Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?
If you want my thesis of natural law theory in one graphic sentence, I will provide it: the most consistent defender of natural law theory was the Marquis de Sade.
— Gary North, Westminster’s Confession (1991)
The Fear Of The LORD Is . . .
Let’s talk about the right place to begin a discussion of natural law. What’s important to establish early on is that these rules are determined by the God who creates, who speaks and who decrees the end from the beginning. The God who is Triune. The God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. The God who speaks infallibly in Scripture. The God who saves sinners through Jesus’ blood.
This God, and no other, is the only foundation for all intelligible thought, communication, and learning. That said, this is what Scripture explicitly teaches about where to start: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). Again, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).
Unless the God who created the world tells us about Himself and creation, unless He opens our hearts to hear and believe that truth … we are left with foolishness and its attendant skepticism — cynicism and nihilism. There’s nothing we can truly know and we can be sure of nothing truly. For that matter, we can’t even be sure there is something to be sure about.
But the question of knowing something is only part of the discussion. That’s because in Scripture, to know God and to fear God mean also to obey God. Epistemology (study of knowledge) and ethics (rules for living) are rarely separate concepts in the Bible, but rather, are woven tightly together throughout Scripture:
Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding (Job 28:28).
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever (Ps. 111:10).
Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD, that delighteth greatly in his commandments (Ps. 112:1).
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13).
God’s commandments are revealed in Scripture. Knowledge and wisdom are inextricably “interwoven” with obedience to those commandments. What’s more… these commandments, the laws revealed in Scripture… are alone authoritative and infallible.
“To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).
Biblical epistemology drives us necessarily to biblical law.
Total Depravity And Natural Law
But doesn’t Scripture allow for a divine law implicit in Nature, one accessible to unaided reason? In my previous articles on epistemology, I’ve talked about general revelation, the revelation that exists in creation and in the hearts of men (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-20). I’ve also tried to establish that the Apostle Paul argues that even the heathen have “the work of the law written in their hearts” and that they are, therefore, responsible for their actions (Rom. 2:14-15).
Certainly, Paul teaches us that general revelation is so clear that it leaves men without excuse for their sins (Rom. 1:20). And He definitely declares that “the work of the law” is written in the hearts of those who have never heard the Gospel. In fact, He goes on to emphasize the human conscience as being a very accurate testimony to man’s true moral nature. His conclusion? Unbelievers have a conscience, with concepts of right and wrong. What Paul doesn’t say, though, is that this vague “conscience” is a substitute for the commandments of God revealed in Scripture.
Here’s the problem: The natural man’s conscience is sufficient to condemn him because he can’t and doesn’t live up to his own imperfect standard. That’s because the natural man’s moral nature is thoroughly defiled and corrupt. The Bible says his heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). The ways that seem right to him are the ways of death (Prov. 14:12). Though he holds the truth, he suppresses it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). And until and unless he is born again, he will not come to the light lest that light should condemn his works (John 3:20). In short, the man outside of Christ hates God’s commandments precisely because they are God’s commandments:
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7).
The truth is, the natural man wants nothing to do with what God commands. Our current 24-hour news cycle as well as all recorded history bears witness to this. When we look at the news or the law codes of the nations both ancient and modern, we do see echoes of biblical morality, particularly in the legal codes of the once Christian West, where the influence of Scripture has been strongest. But none of these codes are consistent with what our Creator requires of us.
And many of the things that we find in these law codes are profoundly at odds with one another. Further, much of what we find there is reprehensible and abominable. We find polygamy, chattel slavery, pederasty, infanticide, and abortion enshrined and codified as integral parts of the cultures of whole peoples, nations, and empires.
Worse still, we know from Scripture that every sin, every moral perversity imaginable, has at some time or other been elevated by fallen man to the role of virtue or religious service (Deut. 12:31). The ancient Canaanites practiced prostitution, self-mutilation, and child sacrifice in their worship of Baal. The Thuggee of India strangled thousands of travelers in the name of the goddess Kali. And the Sawi tribe of Netherlands New Guinea embraced any kind of treachery (including cannibalism) as the greatest of virtues and the highest good. (When missionaries first presented the Gospel story to this New Guinea tribe, they actually mistook Judas as the hero because of his great betrayal.)
What Does Natural Law Actually Say?
In the light of all of this, we shouldn’t be surprised that no one has ever published a written testimony or transcript of natural law. Even though adherents have said for centuries that’s it’s supposed to be accessible to all thoughtful and rational men… no one has ever written down what’s actually accessible or even a summary of its principles.
But if anyone ever makes the attempt, here are some questions he should answer along the way:
- Is this law compatible with the Trinitarian-based law found in Scripture, particularly in the Ten Commandments? Is it a shorter or foggier version of biblical law, or is it another law-code altogether?
- Does natural law allow for oaths of office or the use of oaths in courts? If so, in whose name should they be sworn? And is that name a valid name for the Christian God and no other, or is it the name of some other yet-to-be-named deity? (The State, perhaps?)
- What exactly is murder? That is, who are those we are not to kill? Does the answer depend on the age, gender, ethnicity, or medical fitness of the victim?
- What is the just penalty for murder? Execution, imprisonment, rehabilitation, or maybe some kind of a mind-wipe?
- What exactly constitutes theft? Is it theft if a poor man takes the property of a rich man? What if the State does it for him? What if the State calls it taxation? Or “nationalizing foreign holdings”? (What happens when “laws of nations” collide?)
- What is the just penalty for theft? Restitution, imprisonment, or amputation?
- Can civil government consider any sexual acts as crimes? If so, which ones? What are the corresponding penalties for each act?
- Should having more children than two be a civil crime? If so, what’s the proper sanction for that crime?
- If there is disagreement to the answers given to the questions above, can we safely assume that those answers are wrong?
- How many people have to agree with a certain answer before we should take them seriously? Everyone? A significant majority? A slight majority? How does natural law communicate the exact percentage?
- If the answers to these questions are at odds with the law revealed in Scripture, can we assume that the God of the Bible is at war with the answers? Or, could He simply be mildly annoyed with them?
The Rise And Decline Of Natural Law
Bottom Line: Natural law is a pagan invention. The Stoics came up with the idea to provide a universal law-order for the cosmopolitan world created by Alexander’s conquests. Natural law, the Stoics said, is found in the divine intelligence or logos inherent in the cosmos itself (accessible to all right-thinking human beings).
Roman intellectuals picked up on this idea next. “For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth.” So wrote the philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the emperor whose “natural law” allowed for the persecution and murder of Christians.
Medieval theologians, philosophers, and legal experts brought natural law into Christian theology through a door marked “natural revelation.” The muddy and confused concept of natural law, useful to kings and popes, continued through the Reformation and into the Enlightenment: Greece to Rome to Aquinas to Locke. But while some Christians today continue to profess natural law theory, most thinking atheists have given up on it altogether. They usually cite Darwin.
Darwin’s doctrine of evolution completely rewrote man’s understanding of Nature. Nature was no longer a given that could provide even a vague basis for law. It was no longer a fixed metaphysical reality on which philosophers could hang any system. Nature was process, always changing, always becoming. No fixed laws. Nature, then, is a perfect Hegelian synthesis … red in tooth and claw. Laws like this, that move and change, are then laws of convention … the strongest kill the weakest. This worked well for Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s death camps. Think about it. If Nature is all there is, by what standard can you say Hitler, Stalin and Mao were wrong?
What standard would the Buddhist or Hindu use to condemn Hitler?
And so we come again to the absolute necessity of divine revelation. We know right and wrong because God reveals it in Scripture. There are no other standards.