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.