As our readers know, our task from the beginning has been a return to, and a critical retrieval of, the classic Protestant tradition. As we say, it arose out of recent ferment in the Reformed world; our goal was to make the “Reformed catholicity” movement both really Reformed and really catholic. Our position from the start has been classical. We came to see that many forms of “Christian worldview” and “presuppositionalism” actually encourage bad intellectual habits, looking for “whole systems” instead of truth itself and rushing to draw the antithesis rather than carefully reading and learning from different forms of literature, philosophy, and politics. Ironically, we also came to see how this seemingly transformationalist attitude resulted in a nearly equivalent practical result as the erroneously-named “Reformed Two Kingdoms” theology 1 which advocates a mostly non-christian or non-theological approach to the secular arena. The two dispositions, though seemingly opposite poles, end up agreeing that the idea of nature and the classical tradition cannot be positively appropriated in a uniquely Christian way. And so we plotted a different path.
Recently, we were reminded of the significance of this difference, as we were publicly denounced at the Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference by Mr. James B. Jordan, the eminence grise of the oatmeal stout wing of the so-called Federal Vision movement. 2 In his lecture, “Exorcising the Saints of the Great Hangovers,” we were named as a dangerous influence because we stand with the Reformers, the mainstream Reformed tradition, and C S Lewis regarding the natural law and natural theology. But we consider ourselves in excellent company on this matter, and will take the condemnation as the highest compliment.
In fact, Mr. Jordan’s outrage at us isn’t from any legitimate disagreement, for that would involve accurately presenting our ideas before any attempt at rebuttal; he has in fact egregiously misrepresented us. The most curious part of the affair is that, as we will show, he would actually find much to agree with us were he to suppress his outrage long enough to pay attention to what we were saying. As scattershot and misleading as his critique of us was, still the topics he raises in it, and the reasons for which he raises them, are of great interest, and by examining his charges we are given the opportunity to discuss again matters which deserve our most careful attention. Here we will consider Mr. Jordan’s own doctrine not in any detail but only insofar as necessary to make the motivation of his attack intelligible, to show how far he has misrepresented us, and to show what’s at stake in this debate.
At issue are the questions of whether there is a natural law and a natural theology, what the Reformers meant by those terms, and following from all that, whether non-Israelites had any wisdom or contributed anything of merit that can be inherited by Christians. These questions are of immense importance for Christian theology, philosophy, ethics, and apologetics.
Our position is that of the Reformers and the central Protestant tradition, and it is the admirable commonsense position of the classical Christian academic renewal. 3 But Mr. Jordan disregards the traditional exegesis of the church regarding the blessing of Japheth, and wants to claim that all wisdom whatever was confined to the line of Shem, and so he cannot allow any aspect of the classical heritage, or any non-Israelite heritage, to hold a place of positive influence in the church.
It is no secret that Mr. Jordan is given to hyperbolic pronouncements and rhetorical excess, and further, has something of a peculiar theological system of his own which differs from the classical Reformed tradition in a number of crucial respects. He also has his own stipulated vocabulary where terms carry a great deal of idiosyncratic meaning which may not be common to a general audience, even a Reformed one. So it is not surprising that he would take issue with our exposition. The manner of his presentation, however, was surprisingly bad. He has subsequently invited us to “declare war” on his theology as a whole, but this is an invitation which we will decline. We will continue to here and there recommend aspects of his exegetical work, particularly his treatment of the tabernacle and temple, as well as some of his liturgical criticism, and we simply feel no need to regard him as a personal opponent.
But Mr. Jordan has, in fact, distanced himself from the tradition of the Reformers, and this takes us to the first thing we need to consider. While occasionally brilliant, he is fundamentally an independent exegete, and his warrant for this is historicistic. His philosophy of history is postmillennial, but for him, this involves not simply a general progression of truth’s recognition throughout the world, but rather, distinct and distinctly recognizable phases of progressive evolution. 4 This positions him to be the herald of a new age, who speaks with the authority of a new age; previous ages are thus imperfect not simply as all ages are, but rather, are deeply tainted with paganism which only he and a few predecessors have been able to see and correct. But since his authority is his personal exegesis, this makes it hard to tell the difference, in methodological principle, between himself and Charles Taze Russell, who accepted Wyclif and Luther, to be sure, but only as partly-right (he got to define which part, and this could change) missing links on the way to himself, in an evolutionary course defined by himself.
What this means is that the canons of consensual exegesis of Scripture, and of reason, which we hold fast to along with the Reformers, are regarded by Mr. Jordan as remnants of pagan delusion. The idea that past doctrines might actually have the same meaning as some of his own formulations seems ruled out for him by his historicistic principle; the past must be inferior simply because it is past, and truth is new. 5 Only the Bible stands above this, but not the Bible as read consensually over time; but rather, the Bible as read now, by him.
This all works together to create a sort of idealist history, much like the kind described and critiqued by Michel Rene Barnes, the kind that is all-too common among academic theology today:
Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms. This confidence springs, I think, from two attitudes. First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Secondly, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology. One can imagine that either or both of these attitudes would make historical judgments or characterizations more tentative and rare, but I think it is fair to conclude that this has not been the case…
There has been a decision by systematicians to prefer an architectonic and idealistic style of writing; this decision has been objectified, for no one can remember making it. Aside from amnesia, the problem with the influence of idealism in systematic appropriations of patristic theology is not that philosophy in general has no place in theology, or even that idealism in particular has no place in theology. Rather the problem is that, unacknowledged, idealism draws to itself bad history: the integrity of the discipline of historical studies is ruptured by the need to find a “historical” account which is already cast in idealistic terms. History is then treated as the material enstructuring of those themes which are constitutive of contemporary systematics. The dialogue between systematic theology and historical theology is transformed into a conversation between a ventriloquist and her or his prop.
And while Dr. Barnes’s comments are aimed specifically at neo-patristic theologians, the same method is at work in a larger scope when it comes to the Hellenization thesis.
“Idealist” or ideological history does two things for its adherents. It absolves them from close engagements with the past or with texts, since the truth is a priori identified with the narrative, and its judgments are thus not to be questioned. It also absolves them from having to actually engage in a conversational pursuit of wisdom; for the ideologist historian, you either already agree with him and therefore have the truth, or you do not, and therefore you do not. What’s especially important to note for our purposes here is that this is an an intellectual posture which suits the retreat to commitment– the abdication of public truth claims due to skepticism regarding an objective common measure of reality– perfectly.
Though Mr. Jordan seems to consider his emergent vision as transcending the cramping confines of the old Reformed tradition, there is one Reformed theologian whose methodology he does embrace, and that is Dr. Cornelius Van Til. He claims to be faithfully continuing the Van Tillian tradition. In his conference talk, Mr. Jordan says:
It was his [Van Til’s] life work to strip away accretions of pagan thinking that are hiding in the background of our consciousness. This is a process that is going to keep going on and on for the next hundred thousands of years until Jesus comes back because human beings made in the image of God are infinitely deep complex and there are always nooks and crannies for bad presuppositions to show up.
The first thing any perceptive reader should notice is how important the expression “the background of our consciousness” is for this paragraph. For something to “hide” in the background of one’s consciousness, it need not be perceived by the knower. The problem, though, is that when attempting to demonstrate this from history, it becomes impossible to make any objective case, since all arguments depend upon variations of argumentum e silentio, guilt by association, and no true scotsman. 6
But those familiar with Van Til will notice that Mr. Jordan actually exaggerates Van Til in some regards and departs markedly from him in others. For instance, Van Til still felt free to talk about “nature,” whereas Mr. Jordan, taking the “antithesis” farther, rejects the concept itself as “Greek.” Additionally, Van Til looked to the evangelical doctrine of personal regeneration to bridge the gap between the sinner and an accurate apprehension of general revelation, whereas Mr. Jordan denies that regeneration is a personal and internal change, claiming that it is instead a corporate and covenantal change, identified publicly by sacramental and liturgical ritual. This means that Mr. Jordan’s interpretative grid is not simply the Holy Spirit at work on the individual conscience, but rather the ecclesiastical community and its teachers, though as we have stated, this almost always reduces to his own charism.
This reinterpretation of Van Til can be seen throughout Mr. Jordan’s writings, but this quote in particular highlights some important matters:
Man’s problem is not irrationality or emotionalism, but sin. It is sin that makes people distort the world around them, creating fantasy worlds in which to operate. As Romans 1 says, the natural man is fundamentally insane. He operates in a dream world that does not exist. When a person operates in the same insane dream world as everyone around him, we say that he is sane, while if he makes his own little world to live in, we say he is insane. The fact is that all are insane. Only grace, fleshed out in the life of rebuke that comes from living in the Church, makes people clear-sighted and clear-thinking. And when people are clear-thinking, they quite naturally are “logical” in their thinking.
Setting aside, for the moment, the question of which actual congregations might exemplify this (pastors everywhere will be quite startled to hear that Christians are “quite naturally” logical), we need to pause over the statement that “the natural man is fundamentally insane.” Is this just a rhetorical flair, or does Mr. Jordan mean what he says?
For the natural man to be “fundamentally insane,” we should expect some state of normative psychosis to distinguish nonbelievers. This would prevent any dependable communication between believers and nonbelievers, and it would also mean that civil order could not exist, not even in a minimally sufficient way, apart from religious conversion. There would be little point in attempting to enact or enforce laws, and the distinction between incarceration and asylum would be of no value.
There is a name for people who think that everyone else in the world is crazy, and we are tempted to quote Joseph Heller on the nature of this irony, but we shall refrain. Such a doctrine of common insanity is not, in fact, the true Calvinist position. Rather, Calvinism teaches that men are totally depraved but not utterly depraved. They are in need of effectual grace to see spiritual things, and no amount of Aristotle will save the soul, but they are, nonetheless, capable of a great deal of natural wisdom or civic righteousness, of deep insights about the world, and of contributing important ideas, forms, and institutions to the world. In fact, when Calvin wants to defend the idea of cura religionis, he cites the “profane writers” and “the philosophers” (Inst. 4.20.9).
It is also important to note that Mr. Jordan adds to Van Til a sort of modern “ecumenical” outlook, 7 taking in elements from Louis Bouyer, Alexander Schmemann, 8 and Henri de Lubac, all of whom were deeply indebted to classical philosophy and a great deal of modern philosophy as well. Mr. Jordan also incorporates the thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Owen Barfield, and even, however mediated, that of Kant, a pop version of Hegel, Marx, and, via Barfield, Rudolf Steiner. This German influence comes out quite clearly when Mr. Jordan explains his theory of history as a progressive series of revolutions. 9 Mr. Jordan even advocates a variation of the old three-age view, as can be seen in his pamphlet Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, a concept that is not obviously biblical but which does have a rich history in philosophy and esotericism. This directly informs his beliefs that the Reformation is over and that we need to move “beyond” it.
These sorts of intellectual influences are important to note because they complicate the claim that Mr. Jordan is a simple Biblicist. He has discernable guiding principles, philosophical and even systematic ones, which inform his exegesis, and most of which are manifestly not derived from the Bible. After all, where does the Bible speak of “presuppositions” which “show up” in “the background of our consciousness”? This is modern language, presumed to be common, but gleaned from the disciplines of philosophy and psychology. We have no intention of duplicating the presuppositionalist approach here and decrying all modern philosophy and psychology, but the business of evaluating and critiquing their contribution is exactly the same as evaluating and critiquing all other “paradigms” and “worldviews.” It requires that there be something outside our presuppositions to which we can appeal, something called reality.
But this self-examination can be and is often dodged by antithetical “Biblicism.” We all acknowledge the Bible as supreme authority; but if one can identify a priori one’s own system with the Bible (despite that system having multiple origins, many of them manifestly outside the Bible), then one can a priori dismiss any possible disagreement with one’s self as “pagan,” the antithesis of “Biblical,” and any attempted use of reason can be ruled out as “Greek,” “rationalistic,” or “Enlightenment.” Needless to say, we are unimpressed with this kind of maneuver.
We could say more about Mr. Jordan’s system, but this brief review of some of its salient characteristics already suffices to explain why he will necessarily condemn our reflections; we hold to markedly different principles of knowledge, interpretation, and authority than he does. And now we will proceed to consider the particular topics in controversy, and whether what Mr. Jordan says of us is true.
Mr. Jordan begins his harangue of us with this description of phenomenological inflammation:
I just had a little bit to say about Greek thought until somebody said that you need to go online and look at The Calvinist International website. And I went there, and there was a bunch of stuff about natural law. And I began to read it and my eyes began to water and my nose began to run and I began to cough and my throat was getting all scratchy because everything I read there was so unnatural. And now I can barely talk. I am barely hanging on here…
If only we had been present at the lecture, we would have offered to buy him a drink to ease his distress. Mr. Jordan then goes on to list a string of practices he finds problematic, most of which we also oppose– extreme asceticism, a valorization of “sacred” virginity, the rejection of “enthusiastic and instrumental music,”– but then he asserts that, somehow, these all came from “Hellenism”:
All of these ideas and many more came exclusively from Hellenism and not in any way from the Bible. But theologians and apologists of the early church were intellectual converts from Hellenism. And by the way, the writings that we have from the early church are by these guys, these intellectuals, the Hellenistic guys trained in Greek thought and philosophy. We don’t really know what all kinds of stuff was being preached in church after church after church throughout the empire. It may have been a whole lot more similar to what we believe. But what we have, from Justin Martyr and these other guys is converts carrying some baggage with them.
This foray into restorationist history is not without all merit– we ourselves believe there is much to be rediscovered in the legacy of early Jewish Christians, and we follow closely the excellent research which has already begun in this field– but insofar as it serves as an account of origins and an explanation of the earlier named theological errors, it is, of course, false. Asceticism was not uniquely a product of “Hellenism,” whatever that would even mean, but rather also of Jewish sectarianism and early Christianity. It very often flourished among iconoclasts and those who rejected mainstream “Greek” or “Roman” culture. Additionally, we know that the rejection of musical instruments had a direct relationship to Jewish cultic principles. 10 And thanks to the leading research of the past few decades, we also now know that Gnosticism was a form of disaffected Judaism, emerging from both the first exile and, finally, the rupture with Christianity. 11 Plotinus, by contrast, wrote a critique of the Gnostics, and so the Hebraic/Hellenistic dichotomy fails as interpretative conceit. It is falsified by the facts of history. 12
Historically, this divide between Jerusalem and Athens was actually embraced by the more schismatic branches of Christendom. Tertullian is considered the father of this line of thinking, and yet he was a Montanist. Ambrose and Augustine, by contrast, as well as the Cappadocian fathers, represent a different perspective entirely. 13 This divide shows up again at the time of the Reformation, but it is not actually embraced by Calvin (pace Harnack, Barth, and others), but rather by the Anabaptists and later by the more radical Puritans. It is Hooker, not Cartwright, who embraces Aristotle, and yet it is Hooker, not Cartwright, who is liturgical, sacramental, and catholic. Mr. Jordan’s narrative of early and middle church history is simply incorrect.
But the antithetical polarity continues in Mr. Jordan’s lecture, with him at one point sounding like an odd combination of Adolf von Harnack and Dr. Bronner:
Hellenism has had another pernicious effect and not just in the east. Greek philosophers have come to be regarded as the classics and have routinely been studied in the West for centuries. The philosophers are the Greek counterfeits of the prophets. The prophets said, ‘You need to roll up your sleeves, get involved with people, and serve others.’ The philosophers said, ‘The heck with society. You need to sit around and contemplate ideas.’ That’s not the same thing. Greek philosophy—Plato, Socrates, and etc.—have no more to teach us than do Confucius, Buddha, Laozi, and the Bhagavad Gita. All of these arose at the same time in history, and they are all evil counterfeits. Aristotelian logic has blinded people for 2,000 years because it is limited. It’s ok in certain areas, but when it becomes a whole thing, it’s no good.
This claim will make even an amateur acquaintance with the texts of Greek philosophers wince. From Sokrates to the Stoics, Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander to Plato’s engagement with Dionysius of Syracuse to Plotinus’ interest in Gordianopolis, the philosophers were very often deeply concerned with the life of the polis– and this was so much the case for Kongzi (to choose just one East Asian) that many Westerners, on first encounter with him, have trouble seeing him as a “philosopher” at all, so intensely is he concerned with civic life. As for logic, perhaps Mr. Jordan will condescend to tell us what “certain areas” Aristotelian logic is good for, and what other logics he has in mind for the other areas. 14
As we have said, Mr. Jordan is actually behind the spirit of the age in this regard, as the overwhelming majority of modern scholarship is against him. James Barr is widely considered to have given the decisive refutation of the thought that the Bible is opposed to “the Greek mind” or natural theology, but there has been a great deal of more research done in the last forty years to put this old saw to rest. Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism stands out as noteworthy. There has also been the work of Cyrus Gordon, particularly his The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, and J. B. Skemp’s The Greeks and the Gospel, the first chapter of which is available here. More recent work continues this trend. John Pairman Brown’s Israel and Hellas is formidable and compelling, as is the work of Dale Martin and William V. Rowe. Lewis Ayres helpfully summarizes the recent academic move away from the “Hellenization” thesis:
At this point I think it is also important to note that the emergence of post-Bauerian understandings of orthodoxy has occurred alongside the two other significant developments in early Christian studies. The first is the gradual emergence of consciously post-Harnackian modes of scholarship. I do not refer here to the rejection of Harnack’s organic model of the development of doctrine in the abstract, but to the manner in which he described the development of Christian thought as stages in the progress of “hellenization.” Harnack’s account of hellenized Judaism and of the gradual hellenization of Christianity itself traced a trajectory that involved downplaying the significance of exegetical argument, a valuation of all Jewish tradition other than that which participated in this trajectory as outmoded, and an understanding of doctrinal formulation as always balanced on a knife-edge between the search for new modes of philosophical expression and universality and the desire to return to an institutionalized superstition. While Harnackian perspectives still occasionally appear, the best studies of the last fifty years have found the rejection of his views to be a stimulus for good scholarship. Most importantly, this rejection has resulted in the shaping of many new questions about how we might understand doctrinal debate as both exegetical and philosophical in character. The best studies are those which trace in detail modes of argument while being attentive to the inseparability of categories of argument that have become divorced in modern theological practice. One important corollary of these shifts is a move away from a Dogmengeschichte that focuses solely on the evolution of the formulae of orthodoxy toward modes of historical theology that focus on the wider matrices of belief within which such formulae function. 15
Among other things, this quote shows that the modern rejection of “Hellenization” is not simply a continuation of ancient Hebraicism, but is rather an offshoot of modern liberal criticism, and it is a trend which is fading, like all liberal criticism– and God be praised for that.
One of the deafening silences from biblical theologians who promote this Hellenization thesis is what they make of the presence of Hellenism in the New Testament itself. John’s Prologue and the Epistle to the Hebrews have all the trademarks of Hellenistic Judaism, but there is also the explicit naming of a Hellenist party in the early Christian church (Acts 6:1). Alan Segal and Bruce Chilton have both demonstrated that the Apostle Paul fit the bill of a Hellenistic Jew. 16 Even the conservative evangelical Presbyterian C. John Collins finds “echoes of Aristotle in Romans 2:14-15.”
John Taylor has an especially intriguing case in his Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. In one section he convincingly marks the interaction between Luke’s record of the Apostle Paul’s rhetoric and the classical Greek heritage:
Paul’s account of the nature of God will have seemed at once conventional and provocative. Ideas about Zeus had long tended in a monotheist direction, and the Greek philosophical deity shared with the God of Israel, oneness, universality, and self-sufficiency (the last a theme much stressed in Hellenistic philosophy). Insisting that God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands allows Paul rhetorically to deny (it is tempting to imagine with a sweeping gesture) the rationale of the great temples around him, yet that idea was already a commonplace to educated pagans: Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had declared temples superfluous (the true temple being the human intellect), and Chrysippus, a later head of the same school, had said that it was childish to represent gods in human shape.
Paul uses language and arguments already forged by Greek-speaking Jews to commend their religion to outsiders. Such apologetic argued that, whilst the images and cults of paganism were unworthy of God, all people in their own traditions could have some intimation of his nature, and the poets and philosophers of Greece had often come near to the truth. Judaism and philosophy are blended through most of his speech. The claim that God ‘made the world and everything in it’ echoes the beginning of Genesis, but Stoic philosophers also proclaimed God as the creator of all things: both accounts insist that he is the maker not the made. This ‘natural theology’, the idea that knowledge of God can be gained simply by looking at the world, is important in the Old Testament: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.’ (Ps. 19:1). The notion of divine self-sufficiency underlies a frequent criticism of Temple ritual (for example Ps. 50:8-11), as well as being a philosophical commonplace. Creation of all nations from one stock expresses the Hebrew idea of descent from Adam, but chimes too with the unity of mankind stressed by Stoicism. ‘Allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation’ evokes Hebrew myths about creation over a sequence of days, with the pushing back both of chaos and of the sea, but also echoes Stoic ideas about the succession of ages and the providential ordering of the earth which made some parts fit for human occupation. The name of the God of Israel suggested ‘to be’ (‘the great I Am’), and the name of Zeus had been connected with zao (‘I live’). Such wordplay seems to be involved in the confession (which both traditions could make) that ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ …
…We are on firmer ground with his second quotation. ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Immediately recognizable as part of a hexameter, this comes from the fifth line of Aratus’ Phaenomena, a Hellenistic didactic poem about the heavenly bodies dating from the early third century BC. It exemplifies the fashion in that age for polished poems on technically difficult subjects: poets saw a challenge in turning prose treatises into lucid and elegant verse, as well as aspiring to write in the tradition of Hesiod. In some cases, such as Nicander in his Alexipharmaca on antidotes to poisonous snakes, the aim was perhaps to savour a contrast between fine manner and ludicrously mundane matter (like Tom Lehrer singing the periodic table of the elements as a Gilbertian patter-song). But in the case of Aratus we should not underestimate the direct interest of the subject. Inhabitants of the ancient world told the time by the sun, navigated by the stars, and (as we find Jane Austen’s characters still doing) planned journeys to coincide with a full moon. Furthermore Aratus wrote from a Stoic perspective: Paul pays a graceful compliment to the Stoics in his audience, for whom the heavenly bodies were part of a familiar argument from design. The poem from which the quotation comes is a hymn to Zeus, and the most obviously Stoic part of the work. It is sometimes claimed that the Phaenomena is a systematic attempt to depict a benign deity supervising an ordered cosmos: that may go too far, but it can be safely said that the role of Zeus in the prologue neatly sums up his dual identity as the Stoic guiding principle who is still also the traditional sky god.
The poem was popular in antiquity and Luke could well have read it, or Paul himself (if the historicity of the speech extends to such detail) may have known and paid tribute to the work of a fellow Cilician. Equally however the phrase may have been already a familiar quotation in oral tradition or a part of a published collection. The same applies to another well-known example of a classical author quoted by Paul: the phrase in 1 Corinthians rendered by the Authorised Version as ‘evil communications corrupt good manners’ (1 Cor. 15:53, formerly attributed to Euripides, but now known to come from Menander’s comedy Thais) seems an obvious candidate for circulation as a gnomic piece of popular wisdom. On the other hand we should not play down too much Paul’s direct acquaintance with Greek literature. 1 Corinthians shows the clear influence of classical rhetoric, with its diatribe style, its imaginary interlocutor objecting to the idea of bodily resurrection (15:12-58), and the analogy of the mutually dependent body parts as a model for society (12:12-31): this has many classical parallels, but is most familiar as the fable of Menenius Agrippa in Livy (2.32.8-12). 17
But none of these historical-grammatical considerations are allowed by the more extreme “biblical theology.” For, since “Greek thinking” is bad a priori, and this is known before any exegetical research, it is simply impossible for the New Testament to have been favorable towards the gifts of the Greeks. But, as Remi Brague has shown in Eccentric Culture, Christian civilization has always been polyglot, and a practiced a harmony of diverse legacies as the nations make pilgrimage into Zion; it is a constitutive characteristic of Christendom. Brague juxtaposes this to the example of Islam, with its singular sacred language and single book. Brague’s point is illustrated by Sayyid Qutb, who, in his works Milestones and Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview, called for the purging of the “Islamic worldview” of all non-Quranic elements such as Greek philosophy, Roman law, or Persian poetry. This is not the way of the historic Church.
We have spent a great deal researching and discussing the topics of natural law and the law of nations at our forum. Our project has has been, especially against the earlier and extreme version of “Reformed Two Kingdoms,” to recover the classical meaning of natural law and show how on the one hand, it does not in fact set up an absolutely autonomous and neutral civic world, but on the other, how it is propaeudeutic to the Gospel and allows for common citizenship between believers and unbelievers at most practical levels and offers one, though not the only, starting point for apologetical conversation.
But for Mr. Jordan, the concepts of natural law and ius gentium, or the common law of nations, are examples of syncretism, an illicit compromise between Christ and Baal. He even joins with the modern skeptic when it comes to the very existence of nature, natural law, and ius gentium, hinting that none of these actually exist, or if they do, they are too deeply flawed to be of any use today.
Mr. Jordan, in fact, so closely approximates the modern liberal critic at this point that he felt it sufficient to point at the outdated cosmology of Zanchius and Alsted, two writers recently discussed from our website, in place of actual rebuttal. Since these men supposedly believed in judicial astrology, the crystalline spheres, and that the planetary orbits were perfect circles, we can now supposedly see how outrageous it would be to trust their insights on human nature and morality. Mr. Jordan states:
But what does Zanchius mean by natural law? Well, one of the things he meant by it was you can know how long you can live if you go to a good chiromancer and they can look at the lifelines and tell you. They can’t tell you who you’re going to marry, but they can tell you how long you’re going to live. And if you look at the stars and you know how to read them right, by judicial astrology, you’ll know which nations are going to be ascendant. And Zanchius spent a lot of time on that. Alsted, whom they also quote at length on “natural law,” was a great believer in judicial astrology, studying the stars; after all the heavens are telling…
Natural law means that the planets go around the earth in perfect circles. Now, as a matter of fact, there are no perfect circles in creation. Everything is fractal. Down at the bottom of the world are paisleys. There are all these fractals and paisleys. There are no perfect circles in nature. Perfect circles are imposed by the mind of the priestly rulers of creation. And so are straight lines. But nature, being “perfect” and “natural,” the planets go around the earth on crystal spheres in perfect circles…
That’s not reality. These theories blinded people to reality. Aristotle blinded people to reality.
To say that “natural law” demands that the heavens move in perfect circles reveals a nearly complete ignorance of what natural law means for ancient writers. Mr. Jordan is confusing several senses of “law” and “nature” ineptly and anachronistically. And theologians like Zanchius and Alsted certainly deserve a better treatment than this. Mr. Jordan, as usual, offers no support for his theses, but the reader should know that of the two mentioned, only Alsted had any significant interest in astrology, and that interest derived not from Aristotle, but from the hermeticism fashionable among the intelligentsia of the time (e.g. Newton; in fact, it was the hermetic interest which broke from the constraints of popular school-Aristotelianism and helped lay the foundations of modern physics). And the idea that there are natural constitutional indicators of how long a man might live is the same principle behind modern genetics which purports to be able to reveal all sorts of limiting physical dispositions. But, it seems clear, Mr. Jordan is simply trying to score a cheap shot against Reformed divines by associating them with what moderns would consider occultism. But Calvin believed in natural law as much as Alsted did, and the doctrine is not dependent on other historical contingencies.
Doubtless some judicious Christian student in 2510, perusing Mr. Jordan’s interesting insights into Genesis, will kindly forgive him his credulous infatuation with the swirling paisley patterns of late 20th century popular hippie physics, and he will be right to do so; Mr. Jordan could certainly extend that kind of charity to our ancestors. We think, with Lewis, that it is a very worthwhile exercise to retrieve, against the scientism of our time, what was and is true in the “discarded image” of classical cosmology, seeing the angels of order indicated by the ancient models of cosmic architecture.
But methodical considerations aside, how is Mr. Jordan’s stance that natural law is refuted by “modern science” any different than the typical liberal claim that traditional marriage is refuted because of Galileo?
A very practical result follows from this denial of natural law. Non-Hebraic cultures cannot be admitted to have stable and dependable law codes with a universal moral core, and thus there is a complete denial of any common law of nations. Not content to simply label them as imperfect, however, Mr. Jordan goes on to suggest that, apart from the direct influence of the descendents of Shem, all cultures will descend into gross immorality and barbarism:
All over this world, young boys and men frequently fornicate with sheep and goats. You will find out that the majority of young Muslim men have their first sexual encounter being raped by older men. You will find out that in Africa who you are married to has nothing to do with whom you have sex with. There is no such thing as common sexual morality around the world. It existed at this time in history because of the influence of the Noahic covenant which was kept alive by the descendents of Shem.
The first thing we need to ask is “Is this true?” What sort of statistics are available to support such a generalization? Without them, these sorts of anecdotes are indistinguishable from a xenophobic rant. It is true that different peoples at different times vary in the uprightness of their customs and mores. But the above quote appears to deny natural law and the blessing of Japheth altogether, arguing instead for an exclusively Israelite Noahide order. But this is not the Biblical picture, nor that of the Christian tradition, and Mr. Jordan’s forays into ipse-dixit anthropology do not match up with the real world. Lewis was right to say, in The Abolition of Man, that there is a universal morality, and he was also helpful enough to supply some proof of that in his “Illustrations of the Tao.”
Indulging Mr. Jordan’s broad-brush ad gentem arguments for the moment, we can show that they are still fallacious. Natural law doctrine does not claim that people consistently obey their consciences. Neither does the ius gentium mean that citizens within countries obey their laws, or that those laws are just in every way and in every part. It simply says that the morality is known in some intuitive way and acknowledged enough to make it into the law books. And so we should not ask whether or not bestiality is practiced across the world, but rather whether it is legally condoned. After all, the Puritan theocratic colony of Plymouth had to deal with bestiality. If we were using Mr. Jordan’s logic, this would disqualify the Mosaic polity as well as the common law of Christendom. One doesn’t make laws for nothing. What seems most likely, however, is that Mr. Jordan does not actually understand what the common law tradition even is, much less what it set out to do or its continuing role in jurisprudence.
As we said at the outset, we are not interested in the invitation to war. Mr. Jordan can carry on fulminating against our project and principles if he chooses. But the facts of what we have written need to be reviewed for the readership. Readers can acquire a general familiarity with our principles and program by reading our essays, “Irenicism, Truth, and Method,” “Interlocutions: First Things, Philosophy, and Theology Proper,” “Interlocutions: Voluntarism and Early Modern Political Theory,” and “Interlocutions: Defining First Principles.” We assert, with Lewis and the whole classic Christian tradition, a universal nature and moral law, reflected universally in customs and legal order. We deny that any serious arguments against this have even been given by our critics, let alone demonstrated. We also reject as demonstrably false the claim that Calvin is in any disagreement with us on this point or, as Mr. Jordan says, “He had no interest in Greek philosophy.” 18 Such a claim is manifestly not true, and Richard Muller and others have sufficiently proven it. We have built upon their work, and there is more than enough material in our archives to illustrate the point.
It would take far too much space to explain our view of ancient civilization, whether Hebrew, Persian, Greek, or Roman, in any detail. While we seek to appropriate all that is good there, we have not been at all shy about some of the problems which must be avoided. 19 The best of the ancient world must bow to Jesus, its true heir, and this is what we call Mere Christendom.
Regarding natural law, we have dealt with this topic extensively, but it is worth reviewing our contributions here so that readers may compare them to Mr. Jordan’s claim that traditional natural law doctrine aims at setting up spheres autonomous from God and His Christ.
Mr. Fulford’s exegetical treatment of the question, which appeared in six installments on our site, shows how basic the question of natural law actually is, especially his introductory essay and conclusion. Simply put, “natural law” means that there is a universal moral law and an accessible knowledge of creation. This does constitute common ground with unbelievers, just as Lewis says; but we deny, contra the secularizing doctrine, that this common ground is itself an autonomous, absolutely stable realm. Indeed, it depends upon the Christian God and, in its way, leads to Him. The Christian tradition of natural law never sought to segregate ethical thought from exegesis, but rather to integrate exegesis with metaphysics.
One of our very first essays on natural law explained its divine character explicitly:
This is why natural law is actually no help to modern secularism. It proclaims that there is a transcendent moral order upon which all law must be founded. It states that this order is beyond reason’s abilities to understand, and it says that the state must be content with its own limitations. It says that might does not make right, nor does an isolated act of will. Natural law proclaims that it must be fulfilled by something else. In short, natural law is a confession of faith.
We also made it clear that natural law is not positive law and that it can never do the job of actual statecraft. It is not self-sufficient:
Christian Aristotelians taught that natural law is the ideal gestalt pattern of human actuality, in a temporal mode, and thus the measure of will and practical reason. St Thomas taught, correctly, that practical reason is not speculative (propositional) reason but simply dealing with things to be done. He said that practical reason is more intuitive and prudential, and intimately involved with the will. He also taught, correctly, that due to sin, that human ideality is difficult to clearly intuit, especially in puzzling practical situations, and thus that the natural law, although a real rule, is in many respects obscure. And obscure not only from sin; obscure also because as ethical norm it is more intuitive than discursive…
St Thomas had taught that natural law is not law in the same sense as civic law. For the latter to be valid, it had to be intelligibly promulgated by a lawful authority; whereas the former is a universal norm. But it is very important to note that the universal norm of natural law is not, for St Thomas, a latent or innate positive law, as if it were a kind of inner traffic code written on the conscience. Its relation to God, the source of law, gives it something of that character in a way, but still does not constitute it as a set of communicated orders in the sense that either human or divine positive law is.
We made the same point again:
Dr. Helm defines natural law as something arrived at by a kind of synchronic consensus or statistical-ethnographic induction, which is not at all the case, although the laws and customs of peoples certainly indicate natural law’s general contours when philosophically reflected upon. To the contrary, natural law has historically been understood as something transcendently grounded, structurally part of man’s being as created and ordered by God, and involving a certain moral orientation or potential towards virtue, ideal human form, which gives inner direction to our action.
In brief, the jus gentium is the positive expression of the natural law among specific cultures and peoples. Where the natural law is, in the words of our own Peter Escalante, a “proprioceptive conatus” (he likes you to have to look it up), the jus gentium is evidence that diverse peoples express that striving in consistent ways with regard to the most basic corollaries and applications of natural law. There is no pretension that the laws of nations are absolutely identical and consistent, but the uniformity is striking.
We have even distinguished the various components of natural law as it has been exposited over the years. At our 2013 Convivium Calvinisticum, a very detailed lecture was dedicated to this subject, and the notes from that discussion were publicly posted:
Mr. Escalante sought to define both “nature” and “law” and then to demonstrate how such concepts functioned in Christian thought, taking Thomas Aquinas as an example of consensus thought. To first define nature, Mr. Escalante contrasted it against the dominant modern assumption of the mechanical and material: in the modern scientistic understanding, the only actual nature, the only really intelligible form, is mathematicalized space. Contrary to this, the classical definition was along the lines of a determinate essence or an intelligible formal reality of substance. So, too, “law” has undergone a shift in meaning, typically assuming a mathematical or mechanical character. Historically, however, “law” was taken from several different terms, especially ius and lex. Ius means “justice” or “right” and denotes what is morally and ontologically correct. Ius exists independent of one’s interpretation and application of it. Lex, on the other hand, signifies the enactment of ius and has to do with specific or positive laws. And of course a lex which violates ius is illicit and no law at all. Mr. Escalante then considered the different aspects of the natural law of mankind. Although a participation in the divine order, man must choose himself prudentially into perfection in concrete and often complicated situations. Natural law is actually intuited by synderesis, that aspect of soul whereby the shape of human perfection is intuited for us in its archetypal character. Natural law is a dictate of practical reason, which can be described speculatively as a proposition – do the good, avoid the evil – yet it is, in itself, not of the order of speculative reason but rather practical reason, known intuitively and applied prudentially in real life action. In fact, principles of natural law are not at first known as propositions at all, but rather are known connaturally and experienced as affinity and attraction toward the good and right on the one hand, and disaffinity and repulsion from the evil and wrong on the other, with regard to ends and means of action. Natural law alone however is insufficient to live a human life, since it must always be enacted by prudence, upon which all ethical choice and all legislation and political action depends. The affirmation of natural law opens up the public square for rational discourse about public affairs, presupposing as it does the fact of a shared nature and a common good, and is the measure of just law, but it may never be a substitute for politics and positive law, nor it is a clear code immediately present to speculative reason.
Perhaps our longest and most detailed treatment of the question of natural law and politics appeared in May of 2012 :
We say that our position is in fact the logical development of the Reformers’ principles, and so it’s time to specify in general outline what that position is. The first thing to say is that it is primarily not a program of specific policies, but rather a conversational and studious inquiry into principles.
To borrow a distinction from architecture, we do acknowledge, and always have done, that the particular models proposed in the works of Calvin and Hooker are not coherently applicable to our time- we are opposed not only to clerocracy, but also, and just as strongly, to any paternalistic authoritarian magistracy mistaking itself for a guide of souls. We are not in the least interested in any repristination of 16th c political models- which wouldn’t be a real political possibility anyway, and thus could only serve as a mental stage set for utopian fantasizing, the prevention of which is one of our basic goals.
But the rule given in the doctrine of the Reformers, that is, the principles, are in fact coherently applicable to our time. Constantinian politics in the old style is just one particular mode of Christian politics, and it was an imperfect one. The Reformers clarified principles in a definitive form, and these were and are capable of logical development, a development which was attained in the 17th and 18th centuries- and, pace Dr Hart, the modern order of freedom was pioneered by Christian jurists in the service of Christian States, not by atheist revolutionaries whose tendencies were far more totalitarian than liberal- and it is really only the French Revolution to which Dr Hart can consistently appeal. Neither the Republican Revolution of Cromwell in the 17th c, nor the American Revolution in the 18th, was politically atheist. And the German jurists weren’t revolutionaries at all.
Christian political principles admit of very different prudential applications to different situations. Although we aren’t Neocalvinists in the technical sense, we would agree with Kuyper that free congregations in a free state, with maximum personal freedom for all, even unbelievers, within the bounds of constitutional order and reason, is the ideal…
…Mankind is essentially religious. Although we reject irrationalistic Cambridge or Amsterdam versions of this proposition, correctly understood it is inescapably true. And the closer one gets to man’s central relation to God, the question of man’s orientation, the more this reveals itself. And though the Reformers held that the spiritual kingdom is the invisible body of Christ, they did not think that faith only affected some inner spiritual double of man, they thought it affected all of man. The political meaning of the spirituality of Christ’s direct reign in hearts is not the end of politics, nor that Christ is not king of all creation. It is rather that that’s man relation to God has no mediator other than Christ, so that magistrates and ministers alike are both servant offices, not mediators. What follows from the original two kingdoms distinction is not a gnostic withdrawal from the commonwealth, but rather a radical relativization of offices. To use an old political term, they become mediatized under Christ.
This section from the same essay is particularly to the point, and it is really quite amazing that Mr. Jordan gave it no notice:
The nexus of spiritual and temporal is the risen Christ above, and the corpus christianorum below. Christians live in both modes at once, and harmoniously, not schizophrenically.
Since man is inescapably religious, revelation plays an architectonic role in the ordering of his affairs… And politics is the art of orchestrating the whole community toward the good. There is therefore, necessarily, a Christian politics. Our claim is that this is not a program of positive law, but rather, a wisdom involving certain principles, applied prudentially.
These quotes, and readers can find many more such passages in our writings for themselves, definitely falsify Mr. Jordan’s suggestion that we have not explained what we mean by natural law or attempted to relate it directly to Christian theology and the Christian God. Had Mr. Jordan taken the time to actually quote us, it would have been immediately obvious just how much time we have spent defining and qualifying. These quotes also show that our understanding is not novel, but is rather a direct continuation of the mainstream classical Christian and Reformed tradition. Continuous with that tradition, we do not teach that natural law or natural theology are autonomous from divine law or revelation. 20 We in fact hold the opposite, and Mr. Jordan’s suggestions otherwise, given that he says he has read us, are to his very great discredit.
Again, we have clearly stated that natural law is grounded in a divine moral order and it rules in each man’s conscience, regardless of whether a person should live consistently with it or not. We explicitly distinguish natural law, the intuitive knowledge of general right and wrong, from its two means of application, prudence and positive law, and we even say that a consistently free and upright civic polity must be founded upon a evangelical doctrine of the reign of Christ– in fact we have publicly insisted on it. The only explanation for Mr. Jordan’s erroneous description of us is that he did not, in fact, read most of what we have written and that he instead gave a knee-jerk reaction to the sound of certain nomenclature he happens not to like.
Mr. Jordan’s lecture, insofar as it pertained to us, was an exercise in question-begging and misrepresentation. But while he is definitely a unique writer, his method of idealist history is not unique to him, nor are some of his mistaken theses; and the practical effect of his mentality and argumentation, namely, the retreat to commitment or “conservative subjectivism” is a common and grave temptation for thoughtful Christians in our time.
Mr. Jordan’s denunciations give us a good occasion to answer the question of “so what?” regarding natural law and natural theology. The reason we have been so insistent that an affirmation of nature– objective and common reality– and natural law is not only conceptually true but strategically important is that, unlike conservative subjectivists, we are not willing to give up the objective common world. We are precisely calling people to reality, not allowing them to say that this is all a matter of private or subjective feelings (even if one calls this illumination by regeneration) which cannot be measured or objectively evaluated. We reject the “retreat to commitment” and instead say that all men know reality and instinctively know the good, and that this awareness is inescapable, even after the Fall, because of their being created in the image of God. Consistent with this being true, we say that it is legitimate to appeal to this truth in public discussion, and it is legitimate for those who profess to disagree with the doctrine to nevertheless be held accountable to it because it is an inescapable fact, self-evident to all.
But there is a way to have a genuine presuppositionalism, and we would encourage that. It is to follow Francis Schaeffer. While we would have many disagreements with Pastor Schaeffer’s applications, his principles and methodology are sound. He definitely did operate with worldviews and systems, but he always insisted that these were only penultimate and could and must be measured by their conformity to reality. Making exactly this point, Pastor Schaeffer writes:
The Bible insists that truth is one—and it is almost the sole surviving system in our generation that does.
To avoid confusion let us notice what this emphasis on the unity of truth does not involve. First of all, from the biblical viewpoint, truth is not ultimately related to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is important and I am known as a man who is a convinced orthodox theologian. But truth is not ultimately related to orthodoxy. Secondly, truth is not related finally to the Creeds either. I, also, believe we must defend the historic Christian Creeds but, we must realize that, while the Creeds are important, truth is not finally related to them. Truth is related to something back of both orthodoxy and the Creeds.
Thirdly, truth is not ultimately related even to the Scriptures. Let me explain. Though I firmly believe what the Early Church and the Reformers taught concerning the nature of the Scriptures, and though I would emphasize that what they have to say concerning the Scriptures is crucially important, yet again, truth is finally related to something behind Scriptures. The Scriptures are important, not because they are printed in a certain way nor bound in a certain kind of leather, nor because they have helped many people. This is not the basic reason for the Scriptures being overwhelming important. The Bible, the historic Creeds, and orthodoxy are important because God is there, and, finally, that is the only reason they have their importance. 21
We are presuppositionalists of plain reality, not of a priori ideology or idealist histories asserted to be reality apart from ongoing engagement with particular facts. The “retreat to commitment” denies reality as a common world of objective truth, and this means that it must also deny the possibility of public conversation as a means of discussing that truth. It instead insists that all such truth must be mediated by subjective communities, which communities, and their narratives or ideologies, are themselves exempt from real criticism. And this is, it should be obvious, not a solution to modern secularism. It is surrender under cover of triumphalism.
By contrast, we invite men into the sunlight of reality, on which we find the path to God. This means using the tools of learning, demonstrating what is true by argumentation from history, grammar, and the rest of the liberal arts and sciences. It also means being able to claim the gifts of the nations as the inheritance of the Christian church.