Monday, July 4, 2011

The Superiority of Biblical Civil Law to Natural Law

Due to sinful man's difficulty in discerning
natural law, when natural law is chosen over
biblical civil law, we are ultimately left to the
tyrannical whim of the philosopher kings who
will "discern" natural law for us.

by Steve C. Halbrook

(excerpt based on Appendix C of God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws

Many Christians reject a form of civil government based on God’s written, special revelation for a form of civil government based solely on natural law, i.e., God’s revelation in conscience and nature.  However, besides the fact that the state is required to follow the civil laws as revealed in Scripture, when it comes to discerning God’s will, natural law is at best second best to special revelation. 

On the superiority of written to unwritten revelation, William Blackstone, author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, writes, “The revealed law is of infinitely more authority than what we generally call the natural law.  Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law.”[1]

Gary DeMar, moreover, asks, “Should those who rule trust the fallen ‘light of reason’ or the Word of God that ‘is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path’? (Ps. 119:105).”[2]  DeMar explains biblical law’s superiority to “principles of reason”:

First, the Bible has them all written in one place.  The “laws of nature” must be hunted down by finite, fallible, and fallen creatures.  While it is true that these same finite, fallible, and fallen creatures must interpret the Bible, at least the hunting process is taken care of.  The laws are there for all to see.  Second, the “principles of reason” are not specific enough.  The Bible is a detailed ethical blueprint.[3]

The Apostle Paul notes that the knowledge of sin comes through the written law (Rom. 7:7).  With this being the case, could we not say that because of the written law’s clarity there comes a better understanding of how to govern, of the proper size of the state, of what sins the state can criminalize, and of what penal sanctions are just, etc?  Indeed, we can.  This is implied in Leviticus 18, where God warned the Israelites not to engage in the sins that caused other nations to be vomited out of the land.  These nations had natural law; but God gave His chosen nation Israel written law. 

If natural law is clearer, then why did God bother giving His chosen nation written law—which included a civil code—instead?  And, if natural law is superior, why only after discovering the Book of the Law in the temple, did King Josiah realize his people’s national sins, and work for social reform (2 Ki. 22, 23)?  Indeed, so important was written law that is was absolutely necessary for Israel’s kings to daily immerse themselves in it in order to fear God, keep God’s commandments, and avoid arrogance and injustice:

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel (Deut. 17:18-20).

Notice it doesn’t say rulers must meditate on natural law in order to fear God, keep God’s commandments, and avoid the arrogance and injustice that comes from one’s heart being lifted up above one’s people.  Natural law alone is insufficient for godly rule.  Moreover, as Moses told the Israelites:

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:5-8).

As the passage demonstrates, man benefits more from God’s written law than natural law.  Israel’s moral laws—including its civil code— are the model laws for all other nations to follow (“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples).  Israel’s laws were superior to the laws of the surrounding nations that only had natural law (“what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”). 

Regarding the preference for natural over written law in civil government, Greg Bahnsen writes:

This either amounts to preferring a sin-obscured edition of the same law of God or to denying the unity of natural and special revelation (and being willing to pit the one against the other).  Not only this, but in fact natural revelation is suppressed in unrighteousness by the sinner, and this should dissuade us from thinking that it can be the recognized, functional measure of his [the civil magistrate’s] ethical obligation.[4]

Indeed, if one were to suggest an antithesis between even some of natural and special revelation, he would have to find a biblical example.  Where does the Bible say or imply that one can find in natural revelation a contrary law to special revelation?  In fact, Romans 1 and 2—which treats natural revelation extensively—does not raise any laws contrary to those revealed in special revelation (see, for example, Rom. 1:26-32).

King Josiah tearing his clothes after learning of his people's
national sins. For Josiah, written law was superior to natural
law, for it was written law that convicted him of these sins.

William O. Einwechter points out that even prior to the Fall, man could not properly follow God without special revelation (Gen. 1:28-29; 2:16-17).  Natural revelation was an insufficient guide even when man was sinless and the creation was not under the curse.[5] 

If sinless man needed the Word of God and could not be guided solely by natural law, how much more must fallen man stand in need of the Word of God to teach him the knowledge of good and evil.  If natural law was insufficient before the fall, it is doubly inadequate now because man’s ability to discern natural law has been greatly affected by the fall.  First of all, the creation itself is now under the curse of sin (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:19-22).  Therefore, although creation still does witness of God’s glory and power (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20), it can no longer serve as an infallible revelation of ethical standards.  Secondly, man is now a sinful and rebellious creature who seeks to suppress the truth of natural law in his unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).  It is certainly true that “the work of the law” has been “written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15), but man’s defiled conscience is absolutely not a trustworthy guide for discerning what is just, good, and right (Prov. 16:25; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15; Heb. 9:14; 10:22).  Can we trust the conscience of fallen man whose “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9) to be the final judge of what is good and evil?[6]

Indeed, while God’s natural law is not flawed, the hearts of men are:  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7).  What natural, unconverted man does know of God, he suppresses (Rom. 1:18); he is unable to understand “the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). 

In short, man in his sinfulness exchanges natural law (Rom. 1:19-20) for unnatural lawlessness (Rom. 1:21-32).  And because the regenerate man still sins, he, too, often thinks like the natural man.  Moreover, and this is very significant, regenerate Christians themselves vary in what their consciences tolerate.  There are those with weaker consciences who cannot tolerate what those with stronger consciences can (1 Cor. 8:7-12, Rom. 14:2, 13, 14).

Thus when one takes the Bible out of the equation and defers only to natural law, he often can’t tell when biblical law ends and humanistic law begins. The most seemingly right laws in man’s eyes might be tyranny according to God’s law, for Every way of a man is right in his own eyes …” (Prov. 21:2a). As such, rulers interested in upholding justice and opposing tyranny must be guided by special revelation.  Philosopher Gordon H. Clark writes,

It is instructive to note that political theorists who were untouched by the Christian revelation, almost without exception, advocate totalitarianism.  If Plato was a communist, Aristotle was a fascist.  Private parental education is forbidden because education has as its aim the production of citizens for the good of the state.  The number of children a family may have is controlled by the government, and surplus children are to be fed to the wolves.  And everybody must profess the state religion.  [Jean Jacques] Rousseau is equally totalitarian:  “There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles. … If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death.” [7]

When those who hold to the Bible’s civil code criticize natural law as not being a sufficient guide for civil government, the reply by natural law proponents might be that critics of natural law just don’t understand natural law.  But of course, this undermines their very position; for if natural law can’t be understood, then how can it be a sufficient guide for civil government?

(above: Jean Jacques Rousseu)
Gordon H. Clark writes: "It is instructive to note
that political theorists who were untouched by
the Christian revelation, almost without
exception, advocate totalitarianism. If Plato was
a communist, Aristotle was a fascist. ...
Rousseau is equally totalitarian: 'There is
therefore a purely civil profession of faith
of which the Sovereign should fix the articles
... If anyone, after publicly recognizing these
dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe
them, let him be punished by death.'"
Moreover, if natural law sufficiently reveals a detailed ethical blueprint for civil government, has anyone discovered it yet?  By blueprint we mean, for example, what particular sins the state should punish, and in what way those sins should be punished?  Yes, there are particular commonsense things we know a magistrate should punish, such as murder and theft (although it may not be so clear how murder and theft should be punished).  But a few particulars here and there are much different than a detailed ethical blueprint.  (But then again, nations that reject special revelation as the standard of law can’t even get laws against murder and theft right.  Consider, for example, all the civil governments that promote abortion and socialism.)

If it is the case, as the natural law theologian says, that civil rulers are only obligated to uphold natural law, then he is under the burden of proof to tell us which laws in the Bible’s civil code are unnatural.  This shouldn’t be hard for him, since if we can clearly discern all natural laws, then we can equally clearly discern all unnatural laws.  Maybe some laws in the Bible’s civil code are natural?  If so, rulers would be required to enforce those particular laws. 

But then, do we really believe that any two natural law theologians can sit down and honestly discern from nature the naturalness of the exact same civil laws from the Bible?  On the other hand, if all of the Bible’s civil laws are not natural, then that would mean rulers sin when they adhere to separation of church and state (2 Chron. 19:11), forbid the kidnapping of people for slavery (Ex. 21:16), uphold the principle of innocent until proven guilty (Deut. 19:15), uphold the principle of impartial judgment (Lev. 19:15), exact punishments proportionate to the crime (Ex. 21:23-25), and even, God forbid, acknowledge God (1 Sam. 12:14).

Even as a believer, I still cannot discern via nature a detailed ethical blueprint for civil government—and a general ethical blueprint can even be hard enough to discern.  Whether the problem is that what remains of my sinful nature suppresses a naturally-revealed civil code, or nature is not specific enough, or whatever—if I haven’t discovered civil government blueprints in nature at this stage of my life, I don’t believe others have discovered it either. 

A quick way to test the intellectual honesty of someone who says natural law alone is sufficient for civil government is to simply ask, “Have you discovered a civil code in nature?”  If intellectually honest, he would answer “no.”  Then ask him by what standard he really determines what civil code the state should hold to. 

His only choice besides the Bible’s civil code is to arbitrarily determine a civil code on his own authority (and be his own self-appointed philosopher king), and/or to appeal to the authority of others (and have his own, appointed philosopher kings).  Regarding the latter, it might be contemporary politicians or judges, or it might be any number of political philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Russell Kirk, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Rawls, etc. 

But whether his standard of authority is himself or others, he has chosen the traditions of men as his standard, and consequently has adopted a humanistic view of the state.  Hence, to theoretically adopt a natural law-only ethic of the state is to in practice default into a lawless humanistic ethic of the state. 

Thus a society that adopts a natural law only ethic culminates in tyranny.  This might come about in a couple different ways.  The first possibility is that everyone will ultimately determine law for themselves, which would mean citizens and magistrates alike would lack any consistent, dependable standard for law.  Justice would be subjective, not objective, and with no objective standard of liberty, there would be no reliable discernment of—and hence safeguard against—tyranny.  Moreover, where everyone determines law for themselves, there are countless views of law.  With countless views of law comes countless laws, and with countless laws comes tyranny. 

The second possibility is that citizens would get frustrated with not being able to discern a civil code in nature and demand philosopher kings à la Plato’s Republic who can figure out natural revelation for them.  The only major difference is that tyranny would come from an elite which would take advantage of the citizenry’s ethical ignorance and impose whatever laws serves its interests. 

Thus, in matters of the state the only way to properly serve Jesus Christ is to hold to the civil code in the Bible, the basis of civil liberty.  We either then find liberty under the King of Kings, or tyranny under the philosopher kings.  

Excerpt from God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws: Biblical Theocracy, Justice, and Slavery versus Humanistic Theocracy, "Justice," and Slavery by Steve C. Halbrook.  Copyright © 2011 by Steve C. Halbrook.  

     [1] William Blackstone, “Of Laws in General,” in Commentaries on the Laws of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). Cited in Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard, The Conservative Tradition in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996), 122.
     [2] Gary DeMar, The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1988), 27.
     [3] Ibid., 29. 
     [4] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), 387, 388.
     [5] William O. Einwechter, Ethics and God’s Law: An Introduction to Theonomy (Mill Hall, PA: Preston/Speed Publications, 1995), 21.
     [6] Ibid., 21, 22.
     [7] Gordon H. Clark, Essays on Ethics and Politics (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1992), 158.


R Manoj said...

I question your conclusion that Natural Law led Governments degenerate in Tyranny, while Theonomy led Governments do not. Both have the potential for tyranny. Ancient Israel was a Theocracy governed by Biblical Civil Laws. Yet, we observe Solomon's tyranny towards the end of his reign and his son's tyranny which led to the division of the kingdom. It is not so much a question of whether Biblical Civil Law is better than Natural Law. Any Christian would say that Biblical Civil Law is far superior. However, without the appeal to Reason, how are the Reprobate (who form the majority of society) ever to be convinced.

Theonomy can only work in some Post-mill paradise ... a paradise not supported by Scripture. Once the new covenant arrived in the person of Christ, the old covenant became obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Reformed theology has traditionally insisted that the moral law (i.e. Ten Commandments) remains in force, while the ceremonial & civil laws of the old covenant are now obsolete along with that covenant itself. I don't find anything in the NT that proves Christ's Kingdom in this world will be anything other than a Spiritual One.

Reconstructionists are making the same mistake that the Jews did when Jesus was on the earth: seeking a temporal Kingdom.

Steve C. Halbrook said...

It is biblical law that gives us the standard by which to discern tyranny from liberty. Natural law, from our fallen, finite perspective, is not perspicuous enough to tell us much about which sins should be crimes, and how those crimes should be punished. Thus, nations cannot have liberty without biblical law. As for ancient Israel, they only embraced tyranny to the extent they veered from biblical law. As for your anti-theonomy arguments, they have long been refuted.