October 1, 2012

Biblical Law versus Natural Law

The Enduring Relevance of Biblical Law, part 2

Biblical law stands in contrast to the dominant alternative, natural law theory, which for all its claims to neutrality, is in fact nothing more than a revived Stoic paganism, and is of no credibility in a world that lacks religious consensus.

Authority and Nature

For any kind of law to exist, there must be a law-giving authority. At the heart of the question of law is the question of Lordship. Who defines meaning, life and law for people? Our answer must be, the God of Scripture, the God of the covenant. All men are accountable to God, and for human society to flourish we must walk in the “old paths” in the “good way” if we would know life and rest (Jer. 6:16).

The Right Relationship between Law and Gospel

In many contemporary churches, to preach the law of God is to be exposed to ridicule and charges of Pharisaism, legalism, dominionism, and even heresy. This is rooted in the loss of the centerpiece of old evangelical theology: the relationship between law and gospel. Rightly discerning this relationship used to be regarded as the key to evangelical divinity. John Warwick Montgomery correctly identifies the problem:

Confusion of law and gospel is possible in two directions. Law may be invested with the quality of gospel, thereby deceiving men into thinking that they can save themselves through personal or societal efforts. But gospel may also try to replace law, producing what Bonhoeffer has classically phrased “cheap grace.” In the one case law swallows up gospel, and the result is legalism; in the other, gospel absorbs law, yielding antinomianism.[1]

The Alternative: Natural Law?

In Christian thought, the main rival to biblical law has been variations of natural law theory. Natural law is not an identifiable body of laws, but an abstraction. The concept was first developed by the Stoic philosophers of the late classical Greek period. After the death of Alexander the Great in 322 B.C., his empire fragmented into four realms and Greek culture became a state-worshiping culture. Maintaining classical culture required a coherent and cohesive political order – the doctrine of natural law provided the glue, arguing that there exists a universal law structure, and that all rational men can apprehend it. For the Stoic, reason itself was inherent in the universe as an impersonal principle (god), and so the rational state became the locus of divinity.

This error should be familiar as the illusory claim of autonomy and neutrality in knowledge, which lies at the root of paganism. Within such a worldview human beings will deify creation, their reason, and themselves as an aspect of this self-generating, self-explanatory order, and the human mind will furnish reality with truth and law and call that an expression of nature.

Antinomianism is Paganism Revived

This Stoic paganism which St Paul confronted on Mars Hill in Acts 17 has experienced a huge revival in the twentieth century in the modified form of post-secularism. This type of doctrine is at the root of contemporary human rights theory based on the monistic obliteration of all distinctions (from creator/creation to gender and sexuality distinctions). Such movements are an expression of resurgent paganism. The ideas of international law and this formulation of human rights are contemporary expressions of stoicism and Romanticism. These laws and rights that express the oneness of all things are allegedly inherent in nature or ‘humanity,’ and thus should be recognised by all nations as ‘citizens of the universe’ and ‘sons of god’ (gods).

The Inadequacy of Natural Law

Natural law has its appeal because it pretends to neutrality and so is perceived by many Christians as a ‘non-religious’ paradigm and therefore a useful tool for engagement with the ‘secular’ sphere. But the reality is, “Natural law theory serves temporarily as a believable political philosophy only when there is a common religious agreement beforehand. Shatter that religious agreement, and natural law theory becomes useless.”[2] As soon as religious consensus is lost, people’s vision of what ‘natural law’ is becomes totally disparate or is abandoned altogether.

Scripture teaches that the human problem is essentially ethical, not a lack of information. Sinful humanity, in the face of our better knowledge, chooses evil – the Fall radically affected human reasoning, not just a person’s soul and body. As such, reason, with its self-generated moral and political order, cannot save. Without a Christian vision of God and the human person, political life is doomed to be a mere exercise of power, indifference and selfishness.

The Freedom of Biblical Law

The Roman Empire fell as consensus eroded over classical religion and philosophy, providing the opportunity for a biblical and Hebraic understanding of the creator-creature distinction, revealed law, and freedom from the tyranny of ‘oneness’ to take root. This worldview spread freedom under God wherever it went. For Christians to try to save modern civilization by an appeal to natural law is to appeal to classical philosophy; this is tantamount to a death wish. St Paul certainly teaches that all human beings know the work of God’s law though they may not be conscious of all its precepts – they recognise by created instinct the work of God’s law on their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to this reality (Rom. 2:14-15). However, though people know this, they don’t want to obey it.  Just as they see God’s attributes and power in creation but refuse to honour God and worship the creation instead, so they know God’s requirement and sanctions in their conscience, but rebel against it. Thus the work of God’s law known by common grace (not by natural law) serves only to condemn people in their sin and rebellion; it does not provide an alternate law structure to Biblical law.

The Cost of Lawlessness

The antinomian error has cost the church dearly, as lawless and biblically illiterate Christians are left floundering without a guide or anchor in the confusion of contemporary Western culture. Without a concept of Christian law, and the clear teaching of God’s law in churches, young people find themselves adopting ethical theories and legal frameworks that are not only inferior to, but hostile toward, biblical law. Moral progressivism in education leads many professing Christians to the conclusion that God needs to be updated, that what was morally true in the first, fifth, or seventeenth centuries can’t possibly be true today, and that God’s word needs to be subject to radical revisionism or its authority essentially denied. Without one transcendent law, all that remains are the crumbs of judicial pluralism.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “The Enduring Relevance of Biblical Law,” in the Summer 2012 issue of Jubilee.


[1] John Warwick Montgomery: Law and Gospel: A Study Integrating Faith and Practice (Edmonton: Christian Legal Fellowship, 1994), p. 9

[2] Sutton, That You May Prosper, p. 183

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