This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Natural Law and Scriptural Authority”, running in the Michaelmas Term 2023 (September 25th to December 9th), and convened by Dr. Bradford Littlejohn.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
How should we then live? So Francis Schaeffer famously asked in his 1973 book and subsequent video series. The question has certainly had renewed urgency over the past two years, as Christians around the world have confronted the for-us-unprecedented (although not so much for our ancestors) moral and political challenges of navigating a global pandemic, and accompanying public health measures. How should we love our neighbors? By mask-wearing and vaccinating? By moving worship services and schools online or carrying on as normal? And by what standard should we evaluate the many answers proffered by TV personalities and public authorities?
For many Christians, the answer is quick and easy: “By Scripture, of course.” But a few minutes’ reflection will be enough to leave us scratching our heads in puzzlement. For Scripture, clearly, has very little to say on the subject of public health emergencies, and only the most general principles about how we should conduct ourselves in the face of such complex moral and legal demands. The same, we may soon realize, goes for hundreds of moral and political—and indeed ecclesiastical—decisions that we are called upon to make in the course of carrying out our vocations. If we assume that Scripture has all the answers, we are quickly bound to be disappointed. And if we say, sensibly enough, that we need to “apply Scriptural principles” to particular cases, this simply raises the question of how we identify and apply such principles? How do we engage in moral reasoning?
The answer, for generation after generation of Christian theologians and ethicists, was “natural law.” But the idea of natural law fell on hard times among twentieth-century Protestants, under pressure from Barth, fundamentalism, and modernism. It’s high time we recover it if we’re to navigate the profound moral challenges of our day with integrity.
From one standpoint, the idea that there is such a thing as natural law should be pretty uncontroversial. Everything in nature was created by God, who determined what it was and how it was meant to act. Just as a human inventor can tell you how a tool is meant to work, how to keep it in good working order, and how it’s liable to break if you don’t, so God, being a God of order rather than chaos, impressed upon all of his creatures the way they were meant to work. This is what we still often call “the law of nature” or “the laws of nature.” But man too is a creature, and as such is also subject to the law of his nature, which determines how we are meant to act and how we shouldn’t, what kinds of behaviors will achieve good results and which ones will end in brokenness. At the intersection of human nature and the natures of the rest of the world, we find natural law, the moral principles that distinguish wise and successful living from foolish and disastrous actions: sow and reap in preparation for winter, eat and drink in moderation, marry and remain faithful, honor the aged.
Still, many Christians are liable to ask: “Even if there is such a thing as natural law, how can we know it reliably? Doesn’t sin blind the eyes of fallen man?” We might think so at first glance, but on second glance, it should be apparent that fallen man may be blind when it comes to the truth of the gospel, but simply nearsighted when it comes to matters of everyday folly and wisdom. Scripture itself is full of stories of unbelieving men and wisdom showing keen judgment and moral discernment, and in Romans 2, Paul declares categorically: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:14-15). Natural law, then, represents an important point of common ground between believers and unbelievers, enabling us to learn from them and to deliberate together about how to act rightly in our shared lives in society.
Indeed, for many in recent years, the chief attraction of natural law has been its promise of offering political common ground for Christians in a pluralistic and increasingly unbelieving society. If we can’t persuade people of the errors of abortion or same-sex marriage by appealing directly to Scripture, perhaps we can forge alliances by arguing from natural-law reasoning instead. This is certainly a valid approach, and yet it seems apparent that our society is in at least as fierce a rebellion against nature as against Scripture, so if the only point of using natural law is to convince unbelievers to agree with us, it might not seem much use. Natural law, however, is just as important—or perhaps even more important—within the Christian life itself. Christians seeking to live in accord with God’s will aren’t always satisfied with doing something “just because God said so.” Natural law provides the larger framework for understanding the moral teaching of Scripture, showing how God’s commands for the Christian life are not arbitrary rules, but guide us toward our proper flourishing as human creatures. Natural law also helps us to interpret and apply Scripture’s teachings, enabling us to distinguish between those that still bind us (e.g., “Thou shalt not commit adultery”), and those that may not (regulations of diet and dress). Finally, natural law provides us the means to reason about how to conduct ourselves in matters on which Scripture remains stubbornly silent (e.g., vaccines).
Many Christians may still worry, however, “Doesn’t this represent a lack of trust in Scripture? Why are we trying to diminish the scope of Scriptural authority?” Indeed, liberalism’s centuries-long assault on the authority of Scripture has made many Protestants determined to resist any teaching that seems to diminish the scope of Scripture. However, as Richard Hooker wrote more than four centuries ago, “just as exaggerated praises given to men often turn out to diminish and damage their well-deserved reputations, so we must likewise beware lest, in attributing too much to Scripture, such unbelievable claims cause even those virtues which Scripture truly possesses to be less reverently esteemed.” If we pretend that Scripture answers questions that it never pretends to, we actually undermine its authority. Moreover, we put our churches in a dangerous and divisive position when we insist that we’re “Just following the Bible” when in fact we’re relying on other sources of reasoning. Better to frankly admit the natural law principles we’re really using, and have an open debate about them.
Natural law, then, remains as indispensable for Christians today as it was for the many centuries in which it held a central role in Christian ethics. As Protestants, however, we cannot retrieve natural law without allowing Scripture to remain the final authoritative norm of our teaching. How then do these two sources of knowledge—nature and Scripture—relate? How do biblical laws, natural laws, and human laws intersect? How do we balance the seemingly ordinary demands of natural law with the seemingly extraordinary demands that Christ makes on his disciples? If you find yourself wrestling with questions such as these, you’re in good company. I’ve been wrestling with them for the past fifteen years; indeed, you might say that this wrestling was behind the decision to found the Davenant Institute eight years ago. So I invite you to join us this fall for our Davenant Hall deep dive into “Natural Law and Scriptural Authority,” beginning September 25th. Sign up today!
Dr. Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the Founder and President of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute-Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife, Rachel, and four children. Follow him on Twitter at @WBLITTLEJOHN.