Monday, January 24, 2011

Scripture, Natural Law and Tradition

I'm not super keen on a lot of natural law arguments. That's not to say that I think that they are wrong, or bad, but I'm just dubious of them. Why?

I am a historian. Historians like to make a distinction between a primary source and a secondary source - a primary source being a document that is and of itself a source of information, and a secondary source would be something that talks about other things. If I am doing research on George Washington - Washington's letters, official documents, etc. would be primary documents. A book by some other history writing about Washington would be secondary.

The primary sources are what they are. Secondary sources - they could be good, or they could be bad. They could be accurate, or they could be someone wanting to pound an agenda.

Natural Law arguments are a secondary sort of way of approaching theology. Does natural declare the wonders of the creation? Sure. Is the Law written on the hearts of man? Sure. Are there things that are (or at least should be) obviously bad to all? Yep.

But we are in possession of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, breathed by the Holy Spirit, the revelation of Christ Jesus, written so that we might believe and thus have life in Christ's Name. That's a pretty spectacular primary source.

So, when I see someone go on and on without relying upon it; if I see someone use Scripture to establish that there is Natural Law and then just go on and on about what they think Natural Law "obviously" implies... that makes me nervous, just as I'd get nervous if I read a history book that was lacking in primary sources and high on personal interpretation.

It's the same thing with Tradition. Tradition is a good thing... but it's not primary. If your arguments are based upon the tradition, well, that's nice, but it's not primary. It can only be a secondary, a supporting argument. Ditto Natural Law.

Natural Law arguments seem to be gaining in popularity, and I'm not sure why. Possibly it's a reaction against modern liberalism... I'd say even a condescension to liberalism (oh, you reject Scripture, um, well, here, let's try arguments on nature and reason to persuade you). Maybe its because people are wanting to influence society as a whole, and Scripture isn't the primary argument there - which I can understand. Natural Law is a great tool for the kingdom of the left.

But we are the Church - we are those who have the life giving Word of God. The love of the Law, especially the Law of man for order (i.e. tradition) or the love of Natural Law must never eclipse our first love.


Phillip said...

Fr. Brown

I think Natural Law (NL) arguments are very useful; however, I'll concede they certainly have much more application in jurisprudence than pulpits.

Augustine and many of the other fathers spend quite a bit of time discussing the evidence of God in nature; however, I think this argument is independent of NL arguments.

As to the Church's application of NL, of course it begins in nature not Scripture. Paul writes that the gentiles have the law written on their hearts, and are thereby under it. It is the gentiles, i.e. those outside of the revelation, that it applies to here. Everyone has the law on their hearts, but it only really matters for those outside the revelation. The law being written in Scripture significantly trumps the law being written on our hearts. The NL comes into play for evangelism as proof of God's existence. C. S. Lewis said something to the effect of, I looked at the world and was angry with God because of how bad it was. Then I realized, how do I know it is bad.

What use does NL have for most Christians, not much. Unless your field is jurisprudence about the only use you'll have for it is knowing that pagans know morality, even if they twist or ignore it. What use does NL have in evangelism? It's proof a god exists, because Charles Darwin didn't plant write it on anyone's heart. Certainly it's nowhere as good as Scripture, but it can create a very useful door to get people to Scripture.

scott said...

I've also had trouble thinking about Natural Law and how we recognize and use it. I found this post pretty spot on too:

Phillip said...

Thanks for the link Scott.

I will advance the thesis not that natural law is flawed, but that it is too advanced for most people's training in it. It is thrown around too often as though it were intellectually not far above the Small Catechism (no disrespect for the Catechism, nor do I think it is intellectually light), when it requires training on the level of quantum physics. Even a basic understanding of what natural law actually is requires
1. A fairly good general knowledge of the Bible
2. Understanding and knowing Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae Prima-Segundae questions 90-108 (questions on law) plus about a half-dozen other questions from the Summa
3. A very basic understanding of Augustine specifically and patristics in general

A good understanding of it requires all this plus
1. About a dozen more questions from the Summa
2. Good knowledge of Augustine and general knowledge of the other 7 original doctors
3. Knowledge of legal and political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hart, Fuller, Austin, Grisez, Finnis, Hittinger, et al.
4. Understanding the Tripart uses of law and the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms
5. Knowledge of the Human Rights debate

I think the problem is not with natural law, but with its application without understanding. Untrained jurisprudential layman have natural law thrown at them when they are no more qualified for it than most religious layman would be for a doctoral level exegesis course. The problem is people claiming to understand natural law who are no more qualified for it than a pastor ordained by an internet seminary is for exegesis.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


This is the logic that I end up seeing as underlining much abuse, much of the use of "NL" as a billy club.

1. The Law is written on our hearts.
2. My heart says X is bad.
3. Therefore X violates the natural law.
4. In addition, if you like X, you have an erring heart and violate natural law.

The major leap ends up being point 3 -- just because my own heart/feelings/taste think X is something icky and wrong doesn't mean it violates the natural law. This movement tends to really, really annoy me.

+ + + + + + + + + +

I think your observation that NL things are highly complex is spot on - and it probably is part of the reason why I distrust it -- I would tend to distrust a Doctorate level Exegetical class with it's "deep and profound" observations... my assumption would tend to be that they are neither observations nor deep/profound but idle constructions crafted by those who forget that Scripture is for the proclamation of the Gospel, not some blending of the mystical/academia.

And as I don't like it... "obviously" such ramblings violate the natural law... um... oh, wait.

scott said...

Yep to both of you. And I would add that there are two kinds of people you can be talking with Natural Law about -- believers and unbelievers.

Any talk with unbelievers about Natural Law, and what everyone knows to be wrong comes to an end when they say, "No, it's not." Now, we know they actually do know it's wrong, but that comes from Scripture, which isn't going to get us anywhere in an argument with an unbeliever.

To a believer, as you mentioned it gets complicated because we know we are all fallen, including our reason and intuitions, so we must look to Scripture as a guide. Then it becomes an argument about what Scripture says -- pull out your proof texts and start the debate about what is "clear" passage or not.