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Natural Law and God's Law: An Antithesis

by Rex Downie

Introduction: Malaise of 20th-Century Man
We are no longer a nation at peace with itself, if, indeed we ever were. The questions, outcries, and conflicts of recent events are legion, and the Christian literature of critique is beginning to point up this national despair ever more clearly.1 Needless to say, lawyers have played some part in these events, and Christian lawyers have the greatest role to play of all, for theirs is the mandate, authority, and power to seek justice for all men (Prov. 8:12-16; Mic. 6:8; 2 Chron. 19:6; Isa. 58:6; Deut. 4:4-10; Lam. 3:35-36; Ps. 89:14; 1 Kings 10:9; Jer. 22:15; Ezra 45:9-10(sic)). I will try to develop the theme that the biblical idea of justice, as mandated by Jehovah to His people in the preceding texts, is of singular contemporary relevance for the legal profession as a whole and for our nation. It must be remembered that the only means of attaining God's will for justice in the twentieth century is by the power of our risen Lord through the Holy Spirit working in us as we break with our anti-Christian past, as well as when we invite unbelievers to share in the salvation brought by Jesus Christ.

Since our field of view encompasses the legal system of an era that some have labeled post-Christian, we should first see what the notion of justice has meant in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jurisprudence, so that Satan's deceiving work may be most clearly contrasted to Jehovahs just purpose, as it is discussed at a later point.

A Truce with Anti-Christ: Natural Law
The warp and woof of our contemporary legal scene is inextricably bound up with what has been called natural law theory as well as with certain reactions to that theory which have dominated the field of jurisprudence in more contemporary times, so it is not altogether arbitrary to begin to trace the development of modern events in their flow out of natural law theory, though its roots extend back in history to humanism's Greek ancestry. To explain in detail the origins of natural law theory in Greek and Roman thought is beyond the scope of this article,2 but a credible point of departure lies at the close of the wars of religion. At this juncture in history the fabric of European civilization had been torn asunder between the opposing forces of the Reformation and Roman Catholicism in their struggle over essentially doctrinal issues. A Dutch thinker, Hugo Grotius, then wrestled with the problem of ultimate authority for civil rule, in war or peace, and grasped upon the theory of natural law, as pointed out by Arthur F. Holmes:

Grotius was confronted by the breakdown of Christian unity in the religious wars that followed the Reformation. He could not appeal to religious sanctions for law in either war or peace but had to find some other basis, admittedly established by God, which would be binding on men regardless of what, if any, was their religious persuasion. He could resort neither like Catholics to a scholastic legal philosophy nor like the Calvinists to the decrees of a sovereign God. Grotius accordingly turned to the older pre-Christian tradition of natural law. The setting of his Prolegomena to The Law of War and Peace is the argument between Carneades' legal positivism and Cicero's doctrine. Grotius agrees with Cicero, and like Cicero he appeals to universally self-evident truths.3

Protestant thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Richard Hooker, for the same reasons as Grotius, opted for a Thomist theory of law and government rather than seeking a biblically rooted legal philosophy, with telling effects in the New World.4

It was the political philosophy of Locke which affected the nation at large most deeply. Nor did it only effect England. It penetrated into France and passed through Rousseau into the French Revolution; it penetrated into the North American Colonies and passed through Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson into the American Declaration of Independence. We are generally prone to think of Locke as the exponent of the Social Contract. It would be more just to think of him as the exponent of the sovereignty of Natural Law. He put into plain English, and dressed in an English dress of sober gray cloth, doctrines which ultimately go back to the Porch and the Stoic teachers of antiquity. There is, he taught, a Natural Law rooted and grounded in the reasonable nature of man; there are Natural Rights, existing in virtue of such law, among which the right of property, in things with which men have mixed their labor, is cardinal; and finally there is a natural system of government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people (to insure their living by natural law, and in enjoyment of natural rights), and the people themselves are at once the creators and the beneficiaries of that trust.

Though Locke was a Christian, and attempted to derive his theories from Scripture,5 he was even blinded to God's immediate rule of creation by this idea of an intermediate body of natural laws, innate to the nature of reasonable men. The tragic oversight of the impact of the fall on man's analytic capacity; the failure to perceive God's immediate rule of creation by His Word, were fixed in the minds of seventeenth-century Christian such as Locke because Christians had been shedding blood over doctrinal matters. These leading thinkers were driven from revelation by the conflicting appeals to revelation made by the ecclesia of the day while pursuing heresies with the sword and faggot! The Body of Christ had discredited itself in the management of public affairs. The present hostility of unbelievers as well as some Christians to "mixing" religion and politics can be traced to this period of history. But compounding error with error was not and cannot be the answer to the search for a common foundation for human action. It now lies to us to perceive the root of this error and set the record straight as to the proper, God-ordained roles of government and church. To be able to do this with cogency we must see how the roles of government and law meet in the biblical concept of justice, while the role of the church is to preach the gospel. But we must start by clearly understanding where the wrong fork in the road was taken, and where this wrong fork has taken us via the natural law option of Locke and Grotius as it has carried down to modern times.

Fundamentally, natural law theory rests on the assumption that man has an innate quality--reason--which enables him to perceive and live by natural laws which are "self evident truths" manifested in our natural surroundings. The appealing quality of this line of thought lies in the fact that it is a half-truth, the most deceitful kind of all. And Christians were not the least reluctant to seize upon it, as is pointed out by F. F. Bruce.6

Or take the other term, word. In Hebrew thought "the word of God" is a way of denoting divine activity; to say that Christ is the Word of God is to say that in Him God is uniquely and self-revealingly active, whether in creation or redemption. But the Greek word by which this concept was rendered, the word logos, had already been current in Greek circles in a somewhat different sense, to denote the divine principle of reason or order immanent in the universe. The Hebrew and Greek ideas, though distinct, had a superficial similarity to make the transition from one to the other easy. So, when a Christian like Justin Martyr, brought up in the Greek philosophical schools, read the opening words of St. John's gospel, "In the beginning was the logos," the sense in which he understood them was not exactly that which the evangelist intended. Justin thought at once of logos in the sense of "reason" and concluded that the logos which had governed the thought and action of men like Socrates and Heraclitus and the Stoics. These men, because they lived in conformity to reason (Greek, meta logou, "with [the] logos"), were really, if unconsciously, guided by the pre-incarnate Christ; they might therefore be quite properly regarded as Christians before Christ came, in much the same way as the holy men of Israel in Old Testament times.

Thus, Christians such as Aquinas, and later the Reformers, could be successfully tempted to read Romans 1:19 to mean that the image of God in fallen man--which Paul refers to only to show the depth and inexcusableness of the corruption of men who choose to worship the creature rather than the Creator--was equivalent to some self-authenticating body of truth implanted in the minds of mankind.

Now here we must "test the spirits, whether they be of God." Granted that man has, what I will call for clarity, an analytic capacity. Granted that this capacity operates upon the given of creation (not those of Mother Nature, or Nature's God, or Nature's Laws). Granted then, that there is a sense in which a Christian could once have employed the terms "nature" and "reason" to describe his experience of God's gifts in creation. But what did happen? By adopting the terms and ideas of rationalism Christians put a handle on creation that pagans in their desire to "worship the creature rather than the Creator" could seize on and live in the world while denying, by various means, its Creator; as is pointed out by A. Skevington Wood:

The new scientific movement, with its recognition of law in the visible universe, which had fostered Deism, also affected the apologetics of the Church. It is noticeable that the weapons with which Berkely and Butler and Warburton fought and defeated their Deistic opponents were rational rather than revelational. Creeds and confessions were set aside as things indifferent and the case for Christianity was built up on the argument of natural religion, fortified by the testimony of the prophecies and miracles of Christ. "The main effort of orthodox apologetic was therefore directed towards demonstrating that Revelation was a necessary adjunct to natural religion, or, at the lowest, not inconsistent with it," comments Professor Basil Willey. The effect of this outlook upon the contemporary pulpit may be measured by a scrutiny of the sermons of Archbishop Tilloston, the most popular preacher of the day. Throughout his works he constantly appealed to the tribunal of reason. He strove to prove that Christianity was "the best and the holiest, the wisest and most reasonable religion in the world," and that "all the precepts of it are reasonable and wise, requiring such duties of us as are suitable to the light of nature, and do approve themselves to the best reason of mankind." He invited men to test their faith by reason at all points.7

Thus, reason could be used as a source of truth collateral with revelation, or superior to it: i.e., test faith by reason. At this point I can summarize the conclusions that can be drawn from the preceding material and which will be further supported in the following paragraphs:

Whatever might be argued about the existence of an image of God in man and its consequences for man's conscience, man is none the less fallen; Paul himself shows that this characteristic, while sufficient to hold man chargeable, is clearly fallen, cursed, for it cannot lead man to worship God rather than the creation, thus cannot be an ultimate source of truth.

That reason or analysis, without revelation, will turn to rank speculation and ultimate relativism in their efforts to penetrate the creation, leading men to focus their belief on reason, or some object of reason (science, wealth, education, pleasure), thus producing idolatry and God's subsequent curse upon it.

In the search for truth in the "eternal tables of reason" man is again deceived into serving a hypothetical creature rather than the Creator.

Reason has thus become a "high and lofty barrier to the knowledge of God" by becoming a measure by which revelation has been held for naught.
Documentation of the course of secularization of man's knowing processes is beyond the scope of this article, but I submit it for stipulation as being a patent event in the history of the last three centuries.8

The words of Archbishop Tillotson quoted above support the conclusion voiced by author Wood that the Christian apologetic of that day was "rational rather than revelational." The title of Francis Schaeffer's book is revealing: Escape from Reason. Why not Escape from God? Revelation? God's Law?

Arthur F. Holmes, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, says of natural law:

...This law is both rooted in the nature of man and accessible to him as a rational being. It has been related to the biblical concept of the law of God written on human hearts ( Romans 1).... My own concern is to explore the resources of this tradition for contemporary Christian thought...it judges laws and actions not so much by their effects (as did Hobbes and Mill) as by universal principles and unchanging moral ends. It therefore has an understandable appeal to the Christian mind. In other words, I want to remain within the natural law tradition as I have defined it above (pp. 195-197).9

At page 201 Professor Holmes captions section II of his article, "The Rule of Reason."

Rather than multiplying these illustrations, I would ask, does reason rule? ...seated at the right hand of God, vested with all power and authority? Is "all power and authority on heaven and earth given to reason, go ye therefore...."? Therefore, I must in love most strongly dissociate myself from these brethren and profess that as I read the Scriptures--our only rule of faith and life--I cannot discover any source of power, authority, or knowledge other than the Word of God, incarnate, as it maintains the creation. And unless I first turn to the Scriptures, I cannot obediently see the other forms in which God has revealed Himself. Thus by taking Scripture at face value we should see that there is no abstract body of truth such as reason, but rather patterns of consistency ordained by a loving God for His creation (Ps. 147; Heb. 1:2).

The positive meaning of God's Word in creation will be the subject of later discussion, so I would focus at this point on the Achilles heel of natural law theory. Primarily it is that there is no body of truth or law existing apart from God's Word in some abstract sense of innate in the human heart. Man is God's creation and is a creature of God. He can know nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, but that which exists by the command of Jehovah while He permits the evil one some latitude in these last days. Thus natural law has no base upon which to exist save the imaginings of man. Of course, many Christian-biblical notions such as justice, equity, responsibility, trust, mercy, and love have been stripped from revelation and posited as natural law, but this does not mean that they are other than the law of God specifically revealed to His people. What is advanced as natural law theory cannot exist by its own right of existence, for it has none, as it must be drawn from some other quarter.

And this opens the line of thought to the next and perhaps most serious charge that can be laid against natural law theory. To approach this we must recognize that when Grotius, Locke, and others opted for this way of certainty, mankind was standing on the brink of the most intensive, detailed observation of the creation yet undertaken by our race. I refer to the coming of the age of scientific exploration and discovery. The intoxicating quality of the things man discovered during these three centuries of exploding knowledge is significant here, for man's fallen nature restlessly seeks a way of explaining himself and his circumstances while avoiding the Creator of that self and those circumstances, and these discoveries proved to be a way of truth that seemed to avoid the confrontation. In seeking this way man directs his creaturely devotion to some ultimate point or other: a god; an image of his own devising. Thus to the Rationalist mind, severed from the claims of Christ by the notion that natural law was accessible to reason, nothing could be more appropriate for ultimate allegiance than the rational analytical process itself,10 and of course this was soon seen in terms of scientific, empirical methods as the exploration of the physical world moved along.11 Thus when Christians have used the terms natural law, nature, or reason to indicate the knowing-process of man, they have surrendered critically important areas of human thought and scientific inquiry to dominion and control of fallen men, men under the rule of anti-Christ. And the willfully pagan minds of Rousseau, Comte, and other Renaissance thinkers quickly seized the ground yielded by rationalist Christians as neutral territory and used it as a vantage point for the adversary from which to claim rational, scientific observation as the only reliable way for man to know anything.

The argument has run thusly: since knowledge is embedded in the laws of nature, these laws are identified by the observation of phenomena in nature. If the phenomena are reproducible under certain controlled and understood procedures, the principle which underlies the phenomena can be identified. These controls and procedures are known as the scientific method. (Insofar as matters such as physics and chemistry are concerned these procedures have undeniable worth. But notice the twist given to the next argument.) Since we have acquired such reliable knowledge from the foregoing methods, we have no other equally reliable method of getting at truth.12 Therefore other non-scientific methods of knowing are unreliable and cannot be given credence in the evaluation of the important public affairs of man. All religions, therefore, since they deal with supernatural matters, cannot submit their credentials to the court of science, cannot be verified as being true, and are therefore subjective, i.e., fit only for personal consumption--unfit for public use.

So runs the argument. In its face Christians have largely taken one of three courses:

Neo-Orthodoxy: Liberalism-- To question revelation by science, thus denying miracles and the reliability of revelation, destroying the faith of many.

Fundamentalism-- To declare that the world is evil, totally under Satan's dominion, so that Christians should not engage in worldly activities (science, law, politics), thus limiting Christianity to evangelism, piety, and doctrine.

Evangelicalism--Reformed Scholasticism-- To enter worldly areas, business, law, science, but live there on rationalist terms by dividing their Christianity according to rationalist dictates, focusing their faith-life on prayer, worship, piety, and evangelism.
To explore these three positions biblically is beyond the scope of this present effort, but I would advance for consideration at this point that all of these positions tend to deny the relevance of the Christian faith to the world, human race, and life which have been created and are held in existence by their Savior in heaven! And into this vacuum has come the power of the adversary bringing the hell on earth that he has worked for since that day in Eden.

Of course we may still worship as we choose, and should be thankful for that precious privilege. But is the trend moving in our direction? Witness the Kings Garden case.13 To carry our faith into any public quarter is now being seen as not serving secular interests, or the public concern.14

Where the leaders have no vision, the people perish. And natural law theory with its rationalism was the Trojan horse that brought the legions of Satan further and further into God's world. The leaders--Grotius, Locke, Rousseau, and in our nation our Presidents, Senators, churchmen--all have failed to see the command of their Creator for their lives and offices, and we as Christians, the salt of the earth, have failed to see and lead for the blessing of ourselves and our posterity. Yet we are commanded to have vision, wisdom, to prophesy (1 Cor. 14).

Thus our task, mandate, from our risen Lord is to be the salt of the earth by seeing the sword of judgment the Lord sends among our fallen fellows; God's judgment on man-created idols; and by relating the gospel to these judgments which show the stark reality of what Scripture means when it says that men are sinners, and that God is not mocked when He is denied.15 We long ago should have seen the heresy of rationalism and been able to warn humanity of its folly in this regard. But even now, with the sweep of culture having rebelled against the mystical qualities of rationalism,16 it is not too late to begin our public work by pointing out the root weaknesses of rationalism and simultaneously the weakness of positivistic and sociological jurisprudence as they seek yet another idol while rejecting the Baal of "sweet rationality." In this manner the gospel of Christ will become pointedly relevant to all lawyers and a witness for Christ be made legally. Men will be called to repentance from their sin as lawyers in denying Christ His place in jurisprudence. And if the idols of rationalism, positivism, and sociological jurisprudence are cast down, men's eyes then can be directed to the true source of justice: God's law.

* This article originally appeared in The Christian Lawyer, vol. IV, no. 4 (Winter 1973). Reprinted with permission. ? 1973, Christian Legal Society, 4208 Evergreen Lane, Suite 222, Annadale, VA 22003; +1 703 642 1070; http://www.clsnet.com/


1. The InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., has published several works clearly outlining modern man's despair in his loss of certainty and purpose in life. Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (1973); H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture (1970); Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (1968).

2. For a general introduction to the roots of natural law theory see A. P. d'Entreves, Natural Law, 2nd ed. (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1970); Roscoe Pound, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law (Yale University Press, 1922), ch. 1, 2; Carl Joachim Friedrich, The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1963), ch. 3, 9; Carl Joachim Friedrich, Transcendent Justice (Duke University Press, 1964), ch. 1.

3. "The Concept of Natural Law," Christian Scholars Review vol. II, no. 3 (1972), 198. Evan H. Runner exposes the same vein of thought in "Scriptural Religion & Political Task," Christian Perspectives (Hamilton, Ontario: Guardian Publishing Co., 1962), 199-200 (referring to 17th century political theories), "... These ideas belong to the modern rationalist movement generally. Their revolutionary character, even already in De jure belli et pacis of Hugo Grotius (1625), is to be seen in the hope he cherishes for an international amity based on a Law of Nature. 'War, violence, disorder, which the law of God does not repress but suffers rather, and even justifies, as being part of an inscrutable design, all ills which man is heir to--perhaps the day will come when some human law will bring about their mitigation, their abolition. Thus'--I am quoting the famous French historian, Paul Hazard--'we are invited, with manifold excuses for such boldness, to pass from the Order of Providence to the Order of Humanity.' Instead of an Order of God, an order of man. Instead of the Law of God, the social contract. Instead of the sovereignty of God, the sovereignty of the people (popular sovereignty, volkssouver-einiteit, majority vote, etc.)"

4. From Sir Ernest Barker, "Introduction," Social Contract (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1970); and Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government, reprinted at p. 4, respectively.

5. Ibid., Second Treatise on Civil Government, 3.

6. F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 243.

7. A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 23-24.

8. Commager's following comment on Puritanism may easily be read upon the secularization of Christianity generally: "Although the theological implications of Puritanism wore off in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of its moral and political implications persisted. Two centuries of reaction could not dissolve the Puritan inheritance of respect for the individual and for the dignity of man, of recognition of the ultimate authority of reason, of allegiance to principles rather to persons, to the doctrine of government by compact and consent, and to spiritual and moral democracy. These things, along with Puritanism's deep-seated moral purpose, its ceaseless search for salvation, its passion for righteousness and for justice, and its subordination of material to spiritual ends, entered into the current of secular thought and retained their vitality long after the theological and metaphysical arguments which sustained them had been forgotten." Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind, 168.

9. Runner, Concept of Natural Law.

10 Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze.

11. Hendrite Hart, Communal Certainty and Authorized Truth--An Examination of John Dewey's Philosophy of Verification (Amerstadam, 1966), 91. Hart Summarizes Dewey's deification of science.

12. Ibid.

13. 34 FCC 2d. 937 (1972).

14. See Editorial, The Christian Lawyer, vol. IV, no. 3, for a suggestion of the dilemma of Christians broadcasting as seen in the public-private, secular-religious fog of humanist ideology.

15. Time Magazine, January 8, 1973, p. 37, quoted Judge Saul A Epton as follows: Something is wrong he now believes, with the entire U.S. judicial system. "We give the longest sentences," he says, "and yet we have the most crime. I don't know the answers. I'm very frustrated."

16. The mysticism or irrationalism of the heart of rationalism is exposed in the writing of Clarence B. Carson, The Flight from Reason (The Foundation of Economic Education, Inc., 1969), where he speaks in almost existential terms: "But the immediate task here is to delineate right reason. Right reason, we gather, is conformable to nature. This is a very helpful clue. Right reason is thought in accord with the nature of the mind. More, right reason is reason with a built-in content. The mind does not operate in a void; it has a conception of the way things are. Modern thought got hung up over the question of how the mind gets this conception. The Platonists have held that it is innate. John Locke broke radically with this view to hold the conception of the way things are come from the senses. Let us admit that we do not know how we know what we know, and rather affirm that we do indeed know what we know. However acquired, then, right reason has content which consists of the conception of the way things are."

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