Book Review, A Biblical Case for Natural Law

A Biblical Case for Natural Law, by David VanDrunen. Grand Rapids: the Acton Institute, 2006. 69 pages. Reviewed by Mr. Matthew Tuininga.

American Christians intent on calling their nation back to its Christian founding love to quote II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land.”

For sixty years Evangelicals led by men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have appealed to the Scriptures to show the path the United States should follow, whether the issue is supporting Israel, opposing homosexual marriage, or fighting abortion. The rise of the Christian right has provoked fanatical cries that Christians are seeking to reinstate an inquisition-bearing theocracy like Old Testament Israel.

Others claim that Christian political efforts are destroying the sacred American separation between church and state. Even thoughtful Christians question whether we have gone too far, whether in the midst of our political efforts we have somehow forgotten the spiritual mission of the church.

I recall discussing with a friend at Covenant College the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, a decision that struck down state laws against homosexuality. My friend suggested that perhaps the Supreme Court’s ruling was right, since the job of the church is not to impose its religious morality on the world through political campaigns, but to preach salvation to sinners through Christ. Isn’t biblical morality, she suggested, supposed to grow out of the work of the Spirit, rather than be imposed apart from the cross?

Despite the apparent confusion among Christians regarding the role of the Bible and the Church in modern America, Christian theologians from Augustine of Hippo to Abraham Kuyper have wrestled with the way thoughtful Christians should seek to promote God’s kingship over all of life, while still respecting the unique role of the Church and Scripture. Consciously working within this tradition, David VanDrunen argues that Reformed Christians need to reconsider the biblical teaching on natural law.

In A Biblical Case for Natural Law, VanDrunen, a lawyer and theology professor at Westminster Seminary California, argues that God has called all people to live, work, and organize their societies and governments within the framework of His creation order. In light of VanDrunen’s careful, brief study, Christians can be confident that they can advocate true justice and morality in the public square without wrongly appealing to Scripture or the authority of the church. VanDrunen argues that the biblical doctrine of natural law is a by-product of man’s role as image-bearer of God, the King of the earth. Since God is a God of righteousness and holiness, He has written upon the hearts of his image-bearers “a law inherent to human nature and directing human beings to fulfill their royal commission in righteousness and holiness.” Although man has fallen into persistent disobedience against this law, he remains created in God’s image, aware that someday he will be held to account.

VanDrunen appeals to Romans 1 to demonstrate that although human beings ignore God, His identity and attributes have been made “plain” to them, “clearly seen, being understood.” Romans 1:32 goes so far as to assert, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

VanDrunen goes on to consider language both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin emphasized, Romans 2:14-15. Here Paul writes, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part of A Biblical Case for Natural Law is VanDrunen’s presentation of “the Two Kingdoms Doctrine.” In this chapter VanDrunen points to the two lines of men we see beginning in Genesis but flowing through the whole Old Testament: the line of the redeemed who receive revelation and salvation from Jehovah, and the line of rebellious men who nevertheless build cities and kingdoms as undeserving recipients of God’s common grace.

Living as a member of the first line but within the land of the second, Abraham was not called to reform or conquer the promised land by his own efforts, but to live at peace with his neighbors while waiting for God. Only in the theocratic state of Israel, a unique era in covenant history, did God command his people to establish a state based on his command, and impose his special revelation within its bounds. But when the Israelites were carried into Babylonian captivity, Jeremiah called them to take full part in Babylonian culture while remaining faithful to Jehovah in their hope and religion. With the coming of Christ, Christians remain in a situation similar to that of Abraham and the exiles in Babylon. VanDrunen writes, “They must pursue a common cultural task with the world at large, though always knowing that they have no true home in this world.”

At the heart of VanDrunen’s argument is the fact that although the commands of God in Scripture presuppose God’s gracious works of salvation in those being commanded, believers in Scripture nevertheless interact with the world based on divine morality. VanDrunen goes at length, case by case, to demonstrate that when Abraham, the Israelites, or the prophets dealt with people outside of the covenant community, they operated based on general principles of natural law which flow out of the “fear of God,” not based on any shared special covenant relationship with Jehovah. For example, when Abimilech approaches Abraham in Genesis 20, he appeals to general principles of morality in accusing him of doing things that “should not be done.” Abraham is shocked to see that Abimilech has a sense of morality since he had thought “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”

Another of many evidences VanDrunen provides is the prophecy of Amos 1:3–2:3. Here Amos condemns several of Israel’s neighboring nations but not for violating God’s redemptive covenant revelation. They are judged for obvious sins against the natural law such as slave trading, rape, and the violation of a “covenant of brotherhood.”

A Biblical Case for Natural Law does provoke important questions. VanDrunen could further discuss and clarify. For example, is it even possible to have a cultural consensus on natural law without having a Judaeo-Christian foundation already in place? If not, basing our policy upon clearly perceived natural law, while certainly legitimate, does not necessarily enable Christians to escape the charge that they are imposing their religion, because they will still be imposing the Christian view of natural law. Abraham Kuyper himself argued that Christians should work politically based on God’s “creation ordinances” (his equivalent to natural law), but he believed they should also be shaped by what Scripture has to say about natural law.

In stating that “Scripture is not the appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom”it is unclear whether VanDrunen is opposed to Christians referring to Scripture’s authority in their political arguments or whether he is simply opposed to Christians who do this simplistically, while ignoring biblical context. He seems to mean that the proper purpose of Scripture is to guide God’s redeemed community, those who have received grace, while the purpose of natural law is to guide all men, women, and governments. In this sense he is certainly right: it is not simply God’s special revelation that calls human beings to account. His law, upon which they are to base all that they do, is written on their hearts.

As a call to base our political involvement on the conscience-born laws of God’s natural order, rather than simplistically on Scriptures the world doesn’t even accept, A Biblical Case for Natural Law is a sobering but insightful voice in the current culture wars. Far too often Christians have politicized the church or the Scriptures in their efforts to Christianize America. The church is the glorious body of Christ and is to be focused on the vision of Christ and His heavenly city, as Augustine so beautifully articulated in The City of God. We must therefore prevent the bride of Christ from wandering after the moth-eaten treasures of a city here below. At the same time, God has powerfully written His law on human hearts, so that all know in their conscience that murder, homosexuality, (unjust) war, and oppression are wrong. Christians can therefore be confident in their efforts to advocate peace and justice even outside the church or Scripture’s realm of influence because God calls all nations to account for violating His law and acting unjustly. As a reminder that we are called to be responsible in a world completely governed by a just God, A Biblical Case for Natural Law is a must read for every politically concerned Christian.

Mr. Matthew Tuininga is a student at Westminster Seminary in California. He is a member of the Pantego United Reformed Church in Pantego, North Carolina.