So why should you care about an extended discussion of natural law? Should such a discourse not be confined to those who have a unique interest in philosophy or the history of social and political thought? Are there not more practical things to do with your time?
I have a couple of questions for you. Did you vote last week? Do you have an opinion on the headlines in your Facebook feed, CNN or Fox News? If your answer is yes, then stick with me. As I’ve stated in the two previous articles here and here, it is absolutely crucial to be able to state and defend the standard and source from which you make any moral claim.
This is becoming increasingly important. Until halfway through the last century Christians took a common moral fiber for granted in our country. Although not thoroughly Christian, society’s foundational institutions were stitched together with a thread that was not openly hostile to Christianity.
But now, as the moral fabric of western culture continues to unravel, Christians find themselves in a predicament. They can no longer point to traditions and social norms to defend their moral convictions. At the same time, if they claim the Bible as their standard they are more scripturally and intellectually challenged than those in previous generations. In part, this is because the theological framework of Dispensationalism has collapsed, and the crack-up is beginning to make its way into the mainstream evangelical church. The resulting demise of a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments means Christians have to take seriously the first two-thirds of their Bibles for the first time in many generations. In doing so, they are coming face to face with the Old Testament laws. This brings up questions about their application today.
In all of this, standards of law and justice in the Christian community are being re-evaluated. Can we have a Christian society? Should we? If so, in what ways should we be involved? If not, then in what ways should we be dis-involved? What laws are just and should govern society? How do we know?
For some within the Reformed community, the answer to these questions lies within an appeal to natural law. This natural law governs the common realm shared by Christians and non-Christians. Scripture is the revealed law reserved for the church as the redemptive community. Scripture informs Christians regarding their faith. Nature informs all men – whether Christian, Buddhist, or atheist – on how to build and govern a civilization.
There are two problems here. First, as demonstrated in the last article, natural law theory was concocted among pagan Greek intellectuals. Second, the concoction is largely defunct today. A universal or universally recognized standard for moral judgment on which to build and govern any and every society is far from universally recognized in our time.
What happened? What happened to this theory that has kept such a firm grip on the church for hundreds of years and why would some within the church still be holding on tight when the rest of the world seems to have let it go?
The Achilles heel of natural law has always been its lack of basis for, and presence of specific content. Hence, it always had a crack in its foundation. One of its adherents during the Enlightenment can help shed some light on this fracture. Here, Christians repaving it as a system for governing a common realm can see a soft spot in the theory; a little-known example, but key indicator of its insufficiency.
Most of us know something of John Locke, the influential philosopher during the eighteenth century Enlightenment or Age of Reason. As previously mentioned, the Roman philosopher Cicero was hailed during this time and had a substantial impact on Locke as well as other leading thinkers during that time. This carried with it an emphasis on natural law.
In his early Essays on the Law of Nature Locke took the position that the vital political knowledge was contained in the dictates of the law of nature which Locke viewed as a divine decree sustaining the whole universe, as well as the society of men. It contained a perfect list of the moral obligations without which society “would fall to the ground”.[i]
Yet, in his adherence to natural law, Locke ran into a problem of contradicting positions.
… it would seem to follow that the continuance of society was assured to the extent that the members were capable of grasping the meaning of natural law. Yet almost all of Locke’s writings reveal a growing skepticism about the ability of the great majority of men to arrive at an understanding of natural law.[ii]
Basically, he understood natural law to be essential for society but he was skeptical of the ability for the average man to discern it. It required a level of intellectual inquiry and understanding that most men where either not capable of or did not have time to engage. This was a real issue – and one created by the notion of natural law, not resolved by it.
The one position assumed easy access to moral judgments, the other that such judgments were open only to an expertly trained intellect. Most students of Locke have proceeded on the belief that the problem was solved in the Treatises by Locke’s notion of natural law, but the fact is that Locke left the problem exactly where it had been in in his previous writings. The law of nature was viewed as a body of essential political truths discoverable by reason, yet there was the difficulty that, for the vast majority, human reason had been corrupted.[iii] [emphasis mine]
Reason corrupted. That is the primary issue and chink in the armor of natural law. How can we count on something to be universally recognized when that recognition is dependent on a corrupted reason? So what did John Locke do? He turned to scripture.
The failure of commentators to appreciate the significance of this issue has prevented them from locating the place where Locke attempted to resolve it; namely in his essay on The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)…The substitute for the exacting knowledge of natural law and a mathematicized morality was to be found in the Christian ethic.[iv]
The inadequacy of natural law was highlighted and put up against the adequacy and necessity of the Bible.
These deficiencies had been overcome by the teaching summarized in the Sermon on the Mount; it brought a morality suited to the common understanding, one surrounded by the awesome miracle of revelation, and accompanied by a notion of a Diety who employed future rewards and punishments to enforce observance of His moral commands.[v]
If Locke still maintained the existence of natural law, he certainly put to rest the error that it was sufficient to build and govern a society. Perhaps if it were not for the force of Christianity in society at the time he would have been forced to delve further into the legitimacy of natural law.
Despite the inroads of secularism and skepticism the Western political tradition had for several centuries taken for granted the viability of what may be called a “common Christian conscience.” Both in theory and in practice the tradition had assumed the continuing presence of a common outlook and moral response among the members of society.[vi]
Locke was a product of his time and surely took for granted the Christian milieu of his era. As mentioned above, this has continued up into the last century in much of Western culture.
All men recognize there is a God (Rom 1), but to assume that all men can ascertain from nature, the rules essential to governing themselves and creating a common order among Christians and pagans is an error. Even standing knee deep in a river of reason, Locke knew better. We should too.
Humanists held on to natural law until the death blow came through another man about two hundred years later. When they grasped hold of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 they simultaneously and necessarily released their grip on the laws of nature. It was now understood that nature evolves. Natural selection occurs through the sorting of random “chance” variations in reproducing populations. If nature and society evolve then so do societies and personal morality. This was understood and generally accepted.
“Woodrow Wilson remarked that the founders [of the United States] were pre-Darwinian. They didn’t recognize that things evolve, that even human nature evolves, that there is no enduring human nature that furnishes the ground of enduring natural rights.”[vii]
And there you have it. John Locke was a leading influence in the lives of many of the founding fathers as well as one of the primary influences on the Declaration of Independence. They had not discovered the weakness he had discerned in the system of natural law. In time it did not matter. The system would be blind-sided from the field of biology. It would not survive the blow.
Yet, there are Christian theologians who have seen fit to resurrect the remains of the defunct system that originated amidst pagan philosophy. A mummy of sorts exists, full of notions of a common realm governed through natural revelation – all wrapped up in covenant theology.
Understanding this modified version of natural law is important. Why? Because if the system is understood as legitimate then it will continue to relegate the church to a state of relative impotence in the society and culture around us and ultimately restrict the church in the very mission to which she is called.
[i] Wolin, Sheldon S., Politics and Vision (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960), 299.
[ii] Ibid., p. 300.
[v] Ibid. p. 301.
[vi] Ibid. p. 302.
[vii] Hadley Arkes, First Principles and Natural Law: The Foundations of Political Philosophy, Part I, Recorded Books, copyright 2012 by Crescite Group, Lecture 1.