In my introductory post, I attempted to define the concepts I will seek to exegetically support. The three hypotheses I have set out to prove are:
(N1) there is an objective order to the universe of the kind described above
(N2) this order is objectively visible; it is there to be seen, whether one is wearing the spectacles of scripture or not
(N3) at least some unregenerate people perceive this order
Evidence From the Hebrew Scriptures
The wealth of evidence for natural law in scripture surpasses my ability to catalogue, at least in a reasonably brief period. What follows is only small sampling of what I could have presented, and not even necessarily the strongest evidence. It is however representative, and, by the end of the survey, I trust readers will be able to readily detect other evidence themselves. 1
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. At the end of the seventh day, he rested, having pronounced his work good. And here we see the first proclamation of the doctrine of natural law. When God looked upon his finished work, he said that it was good (Gen 1:31). Anything that would destroy or corrupt this created order, logic would dictate, is bad or evil. 2 This means that the created world is objectively good, and C.S. Lewis’ doctrine of “objective value” is taught in Genesis 1.
Genesis 2 gives us another piece of evidence for our hypothesis. God saw lonely Adam, and said this was “not good” (Gen 2:18). What could this statement mean? It must communicate something like, “Given the nature of Adam, given the intrinsic properties he has, his remaining without a complement-woman will harm him.” God evaluated what Adam was, and judged he was not in a good situation. Adam’s male form was intrinsically pointed toward a female companion that he lacked, and needed for his fulfillment.
So already, after the first two chapters of the Bible, we see an affirmation of an objective order (N1), a natural law.
Dr. Bockmuehl 3 mentions the case of Jethro in Exodus 18. “The thing that you do is not good…For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself” (vs. 17-18). Here we have an example of someone outside of the visible assembly of God’s people (though quite probably a God-fearer of some kind), who offers wisdom to God’s lawgiver himself, Moses. Now, obviously, Jethro’s suggestion was not derived from the Torah, or else he would not have needed to give it. But just as obviously, his advice is common sense. Moses needed to delegate and divide the labour; his time and energy simply could not handle the workload, and he was certainly able to delegate. Jethro perceived the problem and solution where no explicit divine law addressed the issue. Now of course, one could say that Jethro’s advice is derived by extension from some more basic Mosaic principle, but just as obviously, this advice is common sense. It surely strains credulity to suggest that only someone who had read Moses’ law could come up with this suggestion. And yet it obviously benefitted Moses, and so fulfilled the natural law, which points people toward their own good. This example thus conforms to N1, and probably suggests N2. If Jethro was unregenerate, it proves N3.
Dr. Collins highlights 4 Deuteronomy 4:6, where God tells Moses:
5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, ESV)
If Israel keeps the law, God says the nations will conclude it is a wise and understanding people. What is the logic of this promise? It must be that the nations will look on and see how obeying this law leads to flourishing, to human good. But this assumes several things. Firstly, it assumes there is an objective human good. The contrary assertion would be, good is whatever the law says it is, and nothing more. But then, the pagans’ statement would mean nothing more than: “Surely this is a nation that lives according to its laws.” Obviously, this is nonsense. Rather, it must assume, secondly, that the pagans know what human flourishing is, and they can see that obeying God’s law leads to it. This certainly proves N1, regardless. It may even prove N3, unless we assume only regenerate Gentiles draw this conclusion from their observations.
Dr. Bockmuehl highlights the polemic against the nonsense of idolatry in Isaiah. 5 Chapter 44 contains a description of the folly of this practice. Verse 19 is a good summary:
19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”
At first it may seem like 19 contradicts N3, but this need not be the case. Romans 1 alone suggests there can be a kind of simultaneously knowing-and-not-knowing (as we shall see when we get to that text), or at least knowledge-preceding-culpable-ignorance, and no doubt the same understanding is operating here. Isaiah makes an observation about pagan behaviour: they clearly, in some way, do not see the insanity of what they are doing, or else they would stop doing it. Yet, it is still insanity, action that defies reality, which at minimum proves N1. Further, that Isaiah describes this not as mere ignorance, but rather as delusion, proves N2: the sheer facts of the nature of wood and of divinity prove that they cannot be identical. This is not a truth that could be known only by means of historical testimony about the events of, e.g., the Exodus. It is rather something obvious on its face. The tone of derision throughout the text seems to imply N3, as well, that though pagans are blind in a sense, they are culpably so. They have ignored reality, and for that reason on some level have ceased to see it.
Jeremiah and Amos
Jeremiah, Dr. Bockmuehl says, 6 draws a parallel between what we are calling natural law, and the special revelation of Scripture:
Even the stork in the heavens
knows her times,
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane
keep the time of their coming,
but my people know not
the rules of the Lord.
The laws that the lower animals follow are natural law, and so we have a witness here to (N1), though in this case the prophet does not highlight the ethical aspect of the natural order.
Dr. Bockmuehl notes 7 a similar passage in Amos 6:12:
Do horses run on rocks?
Does one plow there with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
In this case, the plowing analogy provides an example of drawing an ethical inference from the natural order: rocky ground is of such a nature that trying to plow in it, when better land is available, would be senseless. Senselessness, of course, is another way of speaking of foolishness, which is the name the Bible gives to actions which attempt to defy the good and wise order intrinsic to creation. And wasting one’s time and energy in such an agricultural endeavor would surely exemplify foolishness. So, this brief analogy assumes N1 and N2, at least. Further, the analogy present in the text probably assumes an unregenerate person could see the foolishness of such an act. The immediate parallel is an act so foolish a horse has the sense not to do it; clearly, this is not the kind of behaviour one needs regeneration for to recognize as foolish. Thus Amos seems to support N3 as well.
Dr. Bockmuehl also refers to an important example 8 of natural law ethics in practice. Job says during final appeal:
13 “If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant,
when they brought a complaint against me,
14 what then shall I do when God rises up?
When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?
15 Did not he who made me in the womb make him?
And did not one fashion us in the womb?
Job affirms N1 at minimum in this case. More specifically, he highlights an aspect of the created order, and expects his interlocutors to see that this “is” has an obvious “ought” implied in it. The common human nature shared between Job and his slave, given to them both by their common Lord, requires Job treat his servant with equity. The force of his argument as it stands in the text depends entirely on this observable common humanity.
Dr. Collins points at a part of the Lord’s response to Job 9 which serves our purposes here: when God gives Job his answer, he directs the righteous man back to aspects of the created order, and expects him to infer the proper perspective about the Creator from that order. More specifically, God directs Job toward the vast reaches of his ignorance about how the Lord governs the universe. Job gets the point (Job 40:3-5; 42:1-6). So this text assumes, again, at least N1, and an example of Hume’s “naturalistic fallacy,” if not N2 and N3.
And indeed, Job had already derived this lesson from nature earlier in the book. Collins notes a part of Job’s argument that anticipates a perspective of Proverbs, when he declares that Wisdom relates to the order of creation. Job says:
28:20 “From where, then, does wisdom come?
And where is the place of understanding?
21 It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
22 Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23 “God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
24 For he looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
25 When he gave to the wind its weight
and apportioned the waters by measure,
26 when he made a decree for the rain
and a way for the lightning of the thunder,
27 then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
28 And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’”
We cannot overlook the connection between 20-27 and 28. One commentator writes well:
28 Having shown God as the Source of wisdom, the author now makes his application to man. Man must look to God for wisdom. Man may share in it only through a knowledge of the revealed mind of God. To acknowledge him as God and live within the sphere of his life-giving precepts is wisdom for man (Deut 4:5–6; Ps 111:10; Prov 8:4–9; 9:10). 10
Once again, the objective structure of the universe has ethical implications (N1). The fact that man lacks wisdom, but that God obviously possesses it (something obvious from reflection upon creation), means that man must go to God for that wisdom. In other words, natural law requires worship of the Creator.
The obvious place to go for natural law in the Psalms is the 19th Psalm. Because this text is one of the central OT passages on this topic, I will quote it in its entirety:
19 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Many commentators have noted the parallel between verses 1-6 and 7-14, but I want to emphasize the connection of this text to both Genesis 1, and to natural law. In verses 1-6 we are treated to an admiration of the goodness of the heavens. As they stand, they declare their Maker’s glory. In the beginning, after God had created the stars and the sun, and had given them their ongoing functions to perform, he concluded that it was good (Gen 1:18). David agrees here: when the sun (representative of the whole heavens, no doubt) runs its daily circuit, it obey its Maker’s law with joy (Psa 19:5). The heavens do what they were made to do, and that is what it means for them to flourish, and so they are “happy.”
The second half of the Psalm draws the readers back to the human realm, and says, essentially: human beings likewise flourish when they live as they were always intended to live. And this path is marked out for them by the Torah.
But note: if there were no objective human goodness, a fact that existed alongside the Torah, not simply reduced to it, the declarations of verses 7-8 would have no meaning. They would simply utter tautologies: “the Law of the Lord is perfect, making the soul conform to the Law of the Lord.” But the Psalmist of course means more than this: he means that obedience to God’s written law achieves human flourishing, something which is ultimately determined by the way God made human beings.
Thus Psalm 19 affirms N1. It also, by saying that the orderliness of the heavenly bodies declares God’s glory, affirms N2.
The book of Proverbs provides an abundance of support for the Christian doctrine of natural law. It continually asserts that the foundation of wisdom in creation comes from its Creator, who founded the universe with wisdom (Prov 3:9; 8:22-31). 11 This, as we noted earlier, eliminates any possibility of natural law being “autonomous” or “independent,” and the best representatives of the tradition, like Aquinas, have always agreed with scripture on this matter.
Yet, the pervasive presence of wisdom in creation, a presence explained by the Creator’s use of it, means that wisdom speaks with its own voice in all places (Prov 8:1-11). Wisdom is not found solely in the synagogue in the pages of Torah; it calls out in the streets and in the markets. 12 This point is just as important as the dependence of natural law on God. For we Christians are not monists: we really do believe that beings other than God exist. Consequently, we also believe the wisdom inherent in all creatures can speak to us, just as much as God can directly intervene in the course of history to speak to us. However, none of this implies that creatures somehow exist apart from God’s continual sustaining. Rather, as Aquinas notes, the opposite is the case. Their continued existence makes no sense apart from a necessary being who keeps them from falling into annihilation.
Dr. Collins elaborates on two fundamental concepts in Proverbial wisdom which help to give detail to what scripture says natural law teaches. Firstly, wisdom teaches “limit.” That is, it teaches humanity’s control over history is never comprehensive (e.g., Prov 27.1). 13 This demands humility and ethical behaviour, for human beings are never totally in control (Prov 21:30; 19:31; 16:1; Prov 3:7). 14 But secondly, wisdom teaches “order.” One of the fundamental aspects of this order is what could be called the “act and consequence” structure of reality. As Collins puts it, “There is no doubt that the insight that certain acts (or attitudes) have necessary consequences is fundamental to proverbial thinking from the earliest times.” 15 There is, as Francis Schaeffer might say, “real reality.” Indeed, Proverbs often contain explicit observations about the normal course of life, which provide the reason for their counsel: e.g., Prov 27:23-24. 16
The wise man, in Proverbs, is the one who gains wisdom from observation. The fool, on the other hand, is the man who does not, but rather he “despise[s] wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). It is important we recognize this fact, for it tells us something about the character of natural law. I think it must be obvious that Proverbs supports N1 and N2, but it also, by its condemnation of the fool supports N3. The fool is not the one who remains ignorant of wisdom because he is outside the visible church. Rather, he is the one who has refused to learn what he could have learned from observing the world, if it were not for his corrupted and hard heart. Christianity does not say humanity is condemned solely because it defies God’s specially revealed positive laws, though of course it does say people who have defied such laws stand condemned. Adam, all the Israelites, all Christians, and everyone who has heard their testimony, have been in this position. But Proverbs, and the scriptures, also say God condemns the human race because humanity has actively and intentionally spurned the moral order that constantly surrounds it, and “calls out in the streets”.
Another important text for the biblical presentation of natural law appears in the Preacher’s book, more specifically in the famous passage of 3:1-8:
3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Dr. Collins refers to this famed speech because it presents the limits of the ‘rules’ we find in Proverbs, and it certainly does provide a big-picture context for the practical application of those norms. As Dr. Collins says, “Since proverbs are not universally valid laws but admit of exceptions, their applicability depends on the identification of the right time.” 17 However, to imagine this is a qualification or correction of natural law thinking would be mistaken. The idea that natural law leaves open particular decisions to the work of prudence or discernment has been recognized throughout history. To return to our exemplary advocate, Aquinas speaks about this aspect of law in his discussion of human law.
But it must be noted that something may be derived from the natural law in two ways: first, as a conclusion from premises, secondly, by way of determination of certain generalities. The first way is like to that by which, in sciences, demonstrated conclusions are drawn from the principles: while the second mode is likened to that whereby, in the arts, general forms are particularized as to details: thus the craftsman needs to determine the general form of a house to some particular shape. Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man“: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.
Secondly, from the following Question:
Isidore in determining the nature of law, lays down, at first, three conditions; viz. that it “foster religion,” inasmuch as it is proportionate to the Divine law; that it be “helpful to discipline,” inasmuch as it is proportionate to the nature law; and that it “further the common weal,” inasmuch as it is proportionate to the utility of mankind.
All the other conditions mentioned by him are reduced to these three. For it is called virtuous because it fosters religion. And when he goes on to say that it should be “just, possible to nature, according to the customs of the country, adapted to place and time,” he implies that it should be helpful to discipline. For human discipline depends on first on the order of reason, to which he refers by saying “just”: secondly, it depends on the ability of the agent; because discipline should be adapted to each one according to his ability, taking also into account the ability of nature (for the same burdens should be not laid on children as adults); and should be according to human customs; since man cannot live alone in society, paying no heed to others: thirdly, it depends on certain circumstances, in respect of which he says, “adapted to place and time.”
Natural law, then, leaves open some decisions to human determination, and these judgments are wisely made when they accord with “place and time,” much as the Preacher says. True wisdom does not desire merely positive laws, but understands the need for a certain measure of subjectivity when it comes to the particulars.