At the website of the Theopolis Institute a piece was recently posted by Mark Horne with the curious title, “If There is ‘Natural Law’ How Can People Believe in Same-Sex Marriage?” I say curious because I’m not sure why five lawyers in black robes declaring gender complimentarity irrelevant to marriage somehow makes natural law an invalid concept. Nor does a certain percentage of people believing such things can be marriage invalidate natural law. Like any law, natural laws can be broken, but the law is no less a law just because someone decides to flout or ignore it. But first what exactly is “natural law”?
There have been tomes written to answer and explore this question, but we can start with Paul in Romans 2:
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
The conscious and moral sense that all human beings have, and that nobody denies is there, is part of the natural law. It is part of human nature because humans have a nature, and a predictable one at that. C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man calls it the Tao:
The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they posses.
And he argues in the book that it is remarkably consistent through all time and places and peoples.
The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were especially prescient in arguing that nature communicates not just is, but ought as well. Aristotle explicated four categories of causation: the material, formal, efficient, and final. That final cause was the end, or the telos, of that which was created. I had an interesting conversation not long ago with a friend I don’t see much anymore (we live in different states now). He was adamant that gays should be allowed to marry, that it is only fair, that the Ten Commandments don’t condemn homosexuality, etc. I tried to reason with him biblically that gay marriage is an oxymoron, and didn’t get very far. But when I brought up the idea of telos, he stopped, looked quizzical, and said he’d never thought of that. Of course I speak of the complimentarily of the sexes, and that it is apparent to any objective observer that certain organs of the body were designed with certain ends in mind. It’s not unlike looking at the electrical socket in the wall and the plug in your hand, and knowing intuitively that one was created for the other, they fit, they match, and we don’t have to be persuaded why. If someone were to come along and tell us that it only looks like they were created for one another, but there really is no correlation, you would think such a person doltish, if not downright stupid.
Let us take it out of the moral realm for a moment. Why are there such things, for instance, as seeds and trees and things that grow on trees that just happen (holy coincidence, Batman!) to be pleasing to the eye, have tastes that we can enjoy because we have these things called tongues that just happen to have something called taste buds, and that, perfect trifecta, contain nutrients that we need to live? Only someone as obtuse as Richard Dawkins could convince himself that it just appears that this indicates a designer. Yep, sheer chance can account for it all! No, as Aristotle observed, these things we see in all of creation have an end, a purpose, a telos that tells us, that communicates to us the nature of the things. It doesn’t take the Bible for us to know it; all it takes is common sense!
But our Theopolis Institute author is frustrated that when it comes to marriage and the sexual complimentarity assumed by it, some people just can’t see it or choose to ignore it. Thus natural law doesn’t exist. We can see the problem right away in his understanding of what natural law is:
As far as I can tell natural law is supposed to be an area of knowledge that all people should be able to agree upon by the right use of reason whether or not they believe or have access to special revelation. This idea is often conflated with the concept of “general revelation” except that general revelation reveals the one true God. “Natural law” can be accepted and believed without any such acknowledgement.
This is a unique definition of natural law that fails on the face of it. All people don’t agree on anything! That is a heavy weight to put on the definition of anything, let alone a concept we argue that people intuit. Yet to him because some people cannot be persuaded that same-sex pairings are not the same as male and female pairings, natural law is a failed idea.
He states further:
But why would there be a single body of truth that would be affirmed by all reasonable unbelievers?
Again, nobody that I am aware of has ever defined natural law as something affirmed by “all” reasonable unbelievers. It seems this gentleman has built a precarious straw man easily felled.
So if this fundamental reality can be denied, what exactly is the territory of “natural law” that believers and non-believers can both agree upon? Where is that common ground?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s not any other “secular” area of agreement that could be as important as this. If people can’t recognize a marriage as a fundamental unit embedded in human nature, then what could they possibly see in nature that isn’t just a matter of chance rather than an ability to recognize reality?
Uh, we call this sin. As Paul aptly puts it in Romans 1, human beings “suppress the truth by their wickedness.” In fact, Paul goes on further to state that “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” Throughout these verses Paul says several times and in several ways that people “know” the truth. In fact, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Yet throughout Paul’s narrative, people flout God’s law, and “not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.”
Fundamental reality is denied all the time, even by Christians, and yet God’s law, his “natural law” written on our hearts, in our very natures, cannot be abrogated. Yet to our author, “the real reason we ‘see’ the essential nature of the male and female division in humanity, is because God taught us verbally that he made us that way.” Of course he did, but telos is a powerful thing; try sticking your finger in that socket I mentioned above. We break telos, the designed nature of things at our peril.
Toward the end of his piece we see that he’s set up a false dichotomy.
So general revelation [i.e. natural law] was never meant to function apart from a tradition of human language transmission. If you want to see how general revelation functions “by itself” you need to look at stories of feral children. The evidence is that general revelation without speech communication (even idolatrous and ignorant communication) doesn’t reveal much of any practical use.
How many stories of “feral children” are there? This is a strange argument to make because “speech communication” has existed since there were humans, or as we Christians say, “in the beginning.” In fact, “speech communication” isn’t the only communication according God’s Word. In Psalm 19 we read:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
This applies to all of creation, and why Pagan in good standing Aristotle can say at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that
Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.
Of course Aristotle didn’t have access to God’s special revelation that God’s people Israel had access to at this same time in history, but that didn’t keep him from a perspicacity that amazes us to this day.
I will end this entirely too long blog post with a long quote from a book review of an old friend of mine, Dr. Stephen Paul Kennedy, did of Stephen J. Graybill’s “Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics.” There are reasons why we are where we are today regarding marriage, and reasons why so many people can be so blind to a fundamental reality that is so glaringly obvious. Dr. Kennedy has some insightful observations:
The fact that natural law has been so resoundingly denounced by moderns, Christian and non-Christian alike, is not the subject of Grabill’s study, except that he offers an astute account of why natural law was rejected by Karl Barth and his followers. Sadly, however, the implausibility of natural law to people today probably has little to do with Barth’s critique or moral voluntarism. The besetting problem is not theological, but is rather psychological and sociological. Psychologically, a universally knowable law of human nature makes no sense in a world where an atomized self has replaced the soul. The plausibility of natural law is grounded in a moral psychology where the soul is understood to be equipped by God’s communicable attributes such as prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope, love, joy, peace, and so forth—attributes capable of being cultivated into mature dispositions and sentiments known as virtues. The implausibility of natural law is necessarily linked with the demise of this moral psychology.
Sociologically, modernization has contributed mightily to natural law’s loss of plausibility. In a technological society, what is given in nature is generally thought to be the enemy—that is, the source of scarcity, disease, and want. Those who advocate attentive stewardship of the creation and all that dwells in it are still children of the Enlightenment, and therefore cannot resist Hume ‘s so-called naturalistic fallacy. In a technological society, it is difficult for most to imagine that nature really puts limits on human striving, especially in moral matters. The atomized self is infinitely malleable for the creation of what we eagerly call quality of life. The old moral psychology asserts that human nature reveals guidelines for limiting the projects of human making, especially the remaking of human beings.
Unfortunately, we have one of these “atomized” human beings on the Supreme Court of the United States, who wrote the following in 1992:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Sadly he speaks for a large portion of the American population, for which a good dose of natural law would surely help.