Some Theses on Natural Law

In my interactions with Peter Escalante over at Wedgewords, the topic has turned, for the time being, from defining what the Church is to the only slightly less challenging task of defining what nature and natural law is.  Since Peter has asked me to explain my understanding of natural law, I’ve decided to give it a shot…. This is my first attempt to reflect systematically on this question and offer a proper definition from start to finish, so this may turn out to be incoherent or heretical or something.  Feel free to let me know.  I have avoided defining my position via explicit reference to any other theologians because that would pose too much temptation to lazy shorthand, but you are welcome to come in and slap labels on what I’ve said: “Aha!  So you’re just a Barthian Anabaptist Hegelian” or something of that sort, to help me resolve my identity crisis.

To cover such a broad sweep concisely, it was necessary to make this all rather abstract, and as I have not mastered the scholastic art of being simultaneously very abstract and very precise, you may be puzzled as to exactly what I am trying to say at certain points.  Please push me for clarification, and I will try to provide it if possible, though I can’t guarantee it will be:

1. There is such a thing as natural law.  

  a) When God created the world, he intended for it to operate in a certain way, he intended it for a particular destiny.  This destiny was communion with God, not of course in a narrowly-construed way that would simply instrumentalize nature–the beauty and goodness of the creation was an end in itself for the Creator–but such that the goodness of creation’s end, although not reducible into communion with God, is not separable from it either; creation achieves its full potential and perfection when it is ordered toward the love of God.  

b) natural law is, quite simply, that which is necessary for creation to achieve its perfection, to successfully reach the end appointed for it.  When creatures turn away from natural law, they become perverted from their true end and perfection, their created destiny; when they observe it, they are oriented properly toward their telos, the perfection of their own natures in congruence with the love of God

c) natural law is, therefore, implanted in every creature at creation, as an instinct or understanding of its purpose which it freely wills to obey.  


2. Natural law is Christologically-determined from the first

a) the original creation, although without corruption, was not perfect; it had yet to be perfected, because it was not intended to be static, but to mature, through a history involving further action by both Creator and creatures.  The state of the original creation, therefore, although congruent with its final end, does not in itself reveal the perfection of nature and the natural law.

b) Christ is the firstfruits over all creation, the one in whom all things consist, the Last Adam who reveals the destiny of the first, the true image of the invisible God who reveals what man, created in the image of God, is meant to be.  For him and through him and to him are all things.  In short, Jesus Christ reveals for us and leads us toward the true destiny of creation.  It is only by union with him and conformity with him that we attain unto the full stature of our humanity.  

c) Therefore, we cannot properly define natural law except by reference to the revelation in Jesus Christ that illumines the true sense of nature.  


3. Natural law is knowable in part, but not in full

a) from creation, man had implanted in him an adequate, though not perfect, understanding of the natural law.  His being was oriented toward its proper destiny, but had not yet matured into full understanding of it.  This knowledge was limited thus both by immaturity and by the finitude of the human understanding, which could not perfectly grasp the entirety of the natural law in its first principles and its necessary deductions.

b) at the Fall, man lost full fellowship with God, and with it, his conformity to the mind of God that enabled true understanding of himself and his purpose in the world.  Creation itself was cursed with decay as a result of this dislocation between humanity and God, and thus both humanity and the rest of creation ceased to be oriented toward their true end, but, detached from it, became distorted and no longer conformed perfectly to natural law.  Nevertheless, inasmuch as nature continued, though in a wounded state, natural law continued to govern it.  Man’s knowledge of it was impaired now by his lack of fellowship with God, fellowship which gave insight into God’s creation, and by the perverted state of nature itself, which made it more difficult to read nature’s purpose therein.  Thus, man often errs in his grasp of the natural law, not to mention his will to live in accord with it even when it was grasped.

c) The moral law which God revealed to his people in the Old Testament was a more lucid restatement of the natural law, specified as was appropriate for the understanding of God’s people at that point in history, yet pointing beyond itself to a fuller revelation yet to come of creation’s end and how to live in accord with it.


4. Christ is the fulfilment of the law

a) When Christ came, he came as the objective revelation not only of who God was, but of what man was, and what man was intended to be.  Through his life and death, through his teaching while on earth, and through the teaching of the Holy Spirit in his followers, He revealed the true end of creation, and how to live in accord with that end.  That is to say, in his revelation of how men were to live with God, with one another, and with the world (which we could call the “evangelical law”) he revealed the true purpose and structure of the natural law as it applied to humanity in its full maturity.

b) This revelation superseded both the revelation given in creation and discernible in nature, and the revelation given in the Old Testament, not only because it was more direct, but also because it was a revelation of the nature of creation in its full maturity–it was a revelation of the endpoint of history in the middle.  By superseding, it did not overturn or contradict what came before, but rather fully corresponded to that ideal of which the earlier revelations were necessarily incomplete approximations.

c) Although the revelation in Christ is thus the objective revelation of the true natural law, it is still limited in its subjective apprehension.  This is true quite obviously because of the limits of our knowledge–we cannot understand Christ’s revelation either in its full clarity, since we see only through a glass darkly, or in its full extent, because of our finitude.  The long practice of the Church in study and godly living, guided by the Spirit, can help us to grasp the revelation of God in Christ, as well as that in creation, better, but never completely.  More importantly, we are limited in our ability to comprehend, receive, and live out the evangelical law, because we have only tasted of the fruits of the new creation, and still live partly in the old; we are thus still immature where Christ is the fully mature man, and can only receive and live out his revelation to the extent possible in our immature state and the immature state of the world itself.  Again, the sanctification of God’s people through history will lead to a fuller, but never perfect, understanding and practice of the imitation of Christ, until at the consummation, we are perfected in him and attain to the full stature of creation.  


58 thoughts on “Some Theses on Natural Law

  1. Peter Escalante

    Mike,Forgive me, but I'm not sure who you are (Michael Hickman?), so I don't know when you were in the discussion the first time. In any case, I don't disagree with you at all here. The line you quote from me was intended to get other interlocutors to clarify their position, and does in fact sum up a not uncommon sort of gnosticism one finds especially in "catholic-minded" Christians. I would however suggest that in your formulation here, whose substance I agree with, you take care about saying that personal encounter with the realized Man is "another kind of knowledge altogether" from the intuitive, while also using Polanyi's tacit/focal distinction, and further an abstract/concrete distinction. The first would be require more elucidation to be usefully meaningful, the second seems misapplied here (unless you are using the words in a sense markedly different from Polanyi), and the last also would be misapplied in this case.Matthew,I wonder by what sort of logical operation you derive your conclusions.. It is not a theologoumenon that Christ restores the state of man, it is the teaching of Scripture. What is at issue is whether that state was incomplete or not, and in what sense. If you were to read me carefully, you would find that from the beginning I said that Adam was experientially immature, and that human nature was complete "in outline", and that Adam lost a future degree of glory. The issue is whether nature was realized *enough* and persists *enough* to know that redemption restores and transfigures a familiar world, or whether redemption unveils a hitherto "reality" obscured from the uninitiate.Please do try to read what I write before essaying to reply. The case I made against Maximos' extravagances was one of exegetical method, not that he isn't Western or Calvinist. peace,P


  2. Peter,I think you misread me. You said–as if I claimed it were–"It is not a theologoumenon that Christ restores the state of man, it is the teaching of Scripture." You are of course correct it is. But you are not disagreeing with me. To do that, you would have to show that it is not a theologoumenon that "Christ *merely* restores that state." My post contains a "merely". In yours that "merely" conveniently disappears.Second, I never said the case you made against Maximos was that he wasn't Calvinist. Your second paragraph, though phrased as a rebuke to me for not reading you correctly, is based on a radically incorrect reading of me.I said that in the first second and third paragraph of your first response to Brad–in which you seem to argue that "Jesus is [not] a 'mature' Adam in some organic sense, which would make the first Adam out to be a germinal or larval phase of the 'what it was aimed to be' of human being."–in that comment, I argued, you presupposed an Augustinian anthropology, or at the least, gloss over the distinction between logos and tropos, which is the sort of distinction that would be made to explain how Adam was, and yet was not, mature, and was not, and yet was, like an acorn to the oak he would become.You have, now, but not then, responded that certain other of his doctrines are false. Sure. But that isn't on point for what I am saying. I'm not even arguing that his position is true, but that if you ignore the distinction between logos and tropos, you have not argued against a view that humanity, as creature, not only as fallen, is realized and revealed in the Incarnation.Now perhaps I misread you, and perhaps my argument isn't sound. But you would need to interact with it to prove it unsound.


  3. Mike Farley

    Peter,I am Mike Farley (my full name was in the post at the bottom left corner).You wrote:"I would however suggest that in your formulation here, whose substance I agree with, you take care about saying that personal encounter with the realized Man is "another kind of knowledge altogether" from the intuitive,"Well, if you read that sentence in light of the analogy that immediately follows, I think my meaning was tolerably clear. However, you are correct that it isn't strictly a completely different kind of knowledge; rather, it is a clearer awareness of knowledge that one already has. My point is that a direct, experiential encounter with Christ himself can elicit the kind of integration that Polanyi describes as a movement from tacit knowledge to focal awareness of previously known tacit truths, and that integration does represent a moment of learning and discovery. It is new knowledge, albeit a new kind of knowledge grounded thoroughly in one's prior knowledge of a whole range of particular on which one relies in the act of knowing.Since you didn't enlighten me about how I was allegedly misusing Polanyian concepts, I don't know what you mean. I've read a bit of Polanyi and studied with a Polanyi scholar, and I'm not aware that I am misapplying what he wrote (although I am extending his concepts to theology in a way that he did not do). Of course, not all knowledge of the natural law prior to a direct encounter with Christ is entirely tacit. Non-Christians who have never heard of Christ can and do have some theoretical knowledge of natural law derived from rational reflection on their experiences in the world. But the integration of tacit particulars into an increasingly clear focal awareness, conceptualization, and articulation of one's knowledge is the kind of event that happens repeatedly with ever expanding scope. I am simply claiming that an encounter with Christ can elicit just such an integration of one's prior knowledge of natural law that enables one to perceive its full realization in the person of Christ. That moment of discovery is experienced as a moment of genuine learning, of coming to see something that was previously unknown in a focal manner, even though it is completely based in and dependent upon knowledge that one already possesses in an unfocused and sometimes tacit manner.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey gents,Well, I’m back and ready to resume the discussion…glad to see it hasn’t carried on too much further over the weekend. I think that once you get to around 50 comments or so, discussions such as this start getting weighed down by all the loose threads and get hard to follow. So, I hope that after a couple more days, I can try to take several of the points raised here on board and put up a separate post that deals more systematically with some of the key questions. But in the meantime, let me make a start at answering some comments I haven’t yet answered. First is Steven’s, which he posted right before I posted my last big comment."I think you probably are familiar with the "spiritual" aspect of man, but since it has been the object of such critique over the 20th cent., you find it odd that we're emphasizing it again. Essentially I would say this- There is a category, found in both the Bible and in the philosophers (though with some difference), of "spirit," "soul," or "heart" which is distinct from the body. This aspect is most analogous to God's own spirituality and is in several places exalted over the body. This is done even by the words of our Lord, "Do not fear those kill the body but cannot kill the soul." Prov. 17:10 shows us that mere bodily discipline will do no good to those who do not have a right spiritual state."Yes, the notion of the “spiritual” in dualistic separability from the “physical” has been the object of heavy critique in the 20th century, both philosophically and theologically; and that’s why I am surprised to see you using it in such an unqualified way. Not all of the critiques made have been valid, but many of them need to be taken on board. In particular, dualistic formulations seem to me to clearly conflict with the way body and soul are understood in Scripture. I recall reading someone say (was it N.T. Wright, perhaps?) that for the biblical writers, the “soul” is not so much part of man, but is the whole of man viewed from a certain angle, or in terms of a certain relation. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the precise quote, which stated it much more cleanly and clearly than that. "That this "spiritual" aspect of the Christian life is even distinct from externals is shown by Paul when he flatly declares "…the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." That verse woke me from my "incarnational" and "sacramental" slumber. Then Psalm 51 came back into my mind boldly stating, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart." David doesn't seem to be nearly as interested in the sociological benefits of ritual (there are plenty) as he does the sincerity of the worshiper."You know, I’ve seen you say that before, and I’m as puzzled as ever by the statement. Paul says that in the specific context of exhorting Christians to bear with one another on different understandings of the continuing function of the Jewish cleanliness laws, which some are exalting to the point of making them more important than faith in Christ. This is not to say that “the kingdom of God has nothing to do with eating or drinking or with any such externals”–indeed, it is clear from elsewhere in the New Testament that the eating and drinking of the Eucharist are at the heart of the new Kingdom."Thus I would say that the "spiritual" kingdom is that which deals with the attitudinal direction of the heart, as well as the direction of faith and hope. It is directly united to Christ by faith and the Holy Spirit."Sure, but the way I see it, the “spirit” is that through which Christ comes to us to reorder the entirety of our being and our lives; it is not some separate part of us which relates to Christ and is transformed by Him, while the rest of our being merrily goes on doing “civil” and “natural” things. It’s like a doorway, not one half of a duplex. You go on to acknowledge something like this when you say “this always ends in action.” So I don’t understand why you can say that the Christian is “truly human” in a spiritual sense, but is no more or less human than anyone else when it comes to social, ethical, civil life. Matt Peterson made a similar objection, and I’d like to see your response. He also said, “reason and morality, precisely, are not fleshly aspects of man, but spiritual. So, so far as I can tell, it doesn't make sense, at all, to say that "truly human" language can be applied spiritually, but not to the realm of reason and morality. That's like saying medicine only affects us physically, but does not affect our bodies. The Spirit is the reasoning and moral part of man.”This goes to the heart of my confusion about your and Peter’s position. If we’re talking about Roman engineering and Greek mathematics as proof that natural man can know the way the world works without the Gospel, that’s all well and good. But as soon as we go to laws, politics, and ethics, it seems to me that we’re in the realm that is not merely tangentially affected by the Gospel, but immediately addressed by it: what does it mean to love my neighbor? Then, Steven, addressing my remarks about slavery as an example of the spiritual transformation of the civil in the New Covenant, you said, “It is true that the new heart makes things change. Slavery is a good example. But the essential point is that it is a gradual and voluntary change lead by persuasion. The Bible cannot be used to support any quick abolitionism or revolution….Persuasion is the tool here. The Christian sword is the Word, and thus to wield it, you use speech. Speech doesn't immediately cause revolution, of course, but instead rhetoric works on man's heart and mind, hopefully convincing him that he himself desires and wills the change. I like to use the recent movie Inception as an illustration of this. The protagonists have the task of planting an idea in someone's mind without letting that person realize that the idea is foreign. After one's soul is reoriented, then he willingly reworks his body out of goodwill to his neighbor, love, and gratitude. All of this works, though, apart from violence, dismantling of nature, or even really "undoing" any of the essential elements of creation. We are all for removing that which should not be there, and the clash that does occur is only that of a man in love with the vice. The Christian amputation, if you will, manages to leaves the limbs in place.”Absolutely! I don’t disagree with any of this (especially as you’ve invoked Inception)! I don’t understand why you and Peter suggest that I am suggesting violent and revolution–that certainly wouldn’t be very “Anabaptist” of me, and Yoder himself talks about “revolutionary subordination”–in other words, accomplishing a slow and powerful revolution by renouncing the ordinary, impatient tools of worldly revolution. To your account I would only add that the Christian works not merely by persuasion but by example. The Church seeks to model in the attitudes and social relations between its members what a true and fully natural because fully graced order would look like, and by this, not mere verbal persuasion, seeks to help transform society as a whole.Regarding Peter’s comment, I won’t interact in detail with it just now, except to say that I agree that Schmemann is not representative of Orthodoxy as a whole…he’s a bridge between the West and East, that’s all; and I agree that I wouldn’t want to use Maximos as a touchstone. Many of your requests for further clarification I will try to address in the follow-up post, rather than here in the comments; in particular, I wonder if I could simplify things by dropping the maturity language, with its admittedly somewhat confusing suggestion that natural law changes, and simply speak in terms of the change in the knowability of the natural law. I think I could make most of the points I want to simply in terms of the latter language, but we’ll see.One thing you said that I want to flag: unbelievers have knowledge of natural law “sufficient for civic order/civic righteousness. What is not given in postlapsarian nature, even with common grace, is power of pleasing God or loving neighbor as we ought.”As in my objection to Steven, so here: “loving our neighbor as we ought,” it seems to me, has a lot of bearing on “civic order/civic righteousness” which is all about how I am to relate to my neighbors. So, you need to clarify just how you’re dichotomizing these.Also, I do hope one of you will be able to interact with Minich’s recent comment and Farley’s comments, which I think could enable some valuable clarifications.


  5. Brad,I'm not entirely sure that a dispute over whether man is body plus spirit, or one coherent whole is on topic here. Not that your concerns aren't valid, or anything like that, but that the objection that man is body and spirit is not relevant. If someone "truly human" language could only be used in a physical sense, not a spiritual sense, the response that man is a coherent whole, and the spirit of man is the whole man viewed from a certain angle would be relevant. But since, on the classical position, the spirit is the most fundamental part of man, claiming that "truly human" only makes sense spiritually–that is, when the spirit of man, and not the whole man is the referent–amounts to claiming that "truly human" language only applies when the most significant part of man, the fundamental part of man, and the root of man is considered, but it doesn't make sense when applied to externals. Which though a formulation you wouldn't be pleased with, is not, on the question of whether we are "truly human only in Christ" not on point. Both sides answer in the affirmative.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s