Friday, August 11, 2017

Natural Law and the Public Square

If by “natural law” we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further.

 

Being fully committed to the Protestant Reformed tradition–especially as it is represented at Westminster Theological Seminary–I have developed a basic understanding of natural law theories over the years. If by “natural law” we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further. This account claims that all people can not only apprehend certain moral truths by unaided reason – apart from biblical revelation – but that people can, in principle, espouse and properly act upon those truths, again, apart from saving grace. It’s this feature of NL theory–perhaps the critical feature, it seems to me–that allegedly opens up “common ground” for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all) on issues pertaining to the “common good.”

Now, I have learned to leave the majority of negative assessments to my colleague and resident pessimist, Carl Trueman. But I must say that, from a Reformed perspective, this additional claim by many Natural Law theorists runs into a number of obstacles. I wish to briefly mention two.

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view–that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God’s special revelation–is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be “carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation” (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers “suppress the truth” that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, “hostile to God” (Rom 8:7); that they have become “futile in their thinking” (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).

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