Examining Natural Law Arguments, part 1

I will base most of my inquiry off the work of the guys at Calvinist International because 1) they come from a Reformed perspective, and 2) their work is not as silly as seen in pop-Thomist apologetics.  I am going to avoid some of their articles on the apocrypha and some church fathers. I do not consider them as having normative value.   I will try to interact, however, with some of the Reformed scholastics, as those guys will help correct any misrepresentations.   Since Fulford outlines his arguments in terms of N1, and so on, in order to keep things simple, I will outline my outline of his arguments in terms of A, B, and so on.  In the first one, An Exegetical Case for Natural Law, Fulford examines the typical loci for natural law.  He defines natural law as

(N1) there is an objective order to the universe of the kind described above

(N2) this order is objectively visible; it is there to be seen, whether one is wearing the spectacles of scripture or not

(N3) at least some unregenerate people perceive this order

A:

So far, I agree.  He quotes Jesus’ statement about not worrying because this is our Father’s world and if he cares for birds, then he cares for you (Mt. 6:25).  So what does Fulford mean by “objective order?”  He defines it as “Jesus even appeals to the realm of nature, rather than simply quoting OT commands or issuing new bald diktats, strongly implies support for N2.”  I don’t like the playing off of natural law against God’s word, but I see what he means at the moment.

B:

He then appeals to the Golden Rule as another example of “natural law,” quoting one Dr Bockmeul, ““the uncomplicated assumption of a kind of natural reciprocity and commonality of human needs suggests the acceptance of a moral category that is general and self-evident, rather than positively revealed in the Torah.”  This line of argument is rather odd.  In the “Golden Rule” Jesus says this behavior is the Law and the Prophets.  Fulford is contrasting the two where Jesus is identifying the two.  Of course, Fulford does admit that this sums up the Old Testament, but he goes on, “but also because examples of it show up in all cultures. It remains part of the philosophia perennis.”  Maybe so, but why does Paul contrast the wisdom of this world (philosophia perennis) with the Gospel, which teaching cannot be divorced from the Old Testament?

C:

Fulford has a third line of argument:

Another famous example (noted by Dr. Bockmuehl 3) of what people now call natural law ethics shows up in Jesus’ teaching on sexuality, more specifically divorce. In Mark 10:6-8 and its parallels, Jesus corrects Pharisaical views about this practice by pointing them back to God’s originally created order.

I don’t disagree with that, but I would like to quote Oliver O’Donovan,  especially when theologians contrast an ethic of creation with any other biblical-motif ethic, “This way of posing the alternatives is not acceptable, for the very act of God which ushers in his kingdom is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the reaffirmation of creation” (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 15).

D: Paul and the Gentiles

Fulford appeals to Acts 14, where Paul was mistaken for a Greek god.   He writes, “Paul could have cited the Shema, or the First and Second of the Ten Words, but instead he reasoned with the citizens of Lystra based on what was objective in the structure of the world: it was simply a matter of fact that as human beings, Paul and Barnabas were not worthy of worship.”  He continues, The apostle proclaims the true God to the pagans, and notes that in the past this God let history run without interference, but now that things will be different. And then he qualifies this statement, to note that while “now” God will not simply let paganism continue, yet even “before” God was not totally “hands off” with pagans. Rather, all along he has been testifying to them. The implied testimony, given the context of verse 15, is that they should be worshipping the true God only. And what is the content of the testimony?

I took something different from this passage:  Paul is saying to the pagans, “your natural theology is worthless, and even if it were worth something, God’s special revelation is here.”  True, Paul initially appeals to “created order” (whatever that is; remember, as in my post on O’Donovan, created order was never defined in terms of ethical content).  In other words, we see a movement from less light to more light.  Ironically, a few of the members of the Calvinist International are big fans of Jim Jordan.  While I think Jordan is theologically insane, he actually has a good point here:  the biblical story moves from less light to more light.  To seek to go back to the days of “less light” is to miss the the point of the story.

It will be objected, “But the unbeliever doesn’t have this ‘more-light,’ which makes an appeal to it superfluous.” We need to remember what presuppositionalism has always said about evangelistic encounters, “We meet the unbeliever on his terms simply for argument’s sake and then show the flaws.”  The moment we assume his position is good enough we lose the debate: if his position is good enough then why should he change?  It will be objected, “We aren’t assuming his position is good enough. We are only assuming that he shares the same hidden (dare I say it?) presuppositions.” If that is all the natural law theorists are doing, then I have no problem with it.  My question is should we build a legal ethic simply based on what the unbeliever will agree to as acceptable?

E: Paul and Romans

Fulford devotes some attention to the locus classicus, Romans 1:18ff.  He gives the standard readings of it, with which I agree.  I do want to call attention to one passage,

Still, no interpreter can reasonably deny that Paul is imputing knowledge of God’s being and commands to people who are still in unbelief.

If that is true, and I will accept it for the sake of argument, and if after the “Christian encounter with paganism,” the pagan is then aware of God’s revealed law, and if God’s law is a reflection of his moral character, then does it not follow that natural ethics does not differ from revealed ethics? (since God can’t have two contrary moral characters within his being)  Secondly, which one is clearer?

Fulford gives some discussion on Romans 2:14ff.  I am not going to deal with it since it is an explosive landmine even concerning non-natural law readings. I would like to point out that Romans 2:15 does not say that natural law is written on the heart.  It says the work of the law is written on the heart, primarily the work aimed at condemning the conscience.   That doesn’t disprove the natural law edifice, but it does remove this as a potential reading for it.

I do think it is cheating, however, that Christian theologians, arguing on the basis of natural law (presumably towards unbelievers) will appeal to “the creation narrative.”  That’s scripture, to which you previously said you wouldn’t appeal.

F: Other Pauline Passages

I don’t see how the appeal to Ephesians 2 proves anything decisive.  Saying we are children of wrath, and thus placing Nature under that wrath, appears to undercut the case you are trying to make.  The appeal to 1 Corinthians is interesting.   I grant that there is an objective moral order in our bodies (sinning against our  bodies), but if unbeliever wisdom is so good (just as good, if not better than revealed wisdom), then why did Paul forbid Christians to appeal to unbelieving courts as a general rule?

Conclusion:

Fulford does a good job demonstrating the existence of an objective, moral order.  We must ask, however, does sin have any effects on our reception and interpretation of this order?  Secondly, if natural law and revealed law are both reflective of God’s unchanging moral character, wouldn’t they be the same in moral content?  If so, what is the objection to the moral case laws of the Mosaic code? (Of course, I acknowledge that civil case laws which only make sense in an ancient Israelite society reflective of their constitution are no longer binding today.  That is a far cry from saying laws against rape shouldn’t be punished.  The latter is a case law, but few would deny it is a moral case law).   Finally, if natural law is not the same as the ius gentium (which Fulford admits in another essay), we must ask where the specific content for natural law comes from.   Aside from the biblical insight that sexual sins are actually sins against nature (would we really know that if it weren’t for the Bible?), what is precluded in a natural law reading:  usury, 4th generation consanguinuity, fiat money, etc.?  How do you know?

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4 comments on “Examining Natural Law Arguments, part 1

  1. shotgunwildatheart says:

    This highlights a confusion I have concerning the epistemology of various natural theologians (and the subset of natural law theorists).

    In Fulford’s (N2), he says this “order” is “objectively visible” (there to be seen, regardless of the lens through which one views it).

    In my understanding, this would imply that Fulford believes in a class of facts that have the following two characteristics:

    1. They are indubitable.

    and

    2. Their relationship to each other is rigid.

    In 2, I mean: These indubitable facts cannot be re-arranged or re-ordered to arrive at novel beliefs. The facts are bound in their relationship with each other such that no new arrangements are possible. Example: the fact of a red experience, the fact of a sweet experience, and the fact of a round experience, when coupled with the fact of a particular spatio-temporal location experience, combine in a relationship to produce the “fact” of an apple. And the relationship of these facts to each other, is allegedly rigid. No one could see anything other than an apple.

    But how do they quantify that class of facts having these two characteristics?

    Presumably they mean to include the entire field of empirically-verifiable facts, but we know that many empirical beliefs are subject to various interpretations. So they can’t mean to include every empirical experience as an indubitable and rigid “fact”.

    They have to mean a small sub-set of empirical facts (or facts which are necessarily and unavoidably derived from them) – but which? I’m not sure they can provide a coherent criteria for inclusion in the set. I can’t imagine a fact that is so rigid it is impossible for a devious, fallen mind to re-interpret.

    And, my goodness … it’s hard enough to get Christians to agree on the interpretation of any given verse of Scripture. Imagine the debates we’d have over the meaning of a reed swaying in the wind?

    • shotgunwildatheart says:

      This highlights a confusion I have concerning the epistemology of various natural theologians (and the subset of natural law theorists).

      In Fulford’s (N2), he says this “order” is “objectively visible” (there to be seen, regardless of the lens through which one views it).

      In my understanding, this would imply that Fulford believes in a class of facts that have the following two characteristics:

      1. They are indubitable.

      and

      2. Their relationship to each other is rigid.

      In 2, I mean: These indubitable facts cannot be re-arranged or re-ordered to arrive at novel beliefs. The facts are bound in their relationship with each other such that no new arrangements are possible. Example: the fact of a red experience, the fact of a sweet experience, and the fact of a round experience, when coupled with the fact of a particular spatio-temporal location experience, combine in a relationship to produce the “fact” of an apple. And the relationship of these facts to each other, is allegedly rigid. No one could see anything other than an apple.

      But how do they quantify that class of facts having these two characteristics?

      Presumably they mean to include the entire field of empirically-verifiable facts, but we know that many empirical beliefs are subject to various interpretations. So they can’t mean to include every empirical experience as an indubitable and rigid “fact”.

      They have to mean a small sub-set of empirical facts (or facts which are necessarily and unavoidably derived from them) – but which? I’m not sure they can provide a coherent criteria for inclusion in the set. I can’t imagine a fact that is so rigid it is impossible for a devious, fallen mind to re-interpret.

      And, my goodness … it’s hard enough to get Christians to agree on the interpretation of any given verse of Scripture. Imagine the debates we’d have over the meaning of a reed swaying in the wind?

      • shotgunwildatheart says:

        I apologize for compounding my posts, but I thought of a better way of describing my point:

        The Natural Theologian must believe in “facts” which, when fed into the belief-making process, *always* produce the same belief, regardless of which mind is considering them (assuming properly functioning minds, of course).

        And I can’t imagine a fact with that sort of property.

      • I see what you aregetting at. You aretaking Van Til’s line of “re-interpreting” a fact that is already “pre-interpreted.” I agree.

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