Part 2: Question 6: Isn’t Natural Law the Standard of Righteousness for the Nations?

Gary North and Gary Demar

Narrated By: Daniel Banuelos & Devan Lindsey
Book: Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t


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Chapter Text

Isn’t Natural Law Rather Than Biblical Law the Standard of Righteousness for the Nations?

Norman L. Geisler, an ardent opponent of Christian Reconstruction, wants us to believe that “Government is not based on special revelation, such as the Bible.” Instead, he maintains, “it is based on God’s general revelation to all men…. Thus, civil law, based as it is in the natural moral law, lays no specifically religious obligation on man.”[1] According to Geisler, civil governments are obligated to follow only natural law.

What is natural law? As one might expect, there are numerous definitions of natural law depending on which tradition one turns to. Should we follow the natural law system advocated by Cicero, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Aquinas, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Grotius, Pufendorf, or Locke? After taking all of the systems into account, the following definition adequately represents the many natural law theories: “Natural law theory rests on the assumption that man has an innate quality – reason – which enables him to perceive and live by natural laws which are ‘self-evident truths’ manifested in our natural surroundings.”[2]

But there is a problem. While the above definition might work in a Christian context, where people generally understand (1) that rebellious man’s autonomous reason should not be trusted, and (2) that there are certain absolute values. In non-Christian cultures, righteous natural law is an impossibility. The reason? As the late Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson declared, in expressing the implication of a consistent evolutionary theory of law and justice, “Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes….”[3] Natural law depends on an existing theological framework that takes into account God’s sovereignty and ethical absolutes.

In addition there are several other problems with a natural law ethical position. First, how does one determine what laws found in general revelation are natural laws that conform to God’s will? Is it possible that Christian natural law advocates are using the Bible as a grid in the construction of their natural law ethic? But what grid is being used by non-Christians? In a consistently evolutionary system, there can be no natural law, only evolving law determined by those presently in power, usually the State.

Second, how do we get people to agree on the content of “natural law” and how these laws should apply? Do we opt for a lowest common denominator type of law like “Do good to all men”? Should we agree that murder is wrong but not war and capital punishment since each of these would violate the general law of do good to all men”? Does natural law, for example, tell us that abortion is wrong?

Third, what if we find a common set of laws in “nature” that contradict the Bible? As we will see below, polygamy can be supported as a natural law ethic, as can slavery, since most nations from time immemorial have practiced both. Would we, if we followed natural law, give up monogamy for polygamy? Would we give up freedom for slavery?

Fourth, what if a “natural law” agrees specifically with a biblical law that is religious? For example, nearly all nations have some prohibition against worshipping other gods (e.g., Daniel 3:1-30). After Nebuchadnezzar realized the error of his ways in requiring the Israelites to bow down to a false god, he then made a law that prohibited anyone from speaking “anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” (v. 29). The penalty was pretty stiff: They “shall be torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap” (v. 29). If Nebuchadnezzar turned to the Bible for the construction of this law, then his example would be proof that biblical law was applied to a non-Israelite nation. Since, as Geisler maintains, “civil law, based as it is in the natural moral law, lays no specifically religious obligation on man,”[4] Nebuchadnezzar must have been acting out the dictates of a natural law ethic. Therefore, magistrates, based on biblical law or natural law, could punish people for overtly religious crimes against Jehovah. But this is the one thing that natural law advocates do not want.

Fifth, natural law “does not furnish a specific consensus of ethical judgment.”[5] Ultimately, it comes down to “what the individual conscience dictates; and consciences differ.”[6] In order for natural law to function in any rational and workable way, there must be a generally held common belief system. When Catholic scholars, the foremost advocates of natural-law theory, made the State subject to natural law, there existed, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, a “common devotion to right.”[7] But what is the source of that “common devotion to right”? What if that “common devotion to right” is no longer accepted by rulers and the courts?

Sixth, and finally, let us suppose that we can derive a body of law from nature. This would only tell us what the law is, or actually, what might be. Can we determine what we ought to do from what is or might be right?

Why have some Christians opposed biblical law in favor of “natural law”? Norman Geisler writes: “In brief, because not everyone accepts the Bible, but no one can avoid natural law, which is ‘written on [the] hearts’ of all men (Rom. 2:14-15). Only believers accept the Bible. But business must be done with unbelievers. Therefore, it is necessary for us to have some common ethical ground on which to engage in commercial transactions with them.”[8] There are numerous unproven assumptions here, but the two most glaring ones are (1) “not everyone accepts the Bible” and (2) “but no one can avoid natural law.” Does everyone have to accept a standard before it is legitimate or it can be enacted into law? What if the majority of the people do accept the Bible? Would this mean that a nation could then implement biblical laws over natural laws? Aren’t Christians told to “disciple the nations,” to teach the nations all that Jesus commanded? Instead of avoiding the Bible, why not make it a point of discussion, showing unbelievers that the Bible has answers to all of life’s problems. We could just as easily assert that not everyone accepts natural law (which is true). Does this then nullify Geisler’s natural law ethic?

Let us put Geisler’s second assertion to the test. He would maintain that prohibitions against murder are natural laws. If “no one can avoid natural law,” then why do people still murder? And when there was a prevailing biblical ethic in this nation, we had fewer murders, rapes, thefts, drug related crimes, illegitimate births, abortions, etc. People murder because they want to murder regardless what any law states, including biblical law and most certainly natural law. But because biblical law has sanctions attached to it – both temporal and eternal – there are more reasons not to murder under a system of biblical law than under natural law.

If the natural law is a law in the legal sense, what are its sanctions? … [S]ince a law without punishment is vain, there must be another world to inflict it. Scholastics … appear to depend on the Christian commonwealth, whose civil law is bound to reflect the natural law, to punish overt breaches. This was not unrealistic as a theory among Christian states in the days when rulers and inhabitants alike were at least technically Christian, but difficulties occurred when it came to expecting pagan kings to punish breaches of the natural law. This problem confronted the sixteenth-century Spanish Thomists, who were most unwilling to grant Christian kings rights of intervention in pagan kingdoms to punish “crimes against nature”, and found themselves reduced to hoping for native kings to act in their stead in suppressing long-standing customs like human sacrifice.[9]

So then, it was expected that a Christian commonwealth would be necessary before such a natural law ethic could actually be implemented. No such trust could be expected of pagan kings since human sacrifice might still be considered normative by them.

We have had in our nation a prominently displayed biblical ethic that gave guidance to all citizens, Christians and non-Christians alike. America was a beacon to the world because it had an operating biblical ethic: In theory, everyone was treated as equal before the law, and that law was essentially biblical. In fact, there has been a concerted effort to move our nation away from an explicitly biblical ethical system. Regularly biblical laws are overturned and replaced with atheistic laws. This is true with sodomy and abortion. Take abortion. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade rejected Christian teaching regarding abortion, and turned instead to “ancient attitudes.” These “ancient traditions” were accepted over the “emerging teachings of Christianity,” teachings that were thought to have influenced the adoption of the Hippocratic Oath. The Court surmised that the anti-abortion Hippocratic Oath would never have been adopted by the medical community if Christianity had not dominated the culture. Since “ancient religion did not bar abortion,” as the majority opinion in Roe determined, therefore, abortion would have to be legalized. And what were these “ancient traditions”?: Greek and Roman legal traditions that rested on natural law.[10]

Would our nation have Sunday as a day of rest and worship if we adopted natural law over biblical law? Even the Constitution follows biblical and not natural law in its regard for Sunday as a special religious day: “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law….” (Article I, section 7). Would a natural law ethic permit religious oath-taking? No! Florida no longer requires Notaries to affirm “so help me God” on their written oath of office. The Rev. Gerard LaCerra, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Miami understands the implications of such an action: “What are we supposed to base our commitments on if something like this is removed? The State?”[11] This is where natural law leads us.

Some assert, using natural law as their operating principle, that the “celebration of Eros and the unlimited pleasure of the body should be elevated to constitutional principle.”[12] Are any and all sexual practices legitimate under natural law? As nations become officially atheistic, a natural law ethic free from biblical influence becomes impossible to formulate, since natural law requires the existence of a Creator who has a law to deposit in the universe and in the heart of man. How can a natural law ethic be formulated when different traditions come to the formulating table with contrary presuppositions? Some are Christian, religious, agnostic, and atheistic. Those who believe in God at least have some common ground, although what god we have in common is another question altogether. When the agnostic and atheist come, the difficulties multiply in trying to prove a natural law theory, especially in the area of particulars.

The reason for this difficulty seems to be that for those who really believe in creation and the supreme dominion of God, the principle is too obvious to need proof; whereas for those who do not believe in creation there is no basis on which to build proof.[13]

A natural law basis for moral behavior can be developed only when there is an already-operating biblical ethic. William Blackstone, the great English Jurist of the eighteenth century, wrote that natural law must be interpreted in terms of the revealed law, the Bible. “If we could be as certain of the latter [natural law] as we are of the former [revealed law], both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together.”[14] The Bible shaped Blackstone’s conception of natural law, although he rarely referred to the Bible in his commentaries.[15] But this in itself might be indicative of how pervasively a biblical ethic influenced him.

Could there ever be a prohibition, for example, against polygamy based on natural law? While the Bible tolerated polygamy and established laws to govern it to protect the family unit, it never condoned it (Genesis 2:18-24; Leviticus 18:18; 1 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Timothy 3:2). Many in Israel, including such rulers as Gideon, David, and Solomon, adopted the polygamous practices of the surrounding nations. Of course, polygamy began soon after the fall (Genesis 4:19, 23; 26:34; 28:9; 29:15; 36:2; 1 Samuel 1:1-2). “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. In common law, the second marriage was always void (2 Kent, Com. 79), and from the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offence against society.”[16] Polygamy was denounced in Christian nations and practiced in non-Christian nations. Typically, “Asiatic” and “African” nations were non-Christian. Their practice of polygamy was “natural.” With the advent of Christianity, monogamy was the practice and the Bible was the standard, not natural law.

The Supreme Court narrowly defined the legal protections of the First Amendment to exclude polygamy on the grounds that the practice was out of accord with the basic tenets of Christianity: “It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world.”[17] A year earlier the Court declared that “Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries…. To call their advocacy a tenet of religion is to offend the common sense of mankind.”[18]

So with the above in mind, what common ground do Christians and non-Christians have regarding the law? The evolutionist knows nothing of natural law. His system will not allow it. Law is an evolving principle like the universe itself. Roscoe Pound, a former Harvard law school dean, wrote “that ‘nature’ did not mean to antiquity what it means to us who are under the influence of evolution.”[19] In “antiquity,” nature was thought to have been created by God and thus ran according to certain “natural laws” (even though that god was a pagan deity). What many Christians regard as “natural laws” are in reality God’s eternal decree.

The introduction of the concept of “Nature” and natural law, derived from Hellenic philosophy, led to a departure from biblical faith. Natural law spoke of a self-contained system of its own inherent law. One of the products was Deism, which reduced God to the mechanic who had created “Nature,” and now “Nature” functioned independently of God. The next step was to accept the ultimacy of “Nature” and to drop God entirely.[20]

There was predictability in the created order because God decreed all that comes to pass. The created order, what is erroneously described as “nature,”[21] was understood to be affected by the fall of man into sin. Special revelation was needed to correct the distortions of a creation disfigured by sin. With the advent of evolution, a new understanding of nature developed that supplanted the one of “antiquity.” According to Roscoe Pound, “no current hypothesis is reliable, as ideas and legal philosophies change radically and frequently from time to time.”[22]

In addition to natural law, Geisler writes that “most premillennarians recognize that God has not left Himself without a witness in that He has revealed a moral law in the hearts and consciences of all men (Rom. 2:14-15).”[23] Geisler asserts that the heart and conscience are repositories for an ethical code. But the heart of man “is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9; cf. Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Psalm 14:1; Proverbs 6:14; 12:20; 14:12). General revelation may give a very clear ethical system, but man suppresses “the truth” of general revelation “in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Since man’s reason is imperfect, and may be swayed by his physical and social environment, the “truths” which men “know” have been various and self-contradictory. The law of nature has been quoted for every cause, from that of Negro slavery in the United States to that of red revolution in Paris. And it has often shifted ground – or man’s interpretation has shifted – on such thorny questions (for example) as private property.[24]

But isn’t “the work of the Law written” on the heart actually the law? (Romans 2:15). “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16). The Gentiles, those without the written law found in the Bible, follow a law written on their hearts. It is the same law!

Second, general revelation contrary to Geisler, does lay a specifically religious obligation on man. According to Romans 1:18-32, which is the fullest biblical commentary on general revelation, men are guilty precisely because they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (v. 23). Where did they learn about “the incorruptible God”? “God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (vv. 19-20).

Third, general or natural revelation and special revelation (Scripture) have the same moral content. But because of man’s sinfulness and the deceitfulness of his heart, he needs an infallible guide to read natural revelation. The Bible is that infallible guide. The only safeguard that sinful man has in not misinterpreting and misapplying natural revelation “is to test his interpretations constantly by the principles of the written word.”[25]

Paul says nothing to suggest that there is a difference in the moral content of these two revelations, written and natural. The written law is an advantage over natural revelation because the latter is suppressed and distorted in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-25). But what pagans suppress is precisely the “work of the law” (2:14-15). Natural revelation communicates to them, as Paul says, “the ordinance of God” about “all unrighteousness” (1:29, 32). Because they “know” God’s ordinance, they are “without excuse” for refusing to live in terms of it (1:20). What the law speaks, then, it speaks “in order that all the world may be brought under the judgment of God” (3:19). There is one law order to which all men are bound, whether they learn of it by means of natural revelation or by means of special revelation. God is no respecter of persons here (2: 11). “All have sinned” (3:23) — thus violated that common standard for the “knowledge of sin” in all men, the law of God (3:20).[26]

Reconstructionists take God’s revelation seriously: the law of God found in both Testaments and general revelation.

Did God, as Geisler maintains, place only the Israelites under obligation to the moral demands of those commandments specifically delivered to the nation through Moses? Are Gentile nations ever condemned for violating laws specifically given to Israel? If we can find just one law that fits into this category, then all nations are obligated to submit to God’s special written revelation, the Bible. I will summarize the argument for you:

God gives a series of instructions to Moses for the people: “You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform my judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them” (Leviticus 18:3-4). God then issues a list of Canaanite practices that were prohibited. He commands the Israelites not to engage in incest, polygamy, adultery, child sacrifice, profaning Jehovah’s name, homosexuality, or bestiality (vv. 6-23). The Mosaic law outlawed all such behavior and severely punished it. Immediately following the long list of prohibitions, God’s word describes what disobedience will bring: “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you; (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you” (Leviticus 18:24-28).

The transgression of the very law which God was revealing to Israel was the same law which brought divine punishment upon the Gentiles who occupied the land before them. “Israel and the Gentiles were under the same moral law, and they both would suffer the same penalty for the defilement which comes with violating it – eviction from the land.”[27]

[1] Geisler, “Dispensational Premillennial View of Law and Government,” in J. Kerby Anderson, ed., Living Ethically in the 90s (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), p. 157.

[2] Rex Downie, “Natural Law and God’s Law: An Antithesis,” The Christian Lawyer IV, 4 (Winter 1973). Republished in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, V, Symposium on Politics, ed. Gary North (Summer 1978), pp. 81-2.

[3] Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951) at 508 in Eugene C. Gerhart, American Liberty and “Natural Law” (Boston, MA: The Beacon Press, 1953), p. 17. Time magazine commented {July 23, 1951, pp. 67-68): “Whatever the explanation, Kentuckian Vinson’s aside on morals drew no dissent from his brethren on the supreme bench. And no wonder. The doctrine he pronounced stems straight from the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, philosophical father of the present Supreme Court.” Quoted in ibid., p. 165, note 2.

[4] Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” p. 157.

[5] William Aylott Orton, The Liberal Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1945), p. 95. Quoted in Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), p. 126.

[6] Idem.

[7] Quoted in Orton, idem.

[8] Norman L. Geisler, “Natural Law and Business Ethics,” Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations, ed. Richard C. Chewning (Colorado, CO: NavPress, 1989), p. 157.

[9] Bernice Hamilton, “Some Arguments Against Natural Law Theories,” Light on the Natural Law, ed. Illtud Evans (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1965), pp. 44-45.

[10] Curt Young, The Least of These: What Everyone Should Know about Abortion (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 21-23.

[11] “‘God’ Removed from Notaries’ Oath,” The Kansas City Star (February 18,1990), p. 2A “The general situation in this country is that in all court proceedings witnesses may give testimony only after they have qualified themselves by taking an oath in the usual form ending with ‘So help me God,’ or by making an affirmation without that phrase. The provisions for witnesses generally apply also to jurors.” Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, rev. one-vol. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 490.

[12] Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1990), p. 210.

[13] Gerard Kelly. Medico-Moral Problems (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1955), p. 167. Cited in Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 310-11.

[14] William Blackstone, Commentaries on The Laws of England, 4 vols. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press [1765] 1979), vol. 1, p. 17.

[15] North, Political Polytheism, pp. 322-24.

[16] Reynolds  v. United Stales, October 1878.

[17]Late Corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1 (1890).

[18] Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 341-342 (1890). Cited in John Eidsmoe, The Christian Legal Advisor (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1984), p. 150.

[19] Roscoe Pound, Introduction to the Philosophy of Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1922] 1959), p. 31. Cited in John W. Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, [1982] 1985, p. 48.

[20] Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Mythology of Science (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1967), p. 97.

[21] Rousas J. Rushdoony writes that ” ‘Nature’ is simply a collective name for an uncollectivized reality; the myth of nature is a product of Hellenic philosophy.” The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 608.

[22] Rene A Wormser, The Story of the Law (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), p. 485. Cited in Whitehead, The Second American Revolution, 48.

[23] Geisler,”A Dispensational Premillennial View of Law and Government,” p. 156.

[24] Herbert Agar, A Declaration of Faith (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952), p. 134.

[25] Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium, eds. Ned B. Stonehouse and Paul Wolley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 274.

[26] Greg L. Bahnsen, “What Kind of Morality Should We Legislate?,” The Biblical Worldview (October 1988), p. 9.

[27] Greg L. Bahnsen, “For Whom Was God’s Law Intended?,” The Biblical Worldview (December 1988), p. 9.