Friday, September 15, 2006

Response to John Frame on Natural Law, part IV

The fifth numbered paragraph in Frame’s article says “The only remedy for the distortion of natural revelation is God’s grace.” This argument is true, but is a non sequitur with respect to the issue of the relationship between human law and natural law. As we have just said, the direct purpose of human law and government is not our salvation. Yet human government must exist even among non-Christians. To say that non-Christians’ view of the natural law or of God’s requirements is so distorted by sin that they cannot know good from evil at all, is to say that human governments, other than those run by Christians, are completely useless. While such governments are not as good, they are clearly not useless. Luther, of course, is famous (infamous?) for saying that he preferred governments by a wise Turk to a foolish Christian. Yet Luther certainly could not be accused of not being a reformer. Luther’s view of natural law was actually weaker than John Calvin’s. Calvin often referred to the natural law as “the moral law.” He saw it as identical with the law of God revealed in Scripture. For this reason, Calvin said these things about natural law: “The moral law…being contained under two heads, the one which simply enjoins us to worship God with pure faith and piety, the other to embrace men with sincere affection, is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and all times. …Each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while thy vary in form, they must proceed on the same principal. Those barbarous and savage laws, for instance, which conferred honor on thieves, allowed the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, and other things even fouler and more absurd, I do not think entitled to be considered laws, since they are not only altogether abhorrent to justice, but to humanity and civilized life. …as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed by it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and end of all laws. Whether laws are formed after this rule, directed by this aim, and restricted to this end, there is no reason why they should be disapproved by us, however much they may differ from the Jewish law, or from each other.”

In Frame’s sixth paragraph he says “God’s grace comes to us through God’s special revelation, Scripture.” This is true. But God’s grace also comes to us through His general revelation. This is why it is often referred to as “common grace.” It is just that common grace is not grace unto salvation; it is merely grace for temporal life.

Frame’s seventh clause is “so we cannot understand natural revelation without distortion, unless we view it biblically.” There is no question that it is true that we cannot understand natural revelation without distortion unless we calibrate our understanding with the Word of God. But again, this is really a non sequitur if our argument is about the role of natural law in human government. Sin distorts everything that human beings do. Nevertheless, this distortion does not prevent our temporal survival nor does it make the order of God for the functioning of creation moot. Sin distorts hunger, but we still must eat. Sin distorts human relationships but we must relate to one another. Sin distorts our understanding of language, but language is still quite useful for practical purposes and allows us to communicate all sorts of subtle thoughts in great detail. Sin distorts our use of logic. Sometimes we insist that two plus two equals five, even though it is not so. But this does not mean that logic is wrong. Logic flows from the Logos of God. When our use of logic is in error, it is because we are not really being logical, not because there is any flaw in logic. We often distort God’s law, but we are more than aware enough of the requirements of God’s law to be utterly condemned for failing to keep what we know. God’s law provides us with more guidance for human government than we are capable of putting into practice. It is more than adequate for most practical purposes. While God’s law is revealed outside of Scripture will not lead to perfect or ideal governments, it is adequate for a much better government than any human government currently available for an example. Natural law with Scripture, however, is even better. There is no reason why it is not logical to use Scripture when our listeners will be willing to accept Scripture and to use natural law when our listeners are not willing to accept Scripture. If you cannot persuade a man that he should not cut off his arm because God has told him in the Old Testament not to mutilate his body, perhaps you can still persuade him not to cut off his arm because it will be painful. It is not wrong to make the second argument simply because the first is better. There is not a choice between special revelation and general revelation. Rather we use both when appropriate. Special revelation calibrates our understanding of general revelation. But general revelation is still of great use, especially when arguing with or influencing pagans. While the Scripture and the Holy Spirit clear up our understanding of natural revelation to the extent we’re willing to let them, natural law is still useful even among those who do not understand it clearly. If it were not, God would not say that human beings are made morally accountable by the knowledge of natural law.

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