Natural Law arguments?

Discussion in 'Theological Forum' started by jwright82, Jun 5, 2010.

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  1. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    I myself have many philosophical scrupples with the idea of natural law but I wanted to hear, or read I guess, the arguments in favor of natural law and the various understandings of this concept. I will lay out my scrupples if anyone is interested.
  2. donk

    donk Puritan Board Freshman

    John Calvin Institutes II. viii. 1.

    "Moreover, the very things contained in the two tables are, in a manner, dictated to us by that internal law, which, as has been already said, is in a manner written and stamped on every heart. For conscience, instead of allowing us to stifle our perceptions, and sleep on without interruption, acts as an inward witness and monitor, reminds us of what we owe to God, points out the distinction between good and evil, and thereby convicts us of departure from duty. But man, being immured in the darkness of error, is scarcely able, by means of that natural law, to form any tolerable idea of the worship which is acceptable to God. At all events, he is very far from forming any correct knowledge of it. In addition to this, he is so swollen with arrogance and ambition, and so blinded with self-love, that he is unable to survey, and, as it were, descend into himself, that he may so learn to humble and abase himself, and confess his misery. Therefore, as a necessary remedy, both for our dullness and our contumacy, the Lord has given us his written Law, which, by its sure attestations, removes the obscurity of the law of nature, and also, by shaking off our lethargy, makes a more lively and permanent impression on our minds."

    Institutes III. xix. 15.

    "To solve this difficulty, the first thing of importance is to understand what is meant by conscience. The definition must be sought in the etymology of the word. For as men, when they apprehend the knowledge of things by the mind and intellects are said to know, and hence arises the term knowledge or science, so when they have a sense of the divine justice added as a witness which allows them not to conceal their sins, but drags them forward as culprits to the bar of God, that sense is called conscience. For it stands as it were between God and man, not suffering man to suppress what he knows in himself; but following him on even to conviction. It is this that Paul means when he says, “Their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing, or else excusing one another,” (Rom. 2:15). Simple knowledge may exist in man, as it were shut up; therefore this sense, which sists man before the bar of God, is set over him as a kind of sentinel to observe and spy out all his secrets, that nothing may remain buried in darkness. Hence the ancient proverb, Conscience is a thousand witnesses. For the same reason Peter also employs the expression, “the answer of a good conscience,” (1 Pet. 3:21), for tranquillity of mind; when persuaded of the grace of Christ, we boldly present ourselves before God. And the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, that we have “no more conscience of sins,” (Heb. 10:2), that we are held as freed or acquitted, so that sin no longer accuses us."
  3. mvdm

    mvdm Puritan Board Junior

    Along the same line of Calvin's thought is this excerpt from Thomas Boston explaining the defective insufficiency of natural law and the necessity of special revelation:

    Thomas Boston, Works, Vol 2, p. 68-72, excerpt from section entitled “The Moral Law Summarily Comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”

    II. I shall shew, why the law was thus given and renewed.

    1. For the confirmation of the natural law. For though there was no need of such a confirmation of the law while man stood, yet such was the darkness of the mind, the rebellion of the will, and disorder of the affections and other faculties, that there remained only some relies of it, which that they might not also be lost, the ten commandments were given.

    2. That the same might be corrected in those things wherein it was corrupted by the fall, or defective. And indeed there was great need of it in this respect. For the law of nature in man's corrupt state is very defective. For,

    (1.) It cannot carry a man to the first cause of all his misery, even Adam's first sin, and discover the evils of lust and concupiscence that lurk in his heart. Mere natural light can never teach a man to feel the weight and curse of a sin committed some thousands of years before he was born, or to mourn for that filthiness, which he contracted in his conception, and for those sproutings of sin in his nature. The apostle tells us, that this cannot be learned without the law, Rom. vii. 7. ' I had not known sin but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, thou shalt not covet.'

    (2.) The law of nature is defective, because natural Judgment is thoroughly distorted and infatuated, so that it is ready to reckon evil good, and good evil, light darkness and darkness light. Nature is ready to dictate unto men, that they are ' rich and increased with goods, and stand in need of nothing; while in the mean time they are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.'

    (3.) It is defective, because it doth not drive men out of themselves for a remedy. The sublimest philosophy that ever was did never teach a man to deny himself, but always taught him to build up his house with the old ruins, and to fetch stores and materials out of the wonted quarry. Shame, humiliation, confusion of face, self-abhorrence, condemning ourselves, and flying to the righteousness of another, are virtues known only in the book of God, and which the learned philosophers would have esteemed both irrational and pusillanimous things.

    (4.) It is defective, because by nature in particular men never knew nor had experience of a better state, and therefore must needs be ignorant of that full image of God in which it was created. As a man born and brought up in a dungeon is unable to conceive the state of a palace ; or as the child of a nobleman stolen away, and brought up by some beggar, cannot conceive or suspect the honours of his blood; so corrupted nature is utterly unable, that has been born in a womb of ignorance, bred in a hell of uncleanness, and enthralled from the beginning to the prince of darkness, to conceive, or convince a man of, that most holy and pure condition in which he was created.

    3. To supply what was wanting in it, being obliterated by sin. In the ages before Moses, the Lord's extraordinary appearances and revelations were more frequent, and the lives of men were much longer, than they were afterwards. In Moses' time they were reduced to seventy, or little more. These aged patriarchs transmitted the knowledge of the law and men's duty to their descendents; and by this means it was handed down from father to son; but by degrees men's lives were shortened, and following generations were involved in ignorance of God and his law. Therefore, to supply this defect, and to prevent the knowledge of it from utterly perishing, was the law promulgated at Sinai.

    4. To evince and convince of the necessity of a Mediator, the people that saw not this defect. When the law was thus given anew, and men saw their utter incapacity to fulfil it, by giving that due obedience it required, they would come, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, to see the necessity of a Mediator for satisfying the law, both as to its command and penalty.
  4. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    I would be very interested in hearing your scrupples.

  5. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Well one is that any theory of natural law is abstract and not normative. By that I mean that it makes sense in theory but not in practice. Who decides what is natural, westerners or canabals? Every culture has a different set of morals than each other who is right? That is why I agree with the above arguments for the necessity of special revealation. No consensus exists among peoples therefore no natural law. My scrupples are pretty much the same scrupples I have with any non biblical ethics. This isn't all but a starter for sure.
  6. Prufrock

    Prufrock Arbitrary Moderation

    James, reading the brief description of your scruples, I might make some comments:

    1.) The Reformed tradition has always affirmed natural law, but not (as your post seems to imply you may have been led to believe) to the exclusion of necessary special revelation. The law which was written on the heart of man in creation (the moral law, or "natural law") has not changed; but due to man's depravity and how we have corrupted our use of reason, it is difficult for man to profit in it, and special revelation is necessary for a clear and full statement of God's law.

    2.) Neither Westerners nor cannibals get to decide what is "natural;" God does that. It is man's duty to recognize it. One could likewise ask whether the Bible or the Qu'ran is God's special revelation. The fact that many mistakenly identify something as revelation (whether it be natural or special) does not negate the fact that the truth has been revealed to all men and we have the duty to recognize and respond to it, regardless of how we have corrupted our faculties. It is not the fact that people agree on something that makes it the naturally revealed law of God.

    3.) Natural law is not really a "non-Biblical ethic," for whether the law is revealed by nature or scripture, it is still the same law. The use of them proceeds from different principles (one from reason, one from simple statement), but the content is the same. The law as it is revealed naturally has the use of restraining and directing those societies which do not have special revelation; it serves to stop the mouth of all and leave all without excuse; it provides us with a means of arguing for societal laws within our own country where a majority does not accept Biblical authority as a basis for morality and law; it serves to confirm us in our faith when we falter; etc.
  7. Backwoods Presbyterian

    Backwoods Presbyterian Puritan Board Doctor

    We also be careful about lifting quotations from authors that use "natural law". Mainly because there is in reality a "pre-Locke" and "post-Locke" understanding of Natural Law.

    John Calvin vs. John Locke
  8. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    I get your point but I don't believe I really pointed out any particuler tradition, reformed included. I have scrupples with the idea itself as a normative idea for beleivers. Meaning that it cannot provide an adequete basis for morality by itself. I am ignorant of the reformed tradition on this point and that is why I started this thread.
  9. mvdm

    mvdm Puritan Board Junior

    Looking again, I see this thread actually started by asking for arguments IN FAVOR of natural law arguments.

    Here are two of them, both using natural law arguments on the issue of homosexuality, and yet coming to different conclusions.

    Andrew Sullivan appeals to natural law in favor of homosexuality:

    But all these arguments are arguments for the centrality of heterosexual sexual acts in nature, not their exclusiveness. It is surely possible to concur with these sentiments, even to laud their beauty and truth, while also conceding that it is nevertheless also true that nature seems to have provided a spontaneous and mysterious contrast that could conceivably be understood to complement — even dramatize — the central male-female order. In many species and almost all human cultures, there are some who seem to find their destiny in a similar but different sexual and emotional union. They do this not by subverting their own nature, or indeed human nature, but by fulfilling it in a way that doesn't deny heterosexual primacy, but rather honors it by its rare and distinct otherness. As albinos remind us of the brilliance of color; as redheads offer a startling contrast to the blandness of their peers; as genius teaches us, by contrast, the virtue of moderation; as the disabled person reveals to us in negative form the beauty of the fully functioning human body; so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm, a variation that does not eclipse the theme, but resonates with it. Extinguishing — or prohibiting — homosexuality is, from this point of view, not a virtuous necessitys, but the real crime against nature, a refusal to accept the pied beauty of God's creation, a denial of the way in which the other need not threaten, but may actually give depth and contrast to the self.

    This is the alternative argument embedded in the Church's recent grappling with natural law, that is just as consonant with the spirit of natural law as the Church's current position. It is more consonant with what actually occurs in nature; seeks an end to every form of natural life; and upholds the dignity of each human person. It is so obvious an alternative to the Church's current stance that it is hard to imagine the forces of avoidance that have kept it so firmly at bay for so long.

    Independent Gay Forum - Alone Again, Naturally

    Scott Clark appeals to natural law against homosexuality:

    I argue that the state should regulate marriage on the basis of natural, creational law and that those who advocate pushing back the boundaries of marriage to include homosexual marriage are advocating the recognition of the violation of natural, creational law recognized in the West by pagans and Christians for two thousand years.

    Natural Law, the Two Kingdoms, and Homosexual Marriage
  10. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    These two examples sort of illustrate my scrupples nicley both make an appeal to natural law by itself. I started wondering if there were any groups out there in the reformed view who held to a strong, one might say autonomous, view of natural law, I guess no.
  11. R. Scott Clark

    R. Scott Clark Puritan Board Senior

    The fact that Sullivan appeals to "natural law" while contradicting it doesn't make his appeal either valid or true nor does it invalidate appeals to the creational law.

    The creational law exists. It's a given, a datum. It cannot be denied any more than air or the law of gravity can be denied. It's written on every human's conscience and it accuses them. It's true. It's universal and it's God-given (See Rom 1-2).

    That's not the "natural law" of which Sullivan was speaking.

    We should be careful to distinguish the sense in which one is using the key term here. Hugo Grotius wrote about "natural law" but not in the same way or in the same sense as the Reformed orthodox or Calvin.

    The fact that it's possible to abuse a term or to equivocate doesn't invalidate the term or the truth of it.
  12. mvdm

    mvdm Puritan Board Junior

    Such abuse/equivocation only proves the epistemological problem due to sin, hence the Reformed confessional recognition of the necessity and perpescuity of special revelation. This is well explained by Thomas Boston above.
  13. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Well I hesitated to reply to the quote given by you above because it seemed incomplete to a total viewpoint of yours. I will ask a question about your view, if you don't mind, to clarify my own understanding of your viewpoint. First off how do you avoid the criticism of the fallacy of mass appeal in the quote given above? By that I mean just because a whole group of people or history of cultures believe something to be true doesn't by itself make it so. It seems to me that natural law does exist but beacuse of the fall it can no longer hold the normative place for us that it held before, but God is perfectly just in judging us according to it.
  14. ChristianTrader

    ChristianTrader Puritan Board Graduate

    All it proves is that it can be abused. People can misread/abuse Special revelation as well. Hence the numerous theological fights in Christendom. Just because there is disagreement does not imply either that there is no right answer or that the right answer cannot be known.


    ---------- Post added at 10:51 AM ---------- Previous post was at 10:49 AM ----------

    I see Dr. Clark appealing to Romans 1-2 instead of just mass appeal. Now you can say his appeal doesn't work but I do not see him simply standing on mass appeal.

  15. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Well if his argument rests on scripture and natural revelation than that is fine but if he is saying that all cultures have recognized the validity of marriage between a man and women without scripture than that is a fallacy of mass appeal. Again I'm not against the idea of natural law just against the idea of it standing on its own.
  16. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Obviously any biblical theory of natural law is not something that can stand alone by virtue of the fact that it is "biblical." It is the Bible which informs our view of it. The problem with the discussion is that it conflates two things -- foundation and function. A biblical view of natural law (foundation) does not require that all moral teaching be intuitively received from the Bible (function). There is a place for discursive reasoning on the basis of creational entities. How would a person go about identifying male and female without information from the light of nature? In order for moral norms to exist there must be stable creational entities. There are a whole range of "natural revelation" considerations which bear on moral discussions.
  17. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    Is Paul speaking about what some call natural law here?

    Not sure if I would argue against natural law based upon the passages I post here.

    Yes, We need special revelation. But there seems to be a law from God expressed in nature, or if you desire.... Creation.
  18. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    armourbearer and PuritanCovenanter I completly agree with you both, what you say is in full accordance with my own more dooyweerd/bavink understanding of creation. But the problem I was refering to was an autonomous natural law, one that stood on its own. How would this natural law on its own be completly logicaly authoritative, how would we prove something from natural law alone? That is my question I guess, if the proof here is to refer to only what culture after culture has accepted than I'm sorry but this is a logical fallacy. Again my question and my only question is how one would prove a moral authority based on natural law alone?
  19. VictorBravo

    VictorBravo Administrator Staff Member

    I would also add that a century after Locke, Blackstone recognized a distinction between "Law of Nature" and "Natural Law."

    By the 18th century, the Law of Nature was considered the revealed and unalterable law of God. Natural Law was what was derived by inductively considering creation.

    Blackstone's Commentaries. Book I, Part I, Section 2 (emphasis added). (An online version can be found here: Tucker's Blackstone: Contents)
  20. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    I can't prove you exist. How do I know you exist as you say you do? To whom shall I address the question?
  21. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    I have been witnessed to the truthfulness of this passage alone. I was a Sailor and the there is no mistake in a Navigator's mind. Their Line is gone out through through the whole earth. There is an unspeakable clear speech here. There is evidence even if we are prepositional. You ought to see the orderliness of creation in all things. Look at the Navigational tools Sailors use. There is one even after the Sextant. Their line is gone out.
  22. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Nice response but two different logical problems.

    ---------- Post added at 08:21 AM ---------- Previous post was at 08:18 AM ----------

    I am not denying that natural law exists or that creation is orderly. Just that you can prove a moral code from natural law alone. For instance how would you prove that homosexual marriage is wrong by only appealing to natural law, and do this without commiting the logical fallacy I mentioned above.
  23. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    This of course impinges heavily on the theonomy debate, James. T. David Gordon has pointed out contra Bahnsen's argument that if theonomy is not accepted then civil magistrates have no guide as to what to do, that there are many areas of life where we are left with no specific guide from the Bible.

    Leaving the theonomy debate aside for the moment, it has occurred to me that in the area of child-rearing, the Scriptures are low on specific and detailed prescriptions. To a large extent the parent is left by Scripture to fill in the details of precisely how and when to chastise, etc, etc, etc, by sanctified common sense i.e. natural revelation interpreted by the sanctified person in the light of the often very general teaching of Scripture and applied, giving biblical natural law(s).

    I don't know if you'd agree that the parent has even less specific and detailed biblical guidance to use than the magistrate, and thus also has to, to a large extent, depend on a sanctified person's interpretation of natural revelation?

    And unsanctified parents have to depend on common grace interpretations of natural revelation.
  24. NaphtaliPress

    NaphtaliPress Administrator Staff Member

    If folks want to discuss theonomy on this thread it will be moved to the theonomy subforum which is moderated.:judge:
  25. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    Sorry. I don't want to discuss theonomy, and I'm sure James doesn't. That was just an example of how we shouldn't always expect detailed rules from Scripture and thus we are reliant on natural revelation and its interpretation by saved and unsaved people.
  26. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    Oh I agree I am a parent.

    I completly agree, I guess I am not explaining myself very well so I wil try. Natural law does exist and affects each and everyone of us, or you could say that we all posses knowledge of it. That is not what I am talking about here, whether or not natural law is operative, what I am talking about is basing an argument for or against something based on natural law alone. Take the whole same-sex marriage discussion. How would you prove that this was against natural law? If you said that every culture in history has recognized this than that doesn't prove anything at all, it is a logical fallacy in fact. So does that make more sense or not?

    I think I have badly explained what I was trying to ask. My original question was answered but it raised this new one and I wanted to see what everyone thought, I guess I should have specified that.
  27. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    Orderliness has to come from somewhere. Definition has to come from somewhere. I do not believe man was created in some void or vacuum without understanding. If there is a natural law there has be one who is over it. If there is a deity over creation then one must also conclude that he set the law up and the principles by which they work. Concerning homosexuality, I would say the animal kingdom itself proves male and female relationships. I know there are abrogations in some instances. I also believe the natural order of family would prove something in the question of homosexuality.

    How can we prove murder is wrong? I like to start with that question because mankind has a self preservation principle in his nature. That comes from God. I also understand that man is fallen and dies. That is a judgment because we all have sin in our heart as a principle. Mankind knows he doesn't always think clearly and makes mistakes. He even naturally violates his conscience. He opposes himself on many different levels. This also should prove there is a moral boundary.

    I am a presuppositionalist. I believe every man has knowledge of God and that every man knows he will be judged by God. Man just suppresses the truth in unrighteousness.

    I don't think natural law stands on its own. It is under God. I do believe it is revelatory, but not unto salvation.
  28. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    Mature Christian thinking on all areas of life that are not specifically covered by the Bible should, all other things being equal, be more valuable than unsanctified thought. It should give us sound(er) natural law principles informed by a mature, wise, sanctified consciousness.

    But this isn't always the case, because things aren't always equal and a non-Christian may be a better scholar of an area than any of his Christian colleagues.

    But sometimes there is more than one right way of doing things E.g. Great Britain has a constitutional monarchy and America has an elected president. E.g. some Christian parents will spank their children for a particular offence, while others will spank them for another.

    Sometimes it is just that people need to find out and follow what works best; there is a purely pragmatic test about what the Christian or someone else should do.

    As a postmil, I believe the Church will eventually reach greater maturity and spiritual insight in this area of ethics, as with a more full-orbed and consistent biblical ethics, gleaning all relevant insights from the Old and New Testament Scriptures. It's just a process of illumination through history, until the Church is more complete, mature and covers a greater percentage of the human population.

    We're almost certainly in for rocky (rockier) times, in e.g. Britain and America, before Enlightenment secular humanism runs its disastrous course.

    ---------- Post added at 10:56 PM ---------- Previous post was at 10:34 PM ----------

    I don't pretend to be knowledgeable on this subject, Randy, but I think the Reformed like Van Til and others would make a distinction between natural or general revelation on the one hand and natural theology and law on the other.

    The first is clear and leaves Man without excuse. But natural theology and natural law, are what unsaved or saved (but still sinful) men extrapolate from natural revelation regarding theology and ethics.

    In the area of ethics

    (a) Unsaved men's reasoning about ethics from the creation without the guide of Scripture.

    (b) Unsaved men's reasoning about ethics from the creation with the guide of Scripture, to the extent that Scripture can guide the unsaved in ethics.

    (c) Saved (hopefully mature) men's reasoning about areas of ethics that are less than specific in Scripture, from the creation, with Scripture as a guide.

    Because if Scripture doesn't provide specific answers to certain things, e.g. should we have a democracy or not, Christians have to learn to think intelligently about these things in the light of creation, history and the (sometimes very) general principles of Scripture.
  29. jwright82

    jwright82 Puritan Board Senior

    I agree with much of what you say, I am also a presupossitionalist. The examples you gave against murder and same sex marriages are good evidence for your point but they can be interpreted in different ways, a la VanTil, so I guess I would conclude that natural law is best used in a transcendental argument format. I also think that natural law is a foundational principle for any Christian metaphysics, or theory of reality. I really like Doooyweerd and Vollenhaven on this.

    Excellant points Richard, I am also more postmill but an amill as well (I can't make up my mind). I agree that natural law is authoritative as well as instructive. I fully agree with Dooyweerd on this point of the various law-spheres in creation, but I don't think reality can be so carved up I prefer a more general view of creational law. But I do not believe a credible argument for or against something based soley on the concept of natural law is possible, this would presuposse brute facts which as a VanTillian I cannot except.
  30. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    Quote from James
    Well I'm an amil-postmil in the sense I don't believe the Millennium starts in the future but started in the first century.

    I've never read Dooyeweerd or Vollenhoven. Are there any easier or shorter introductions to their thought (on natural law)?
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