Though probably more associated with stuffy monks and ivory tower philosophers, natural law, it’s hard to deny, has recently become sexy. Well, the topic of discussion has, anyway. Writers have debated the metaphysical, epistemological, scientific, theological, ethical, apologetic, political, and even ecclesiological implications and applications of the law of nature. As of yet, however, no one has lodged any kind of comprehensive argument about the place of natural law in, rather than simply in relation to, the Bible.
But the Bible everywhere assumes, and in some places explicitly appeals to, natural law. The written book of God constantly bears witness to God’s other book, the book of nature. To prove this, I will walk through Genesis to Revelation, pointing out some important sights along the way.
However, before attempting such a task, I must also clear away a few misconceptions about what natural law is.
Seeing where some scholars have gone wrong in this discussion will help clarify our objective.
1 Natural law is not mechanistic and exceptionless.
Indeed, even the less complicated “laws of nature” that physicists and chemists study are not exactly “exceptionless.” Dr. Edward Feser, in The Last Superstition, cites the work of philosopher of science Dr. Nancy Cartwright:
The idea of “regularities” or “laws of nature” is accordingly misleading, in Cartwright’s view, given that science actually uncovers few laws or regularities outside highly artificial conditions. (Indeed, she argues that the very notion of a scientific “law” is a relic of the days when Newton and Co. took themselves to be discovering the blueprints by reference to which God directs the world, and cannot be made sense of apart from the idea of a divine legislator – an idea few contemporary Humeans would endorse.) Strictly speaking, what science discovers are the universal natures and inherent powers of things, and talk of “laws of nature” can only be shorthand for this. As Cartwright says, “the empiricists of the scientific revolution wanted to oust Aristotle entirely from the new learning,” but “they did no such thing.” 1
What scientists are actually discovering is
…the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type. 2
What Aristotelians call “natural law,” then, is actually the natural powers of things manifesting themselves; and when they interact with the natural powers of other things, different results accordingly follow. This point helps us to understand the relation between divine action and natural law: beyond sustaining things with their natural powers in being, God can also act in an extraordinary manner. Yet this is not a “violation” of natural law, since there is nothing in the powers of created things which prohibits God from acting toward them in extraordinary ways. To put this another way, if we insert true natural law into the premises of Hume’s argument against miracles, it boils down to something like this: “Since God normally doesn’t cause creatures to be like X, God will never cause creatures to be like X.” Anyone who has gone out for an expensive dinner on a rare occasion can see the fallacy.
And this, in turn, gives us an initial answer to the question of natural revelation’s relation to special revelation. Nothing in natural law demands that God not communicate in additional ways beyond creation itself. Natural law, in fact, by pointing to the existence of an absolute Creator, tells us that (a) God could communicate in such a manner, and that (b) if he did, we ought to obey his communication. Obedience to special revelation is actually also obedience to principles of natural law. 3
2 Natural law is not autonomous or independent in relation to God.
Some contemporary writers zealous for God’s unrivaled authority have expressed concern about natural law thinking, supposing that it presents a potential competitor with God. But whether this might be true in a kind of universe where God was a finite, Zeus-like, immaterial extra-terrestrial, and natural law some impersonal surd structuring the universe without an explanation for its existence, it is certainly not true in the theology and cosmology of classical theism.
Aquinas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, I.13.35, presents an iteration of his famous “Fifth Way”:
Damascene proposes another argument for the same conclusion taken from the government of the world [De fide orthodoxa I.3]. Averroes likewise hints at it [In II Physicorum]. The argument runs thus. Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.
The unified order of diverse natural things is one way Thomas speaks of natural law, and in it he argues we cannot help but see God’s providence. Natural law simply is the way God runs the universe. So, clearly, the natural law is not “autonomous.” Rather, all of reality is in itself theonomous.
And neither is natural law “independent” of God. For this point, we need go no further than Thomas’ “Second Way”:
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
As the order of the universe shows God governs it, so the existence of the ordered universe demands that God sustain it in being. Without a fundamental – or first – cause granting things existence moment by moment, nothing would exist, and certainly not a universe of beings with diverse but ordered natures. Thus, natural law in the classical theistic conception is neither autonomous nor independent of God. In fact, the universe of ordered natures that all people perceive directly proves that God must exist.
3 Natural law is not the ius gentium.
The identification of natural law with the laws held in common by all nations reflects another misconception. The ius gentium presents an indirect witness to natural law, in that the simplest explanation for the persistence of such commonplaces of jurisprudence is that all people can see the sense in them in light of the needs of their commonly possessed human nature. But the subjective perception of natural law is distinct from the thing itself, just as interpretations of the Bible are distinct from the text of scripture itself. And further, like contradictions in interpretation of scripture, contradictions of law between nations do not disprove that nature has an objective meaning, intrinsic to its “text” as its Author intended it. 4
1 It is a divinely imposed order intrinsic in the beings that exist.
Those following the argument carefully will already have a sense of what natural law is, but it may also help to give a positive definition to it. Here is one way Thomas summarizes the idea (from Summa Theologiae I-II.91.1–2):
I answer that, As stated above (90, 1, ad 2; A3,4), a law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community. Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, as was stated in the I, 22, A1,2, that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law.
I answer that, As stated above (90, 1, ad 1), law, being a rule and measure, can be in a person in two ways: in one way, as in him that rules and measures; in another way, as in that which is ruled and measured, since a thing is ruled and measured, insofar as it partakes of the rule or measure. Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (Article 1); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.
Natural law is God rationally and wisely governing the universe by sustaining, in their being, created things that naturally move toward specified ends. Rocks and water obey the rock and water cycles, birds fly and eat and build nests and rear their young, plants use water, soil, and photosynthesis to grow and reproduce, and human beings act toward certain ends specified by their unique nature.
2 This divinely imposed order has “value” built in; “ought” is intrinsic to the “is” of the world.
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as “the Tao.” Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself – just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.
Dr. Feser explains it a different way:
Like everything else, human beings have a formal cause – their form [being] essence, or nature – and this formal cause entails certain final causes for their various capacities. So, for example, our nature or essence is to be rational animals, and reason or intellect has as its final cause the attainment of truth. Hence the attainment of truth is good for us, just as the gathering of acorns is good for a squirrel. These are just objective facts; for the sense of “good” in question here is a completely objective one, connoting, not some subjective preference we happen to have for a thing, but rather the conformity of a thing to a nature or essence as a kind of paradigm (the way that, again, a “good” triangle is just one which has perfectly straight sides, or a “good” squirrel is one that isn’t missing its tail). We are also by nature oriented to pursuing what we take to be good. That is another objective fact, and for the same reasons. But then, when the intellect perceives that what is in fact good is the pursuit of truth, it follows that if we are rational what we will value is the pursuit of truth. “Value” – or rather, as the ancients and medievals would put it, the good – follows from fact, because it is built into the structure of facts from the get-go. 5
The natures of the beings that exist are inherently directed towards certain ends: hands are for grasping, digestive systems for digesting, legs for standing and walking, etc. An older sort of Protestant, Richard Hooker, wrote similarly:
God alone excepted, who actually and everlastingly is whatsoever he may be, and which cannot hereafter be that which now he is not; all other things besides are somewhat in possibility, which as yet they are not in act. And for this cause there is in all things an appetite or desire, whereby they incline to something which they may be; and when they are it, they shall be perfecter than now they are. All which perfections are contained under the general name of Goodness. And because there is not in the world any thing whereby another may not some way be made the perfecter, therefore all things that are, are good.
Again, sith there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things; and every effect doth after a sort contain, at leastwise resemble, the cause from which it proceedeth: all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the participation of God himself. Yet this doth no where so much appear as it doth in man, because there are so many kinds of perfections which man seeketh.
For all created objects, their natural potentials actualized is the good for them: it is their perfection. Thus “ought” is inherent in the various ends towards which all beings are directed. “Ought” is part of the objective fact of the world, not just a subjective perspective imposed upon it.
One further note must be made about humanity’s relation to natural law. Among the creatures on earth, human beings are unique in their freedom. No other creature has the rational capacity and choice to sin against God; all other beings (fallen angels excepted) in heaven and on earth obey God’s law continuously, but human beings have the ability to replace evil for good, and choose evil because they have decided it is good for them. Yet even in doing this, they continue to obey natural law in a sense: they take the pleasures of sin to be the true good, and so choose them because they believe those pleasures to be good. They do not choose evil as evil, but evil misperceived as the good. But of course, this does not excuse them, because this misperception is ultimately culpable, based as it is on willful suppression of clear knowledge (cf. Romans 1).
This concludes my definitional excursus. Given this conception of natural law, the main purpose of this series will be to show that Scripture presupposes this concept as reflecting reality. To be more specific, I will attempt to prove the following propositions are supported by the Bible:
(N1) that there is an objective order to the universe of the kind described above;
(N2) that this order is objectively visible, there to be seen, whether one is wearing the spectacles of scripture or not;
(N3) that at least some unregenerate people perceive this order.
One final comment, regarding the relation between these hypotheses. The principles of justice suggest that, if N1 is true, the other two must be as well. That is, if God has established an order which intrinsically binds people morally, then he cannot not justly hold them accountable for failures to abide by it unless he also makes it known to them. For the rest of this survey I will not focus on this logical connection between the premises; its cogency, however, adds strength to the argument as a whole.