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Natural vs Biblical Law

Is a Return to Natural Law a Good Thing?

Gary Demar

When Supreme CourtJustice Clarence Thomas appealed to Natural Law theory in some of his legalopinions and writings, there were those on the Senate Judiciary Committeeduring his confirmation hearings in September 1991 that took exception. Themost vocal critic was former Senator and now Vice President Joseph Biden. It was that debate more than 20years 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 Thomasdefined Natural Law as a transcendental “Higher Law,” the belief that God isits author, as eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone (1723–1780) did,then his view of Natural Law would not be tolerated.

Biden wrote anarticle that appeared in the September 8, 2001 issue of the WashingtonPost ((Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Law and Natural Law: Questions for JudgeThomas,” The Washington Post (September 8, 1991), C-1.)) inwhich 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 appealto evolution. Natural law as it was constructed throughout the centuries diedin 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.“Charles Darwin destroyed natural law theory in biological science. . . . Hissuccessors destroyed natural law theory in social science. In the 1920’s,quantum physics destroyed natural law theory in the subatomic world. Thisimmediately began to undermine modern legal theory.”[1] An evolving law means a flexible law thatcan be manipulated by whoever’s in power.

Today, natural lawor 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. Naturaljustice can supply one of the important means of understanding theConstitution, but natural law can never be used to reach a decision contrary toa fair reading of the Constitution itself.”

This is why theLeft wants to be the gatekeepers to the Supreme Court by mandating a liberallitmus test to all prospective judges. Biden’s article does not tell usanything 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, thenit’s the law, and they are the ones who determine what “individual choice”means. But no matter the form of government, authority and law arefoundational.

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

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

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

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

We cannot livewithin the fluid boundaries of legal relativism. There must be a definitive andfinal legal standard of appeal to justify moral decisions at the personal andgovernmental levels. If not, then one judge’s opinion is as good (or as bad) asanother.

There is a longhistory in the United States where law was referenced back to biblicalmorality.

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

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

John Jay (1745–1829), one of the authorsof The Federalist Papers and served as the first ChiefJustice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote the following in a letterdated 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 orinstrument, and by the authority of the Almighty. The law demanded exactobedience, and proclaimed: ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in allthings which are written in the book of the law to do them.’”[6] In that same letter, he wrote:

The inspiredprophets, on the contrary, express the most exalted ideas of the law. Theydeclare that the law of the Lord is perfect, that the statutes of the Lord areright; and that the commandment of the Lord is pure; that God would magnify thelaw and make it honorable, etc.

Our Savior himselfassures us that he came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but tofulfill; that whoever shall do and teach the commandments, shall be calledgreat 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 afull approbation of it. Even after the resurrection of our Lord, and after thedescent of the Holy Spirit, and after the miraculous conversion of Paul, andafter the direct revelation of the Christian dispensation to him, he pronouncedthis memorable encomium on the law, viz.: “The law is holy, and the commandmentsholy, just, and good” [Rom. 7:12; also see 1 Tim. 1:8].

There are a numberof theologians who are trying to resurrect natural law as a secular alternativeto specially revealed law, that is, laws that are found in the Bible. Generalrevelation, natural theology, and natural law can never stand on their own whenit comes to moral particulars.

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

Dutch theologianHerman Bavinck (1854–1921) had this to say about Natural Theology that isapplicable to Natural Law:

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

A whole‑Bible ethicis the light by which all social theories gain their reflected light. Thefurther 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 waythat we can move in the direction of natural law for the development of acomprehensive ethical social theory. “Such has been the deteriorating influenceof sin that ‘the [work of the] law written on the heart’ and ‘the light ofnature,’ although these remain, no longer suffice as the organ of signifyingGod’s will to man. A supernatural revelation has been necessary to reveal thelaw 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 aboutthe Religion Clauses of the Constitution,” (unpublished manuscript), 3. []

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

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

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

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

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

8 · Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend, 4vols. (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 Lawvs Statutes and Judgments

Jul 26, 2011 by GaryDeMar 15 Comments

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

The Reprobate knowsthat murder, adultery, rape and theft are morally wrong because of God’s Lawwritten in their conscience. The proof for this is Romans Chapter 2. This iswhy the aforementioned crimes are punished in every civilized culture we knowof. Another proof that these acts are wrong would be to look at the sanctionsthat follow these acts. Cultures which do not punish these acts like someAfrican/Cannibalistic tribes around the world bear the proof of God’s Judgmentin their being. These races of savages are usually enslaved and conquered bycultures which practice Natural Law to a larger degree. Look at the Arabconquest and enslavement of Black Africans over the centuries as an example.

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

A Natural Law theorynot tied to biblical law would have done nothing for slaves since there weremany Natural Law advocates who believed in slavery because of what theybelieved Natural Law taught.Enslavement was best for some people. This was Aristotle’s view, and it wasfollowed by a lot of New World explorers. He believed in the reasonableness and“natural order” for the institution of slavery because there are some peoplewho are “slaves by nature,” a phrase found in his Politics. Aristotle’s views, as a champion of reasonand Natural Law, were foundational for centuries, as was his distorted views oncosmology:

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

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

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

Daniel in Babylon andPaul in Rome both show that believers can function in a society guided bynatural revelation; this shows the legitimate authority of such realms is notthereby set aside. The authorities that exist are established by God whether ornot 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 besub-Christian and remain a true civil realm. But should Christians work to keepit sub-Christian? Certainly the Bible does not require this of us. And if webase our civil involvement on natural revelation only, where does naturalrevelation teach or require pluralism?

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

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

Perhaps the ugliestaspects of Aktion-4 [a systematic program of killing people with disabilities] were its moral pretensions, its disregardfor the intrinsic worth of people with disabilities, and the essentialcomplicity of physicians and lawyers. The killings were justified by phraseslike “final medical assistance” and beliefs about “natural selection,” but itwas nothing but murder of some of the most vulnerable.4

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

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

The modern-dayevolutionary hypothesis rests on a study of the created order. Modernscientists have made a thorough study of the created order and have concludedthat man has evolved from some type of primordial chaos. Such a view conflictswith the Bible’s clear statement that “In the beginning God created the heavensand the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Such aconclusion has numerous ethical implications that if carried out consistentlycan have disastrous results as the mass killings in Norwaydemonstrate.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 ofa heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit. . . . The Christian looks at all thathe receives through general revelation, in the light of the Scripture. It isonly through the Scripture that he can see the true relationship between Godand creation, and that he can see in creation its unity and purpose.” Onthe other hand, “the knowledge which the natural man receives from generalrevelation comes to him through the subjective medium of an unregenerated,depraved heart.”6 General revelation without the guidance ofspecial revelation has no reference point.

A classic example ofthe claim that knowledge of God and His will is gained from general revelationis found in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Hitler’s National Socialistpropagandists appealed to the revelation of God in reason, conscience, and theorders of Creation as justification for the Nazi state theology or culturalreligion. Biblical revelation in Old and New Testaments was regarded by theThird Reich as a ‘Jewish swindle” and thus was set aside in favor of the Nazinatural theology. The Gottingen theologians Friedrich Gogarten and EmanuelHirsch, by postulating the primacy of conscience and the flow of history as thechief modalities of revelation, provided theoretical justification for the Naziideology, which later wreaked havoc in Europe and beyond. A majority withinthe state church (known as the “German Christians”) unwittingly or otherwiseembraced the new national religion, founded not on the Word of God but on the divinewill allegedly embedded in the natural order. Emerging from this fatalexchange 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 overhow much one side depreciates the use of general revelation. Rather, the issueis over what ethical standard will be used to evaluate theconclusions formulated from a study of general revelation and Natural LawNatural Law takes on a life of its own as anation steadily depreciates God’s specially revealed Word as the norm for allissues relating to faith (redemption) and practice (ethics). This situationresults in using contemporary ideologies to build an interpretive framework sothat general revelation can become specific. This means that Natural Lawwill be interpreted in different ways depending on what ideology is in vogue.A prevailing atheistic regime will interpret Natural Law one way, while a NewAge humanist will put another slant on it. In each case, the church’sprophetic ministry is depreciated.


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

2.  Henry R. Van Til, TheCalvinistic 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 theLicense to Kill in the Third Reich (Arlington, VA: Vanadmere Press, 1995), ix. [↩]

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

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

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