The natural law is not what you think it is – and you need it.

Evangelicals often don’t make very good public arguments. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the recent debate over gay marriage. Evangelicals are traditionally marked  by their commitment to the authority of Scripture for all of life, and this laudable commitment often leads them to present Scripture as the foundation for all of their social and political positions. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to rely much more on natural law, although they also appeal to Scripture. To see the stark contrast, compare the Roman Catholic statement on abortion with that of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not hard to see which statement is more persuasive, even for Christians.

One of the reasons so many people are skeptical about natural law is because they think of it as an airtight rational system akin to the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas at best, or to the humanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment at worst. In the case of the former, people are skeptical that anything can ever really be proven by the rigorous use of reason and logic without the support of Scripture. In the case of the latter, people note that natural law is often used as a means of escaping God’s will for human beings rather than following it. Now I have no desire to criticize Thomas Aquinas’s view of natural law. I actually find it quite cogent and helpful. But here I am dealing with Evangelical perceptions, not with Thomas’s actual theory.

In contrast to the Thomist and Enlightenment versions, John Calvin’s approach to natural law is often viewed as insignificant and less than helpful. Although Calvin invoked natural law almost constantly, he never developed a theory of natural law. He seemed to treat it more as a set of intuitions based on human experience than as a rational edifice of argument and theory. As a result, many Evangelicals assume that his use of the concept is a medieval holdover rather than an active part of the reformer’s theology.

But natural law did play a major role in Calvin’s theology, and we should not mistake his lack of a theoretical development of the concept with the lack of a substantive view of it. Like most theologians, Calvin grounded his view of natural law in Paul’s statement that the law is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. As such, he believed it played a major role in the civil affairs of all peoples in all places, and he regularly appealed to the laws of pagan nations or pagan philosophers to justify his political or social arguments. He believed that natural law was the true standard of rule for political governments.

What I want to suggest here is that Calvin’s lack of a theoretical development of natural law theory may actually be a strength rather than a weakness. If it is precisely the theoretical and rationalistic nature of many natural law arguments that make most people skeptical of them, a version of natural law that emphasizes human experience, intuition, and consensus should strike us somewhat differently. After all, in the real political debates of our day, are not these the points of common ground on which people often come together? Take abortion for instance. It is one thing to hear someone tell you that God has forbade abortion, or to hear someone offer a philosophical argument against it. It is another thing to watch an ultrasound, see the evidence that a fetus feels pain, or view pictures of tiny aborted babies. Or take marriage. Whose argument is based on theoretical top-down reasoning and whose is based on centuries of human experience? Here too, experience, intuition, and human consensus are bastions of common sense.

The point is not that people will always agree with us. The point, rather, is that in this way they will actually understand us, something that has to happen before they can actually be persuaded. People who are skeptical about appeals to written revelation or philosophical argument will actually listen when we demonstrate to them that the views we are advocating will actually help them – personally, socially, economically, and politically. When we appeal to the lessons of history and to the evidence of the social sciences, they might find that the positions we are defending actually have a basis in reality. They might even find us to be reliable citizens, known to genuinely care about the interests of all.

As we enter an age of increasing pluralism, Christians need to come to grips with the fact that Scripture’s authority is no longer widely accepted. We also need to recognize the dangers of a natural ethic based on humanistic rationalism. But we could surely use more of a paradigm for social and political engagement that urges us to love our neighbors by building common ground with them on the problems that we face together. More often than not, on the issues that really matter, this approach will be productive rather than harmful to our common good. It would certainly help to puncture the myth of liberal elitism that says Evangelicals are trying to mold America into a theocracy.

Paul says in Romans 2 that God’s law is written on the hearts of human beings, and all of history and human experience points to the continuing reality of this common grace. God’s commandments are not arbitrary, abstract and isolated from the requirements of human flourishing. On the contrary, they are grounded in the very order of creation as it works itself out economically, socially, and politically. We need to start acting like we believe this truth by reaching out to our neighbors with the confidence that because we live in the world God has created, God’s will actually does reflect the way in which life is lived most healthily and productively. Showing this to people – even people who do not share our faith – will do a world of good for our common life together.

[Note: the original version of this article has been edited.]


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 16, 2012, in Social Issues, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The natural law is not what you think it is – and you need it..

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