Five Thousand Dollars in Your Pocket

As our discussion of natural law proceeds apace, one of things we have to do is distinguish between the unacceptable forms of natural law and the acceptable forms of it. I mean, to accept the unacceptable forms of natural law would be . . . unnatural. Creepy almost.

So what’s the difference? At the end of the day, if someone wants to say that natural law can give us a moral compass whether or not there is a God, that is unacceptable. It is idolatrous. In such a case, nature functions as the source of law. In my understanding of what Scripture teaches, the only source of natural revelation would be God Himself, as He is — which is triune. God is not an optional component in the system. With natural revelation, creation is the medium through which God speaks.

The world is God talking, and it is absurd to postulate a system where you keep the talking, but then grant that the existence of the talker is up for grabs. Scholars apparently differ . . .

So a litmus test of whether we are going in a bad direction would be whether or not the words nature and creation are interchangeable, for the purposes of our discussion. If those two things are treated as being completely different, then we have compromised with unbelief. If nature functions as a “given,” whether or not it has a Creator, then we are, metaphorically speaking, on the bad side of town at two in the morning, we are out of gas, and have five thousand dollars in our pocket.

Now it is true that an atheist can know certain things by means of this natural law, and he can be right about those things. But he is not right about the source of that knowledge, and he is not right about the context of his moral knowledge. If a natural law theorist wants to flatter this atheist, and act like his moral knowledge is a valid bit of knowing, even within his atheistic context, then that natural law theorist, in my view, has given away the store, not to mention the farm, and to switch metaphors a third time, is five thousand dollars down.

In other words, nature does not just show us morality, suspended in midair. Natural law delivers the whole package, and the true Creator of it.

When we speak of natural revelation, this implies that there must be a revealer. Now I think the same way about natural law, but there is a long tradition of some folks thinking that natural law is possible without the implication of a lawgiver. In my long standing efforts to surprise absolutely no one, I think this is incoherent. Revelation implies a revealer; design implies a designer; law implies a lawgiver; boondoggles imply a Congress. Who does not know these things? Let us not be children.

To believe that natural law can give us morality, but fail to supply a reason for it, is unnatural. There is no morality without a reason. Such a monstrosity is contrary to natural law. If natural law is to have a scriptural witness in its favor, according to the apostle Paul, this means that natural law speaks about the nature of the lawgiver as much as about the content of the law. Indeed, the content of the law reflects the character of the God whose nature it describes. There is a living God, whose divine majesty can be clearly seen, and denial of this leaves a person without excuse. If Romans 1 is to be summoned to testify about any of this, then natural law reveals things like the reality of wrath (Rom. 1:18), the impermissibility of idolatry (Rom. 1:22), the duty of giving thanks to the true God (Rom. 1:21), and the wickedness of homosexual acts (Rom. 1:26-27). This is not Aristotle’s Prime Mover. It is the Father of the Lord Jesus.

Theology That Bites Back



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  • David Douglas

    “… then we are, metaphorically speaking, on the bad side of town at two in the morning, we are out of gas, and have five thousand dollars in our pocket.”      This version of natural law provides just enough light to illuminate the steam hissing from the street grates.

  • Seth B.

    Mr. Wilson: Maybe I could cut to the chase this way. Do you have any specific disagreements with Van Til’s treatment of natural law theology?

  • Douglas Wilson

    Seth, I am not well-versed enough in Van Til to answer that, but I can say “not that I am aware of.” Perhaps one area is that I am more optimistic about possible harmonizations between positions . . .

  • Seth B.

    I remember that Augustine in City of God said that Platonism had a conception of god that was similar to the Bible. In one of VT’s books (can’t remember which, I think it was A Christian Theory of Knowledge) he criticized Augustine for doing this (while at the same time making clear he was greatly indebted to Augustine for much of his theology) and said the Bible’s conception was entirely unique amongst all religions. Are you saying you might “harmonize” other positions in a way that Augustine would, but in a way which Van Til would not? Could you be specific?

  • Seth B.

    I’ll take a look when I can. Thanks. =)

  • RFB

    I have not read Van Til, but that fact notwithstanding, God says that this is not a question of ignorance but instead it is a rebellion against that which they know “…who suppress the truth…), they know and hate it. He then  establishes the knowledge they possess: “…what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them…” and that what He has revealed is “clearly seen“.  He then says that because of these facts that they are “without excuse“, and then He again reiterates the fact that yes indeed they know of his existence and the obligations that are therefore derivative: “…although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God…”.
    I do not know how anyone could argue uphill against such a declarative statement but then again, on the day after Dathan…

  • Steven Wedgeworth

    I think the “harmony” of Van Til with natural law and some forms of natural theology is what John Frame has attempted to do. It’s also what Schaeffer did pretty consistently. 

  • Douglas Wilson

    Sorry this moved down. I had to edit it — it was missing an important “not.”

    And Seth, here  is another thing. Andrew Fulford outlines an area of “tension” in Van Til that John Frame acknowledges:

    I am in sympathy with this concern, but I don’t know that I would call it a disagreement. I think the “rebellion against knowing” and “knowing anyway” can be harmonized. Human knowing is complex, and we do not hold to one datum, like it was a marble in a box.

  • Andrew Fulford

    Pastor Wilson,
    Thanks for sharing my piece. I wanted to add, for what it’s worth, that Thomas and classical Thomists (and the Protestant scholastics who followed them) would agree with the main point of your post, “law implies a lawgiver”. This is basically Thomas’s “Fifth Way” in nuce:

    The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

    And of course, his First and Second ways argue that we can’t explain the existence of anything apart from God.