Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Response to Albert Mohler on Natural Law

On November 13th, I went to Biola to hear Albert Mohler, the brilliant writer and commentator who is also president of a Southern Baptist college. Mohler started out on what I consider the right track. He was talking about Christians in the public square. People have continually attacked Christians in the public square and are recently seeking to drive them out completely. Many people believe that religious discourse is fundamentally inconsistent with democracy and the values of the liberal West. The problem is that without Christianity there are no foundational reasons for a tolerant or liberal society.

Mohler started out well by identifying the fundamental problem with Christians in the public square as epistemological. What is the foundation or basis for reasoned discourse from a Christian worldview? Mohler was also correct in identifying the Scripture as a primary foundation of Christian knowledge. We should still agree with the Reformer’s “Sola Scriptura.” The Scripture is our fundamental guide to the mind of God. The biblical account must trump our reasonings, our traditions, our writings and our philosophizing.

Where I think that Mohler went wrong was that in the same speech he also sought to marginalize natural law. There are three problems with marginalizing natural law. First, it is a scriptural doctrine. Second, the epistemology of natural law is intertwined with the epistemological basis of Protestantism itself. And third and least important, it is effective.

Mohler discussed the scriptural passages that deal with natural law, Romans chapter 1 and Romans chapter 2, but I believe he misinterpreted both. Mohler admitted that chapter 1 shows that God has revealed His nature, including His moral demands, to mankind in general revelation. But Mohler takes the passage’s conclusion that human beings repressed the knowledge that God has given them and continue to disobey God as an indication that we no longer have moral knowledge because of the fall. Or if we do have it, it is so confused as to be worthless. He likewise interprets chapter 2 in the same way. Chapter 2 speaks of our innate moral knowledge, God having written the law on our hearts. He interprets the passage’s reference where Paul says that the Gentiles’conscience now affirms them and now convicts them as meaning that the conscience sometimes convicts them for things that are good and affirms them in things that are bad. Neither of these interpretations is justified by the text. In chapter 1, it is not said that the reason that people repress moral knowledge and rebel against God is because they have no practical moral knowledge left after the fall. The whole point of the passage is that despite what we know, we choose to rebel against God because of our sinfulness. We repress what we know rather than acting in ignorance. One of the major points of Paul’s argument in Romans is that mankind is morally accountable to God because man knows about God and knows what is right and yet does not follow God’s will, but instead rebels against God. This is why only God’s sovereign action to draw us to Himself and His grace in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are adequate for our salvation. Apart from God’s help, we are hopelessly in willful rebellion against God. We do not sin because we are ignorant, we sin because we wish to sin. In addition, there is nothing in the Romans 2 passage to indicate that the Gentiles’ pangs of conscience are inaccurate. There is no reason to believe that Paul is not saying that our conscience affirms us in what is right and condemns us in what is wrong. The alleged scrambling does not appear in the text. I suspect that it is a presuppositional overlay.

It is also the case that there are other passages in the Bible which support natural law. Some of them discuss the ways in which God has revealed things to man. Not only do we see in Genesis 1 that God has created man in His image, but even after the fall God affirms in the Noahic Covenant that the reason why murder is prohibited is because man was made in the image of God. Enough of the image must still be retained to justify God’s rule regarding murder. I Corinthians 11:7 also refers to man as “the image and glory of God.” James, in chapter 3 verse 9, warns us not to “curse men who are made in God’s likeness.” While sin and the fall have damaged the image of God in man, they have not eliminated it. Man’s innate moral knowledge, reasoning ability, ability to learn language and the knowledge of God’s existence are likely all part of the image of God in man. In Amos 4:13, we hear that God “reveals His thoughts to man.” God also makes natural law arguments in the Scriptures. For example, when Jesus is explaining why it is not wrong to heal on the Sabbath, He does not simply say because God says so, but instead He refers to an analogous moral instinct that the people already accept: on their Sabbath, they still untie their animals and lead them to food and water, so why shouldn’t God’s people bound by illness be freed on the Sabbath as well? See Luke 13:16-17. In Matthew 7:11 when Jesus argues God will give us good things when we ask, he says to the crowd “you, being evil, still know how to give good gifts to your children . . .” (emphasis added). These are just two examples of God’s own arguments from general revelation or natural law.

Second, the epistemology involved with natural law is the foundational epistemology of reformed Protestantism. It is the Roman Catholic Church which is communitarian and authoritarian in its understanding of the Scripture: the papacy, when speaking ex cathedra, and the magisterium of the church explain to the believer what the Bible allegedly means. By contrast, Protestants have maintained since the time of the Reformation that God’s Word in the Scripture was accessible to all human beings, or at least all regenerate human beings. This requires, of course, that words actually mean something, and that human beings have the ability to learn language and understand what those words mean with some objectivity. That is only possible with an Augustinian epistemology in which God, through the creation of man in His image and through His divine light, has given us reason, the ability to learn a language, and other innate information. This includes moral information. Being able to understand universals such as the difference between good and evil and justice and injustice intertwines language and morality. If this Augustinian morality is not real, how can people claim to understand the Scripture objectively? A rejection of the ability to understand the Scripture objectively is indirectly supportive of the Roman Catholic system, not the Protestant system. Without accessibility, it would be necessary to have some authority to explain to people what the Scripture meant. But with objectivity provided by the general revelatory endowment of the Spirit of God to all human beings, every man can understand the Scriptures. This is not to say, however, that everyone will read the Scripture and be saved without God’s aid. Without the Holy Spirit illuminating the human being and drawing him to Christ, people do not believe or accept the Gospel. This is different from saying that the Scripture is not understandable. Indeed, the real undermining of natural law among Protestants has taken place partially because of Protestant anti-intellectualism, partially because of modernism and its rejection of Augustinian epistemology and its subsequent influence even in many evangelical Protestants, and partially through the growth of modernistic epistemologies among evangelical Protestants, even though those epistemologies are inconsistent with their traditional beliefs. There has also been the confusion of natural law and natural theology. The issue of whether or not people will be saved without the Scripture is a very different question from whether or not they can know something about good and evil without the Scripture. And yet, people often wish to equate the two. The great debate between Barth and Brunner over natural law was really a debate over this issue of natural theology with natural law incorrectly chained to natural theology’s outcome.

A third argument supporting natural law is not as important as the first two because it is instrumental rather than principled. But natural law arguments actually do work. As we pointed out above, God uses them throughout Scripture. There are also arguments commonly used by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their arguments against slavery and for civil rights respectively. At the Biola talk by Albert Mohler, he was asked a telling question by a member of the audience. A woman asked if we are to reject natural law arguments, exactly what kind of arguments are we supposed to make? What will a winning argument look like if it is not going to look like a natural law argument? The questioner pointed out that if people reject natural law, they are not very likely to accept the testimony of the authority of Scripture. Was Mohler advocating a “the Scripture says…” argument, or does he have some alternative? While Mohler dealt with the question for nearly five minutes, he was actually quite stumped. He finally admitted that even though he doesn’t believe in natural law, he himself uses natural law arguments. He also articulated his belief that it is not our obligation to use arguments that work, but merely to testify to the truth. Sadly, I think it is this kind of rejection of effectiveness and willingness to fall into an ineffective separatism that has handicapped orthodox Christianity for the last 200 years. God’s truth is not only true, it is effective.

So, while I greatly appreciate Albert Mohler and still have the greatest respect for him and will continue to read his excellent writings, I was disappointed in his position on natural law.


Anonymous said...

Re Albert Mohler Comments on Natural Law:

I have a great deal of respect for
Mohler. However, his dismissal of natural law is symptomatic of why Christians have generally failed in the public square.

First of all Mohler's argument that our obligation to make a convincing argument, as contrasted with the obligation to merely communicate the truth, is not a serious one. His own writing and presumably his remarks at BIOLA were made with the purpose of convincing his readers and listeners respectively. In other words his actions themselves confirm the instrumental value of natural law in the context of apologetics.

Second, you are correct that the lesson from Romans 1 and 2 is not just that we have hardened our hearts to the message of general revelation, but that we are responsible for failing to heed the warning of the law that is written on our hearts. We are without excuse. If it wasn't capable of being understood this would not be the case.

Of course there are noetic effects of the Fall. However, Mohler's position actually dimiinishes the full impact of our Falleness. Were it not for general revelation and natural law our position of "radical contingency" would devolve into complete moral chaos. To borrow from Calvin, common grace was necessary to preserve a Fallen world in order that God's purpose might be fulfilled.

Finally, as one who is engaged in the public square on a daily basis in our nation's Capitol, the natural law approach to argument is indispensible. It provides the ability to make a Christian argument without the need to use a vocabulary which is not accepted in non-Christian circles. Anyone who believes that they can use the Bible in public policy debate and discourse is clearly not engaged outside of our own Christian circles. This is unfortunately the real world--a Fallen one at that.

Of course it is true that any natural law approach to public debate must be confirmed by the clear teaching of Special Revelation. This is where our Falleness comes into the picture. Pure reason alone is not an adequate basis for argument. However, the idea that this undermines the argument for natural law is mistaken. God gave us both Natural and Special Revelation. They work in concert together to reveal truth about God and his creation. Together, they give us a foundation for argument which is in concert with the natural order of things. Thus, God has given us the tools to engage the culture in an effective manner. It is our responsibility to use them in a way which brings Glory to Him. Anything less fails to meet this solemn responsibility.

Thus, although I have the highest respect for Mohler, I must respectfully dissent from his comments.

Kevin Holsclaw

Professor McConnell said...

Thanks Kevin. I very much agree in all respects.