At risk of violating some secret handshake agreement on some important nuance to “natural law,” I will sum up what I understand in my own words. As far as I can tell natural law is supposed to be an area of knowledge that all people should be able to agree upon by the right use of reason whether or not they believe or have access to special revelation. This idea is often conflated with the concept of “general revelation” except that general revelation reveals the one true God. “Natural law” can be accepted and believed without any such acknowledgement.
I believe in general revelation but I don’t understand where the idea of natural law comes from. Rather than rehearsing my theological problems with the idea, however, I want to address the new political reality we live under since the Supreme Court declared that 1) same sex marriages exist, at least as a non-contradictory concept, and 2) same sex couples have a right to form such alleged marriages. I find (2) mostly superfluous. It is (1) that I think should cause the immediate disillusionment in natural law.
Along with the Supreme Court ex cathedra declaration, we have the Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner transformation to consider.
To demonstrate to you why I find natural law so much less credible in the wake of these tragedies, let me illustrate with an example of another kind of belief: six-day creationism and “young earth” chronology.
I mostly hate the fact that I have to believe and teach six-day creationism and “young earth” chronology. I believe it is true because God says so in the Bible and I’ve never found attempts to find any other meaning in Scripture to be credible. But believing in a “young earth” is not a pleasant cognitive experience. Part of the problem is that I read a bunch of swords-and-sorcery type fiction growing up. The idea of countless millennia of forgotten history in the human past is now innately attractive to my imagination. (J. R. R. Tolkien bears some of the blame here!) I realize that isn’t close to the billions of years desired by modern science, but it is still impossible to fit in the Bible’s history.
Another consideration that is probably more relevant to all Christians who believe in the Bible’s chronology is that it is intellectually embarrassing amid today’s scientific consensus. If you want to convince someone the Bible is true you don’t want to start with Genesis 1 and 2. You want to appeal to a much later chapter in the history, one much closer to our own time, and convince people that Jesus is who he said he is. Then, when they trust Jesus, they can reconsider the scientific consensus in light of what the Bible reveals.
That’s the situation we are in. Genesis 1 and 2 are an embarrassment because no one thinks creation in six days, including river beds and trees instantly appearing, is credible.
I have become accustomed to living with this pressure and do my best to be persuasive despite this obstacle. But what I am not used to at all is to find myself having to tell people that, “Really, God created humans male and female.”
But that is exactly the cultural consensus that we are being confronted by in our ruling class. Same-sex pairings are equally as valid and must be equally as healthy as opposite-sex pairings. I never thought I would have to resort to divine authority to establish that human beings are male and female and that this biological structure should impact how we culturally define marriage and the family. But that is where we are.
Wherein, in the past, the following passages would have been acknowledged as reflecting some basic anthropological and biological truths, even by unbelievers who would never accept them as real history, now they are nothing more than “dogmas” and superstitions:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18-24 ESV)
So if this fundamental reality can be denied, what exactly is the territory of “natural law” that believers and non-believers can both agree upon? Where is that common ground?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s not any other “secular” area of agreement that could be as important as this. If people can’t recognize a marriage as a fundamental unit embedded in human nature, then what could they possibly see in nature that isn’t just a matter of chance rather than an ability to recognize reality?
Of course, one can reply that the reason same-sex “marriage” is being posited is that people are not rightly using reason. It is surely correct that they are not reasoning correctly, but where is the evidence that correct reasoning is possible apart from loyalty to the true God and a willingness to serve him? The evidence seems to suggest to me that the more people resist the witness of God in Scripture as transmitted by His people, the more they become fundamentally blind to reality.
Is it worth attempting to salvage the ideal of natural law by positing some kind of ideal unbeliever who is at once an enemy of the true God yet sufficiently objective about a body of available truth to recognize its existence? It seems to me that unbelievers recognize all sorts of truths and deny all sorts of truths. The only way to find “common ground” is to get to know the unbeliever you wish to communicate with.
But why would there be a single body of truth that would be affirmed by all reasonable unbelievers? How can we argue for such a thing without first begging the question on who is and is not “reasonable”? Once we have asserted such a thing, we have essentially granted an area in which man can function autonomously without submitting to Jesus as Lord. Perhaps there is a way out of this problem but it seems to me you are creating an area in creation where the creature can function without needing the Creator. That seems more like a path to secularism than any kind of Christian philosophy.
But that is really off-topic from my main point here. Even if there is such a kind of “reasonableness” that both Christian and non-christian can use to agree on a shared body of knowledge, no one seems to stay reasonable. Whole cultures are completely immune to it.
Of course, on the basis of a belief in general revelation, one could claim that people in this culture know “deep down” that same-sex marriage is not appropriate for the human race. I agree. Just like people know “deep down” that the true God, the creator of the universe, exists and that he will hold each one of us accountable for every thought, word, and deed. Just like anyone acquainted with the basics of the Christian story knows “deep down” that it must be true. But discounting the true God and the Christian story leads to some pretty severe cognitive consequences. People go crazy and can’t remember the importance of male and female to the human race.
I fully endorse arguing from shared beliefs with non-christians. There is nothing wrong with Christian pointing out the biology of mammals in order to get unbelievers to stop being stupid. But these unbelievers will know, correctly, that the real reason we “see” the essential nature of the male and female division in humanity, is because God taught us verbally that he made us that way.
It was perfectly legitimate for G. E. Moore to argue for the existence of “the external world” by waving his hand. But to every skeptic who is convinced we are isolated minds sharing a common fantasy, the argument appears completely question-begging. Likewise, I think we will find all our arguments from nature are treated as question-begging by those who refuse to learn what God has to say about nature. They will accuse us of imposing a superstition on the data—mainly the first two chapters of Genesis.
The distinction between general revelation and special revelation seems to admit of degrees. General revelation was always “mixed” with special revelation. Adam and Eve had to have hearing in order to hear God speak (I’m assuming God vibrated the air rather than use mental telepathy). God couldn’t single out a tree to prohibit it unless Adam could see the tree and know what God was referring to.
But the Genesis story, in addition to telling us that God made us, also reveals that God started our first verbal culture. God talked and interacted with Adam and Eve from the moment He created them. As far as we know, Adam and Eve were shocked when Cain was born without any verbal capacity. They then interacted with him as he developed until he could talk.
So general revelation was never meant to function apart from a tradition of human language transmission. If you want to see how general revelation functions “by itself” you need to look at stories of feral children. The evidence is that general revelation without speech communication (even idolatrous and ignorant communication) doesn’t reveal much of any practical use.
One final thought: I used to describe our intellectual culture as thoroughly Darwinistic. That doesn’t really ring true in light of recent developments. It seems more like it has a superficial function. Darwinism is merely useful as a way of assuring people that Christianity is not true. Other than that, people don’t seem to take it very seriously. Claiming that biology is superfluous to gender or that people are just as healthy and happy if raised by two people of the same sex in some kind of romantic relationships doesn’t sound like something any serious Darwinist could say.
I now think of Darwinism the way I think of Islam in cultures that commonly practice homosexual child rape. I don’t think the Koran actually teaches or approves of such behavior. But the Koran does immunize ancient cultures to the influence of the Gospel. Since they are never transformed, the cultures remain in the grip of their older, pagan vices. Likewise, no one is trying to actually conform the shape of our society according to a philosophy of a human race that developed on the basis of the ability to pass on one’s genetic heritage. We’re simply at the mercy of sundry vices. Darwin guards the door but he’s not permitted any other influence.
Mark Horne is a graduate of Covenant Seminary and resides in St. Louis.