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The Nature of Natural Law

I’m taking a break from my review of the Vibrant Dance conference. The grad student ministry with which I am involved had their monthly meeting tonight. The speaker was J Budziszewski from the UT departments of government and philosophy, and author of a number of books.  I thought it would be a topic break to discuss his talk on Natural Law, one of his areas of expertise.

Natural Law has been defined as “set of principles which govern human interactions, which are built into the structure of the universe, as opposed to being imposed by human beings.” One of the first questions J posited was, “what is nature?” It sounds banal, but is a revealing question. We often hear folks excuse bad behaviour by saying that “it is natural,” or “animals do it and we’re animals, so why not?” Our understanding of the word ‘natural’ reveals something about our perception of what it means to be human. J suggested that a Christian view or definition of nature is that it is that which is created, both the substance and the non-physical/material characteristics it may possess. {This is my wording, not his.} By this definition, not only do the stars, dirt, plants, animals, and humans constitute nature, but also the systems and rules that either govern or describe their interactions and behaviours.

Thus, there are some things that intrinsically limit, define, or describe what is human behaviour and gives us boundaries of various kinds, including moral, of which we are or should be aware at some level, regardless of our knowledge of Scripture. In fact, Scripture itself assumes we have some kinds of knowledge that it doesn’t cover explicitly—things such as a concept of justice or fair play, number systems (mathematical awareness and application to life, usable scientific knowledge that allows us to manipulate our environment in our roles as Creation’s stewards), the law of gratitude, a conscience, and so on.

In a similar vein, the Bible doesn’t list every issue about which we encounter in life (take for example the ethics of stem cell research). Furthermore, the Bible assumes a common or general revelation on many things made known through the very structure of creation. In short the Bible assumes an awareness of natural law. (J pointed out during Q&A that there is a difference between having a latent or unconscious awareness and use of natural law versus being conversant with the “theory of natural law”—the consciously created philosophical framework that defines and describes various aspects, axioms and implications of natural law. i.e.- the difference between a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary touchdown pass and being able to explain the physics formulas at play and quantifying the various forces involved to the nth decimal place.)

As an example of natural law, its universality and the awareness by pagans of it, he talked about the “intrinsic goodness” of Creation, in spite of the “incidental evil” in it (hurricanes, avalanches, etc.) He talked about rains and fruitful seasons and the beauty of Creation. Even Nietzsche wrote about being overcome with gratitude in natural surroundings. But gratitude requires both a giver and a recipient, so who is the recipient of his gratitude?

J said there are four things taught through nature that serve as four witnesses of God.

1)      The Law of Deep Conscience (Romans 2—God has written aspects of His law on our hearts—hardwired, if you will). Our culture denies the existence of this, saying that all we know is learned through our culture. This is obviously not true as evidenced by the fact that some values are universal to all human cultures, as is the inclination to violate those values—both testify to the hardwiredness of the deep conscience, one is from God’s action in our design, and one an expression of the Fall.

Even our excuses bear witness to the knowledge of right and wrong. J spent some amount of time showing how many ways we justify violating our conscience by appealing to other aspects of natural law, which shows that we acknowledge it through our denial of it.

2)      The Law of “Designedness” (Romans 1:18-23—what may be known about God is plain to them). This and other passages throughout the Bible repeatedly say that Creation testifies to the Creator, and that created things have Purpose, not just a purpose (function). J admitted he was oversimplifying a very complex issue. He commented that this witness upholds the witness of the first law, and that God’s existence matters to natural law, because we are created and therefore are subject to someone else’s authority. If we just appeared, then we are the creators of our morality, but since we are Created, then moral authority belongs to the Creator.

3)      The Law of the Detail of Design (Romans 1:21-32—foolish minds and hearts are darkened and thus they behave unnaturally). J’s primary point is that there is an ‘order’ or ‘fit’ to the Creation and the details bear this out. His primary example is the inherent complementarity of men and women, not just physically, but also in the concepts of masculinity and femininity that offset and complement each other.

4)      The Law of Natural Consequences (Galatians 6:7—God is not mocked, we reap what we sow). If I am unfaithful to all of my friends, then I lose my friends, and so on. It is not God actively driving our friends from us, but the natural consequence of our actions. Other consequences of violating natural law can be that our minds become darkened and we do increasingly dumb things and we quench the light/Spirit of truth that may be within us and descend from the nobility and dignity we were created to carry. Lindsay Lohan, ‘nuff said. It is possible at times to push these consequences off onto others, but the consequences do not go away. They still occur (fatherless children, others paralyzed/killed by our drunk driving, etc.).

“We are always dreaming of systems that are so perfect no one has to be good.” T. S. Eliot

People thought that ‘safe sex’ would reduce ‘unwanted pregnancies’ yet since the sexual revolution the number of fatherless children has exploded, so then we promoted abortion, and so on…

These four witness link and flow into each other and point to the existential necessity of a Creator.

The talk ended here, but some of the Q&A was interesting enough to describe here. Someone asked if someone sears their conscience as the Bible discusses, is it gone? J compared it to searing meat—you make the outside hard and dry, but the inside is still there, tender and raw, and when the exterior is pierced, a profound reaction can occur as the inside is freed.

The next question was whether our consciences are infallible. J indicated that there are two types of conscience but modern English does not distinguish them, though medieval scholars did. One is called the synderesis (or deep conscience) and the other is (‘surface’) conscience . Synderesis basically is what tells us to do good and not do bad. It is infallible, but can be suppressed. On the other hand, the surface conscience can be lead astray by our rationalizing will or by culturally accepted evil. He gave the example of years ago when pay phones were simpler and cell phones basically didn’t exist, there was a way to get a dial tone and make a call without putting money in. It was stealing from the phone company, and it’s wrong to steal, but “’they exploit people’ by charging too much or being the big evil corporation, so we are stealing from the thieves, so that makes it ok.”

Even though this is a ‘break’ from the Vibrant Dance review, I think it is interesting that this topic is so complementary to the issues discussed at the conference. It is almost an orthogonal argument to the hard science evidence of a Creator, and the more orthogonal data streams that lead to a conclusion, the more sound the conclusion. Maybe, just maybe, God wants to be found.

(Isaiah 45:19 “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right.” {Read the whole passage (verses 18-25)-what a treasure!} cf. Colossians 1:27-29 and Psalm 25:14)



  1. Very interesting...thanks! Although I would agree with natural law as presented here I worry that many, especially coming out of the Enlightement, have tried to build concrete and detailed systems based on Natural Law alone. I'm not sure that the scope of Natural Law allows us to do this, especially with the limitations of us having fallen natures.

  2. Can't most of the "natural laws" just be evolution with a superstitious explanation?
    Survival of the something bad and you end up in rehab, jail, and on Entertainment Tonight - but not in a blockbuster?

    Why does gratitude by its nature always have to a recipient? And why can Friedrich not feel gratitude to the trees and nature? He may have been a tree hugger...

    Doesn't a law have to apply MOST of the time? It seems trivial to disprove the Law of Natural Consequences... bad actions sadly do not always (or even 50% of the time) result in negative consequences.

    What if Nature just condenses into Karma? Do bad actions reap bad results AND its converse? That gives ultimate control to humanity, not God. :)