Andrew Fulford Archive Natural Law Nota Bene

Is Retribution a Principle of Natural Law?

A few times in the past at TCI writers have addressed the matter of punishment. Pr. Wedgeworth’s essay on C. S. Lewis’ doctrine of punishment is a noteworthy case, and I build on that argument in various ways in my series on pacifism. I would like to briefly address this matter again, by providing one brief response to a particular question: Do human beings naturally know retribution is just? Retribution is, of course, another way of saying “punishment”, so to answer this question is to answer a query about the justice of punishment and penalties in general.

There are various ways to determine whether something is in accord with natural justice. Richard Hooker (Laws 1.8.2) says,

And of discerning goodness there are but these two ways; the one the knowledge of the causes whereby it is made such; the other the observation of those signs and tokens, which being annexed always unto goodness, argue that where they are found, there also goodness is, although we know not the cause by force whereof it is there.

He says further that “signs and tokens to know good by are of sundry kinds; some more certain and some less. The most certain token of evident goodness is, if the general persuasion of all men do so account it” (1.8.3). For the sake of brevity I will leave aside the “more certain” way of knowing goodness, and focus on this second kind, and another third kind I will address in a minute. Thus, in asking the question “Do people know naturally that retribution is just?”, one place to which Hooker would direct us for an answer is the common consent of humanity, expressed often in what is known as the ius gentium. And it is beyond questioning that the general consent of the human race is in favour of the justice of retribution (for those who doubt, I suggest perusing the Justinian Code or the examples of natural law C. S. Lewis gives at the end of The Abolition of Man).

There is yet another way by which we can know what is known by natural reason: special revelation. As I endeavoured to prove in my exegetical series defending natural law, scripture supports the idea that there is a natural law, and that even unregenerate people know it. With this premise in place, we can further ask: Does scripture teach that the justice of retribution is known in this way? I think it does. One place where it does so is in Romans 1:32. Here Paul writes:

οἵτινες τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπιγνόντες, ὅτι οἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα πράσσοντες ἄξιοι θανάτου εἰσίν,

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,

Thomas Schreiner writes on this text in his Romans commentary:

It is remarkable, despite their rejection of the true God and the darkening of their understanding (vv. 21–23), that they are still keenly aware of God’s disapproval of their behavior. In fact, their awareness is even greater than this. They know “the ordinance of God” (τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ θεοῦ, to dikaiōma tou theou), which is specified in the subsequent ὅτι (hoti, that) clause. God’s ordinance is that those who indulge in such behavior are “worthy of death” (ἄξιοι θανάτου, axioi thanatou). It follows, then, that Gentiles, without specifically having the Mosaic law, are aware of the moral requirements contained in that law (cf. Thielman 1994a: 169; Wilckens 1978: 115). They not only know that God disapproves of their behavior but they also know that it deserves the punishment of death (cf. 6:23). Nonetheless, they continue to engage in such wicked behavior.1

Note here two things: First, that the Gentiles are aware of a divine judgment or decree, which is a legal concept. Second, that this judgment is about an evil that these sinners are worthy of receiving: death. I submit that this is just to say: the Gentiles know they justly deserve divine retribution. This obviously implies, then, that their minds recognize and approve of the principle of retribution as part of justice. And they do so on the basis not of special revelation, but rather of their knowledge of natural law.

  1. Thomas R. Schreiner, vol. 6, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 99.