The term natural law is used to mean a body of ethical imperatives supposedly inherent in human beings and discovered by human reason. It therefore differs from statute law, from supernaturally revealed law, and even from so-called “laws of nature.”
The word “natural” is, of course, highly ambiguous. Even “natural law” has been defined in various ways; it now means different things to different people. Some find the notion lacking in precise content. Others say natural law changes with an evolving society. Others distinguish between “good and bad natural laws.”
What natural law theory essentially opposes is the notion that moral law is subjective, evolutionary, pragmatic, or existential. What it excludes is a distillation of moral law from the transcendent supernatural, that is, from divine revelation. What it affirms is that all human beings share a set of ethical norms and imperatives that they commonly perceive without dependence on supernatural disclosure and illumination. Humanity, in short, universally knows a body of morally binding laws that shape a common pattern of social behavior, and moreover knows these imperatives without reference to transcendent revelation.
Any case for natural law must therefore be made on natural foundations and independently of supernatural considerations.
Natural law theory has in modern times come under spirited attack, but the Roman Catholic Church remains a most vigorous champion. It has been said, quite properly, that without an appeal to natural law, virtually the entire spectrum of Catholic moral theory would lose force.
Objections to natural law theory are several and varied: that all authentic law is divine, that all law is positive law (that is, established by the state), that law is culture-conditioned tradition, that law is evolutionary, that law is utilitarian, that law is merely the self-interest of the mighty, or contrariwise, that it is the invention of the weak. Assuredly not all these conflicting objections can be valid. Proponents of natural law dismiss all of them as groundless.
Thomas Aquinas is considered the classic proponent of Christian natural law theory, while Protestant Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther, are usually considered its main opponents.
Protestant critics contend that the derivation of natural law from what is inherent in human nature implies that God and the supernatural are irrelevant to moral knowledge, and moreover that the theory does not take sufficient cognizance of the epistemic impact of sin upon the life of man.
The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), regarded as the father of international law, drew from the theory of the independence of natural law the inference that it would be valid “even if God did not exist.” In our own generation Paul Sieghart argues from the fact that contemporary political documents carefully stipulate international human rights to the view that no need therefore exists for “systems of divine or natural law” since “recourse is no longer necessary to the Creator or to Nature, or to belief in either of them.” Thus rationalism exploits a suspended appeal to the supernatural by formulating a case for human rights and duties without any reference either to God or to natural law.
Recent ecumenical conferences have endeavored to narrow Protestant-Catholic differences over natural law. Some participants have argued that the Reformers in fact supported natural law, or that they advanced a different variety of it. William Klempa surveys twentieth-century scholarship on the issue of natural law in Calvin and declares it “a major battleground.” One main group of Calvin interpreters contends that natural law has no place in Calvin’s teaching; another, that his ethical, political, and social views are rooted in a natural law view.
Even some scholars specializing in Protestant Reformation studies have advanced the notion that the Reformers endorsed natural law. John T. McNeill finds in them “no real discontinuity” with a natural law emphasis. Except possibly for Zwingli, he concludes, the Reformers accept natural law and even consider it affirmed by Scripture. “The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology,” he asserts, “cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality the positive utterances on law scattered through the works of the Reformers.” R. C. Sproul argues that evangelical interpreters have misunderstood Calvin, and he insists that the Reformer affirms natural law.
Lutheran scholar Carl Braaten emphasizes that there are diverse formulations of natural law and that Protestant criticism has been directed especially against the Thomistic view, whereas natural law theory need not be correlated with “the medieval Thomistic-Aristotelian synthesis.” Braaten insists that “the pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment developments in philosophy, especially utilitarianism and positivism.” Braaten thinks that ecumenical dialogue on natural law is especially needed today to confront current philosophical deconstructionism, which degrades meaning and truth as the creative imposition of the knowing subject. He calls for a rehabilitation of reason, all the more important since appeals to reason are now readily dismissed as historically conditioned. The Reformation did not bar the door, he emphasizes, “to every kind of natural theology, natural law, and rational morality.”
Yet evangelical Reformed scholars are in the main unimpressed by the effort to channel the Reformation in support of natural law. Judged by the history of thought, some suggest, the verdict that Calvin taught natural law theory is as surprising and as unjustifiable as Hans Kung’s contention that Calvin held the Roman Catholic version of justification. Those who seek to catholicize Calvin, they insist, fail to plot accurately the distinctions the Reformer makes. Braaten sees no necessary opposition between evangelical affirmation and an appeal to universal justice and morality to which all have access through reason and conscience. But natural law involves more than that.
The issues at stake are of fundamental importance. Modernity substitutes political consensus for divine moral law, whereas natural law theory holds political consensus answerable to universal norms. Despite its naturalistic stance, modernity seeks, unavailingly, to find some semblance of transcendent anchorage, or metaphysical linkage, however vague, that will escape complete subjectivism or relativism in ethics. Yet the contemporary spirit seems unable to achieve intellectual justification for the universal validity of all, or any, moral commitments. The concept of a mega-truth or a mega-good-some transcendent network to which truth claims and ethical claims are linked-is precluded both by the naturalistic reduction of reality to impersonal processes and by the postmodern disavowal of objective meaning, objective truth, and objective good.
Not only for the intellectual elite but increasingly for popular culture also, truth and right reflect only a synthesis of empirically observed relationships; they are unanchored in a transcendently based authority and require no reference to an eternal supernatural God. However exacting modern empirical methods claim to be, they cannot for all that attain to the unrevisability of divine attributes. Neither a cosmos-centered nor a human-centered worldview can transcend space-time relativities. If the universe is only a theater for human relationships of power, human reasoning even at best cannot identify universally valid norms or transcend fallible approximations of any perfect standard. The greatest appeal of natural law theory lies in the claim that it mirrors universally shared norms and moral principles that lift humanity above modern subjectivism and relativism. Yet the Reformers in principle questioned the epistemic viability of natural law theory, whether stated in pre-Christian Greco-Roman terms or on premises pursued by Thomas Aquinas. The Reformers do have a doctrine of transcendent and universal morality, but it is based on different foundations. Upon the resolution of this conflict may well turn the moral fortunes of the Western world, and beyond that, ultimately, the entire planet.
If natural law controversy has turned the philosophical arena into a battleground, over what issues is the battle joined? What are the central features of natural law theory as Thomas Aquinas sketched them, and what essentially is the response of critics?
The three contentions of the Thomist doctrine of natural law that evoke evangelical criticism are: (1) that independently of divine revelation, (2) there exists a universally shared body or system of moral beliefs, (3) that human reasoning articulates despite the noetic consequences of the Adamic fall. Calvin’s view differs from that of Thomas in at least three respects. He teaches that (1) the law of nature is grounded in divine revelation and does not exist independently; (2) it is innately bestowed at man’s creation and is prephilosophical and not derived from observation and experience; (3) it does not survive in human knowledge as a universally shared system of truth and morality but, while maintaining man’s accountability, is fragmented due to the repellent intervention of sin.
Christianity offers no speculative theory of ethics that renders certain courses of action personally and socially obligatory. The existence and priority of God known in his revelation is its basic affirmation. Speculative views may consider the existence or nonexistence of God irrelevant to ethical concerns, but for evangelical Christianity the content of morality turns on divine revelation and the Bible. One reason Protestant orthodoxy has in the past not devoted itself extensively to speculative morality is that it does not derive the essential content of ethics from philosophical reasoning but from rational revelation. This need not denigrate moral reflection, but it precludes derivation of the content of ethics from natural law no less than from tradition or evolutionary conjecture. The integrity of Christian ethics requires an affirmation of God in His revelation, and not simply shared values in the public order and deeper stress on the common good.
The Reformers did not deny that moral phenomena are set within a larger order of existence and comprise a transcendent reality knowable to human reason and not reducible to evolutionary or existential or experiential factors. They insisted on a theological account of ethics; any deontologized theory of ethics was excluded. Evangelical Protestants are doubtful that Thomas derived his natural law theory from Judeo-Christian ontology. The ancients who adduced natural law-notably Aristotle and the Stoics-predicated it on unacceptable ontologies. Freedom, truth, justice, and order do not depend for their credibility on a natural law theory. Thomas may have thought that he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.
To their discredit, Western societies, long elevated above paganism by the vitalities of revealed religion, are today crumbling through their defection from the Judeo-Christian heritage. The loss of that inheritance has accommodated levels of brutality and vice reminiscent of barbarian heathen societies in the pre-Christian era. Not even Muslim philosophical and political thought, for all its reliance on force and its cruel intolerance of Christian believers, accords reason and morality an autonomous status, although Muslims to be sure allege that truth and justice are inaccessible to human reason except for the Khalif as Muhammad’s successor.
The current drift to nihilism is a futile effort to erase from consciousness any awareness of God the infinite sovereign, the Lord of the mind, the commander of the will, and of his entrustment of imperatives of truth and morality to his creatures. Rejecting the rationality of God and any and all intelligible access to the divine, the modern spirit derives humanity instead from animal evolution and seeks to relativize the realm of being. Its flirtation with utilitarianism and with logical positivism has obscured criteria whereby to identify what is objectively transcendent and true.
Calvin does not disconnect the human awareness of moral accountability from the living God, nor does he connect it with philosophical reasoning. It does not function, as it were, “in separation from the whole of theology.” Knowledge of an irreducible distinction between truth and falsehood and between good and evil is for Calvin prephilosophical, as is knowledge of God and of an outer world of selves and things. To know God is to know truth and the good. Consequently a theory of isolated moral principles inherent in man and discoverable by reason has no legitimacy.
The sin-warped predicament of man in whom God’s creation-image is now flawed raises questions also about a body of commonly or universally perceived ethical imperatives. It is not in question that humans are confronted in general divine revelation by the will of the Creator, and that such revelation contains both formal and material elements. What is in question is the ability of sinful humanity to translate the moral revelation into a universally shared body of ethical truth.
If, as champions of natural morality insist, human nature is inherently structured with imperatives, how can humans know that these very requirements are ethically legitimate? The proponents of natural law are self-precluded from appealing to Scripture or special revelation (or even to general revelation). It is difficult to protect any form of intuitionism against the emergence of Hitler or Stalin or Mao who entrench counter-imperatives in vast segments of society. More than that, we are all, but for God’s grace, potential Hitlers. The predicament of man in sin includes a propensity for perversion of religious reality. What humanity affirms solely on the basis of inherent instincts and philosophical reasoning lacks normative force; only what God says in Scripture and has disclosed in Christ is normative.
Calvin emphasized, indeed, that divine law is inscribed on human conscience. But to depict this as only a species of natural law is a pejorative characterization. The knowledge of God’s revealed will turns on a revelation of divine information, and on some understanding of the supernatural. Ethical standards are supernatural in origin and stipulation. They involve the divine activity of general and special revelation and the imago dei, sullied yet real.
To go against conscience is indeed always wrong, yet conscience needs to be educated and corrected by Scripture. Calvin did not contrast the law of nature with biblical teaching, but rather viewed the law of nature as God’s law given in creation.
William Klempa steers a middle course on Calvin, attributing to him a revised concept of natural law. Klempa appeals to a passage in the final chapter of the Institutes unaltered in successive editions: “It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing less than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men.” Calvin considers the moral law to have been revealed by the Creator at the outset of human existence. It governs man’s pre-fall state and regulates his post-fall condition. The moral law is eternal, unchanging, and universal, and teaches that God is to be worshiped and that humans ought to love each other. The moral law thus summarizes the Decalogue.
By the law of nature, says Klempa, Calvin means the uncorrupted nature of man and of the world before the fall. Although aware of the corpus of pagan laws, Calvin invoked revealed law as the criterion for evaluating them. “While natural law is ultimately identical with the divine law, the relations of the law of nature as we know it and divine law are not now simply identical,” Klempa comments. “Sin obscures . . . humanity’s comprehension of the law of nature. The written law has been revealed to remove the obscurity.”
Klempa concludes that Calvin departed from the earlier natural law tradition by identifying natural law with moral law. There is but one law obligating Gentiles and Jews alike. Calvin’s references to natural law are not peripheral, but, as Harro Hopfl remarks, “Calvin never allowed to natural knowledge of the moral law any independent adequacy as a guide to moral conduct for Christians.” Yet, contrary to Hopfl, says Klempa, Calvin held that natural law maxims provide “enough moral knowledge to enable pagans to sustain a semblance of civility and to condemn them in their own consciences, and they are also supplementary political resources for the Christian.” Moreover, Calvin affirmed that a natural order of laws “can be discerned, and men and women do in fact discern it.” But this is not unqualified, Klempa says. “What is objectively available to them they subjectively repulse, or else misconstrue and pervert. [But although] God’s righteousness may again and again be held down in unrighteousness, Calvin is convinced that it could not be nullified.” The moral light that unredeemed humanity possesses indeed “has power to distinguish between what is just and unjust, what is good and what is evil. Men and woman have a ‘natural instinct’ for government and the preservation of society . . . . Pagans understand many aspects of good behavior that are reinforced by the teaching of Scripture.”
Braaten emphasizes that “none of the confessional documents of the Reformation,” whether in Lutheran or Calvinist traditions, rejects natural law per se. The Reformers acknowledged that all human beings can know something of God’s law through the works of creation by means of conscience and reason. Moral principles are universally inscribed in human nature and are directly ascertainable by human reason. For all that, the Reformers took sin seriously. Braaten would even say that sin distorts human reason and disorients the image of God in man. Yet he insists that ontological givens are not destroyed.
Braaten proposes that Protestant social ethics appropriate the natural law tradition, although with certain modifications. He recommends that “nature” in the concept of natural law be reunderstood as “the immanent structure of human reason”-in theological terms, the imago dei-and that “law” in natural law refer to “a moral principle written into human hearts by God,” and therefore possessing universal validity. In brief, Braaten seeks to make the doctrine of natural law acceptable by redefining it.
Braaten emphasizes that natural law is given for the ordering of society, not for salvation. Yet he insists that natural law must be correlated with eschatology, a stipulation that some think relativizes the universal applicability of justice. Braaten’s exposition of an otherwise powerful alternative to natural law theory is also needlessly weakened because, alongside his vigorous emphasis on the factuality of the imago dei in man and on a creation-bestowed ethic, he surrenders to negative biblical criticism the literal historical significance of the Genesis creation account.
Some Catholic scholars consider Braaten’s proposals only a diversion, one that multiplies terminological confusion. If one speaks congenially of varieties of natural law, they fear, one might ultimately be reduced to only a minimalist consent. Some scholars speak of various traditions of natural law, but once someone speaks only of tradition he gives away the case for universal normativity. Natural law presupposes that all humans are involved whether they prefer to be or not.
Yet the recognition of varieties and traditions does not in principle rule out an appeal to a creation ethic and to general revelation as preferable to the Thomistic and other doctrines of natural law. If someone truly understands the essential differences between a creation ethic and Thomistic natural law theory, however, he must view natural law as a discredited way to conceptualize universal moral responsibility. Lutheran theology derived ethical norms not from human nature, as does Thomism, but from the divine orders of creation.
The main objections to approving the Scholastic doctrine of natural law were, first, the intrusion of sin into the created order and its consequences for the intellect, and second, the elevation of human reason above divine revelation in adducing ethical standards.
Stanley Hauerwas rejects natural law as yielding neither an independent nor a sufficient morality. Reason loosed from revelation cannot know any normative reality, he protests; it disintegrates into secular despair. Hauerwas asks how it is that if aborting a fetus is morally evil on grounds of natural law, it is mainly Roman Catholics who make that judgment. Paul Lehmann similarly disavows any “common link” in the human reason of believers and nonbelievers that yields shared ethical judgments.
Sir William Blackstone, whose monumental Commentaries on the Laws of England (published in 1765) deeply influenced jurisprudence, affirmed in a seminal chapter on “The Nature of Laws in General” that the will of man’s Creator is called “the law of nature.” “This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is . . . superior in obligation to all other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.” We are not to conclude, Blackstone comments, that the knowledge of truths written in Scripture “was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state.” The written form “revealed more effectively to fallen man the original law . . . that God had placed and revealed in the created order from the beginning.”
Recent generations, by contrast, have increasingly viewed references in the early American political documents to “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” “self-evident” truths, “inalienable rights,” and so forth, as reflective of a natural law tradition, especially Deism. But some recent writers insist that neither Enlightenment Deism nor other rationalistic nonbiblical sources-not even ancient Greek and Roman sources-are primogenitors of such ideas. Instead, they contend, Christian law and legal theory directly influenced these documents. The concept of “the law of nature or of God” was used many centuries before the emergence of the Deists, and not by Thomas Aquinas alone. Even in British common law tradition, emphasizes Gary T. Amos, “law of nature” meant the eternal moral law that God the Creator established over his created universe.
Blackstone, as noted previously, remarked that the will of the Creator is called “the law of nature” and he wrote expressly of the “law of nature” being “dictated by God himself.” Others used “law of nature” and “law of God” interchangeably. Hence Amos contends that “Every key term in the Declaration of Independence had its roots in the Bible, Christian theology, the Western Christian intellectual tradition, medieval Christianity, Christian political theory, and the Christian influence on the six-hundred-year development of the English common law.” Most of the nation’s founders had a special regard for God and the Bible, and for Christian principles. They did not necessarily use the terms they did in a deistic sense. They did not regard faith and reason as alternatives, but believed in intelligible divine revelation. “The laws of nature and of nature’s God” was a shorthand phrase for natural revelation and for special revelation: “creation law” and “scriptural law” were not at odds.
The dual reference to law of nature and law of God presumably arose from the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 and 2. John Murray in his volume on Paul’s epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary series argues that the term “law of nature” is a Christian concept rooted in Scripture, not a secular concept to be grasped independently of a revelatory epistemology. To interpret Romans 1 and 2 in deistic terms of natural religion is unjustifiable.
Luther may not have used the phrase “the orders of creation,” but there is no doubt that he expounded the idea and employed related terms. It is through him that Lutheran theologians derived the conception of a creation ethic. Braaten observes that the nineteenth-century German Lutheran Adolf von Harless notably put special emphasis on “the orders of the Creator.” The core of the doctrine is that apart from and prior to (although in tension with) the special revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, the moral law and commandment of God the Creator confronts all human beings through and in divinely given structures of creation, or a framework of universal orders, as givens of their creaturely existence. The doctrine was more fully elaborated in the 1930s by the German Lutheran theologians Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, and Walter Kunneth among others, and also by some Calvinist dogmaticians, especially Emil Brunner.
Karl Barth rejected both Catholic natural law and Lutheran derivation of ethical norms from the orders of creation. He treated a creation ethic with the same disdain as natural law, on the grounds that the fall turned “an objective possibility created by God” into a subjective possibility no longer open to man. More usually the law inscribed on man’s nature and reaffirmed in special written revelation is depicted as objective rather than subjective. But Barth’s misguided denial of general revelation and his view of the fallibility of Scripture cancels the objective character of both. Natural law Barth dismisses as a fruitless moral quest by those who are strangers to or who ignore divine revelation and the Bible.
Without shared basic beliefs and consensus on what is good or evil no culture can long hope to escape disintegration. A piecemeal ethic, reflecting the conflicting moral precepts and preferences of competing societies, cannot rescue and redirect the masses in social distress.
Natural law theory promises uniformity of truth claims and of moral conviction and behavior. But the watershed for natural law theory came when Grotius professed to deduce natural law solely on humanistic premises independent of a divine mind or will, and hence apart from any religious framework. Some sponsors of the doctrine sought to ground it in the nature and will of God, but the diversity of human moral codes-and the claim of secular anthropologists to find contrary and contradictory ideals and practices in conflicting cultures-brought that into question. Yet a sinful race will corrupt any and every standard; there is no need to treat perversion as an ideal. Still, the argument is insufficient: natural law theorists-reaching back to and beyond the pre-Socratics-have themselves at times disagreed over the precise content of natural law. It has been invoked to defend freedom and slavery, hierarchy and equality.
Many critics have protested that the notion of autonomous reason on which natural law theory relies eventually becomes a rival to God and His Word. But more and more moderns now argue, rather, that human nature can no longer be depicted in terms of a basic human essence or purpose; instead, human nature is considered fluid in the process of evolutionary change, and logical and moral principles are alleged to be so as well. What is at stake here is a conflict of worldviews, and in this circumstance a presupposition of the self-revealed mega-divinity, the moral creator of all, offers the one prospect of objective truth, objective meaning, objective justice, and objective hope.
Barth’s vigorous dismissal of a creation ethic as but a contemporary restatement of natural theology and natural law was unjustified. Theologians who supported a creation ethic did so as an alternative to the Thomist-Aristotelian conception of natural law. To be sure, creation ethic doctrine holds that, prior to salvific knowledge of Jesus Christ, human beings universally have some knowledge of right and good through the divine law of creation addressed to reason and conscience. No less than natural law theory, this doctrine stands over against ancient and modern dismissals of ethical norms as essentially conditioned by subjectivism, historical development, cultural environment, or evolutionary change, and thus shares with natural law the insistence on an objective truth and good. But it does this on quite different grounds.
Summarizing the creation ethic, Braaten defines the orders of creation as “the common structures of human existence, the indispensable conditions of the possibility of social life.” The orders are “givens that can be experienced and recognized by human reason apart from faith and theology.” One does not need to be a Christian to know these givens, though those who believe in God will acknowledge that the common structures of human existence are God’s creation. God continues to create and sustain these orders despite mankind’s fall into sin. The orders of creation are nonetheless now “shot through with the powers of sin and death.” Yet the orders remain “the media through which the command of God addresses” human conscience; God speaks in and through the law written on human hearts. “God continues to order the natural life of humanity by means of the concrete historical structures that impinge on our existence,” e.g., sex, marriage, and the family, labor and economics, government and culture.
No “empty world” exists, therefore, wherein for the first time believers need to introduce the law of God. God is ongoingly at work through “the law that orders life in the world.” That law confronts all humans in their empirical existence; no sphere of life exists where it does not impinge on human conscience.
The Genesis account of the creation and fall of man leaves no doubt that definitive knowledge of good and evil is a divine prerogative and not a matter of human willing or doing. Only if and as God wills and reveals it, and not simply on the basis of man’s own nature and prerogatives, can man have knowledge of good and evil. In his fallen condition, man’s self-perception skews the actualities; we differ from what we think we know ourselves to be, and God differs from what we think Him to be. Yet in and through the imago dei, flawed but not nullified, humans are perpetually confronted by their Maker. In sin man seeks to repulse and revise God’s universal revelation to, and in, the mind and conscience; yet despite the attempted cancellation of God’s disclosure some light survives. It does not endure as a universally shared network of beliefs or system of doctrine, however, but rather in the form of fragmented knowledge that preserves every person’s obligation and answerability to his Creator and abets civic order.
This argument takes on special significance in light of modernity’s confusions concerning the moral order. Phillip E. Johnson writes of “the ambivalence with which our contemporary legal culture regards the proposition that there exists some objective standard of right and wrong against which human legal standards can be measured.” Affirmation of such a standard seems to deny our moral autonomy and any right to set our own standards, whereas denial of a higher law seems to embrace nihilism, leaving us powerless against those who would dictate the law.
Johnson connects this impasse with the theme of the death of God, which liberates us to do whatever we want, yet strips us of any objective basis for challenging whatever others may want to do to us. The eclipse of God confronts us with a dilemma: we want, as Arthur Leff once put it, at one and the same time “to discover the right and the good and to create it.” The “death” of God, in short, effects “the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative, extrasystematic premises.” “Modernist rationalism” is giving way in the universities, Johnson affirms, to “postmodern nihilism,” as one myth replaces another.
In his construction of natural law, Thomas Aquinas did not deny the historic Christian belief in the existence of God and of a revealed moral law with supernatural authority. What he emphasized, rather, is the existence of a “natural law” whose content is universally accessible to human reason independently of divine revelation on the basis of academic philosophy. The crucial issue then becomes how much moral law can be known by natural reason apart from transcendent divine revelation.
The modern outlook rejects premodern belief in God and the doctrines of divine creation and supernatural revelation. It recognizes no authority other than human authority. It assumes that the universe is amoral and that social norms are an evolutionary byproduct. The modernist impasse in law arises in this context, as Johnson notes, not from an identification of human liberties but from the imposition of human duties.
Leff enumerated many unpersuasive efforts to vindicate an objective moral order on a merely human foundation. These include, says Johnson, such substitutes for deity as the command of a sovereign ruler, the view of the majority, utilitarian appeal to the happiness of the greatest number, the Supreme Court’s flexible interpretations of the Constitution, and projected values such as equity or autonomy. Leff discerned that modernity is involved in a struggle to escape the nihilism implicit in its rejection of an objective source of values. Nonetheless, he resigned himself to the absence of a supernatural and transcendent evaluator. Although he insisted, or at least acknowledged, that evil is evil-whether totalitarian mass murder, or napalming babies, or starving the poor-he remained committed to modernist presuppositions.
Primarily because it assumes the validity of Darwinian evolution-which in principle excludes any role for a Creator-modernist reasoning, Johnson emphasizes, denies that humans are responsibly made in the divine image. “Modernist philosophy,” Johnson says, “teaches that when we lost God, we lost only a projection of the best that was in ourselves.” He depicts as “a classic example of circular reasoning” the fact that Darwinian theory rests not on unprejudiced examination of evidence but on the prior assumption of the philosophy of naturalism. Not even “religion” can offer an escape from the modernist impasse if it secretly subscribes to the modernist definition of rationality. Modernist liberalism considers religious belief inherently nonrational. But rational secular morality “cannot conclusively decide” value questions, whether the survival value of the destitute or of fetal life. Common secular rationality, if it endeavors to resolve such concerns, must rely on unprovable assumptions. “Giving modernists the power to define rationality assures that, even if ‘religion’ is allowed a modest place in public discussion, God will continue to be effectively excluded.”
Modern rationalism, Johnson emphasizes, holds to the existence of a common secular rationality that presumably can resolve public issues without reliance on unprovable assumptions. But political decisions are not reached apart from basic religious and metaphysical beliefs. If the views of atheists and agnostics alone were acceptable in the public domain, those beliefs distinctive of theists, and especially of Christians who hold that God is relevant to all arenas of life, would be excluded. One’s view of the nature of the ultimately real world bears in crucial ways on all life-decisions. Much as one may appeal to universal rationality as supplying the content of ethics, universally shared norms cannot be distilled from what Johnson depicts as “the unanchored, self-validating human mind.”
The human predicament, Johnson stresses, has its root cause in “humankind’s alienation from God.” The atheistic rationalism and the nihilism now permeating contemporary life are inevitable consequences of the apostasy expressed in the mindless Darwinian theory of evolution. Its naturalistic philosophical supports are more and more vulnerable if and as it proposes to connect responsibility with anything beyond humanity itself.
What moral power, then, can serve as a potent restorative and cohesive social force? Nothing other than respect for the commandment of God given at the creation of the human race. It is not by reading the entrails of evolutionary nature but by recognizing anew the Divine Valuator and a recovery of the imago dei that law will regain its power.
Carl F. H. Henry , the distinguished evangelical theologian, is currently Visiting Professor of Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His most recent book is The Gods of This Age and the God of the Ages (Broadman/Holman).
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?