God the Benevolent Scientist

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A tweet from R. Scott Clark yesterday prompted me to re-post something from about 5 years ago. I also updated it with new comments at the end. One might be tempted to think Clark was trying to be funny. He was not. He really thinks that the “law” of gravity is part of #NaturalLaw. This is the heart of #ConfusedNL2K.

Nature is objective (i.e., outside) to all of us, it is received by us, and we must order our lives according to it or face the consequences. It’s easy to establish that there is such a thing as nature. Climb a tall structure and jump. What will happen? We can predict because there is a creational institution (or law): gravity. That law, though perhaps superseded or modified by Einstein’s theory, still describes our universal sense experience. It is neither fair or unfair, just or unjust. It simply is. It cannot be defied without consequences. The same is true with sexual behavior. There are natural laws that govern sexual behavior that cannot be defied without consequences. We know by nature that pederasty, pedophilia, and bestiality are all contrary to nature. It is only quite recently that some have begun to argue that homosexual behavior is natural but the claim defies universal sense experience.

Pro-homosexual marriage advocates ignore the reality of the natural order for the purpose of justifying or gaining legal protection for homosexual behavior. Yet it is obvious that the very act of homosexuality is contrary to the natural order…

Pederasty and bestiality and murder happen but that does not make them natural acts in the same sense in which gravity is a natural phenomenon. Homosexual behavior is so obviously contrary to nature that it’s one of the behaviors to which the Apostle Paul appealed in his exposition of natural or creational law. He knew that pagans, Jews, and Christians could all see that homosexual behavior is manifestly contrary to the natural order:…

Paul was not appealing to Moses nor to the theocratic legislation issued under Moses (613 commandments) but to nature. His citation of homosexual behavior only works because it is universal sense experience that homosexual behavior is contrary to the intended, natural order of things…

No human instituted gravity. Speed limits do not apply only to one race or another. They apply to all equally. Theft is a crime for everyone. Most people still recognize such basic, creational universals. We should begin with them and work back to marriage.

Why Equality is the Wrong Category By Which to Analyze Homosexual Marriage

No, we should not begin with our “universal sense experience” and work back to marriage. We should start with the final authoritative revelation of God in Scripture and apply it to all of life. “Natural law theory is, in the final analysis, a form of idolatry. What has nature to do with law? Nothing. Law is God commanding.” (John W. Robbins Some Problems with Natural Law)


Natural Law Two Kingdoms has never, ever made sense to me.  In very short summary, the position of Two Kingdom advocates (spearheaded by David VanDrunen) is that there is no such thing as a Christian worldview.  They are emphatic that the Bible is only supposed to be used in the church and that it must not be used in issues of civil government, work, or even family.

The most absurd part is that they argue everything that is not governed by the Bible, which is everything except church, is to be governed my natural law.  It does not matter if you point out to them that natural law is simply the law of God written on the hearts of all men, the same law that has been clarified for us in the Bible.

When I attempted to point this out to a Two Kingdoms advocate recently at Darryl Hart’s blog, they insisted that natural law provides us with all kinds of information necessary to live life.  Because this person was a plumber, his example was plumbing:

Anyway, Christian plumbing is my turf here, your talking to a 4th generation plumber (I worked on the business end mostly though). I would argue that observation and natural revelation and all true domains of human knowledge are inextricably linked. General revelation functions to point to a Creator who sets up a functional cosmos; it also informs us on how the cosmos functions. All cosmic functions necessarily operate within the laws of nature whether they are moral or amoral. Plumbing is entirely dependent on natural revelation/natural law even though it is amoral. Let me explain…

There are many laws of nature that have to me navigated in even the most simple plumbing process such as soldering copper pipe which has taken mankind a few thousand years to master. It takes a understanding of the metallurgical properties of copper that make it desirable as a potable water delivery system: copper is malleable and resistant to corrosion and relatively abundant and easy to extract (which makes it inexpensive in relation to other non corrosive metals). Soldering itself requires an understanding of welding, which in this case requires the binding of two different metals to form a seal sufficiently tight so as to be impenetrable by water molecules, which again is governed by fundamental laws of chemistry. I could go on to explain how hydro-mechanical principles govern waterflow, but I won’t bore you with more details. I am sure though that nearly every vocational discipline, including the justice system interact so much with natural law that it would be staggering to draw out the processes in entirety.

When I pointed out that the “law” of gravity is something completely different than the law of God, and advised not to confuse the two, I received the following reply:

We must be using different dictionaries. I am really not sure how you can maintain that functionally physical laws and moral laws operate on different planes. They can be violated, but there are consequences. Yes, I do agree that natural law includes the moral code written on the human heart, but that is simply because these exist in a larger cosmic system where God created a good universe that worked just as he designed it to. It is precisely because of this that governments operate off of general revelation even if imperfectly and/or unknowingly. Why else would we have similarities in Hammurabi and Moses, Roman law and American law. Discontinuities are a given, but the commonality of law, and prevasively political nature of human history even in the absence of special revelation testifies to the sufficiency of natural law in the political arena.

I’m not making this stuff up. I suggested we go ahead and look at the dictionary, naively thinking it would help clarify things with this man:

law: 1a: a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe
synonyms law, rule, regulation, precept, statute, ordinance, canon mean a principle governing action or procedure. law implies imposition by a sovereign authority and the obligation of obedience on the part of all subject to that authority

Precept: 1 : a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action
2 : an order issued by legally constituted authority to a subordinate official

That is what law means when we talk about the law of God and natural law. Way down in definition 6 is a different definition for things like the “law” of gravity:

6 a : a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions
synonyms: see in addition hypothesis

God’s law is not God’s law because God saw what would naturally occur if we committed adultery and he wanted to protect us from those natural consequences. It is God’s law because it is a reflection of his moral character that He sovereignly imposed on those bearing His image as a rule for what ought and ought not to be done.

Are you suggesting that the “law” of gravity is just a statement of what ought to be done? Are you suggesting that we should all obey the law of gravity, meaning we should not violate it by floating around? I didn’t think so.

And to conclude the issue beyond dispute, I call upon the internet:

The term “natural law” is ambiguous. It refers to a type of moral theory, as well as to a type of legal theory, but the core claims of the two kinds of theory are logically independent. It does not refer to the laws of nature, the laws that science aims to describe.
Natural Law: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In sum:
one definition is prescriptive, the other is descriptive.

The response?

The prescriptive nature of moral law is something that I believe flows from the descriptive nature of natural law…

…The prescriptive command: “Don’t jump off of a cliff” presupposes (the is) gravity. Assuming a person values his life, the moral implication of the isness of gravity is that one ought not act out in a way where gravity becomes a life-threatening reality. I would argue that the Decalogue extrapolates its prescriptions from the ises of God’s character and from the world he creates.

How else can the psalmist claim that the heavens tell of the glory of God if there is no revelatory value in nature itself that cannot be extracted from even cursory observation?

So the Decalogue is really just a hypothesis about nature. Maybe God should have submitted it to a peer review journal? (See related: Karl Popper and the Emperor’s Clothes, and The Threat to the Scientific Method that Explains the Spate of Fraudulent Science Publications.)

As John Robbins notes, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

Hume’s Gap, that gulf between observational data and ethical commands, has never been bridged by philosophers. This is simply because there are two distinct logical categories of statements involved: declarations and commands. One cannot deduce commands from mere declarations, because, among other things, declarations have truth-value, and commands do not. Commands can be neither true nor false; only propositions can be. So the natural law theorists are beset not only by ethical difficulties, in that man is depraved and nature cursed, but also by an insurmountable logical difficulty, which I call Hume’s Gap. One can only conclude that natural law theories are ignorance on stilts, and that all the weighty tomes written on the subject should be consigned to the dustbin of philosophy – except, of course, that they are useful as syllabi of errors…

Is it not obvious that only Christianity can furnish a valid ethical system precisely because it does not purport to derive law from reason or experience? David Hume, himself a naturalist, has laid an axe to the root of all efforts to devise a valid system of ethics from human experience. Is it not evident that we must go out of – or rather, Someone must break into – our world in order to give us law? Only propositional revelation – only commands from the Lawgiver – can provide us with the needed ethical guidance. Gordon Clark has formulated the Christian ethical principle in four words: “God’s precepts define morality.” Jerome Zanchius wrote that God “did not therefore will such things because they were in themselves right and he was bound to will them; but they are therefore equitable and right because he wills them.”[18]

John W. Robbins. Freedom and Capitalism (Kindle Locations 782-788). The Trinity Foundation.


What is very interesting is to see how David VanDrunen applies this faulty foundation of “universal sense perception” to his work. Using Wikipedia for brevity, natural law is “a system of law that is determined by nature, and so is universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature — both social and personal — and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it.”

VanDrunen sees his work as well within that tradition.

The present volume draws from the reservoirs of Western Christian reflection on natural law, yet offers a constructive theory of natural law that is distinctive in certain respects, in terms of its approach to the subject and its substantive conclusions… I pursue this task in a historically unusual way, through a biblical-theological approach that draws upon important Reformed theological themes, especially the doctrine of the biblical covenants. I exegete numerous texts from all over Scripture in close interaction with contemporary biblical scholarship, and I seek to integrate my conclusions from these texts into a larger theological framework that explains the character and role of natural law in the unfolding drama of God’s dealings with this world from creation to consummation…

This book offers a Reformed biblical theology of natural law. It is genuinely an account of natural law, in organic continuity with broader Christian natural law traditions, including the famous medieval formulation of Thomas Aquinas. Yet it is also a Reformed biblical theology of natural law, since I believe, in the spirit of the Reformation, that Christian doctrine and ethics must be reformed according to the word of God. Thus I develop this account primarily through the exegesis of Scripture, as hermeneutically guided by classic Reformed covenant theology. By grounding natural law in God’s covenants with all creation, this theology of natural law rejects the idea of human autonomy but instead interprets natural law in terms of humanity’s relationship to God and accountability before him… (Divine Covenants and Moral Order, 1-3)

When critics argue that VanDrunen’s promotion of natural law sets Scripture aside, VanDrunen responds, per above, that he is not ignoring Scripture – that he is in fact reforming natural law theory according to Scripture. At which point his critics scratch their heads. Natural law has already been reformed according to Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith states

19.1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

19.2. This law, after his Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.

The reformed tradition teaches that special revelation clarifies what has been obscured in nature because of the fall. So why does VanDrunen feel the need to write 1,000+ pages spanning 5 volumes when he could simply point to WCF 19.1-2? In his effort to define natural law according to Scripture, why doesn’t he go to Exodus 20? Because he is not operating from a reformed, biblical definition of natural law (God’s precepts). His definition is:

natural law consists in the obligations and consequences incumbent upon and known by human beings as image-bearersof God and participants in the protological moral order. As this definition hints, I affirm that natural law is law, since it communicates binding obligations and consequences from an authority (God) outside of human persons themselves. But this is not law in the contemporary positivistic sense of a collection of discrete rules. Rather, I treat natural law as in the sense of being a normative moral order communicated through nature, though this moral order can be helpfully summarized through general rules (such as “have dominion” and “be fruitful and multiply,” or the principles of the Decalogue). This does not mean that the natural moral order is itself a complete ethical system, for it requires individuals and societies to put it into concrete application through their divinely bestowed creative freedom, and this can happen potentially in many different cultural forms. But the natural moral order itself is divine revelation, and precedes special revelation insofar as God always delivers the latter to human beings whom he created as participants in the natural order and designed by nature to respond to God in certain ways… (15)

As already mentioned, this biblical theology of natural law is organically connected to historic Christian natural law traditions. In the remainder of the chapter I explain this claim in more detail. To summarize, I believe that my project, in many significant ways, stands in continuity with the perennially important natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas, but also is biblically reformed in other important respects… (22)

Thomas understood the natural law more in terms of a moral order than a series of discrete rules. Natural law, for Thomas, is encapsulated in one rule – pursue good and shun evil – but this is so general that it is of little concrete usefulness. More specific rules (such as those of the Decalogue) can also be understood through practical reason, but even these do not capture the natural law comprehensively, for natural law pertains to all things to which human beings are inclined by nature. Though again I develop these matters differently, the idea of natural law in terms of moral order rather than discrete rules is also important to the theology of natural law for which I argue in subsequent chapters. (25)

Rather than general revelation being propositions revealed by God innately in man, which include the propositions of God’s moral law (and his attributes), VanDrunen instead believes that natural law is a vague, general concept in nature that men apply “practical reason” to in order to arrive at specific precepts. Of course, men also apply “practical reason” to nature to arrive at “laws of nature” like gravity and plumbing: hence the confusion and R. Scott Clark’s insistence that we start with nature and argue to marriage.

How then does VanDrunen apply this vague concept of natural law? He follows the natural law theory tradition of relying upon observation, but rather than observing the history of human tradition, he “observes” the biblical narrative (story) and tries to deduce “specific rules” from his observation of biblical history. And this is a “reformed” theory of natural law because he is observing Scripture!

Even when the contemporary literature properly identifies biblical texts that pertain to natural law, it too often exhibits what Francis Watson calls the “tendency to interpret scriptural texts relating to creation in isolation from their canonical contexts.” Though Christianity is a historical religion, grounded in temporal divine acts of judgment and salvation, many Christian writers have conceived of natural law as an ahistorical ontological reality that communicates timeless moral truth. It is not obvious how one might weave natural law into the fabric of the historical biblical narrative.

A few examples illustrate these observations. Boyd, through his quest to develop a “narrative” defense of natural law, admirably seeks to get away from the tendency to treat natural law as an abstract and ahistorical ontological reality. Yet the narratives he tells are the story of the evolutionary development of human nature and the history of interpretation of natural law. Whatever the relevance of such narratives, a crucial narrative missing is the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation… (6)

My basic argument in this book is that God promulgates the natural law in covenant relationships with human beings, who are rulers of the created world under him. He did so originally in a covenant of creation, with Adam as divine image-bearer and representative of the human race, in which natural law made known both humanity’s basic moral obligations and humanity’s eschatological destiny of new creation upon performance of the obligations. After the fall into sin, God continues to promulgate natural law, though in refracted form through the covenant with Noah, by which he preserves the first creation while postponing its final judgment… (14)

This natural law is organically continuous with the natural law of the original creation, but refracted in modified form through the Noahic covenant. Accordingly, the substance of natural law in the fallen world reflects this covenant’s preservative purposes. Genesis 9:1-7 explicitly highlights only a few natural obligations of fallen image-bearers, and they concern the most basic requirements for the continuation of human society: procreation, eating (plants and animals, but not meat with its blood in it), and enforcement of retributive justice. I have referred to this as the minimalist natural law ethic, about which God has special concern to have observed in his ongoing government of the world. But even Genesis 9:1-7, especially when read in context, suggests that the natural law also continues to be a broader moral order, which points beyond the minimalist ethic to a richer way of life that promotes a modest human flourishing in the fallen world, and which also reminds human beings of their ultimate accountability before God and his judgment. One important way in which natural law is modified after the fall is that it requires the administration of retributive justice to be tempered with forbearance (though not forgiveness), in order to reflect the revelation of God’s own justice and forbearance in the Noahic covenant.

The rest of Scripture subsequent to Genesis 9 offers many occasions to test and enrich these initial conclusions about natural law as sustained under the Noahic covenant, and thus as it concerns the human race as a whole – human beings as fallen human beings. In general, many biblical texts show that human persons, even apart from special prophetic revelation, have a knowledge of their basic moral obligations and that God has particular concern about violations of the minimalist ethic explicit in Genesis 9:1-7. The story of Abraham and Abimelech in Gerar (Genesis 20) illustrates the positive effects of natural law in broader human society, for here people who were strangers to God’s special covenant with Abraham display an impressive interest in justice and the integrity of marriage, and even the fear of God. Negatively, texts describing the temporal judgments God brings upon particular human communities, in anticipation of the final judgment, illustrate sinful humanity’s rebellion against the natural law. God never judges these nations for violations of the Torah, God’s special law for Israel, or for their idolatry or other matters of religious devotion, but for egregious violations of intrahuman justice, committed with a hubristic spirit. This is consistent with the expectations created by the Noahic covenant. (482-3)

I think this helps account for how much confusion there has been in the discussion over VanDrunen’s advocacy of natural law two kingdoms.

In this book I have developed a biblical theology of natural law. That being the case, I have not explored in detail certain questions traditionally important to natural law theory, for the simple reason that I judge (correctly or incorrectly) that Scripture itself does not provide detailed answers to these questions. For example, I have offered only general suggestions about significant questions regarding how exactly God objectively communicates his law through “the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20) and how exactly human beings subjectively perceive this natural revelation. Scripture affirms the reality of these things but does not provide any detailed natural law epistemology.



How did Calvin compare to Aquinas on natural law?

Calvin believed in and taught natural revelation and the lex naturalis. Because however, he was, unlike Barth, a pre-Enlightenment theologian, and because he believed that peccatum originale devastated human moral and epistemic abilities, he limited the role and effect of natural law. Like Thomas he was influenced by the classics, but unlike Aquinas, he defined natural law very precisely by identifying it with the decalogue or moral law…

There was genuine continuity between Calvin and Thomas in that they shared with Abelard and virtually all Western theologians a belief in an innate or implanted awareness of the divine law. The discontinuity between Calvin and Thomas lay in their varying estimates of our ability to capitalize on this natural awareness and on the exact content of this law…

Turning to Calvin’s epistemology and definition of natural law it will become evident that the most notable difference between Thomas and Calvin is that the latter defined natural law primarily in terms of the Decalogue and Thomas did not…

Calvin’s pessimism about man’s unaided ability to perceive the truth or know God controlled his use of natural law… [T]hey need the spectacles of Scripture and Spirit to correct their perception… One must bear in mind always Calvin’s rigorous application of his doctrine of the fall when assessing his definition of natural law…

Natural law was promulgated by God at creation and implanted in the human consciousness

In the Institutes, he equated explicitly natural law to the Decalogue. At the beginning of his exposition he said “that interior law” (lex illa interior) “which we have described as written, even engraved upon the hearts of all, in a sense asserts the very same things that are to be learned from the Two Tables.” In book four, discussing civil polity, Calvin made the same point.

It is a fact that the Law of God which we call the moral law is nothing less than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has inscribed upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are not speaking has been prescribed in it.

Far from being a conduit of the Classical or Thomistic view of the lex naturalis Calvin made a very sophisticated revision of the concept of natural law by removing it from the Stoic and Thomistic corpus of “self-evident” truths and identifying it with the content of the Law revealed in the Garden and at Sinai and in the Sermon on the Mount

The “scholastic” view was really Calvin’s. It was also the view of the confessional age theologians and it was grounded in their view of the covenant, which they learned, in substance, from Calvin…

Calvin did not follow Thomas’ doctrine of natural law, though he did make significant use of natural law.

R. Scott Clark, “Calvin and the Lex Naturalis,” Stulos Theological Journal 6 (1998): 1–22.

(Re-read the author of those quotes if you want to get thrown for a loop.)

Now recall VanDrunen:

I believe that my project, in many significant ways, stands in continuity with the perennially important natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas… natural law pertains to all things to which human beings are inclined by nature. Though again I develop these matters differently, the idea of natural law in terms of moral order rather than discrete rules is also important to the theology of natural law for which I argue in subsequent chapters.

VanDrunen’s multi-volume excursion into natural law is a rejection of reformed theology’s “very sophisticated revision of the concept of natural law.”

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