The Nature of Natural Law

Yesterday I came home from the Auburn Avenue conference for pastors, which is always a grand time. One thing that happened there was this. During his talk, Jim Jordan spent some time castigating the idea of natural law, and during the Q&A I was asked about it, because I have been making friendly noises about natural law in my blog posts for a while. Am I sidling away from Van Til, what about all my friends, what gives, etc.? I answered briefly there, but have been mulling over the whole topic some more, and wanted to add a few things.

My interest in natural law comes down to one thing — which is that I want us to confess the universal authority of Jesus Christ over everyone and all things.

Now I grant that there is a form of natural law thinking that does not want to do this at all. But there is a rejection of natural law thinking that doesn’t want to do it either, and I am wanting to avoid both of those problems. Here is how it works.

When natural law theory goes bad, we get enough morality from a generic deity to flatter us, and never enough morality to frighten us. This kind of natural law covers everything, but it is thin and diaphanous. What we wind up with is not the majestic God of Scripture, but rather an Addisonian milksop. Whatever happens, you never get to the crown rights of King Jesus. So we shouldn’t want anything to do with putting this kind of paint thinner into our religion.

But rejection of natural law can wind up doing the same thing, but by a different route. The epistemological move made by the theological liberals of several generations back, and which was ably dissected by Bartley in his Retreat to Commitment, is a move that I see many of our Reformed contemporaries contemplating — and some of them are doing more than contemplating it. That move is to keep the claims for Christ “thick,” but to limit them in extent, keeping them within the confines of the church. Since there are areas of life where the authority of the Bible is not recognized, we are urged to be good with that. Our convictions rest on top of our faith community, like a brick, but there is a lot of territory out there that is not covered.

But this surrenders authority that Jesus actually has, and we have no right to cede it. It is a retreat to commitment. Because the word commitment is in there, we can feel quite stout-hearted as our preacher continues to shout and wave his arms when he preaches, but because it truly is a retreat into an epistemological ghetto, we never need to get in trouble with any respected authorities — in the academy especially.

Now I want to confess the authority of Jesus everywhere, and I want this to include places that have never heard of the Bible, or of Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the central atom of the moon Ganymede, He is Lord of every tumbleweed in Wyoming, and He is the Lord of every pagan heart. I want to confess the authority of YHWH, and I am convinced that we need a developed doctrine of natural law/revelation in order to be able to do this.

I am more comfortable with the phrase natural revelation, but it is very clear to me that this natural revelation has a moral component that needs to be called law, and which the recipient of the revelation is responsible to obey. If he were not responsible to obey, then it would not be accurate to say that he is “without excuse,” as the apostle tells us he is. And if he is responsible to obey what he knows from the created order, then this is plainly a natural law.

This law is declared in the things that have been made, but it is also important to note that the things that have been made include the heart of the unbelieving pagan. The whole cosmos is singing the iridescent glory of God, and the human heart is a tuning fork that cannot help vibrating in the midst of this immense symphony. This is why unbelievers have to keep putting their thumb on it — in order to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. And if they shouldn’t suppress that truth within their hearts, or that truth they see with their eyes, even if they have never heard of a Bible, they are disobeying the natural law.

There is obviously much more that needs to be discussed and developed on this issue, and I hope the conversation continues. I would never want Van Til’s hostility to autonomy anywhere to become a way for his heirs to work out a truce with that autonomy in faraway places.

Theology That Bites Back



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  • Seth B.

    Mr. Wilson: I’ve been reading a fair bit of Van Til lately. Just finished Introduction to Systematic Theology. I hope I can contribute to the discussion. You seem to be saying that those who keep Christ’s claims “thick” but limit them to the church instead of letting it spread everywhere are rejecting natural law. But the objection, I think, is that that is in fact a capitulation to natural law theology . Anything outside the church is “neutral”, regardless of whether they sprinkle Christ’s name on it. I found a useful quote from Van Til’s Christian Theory of Knowledge. “But as I have always affirmed the fact that all men, even the most wicked of men, have this knowledge so I have always denied that fallen man’s interpretation of this revelation of God to him is identical with the revelation itself. Natural revelation must not be identified with natural theology. Paul does not identify these. He says the natural man has given a false interpretation of the revelation of God within him and about him.” p. 301-2 There is no moral obligation that “Nature” has on man, when “Nature” is neutrally. *Creation* does however, because it’s only when we consider this world to be Creation that we are using the correct interpretation, instead of the natural man’s interpretation. Does that help at all?

  • Thursday

    I don’t understand how anyone can be against natural law and still claim to be a Biblicist when there is a passage like this:
    “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
    Paul then goes on to condemn homosexuality on this basis, a moral application.

  • Matthew N. Petersen

    Would it be accurate to describe your position as one of a natural “instruction”, that is a natural Torah–with “law” used as an acceptable translation of Torah, since “nomos” was the translation used in the New Testament?

    And, are you familiar with Levinas? I believe his understanding of our duties to God couldn’t be called “natural law”, though, perhaps “natural Law” that is, “natural Torah”.

  • Matthew N. Petersen

    Also, I’m still curious how we can apply God’s Torah, natural or otherwise, to farming. The Torah has authority there, and we shouldn’t surrender it to the fashionable, either the fashionable now, or the fashionable sixty-years-ago–that is, to the fashionable healthy eating, or to old-fashioned factory farming.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Seth, yes, I agree with that citation from Van Til. But because the unbeliever is not yet damned, he is not yet successful at his suppression, meaning that enough of the truth gets through to condemn him.

  • Stewart

    It’s not a matter of being “against” natural law.  I believe it is a matter how we go about using it and how clear it actually is. Here’s a question:  Where in the Bible does it say that Christians should use only “natural law” when coming up with laws to govern society?
    Also, what is the actual content of this natural law?  Where does it begin and end?
    I remember Greg Bahnsen taught an ethics class at my church many years ago.  At one point he said, you have a choice between “thus says the Lord” or “it seems to me.” I always think if that when I here the term “natural law.”  I just can’t help myself. Maybe I’m totally off base with that. I’m willing to be corrected.  

  • Seth B.

    Mr. Wilson: I agree with what you said as well. But I can’t help but think that this is mostly a quibble over words. I remember in a previous post you said that we can’t talk about natural law without talking about it’s law-giver. Sure. But natural law theology as it is usually considered is an attempt to find moral law within Nature prior to having a commitment as to whether God created the world. “Well, Yahweh may or may not exist… but we all agree murder is bad, right?” Natural law theology as it is usually practiced tries to discover such things without first considering God’s existence; it supposedly remains neutral on that point. If you say we can’t have Natural Law Theology without a Law-Giver, then you’re changing the very presuppositions of Natural Law Theology; NLT is *supposed* to be neutral on God’s existence. Now it *can’t* be, but it tries. And if you saw you can’t have law without a law giver, I agree. But if you say it’s not NLT as it usually practiced anymore, because you’ve stated explicitly that it must be a certain one law giver (Jesus) as opposed to theism-in-general. Does that help?

  • Douglas Wilson

    Seth, we agree a lot. But NLT is taken by many in a very provincial way — they had one prof in college who thought that way. But what about the whole natural law understanding of the Reformers. for example? Their NLT was not generic.

  • carole

    Did you agree with J Budziszewski’s description?

  • Rob Steele

    Re. Rom. 1:19-20, any idea how God’s power and divinity show in created things?  It’s got to be in some way that doesn’t require a lot of intelligence to perceive or else the “without excuse” would only apply to smart people.  I always thought it was something like the cosmological argument or the argument from morality but those seem too cerebral.  Could it be through some other faculty like conscience?

  • BJ

    Pastor Wilson, I want to follow this topic closely, but I have one wall blocking me. Would you be willing to clarify the distinction between natural and supernatural? Sort of important here. I already see God as the cause of every single thing. At what point does a phenomenon become natural or, looking the other direction, where does it become supernatural? Incidentally, this would apply to miracles as well. Please help!

  • Reuben K.

    Natural laws as understood by the scientific community are in essence the objectively observable and apparently inherently consistent functions/operations of the natural world. “An object at rest tends to remain at rest until acted upon by an outside force” and “DNA information is transcribed into RNA information by proteins and then translated into proteins by RNAs” are natural laws by this definition. I think that the “natural [moral] law” we are discussing here is the exact same thing, and that the separation we make between the two is unwarranted and inconsistent with reality. The problem is that the hard-hearted (naturalists) reject these laws in the same way that the law of gravity is rejected by recalcitrant Idealists. The laws that do not please us are rejected, suppressed, and explained away via the manipulation of the theoretical relationships between other, less infuriating laws that we choose to advocate. Since the hard-hearted have taken over the natural philosophies, a significant number of soft-headed clergymen and amateur moral philosophers have come to the conclusion that those chapters of the books of Nature which spell out the morally inconvenient laws are apocryphal, most likely forgeries, not legitimate, and anathema; in other words that they cannot be inferred from observing nature. However, observing that adultery is bad is as easy and scientifically verifiable as observing that all physical systems tend toward a state of increasing entropy. There is nothing more or less spiritual or scientific about either observation. Every object at rest and every apple falling towards the ground is a commandment against the wicked. This is what natural law is. God is not constrained to human languages, but we are, and so we call the revelation that he grants us in human languages “special,” but his revelation of himself and his nature is the size and shape of the entire universe.

  • Seth B.

    Mr. Wilson: Well, as far as the Reformers go, I find Van Til’s own answer to that pretty convincing. The Reformers were trying to reform everything biblically, but they didn’t get to everything; apologetics was one thing the Reformers did not get to. So, the NLT of the Reformers was not generic, but it was inconsistent. VT praised Augustine’s biblical thinking, and said that Calvin applied Augustine’s biblical thinking even more consistently; VT’s own goal was to remove all pagan thinking from the Christian worldview. I listened to one of his lectures and he said that “Augustine had a little bit more paganism in him [than Calvin]”

  • Douglas Wilson
  • Jon

    Of course a natural revelation exists–a general revelation.  But the problem, as St. Paul tells us, is that we mostly suppress it.  If it is suppressed, there is little value in utilizing it for apologetic purposes.  I think that’s why Van Till developed his system.

  • carole

    Yes, thank you. I found this conversation very edifying, but as you tend to hold your cards close when interviewing,  I was just wondering if you are in full agreement with him.  If not, I was hoping you would clarify in which ways you differ.

  • Ash Giri

    How in the world do some of you have the time to write 400 word responses to these posts? O_0

  • Dan

    I’m a big proponent of presuppositional apologetics. I think the classic work on the subject is “The Defense of the Faith” by Cornelius Van Til. I believe that evidential apologetics is vitally important, but is limited, since it can only lead us to Theism, whereas it cannot lead us to believe in such doctrines as the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture. For these doctrines, we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth to us, since they are wholly beyond anything we can reason or deduce on our own.
    This is because, ultimately, reason and experience alone (i.e. natural revelation) come up short. Therefore, we need Scripture (i.e. special revelation) combined with the Holy Spirit in order to truly grasp the God of the Bible. While natural revelation can certainly point us to a divine Creator, it proves inadequate for grasping the nature and character of God as revealed in Scripture (e.g. His triune nature, His sovereignty, holiness, love, etc.). In other words, we may deduce that God exists by our reason and by our senses, but we cannot know Him personally except by divine revelation. We receive this revelation only through the work of divine grace and faith, as God intervenes in our lives and accommodates Himself toward us. 

  • Clint

    I think modern Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers like J. Budziszewki get natural law right. It’s quite useful for the public square too, because even though classical NL’s truth is dependent on God’s existence, the nature of “the good” means his existence doesn’t have to be granted by nonbelievers to find natural law arguments persuasive. Philosopher Edward Feser in his dialogue with David Bentley Hart on natural law theory in the public square explains this well if anyone is interested in the details of how it works.

    Secondly, Dan, I would disagree about evidential apologetics. The whole point of evidential arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the reliability of the Bible (or the Tanakh and B’rit Chadashah as I prefer) is for someone to come to accept special revelation’s testimony about Jesus. I think if someone is neutral to God’s existence and is being drawn by the Holy Spirit, they can think the evidence for these two critical things is persuasive, and thus would much more easily be convinced by classical apologetic arguments from God’s existence. Conversely, if they are already convinced by classical arguments for God’s existence, they can come to the conclusion that this God is Yahweh because of the evidence for the resurrection and the reliability of Scripture.

  • Mike Bull

    “Still rollin’, are ya?” … classic…

  • timothy

    Pastor, if you are able to get a thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature in your comment upgrade, then consider this a request for it.

    Carole, thumbs up on the link Pastor Wilson provided.

  • carole

    Thx timothy for  being encouraging; I really appreciate it!  Clint those conversations were  helpful.  Dan would you agree that natural law and reason is limited but necessary for special revelation to be persuasive and not just “good marketing.” And how does faith fit into that argument if you do?

  • Jon

    Dan, you raise a very good point.  Reason and experience come up short.  Christianity ahs already been throguh the whole natural revelation thing and philoisophy does us little good.  It brings us only so far.  Thanks for your comment.

  • Dan

    Jon, thanks for your feedback.  I agree that reason and experience come up short.  Clint, thanks for your feedback too.  As I stated, evidential apologetics is vitally important, but is limited, since it can only lead us to Theism.  It is vitally important in many respects, including the two examples you mentioned: the resurrection of Jesus and the reliability of the Bible.  This is absolutely true.  However, evidential apologetics cannot lead us to believe in such doctrines as the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  Reliability, yes.  Inspiration and authority, no.  For these doctrines, we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth to us, since they are wholly beyond anything we can deduce on our own.  And that’s the point.  We need Scripture (i.e. special revelation) combined with the Holy Spirit in order to truly grasp the God of the Bible.  Carole, you stated it well when you said that natural law and reason are limited but necessary for special revelation to be persuasive.  I think this is true if someone is already a Christian.  I am a firm believer in a “faith seeking understanding” approach to apologetics, since most of the central doctrines of Christianity are only fully believed and grasped once we become born again.  How can one become born again without the intervention and illumination by the Holy Spirit?  As I concluded in my prior comment, we may deduce that God exists by our reason and by our senses, but we cannot know Him personally except by divine (i.e. special) revelation.  We receive this revelation only through the work of divine grace and faith, as God intervenes in our lives and accommodates Himself toward us.  In my view, evidential apologetics can only take us so far.  In cannot (by itself) bring one from spiritual death into spiritual life.  However, evidential apologetics is still useful (and vital) for two reasons: 1) for solidifying the intellectual foundation for those already in the community of faith by demonstrating the “reasonableness” of our faith; and 2) for making the persuasive case to non-believers that they are “without excuse” if they deny God, due to the “general revelation” that they already have, since they are created in God’s image.  This, I believe, is where our “natural law” and natural/general revelation arguments are helpful and valuable, which I have discussed in prior comments on this blog (especially to non-believers who deny or minimize natural law).

  • Clint

    I did mean the evidence could lead us even to an acceptance of the authority of Scripture, and then onto the doctrines of Christ. This would all be by a chain of reasoning. I’m also surprised you think acceptance of the resurrection of Jesus can only lead to the theism. Religiously charged context plays a role in whether an event is classified as an anomaly or a miracle, therefore, if one accepts the resurrection as a historical fact, only one specific theism is an option at that point.

    A good example of the chain of reasoning can be found here.

  • Dan

    Clint, thanks for your replies; this is a good discussion.  However, without the Holy Spirit, I don’t believe one can make the jump from a historical resurrection of Jesus, to His dual nature (i.e. hypostatic union), nor can one deduce the triune nature of God, nor can one deduce something as mysterious as the atonement and all it encompasses (e.g. justification, propitiation, redemption).  In other words, you and I know there are many solid reasons for the historicity of Jesus, including His resurrection.  But one can know these things and not put their trust in them (i.e. not be a believer).  Saving faith comprises knowledge, assent, and trust.  Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14 that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Regarding the Bible, I disagree that the evidence could lead us even to an acceptance of the authority of Scripture.  Again, without the Holy Spirit (i.e. special revelation), I don’t believe one could truly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.  Sure, they may believe it to be a very reliable historical document, and even find great wisdom in it.  But it’s a long way from believing the Bible to be the authority for “their” life, the standard upon which all moral and spiritual authority is grounded, and which is binding on them.   And that’s the difference.  Apart from the Holy Spirit, no one would affirm the authority of the Bible in this way.  Thus, I think where you and I essentially disagree is how the “chain of reasoning” argument becomes effective on a non-believer.  My view is that we must first “believe” in order to understand, not the other way around.  As I stated in my prior comment, I’m a firm believer in a “faith seeking understanding” approach to apologetics.  Therefore, I think the “chain of reasoning” argument is 100% effective for someone who is already a believer; whereas it cannot be 100% effective for someone who is not a believer.  It will come up short.  And it has to come up short, otherwise mere “general revelation” or “natural revelation” could bring someone from spiritual death into spiritual life (i.e. to “saving” faith).  I firmly do not believe this is what the Bible teaches.  In Romans chapter 1, the primary purpose of general revelation is to warn non-believers that they are “without excuse” if they deny God.  That’s where general revelation ends and where special revelation must intervene.