Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Natural Law and Biblical Law

To begin with I shall make a distinction which will structure the entire enterprise. This is between what might be called a theory of natural law, on the one hand, and de facto or empirically identifiable evidence for common acknowledgement and observance of certain norms. The idea of a theory of natural law has been of course an important component in Roman Catholic teaching through the years, and in later thinking in the seventeenth century of non-Catholic thinkers such as Hugo Grotius. Such theories lay emphasis upon the attempt to derive general moral principles from human nature, and from the principles corresponding sets of virtues are said to arise, virtues which constitute the flourishing of human nature and expressions of its end or goal. A variant of such a view continues to be defended in the work of such as Germain Grisez and John Finnis. The difficulties with it, arising precisely from the existence of sharply incommensurate and competing sets of values and moral visions characteristic of modern societies, have been prominently identified by Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue and in other writings.

The Biblical approach to this issue, to answering the question, are there natural laws? Is, it seems to me, not to encourage us to develop a theory of natural law a priori. Certainly there is no such theory present in Scripture, nor I suggest, even the beginnings of one. Rather, the Scriptural, if that’s the right term, is built upon the recognition of common patterns of norms in human societies. The approach of Scripture is bottom up rather than top down, and its suggestions are correspondingly modest and low key, but nevertheless of considerable significance. I shall try to show both these things in what follows. But firstly I turn briefly to consider what, as I said, is the fulcrum of this discussion of natural law, the Mosaic legislation, the Mosaic law.

The Mosaic Law

The phrase ‘Mosaic Law’ can be used to denote the whole body of Mosaic legislation as we find it in Exodus through to Deuteronomy. The aim of this body of law is to set forth the moral norms that should govern the life of individuals and groups in Israel, and to regulate its behaviour including its religious and cultic life. It has long been conventional to distinguish this large body of material into Moral, Judicial and Ceremonial law. While this distinction is helpful, it is not watertight. If we take the Moral Law to be equivalent to the Decalogue, then the Decalogue has a notable ceremonial component, namely the command concerning the Sabbath. And it has notable judicial implications, for the judicial law identifies many breaches of the Decalogue as punishable by legal penalties

One way of arguing for the distinction has been to claim that the ceremonial and judicial law has been done away with in Christ, that it was, as Paul puts it, the schoolmaster that, historically speaking, led Israel to Christ. But as this paper is not going to face forwards to the New Testament, except rather obliquely, I shall not be concerned to elaborate or justify or tinker with this three-foldness, and I certainly will not be attempting to enter the murky waters of theonomic controversy.

While we shall be taking as our starting point to an understanding to a biblical understanding of natural law to what I have just called the Moral Law, I shall here confine myself even further, to the second table of the Moral Law , that summed up by what our Saviour’s ‘the second great commandment’, ‘Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself’ and by the Golden Rule. This is not because I attach no importance to the first Table, obviously not, but I think that the case that I shall ultimately be attempting to make later on in this paper can best be made, indeed I believe can only be made, with respect to the second table of the Law, and possibly with reference to no more than a bit of the first Table.

It is worth noting, incidentally, that the term ‘law’ used to cover this three-fold distinction between moral, judicial and ceremonial, is used somewhat equivocally. In the case of the judicial legislation, ‘law’ sets minimum standards, the flouting of which may lead to judicial punishment. Whereas ‘law’ in reference to the Moral Law (as it is called) concerns the promotion of high ideals. At least, that is how Jesus understood it. For him the terse command ‘thou shalt have no other gods before me’ is to be understood as ‘Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart…….’. And both Jesus in his conversation with the rich young ruler, and Paul in Romans 7, took the last commandment ‘Thou shalt not covet’ to be a reference to the thoughts and intents of the heart, to a region where statutory law cannot reach. So the terminology, in its reference to ‘law’ is a little confusing at this point, since there is obviously a general need to observe the distinction between law and morals, and to recognise the need for law to be critiqued by moral norms and goals. And yet what we typically call the source of such moral norms is ‘The Moral Law’.

I said a moment ago that I shall not, at least not initially, be facing forwards from the Old Testament Law to the New Testament. Rather I shall be facing backwards, to that period of history recorded in the Old Testament that occurred before Sinai. For what is conventionally referred to as torah these days, which may be translated, I understand, as ‘instruction’, has a history, and it is that history that I wish first to comment on. Of course the torah is unique as an institution of instruction in the forms of a series of explicit divine commands, though these commands are given through human intermediaries, some of whom, notably Moses, received them directly from the finger of God. Nevertheless, though the Decalogue is literally handed down from heaven, it does in fact, in the life of the covenant people, have a history.

I think that this attitude of facing back is currently rather rare when people are trying to develop a credible and worthwhile Christian ethics and to place the Moral Law within it. We are more likely to find references to the Jubilee principle, or to prophetic utterances about injustice, as the basis of such ethics. I think that such an approach is weak and ineffective. It is weak simply because it is so highly selective. The Jubilee principle is used to critique wealth accumulation, but the complete absence in the judicial law of Israel of, say, punishment by imprisonment is never mentioned. Rather than attempting to develop a biblical ethic by cherry-picking in this fashion, I think there’s more hope in even further back than this, beyond the giving of law to Israel, at least to begin with. So we shall begin by looking back roughly to the period of time bounded by Cain and Abel on the one hand to the early Moses on the other. This is the period denoted by Paul in Romans as that ‘before the law was given’. Indeed what Paul says in Romans could well form a text for the first part of what I want to say.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted when there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom. 5.12-14)

As we can see here Paul treats the law as a kind of fulcrum, as we are doing. There is a period leading up to that fulcrum the period before the law was given as Paul says. And there is a period after the law was given and ceased to be applicable in its fullness. During the period ‘before the law’, Paul says, there was sin, and death reigned during that period in the lives of those who sinned, but who nevertheless did not sin like Adam who transgressed, whose transgression ‘brought death into the world and all our woe’, and who in respect of being the head of the race was a type of Christ. Perhaps part of the thought here is that there can be sin where there is no transgression, in the sense of disobedience of some formally enunciated law having some of the features of statutory law. But there is the further thought, vital for Paul’s ongoing argument in Romans, (though not for us in this paper) that such sin spreads death. So the means, the mechanism, by which the death that results from sin spreads, is through sin which does not have the form of an explcit transgression. For while the writer does not say in so many words that before the law was given there was no transgression, he reserves the idea of transgression for the sin of Adam, a sin that consisted in disobedience to an explicit ‘thou shalt not’ of God Almighty. (Gen. 2.17) (Whatever the ‘is not counted’ of Romans 5.13 means it cannot mean ‘is not counted as sin’ for that’s the very thing that it was counted as, according to Paul’s argument.)

If this understanding of the claim that Paul is making, that which takes it as implying that there can be sin without explicit transgression, is correct, the idea seems to be that between Adam and Moses no explicit divine moral command was given. Because of the absence of any explicit divine command, no one ‘transgressed’ as did Adam and those who later on failed to keep the explicitly enunciated Mosaic law.

So – my first question is – what is sin that is not transgression-like, the sin that reigned before the law was given through Moses? What form does it have? And I think that it is not hard to answer that question. If it does not lie in a flouting of explicitly enunciated commands, then it must lie in the spurning or flouting of widely if not universally recognised norms, or values that do not have the form of explicit commands. We may think here of that other passage in Romans which it is natural to link to this part of Romans 5. Romans 2 is I believe referring to the contemporary Gentile world of Paul’s day, nevertheless the mechanisms at work in that world are very similar to those that Paul says operated in the period from Adam to Moses. That is, if one interprets them as having a reference to the unregenerate Gentile world, and not, (as, amongst others, both Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, believe), to the Gentile Christian world.

There are those in this world who sin ‘without the law’, who ‘do not have the law’. Such people are capable of doing the works of the law, for the work of the law – its work in recognising certain norms and values – is expressed or made known internally, in their minds or hearts. This knowledge of the law does not include, though, a true, effective motivation to keep the law, nor do they ‘delight in the law’ in the manner of the writer of Psalm 119 or of those depicted in Romans 7. But it expresses itself as the voice of conscience, which bears witness to these norms and either registers success, and so ‘excuses’, or failure (in which case it ‘accuses), in respecting the norms. So the recognition of the norms is not merely the belief that there are such norms, but that these express obligations to those who are made immediately aware of them.

That is the first thing I wish to stress about the world from Adam to Moses.: it is a world of norms which find expression through the conscience and impose obligations. The second thing is to try to piece together, from data provide by Genesis and he early part of Exodus, what these internalised values and the corresponding obligations were.

I think that it is incorrect to understand the Genesis stories cannot be as a reading back of Mosaic values into the stories. There is little or no moralising in Genesis, and the point of the stories appears to rest upon the participants themselves recognising these values. The point of view of the author of Genesis is not that of a moraliser, who shows how people fail, or suffer loss, or otherwise degenerate, because of their failure to keep the law of the Lord. For one thing, as we shall shortly see, great emphasis is given to the recognition of moral values by people outside the covenant circle. And for another thing, rather surprisingly, the narrative of Genesis is often structured by the occurrence of such explicit public recognition of right and wrong by those who are outside the covenant circle, and of explicit, repeated failure even on the part of those within the circle of the Abrahamic covenant.

If all this is so, then in the eye of the author of Genesis the moral law of God as revealed to Moses , or an important part of it, is in fact continuous with what is pre-Mosaic. The recognition of this continuity is part of the case for the existence of natural law in the sense of a universally-dispersed moral sense, the evidence for which is the widely-dispersed recognition of certain duties and benefits.

That is, here is the operation of a system of values without commands, or at least without identifiable commands, as it was with the first pair, and how it was with Moses. There remains in society in general, according to the data given to us in Genesis and Exodus, a sense of obligation, but not such a sense, so it seems, as is derived explicitly from the commands of Almighty God. This sense includes the idea that there are certain types of action – such as honesty and loyalty, that were right, others wrong. Take, for instance, the story of Cain, ‘If you do well, shall you not be accepted?’ (Gen. 4.7), ‘the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground’ (v.10) Cain presumbly understood the language of ‘doing well’. Or Noah, a man blameless in his generation (Gen. 6.9) What is the moral content of this ‘doing well’, or of this blamelessnesss? Or what was in Abraham’s mind when he recognised that the judge of all the earth does right? (Gen. 18.25) Some of these values were common between those who were members of the covenant, as Abraham, and - what is pf particular interest in this paper – some stretched across the covenant boundaries, such as those held in common between Abraham and Ahimelech, or (later) Noah and his father in law Jethro. We see that these laws have to do with property, with fair dealing, with sexuality, with parents, with life and death. And as we proceed to make the list of these norms, it suddenly dawns on us that they are the very norms that are expressed in the Second Table of the Moral Law as Moses received it; morals to do with fidelity, honesty, property, the honouring of parents , and of life and death. So that the second Table is not unique, at least not as to its content.

It’s going beyond noticing this similarity of content to suggest that the Mosaic moral law is to be seen as a codification and explicit publication of these earlier moral attitudes, in the statutory law of a distinct nation. It is going beyond this, but then why may we not go beyond it and think of the Second Table not as a set of novel commands, but as a republication of these norms, just as the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule and various other sayings of Jesus were also republications of it? That is, to use the language of a philosopher for a moment, the Second Table of the Mosaic Moral Law may be seen as having chiefly an epistemic function: it clarifies, organises and brings to the attention of the people, in the form of a series of explicit commands and prohibitions, the set of norms recognised in the time from Adam to Moses. Their explicitness, and their form as imperatives, sharpen what was already present. For if the Lord our God is one Lord, then it is not a great leap of logic to suppose that he has, for the human race, one law regarding their privileges and duties with respect to each other. (On some of these points, see Donald Macleod, ‘How Right Are the Justified or, What is a Dikaios?' (SBET, Autumn 2004, 182-6))

It is not going too far, I believe, to say that the book of Genesis is, partly at least, structured by these norms, and that they figure at several of the turning points of the narrative. We are familiar with the idea that the book of Genesis is a book of beginnings; it has recently been suggested that the book may also regarded as a book of deceptions and of their uncovering, starting with the serpent’s deception of Adam and Eve, Abram’s deception of Pharaoh, then of Abimelech, and Isaac’s deception of Ahimelech through to Joseph’s brother;s the deception of Jacob and Tamar and of Judah, the brothers of Joseph’s deception of their faither, Joseph’s deceptions of his brothers. Genesis, the book of beginnings. But also, Genesis, the book of lies. (Michael J. Williams, ‘Lies, Lies, I Tell You! The Deceptions of Genesis’ (Calvin Theological Journal, 2008)

The sequence of deceptions come to the surface, and the narrative is made intelligible by their means. The writer does not point the finger. It is simply that the turning points of the course of the human lives recounted in Genesis has a structure and point often derived from the operation or flouting of the norms of truthfulness and fidelity and of an unwillingness to take responsibility. Take, for example, the disgracing of Noah by his son after the flood. Or the story of Abraham and Pharoah (Gen.12) and more especially the story of Abram’s dealings with Abimelech (Ch.20) which we touched upon earlier, and the very similar story of the encounter between Isaac and Ahimilech, the king of the Philistines. (Ch. 26) Why did the Lord’s dream to Ahimelech have the force for him that it did? How did it come about that Abimelech said to Abraham what was surely true, ‘You have done to me thing that ought not to be done?’ (Gen. 20.9) Why were Abimelech’s servants so fearful? And what of Abimelech’s fair dealing with Abraham in Gen. 21. Or Lot’s flight from Sodom and Gomorrah. Or Abraham’s dealings with the Hittites and Ephron regarding the burying place of Sarah. (Gen. 23) Or Jacob’s dealing with Abimelech over Rebekah (Gen.26) Or the story of Jacob and Esau. The story hinges on Jacob’s deception of his father, his failure, at this point, to honour his father. He was as we know put up to this by his mother, and the Lord in his inscrutable wisdom overrules this deception of the aged old man for his own sovereign covenant purposes. But that’s not quite the point here. Or think of Joseph’s brothers and the way that they dealt with Jacob. We think of the evil that they perpetrated to be an evil against Joseph, but it was primarily an evil against their father, a dishonouring of their father, and they knew this. Or think of Joseph in the house of Potiphar. ‘How can I do this great evil, and sin against God?’ Where did he get this idea from, that adultery with a pagan wife was a sin against God? Or – moving from Genesis into the early chapters of Exodus - think of Moses’ killing of the Egyptian and hiding him in the sand; it was murder, but why did it matter? What led his fellow Israelites to taunt him: ‘Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian?’ (Ex. 2.14) Or the incident of the bricks without straw, and the sense of outrage at the injustice and the inequity of the new arrangement.

Of course it needs to be said here, as at every point in the discussion of normative standards when these are discussed from a biblical and Christian standpoint, that it is necessary to distinguish between moral standard on the one hand and motive and intention on the other. So in saying that we find the norms of the second Table of the Moral Law upheld or contravened at key points in Genesis, giving the book much of its distinctive structure and sense, I am not saying that when these norms were observed, as in the cases of Ahimilech and Abimelech, that they observed them with a faithful and God-honouring motive. That is not the issue. The fact is, they observed them.

David VanDrunen has drawn attention to how the idea of the ‘fear of God’ functions in those biblical contexts in which members of the spiritual kingdom and those outside it interact. We’ve already noted the case of Abraham and Abimelech. Abraham gives as his reason for acting as he did that ‘I did it because I thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife”. (Gen 20.11) And lo and behold, there was some fear of God in this place, and Abraham seriously misjudged the situation. This is not the fear of God of which wisdom is the beginning, but, as VanDrunen suggests, a general sense of moral accountability. VanDrunen suggests that the same may apply to the Hebrew midwives, if we understand these as Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews, and also the case of Jethro, Moses father-in-law who clearly had some idea of the fear of God, for he advised Moses to appoint men who feared God, that is, men who took their responsibilities seriously.

So how are these data to be understood? My first suggestion, as you’ll already have gathered, is that we are to see the Mosaic Law not in sharp contrast to these data, but as complementing and extending and codifying them. There are various levels at which we might understand these. In terms of mankind’s being made in the image of God, the norms are an expression of the remnants of that image, which was not destroyed, but perverted and twisted in the Fall. Another level is to think in terms of common grace, the Lord’s goodness in granting to the fallen race the undeserved favour of not being as bad as could be. In my view although those who stress common grace typically do so in opposition to the idea of natural law, the two ideas – natural law and common grace - are not in fact opposed, but answer different or overlapping questions. We shall return to these themes later.

We have looked back, before the formal giving of the Moral Law at Sinai. Let’s now look forward, beyond its giving, beyond the Old Testament and even beyond the teaching of Jesus about love to God and neighbour, beyond his vivid answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?” and so on, beyond Romans 2, and Romans 5, to Paul’s and Peter’s teaching on the state and society.

We may reasonably regard this area as the periphery of the New Testament, at least in the sense that it provides no more than the normative setting in which the New Testament writings and the New Testament churches were situated. What do we find? In both Paul and in Peter (and James?) we find, as an intrinsic feature of the Christian duty to civil obedience, not only that Emperors, Kings and governors are sent by God, but that they have the ability to discern or recognise actions which are good and those which are evil. Peter does not say ‘to punish those who the Emperor thinks is evil’, or ‘who are evil by the Emperor’s standards’, but who are evil unqualifiedly and so, he implies, are evil when measured by the divine standard, actions which fail to conform in their character and their effects to the second table of the Moral Law; actions to do with the preservation of property or the upholding of the family or promise making and keeping. Such norms form the fabric of any society and so it is little wonder that the emperors seek to uphold them, even though they may have a perverted sense of them and of their own uniqueness which borders on, if it is not actually a case of, self-worship. Such emperors are to be honoured. (Here I do not deal with vexed questions about civil disobedience, when the political authority may require as a matter of law the commission of sin.) Similarly with Paul in Romans 13. For this reason Paul has no hesitation in utilising the mechanisms of civil authority, such as the fact that he is a freeborn Roman citizen, to regain freedom for himself. And similarly again, he readily recognises that, when shipwrecked on Malta, the native people showed unusual kindness to the passengers as they welcomed and warmed them in the cold, wet weather.

What I want to suggest from this rapid and rather piecemeal survey is evidence that the post lapsarian world, the world before the giving of the torah , and the world in which the post-Pentecostal church of Jesus Christ is situated, is not literally a world without norms, a world of pure secularity, or of radical pluralism, for all the pluralism that featured in it. But more importantly for us, what the survey shows is that these norms echo or coincide with many of the values and norms of the econd Table of the Decalogue as this is given to Moses and explicitly endorsed by Jesus and by the Apostles. We might of course strengthen our case by pointing to those occasions when the New Testament writers, notably Paul, refer to conduct that is ‘natural’, and on occasion shame their readers by pointing out that their conduct does not even come up to the standards prevalent in ‘the world’.

My second point is that these various data are biblical evidence for the existence of ‘natural law’. But in order to do this in a way that has any prospect of being plausible I have to deal with two problems, or obstacles. Each of these requires us to be a little more technical that we have been so far. The first of these has to do with what I shall call the ‘common grace’ objection. Many, influenced by the Calvinism of Bavinck and Kuyper, when they think of good things happening outside the church, think of ‘common grace’, the idea that such wholesome activities are the result of the undeserved goodness of God to the fallen world, and therefore they cannot be due to the observance of natural laws or norms. The attitude or argument is: common grace and therefore not natural law. The second has to do with the ambiguities of the phrase ‘natural law’.

Next time we shall look at these in turn.