Natural Law

Moral principles that allegedly exist in the very nature of things, discernible by human reason and self-evidently commended to human conscience, apart from the revelation of Scripture.

Protestant View of Natural Law

Richard Baxter defined natural law as "objectively, that signification of God's will concerning man's duty, which was discernible in the universal nature of things in all God's works; but principally in man's own nature, as related to God and all persons, and things about him" (End of Doctrinal Controversies, p. 113). Baxter draws a distinction between this objective law and man's subjective knowledge or interpretations of it. In other words, these subjective interpretations of natural law, even when collected and systematized by a society of people, cannot be termed natural law. They are not law but subjective reflections upon law, and they may be more or less right or wrong.

To put this another way, God has written His law on men's hearts. He has implanted within their very constitution an acknowledgment of right and wrong; i.e. , He has given them a moral nature. He holds them responsible to Him for what they do with the revelation around them and within them. But sinful man naturally perverts that revelation. All men recognize a distinction between right and wrong, but determining what is right and what is wrong is an entirely different matter. There is no natural standard common to all men for making that judgment. In some societies monogamy is "natural," in others polygamy. In some cultures theft and even murder are accepted as natural. Some societies are patriarchal and some matriarchal. Some, like ancient Sparta, naturally glorify courage but encourage lying and deceit, and make the discovery of a crime a greater evil than the crime itself.

Depraved men have perverted the law in their hearts almost endlessly. That is why man's reflections on the law of nature are not themselves a law but must be brought to an objective standard by which they must be judged. That standard cannot in the very nature of the case be the nonverbal natural law of which those reflections are divergent interpretations. In the final analysis, all we can authoritatively say about God's natural law is what He has told us about it in His Biblical revelation.

This distinction between the objective law of nature and man's subjective view of it is important.

First, the Scriptures are clear that God has written His law upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2:14, 15). He has also surrounded man with eloquent witnesses to Himself. His entire creation speaks to men of His glory, wisdom, power, and Godhead (Ps. 19:1–2; Rom. 1:19, 20). There is in God's creation a natural revelation of the Creator that addresses man's reason and commands his conscience. That objective reality is the law of nature.

Second, we must remember that man is fallen and his understanding is darkened. The light that is in him is darkness. He is wilfully blind to the light of natural revelation and deaf to the commands of natural law, except as he reworks them according to his own will. Additionally, all creation has felt the impact of man's sin and is no longer in its "natural" state. So, while the witness of nature leaves man without excuse and every attempt at a moral system attests that the law of God is written on man's heart, fallen man will never find in natural law a sufficient basis for his rule of life.

Since nature is no longer truly "natural" and therefore no longer entirely normative, and because "sin put man's eyes out" (to use Cornelius Van Til's telling phrase), fallen man will always twist the testimony of nature to establish moral standards that are in utter defiance of God's written law in Scripture. He may at times approximate the moral standards the Lord reveals in His word, and this may be traced either to some influence felt from the witness of Scripture or to the action of the Holy Spirit in His operation of common grace.

Roman Catholic View of Natural Law

Roman Catholic theology has usually given a much greater prominence to natural law. The Protestant position reflects Protestantism's full acceptance of the necessity and sufficiency of Biblical revelation, especially in its statements regarding the fall of man and its consequences. Rome has always been weak on these two fundamentally important doctrines: the doctrine of Scripture and the full impact of Adam's apostasy. She therefore accords the term law to non-Scriptural material and attributes to unregenerate man's reason the ability rightly to interpret the data placed before it. To a Roman Catholic theologian "Natural law means the whole order of things, which, by the will of God, defines us as human persons and contributes to human development." It is "the obligation, built into nature, to use reason in moral judgment" (R. P. McBrien, Catholicism, pp. 994, 995).

Rome uses this view of natural law to commend her position, for example, on abortion and contraception to an increasingly secular age. Where people will not listen to Scripture, they will listen to natural law!

Natural Law As the Ground for Making Common Cause with Secularists

Increasingly, Protestants in academia and in politics have been appealing to the concept of natural law as a means whereby Christians and non-Christians can reach a consensus on moral issues. It is eagerly grasped as a point of contact with secularists. In reality, it provides little or no ground for agreed moral standards. This is clearly evidenced by the scepticism with which Rome's natural law pronouncements on the subjects of contraception and abortion are greeted by the secular world and even by many of her own people.

Reason divorced from faithful submission to divine revelation acknowledges a variety of responses to such moral issues to be "natural." Commenting on Rome's dogma on contraception, the New Dictionary of Theology has this telling criticism: "To attribute this dogma to 'natural' law, when the overwhelming majority of men and women cannot, in good conscience, regard a responsible use of all such means of contraception as 'intrinsically immoral' seems to undermine the very basis of the doctrine"—i.e. , the theory of natural law.

The Relativism of Natural Law

Nowadays, natural law is generally looked at in very relativistic terms. It is no longer the absolute statement of moral duty it was once proclaimed to be. The fact is, it was always a relativist concept, but in earlier times it stood related to cultures that were based, at least in a general way, on the concept of the absolute truth of the Christian faith. Natural law was interpreted from that standpoint and received by the people because they were culturally preconditioned to do so. That is no longer the case, with the result that natural law theorists appear to be reading back into nature the conclusions they have already reached in the culture they accept.

Fallen man needs special revelation. Law must be grounded in God, our Creator and Redeemer in Christ. The solemn fact—at first disheartening, even devastating to those engaged in the attempt—is that there is no neutral ground, no commonly accepted body of authoritative truth between Christians and the ungodly. In fact, rather than being disheartening, this is a call to evangelism, an evangelism conducted in absolute confidence in the power of the word of God (Heb. 4:12) and the gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16) to transform individuals and nations. When "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness" shines in men's hearts "to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6), He will conform them to His law. Men are never brought to obedience to the law by law, whether revealed or natural, but by the gospel.

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Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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