My conclusion:

But influence goes both ways, and evangelicals may have something to offer the natural law thinkers as well. Specifically, the evangelical emphasis on the brokenness of our rational faculties because of sin may serve as a reminder that truthful accounts of the goods of traditional marriage are not enough for moral or social transformation—those interested in preserving traditional marriage need beauty as well, beauty that comes in the form of lives and marriages that reflect the beauty of the cross.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was hinting at something along these lines when he remarked at the end of a recent conversation with Robert George: “I’m thankful that he’s making [these arguments] better than just about anyone else is making them. And as an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

If you’ve got feedback, I’d love to hear it.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Interesting that Matthew O’Brien (a Catholic) in his extensive debates (starting here with Hadley Arkes on natural law/reasoning appears to be closer to your side. Whereas Micah Watson (an evangelical) pushes against O’Brien here. Which is to say, it seems that Catholics and evangelicals don’t line up on this issue as neatly as we might initially suppose.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm


      That’s a good point, as always. And Watson is one of those guys whose work I am shamelessly excited about.

      Whereever else I land on the question, I am persuaded that substantive engagement with NL can only lead to good for evangelical ethical deliberation.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Thanks, Joel. I hadn’t seen that before, but it looks *awesome.* From what I’ve picked up from his website, I think Leithart argues that NL is a form of incipient secularization, and that it keeps intact bad nature/grace dualisms. But I’m looking forward to reading through the full treatment, as I’m not sure I’m persuaded by him on this point.


  2. Evangelicals trot out all these statistics about college kids losing their faith. They also often attack natural law. Well, natural law helped save my faith in college. I met many non-religious people in college that were very kind and friendly, more than a lot of Christians I knew. That really caused me to question everything about my religious upbringing. Reading some Catholic writers about natural law and how non-Christians can be virtuous to a degree, and the concept of common grace, helped make Christianity make sense again and regain confidence in my faith.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 25, 2011 at 8:08 am

      Jim, glad to hear NL has helped out your faith. I have no interest in attacking it, just for clarity’s sake. I’ve drawn on it heavily in the past here at Mere-O and will continue to do so, I suspect, into the future.

      You may want to check out Oliver O’DOnovan’s work for a sympathetic reading of NL from an evangelically minded perspective.


  3. Let us know what you think of it.


  4. I appreciated your article Matt. I’m excited as well about the evangelical revival of NL, especially in the realm of bioethics. J. Daryl Charles’ book “Retrieving the Natural Law” is about as timely as books can be at that point.

    Dr. George gave a series of lectures here at Southern Seminary a few years ago and one of the most poignant remarks he made was in evaluating how protestant evangelicals ended up where we have in the marriage struggle. When we bought (wholesale) into the idea that procreation is a discretionary accessory to marriage in our theology of marriage and family, protestants cast off one of the firmest defenses of “what” marriage actually is. If, as we have argued so long now, marriage need not be ‘oriented’ towards procreation at all to be “fulfilling” (thereby making fulfillment our chief design and purpose for marriage), then we have lost the distinguishing grounds of ‘procreative potential’ of heterosexual marriage. Our marriages then become no different from what homosexual couples desire — both a search for ‘fulfillment’. It was a fascinating argument when I first came across it, and since that time all my study of Protestant ethics and practical living has confirmed it.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 25, 2011 at 8:09 am

      Thanks, Hank.

      I haven’t read Charles’ book yet, but he was at the evangelicals/NL conference out at Westmont I mentioned in the article. Interesting fellow.

      As for contraception…I’ll save that argument for another time. : )



  5. I enjoyed your article. I’m frustrated with Robert George’s response. It sounded from the transcript that he was saying, “Natural Law is fine and all, but I also believe in the Bible,” as if the two could in no way be interrelated. Romans 1 seems to be a fine passage from which to argue for the need for NL, not just against it.

    Robert George says: “When I believe that what we are told there is that humanity is dead set to suppress the truth in unrighteousness and that there is no law written within the heart nor within the role of nature that will keep them from doing what they are determined to do except by the regenerating power of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    The fact that people can ignore the truth and do bad things is not a reason to give up on promoting the truth. People can ignore the truth of the Gospel just as well as they can ignore the truth in Natural Law.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 25, 2011 at 8:10 am

      Thanks, Matthew.

      Do you mean Mohler’s response? Just clarifying.


      1. That I did. My apologies to Robert George.


  6. I’ve got feedback, but I’m not sure you’ll love to hear it. Isn’t it a fool’s errand to define marriage within the boundaries of mere reason, just as Kant tried to define religion within the boundaries of mere reason? Doesn’t this project assume a reductionistic anthropology, as if we’re merely rational creatures who are persuadable by rational arguments? I’m sure there are some benefits to the paper that Girgis, George, and Anderson published, but I’m not optimistic that it will be a game-changer. At the risk of oversimplification, I believe that a distinctly Christian way of life, in which marriage flourishes as a social good, provides the strongest argument against a revision of its definition, as Mark Galli eloquently writes:

    “We cannot very well argue for the sanctity of marriage as a crucial social institution while we blithely go about divorcing and approving of remarriage at a rate that destabilizes marriage. We cannot say that an institution, like the state, has a perfect right to insist on certain values and behavior from its citizens while we refuse to submit to denominational or local church authority. We cannot tell gay couples that marriage is about something much larger than self-fulfillment when we, like the rest of heterosexual culture, delay marriage until we can experience life, and delay having children until we can enjoy each other for a few years. In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on this issue. Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion.”

    In short, I believe traditional marriage needs to undergo spiritual askesis.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 25, 2011 at 8:14 am

      Did you read my final two paragraphs?

      Also, I think your minimization of reason exacerbates, rather than helps, the unnecessary and unfortunate dichotomy between affections and reason. Why denigrate reason by saying “mere”?


      1. Matt: Yes, I did read your final two paragraphs and they resonate with what I said above. I’m not denigrating reason, but it strikes me as misguided to define marriage within the boundaries of mere reason. I’m in favor of defining marriage within the boundaries of revelation. Revelation, of course, is not against reason, but it must take priority. When my gay friends ask “What is marriage for?” I find it more profitable to turn to the Bible rather to say “a comprehensive interpersonal union that is consummated and renewed by acts of organic bodily union and oriented to the bearing and rearing of children.”


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

          Right. Glad you read them, as you positioned your comments as going beyond what I had said.

          Also, do your non-Christian friends find it more profitable when you turn to the Bible?


          1. **Also, do your non-Christian friends find it more profitable when you turn to the Bible?**

            Good question. To be honest, I’m not sure. One friend did remark, “It’s clear that your authority is Scripture.” I’m glad he discerned this. If I tried to defend traditional marriage within the boundaries of mere reason, he could retort: “Well, your reason may lead you in that direction but my reason does not.”

          2. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm

            Yes, but I don’t see why him saying, “My reason does not” is any less helpful or productive than claiming the authority of Scripture. You could say, “But your reason is wrong” and have a conversation about why, or why not, his reason is wrong. That seems helpful and productive.

  7. Great article, and important coverage. I happen to agree with your conclusion, which is why those within the church, those who do not claim to rely on natural law alone, shouldn’t miss what you are saying. I think it is critical for those of us who call ourselves Christian to come to an account of marriage that is theological in nature, and this includes an account of the body that relies both on natural law arguments and theological arguments. Natural law is not insufficient for providing an account of the body and of marriage that is rational or holistic, but it isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling as a theological account.

    The first people that must be convinced are Christians. Right now, I’d describe our present state as confused and muddled. Even if we believe that marriage should be exclusively heterosexual, we don’t know why.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

      Thanks, Ben. I totally agree with you, especially your final paragraph. That’s very well put.


  8. Interesting stuff, Matt.

    What exactly do you take the “brokenness of our rational faculties” to imply? You paint the issue in broad strokes, and I was hoping you could paint with a little more detail.

    I know where people like Westphal take it, and I hope you don’t take it that far. (e.g.: “foundationalism is… to be understood as a sinfully arrogant attempt at methodological self-purification, void of contrition, confession, or dependence on divine grace.”)

    I haven’t thought about the issue much, but it seems that it at least implies a commitment to fallibilism and probably a wariness towards the epistemic reliability of moral intuition. If something like virtue epistemology is correct, then I imagine that some interesting views about the noetic effects of sin could probably fall out of it.


    1. PDVE: I’m a big fan of Merold Westphal. His views about the noetic effects of sin are shaped by his Dutch Reformed tradition. A robust doctrine of total depravity compels a rejection of foundationalism. It’s Promethean arrogance.


      1. Westphal has a lot of sophisticated things to say on a lot of different topics, but epistemology just ain’t it.

        His characterization of foundationalism, which is largely representative of how those in theological circles think about it (especially given theology’s continental captivity), is an antiquated caricature. Have you ever wondered why it burns so easily? Being made of straw surely helps.

        A distinction that never gets made by Westphal or his ilk, but which gets made frequently in the literature on epistemic justification, is the distinction between classical foundationalism and moderate/modest foundationalism. Classical foundationalism is what says that a belief is justified if and only if it is incorrigible or self-evident. Here the sting of Westphal’s accusation can be felt. But, there are more foundationalisms in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in Westphal’s anti-rationalist philosophy.

        Westphal is the perfect example of where one can go awry if one paints in overly broad strokes. What could possibly be sinful about saying that my belief that here is a hand is justified exclusively in virtue of my visual experience of a hand? If we truly want to understand our rational faculties and the noetic effects of sin (and not be limited by these very effects in understanding them), then it requires careful and nuanced thinking. This is a carefulness that is often absent in dismissals of foundationalism.


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 29, 2011 at 11:15 am



        2. Clearly, anyone who asks, “What could possibly be sinful about saying that my belief that here is a hand is justified exclusively in virtue of my visual experience of a hand?” is subject to serious noetic corruption.


          1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm


        3. I realize this conversation is a month old but I was browsing through some posts I hadn’t read and ran across this one.

          The comments above about Westphal (and his ilk) are flat out false. In the “Taking St. Paul Seriously” essay that was quoted from, Westphal is quite clearly talking about “empiricist-positivist” versions of foundationalism. And elsewhere he is careful to distinguish between classical, soft, hard, etc. versions of foundationalism.

          Your comment about “here is a hand” is odd and I’m having trouble even making sense of it in light of Westphal’s essay. Where does he suggest that a statement like that would be sinful?


          1. Matthew Lee Anderson May 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm

            Eric, do you where in his other writings he makes that distinction? I’ve read a couple of his other essays, but don’t remember him ever drawing that sort of distinction.

            Also, do you think that moderate versions of foundationalism fall prey to his critiques? Because I tend to think they escape many of the problems he accuses foundationalists of having.


          2. One example that came to mind when I wrote my reply was in Overcoming Ontotheology where he makes the following distinction:

            “In its soft form [foundationalism] is merely the claim that while some parts of our knowledge depend epistemically upon others, there are parts that do not, that stand on their own. This view, while vigorously challenged by some, is just as vigorously defended by others. Announcements of the collapse of foundationalism concern a stronger claim, namely, that those parts of our knowledge that do not depend on other parts but stand on their own can be a fundamentum inconcussum for the whole edifice of knowledge by virtue of their certainty and finality. We can begin with parts that can be known prior to our grasp of the whole and that will not require revision as we build the whole on them as foundation. Epistemically these parts are atomic in nature rather than holistic. Neither do they presuppose the whole to which they eventually belong, nor are they liable to correction as that whole emerges into view.” (p. 117)

            And earlier in the book he talks specifically about foundationalism in the “strong sense” and then references “classical foundationalism” and Plantinga’s critique of it in a footnote.

            In “Taking St. Paul Seriously” Westphal locates foundationalism in the quest to replace doxa with episteme. And he points out that those who hold to “empiricist-positivist versions of foundationalism” view doxa not just as finite/limited, but as sinful. Now insofar as that is true, “epistemological sanctification requires nothing more than the epistemological asceticism of sound method.” So what happens is, for positivist versions of foundationalism, “sin appears and disappears from the epistemological scene at the same moment.” And thus, they can ignore sin as an epistemological category (or, as you put it, they don’t need to recognize the “brokenness of our rational faculties.) This is the “self-purification” that Westphal was talking about.

            I would say that any version of foundationalism that doesn’t use “method” to ignore the brokenness of our rational faculties is not subject to this critique. And, similarly, any that do use it are subject to the critique.

          3. Here’s another example. In Beyond Foundationalism, Grenz and Franke use the following quote by Westphal to suggest that foundationalism is in “dramatic retreat.”

            “That it is philosophically indefensible is so widely agreed that its demise is the closest thing to a philosophical consensus in decades.

            However, if you actually look at the context of the quote, Westphal is clearly talking about classical foundationalism:

            I now turn to a brief account of six books in which readers of this journal can find a fuller account of this exciting philosophical development. Reformed epistemology is by no means alone in attacking classical foundationalism. That it is philosophically indefensible is so widely agreed that its demise is the closest thing to a philosophical consensus in decades.

            Grenz and Franke make no distinction here and their non-quote of the preceding sentence makes it appear as Westphal doesn’t either.

    2. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 10:30 pm


      I have no interest in going Westphal’s route. To me, the rejection of foundationalism has been tried and found wanting.

      You write: “it seems that it at least implies a commitment to fallibilism and probably a wariness towards the epistemic reliability of moral intuition.”

      This strikes me as exactly right. The Westphalian critique (accusation?) is that foundationalism is arrogant because it presupposes a certain sort of certitude. I think that conflates the question of our noetic structure with our psychological degree of confidence in our knowledge. I think the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand, which is why I think one can be a fallibilist and foundationalist at the same time.



      1. @Matt: No surprise here. We’re at an impasse. I can tweak your words to fit my view. To me, the embrace of foundationalism has been tried and found wanting. I don’t think one can be a fallibilist and foundationalist at the same time.


        1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 10:45 pm


          For us to be “at an impasse,” we’d have to be discussing something. However, I was responding to PDVE–not you. Ergo, impasse avoided. : )

          What a relief. I know you hate an impasse just as much as I do.



          1. Actually, Matt, I don’t hate an impasse. And I’m having some fun here. What a boring world it would be if all Christians were natural lawyers, foundationalists, and realists. I welcome the variety, even if it leads to incommensurable language games.

          2. Matthew Lee Anderson March 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

            Ah, yes, because the silence into which we must fall because our language games are incommensurate is so much more fun, no? Weeee!!!

            Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to mine the joy of this impasse for everything I can get from it, namely by going to sleep. Because in a world where communication stops because there’s no arbiter between language games, sleep takes on a whole new level of attractiveness.

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