How Many Kingdoms? Finding the Source of Civil Law
A few weeks ago, I introduced an idea that natural law was meant to be the source from which all civil laws flowed. Thus, rather than appealing to biblical texts in order to erect judicial code, one must look to natural law. This post is my effort to establish natural law as the normative seat for the creation of civil law. While this may seem foreign to many, it was in fact the “orthodox” Reformed position until decisive shifts began to occur in the thinking of Abraham Kuyper. Calvinist political philosopher Johannes Althusius, in his work Politica, argues that law rightly understood is, “nothing other than the practice of this proper common natural law… as adapted to a particular polity.” I agree with Althusius. In order to establish this idea more concretely, let’s look at some crucial issues in the discussion.
It is first necessary to establish a biblical foundation for natural law since, apparently, even that can’t be assumed in various Christian circles today. Two critical texts establish a clear precedent for natural law. Romans 1:19-20 reads:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Here Paul establishes the idea that all people have a knowledge of God that is established through creation. Paul’s purpose here is to render all human beings without excuse. Thus it is critical to his argument that all people possess this general knowledge of God. It is through this general knowledge of God that Paul cuts away at the root of any excuse for unbelief. If knowledge of God were simply a possibility but not an actuality for all human beings then the argument falls apart as some could in fact be excused for their unbelief. Douglas Moo argues this point very well in his commentary on Romans in stating:
But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists?… How universal in this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people. (Emphasis mine)
As such we have a vivid biblical precedent for arguing that all men possess the knowledge of God.
The second passage here and perhaps the most crucial is Romans 2:14-15 which reads:
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. 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.
This passage is in fact the staple of the natural law argument. Paul here argues that the Gentiles do, “by nature,” the things which the law requires. He strengthens the concept by stating that the law is in fact written on their hearts. Also crucial to Paul’s conceptualization of natural law is the idea of conscience, which played itself out so vibrantly in Calvin’s thinking. Indeed conscience is inextricably linked to the concept of natural law. It would seem that Paul here is arguing that knowledge of natural law and subsequently, God, is experienced through the reality of conscience. Again, there is no limitation in the text as to who experiences the reality of conscience. Paul portrays it as a universal phenomenon.
This linkage between natural law and conscience is vital to our discussion. In a phenomenal essay entitled Calvin’s Concept of Natural and Roman Law, Irena Backus writes that the link between conscience and natural law in Calvin is, “… the very feature of Calvin’s system that enables him to view pagan legislative and moral thought as partly acceptable to Christians insofar as it issues from the same God-given natural law.” This idea is essential. Since all men are captive to natural law through conscience, pagan legislative processes can be more than just acceptable, but warmly embraced insofar as they coincide with natural law.
The reason that natural law is so appropriate for civil discourse is because it issues from God into the hearts of all men. And thus all men are captive to it. Whereas not all men submit willingly to the Bible, all men are subjected to the torments of conscience and feel obligated to live accordingly. Thus natural law makes for more homogenous discourse in civil society. It is a law that all men acknowledge. Combine this with the truth that we have already discussed about the civil kingdom not being intended to propagate the specific revelatory message of Christianity and you have a serious foundation for social theory.
Before closing I want to address one objection that seems to be continually put forth against the natural law argument. The objection is really two pronged. The first prong is that natural law is opaque and does not reveal enough to be taken seriously as a code of law for civil societies. The second prong is that natural law is suppressed by all human beings.
With regard to the first objection that natural law is generally obfuscated, this is simply not the case and biblical texts imply otherwise. In Romans 2:15, Paul argues that this law of nature is “written on their hearts.” Note that it is a “law.” It would be too much to bear here to analyze Paul’s concept of law and how it relates to the Old Testament but suffice it to say that the concept of “law” in scripture never carries a sense of opaquity. Law is a code that is unambiguously defined. Additionally, if it were so opaque, it is difficult to imagine this natural law, experienced through conscience, as being that which accuses or excuses people on the day of judgment. Or being capable of rendering someone without excuse (Romans 1:19-20)
While it is true that men suppress natural law, it is equally true that men suppress written law just as much, if not more. Thus it does not solve the problem to assert that specific revelation contained in the Bible will somehow fix the problem of suppression. Suppression does not root itself in the type of revelation used to create civil law but in the sinfulness of man. To say that suppression comes about because of the type of revelation used, is to dislocate the biblical understanding of human wickedness which unequivocally argues that such suppression is a result of internal strife and sin.
The entire issue of social theory is quite a vortex that must necessarily pull in a number of diverse theological strands of thinking in order to create a coherent picture. We have now begun to establish the vital second pillar of early Reformed social thought, that of natural law. Melding concepts of natural law along with that of the two-kingdoms framework will allow us to form a more fortified theology on civil society and ecclesiology. It is this task that we look forward to in the coming weeks.
 Quote retrieved from David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.