwritten identical trans-cultural objective moral standard accessible to all human beings. Evangelicals frequently associate natural law with Roman Catholicism, even though the doctrine of natural law is actually a better fit for Protestants than it is for Roman Catholics. After all, Rome believes we need a Magisterium to tell us what to think. It is Protestants who have stood up for the idea that ordinary people can figure some things out on their own – at least with God’s help. J. Budziszewski in his book, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, argues that natural law “is not just a Catholic thing.” Stephen Grabill, Harold Berman, John Witt, and others have written extensively on the history of Protestants and natural law, showing that the Protestants of the reformation period took it for granted that natural law was a biblical doctrine, not a matter of Roman Catholic tradition to be rejected by the Protestants. So why do so many Evangelicals still feel uncomfortable with natural law? What are the deeper reasons for the discomfort?
One major reason Protestants tend not to believe in natural law is they think natural law is incompatible with a strong view of the fall. These natural law doubters maintain that since Adam’s fall, human beings are so sinful they cannot even know right from wrong. This belief assumes no view of mankind’s sinfulness can be zealous enough. This view neglects a couple of things. First, the Bible does not teach that humans are as sinful as they could be. We can easily imagine a state of even greater degradation in which the maintenance of families or societies was impossible. So, even though human beings may not do anything which is purely good because they always act with impure motives, human beings actually do some things that are somewhat “good” by nature of the act. They do give to charity, they do love their children, they do nice things for their spouses. They may do so out of impure motives and hence even sin in the doing of these good acts, but nevertheless they do such acts. As Jesus said, “You, being evil, still know how to give good gifts to your children.”
In addition, the Bible clearly teaches human beings do have moral knowledge. There is a very important theological reason for this. God does not send the human beings who reject Him to eternal punishment merely as a matter of caprice. He does so because human beings are morally accountable to Him. In order to support that moral accountability, human beings have to have known something of the difference between good and evil and to have deliberately chosen evil. Adam did so and all of us are in his sin (apart from Christ). But we all also do the same thing in our individual lives. We do know some of what God wants and we deliberately choose not to do it. We know much of what God hates and we deliberately choose to do it. We act this way almost from our very conception.
Some of the Christians who have the view that the fall cancels out natural law have tended to believe having moral knowledge would somehow mean man also had the ability to keep God’s rules. This simply isn’t true. The Bible says knowledge of good and evil actually seems to promote a desire to do evil in fallen human beings rather than empowering them to do good. Paul says the command, “Thou shalt not covet”, inspired all sorts of coveting in him. Knowledge, by itself, is not moral power. An understanding of what is right and wrong is needed for virtue, but does not create virtue. Beings know right from wrong, and because they choose wrong they are morally accountable to God for their choice (apart from God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ). No human being, apart from God’s help, has the power to consistently choose to do good despite whatever knowledge of God’s will they have. To confuse knowing what is good with doing what is good is a category error. You can believe in natural law and still believe in total depravity – the idea that all human faculties and all of our being is affected by sin.
A second reason many Protestants do not believe in natural law is kindred to the first: this is the belief man’s reason is fouled by sin and hence does not support moral knowledge. The first objection to natural law, which I have just discussed, is often an attack on the version of natural law (yes, there are many versions, or theories of natural law, although the content is the same – more on that later) which says moral knowledge is somewhat innate in human beings. This second attack, based on the fallenness of human reason, is a criticism of a second view of natural law: the view of natural law that man’s moral knowledge flows from man’s reasoning power. The view of natural law as innate in the human mind is in some ways platonic and has tended to be associated historically with Protestants. The view of natural law as flowing out of reason is more Aristotelian and has been associated to some degree with the Roman Catholic Church. Robust theories of natural law held by Protestants often accept that innate knowledge or knowledge by illumination, and reason both play a part in natural law.
It is true the fall affected our practical reasoning. Human beings often insist two plus two equals five, even though it does not, because of the way our sinful natures have affected our will and caused our will to impinge upon rational reasoning. It is important to realize real reason comes from God and is not fallen in its pure divine form even though the examples of it we see in human beings are affected by the fall. If we agree we reason correctly when we say two plus two equals four, we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him, as beings made in the image of God were originally created to do. That we do so in only limited areas and for limited amounts of time because of our human sinfulness ought to be fairly obvious. But, it is true we sometimes agree with God about very basic items, such as some of the rules of mathematics. We also agree with God when we agree with the things in His revealed word, the Bible. Though our reasoning is damaged by sin it is not so fouled that it has no ability to tell us some of what we do is wrong or some of what we omit is right. Paul, in Romans 2, talks about how the Gentiles’ conscience pleads for them and against them in various circumstances. God says in Isaiah, “Come and let us reason together.” Our reason is damaged by sin, but it is not so annihilated that we have no knowledge of right and wrong. Based on the work which Christ and God’s Holy Spirit does in our lives, God’s elect can also have their reason enhanced beyond its previous fallen state, although it will not reach perfection this side of the final resurrection. And, our primary concern in discussing natural law is the reasoning level available to the non-elect.
Some will object that the moral knowledge of sin only comes to those under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But the Bible does not say this. Saving faith requires the Holy Spirit. But there is no biblical reason why condemning knowledge should be exclusive to the elect of God rather than those to be condemned. Some will then say this knowledge of good and evil which results in condemnation may exist, but all it does is condemn, it never enlightens. But knowledge is knowledge. It makes sense to say non-believers resist practical benefit from their knowledge of God’s laws, but it is going too far to say a benefit is impossible. Do not nearly all nations ban theft and murder? Don’t they do so because God teaches them in general revelation that it is wrong? If unregenerate humans have no benefit from general revelation why does John say Jesus was “The true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9) even though not all men are saved? Does he not say this about general revelation through Christ?
The third reason many Protestants do not accept natural law is that they have never heard a proper explanation of it. Many times the only arguments Protestants hear about natural law are straw men. A common argument made against natural law is one that defines it as a separate law from the law of God as expressed in the Scriptures. While there are some people who claim natural law exists as a separate law from the law of the Bible, this is not a preferred natural law view and was not the common one in most of the history of natural law. John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon, for example, both believed in natural law and believed the content of natural law was identical with the content of the moral law expressed in the Bible. They did not think natural law was some sort of separate autonomous law that could be different from the laws God has set forth elsewhere. It is making a straw man argument to critique all natural law as though it fell in this questionable definition rather than in the definition held by Calvin and Melanchthon. Those who use the straw man also often seek to press the attack by saying that because the Scripture is sufficient we don’t need natural law. I find though, it is an incorrect view of God to see him as a minimalist who only creates the minimum of what we need in any area. One type of beetle would have been enough for me. But God wanted more types of beetles than we can count. I could live with thirty or forty kinds of fish – mostly the edible or attractive ones. But God made thousands of kinds of fish. He never seems to do only what is sufficient. Instead He does immeasurably more than all we ask or think.
If, by “natural law” one meant a law separate from the law of God and of differing content, then it would make sense to deny the existence of such a law. But historically, natural law has not been regarded as such an independent law. Rather, it is the expression of God’s law in general revelation. There is only one God and he is consistent and agrees with himself. If we claim the content of special revelation and general revelation are at variance, it is our understanding which must be at fault. The law of God is consistent whether revealed in the Old or the New Testament and whether revealed in the book of Deuteronomy or by the song of creation as in Psalm 19.
A fourth opposition to natural law comes from an imbibing from a particular theological stream, that of voluntarism. Many proponents of natural law have classically believed the law of God flows from God’s own nature. While God can, may, and does make positive commands that are not purely based upon morality, God’s commands are an expression of Himself, of His goodness, justice, love, mercy and holiness. As a result, we can determine in many instances what is good and evil by looking at what God would do or not do, or by deciding what courses of action are in accord with all of the united attributes of God. An act cannot be unjust, unloving, or merciless and still be in accord with God’s natural law. Although, merely because some act exemplifies a particular virtue does not mean it is permissible if it conflicts with God’s law in other ways. The murderer or thief who acts with courage does not have his crime vitiated by the virtue with which he pursues it. So, classically understood, God’s nature is behind God’s will, and He expresses His moral nature in His law, both in Scripture and in natural law.
By contrast, voluntarists reject this idea. They believe God’s will is more important than any other aspect of God. The voluntarist believes God could have made a world in which murder, adultery and deceit were good and commanded as such. But such a belief makes God’s freedom prior to God’s eternality. The Scriptures teach us God is not only good and just and merciful, but that God is forever the same. His nature does not change. God is consistent in all He does and wills. Some people believe that belief in such a consistency is a belief which, in some way, binds God or weakens His freedom, thereby making Him in some way less divine. I do not believe this is true. Instead, a belief that will is more important than any other attribute denies God’s eternality and transtemporality. It treats God like a being in time who can change, rather than acknowledging that although God is everywhere, including in time, God is beyond time and is its creator. As a being beyond time, God does not change, He acts eternally. He expresses His emotions eternally, and He expresses His decrees eternally. They all flow forth from who God is. Just as God’s law flows forth from who He is.
Fifth, just as the last objection to natural law involved a theological presupposition, this next one involves a philosophical one. Some Protestant Christians reject natural law because they have come to believe in the philosophy of nominalism. Nominalism is the belief that there are no universals: that objects or concepts or attributes we cannot see do not really exist. There are concrete actions which can be described as loving but there is no objective universal idea of love according to the nominalist. Likewise, the nominalist does not believe there is any objective definition of justice, property, unity, or beauty apart from concrete examples. Instead of the existence of objective ideas, the nominalist believes only in the sense experiences we have in the world and the pressures of social community which cause us to associate certain sounds or names with certain concrete things. Hence, the term nominalism comes from the idea that universals are merely names, not objective ideas.
For hundreds of years most Christians have rejected nominalism. Godly men, like Augustine of Hippo, Philip Melanchthon, Calvin, Francis Turretin, and many others, rejected nominalism. Nominalism appears to be contrary to the logos doctrine, to the idea that Christ is the embodiment, not only of God’s communication to man, but of God’s logic, reason, order, definitions and concepts. The mind of God, and by extension, the mind of Christ is the receptacle of the objective ideas which make up the true universals. Justice is justice because it defines the way God is, with respect to justice. Beauty is beauty because God is beautiful and creates beautiful things. Goodness is good because it defines its example and definition in the nature of God Himself, and on and on. As Plato said, even though he did not understand God, “God is preeminently the measure of all things.” Because God is the definer of universal concepts, they have an objective existence in Him. Because human beings were created in the image of God, even though that image was damaged by sin, we have some access to universal ideas. We have some ability to understand concepts like truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc. Although our understanding is affected by the fall it is not fully effaced. We have the ability to communicate with one another using these universal concepts, albeit in an imperfect way. But universals also have one other effect – they are interconnected with the natural law. If you know what is good, true, beautiful, just, merciful, etc. you know what you are supposed to do in order to do what God would want. If you know that, then you should not do things which are ugly, unjust, cruel, and evil, as well. Knowledge of universals and knowledge of the moral law e.g. the natural law – are inextricably intertwined. Nominalism is not really a biblical doctrine. Recognition of God and the objective ideas that exist in God is contrary to the spirit of nominalism.
A sixth objection by Protestants to natural law comes from the effect of culture upon them. Today, many Protestants have bought into post-modern culture. They feel it is somehow arrogant or unjust to claim there are objective moral standards, objective ideas by which cultures and societies or individuals can be measured or evaluated, or objective truths which can not only be identified as true, but by their truth identify some other ideas as false. They find the notion of objective measuring to be somehow embarrassing, neocolonial, or bigoted. This is the effect of post-modern culture, which teaches all of these things for even more complex philosophical reasons which are, for the most part, incompatible with Christianity. While it is true that human claims are often expressed in an arrogant way, this does not mean truth does not exist. If truth exists, it is extremely unloving to ignore and deny what is true since truth provides for the best and safest life. Who would tell someone that it is safe to walk through a mine field merely because that person did not believe the mines existed? Who would tell someone who wished to pick up a poisonous snake that it was acceptable for them to believe the snake was not poisonous merely because they firmly held to that belief? While truth needs to be expressed lovingly rather than arrogantly, truth does exist and it measures the actions of individuals, cultures and societies. We can find truth in God and in His revelation. God has revealed truth to us in the Bible and through the natural law. We know the natural law because of our ability to reason from cause and effect, our conscience, from the creation of mankind in God’s image, from the order of the creation God has made, from the evident purposes of the things God has made, and because the Bible discusses the idea of natural law even though it does not use that phrase to describe it.
The seventh objection to natural law which we will address here is rooted in the notion that man cannot understand the revelation of God apart from the regenerative activity of the Holy Spirit. Some people believe this means the natural man cannot understand the natural law. The Scripture is full of passages in which God points out that only his elect will understand and believe his message. But it is the message of grace – the gospel – non-regenerate man fails to understand. The unregenerate are perfectly comfortable with the idea of law. Every human religion capitalizes on man’s knowledge of law and tries to parlay some limited obedience to a distorted moral code into a claim upon a god or gods who are less holy and more arbitrary than the God of the Bible. Law is the very stuff the Muslim, the rabbi, and the student of dharma all depend upon. They forget what the whole book of Romans tells us – it is not those to whom the law came who are justified by the law, but only those who keep all of it – a thing no son of Adam or daughter of Eve can do apart from Christ. God gave humans knowledge of law so they could rule over themselves and the creation as his regents, and so that they would know how they are separated from God by their sins – not as a means of salvation. There is no passage of Scripture which denies to mankind knowledge or understanding of the law. In fact, as David Van Drunen has pointed out, when God’s people have assumed the ungodly have no knowledge of the law, God has proven them wrong, as we see in the histories of Abraham and Abimelech, and Abraham and the Pharaoh.
An eighth reason many Christians fail to accept the natural law as real is that a belief in a structure of eschatological change or evolution is seen as incompatible with natural law. This is the class of objection whose proponents, Karl Barth and others, Carl Braaten described in his 1992 First Things article on Protestants and natural law. Such theologians and ethicists articulate in many different ways that while natural law might have made sense in the past, now for the church in Christ today, it does not. I believe this error has at its root not a commitment to some portion of Scripture, but a hidden commitment to the philosophy of Hegel. We live in an age so saturated with the ideas of evolution, dialectic, construction, development and change that we even try to place God on this Procrustean bed and force him to go through process and development. But the God of the Bible does not change. His laws and institutions do not change. Abraham was saved by faith just as we are saved by faith. Christ came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. I know the brilliant men who propounded neo-orthodoxy and other such views were far smarter than I and spoke in language far more elegant and irenic than I can muster. But in the plain meaning of Scripture I find all humans were made in the image of God, and still retain a distorted version of that image after the fall. I find the Gentiles who did not have the law still had a conscience which served them in the same office. I find pagan kings knew what God did and did not want even when they ignored that knowledge. I find all humans are morally accountable to God. I find all governments are God’s servants – and how can they carry out his service unless he has left one and all of them, from Rome to Cathay and Siberia to Patagonia, a set of instructions and orders through general revelation. And I find none of this changes the gospel or the role of the church. To borrow a metaphor from Calvin, the fact that men have occasional strikes of lightning in the night does not obviate their need of the greater light of the gospel.
In conclusion, there are many reasons why Protestants do not believe in natural law, but most of them are not particularly biblical or Christian. By contrast, because the Bible does teach the existence of natural law and the ideas behind it, it is a very Christian thing and a very Protestant thing to believe in it – as properly understood. It would be wrong to think the existence of the natural law, as revealed by God in general and special revelation meant human beings could save themselves. It would be wrong to think God is not really God. It would be improper to be arrogant in our expression of our ideas to others. But, avoiding these errors does not warrant the opposite errors of claiming that man has no moral knowledge, that God is not consistent with His own nature, or that God is not the source and definition of objective ideas. Nor is it appropriate to reject natural law because we recognize only a false version of it, such as the false claim that natural law is independent of God’s moral law or of God’s nature. There is indeed objective truth in God that He has revealed to us. And so I commend to you a belief in natural law.