Monday, July 09, 2007

What is the Augustinian Natural Law Perspective?

Trinity Law School emphasizes an Augustinian Natural Law perspective on human law. But what does that mean? I sent someone most of this off the cuff response to that question today.

An Augustinian Natural Law perspective is theory of the foundational elements of law adhered to by Augustine of Hippo and most of the Protestant Reformers: Luther, Calvin, and others. The theory has a number major elements, including the following:

1. God has ordained that humans should have governments in order to encourage good and discourage evil. Governments require courts and laws that at least specify punishments for specific crimes, but which can also coordinate the community in various ways for the common good.

2. The laws of government derive their just authority not just from the consent of the governed, but from participation in God's order for human kind. In order to maintain that authority, human laws must not command what God forbids, and must be generally in accord with God's purposes for human government. Human laws that are not for the common good or that transgress God's law have no real legitimacy, but should still be obeyed if one can due so without disobeying God, in order to avoid the chaos that can come from disobedience to human law. If they cannot be obeyed without disobeying God then we must obey God rather than men.

3. Humans can make laws within the guidelines God has set because God has revealed his own basic nature and his moral law, which is in accord with his nature, to all of human kind in several ways as described in the first two chapters of the book of Romans, and as assumed by the whole Bible. This revelation is why all humans are morally accountable to God. Because this moral knowledge is not the work of the art or science of human kind, because it is part of the kind of thing humans are to have this moral knowledge, and because the moral law flows from and is in accord with God's nature, God's moral law is called "Natural Law." Natural Law is the same as the moral law more specifically described in the Bible, but even people who do not know the bible have the Natural Law in their deep conscience and minds because God has revealed it to them.

4. The Natural Law is not the only thing God reveals to us. Human laws would also be impossible if we did not understand concepts like justice and mercy. Part of God's "general revelation" to human beings is not only the Natural Law, but the ability to learn language and to know and understand concepts like justice etc.

5. In practice human moral knowledge and our knowledge of language are good enough for practical purposes, but the way we apply that knowledge is affected by sin. Because humans are sinful we repress what we know about God and morality and even words or concepts. Our human language is also imperfect because of sin. But as I say it is good enough for most practical purposes, including human law and human government. That does not mean that human governments will be great. Sin is so pervasive that all human governments are somewhat corrupt and negligent. But they are better than no government. Because of human sin one cannot expect government to solve all human problems or unravel the evils caused by sin. At best government limits human evil and does some coordination for good. Many human activities are better undertaken at a family or church or collegial level rather than by government.

6. In determining all of the above, and everything else, the Bible is the central authority. Even though general revelation is necessary, and even though people run governments based on Natural Law when they do not know of the Bible, the Bible is the expression of God's communication to man and is our guide for truth and theory.

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