The next time you are engaged in a conversation about politics or find yourself taking sides in one of the current political debates being carried out in the media, ask the other person this question: Why? Why is your position morally right? Or better yet, ask them by what standard are they judging what is right or wrong regarding the topic at hand. It may even be important to go one step further and ask yourself these same questions.
As discussed in the last essay, these questions are critical. Far too often when it comes to the civil sphere, we are passionately involved in passing moral judgment without being self-conscious of the standard to which we are appealing. On what higher authority are we basing our judgments?
Ultimately all responses to this question can be boiled down to this reply – “because my god says so”. Now, this god can be the president, Mohamed, the God of the Bible, Joseph Smith, or even myself – but everyone assumes an ultimate authority. So, what should the Christian response to the question be? Who or what is the higher authority to which we should appeal?
Most Christians would agree and state emphatically that the God of the Bible is the authority to which they should appeal when passing moral judgment. But what does God have to say on specific issues? Does he speak to all of the issues we wrestle with currently in our culture? Surely he does, else we would be forced to concede that there are areas of life outside of his jurisdiction.
So, if our ultimate authority does in fact speak to all areas of culture and life, the question becomes – where or how do we determine what he says? There is one other question that arises. Does he say the same thing to all cultures? Beyond the Scriptures, does he have a universal standard for everyone at all times?
For many Christians throughout the centuries, the answer to that question is “yes” he does have a universal standard – natural law. His special revelation, the Bible, speaks specifically to his people but all men are held accountable through the work of the law written upon their hearts. God reveals himself to all men through nature and therefore there is a natural law standard available to guide them.
But is this really sufficient? Does this concept of law rely too heavily upon man’s ability to take “nature” and derive laws from which Christians and non-Christians can build a common culture and live together? It seems like a bit of a stretch. Because of what appears to be an obvious reach, natural law is many times readily dismissed in the current debates and discussions regarding law. It should not be.
Natural law cannot be easily dismissed because in some reformed circles it has been modified beyond traditional definitions. It is articulated as a thoroughly Biblical and covenantal concept. To move forward in the current debate one must deal sufficiently with the modification, but that is for a later article.
First, it may be helpful to understand the origins and traditional understanding of natural law. As we do so, we will come to find that at the root it is not a Christian concept at all.
The following is not intended to be exhaustive. It is an attempt to provide a concise overview of the traditional concept of natural law. From a practical standpoint, a concise overview will provide a frame of reference for discussions and debates, but it can also serve to help differentiate the traditional framework from more current modifications. Later we will visit the gravesite of classic natural law and recount some of the events leading to its ideological death.
So what is natural law?
Natural law, or the law of nature (Latin: lex naturalis; ius naturale), is a system of law that is determined by nature, and so is universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature — both social and personal — and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it.[i]
Or, as one proponent states, it is
a way of reasoning about moral things that does not depend on religion or faith but depends rather on that reasoning that is accessible to human beings as human beings and hence you might say, natural to human beings.[ii]
Natural law is said to be a universal and universally recognizable standard for moral judgment. Given such, it is suitable as a logical, reasonable, and morally right foundation for building any civilization. So where did the concept originate? Ancient Greece.
Although the point is somewhat disputed, Aristotle is said to be the father of natural law. He articulated that the capacity for moral judgment is a human distinctive and the concept of law itself is derived from the human capacity for moral judgment. Law and moral judgment form the substance of political life.[iii] He is cited as the father of natural law in large part due to an excerpt from his Rhetoric.
It will now be well to make a complete classification of just and unjust actions. We may begin by observing that they have been defined relatively to two kinds of law, and also relatively to two classes of persons. By the two kinds of law I mean particular law and universal law. Particular law is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members: this is partly written and partly unwritten. Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.[iv]
Following Aristotle, the rise of natural law as a more universal system in Greece and Rome arose later among the Stoics. Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens. It is a school of thought in which God is said to be everywhere and in everyone, yet in no way personal. It holds that there is a rational and purposeful order to the universe. The universe is a product of design but one in which there is no beginning and no end. To the extent that one can understand the design of the universe and harmonize with it through reason and adherence to a natural law, unhappiness and evil can be limited.
This natural law philosophy was carried forward to Cicero, the Roman philosopher and orator.
The Roman orator Cicero († 43 B.C.) summed up an important strand of ancient thought when he argued in his De republica 3.22 that “true law was right reason that was congruent with nature.” He concluded that “there was one eternal, immutable, and unchangeable law” and that God had established it as the Emperor and Master of all humankind.[v]
The jurists in ancient Rome believed in two laws that transcended the laws of the Roman Empire: Ius gentium (the law of peoples) and Ius natural (natural law). The Roman jurist Gaius came to define Ius gentium as having been established by natural reason.[vi] There was a law that was universal and universally binding – natural law.
Although thoroughly unchristian in origin and philosophy, this Greek and Roman concept of natural law had a profound influence on the early church. After Cicero, Seneca arose as a Roman Stoic philosopher. His writings have influenced Christian writers and thinkers up to the present day. The early church father Tertullian even referred to him as “our Seneca”.[vii]
The concept of natural law progressed in Rome to a time in which there appeared an inflection point with the emperor Justinian I.
Justinian achieved lasting fame through his judicial reforms, particularly through the complete revision of all Roman law, something that had not previously been attempted.[viii]
In Justinian’s comprehensive codification of Roman law, he moved the source of natural law from humans to God. “Natural laws are established by divine providence and always remain firm and immutable (Institutes 1.2.11)”[ix]. This shift was significant and was followed by the so-called Treatise on Laws (or Etymologies) by Saint Isidore of Seville. Isidore was an Archbishop and scholar who wrote of natural law within the context of divine origin.
“Things required by natural law are marriage, succession, bringing up of children, one common security for all, one liberty for all, and the right to acquire those things which are capable of possession in air, earth and sea.”[x]
This important shift of the source of natural law from creature to creator remained in place without much development until a canon lawyer from Bologna by the name Gratian came along in the 12th century. He provided additional support for the previous shift by explicitly connecting a divine natural law to the Gospels.
Gratian brought natural law to the forefront of all future discussions about the structure of all human law: “The human race is ruled by two things, namely, natural law and customary usages. Natural law is what is contained in the law (lex sic) and Gospels.” Gratian concluded that natural law dictated that “Each person is commanded to do to others what he wants done to himself,” connecting natural law with the biblical injunction to do unto others what you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7.12). By defining natural law as the duty to treat other human beings with care and dignity, Gratian stimulated jurists to reflect upon a central values of natural law: the rendering of justice and the administering of equity in the legal system. To define the contents of natural law he placed Isidore’s definition of natural law on the first page of his Decretum (D.1 c.7). Together with the texts of Roman law in Justinian’s compilation, Gratian’s Decretum became one of the standard introductory texts for the study of law (the Ius commune) in European law schools, and Isidore’s definition became one of the most important starting points for all medieval and early modern discussions of natural law.[xi]
Now that we have traced the history of natural law from Ancient Greece, to the Roman Stoics, and into the church, we arrive at Saint Thomas Aquinas. It could be said of Aquinas that he was the main thoroughfare through which medieval ideas of natural law were transported to the modern world. He stated that, “divine law we know through revelation, but the natural law we know through that reasoning that is natural or accessible to human beings as human beings”.[xii]
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Natural law had not travelled far from its root. Natural law theories continued to evolve but always seemed to find their way back to their source – one that is thoroughly opposed to the God of the Bible. Natural law retained its grip even up through and beyond the time of the Reformation. At that time, Stoic natural law was still raising her head high.
The peak of Cicero’s authority and prestige came during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment,and his impact on leading Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu was substantial.[xiii]
But the grip would not last. There was a chink in the armor during that time and it was one that would become evident with the prevailing moral philosophies that later developed and found their place at the center of modern scientific and social thought. We will examine that in the next article. In the meantime I will close with an extended but helpful quote regarding the origin and history of classic natural law.
Natural law theory was devised by a few Greek scholars who in general had lost faith in politics. They were products of a regional civilization in which politics was the heart of religion. The world of the polis was under attack in every sense: spiritually, militarily, and politically. These philosophers did not give specific content to natural law. The idea served as a hypothetical intellectual backdrop, a hoped-for means of uniting all men in a coherent universe – a dream that would have been utterly foreign to Greek political speculation prior to the fourth century, B.C. Before, Greeks had been uninterested in the “barbarian” world, the world outside the city-state. The collapse of that local world forced upon a handful of philosophers the intellectual problem of finding meaning in a world far different from anything earlier Greek philosophers had imagined possible.
The Roman Republic remained indifferent to Greek philosophy, but as it began to expand, taking on the characteristics of the empire, Stoicism began to appeal to Rome’s thinkers. Stoicism “appeared to suggest, in the field of relations between states, a system which could be used to justify Roman expansion. From the beginning, natural law theory was an invention by an elite of pagan Greek intellectuals to comfort themselves in the midst of their collapsing civilization, and it was then used as an intellectual cover for other pagan philosophers who sought universal reasons to justify an expanding Roman Empire. Yet it is this makeshift intellectual system, conceived by pagans in despair, and adopted by tyrants who persecuted the Church (the best example is the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, under whose tyranny Justin Martyr died) that has captured the minds of Christian philosophers, from the early church until the present.
Today, few people still believe in natural law. Christian scholars are among a handful of philosophers who still accept the idea.[xiv]
There is good reason that few still believe in the traditional concept of natural law. We will explore a few of the reasons in the next article.
[ii] Hadley Arkes, First Principles and Natural Law: The Foundations of Political Philosophy, Part I, Recorded Books, copyright 2012 by Crescite Group, Lecture 1.
[iv] Aristotle, Rhetoric, Translated by W. Rhys Roberts, Book I, 13.
[vii] The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 1.
[x] Cited in H.B. Clark, Biblical Law: A Text of the Statutes, Ordinances, and Judgments of the Bible (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press), 5.
[xii] Hadley Arkes, First Principles and Natural Law: The Foundations of Political Philosophy, Part I, Recorded Books, copyright 2012 by Crescite Group, Lecture 1.
[xiv] Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for International Relations (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion, 1987), 88-89.