Recently, the Reformed blogosphere has seen no small commotion concerning the issue of Theonomy, an allegedly novel position on the relationship of modern governments to the Judicial Laws of Moses. Scott Clark and Friends have been taking pot-shots at Theonomy for longer than anyone cares to remember; whether their marksmanship finds purchase on the broad side of a barn is up for debate. Our position is commonly thought too obscure to warrant address, and yet one catalytic spark lit the whole aforementioned barn on fire: Dr. James White, conceding that he had previously misunderstood the position, defended Theonomy toward the end of a recent episode of the Dividing Line. As a result, a host of critics feel compelled to offer their two cents on the issue.
Some of these critics are trading in USD, and others in long-defunct Prussian Franks. While these speculators in this marketplace of ideas are Googling the value of a Prussian Frank, I’d like to discuss one of the more intelligent critiques of Theonomy.
When Common Ground Isn’t So Common
Along with the resurgence of interest in Theonomy, there has also been a resurgence of interest in Scholasticism. One of the defining characteristics of this movement is a deep commitment to Natural Law Theory, which could be summarized in this way:
Through natural revelation, God reveals His moral will by writing it on our hearts, and by inquiry into this natural law we can discover moral truth for life and government.
Many of these modern acolytes of the Reformed Scholastics would identify with camps such as Establishmentarianism, as well as the Covenanter tradition—which have much in common with Theonomy in terms of what ought to be a crime, but different processes and conclusions. Others would diverge further to find themselves aligning with Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism. Additionally, the R2K (Radical 2 Kingdoms) theology set forth by David VanDrunen and others of the Escondido school, when pressed to explain the foundations for government in the “common kingdom,” would point to Natural Law Theory for answers.
I had the rare occasion to find myself in a discussion on social media with individuals from 4 of those 5 schools at once. They all viewed Natural Law Theory as the catch-all answer to the common Theonomic refrain, “Man’s Law or God’s Law?” They would argue that Natural Law is, in a sense, God’s law because He is the one who gave us that natural moral revelation in the first place. And yet, the four individuals before me had wildly different ideas about what Natural Law entailed. One affirmed an established church, another the freedom of religion. One affirmed sodomy should be criminal, another that it was victimless and therefore beyond state interest. Theonomists have their disagreements, but none so broad as the chasm between an Anarcho-Capitalist and a Covenanter.
How is it that these different camps can hold Natural Law as the foundational principle for government and yet have such wildly different applications?
Natural Law and Broken Glasses
First, let me positively state my position on Natural Law.
God has indeed given us natural moral revelation; this is abundantly clear from special revelation. Not only do we know God through natural revelation (Romans 1:18-20; cf Psalm 19:1-6), but we also know His moral judgments (1:32). In fact, even those who are without the Law demonstrate that God’s Law is written on their hearts when they act in accordance with it (2:14-15). God’s natural moral revelation is just as objective as His natural personal revelation. Yet in both cases, there is an issue: our disposition toward and perception of them are deeply flawed. We suppress the truth in our unrighteousness (1:18), we are without excuse for doing so (1:20), our thinking becomes futile (1:21), professing to be wise we become fools (1:22), we exchange God’s truth for lies (1:25), we know the righteous decree of God, and yet we find ourselves doing and approving what He hates (1:32). In both cases, sin skews our apprehension of these objective truths. Even after regeneration, we are not without the echo of these faults found in the noetic effects of sin; Psalm 19, after discussing natural revelation and the propriety of God’s Law, sees David mourn his inability to discern his own faults (Ps. 19:12). References could be multiplied.
So, when I see a multitude of men committed to what they are calling Natural Law Theory who cannot agree on what is and is not Natural Law or what it means for government, I say, “Of course you can’t agree. We are all sinful men attempting to reason about moral truth from creation while we are still touched by the noetic effects of sin. Of course you will sometimes, even often, misinterpret natural revelation.” This is why attempting to posit pure natural law without the guidance of the Scriptures as the foundation for government is dangerous: there is tremendous room for miscalculation, and the misapplication of natural law theory has resulted in horrors in history. Our glasses are broken, to say the least.
But what if we could see clearly?
Brand New Eyes
When Scripture speaks of the Law written on our hearts, both I and the Natural Law Theorist agree that this is natural moral revelation. The question is not whether it exists or is objective. The question ought not to be whether sin obscures our ability to rightly interpret it. The question ought to be, “If we could interpret natural law clearly, without the noetic effects of sin, what would we see?” What moral imperatives would be discovered for the individual through nature? What would we conclude about the implications of this natural moral revelation for human government?
I do not think that there is any reason to believe that our conclusions would be any different from the Law of God revealed in the Scriptures. There is every reason to believe the opposite.
First, what we learn about natural law, or natural moral revelation, in Romans 1, 2, and 3 is in agreement with the Law proper; the text nowhere suggests a substantive difference between the content of natural law and the Moral Law revealed in Scripture. The difference is in the means of communication and in the clarity or ease of right apprehension, not in the content.
Second, why would we expect that the same God speaking in natural revelation would contradict Himself when He gives Israel the Law by special revelation? If your concept of God’s natural moral revelation is at odds with the Scriptures’ testimony of God’s special moral revelation, then you have a schizophrenic concept of God. More than this, if you give natural law priority and you maintain that its conclusions are at odds with the Law of God in Scripture, then you have God commanding Israel to sin and commit injustice in the Law.
My hope with that set of arguments is to show that this isn’t only a matter of dispute about traffic laws or taxes. If the subject of natural law is mishandled, then it will certainly result in broken systems of ethics and government, but this isn’t the only concern. An improper understanding of natural law can destroy both your ability to interpret Scripture and your conception of the moral character of God.
I hold that the proper exegesis of natural law, without the influence of sin on our thinking, would lead us into full agreement with that Law—meaning, the Moral Law and the Civil Law in its General Equity. This is what the Word of God does for us. Our autonomous moral reasoning before Christ is fallen, and even now we need our minds renewed. So God, in His Word, fully reveals in plain letters what we must believe concerning God and what God requires of us—and He gives us the Holy Spirit to open our understanding. God in Scripture has done this as certainly and sufficiently with respect to government as He has with any theological topic.
Dispensationalists often demand that we read the Old Testament as if we were Jews under Moses with the veil over our eyes (2 Corinthians 3:15). They warn against interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New. The way in which Christ’s Apostles read the New Testament would get them flunked from many of their classrooms today. In a similar fashion, many of the advocates of Natural Law Theory are suggesting that when it comes to the question of what ought to be a crime and how it ought to be punished, we should look to natural revelation instead of the Civil Law in its General Equity. From where I’m standing, this is the same error. Why would I want to read the Old Testament like a Jew without the full counsel of God available to me in the New Testament? Why would I want to try to exegete natural law like an unconverted Gentile in order to determine right from wrong in government as if I didn’t have God’s clear revelation in Scripture?
When it comes to ethics, government, theology, whatever else–you can take your cue from natural revelation if you want. Knock yourself out. You may even get it all right. But if your conclusions disagree with God’s clearly revealed witness of Himself and His Law in His Word, then you can keep it.
I’m not interested.