Robert George continues to make the news.

The author of the contentious Manhattan Declaration was profiled recently by the NY Times Magazine, prompting a number of responses among evangelicals.  George is a leading American proponent of natural law theory, which the magazine describes this way:

What makes [George’s] natural law ‘new’ is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture—or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of ‘practical reason’: ‘invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,’ as [George himself] put it in one essay.

This is, of course, an accurate description insofar as it goes.  But as George points out over at Mirror of Justice, the first principles of practical reason from which ethics are derived might be self-evident, “there is no implication that these principles cannot be (or should not be, or need not be) defended by arguments.” My understanding is that they have their content as first principles because of the particular structure of creation–hence natural law.  They are principles that are tied to creation, though not necessarily derived from it.

George’s theory was critiqued by Phil Johnson over at PyroManiacs for having an over-optimistic view of human reason.  Writes Johnson:

In short, Robert George’s contribution has been to seek ways to argue against gay marriage, abortion, and other social evils by appealing to “natural law” rather than Scripture. George is convinced that conservatives in the culture war need to build their case on “principles of right reason and natural law,” not biblical law. George wants conservatives in the culture war to make their appeal to logic, not the Bible.

And:  “As we have been saying for years, the gospel—not natural law, moralistic logic, philosophical reasoning, or political strategizing, but the gospel—is the power of God unto salvation.”

Johnson makes three mistakes:

  1. He presumes that what is at stake for George is salvation, and hence he frames it in the context of the debate between law and Gospel. But this is inaccurate.  George isn’t arguing about eternal salvation, but rather the structure and basis for our political order and public ethics.  George is not, in this sense, a natural theologian.
  2. Johnson opposes natural law and Scripture, an opposition that I would argue is wrong.  Amos critiques the nations not on the basis of their reception to revelation, but on their failure to conform to a basic moral code.  In Genesis 9:6, God outlaws murder specifically on grounds of the imago Dei. That is, the grounds for the prohibition are tied to the sort of thing the human being is. A robust natural law may not be codified in the pages of Scripture, but it is present.
  3. Johnson presumes that appealing to the natural law is an abdication of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, that rules out Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, all of whom who deployed the language of natural law in talking about the political order.

There’s more to be said on these issues, but the dismissal of George’s position on grounds that it is over-optimistic about human reason misses the point about what George thinks human reason is good for. The call to live out the Gospel must be heeded, but opposing it to pursuing a limited justice in the political realm is a dichotomy which neither the Fathers of our Faith (Protestant and otherwise) nor Scripture make.

Addendum:  I’m trampling all over Jordan Ballor’s ground here, who also weighed in.  And also see R.Scott Clark’s blog for more resources on these questions.  They are both a part of a resurgent interest in Protestant natural law theory, and I’ve learned a lot from both of them.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. […]  http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/robert-george-natural-law-and-the-new-york-times/ […]

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  2. Not to be all, “hey! look at me!” but I actually stood in front of a bunch of doctors and said something like this: http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/2013/11/proximity-vulnerability-faith-love-this.html (of course, being family doctors, they loved it.)

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