Long before the Clarence Thomas hearings degenerated into R-rated absurdity, one of the substantive issues about the Thomas nomination concerned the nominee’s interest in natural law. Thomas’s stated interest in natural law triggered a short-lived attention to the topic from American Christians. Christians are, of course, divided on the question of natural law, and the dividing line follows no easily predictable course. That is, it is not an issue that divides liberals from conservatives, or Catholics from Protestants, or Calvinists from Armenians.
Among Calvinists, for example, there is a deep division about the efficacy of talking about natural law. Consider this paragraph from a 1991 newsletter by a Reformed writer:
I’m a bit concerned when Bible-believing Christians rally around a man [i.e., Clarence Thomas] whose commitment is to “natural law” rather than to Biblical law. “Natural law” is just a way of avoiding saying “God’s law,” and is an insult to the blood of Christ. We don’t want to speak about Christ and His kingship, so we speak of “natural law.” We ought to be ashamed of such rhetoric!
I would like to suggest that “Biblical law” does not command a commitment from Christians that would exclude or preempt a commitment to “natural law,” rightly understood. Furthermore, the term “God’s law” does not eliminate the occasional necessity of using the term “natural law” or some synonym. Far from being ashamed of such rhetoric, we should insist on it in the interest of clarifying important distinctions in the biblical account of God and His law.
When the debate about “natural law” versus “Biblical law” is entered by conservative Protestants, the debate usually focuses on questions of whether fallen man has the capacity to discern in general revelation, apart from the commands of Scripture, some law of God in creation and conscience. I would like to set aside that issue for the present and suggest that a much more fundamental issue ought to be addressed first. In philosophical terms, it is an ontological question rather than an epistemological one; that is, it is concerned with matters of the nature of being rather than with the nature of knowing.
Put simply, “natural law” (or something like it) is a term we must use to distinguish between those actions, on the one hand, that are right by their very nature, and those actions, on the other hand, that are right because God has commanded them. Worshipping God is right because of our nature and His. We must worship Him because He is Who He is and we are who we are. That reality logically and (temporally) precedes God’s explicit commands (what we might call “positive law”) that we worship Him.
Old Testament dietary restrictions, on the other hand, were an expression of the will of God alone. It was good for the Israelites not to eat pork because God commanded them not to eat it, and not because of some intrinsic quality of being an Israelite or of pigs.
Put another way, some moral obligations, rooted in the perfectly just and holy nature of God (and the nature of that which He has made), could not be otherwise. Concerning other obligations, God was free either to give such laws or to institute otherwise, and moral goodness or evil is not intrinsic to them, but issues from the free will of God.
As the seventeenth-century Reformed scholastic Francis Turretin argued, natural law refers to those “things [which] are not called just because they are commanded, but are commanded because they were just and good antecedently to the command of God, being founded on the very holiness and wisdom of God.”
The Reformed writer quoted earlier seems to suggest that the terms “Biblical law” and “God’s law” are the only terms one would need to discuss all moral obligations. But with such a restriction, moral reasoning actually becomes stifled, and some moral obligations might easily go unheeded. Is homosexuality wrong because God says it is, or does God say it is wrong because, given the nature of human sexuality as God created it, homosexuality is unnatural? Such a question cannot be answered (nor the consequences of the answer be considered) without the category of natural law.
Note that such questions have nothing to do with the severity of God’s wrath at those who violate His law. The fact that a command is rooted simply in God’s will and not in the divinely created nature of things is irrelevant. A law is no less binding by being only a positive law, just as a law is not more weighty by being a natural law.
Continuing with our earlier example, if homosexuality is merely a violation of a divine convention (as eating pork once was), then one could entertain the possibility of greater divine liberality in a later dispensation. Pork-eaters were once called unclean; since Peter’s vision in Acts 10, they are not, If all revealed law has nothing to do with the nature of things, one can imagine someone insisting that Sodomites were likewise once called unclean, but now that Christ has come, such concerns are antiquated.
The Christian natural law proponent would insist that God, having freely chosen to make man as He did, could not but choose to condemn homosexuality. Such relationships were “unnatural” (Romans 1:26f), and hence prohibited. They are wrong by virtue of what human nature is.
I am not ashamed of the “rhetoric” of natural law. Telling a late-twentieth-century pagan that he has disobeyed God’s Word is likely to have little rhetorical power. Telling him that he has, in C.S. Lewis’s terms, gone “against the grain of the universe” might well pack a bit more rhetorical punch, especially if the inevitability of cosmic splinters is spelled out. In a culture that tends to regard all rules and all religion as merely conventional, “Biblical law” language is horribly easy to ignore. But there does remain some sympathy in our culture, however confused, for the idea that things have an essential nature. Might it not be possible to capitalize on that and argue that morality—questions of right and wrong—is at the heart of what we sometimes call the “nature” of things?
Those Christians who reject the idea of natural law are in danger of giving the impression that creation has no intrinsic moral order, and that “God’s law” is a rulebookish afterthought. Understandably, many such “theological positivists” find it necessary to regard all principles of order that cannot be rooted in clear Biblical mandates as merely matters of human convention. Questions of beauty, for example, cannot be easily adjudicated in terms of “Biblical law,” so all aesthetic judgments are regarded as arbitrary.
A commitment to natural law in the proper sense insists (biblically) that the Bible does not exhaust God’s law. It can promote a consciousness that the universe is charged (in both senses of the word) with morality. Psalm 148 calls all sorts of created things to praise God: celestial bodies, meteorological phenomena (including snow and frost), geological formations, plants, animals, and people are all alike commanded to praise by virtue of their status as creatures (“For He commanded and they were created. And He established them forever and ever; He fixed their bounds which cannot be passed,” verses 5f), and by virtue of Who God is (“For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven,” verse 13).
The Bible itself, then, assumes a moral order in the warp and woof of creation, which is what many people mean by “natural law.” They have no reason to feel ashamed.