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An Exegetical Case for Natural Law: Concluding Thoughts

Having now completed our survey of the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish Literature, and New Testament texts, we have demonstrated that natural law is woven deeply into the fabric of biblical teaching, especially the notion of an objective order for the universe, including a moral order, framed by God and discernible by all men. But what is the value of this survey, if correct?

Apologetic Benefit

Recognizing that the divine positive laws revealed in scripture correlate and complement the objective order God has installed in creation helps to show God is good. If scripture recognizes and supports natural law, then the God of scripture must intend to bless and perfect us according to the nature we know in our bones, otherwise the expression “God is good” is but a tautology. And indeed, when we look at the commands God gives us in scripture, we see they consist with the best moral instincts of the human race; likewise, when we see the promises of blessing God gives, we perceive the completion of our natures.

Seeing scripture as supporting an “old natural law” theory also helps Christian ethicists concerned with obedience to special revelation see the direction in which their thinking needs to go. That is, Christians who believe in scripture ought to be defending the existence and visibility of natural law, both to other Christians and to the world at large.

Best Explanation of Early Church History

Additionally, this perspective on natural law helps make sense of historical data. More specifically, it makes it easy to understand how from its inception, Christianity assumed and supported the doctrine of natural law.1 It is also what we would expect, given the social context of the early Christians. As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Bockmuehl discusses why Christians would be interested in using natural law reasoning:

At the same time, and in spite of justified modern philosophical and theological qualms,2 Graeco-Roman and NT authors in their different ways confirm the antiquity of both the substance and the terminology of natural law discourse. Most ancient writers shared the unquestioned assumption that humanity’s place in the social and natural order implied fundamental principles of morality; and that these were continuous with all good systems of positive law, and recognized by cultured peoples everywhere. Not only the Greeks and Romans but Jews and Christians, too, argued in such terms, if only to make their moral discourse possible in an intercultural world. Their theologically based presupposition of a universal ontology, moreover, served as the indispensible framework for their covenantal worldview. 3

Consequences for Missions and Philosophy

The penultimate sentence here raises another reason why this conclusion is beneficial: it means the Bible allows cultural engagement, and more specifically of a kind that can admit goodness and value outside the visible church. For Christians especially interested in being “missional,” this cannot but be useful. This conclusion also permits Bible believers to recognize the fact of the philosophia perennis. In addition to the appendix of The Abolition of Man (just linked), which shows a great deal of agreement on practical wisdom across time and geography, Prof. Lewis also recounts how several major religious and philosophical traditions all recognized the existence of natural law in the abstract:

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’ In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true.’

Biblical Foundation for Protestant Christendom

To see the Bible as supporting natural law means that the unique civilization that two-kingdoms Protestantism contributed to is not undermined by scripture. The precisianists and Anabaptists were wrong to deny that any just political order could be founded that did not submit to their private and special revelation, since justice can be known from the wisdom in God’s good creation. Natural law also frees up the civil magistrate to carry out his office apart from subordination to the clergy, since he is as equipped as they are to reason justly, thus making sense out of those biblical passages like Romans 13:1-7.

Clarifying Exegetical Issues

Realizing that the Bible assumes knowledge of the natural law may also help us in exegetical quandaries that continue to puzzle bible scholars to this day. More specifically: how do we explain the logic of Jesus and Paul, when they declare some parts of the Torah no longer binding on Christians (e.g., Sabbath and Kosher laws), but other parts still in force (e.g., laws against sexual immorality)? Natural law may provide the key here, in that the former examples are clearly “socially constructed” (even if divinely so), and the writers of scripture explicitly note this. Paul expresses what is surely his own view of holy days in Rom 14:5 when he says “all days [are] alike.” There is nothing in the nature of Saturday (or Sunday) which differs from any other day of the week. And, as Dr. Bockmuehl notes, Jesus makes a sort of natural law argument when discussing Kosher food laws:

Jesus’ clinching statement is what might be called an argument from ‘the way things are’, namely that unclean foods enter not the heart but the stomach before being expelled again, into the sewer (Mark 7.19).  The created order itself shows that contaminated foods merely pass through the body and do not affect the heart, but evil has its very seat in the heart and comes from within.4

Of course, Jesus knew God had instituted Kosher laws as an enacted symbolic lesson, but that is just the point, as the quote from Dr. James B. Jordan in the third installment to this series indicates. The Torah was intended to symbolize something, and Jesus was bringing that something into reality in his own ministry, making the symbols no longer necessary. Once that symbolic reason for the law no longer applied, the laws were no longer necessary. That is, unless natural law required them. And so Jesus’ pointing out that, in fact, natural law does not require obedience to Kosher law means that the laws are no longer binding as a result of his ministry. On the other hand, as I mentioned, the apostle Paul and others do seem to apply some OT laws to Christians, for example in the realm of sexual ethics. But sexual immorality clearly does defy the natural purpose of the sexes, and harms human beings as such.5

In light of these things, is it possible that, aside from a handful of commands that require symbolic acts of Christians (i.e., Baptism and the Eucharist),6 the rest of NT “law” is simply expressing what natural law and prudence already demand?7 If so, we may be able to get a new handle on the logic of NT ethics as a whole, without trying to treat it as casuistry based on a positive law code somehow vaguely different from an OT positive law code. Of course, this way of thinking isn’t really new at all, for Protestant legal scholars such as Girolamo Zanchi already reached the same conclusion centuries ago:

Thus the Jews at the time of the apostles sinned in two respects when they wanted to subject Gentiles who converted to Christ to the Mosaic law: because the Gentiles had never been obligated by this law, and it did not apply to them at all because Christ himself had freed even the Jews from this law. How great is the iniquity, then, if Christians want to subject people today, Gentiles and magistrates, to Judaic law? As long as those laws were handed down to the Israelites, they did not apply to the Gentiles. It is only when they coincide with natural law and were confirmed by Christ himself that they apply to all people.8

 The Christian Life as Mature Reflection

And this leads to one final reflection on the value of these conclusions. The Bible constantly describes the New Covenant era as a time in which people will have knowledge of God and his will in a direct and mature way. All people will know God, and teachers will not be needed. Now, while clearly these blessings of the New Covenant have not come in their fullness, still, it is just as clear that our Lord intended us to experience them more than Old Covenant Israel did. He taught his disciples that, at the point of his death and beyond, he no longer considered them mere servants, but his friends, because they finally grasped his intentions. And this cannot only describe the Twelve, for Paul also draws the contrast between Old and New Covenant as between a child under a tutor and a grown, mature son. If the reflection on exegetical issues immediately above is correct, this nature of the New Covenant makes sense. For, apart from a few symbolic acts, the “law” of the New Covenant is nothing other than the law of love, which is just to will good for others, where “good” is defined by the structure of their being. In other words, almost the entirety of God’s demand for New Covenant believers is simply to obey the law of their own being, their own flourishing. And this is really like being under no law at all, at least not any more than St. Augustine’s memorable advice to those seeking God’s guidance for their lives:

See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

  1. See also here.
  2. On this point, of course, I would part ways with Dr. Bockmuehl.
  3. Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches, 116.
  4. Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches, 119.  Note that God makes the same argument to Peter in Acts 10:15.  According to the order of nature, all things are good. The Torah set out symbolic laws which are no longer in force, and those laws were never strictly republications of natural law.
  5. My analysis of Jesus’ reasoning on divorce earlier corroborates this hypothesis: he seems to base his teaching on the subject on the created order/natural law. Several texts in scripture focussed on sexual ethics outside the realm of sexual intercourse also seem to follow a similar pattern (e.g., Paul’s reasoning about gender roles appeals to the original creation order). And, as I also noted earlier, the texts which speak of homosexuality refer to natural law, and so support this hermeneutical suggestion.
  6. And even these laws, in a secondary sense, are an expression of natural law. For an interesting reflection along these lines regarding the Eucharist, see Dr. Peter Leithart’s, Against Christianity, 84, who cites Aquinas citing Augustine, explaining that “no religious body or group can exist without signs and symbols.” Thus, if God wants a visible community, natural law requires that he institute some symbols.
  7. Of course, many obligations fall under the heading of “prudence.” This includes the obligation to acknowledge facts once they are recognized. And this will include facts of history, and most importantly, facts about what the Creator has done in history. And, still further, among these historical acts are God’s communicative acts otherwise known as the inspired scriptures. So the demands of prudence require belief in the Bible in its entirety. Yet, none of this undoes my main point. The apostle Paul himself is able to distinguish between the authority of Old Testament scripture qua revelation, and the authority of the OT qua Mosaic covenant law, in Rom 3:31. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 459 reminds us of the scholastic Protestant distinction between the scriptures’ descriptive and prescriptive authority, and this is the same distinction Paul makes.) My contention is that the scriptures we must acknowledge now include everything in the Protestant canon, but that in the category of what was Mosaic covenant law, we now only have a handful of symbolic acts such as Baptism and the Eucharist.
  8. Girolamo Zanchi, On the Law in General, 81.

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