Natural Law Theory As a Way Forward In Our Culture Wars

Here is my posting on Facebook this morning. It is not, at this point, a fully argued proposal but a suggestion that needs to be unpacked. I offer it to you……..

I hope you can take a moment to read the entirety of this post. It is ground zero for some of my hope building in the midst of our cultural collapse.

In culture debates I think we Evangelical Protestants are in general burdened by a distinct disadvantage. We bring to the table a “the Bible says” argument. And in some situations this puts us behind the eight ball. It’s really hard to get someone else’s ear when, first, they don’t do Bible, and, second, when they intellectually can’t see how that has anything to do with them. Evangelicals preach and teach the Bible. This is who we are. It’s what we do. We are known for this, relied on for this. If you want to know what the Bible actually says, you will end up going to an Evangelical church, even if you don’t buy into the whole thing, because even a skeptic and unbeliever knows that a goodly number of churches don’t do Bible. It is all just metaphor to those churches, a Jefferson Bible, as it were, with all the supernatural stuff cut out.

But when it comes to political, cultural and legal persuasion, quoting Bible doesn’t do. And it’s then that Evangelicalism gets lost. What to do? Get ready for this. Ready? Really ready? Like, sitting down read? Do it like the Roman Catholics do it. In cultural moral debate they mine the riches of Natural Law Theory. This rises up out of the thought of Thomas Aquinas’ repurposing of Aristotle, the fourth century BCE Greek philosopher. (Have I lost you already? Are you already turning to 1 Corinthians 1:20-23: “Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles…” Also, vv. 27-30. “Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one[g] can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord.” (HCSB version)

Or, to put it the way early Church Father Tertullian put it, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athen?”

The simple idea of Natural Theology is that the moral order of the world is accessible to the mind apart from Divine (or Special) Revelation. Aristotle points us down that road. Aquinas takes that road and keeps us company on the way to penetrating and convincing evidence that we live in a moral world that is ordered. This moral order is real, it exists as a substance and is not a mere idea, and is accessible to rational enquiry. This is partly the route CS Lewis takes in “Mere Christianity” and the Apostle Paul takes in Athens. Here we have common ground with every person.

Natural Law Theory is the default position of our legal system. None of our laws begin with “the Bible says.” Our capacity to define moral codes through our mental faculties is assumed.

Protestants are uncomfortable with Natural Law Theory. As a group we usually demand chapter and verse. We believe that in our Fall from true righteousness through the sin of our first parents, not only was our character infected with the disease of sin but also our minds. We are blind. Therefore, we need the pure light of the Bible to make any final judgment on the moral good and the moral bad.

Well, yes. But yes in a qualified way. We may be swayed by our sinful natures to use our minds to avoid the good and change it into a license for evil. This is Apostle Paul’s point in Romans 1. We all intuitively know what this means. We do it all the time. We use our mental faculties to rationalize behavior. And yet… The image of God in us and on us is not eradicated, and Jesus has brought light and life into the world that lightens every man. John 1:9 Through Jesus we have not become subhuman and driven by instinct alone, though so many refuse to see the Light. We are able to identify the good and to affirm its worth.

I will be posting some on Natural Law Theory and giving some insights that will enable you to see the worth of using this means to do moral dialogue in a pluralistic culture. Like the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that rational enquiry will lead to the Good, the True and the Beautiful for both Christians and non-Christians alike. It can take us only so far, but it will be far enough keep society from chaos and settled darkness.

Robert George of Princeton University is our best example today of the use of Natural Law in moral argumentation. He is a committed and devout Roman Catholic and upholds its moral positions. He is one of the authors of “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense.” Without Bible verses or the appeal to transcendent authority he presents a reasoned case that marriage demands one man and one woman in order to actually be marriage. He has public debates on YouTube where you can view him at work.

This isn’t the only angle from which to approach the debate. It is one of the tools in our tool chest. But it is not often used, powerful though it is.

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