I received the following from an advocate of Natural Law: “Natural Law is simply Biblical Law written on the conscience of every man.” If this is true, then why did God find it necessary to give us revealed law? He goes on to say:
The Reprobate knows that murder, adultery, rape and theft are morally wrong because of God’s Law written in their conscience. The proof for this is Romans Chapter 2. This is why the aforementioned crimes are punished in every civilized culture we know of. Another proof that these acts are wrong would be to look at the sanctions that follow these acts. Cultures which do not punish these acts like some African/Cannibalistic tribes around the world bear the proof of God’s Judgment in their being. These races of savages are usually enslaved and conquered by cultures which practice Natural Law to a larger degree. Look at the Arab conquest and enslavement of Black Africans over the centuries as an example.
First he argues that reprobates know that certain actions, like cannibalism, are wrong. This doesn’t seem to be the case since there were and probably are today cultures that practiced cannibalism. They didn’t believe eating an enemy was wrong. In fact, some cannibals believed that eating an enemy or drinking his blood enhanced one’s essence. What was powerful in the person being eaten was transferred to the person doing the eating. To really confuse things, he argues that cultures that do practice Natural Law also practice slavery. But I thought slavery was wrong. Natural Law tells us it’s wrong. If this is true, then why would those who practice Natural Law enslave people?
A Natural Law theory not tied to biblical law would have done nothing for slaves since there were many Natural Law advocates who believed in slavery because of what they believed Natural Law taught. Enslavement was best for some people. This was Aristotle’s view, and it was followed by a lot of New World explorers. He believed in the reasonableness and “natural order” for the institution of slavery because there are some people who are “slaves by nature,” a phrase found in his Politics. Aristotle’s views, as a champion of reason and Natural Law, were foundational for centuries, as was his distorted views on cosmology:
Of all the ideas churned up during the early tumultuous years of American history, none had a more dramatic application than the attempts made to apply to the natives there the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery: that one part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life of virtue free of manual labour.1
It’s true that the work of God’s law is written on the heart and that every person in the world will be held accountable to that work of the law “their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom. 2:15). But it’s another thing to say that the replica of revealed law in its many details is written on the heart and that it can be accessed like pages in a book.
I asked the above Natural Law advocate the following: “Using only Natural Law, show me objectively and empirically that murder, adultery, rape, and theft are morally wrong.” He couldn’t. He needed biblical law to construct his Christian version of Natural Law. It’s not that sin has destroyed every vestige of the image of God in us. The conscience still operates, but this is a far cry from the comprehensive nature of God’s revealed law that God gave Israel as a light to the nations (Deut. 4:1–2, 5–8). If Natural Law is satisfactory, then why bother with giving Israel “statutes and judgments”? Douglas Wilson makes an important distinction:
Daniel in Babylon and Paul in Rome both show that believers can function in a society guided by natural revelation; this shows the legitimate authority of such realms is not thereby set aside. The authorities that exist are established by God whether or not they know His proper name. The question is not whether this can happen, but whether Christians should be content with it. The civil realm can be sub-Christian and remain a true civil realm. But should Christians work to keep it sub-Christian? Certainly the Bible does not require this of us. And if we base our civil involvement on natural revelation only, where does natural revelation teach or require pluralism?
Henry Van Til wrote that “Man does not need special revelation for acquiring the arts of agriculture or of war, the techniques of science and art; these things are learned from nature through the inspiration of the Spirit.”2 No one is disputing the use of general revelation in this way. But even this type of investigation has numerous ethical implications. For example, knowledge of what works in the field of medicine still leaves doctors and legislators with, for example, decisions that relate to abortion and euthanasia. An abortionist can be an expert in the way he performs an abortion. He has honed this “skill” through scientific study of the created order (general revelation). But is it right and just to use this knowledge in the destruction of preborn babies? That’s the question. Do such ethical principles exist solely by a study of nature?
The late Dr. Jack Kevorkian (1928–2011) designed a “suicide machine” that is efficient, effective, and painless, three criteria to consider in the practice of modern medicine.3 But is it right and just? Procedures that were designed as part of the healing craft are now being used to destroy life. There is no doubt that abortionists and the new suicide “doctors” are skilled practitioners of their respective crafts. So were some of Hitler’s doctors. In the Foreword to By Trust Betrayed, former Sen. Bob Dole writes:
Perhaps the ugliest aspects of Aktion-4 [a systematic program of killing people with disabilities] were its moral pretensions, its disregard for the intrinsic worth of people with disabilities, and the essential complicity of physicians and lawyers. The killings were justified by phrases like “final medical assistance” and beliefs about “natural selection,” but it was nothing but murder of some of the most vulnerable.4
The study of general revelation might lead some medical practitioners to conclude that since animals often abandon and kill their young, therefore human beings are little different if they do the same. A more highly evolved species like man can do it more efficiently. The great Hollywood moralist of our day, Scarlett Johansson had some thoughts to share on the subject. Here’s how Nancy Pearcey describes it:
What are the implications of seeing humans as “just another primate”? Even Hollywood actresses know the answer to that question. In an interview, Scarlett Johansson was once asked to respond to rumors that she had a reputation for being sexually promiscuous. Her reply was unfiltered naturalism: “Humans are merely biological organisms therefore the practice of monogamy – being sexually faithful to one person – is just not natural. “I do think on some basic level, we are animals,” Johansson said, “and by instinct we kind of breed accordingly.” (Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010), 145.)),
The modern-day evolutionary hypothesis rests on a study of the created order. Modern scientists have made a thorough study of the created order and have concluded that man has evolved from some type of primordial chaos. Such a view conflicts with the Bible’s clear statement that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Such a conclusion has numerous ethical implications that if carried out consistently can have disastrous results as the mass killings in Norway demonstrate.5
It is this independent study of what we call “general revelation” that leads to anti-Christian conclusions. The Christian views general revelation “through the medium of a heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit. . . . The Christian looks at all that he receives through general revelation, in the light of the Scripture. It is only through the Scripture that he can see the true relationship between God and creation, and that he can see in creation its unity and purpose.” On the other hand, “the knowledge which the natural man receives from general revelation comes to him through the subjective medium of an unregenerated, depraved heart.”6 General revelation without the guidance of special revelation has no reference point.
A classic example of the claim that knowledge of God and His will is gained from general revelation is found in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s National Socialist propagandists appealed to the revelation of God in reason, conscience, and the orders of Creation as justification for the Nazi state theology or cultural religion. Biblical revelation in Old and New Testaments was regarded by the Third Reich as a ‘Jewish swindle” and thus was set aside in favor of the Nazi natural theology. The Gottingen theologians Friedrich Gogarten and Emanuel Hirsch, by postulating the primacy of conscience and the flow of history as the chief modalities of revelation, provided theoretical justification for the Nazi ideology, which later wreaked havoc in Europe and beyond. A majority within the state church (known as the “German Christians”) unwittingly or otherwise embraced the new national religion, founded not on the Word of God but on the divine will allegedly embedded in the natural order. Emerging from this fatal exchange came a semi-Christian natural religion (some would say a new paganism) in which the church became a servile instrument of Nazi policy.7
The debate is not over how much one side depreciates the use of general revelation. Rather, the issue is over what ethical standard will be used to evaluate the conclusions formulated from a study of general revelation and Natural Law. Natural Law takes on a life of its own as a nation steadily depreciates God’s specially revealed Word as the norm for all issues relating to faith (redemption) and practice (ethics). This situation results in using contemporary ideologies to build an interpretive framework so that general revelation can become specific. This means that Natural Law will be interpreted in different ways depending on what ideology is in vogue. A prevailing atheistic regime will interpret Natural Law one way, while a New Age humanist will put another slant on it. In each case, the church’s prophetic ministry is depreciated.
- Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 12–13. [↩]
- Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 162. [↩]
- Jack Kevorkian, Prescription: Medicine: The Goodness of Planned Death (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991). [↩]
- Bob Dole, “Foreword,” in Hugh Gregory Gallagher, By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich (Arlington, VA: Vanadmere Press, 1995), ix. [↩]
- Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990). [↩]
- William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 71. [↩]
- Bruce A. Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie, 1982), 15. [↩]