I will spare the extended introduction as to why one should have some level of interest in the basis for their moral judgments within the civil sphere. You can read more about that here. The concept of law is basic to any culture. If culture is “religion externalized” then law is the basis for said religious expression. The question is: to what should Christians within a culture turn to as the source of their law? Within the civil sphere, what part of the Bible still applies today? Does the Bible really speak to issues beyond abortion and gay marriage? What about foreign policy? Immigration? Eminent domain? If not, on what are we to base our moral judgments?
Inevitably, the subject of natural law arises in these discussions. It is important to know something of its origins and how it evolved up through the time of the reformation. It is also important to understand how it has carried with it some fundamental flaws. Here we connected Cicero, John Locke, Charles Darwin and Woodrow Wilson to trace the slow death of the traditional theory of natural law. Yet, natural law lives on. It does so in a modified fashion within the Christian community and quite self-consciously among those within reformed “two-kingdoms” circles.
At the end of the last article I stated that understanding this version was important. Why? Because to the extent that it pervades the church, it will relegate her to the sidelines and restrict her in the mission to which she has been called. “Religion internalized” will become the order of the day outside of church walls and the light of such a church will be snuffed out. Certainly there is a light of nature sufficient enough to show man his sin and condemn him outside of Christ. But, this light should not be confused with the lamp unto the feet of God’s people given to guide our paths in every area of life.
The objective here is to first understand the R2K natural law concept. Inefficiency in debates flows from an inability to clearly articulate the opposing argument. This requires reading, study, and honest representation. My goal here would be to have the explanation below provided to a R2K natural law proponent and have him say – “Yep – spot on.”
I am choosing to use David VanDrunen’s, A Biblical Case for Natural Law as the basis for my summary of two-kingdoms natural law. It has been around a few years but is concise and to the point. VanDrunen is the primary torch-bearer for two-kingdoms natural law and has written other books on the subject such as Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, and his most recent Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law. A Biblical Case for Natural Law is well organized and concise. This allows for clarity in his argument. I will lay out his case with very little comment in this article.
From the very beginning, the book is direct and deals with the major protestant objections to natural law theory. VanDrunen is specific in his introduction. For clarity, I have emphasized in bold the key objections he seeks to overcome.
One concern among the skeptics is that natural law detracts from the authority and priority of Scripture. Another concern is that appeal to natural law makes human nature rather than God our moral authority, hence producing an ethics based on human autonomy. A third concern is that use of natural law does not take seriously the fact of human sin and its dire impact on moral reasoning. Finally, there is concern that natural law theory presents a monolithic moral standard that cannot account for the historical development of biblical teaching on ethics.[i]
He is clear from the outset on how he intends to tackle what he sees as common misconceptions. Natural law appeals to God as its authority and is therefore not man’s autonomous law. Beyond this, natural law is covenantal.
By arguing that the reality of natural law is grounded in God’s own nature and the creation of human beings in the divine image, I hope to demonstrate that appealing to natural law should not be taken as an appeal to human autonomy but ultimately to the authority of God the Creator. Furthermore, I attempt to be thoroughly attentive to the fallen nature of humanity and the fact that human moral reasoning is indeed radically corrupt; nevertheless, I also argue that our situation in a sinful world continues to demand that we have recourse to natural law. Finally, as I set biblical teaching on natural law in the context of the progress of redemptive history and the series of divine covenants recorded in Scripture, I hope to show that one can appreciate the importance of natural law while giving appropriate consideration to the Bible’s historical character.[ii]
Natural Law and Human Nature
The starting point for a discussion about natural law is not nature or creation. It is with God himself who created nature. God’s creation reflects his identity as the Great King and royal judge over all of the earth. Nature reflects the righteousness of God. Beyond God’s righteousness that is reflected in all creation, God created man in his own image. This results in an inherent moral compass within every man and woman. It results in a natural law. This natural law is not autonomous.
The image of God carried along with it a natural law, a law inherent to human nature and directing human beings to fulfill their royal commission in righteousness and holiness. Thus, despite the claims of some scholars, natural law ought never to be considered a vain attempt at an autonomous human ethic. The truth is quite the opposite. Natural law cannot be understood properly apart from the reality of God’s creating this world in the way he did and in particular his creating man in his own image. Natural law reflects who God is and how he has related to the world.[iii]
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Of course, this all makes perfect sense. But didn’t the fall fatally distort such a concept of natural law?” VanDrunen says, “not so fast”.
These biblical considerations may tempt us to conclude that natural law can have no usefulness in a fallen world. Such a conclusion is much too hasty. Contemporary use of natural law cannot ignore the grave consequences of sin upon human knowledge and the reception of natural law. Likewise, the absolute necessity of special, biblical revelation for knowing the way of salvation from sin offered in Christ must be affirmed. These affirmations, however, do not themselves demand the conclusion that natural law has no more usefulness.[iv]
Why? Because “fallen human beings continue to be the image of God, however corrupted this image now is.”[v] Paul tells us in Romans that this corrupted image still has some knowledge of God’s law. VanDrunen believes this knowledge to be “practically comprehensive”.
It is precisely because people know this law that they are without excuse when they violate it. Paul says that what may be known about God is “plain” (1:19), that God’s invisible attributes “have been clearly seen, being understood” (1:20), and that all people “know God” (1:21). How extensive is the moral knowledge that all people have (though they suppress it)? The remainder of Romans 1 teaches that this moral knowledge is practically comprehensive. It includes knowledge of the sinfulness of idolatry (1:23); sexual perversion (1:24, 26–27); falsehood (1:25, 29), covetousness (1:29); murder (1:29); ill speech (1:29–30); and disobedience to parents (1:30), not to mention many other things, including the general category of every kind of wickedness (1:29). The context makes it perfectly clear that all of these things are known by natural law, and Paul seems to go to additional lengths to emphasize the point. For example, he condemns one sin, homosexuality, as “against nature” (1:26).[vi]
The verses from scripture are said to make clear that “there is still a natural law, and all people know it.”[vii] VanDrunen goes on to explain that the natural law proclaimed by man’s heart and conscience is in fact God’s law.
Romans 2:13 expresses a universally true general principle that the Law judges people on the basis of their obedience to it, and 2:14–15 explains how this can be true even of those who do not have the law of Moses. These Gentiles can be judged according to the Law because the natural law holds them accountable even if the Mosaic law does not.[viii]
So, all men are accountable to God and his law that is written on their hearts. But even in light of the previous list of “practically comprehensive” sins, you may be thinking that it all still seems very general. Your question is anticipated.
These three things—the remnant of the image of God, Romans 1:18–32, and Romans 2:14–15—all suggest, therefore, that natural law continues to exist in the fallen world and that all people continue to have true knowledge of moral righteousness because of it. Yet, in the midst of human sin, how does this play out practically and concretely?[ix]
The answer to this question lies within a framework called the Two Kingdoms Doctrine (sometimes refered to as R2K – Reformed Two Kingdoms).
Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms Doctrine
If VanDrunen’s natural law is to survive beyond the human heart and conscience, moving out into the practical world – specifically for governing the civil realm – he must provide an adequate basis for the R2K doctrine. He seeks to do this through a discussion of the doctrine from the perspective of Christian history, the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The two kingdoms doctrine holds that God does in-fact rule over his entire creation but he does so in the context of two realms (redemptive and common), carrying out his rule differently within each.
I will not take much time to review VanDrunen’s historical two kingdoms discussion, as it is least useful and may not represent his strongest arguments. It is true that a doctrine of two kingdoms reaches far back into Christian history. That said, it was not found in the form currently held within R2K circles. As to a two kingdoms doctrine espoused during the time of the Reformation, Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante do a good job showing that VanDrunen and his cohorts represent a departure from the vision of the reformers.[x] In a brief article Wedgeworth supports his claim that “the contemporary two kingdoms theory eventually finds itself at considerable distance from the basic social vision of earlier thinkers like Luther and Calvin.”[xi]
In regards to the Old Testament, VanDrunen’s presentation of the two kingdoms involves a contrast between a common realm for all, seen with Cain and Abel as well as Noah, and a redemptive realm for some, seen with Abraham and God’s chosen people.
Fundamental to this doctrine [R2K] is the fact that while God, in the progress of redemptive history, would choose out of the world a people of his very own, he has also preserved a common, cultural realm in which those who love him and those who do not must live and work together. It is this common realm, consisting of both believers and unbelievers, that constitutes the civil kingdom.[xii]
This common realm comes into view when God allows cultural life to flourish, seen first in His protection of Cain following the murder of his brother and then through cultural pioneers such as Jabel, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain who all descended from an unbelieving Lamech. That God would allow those to prosper culturally who do no fear him is evidence of his sustaining hand on the common realm.
The flood interrupts these accounts in the Old Testament temporarily. This interruption, though, makes way for a sort of covenantal confirmation of the common realm. Three quotes from the book help to make this clear.
This commonality was temporarily interrupted by the destruction of the flood, but, after the waters receded, God reestablished it and gave it explicit, definite form. He did this by making a covenant with Noah, as recorded in Genesis 9.[xiii]
This covenant is common to all human beings, whether devout or not. Furthermore, Genesis 9 makes it evident that the covenant of common grace regulates temporal, cultural affairs rather than more narrowly religious affairs pertaining to salvation from sin.[xiv]
From Genesis 9, therefore, we can see explicitly what the narratives of Genesis 3–4 suggested: God has established the civil kingdom in the sinful world, a common realm constituted of all people, whatever their religious commitment, in which temporal affairs of justice, procreation, and cultural development are regulated. These affairs are a common enterprise.[xv]
This covenantal, common realm is contrasted with the redemptive kingdom established with Abraham. Whereas the Noahic covenant was established with all living creatures, the Abrahamic covenant is with Abraham’s descendants – a particular people. These are characterized as the civil kingdom and spiritual kingdom respectively. Those not descending from Abraham operated in the one realm only. Abraham operated in both, depending on his specific endeavors.
When it came to life in society, the civil kingdom, Abraham lived according to the idea of commonality established in the Noahic covenant of common grace. When it came to his religious life and eternal hope in the spiritual kingdom, Abraham lived according to the idea of particularity established in the covenant of grace.[xvi]
It is not long though before we see another temporary interruption of the arrangement. VanDrunen goes on to explain how Israel’s exodus from Egypt and arrival to the Promised Land ends the two-kingdoms principle of interaction for a time and only within Israel’s borders. Instead of cooperating on common ground, Israel is instructed to exterminate the pagans in their land. We will see more detail regarding this arrangement below.
VanDrunen has one more important era to point out before moving to a New Testament discussion of the two-kingdoms doctrine. It is that of the Babylonian exile. This exile is cited as one of the clearest examples of God’s people operating within the two realms. In fact, what we will find is that for R2K adherents, the Babylonian exile becomes the pattern for the Christian’s two-kingdom life today.
Perhaps the clearest examples come in the accounts of God’s people in their Babylonian exile. Here, when banished from the Promised Land, they conducted themselves according to the pattern of Abraham and the patriarchs in maintaining religious particularity while observing cultural commonality with the Babylonians.[xvii]
…One might say that theocratic Israel in the land is a typological foreshadowing of the eschatological age to follow Christ’s second coming,[xviii]
So what about the New Testament? What does life in the two kingdoms look like for the Christian? As just mentioned, VanDrunen explains that life in the New Covenant places God’s people into a context like that of the Babylonian exiles as well as Abraham and the patriarchs. Christians cooperate culturally in a common realm while retaining particularity and separation from the world through worship in the redemptive kingdom. While living life within these two kingdoms, they look forward to their eternal salvation. “They must pursue a common cultural task with the world at large, though always knowing that they have no true home in this world (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:10, 14–16; 13:14).”[xix]
This is the point at which VanDrunen’s work returns to the issue at hand – natural law. He sets up the next section of the book with a question. It is a good one.
If sinful human beings are constantly suppressing and twisting the law of nature, and if God has given Scripture to remedy this sin and announce the way of salvation, then why not set aside natural law, even if it continues to exist, and focus solely on Scripture and its interpretation in the church? The two kingdoms doctrine, I argue, helps to explain why this is not a legitimate option, however well intentioned.[xx]
Natural Law in the Civil Kingdom
In some ways this becomes the climax of the discussion regarding natural law and the common kingdom. It is clear now to the reader what the R2K doctrine teaches. There exists a common, civil realm within which all people live and function. Regardless of one’s faith, this is a pluralistic realm in which all humans cooperate together for cultural progress. This is by design and seen following the fall of man. It is then confirmed through covenant. This covenant continues until the end of history.
It is important to hear a message loud and clear that comes from the whole of the R2K camp. It is this – the common kingdom or realm is not neutral. This group intends to debunk the common allegation of neutrality associated with the concept of natural law. Their plea needs to be heard and understood so that anyone who takes issue with it can adequately respond. It is not productive for opponents of R2K to just hurl neutrality darts while talking amongst themselves. Why is the common realm not a neutral realm? Because God exerts his authority over it.
On the one hand, the civil kingdom is not a religious realm in the sense that it concerns temporal affairs rather than affairs of salvation and eternal life, but it stands under the authority of God, its creator and sustainer. As King of the civil realm, God holds it under moral obligation. On the other hand, because the civil kingdom is common to the human race, it is not morally neutral.[xxi]
At this juncture it may be helpful to depart from VanDrunen’s book for a moment and reach back in time to an essay written by Scott Clark, another leading R2K proponent. Through visiting his article we can briefly explore the retort against allegations of neutrality. Clark begins by categorically rejecting the notion of neutrality within the R2K group. He does this by pointing to their reformed roots and centering on the sovereignty of God.
Anyone who is familiar with the work of Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or Cornelius Van Til knows that the idea of “neutrality” is consistently and thoroughly rejected by the framers of much of modern Dutch Reformed theology and thus, were the 2K (as people like to put it) guilty of introducing it into Reformed theology that would be a great, even fatal flaw…For proponents of the so-called 2K ethic, the question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how.[xxii]
Clark goes on to prove that common is not neutral through a discussion of common grace. “Unless common grace entails neutrality, and Cornelius Van Til did not think so, then the 2K ethic does not entail neutrality.”[xxiii] He makes clear that there can be no such thing as moral neutrality precisely because God is sovereign over both the civil or common and redemptive realms. God’s rule over a common realm is expressed through his law as discerned in nature. Therefore, what is common cannot be taken to denote neutral.
So, back to VanDrunen. If we accept for the moment that the civil kingdom is not neutral, then we must move on to define the moral standard within it. That moral standard is natural law. It is important to realize that, in suggesting natural law as the moral standard, he in some way excludes scripture as an appropriate measure for right and wrong in the civil realm.
The appropriateness of natural law as the moral standard for the civil kingdom becomes all the more important in light of the fact that, in a certain sense, Scripture is not the appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom.[xxiv]
But why would he say this? Doesn’t a claim seem a bit bold and incongruent with a Christian world and life view? It may, but VanDrunen’s reason for it is simple. Scripture is inspired and written to God’s people.
The most important indicative that grounds the imperatives in Scripture is that the recipients of Scripture are the covenant people, that is, members of the community of the covenant of grace. The Old Testament Scriptures were not given to the world at large but to the people of Israel, God’s covenant people of old.[xxv]
God’s inspired word is for his people, the redemptive kingdom on earth.
The point is that the moral instruction given in Scripture cannot be taken simply as the moral standard for the world at large. The purpose of Scripture’s moral instruction is to regulate and define the lifestyle of God’s redeemed covenant people.[xxvi]
The moral standard for the world at large – humans that bear God’s image – is natural law. They are to conduct themselves according to the image of God and the law written on their hearts. VanDrunen emphasizes the era of the Old Testament patriarchs as he builds his scriptural case. While he does so, he uses three ideas to defend the common standard of natural law: “the acknowledgement of things ‘not to be done,’ the fear of God, and a common humanity.”[xxvii]
Things that Should Not Be Done
The first idea supporting the existence of a common moral standard is that pagans and God’s people alike acknowledge certain things that should not be done. In doing so, they provide evidence of a common moral standard. This common moral standard proves or at least bolsters the case for the existence of natural law. More importantly, it demonstrates not only its existence, but its sufficiency as the standard on which a common culture can be constructed.
VanDrunen’s first example is the interaction between Abraham and the pagan king Abimelech in Genesis 20. He shows that this is “one of the first significant moral dialogues between a worshiper of the true God and a pagan” and how the two interact on common ground with a common standard.
A first point to note is that here the pagan king makes a moral claim over against the man who is in covenant with God. Abraham, separate from the world religiously, allowed Abimelech to enter into a meaningful ethical dialogue with him pertaining to matters of the civil kingdom on the basis of something other than the special revelation that God had given him in the redemptive, covenant relationship.[xxviii]
In the dialogue, Abimelech appeals to things that should not be done – specifically that it is wrong to take another man’s wife, even inadvertently. His appeal reveals the presence of a common moral standard and responsibility.
The Fear of God
VanDrunen continues to use the episode in Genesis 20 for his support of the next idea pointing to the natural law standard – a common fear of God. This fear of God demonstrated by Abimelech suggests that he has a sense of accountability to a higher power that constrains his wicked behavior and provides a sense of the Deity that rules over the civil realm.
Prior to citing Jethro as another example, he cites the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1. These were most likely Egyptian women and scripture labels them as God-fearers. They submitted to God’s authority, acknowledging His authority over and against that of Pharaoh. They knew that infanticide was something that was not in line with the will of that higher authority and they acted accordingly. VanDrunen states emphatically that, “the fear of God represents a common moral standard of accountability that serves to ground the justice of the civil realm. “[xxix]
A Common Humanity
The last principle illustrating the presence of a common moral standard among God’s people and pagans is that of a common humanity. I must admit that this section has more of a Bob Marley, “One Love” feel to it and one can gather much of what they need to from reading the header itself. Since we all hold a common image, we humans innately acknowledge and respect each other as fellow human beings.
This mutual respect among image-bearers constrains our evil behavior amongst one another. When God holds Cain accountable, he expects him to just “know” that murder is wrong. To murder someone is not just some breach in contract but an evil based upon nature.[xxx] VanDrunen makes clear the implications of this common humanity as a standard for governing the civil realm. “…The acknowledgement of and respect for others as fellow human beings serves as an important standard for civility and justice across religious and national lines in the civil kingdom.”[xxxi]
Each of the three ideas supporting a common moral standard are summarized and tied together in the book by showing that the recognition of a common humanity and a common fear of God support an understanding that there are things in common that should not be done. It is these things that are written on the hearts of all men and constitute the common, natural law moral standard among them to build and govern the civil realm.
Blueprints for the Civil Kingdom?
So, let’s get back to the question of specific content, or as VanDrunen asks, “in the midst of human sin, how does this [natural law] play out practically and concretely in the civil realm”?[xxxii] He points to scripture for revealing (at least to us Christians) the content of natural law as containing the blueprints for building and sustaining a pluralistic culture. As to the question of sufficiency – judge for yourself.
In conclusion, the reader might note the range of evils that are prohibited by natural law as described merely in the texts discussed in this chapter: murder (Gen. 4), including infanticide (Ex. 1); rape (Genesis 34); violation of the marriage relationship (Genesis 12, 20, 26); harsh treatment of servants (Job 31); slave trading (Amos 1); and judicial corruption (Ex. 18). Even were natural law limited to these, such prohibitions would afford an impressive foundation for a civilized and orderly society. Of course, there is much more encompassed by natural law, as the long list of moral prohibitions in Romans 1 indicates (see chapter 2). Wicked people will dispute various aspects of natural law (as they dispute the teaching of Scripture), of course, but Christians may be confident that all people, at some level, understand these naturally known truths to be immoral and harmful to individuals and society.[xxxiii]
How does one build on this “impressive foundation for a civilized and orderly society”? In another short article, VanDrunen provides some direction.
Natural law certainly does not reveal to the conscience a detailed public policy. We would do better to begin by affirming that natural law teaches the basics of God’s moral law, and hence provides a framework for thinking about law and public policy, from which framework people in the exercise of wisdom should develop particular laws and policies in response to particular situations.[xxxiv]
This all seems very curious. Why not just let scripture inform our public policy? Why must we set God’s Word aside when discussing politics with the pagan? Why spend so much energy modifying and even redefining the concept of natural law so that it fits within a two-kingdoms framework that is incompatible with the two-kingdoms of Augustine, Luther or Calvin? Why fight so hard intellectually for a level playing field in the cultural battle, voluntarily casting aside the upper-hand of special revelation? Why call for a truce and continuing pluralistic cease-fire that consciously seeks to hold back any degree of cultural sanctification? Why conclude that we do not have a responsibility to bear the Sword of the Spirit and put it to use in the public square?
I am convinced that the answer to some of these questions lies with particular prior commitments within the R2K group. One such commitment is in the area of eschatology. The other involves the legacy of Meredith Kline. A modified version of natural law that is operative within a modified two-kingdoms framework is in part due to the unique product of Kline’s influence among R2K theologians. So, before weighing VanDrunen’s natural law in the balance, it would do us well to further examine the groundwork laid by Kline.
[i] VanDrunen, David, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2012), Kindle Locations 108-112.
[ii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 116-122.
[iii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 244-248.
[iv] Ibid, Kindle Locations 264-267.
[v] Ibid, Kindle Locations 271-272.
[vi] Ibid, Kindle Locations 298-304.
[vii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 308-310.
[viii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 364-366.
[ix] Ibid, Kindle Locations 366-370 [Emphasis mine].
[xii] VanDrunen, David, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2012), Kindle Locations 420-422.
[xiii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 437-439.
[xiv] Ibid, Kindle Locations 441-442.
[xv] Ibid, Kindle Locations 446-448.
[xvi] Ibid, Kindle Locations 472-475.
[xvii] Ibid, Kindle Location 501.
[xviii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 511-512.
[xix] Ibid, Kindle Locations 544-545.
[xx] Ibid, Kindle Locations 548-551.
[xxi] Ibid, Kindle Locations 567-569.
[xxiv] VanDrunen, David, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2012), Kindle Locations 585-586.
[xxv] Ibid, Kindle Locations 595-599.
[xxvi] Ibid, Kindle Locations 606-607.
[xxvii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 635-636.
[xxviii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 650-653.
[xxix] Ibid, Kindle Locations 723-727.
[xxx] Ibid, Kindle Locations 798-799.
[xxxi] Ibid, Kindle Locations 750-751.
[xxxii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 366-370.
[xxxiii] Ibid, Kindle Locations 819-820.