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Natural vs Biblical Law

Is a Return to Natural Law a Good Thing?

Gary Demar

When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appealed to Natural Law theory in some of his legal opinions and writings, there were those on the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings in September 1991 that took exception. The most vocal critic was former Senator and now Vice President Joseph Biden. It was that debate more than 20 years ago that helps us to understand how politics is being done today. Unfortunately, too many in the church are falling into the Natural Law trap.

As long as Thomas defined Natural Law as a transcendental “Higher Law,” the belief that God is its author, as eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone (1723–1780) did, then his view of Natural Law would not be tolerated.

Biden wrote an article that appeared in the September 8, 2001 issue of the Washington Post ((Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Law and Natural Law: Questions for Judge Thomas,” The Washington Post (September 8, 1991), C-1.)) in which he defined Natural Law on his terms:

  • It does not “function as being a specific moral code regulating individual behavior.”
  • It is not “a static set of unchanging principles.”
  • It is “an evolving body of ideals.”

Note Biden’s appeal to evolution. Natural law as it was constructed throughout the centuries died in 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. “Charles Darwin destroyed natural law theory in biological science. . . . His successors destroyed natural law theory in social science. In the 1920’s, quantum physics destroyed natural law theory in the subatomic world. This immediately began to undermine modern legal theory.”[1] An evolving law means a flexible law that can be manipulated by whoever’s in power.

Today, natural law or otherwise, is whatever the courts say it is. “In our system,” Biden wrote, “the sole obligation of a Supreme Court justice is to the Constitution. Natural justice can supply one of the important means of understanding the Constitution, but natural law can never be used to reach a decision contrary to a fair reading of the Constitution itself.”

This is why the Left wants to be the gatekeepers to the Supreme Court by mandating a liberal litmus test to all prospective judges. Biden’s article does not tell us anything about how we determine what’s right or wrong. Morality is a matter of “individual choice,” and if you can get enough justices to agree with you, then it’s the law, and they are the ones who determine what “individual choice” means. But no matter the form of government, authority and law are foundational.

Every system of government exists to produce or enforce certain laws, and every law necessarily entails a set of moral assumptions. All morality — even that which is usually supposed to be, or touted as being, based upon an “irreligious” or anti-religious” philosophical foundation — is ultimately religious in its nature, since it is founded upon . . . fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, about God, man, and things, which are taken on (a usually unacknowledged) faith. In this deepest sense, then, the question for every legal system is not whether it will be based upon “religion” but rather which religion or religious philosophy will be its foundation?[2]

The modern conception of law is a far cry from the moral principles on which America was founded. Critics point out that America had its forms of injustice, for example, slavery. True enough, but it was because there was a “Higher Law” ethic based on biblical moral values that slavery was overturned. President Harry S. Truman voiced the common and prevailing sentiment of his day:

The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we comprehend that enough these days.

If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody.[3]

We cannot live within the fluid boundaries of legal relativism. There must be a definitive and final legal standard of appeal to justify moral decisions at the personal and governmental levels. If not, then one judge’s opinion is as good (or as bad) as another.

There is a long history in the United States where law was referenced back to biblical morality.

John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) stated, “The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code; it contained many statutes adapted to that time only, and to the particular circumstances of the nation to whom it was given; they could of course be binding upon them, and only upon them, until abrogated by the same authority which enacted them, as they afterward were by the Christian dispensation: but many others were of universal application — laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation, which professed any code of laws.” He added that: “Vain indeed would be the search among the writings of [secular history] . . . to find so broad, so complete and so solid a basis of morality as this Decalogue lays down.”[4]

John Witherspoon (1723–1794), the president of what later came to be known as Princeton and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “moral law published upon Mount Sinai [is] the publication or summary of that immutable law of righteousness , which is the duty of creatures, and must accompany the administration of every covenant which God makes with man.”[5]

John Jay (1745–1829), one of the authors of The Federalist Papers and served as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote the following in a letter dated April 15, 1818 to his friend John Murray: “[T]he law was given by Moses, not however in his individual or private capacity, but as the agent or instrument, and by the authority of the Almighty. The law demanded exact obedience, and proclaimed: ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’”[6] In that same letter, he wrote:

The inspired prophets, on the contrary, express the most exalted ideas of the law. They declare that the law of the Lord is perfect, that the statutes of the Lord are right; and that the commandment of the Lord is pure; that God would magnify the law and make it honorable, etc.

Our Savior himself assures us that he came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill; that whoever shall do and teach the commandments, shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven; that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail [Matt. 5:17–18]. This certainly amounts to a full approbation of it. Even after the resurrection of our Lord, and after the descent of the Holy Spirit, and after the miraculous conversion of Paul, and after the direct revelation of the Christian dispensation to him, he pronounced this memorable encomium on the law, viz.: “The law is holy, and the commandments holy, just, and good” [Rom. 7:12; also see 1 Tim. 1:8].

There are a number of theologians who are trying to resurrect natural law as a secular alternative to specially revealed law, that is, laws that are found in the Bible. General revelation, natural theology, and natural law can never stand on their own when it comes to moral particulars.

I suspect that advocates of natural law are cheating when they claim that they can build an ethical system independent of special revelation and then further claim that this can be done by moral rebels. Natural law advocates “are like the Irishman who preferred the moon to the sun, because the sun shines in the day-time when there is no need of it, while the moon shines in the night time; so these moralists, shining by the borrowed, reflected light of Christianity, think they have no need of the sun, from whose radiance they get their pale moonlight.”[7]

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) had this to say about Natural Theology that is applicable to Natural Law:

There is no such thing as a separate natural theology that could be obtained apart from any revelation solely on the basis of reflective considerations of the universe. The knowledge of God that is gathered up in so-called natural theology is not the product of human reason.
Rather, natural theology presupposes, first of all, that God reveals himself in his handiwork. It is not humans who seek God but God who seeks humans, also by means of his works in nature. That being the case, it further presupposes that it is not humans who, by the natural light of reason, understand and know this revelation of God. Although all pagan religions are positive [concrete], what is needed on the human side is a mind that has been sanctified and eyes that have been opened in order to be able to see God, the true and living God, in his creatures. And even this is not enough. Even Christian believers would not be able to understand God’s revelation in nature and reproduce it accurately had not God himself described in his Word how he revealed himself and what he revealed of himself in the universe as a whole. The natural knowledge of God is incorporated and set forth at length in Scripture itself. Accordingly, Christians follow a completely mistaken method when, in treating natural theology, they, as it were, divest themselves of God’s special revelation in Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, discuss it apart from any Christian presuppositions, and then move on to special revelation. Even when Christians do theology, from the very beginning they stand with both feet on the foundation of special revelation. They are Christ-believers not only in the doctrine of Christ but equally in the doctrine of God. Standing on this foundation, they look around themselves, and armed with the spectacles of Holy Scripture, they see in all the world a revelation of the same God they know and confess in Christ as their Father in heaven.[8]

A whole‑Bible ethic is the light by which all social theories gain their reflected light. The further we move away from the light of Scripture, the darker our world becomes. With man’s “cauterized and traumatized” sinful nature, there is no possible way that we can move in the direction of natural law for the development of a comprehensive ethical social theory. “Such has been the deteriorating influence of sin that ‘the [work of the] law written on the heart’ and ‘the light of nature,’ although these remain, no longer suffice as the organ of signifying God’s will to man. A supernatural revelation has been necessary to reveal the law of duty, as well as to reveal the method of salvation through redemption.”[ 9]

1 ·  Gary North, Political Polytheism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), xxii. []

2 ·  Archie P. Jones, “Christianity and the First Amendment: The Truth about the Religion Clauses of the Constitution,” (unpublished manuscript), 3. []

3 ·  Harry S. Truman, Harry S. Truman: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President — January 1 to December 31, 1950 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1965), 197. []

4 ·  John Quincy Adams, Letters of John Quincy Adams, to His Son, on the Bible and Its Teachings (Auburn, NY: Derby Miller & Co., 1848), 61, 70. []

5 ·  John Witherspoon, The Works of Rev. John Witherspoon, 4 vols., 2nd rev. ed. (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1802), 4:117–118. []

6 ·  John Jay, The Life of John Jay with Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers, 2 vols. (New York: J & J. Harper, 1833), 2:385. []

7 ·  A. T. Pierson, The Second Coming of Christ (Philadelphia, PA: Henry Altemus, 1896), 35. []

8 ·  Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 2:74–75. []

9 ·  A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1890] 1990), 279. []


Natural Law vs Statutes and Judgments

Jul 26, 2011 by Gary DeMar 15 Comments

 I received the following from an advocate of Natural Law: “Natural Law is simply Biblical Law written on the conscience of every man.” If this is true, then why did God find it necessary to give us revealed law? He goes on to say:

The Reprobate knows that murder, adultery, rape and theft are morally wrong because of God’s Law written in their conscience. The proof for this is Romans Chapter 2. This is why the aforementioned crimes are punished in every civilized culture we know of. Another proof that these acts are wrong would be to look at the sanctions that follow these acts. Cultures which do not punish these acts like some African/Cannibalistic tribes around the world bear the proof of God’s Judgment in their being. These races of savages are usually enslaved and conquered by cultures which practice Natural Law to a larger degree. Look at the Arab conquest and enslavement of Black Africans over the centuries as an example.

First he argues that reprobates know that certain actions, like cannibalism, are wrong. This doesn’t seem to be the case since there were and probably are today cultures that practiced cannibalism. They didn’t believe eating an enemy was wrong. In fact, some cannibals believed that eating an enemy or drinking his blood enhanced one’s essence. What was powerful in the person being eaten was transferred to the person doing the eating. To really confuse things, he argues that cultures that do practice Natural Law also practice slavery. But I thought slavery was wrong. Natural Law tells us it’s wrong. If this is true, then why would those who practice Natural Law enslave people?

A Natural Law theory not tied to biblical law would have done nothing for slaves since there were many Natural Law advocates who believed in slavery because of what they believed Natural Law taught. Enslavement was best for some people. This was Aristotle’s view, and it was followed by a lot of New World explorers. He believed in the reasonableness and “natural order” for the institution of slavery because there are some people who are “slaves by nature,” a phrase found in his Politics. Aristotle’s views, as a champion of reason and Natural Law, were foundational for centuries, as was his distorted views on cosmology:

Of all the ideas churned up during the early tumultuous years of American history, none had a more dramatic application than the attempts made to apply to the natives there the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery: that one part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life of virtue free of manual labour.1

It’s true that the work of God’s law is written on the heart and that every person in the world will be held accountable to that work of the law “their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom. 2:15). But it’s another thing to say that the replica of revealed law in its many details is written on the heart and that it can be accessed like pages in a book.

I asked the above Natural Law advocate the following: “Using only Natural Law, show me objectively and empirically that murder, adultery, rape, and theft are morally wrong.” He couldn’t. He needed biblical law to construct his Christian version of Natural Law. It’s not that sin has destroyed every vestige of the image of God in us. The conscience still operates, but this is a far cry from the comprehensive nature of God’s revealed law that God gave Israel as a light to the nations (Deut. 4:1–2, 5–8). If Natural Law is satisfactory, then why bother with giving Israel “statutes and judgments”? Douglas Wilson makes an important distinction:

Daniel in Babylon and Paul in Rome both show that believers can function in a society guided by natural revelation; this shows the legitimate authority of such realms is not thereby set aside. The authorities that exist are established by God whether or not they know His proper name. The question is not whether this can happen, but whether Christians should be content with it. The civil realm can be sub-Christian and remain a true civil realm. But should Christians work to keep it sub-Christian? Certainly the Bible does not require this of us. And if we base our civil involvement on natural revelation only, where does natural revelation teach or require pluralism?

Henry Van Til wrote that “Man does not need special revelation for acquiring the arts of agriculture or of war, the techniques of science and art; these things are learned from nature through the inspiration of the Spirit.”2 No one is disputing the use of general revelation in this way. But even this type of investigation has numerous ethical implications. For example, knowledge of what works in the field of medicine still leaves doctors and legislators with, for example, decisions that relate to abortion and euthanasia. An abortionist can be an expert in the way he performs an abortion. He has honed this “skill” through scientific study of the created order (general revelation). But is it right and just to use this knowledge in the destruction of preborn babies? That’s the question. Do such ethical principles exist solely by a study of nature?

The late Dr. Jack Kevorkian (1928–2011) designed a “suicide machine” that is efficient, effective, and painless, three criteria to consider in the practice of modern medicine.3 But is it right and just? Procedures that were designed as part of the healing craft are now being used to destroy life. There is no doubt that abortionists and the new suicide “doctors” are skilled practitioners of their respective crafts. So were some of Hitler’s doctors. In the Foreword to By Trust Betrayed, former Sen. Bob Dole writes:

Perhaps the ugliest aspects of Aktion-4 [a systematic program of killing people with disabilities] were its moral pretensions, its disregard for the intrinsic worth of people with disabilities, and the essential complicity of physicians and lawyers. The killings were justified by phrases like “final medical assistance” and beliefs about “natural selection,” but it was nothing but murder of some of the most vulnerable.4

The study of general revelation might lead some medical practitioners to conclude that since animals often abandon and kill their young, therefore human beings are little different if they do the same. A more highly evolved species like man can do it more efficiently. The great Hollywood moralist of our day, Scarlett Johansson had some thoughts to share on the subject. Here’s how Nancy Pearcey describes it:

What are the implications of seeing humans as “just another primate”? Even Hollywood actresses know the answer to that question. In an interview, Scarlett Johansson was once asked to respond to rumors that she had a reputation for being sexually promiscuous. Her reply was unfiltered naturalism: “Humans are merely biological organisms therefore the practice of monogamy – being sexually faithful to one person – is just not natural. “I do think on some basic level, we are animals,” Johansson said, “and by instinct we kind of breed accordingly.” (Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010), 145.)),

The modern-day evolutionary hypothesis rests on a study of the created order. Modern scientists have made a thorough study of the created order and have concluded that man has evolved from some type of primordial chaos. Such a view conflicts with the Bible’s clear statement that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Such a conclusion has numerous ethical implications that if carried out consistently can have disastrous results as the mass killings in Norway demonstrate.5

It is this independent study of what we call “general revelation” that leads to anti-Christian conclusions. The Christian views general revelation “through the medium of a heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit. . . . The Christian looks at all that he receives through general revelation, in the light of the Scripture. It is only through the Scripture that he can see the true relationship between God and creation, and that he can see in creation its unity and purpose.” On the other hand, “the knowledge which the natural man receives from general revelation comes to him through the subjective medium of an unregenerated, depraved heart.”6 General revelation without the guidance of special revelation has no reference point.

A classic example of the claim that knowledge of God and His will is gained from general revelation is found in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s National Socialist propagandists appealed to the revelation of God in reason, conscience, and the orders of Creation as justification for the Nazi state theology or cultural religion. Biblical revelation in Old and New Testaments was regarded by the Third Reich as a ‘Jewish swindle” and thus was set aside in favor of the Nazi natural theology. The Gottingen theologians Friedrich Gogarten and Emanuel Hirsch, by postulating the primacy of conscience and the flow of history as the chief modalities of revelation, provided theoretical justification for the Nazi ideology, which later wreaked havoc in Europe and beyond. A majority within the state church (known as the “German Christians”) unwittingly or otherwise embraced the new national religion, founded not on the Word of God but on the divine will allegedly embedded in the natural order. Emerging from this fatal exchange came a semi-Christian natural religion (some would say a new paganism) in which the church became a servile instrument of Nazi policy.7

The debate is not over how much one side depreciates the use of general revelation. Rather, the issue is over what ethical standard will be used to evaluate the conclusions formulated from a study of general revelation and Natural LawNatural Law takes on a life of its own as a nation steadily depreciates God’s specially revealed Word as the norm for all issues relating to faith (redemption) and practice (ethics). This situation results in using contemporary ideologies to build an interpretive framework so that general revelation can become specific. This means that Natural Law will be interpreted in different ways depending on what ideology is in vogue. A prevailing atheistic regime will interpret Natural Law one way, while a New Age humanist will put another slant on it. In each case, the church’s prophetic ministry is depreciated.


1.   Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 12–13. [↩]

2.   Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 162. [↩]

3.   Jack Kevorkian, Prescription: Medicine: The Goodness of Planned Death (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991). [↩]

4.   Bob Dole, “Foreword,” in Hugh Gregory Gallagher, By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich (Arlington, VA: Vanadmere Press, 1995), ix. [↩]

5.   Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990). [↩]

6.   William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 71. [↩]

7.   Bruce A. Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie, 1982), 15. [↩]