Monday, February 14, 2011

Lee Irons on natural law 2k

The theocratic implications of Natural Law

As a fellow adherent of the “two kingdom” theory, I applaud a good deal of what Scott Clark is trying to say here. I agree with him that there is such a thing as natural law inscribed on the conscience and that it is binding on all men in all ages. But I disagree with these statements:
It is the creational (and biblical) office of the magistrate to assert and protect creational/natural boundaries by promoting civil peace and justice … It is the creational function of the state to preserve order and require humans to live within their creational boundaries … The magistrate has a right and a duty to enforce marriage and divorce laws in order to enforce natural, creational boundaries in the same way he has a duty to protect a society from theft and fraud.

Note that, on Clark’s view, the civil magistrate is obligated to “assert,” “protect,” and “enforce” natural law, to “require humans to live within their creational boundaries.” Clark makes this claim in order to argue that the state has a moral duty to recognize only heterosexual marriage. Clark seems to be saying that the state has a moral obligation or duty to enforce the moral law (= natural law), a duty that itself derives from moral/natural law.

My problem with this is that, if logically carried through, this will lead to a view of civil government that is just as theocratic as that desired by the theonomists. The only difference so far as I can tell is that on Clark’s view there would be more leeway in the specifics of the penal code. But consider the following implications. The state would be obligated to …

- Prohibit public expressions of idolatry
- Have blue laws encouraging Sabbath observance
- Criminalize all forms of immoral sexual activity between consenting adults, including homosexual activity
- Prohibit all unlawful divorce
- Prevent those who were divorced unlawfully from remarrying

Now Clark protests that he is no theocrat:
To anticipate an objection, this is not a theocratic argument. It is not the magistrate’s duty to police every sort of violation of natural law and sin. For example, no one but theocrats want the state enforcing obedience to the first table of the law. The magistrate’s natural sphere of concern and authority is in the second table.

But if he really believes that “it is not the magistrate’s duty to police every sort of violation of natural law,” including all violations of the first table, then he is going back on his original premise: he no longer believes that the civil magistrate is obligated to enforce moral/natural law per se, but only a subset of it. But if he actually thinks the civil magistrate only has a duty to enforce a subset of the moral/natural law, how can he claim that the civil magistrate has a moral duty to enforce any of it? After all, the moral duty of the civil magistrate to enforce the moral/natural law flows from the moral law itself. So how can the magistrate pick and choose the parts he is going to enforce, when the whole stands or falls together? So, in spite of Clark’s claim that “this is not a theocratic argument,” it is, in fact, a theocratic argument.

Since he has appealed to natural law as the foundational principle of his theory of civil government, he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either he maintains his foundational principle (namely, that the civil magistrate has a moral obligation to enforce the moral law) and applies it consistently to the civil enforcement of the entire moral law, both the so-called first and the second table. Or he backs down and makes a much less dramatic claim: the civil magistrate may enforce parts of the moral law to the extent that it promotes good order and well-being in society. But then Clark would no longer be able to claim that the civil magistrate is morally required to enforce the creational boundaries concerning marriage. The civil magistrate could still enforce the creational boundaries concerning marriage, but now only on the softer ground that various sociological studies have shown that it is better for society, for children, etc., not because natural law requires it.

Another problem with the appeal to natural law as the principle for determining the positive enforcement duties of the civil magistrate is that we live in a pluralistic society in which the very content of natural law itself is highly contested at critical points. Many citizens believe, for example, that committed same-sex relationships are not in any way sinful. Again, I affirm that the these people are wrong, and that deep down they know they are wrong. I know that because I believe the Bible’s teaching concerning the content of natural law (e.g., Romans 1). But such an appeal to Scripture will have minimal persuasive value in the public square. A natural law theorist may not go out with the intention of making a naked appeal to Scripture. He may try appealing to various arguments that support his interpretation of natural law, keeping his biblical beliefs out of play to achieve maximum rhetorical effect. But since the ultimate epistemic basis for his interpretation of natural law is Scripture, at the end of the day this will come to light at some point in the argument and it will become evident that he is not really making a good-faith religiously-neutral appeal.

The irony is that Clark claims to be an advocate of the “two kingdom” theory of civil government, that is, the notion that the two kingdoms — the common grace kingdom of civil government and the eschatological kingdom of God — are separate and distinct. Yet in his version, the common grace kingdom of civil government is bound to enforce the moral/natural law. In this way, the civil realm loses its common grace character and becomes theocratic, thus erasing the distinction between the two kingdoms.

Most theonomists would be perfectly happy with a state run on natural law principles, since they argue that the general equity of the Mosaic Law is identical with natural/moral law as revealed via general revelation (cp. Bahnsen, No Other Standard, pp. 206, 222).

Again, I agree with the Reformed doctrine of natural law. It is biblical (Romans 1). I’m merely objecting to the claim that it is the moral duty of the state to enforce it in society.


  1. Steve,

    I too find Clark's view arbitrary and inconsistent. You know my postion, but I cannot get a sense of yours. I suspect it's close to theonomy and probably something that I'd call theonomy, but I can't tell.

    Best wishes,


  2. Hello Ronald,

    The 2K position can only be maintained by embracing a sharp dichotomy between the OT and the NT—a position vehemently opposed by Calvin. Calvin (IMHO) was a theonomist; the so-called 'Calvinists' who brush aside this aspect of Calvin's theology fail to realize that Calvin's covenantal system cannot be fragmented and/or 'cherry-picked', for when one heads down this 'slippery-slope', the fabric of his systematic theology becomes vulnerable to attack.

    Peter A. Lillback's essay in The Failure of the American Baptist Culture (pp. 185-232) brings a good deal of clarity to this issue.

    Grace and peace,


  3. Horns of what dilemma?

    In a post-theocratic world (after the expiration of the Mosaic theocracy) no state is authorized by the Creator to enforce religious orthodoxy. Israel was unique in world history. No other state has ever been authorized to enforce religious orthodoxy. The primary function of the state, in the nature of things, is to keep citizens, as much as possible, from killing one another and to punish those who violate that law. That's the plain teaching of Rom. There's not a hint of theocracy in the NT. Never did the apostles ask the magistrate to do anything but enforce the sort of justice I sketched above.

    National israel was a supernaturally state. All other states before and since are not supernaturally constituted.

    This isn't a OT v NT but it is a recognition of the intentionally temporary nature of the Mosaic theocracy, something that is taught explicitly in WCF 19. It was the divines, not Clark, who gave us the word "expired."

    How is this arbitrary or inconsistent? It's non-theocratic, but that's not inconsistent, not if the magistrate's sphere of authority is restricted. This is why all the American Reformed/Presbyterian churches have revised their confessions. The Dutch churches no longer confess and have positively rejected the old version of BC 36.

    There's a discussion of this issue here. If the audio doesn't play right away, it will play in itunes.

    See also Basileia tou Theou and the KOG

  4. There is no such thing as "natural" law since God's moral law is revealed only by special revelation--even in regards to Adam. God "spoke" to Adam. Furthermore, the idea of natural law is not necessarily one that will be accepted by the unregenerate. General revelation can only leave men without excuse (Romans 1:18-32; Romans 8:7). The doctrine of republication makes it clear that moral law is revealed law in God's Word. Furthermore, the principle of general equity is a reference to the general principles of the Decalogue as apodictic law. The theonomists, coming out of Van Til's irrationalism, just do not understand propositional truth or the Reformed standards.

  5. I guess Lee thinks that nations are not to be judged by God's moral law and by God Himself?