In Order for Leviathan to Flourish He Must First Kill Natural Law

An HB Classic

LeviathanAnd that’s what Stanley Fish proposes. He wants to go back to Hobbes. In a word: Yikes! The Leviathan (Whale)-like civil authority is precisely why our founders said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and appealed to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and to the “the consent of the governed.”

This last phrase is almost certainly grounded in medieval constitutional theory (parallel to the conciliar theory that flourished in the high and late medieval periods). However indebted most of them may have been to the Enlightenment the founders did a good did of borrowing from the Christian tradition to establish their case against George III but they also “secularized” their appropriation. As Darryl Hart has argued in A Secular Faith, the idea of the “secular” is not inherently evil or wicked. I don’t recall if Hart says it but I will: The adjective secular is derived from the Latin noun saeculum. It doesn’t mean “anti-theistic” or “atheistic” or “evil,” or “wicked” or “devilish” as it has come to connote for so many American fundamentalists. The word “secular,” understood properly, simply means, “non-ecclesiastical.” If ecclesiastical = sacred, the “secular” realm simply describes that common life that all we image-bearers live together. It seems to me that Abraham Kuyper wrote about this concept somewhere.

The ideas of a transcendent natural law of divine origin and of authority that flows from God, through the governed, and thence to the magistrate (both of which are foundational to the American experiment), of course, antedate  the Reformation, but they became especially potent in the 16th century as Lutherans and the Reformed writers began to articulate a theory of natural law (the natural revelation of the substance of the Decalogue) and of resistance to tyrants. In the early 1570s, Theodore Beza would write Concerning the Right of Magistrates to be followed by the anonymously written, Vindication Against Tyrants among other seminal resistance-theory texts. These two texts did not rely only on natural law. They also appealed to the history of redemption and conveniently blurred the line between national Israel and the 16th-century state. Our theology, however, tells us that we cannot so appeal to the theocracy as they did. Their own theology told them that also: See WCF ch. 19. A few hundred years after Christendom, it’s a little easier to see the distinction between the canonical theocracy and post-canonical civil orders.

The most enduring part of the argument by resistance theorists was their appeal to divinely-revealed, transcendent norms to which the magistrate and the governed are bound. They understood that the civil order is not a covenant of grace but a covenant of works. This is a distinction that has been lost on both the religious right and left who, in their monocovenantal politics, seem to be bent on making the civil order a covenant of grace and thence to achieve their utopia of Christian-Democratic Socialism or a “Christian-Republican America.”

A pox on both the religious right and the religious left. Neither one understands the nature of civil society as covenant of works. We do not need to appeal to “Christian America” to make our case. The founding documents are sufficient evidence. It was not long ago that Martin Luther King invoked our founding documents in order to call Americans to practice what they professed in the Declaration. Recently a correspondent quoted part of the famous 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail to the effect that King was a transformationalist. Doubtless, on some level he was. He certainly confused the two kingdoms by making the visible church an agent of social change. Nevertheless, he was also an advocate of natural law. In that same letter he wrote:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws….The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is not law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? …An unjust law is a code that is out harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

It’s true that King did use transformationalist language, but it’s not entirely clear from the context that he was (despite his practice) intending to say that the visible, institutional church is the agent of transformation. In fact, he was decrying the visible, institutional church for being an agent of the the repressive status quo. He seems to use “church” in the letter, and in the passage quoted by my correspondent, to refer to the members of the church as individuals. Whatever the case, the point here is to note that it wasn’t that long ago that someone was able to make credibly a natural law argument, grounded in the decalogue, in order to make a persuasive case in the late modern period. His appeal was persuasive because the natural law is a truly common (notice I did not say neutral) truth because it is universally known because it is revealed by God and embedded in the fabric of creation.

Johannes Althusius (†1638) also appealed to these creational norms and patterns in his Politica (1603). Long before Abraham Kuyper, he theorized about spheres of association and distinctions between those spheres and the family as the most basic unit of association and he did so at least partly on the basis of natural/creational law.

Althusius was no “secularist” (in the modern sense). He taught at Herbon, the academy founded by Caspar Olevianus (d. 1587) and was an orthodox Reformed writer on political and social issues. His theories were influential in the Dutch revolt against the Spanish and beyond. They were influential on at least some of the American founding fathers. Indeed, as I recall the abridged English translation of the Politica one can find almost the exact verbiage of the 10th amendment in it.

He was the father of Federal political theory (i.e. the doctrine of graduated assemblies that derive their authority from the smaller assemblies). There is a fair bit of reasonable literature arguing that there was at least some connection between Althusius’ seminal federal political theory and Reformed federal theology. The connections may not be as clear as some seem to think (as if federal theology necessarily leads to federal politics) but the connection is interesting. I’m not suggesting that Althusius made no appeal to the history of redemption. That would be a foolish claim since the appeal is embedded in the full title of the work! The heart of his argument, however, was in his appeal to creation and his observation about the nature of human society. This part of the argument, coming as it did before the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), was a good foundation from which to build a new, post-theocratic model of civil association grounded in the nature of human society as constituted by creation. His Politca is an interesting resource for us as we consider how to respond to the pendulum swing back to a Hobbsian Leviathan-State.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2009]


  1. Your historiography is interesting to me, though it seems selective. “Secular” was the term Augustine conceived (so recent scholarship tells me, anyway) to describe the common good that pagans and Christians had in common. “Secular” was also the conventional expression used to describe a Catholic priest who did not belong to a specific religious order, i.e. a priest is either a secular or a religious. My question would be whether it makes sense to speak of Reformation thinkers as “articulating a theory of natural law,” rather than as the very thinkers who would ultimately undermine the ordered hierarchy of distinct laws that Aquinas sets forth and draws from the Tradition. I truly offer that as a query, for my own knowledge of the history of natural law theory is inexpert and limited.

    • James,

      I actually meant to make the point about “secular” priests but I forgot. Thanks. I think it strengthens my argument about the nature of the idea of the “secular.”

      We may be writing in different contexts. In my context I talk with people who’ve been taught to think that all dualisms are Manichean, but who, in their own way, have actually adopted a Manichean outlook on things and who then go about metaphorically baptizing “secular” life in order to make it suitable for Christians. They do this by talking about “Christian plowing” or “Christian math” and the like.

      Unless one operates with an a priori definition of what can be “natural law,” there is no question, historically speaking, whether the Reformers taught a doctrine of natural law. It wasn’t Thomas’ but it was a doctrine of natural law.

      There’s abundant research on this. See David VanDrunen’s work on it and Stephen Grabill’s. See also this essay if only for the footnotes:

  2. Clark,

    I’ve been trying to understand natural law more, in part provoked by your thoughtful posts on the subject. Have you listened to the recent dicussion of natural law on the Reformed Forum? I’ve listened to most RF discussions and I’ve never heard them more confused than in this episode, trying to figure out just the basics of natural law.
    Perhaps the lesson to be learned from their conversation is that natural law is far too underdeveloped and far too confusing (for theologians, let alone laymen like me) to make much of an argument with it at this point? How much ice is a Reformed use of natural law going to cut when so few even understand it?
    By the way, putting “I did not say neutral” in red (fourth to last paragraph) probably doesn’t remove any worries someone sympathetic to Van Til might have, just like stomping your foot when you say that won’t help much either.

    • Patrick,

      The foot-stomping would help if people actually understood Van Til, I’ve taken to doing that because some people seem to be unable to see that REVELATION is revelation and that the law is revealed both in creation (a divine act!) and in special revelation. I’ve taken to doing that because I’ve been accused of teaching neutrality. How is the law of God neutral?

      Van Til’s point about neutrality is essential to Reformed theology. There is no such thing as “neutrality.” There can be no such thing as neutrality when we live in a universe described by God’s Word and we do.

      The law of God IS GOD’s WORD.

      Why is this so hard to understand?

      It’s hard to understand because historic Reformed teaching on this has been ignored and/or caricatured by people who are either ignorant or willful – it varies.

      It’s been distorted by people who’ve adopted a quasi-Barthian view of natural revelation and natural law and who think that they are Van Tillians. It’s beyond bizarre.

      I understand you’re confusion. That’s why I write the HB: to try to relieve folk of such confusion about what constitutes Reformed theology.

      Have you read any of VanDrunen’s work?

  3. Hey Dr. C.,

    Very timely post. I was on Capitol Hill during this past election, listening to many a politician speak of a “right” to health care and a “right” to marriage without considering the origins of a human right and the consequences entailed in such a right (Jesse Jackson Jr. has a book on ten new “rights” to be enshrined in our Constitution).

    I will likely apply soon for a fellowship at the Heritage Foundation exploring the role of natural law in America’s founding. I love that you drop new resources for me in your posts (i.e. Althusius). Keep the helpful work flowing!


  4. While MLK can help, I think his broader project presents problems for those of us equally interested in what it means to obey and even to advance an institutional notion of secular participation. In other words, his is 20th century American activism. And I am not very convinced that American activism is much of a friend to the ethic of a Reformed two-kingdom theology, even as it draws of an ostensible natural law view. It seems to have more in common with a theology of glory than the cross. (When I think MLK I also think Falwell. The latter sounded very two-kingdoms when he said of civil rights in the 50s that it was “no concern of the church.” But the advent of the Moral Majority in the 60s cleared up what he really meant: when the cultural status quo is in your favor, be quiet—when your cultural values begin to get threatened toss two-kingdoms out the window and take up arms.)

    The lingering questions for me are: obeying just laws and disobeying unjust ones sounds good, but who gets to decide what law is just or unjust? When Jesus told us to render unto Caesar (he who moderns might render something of an unjust law-maker) his due, did he mean “but only if you think his laws are just”? There are more, but suffice it to say that as much as I think natural law is a good thing I also think it has to comport better with notions of obedience, submission and institutionalism.

    • Zrim,

      I thought about that but paying taxes to Caesar is not unjust. It’s in the nature of things. I agree that the Protestant Resistance theory presents real difficulties but I’m not ready to let it go.

      Didn’t the Apostle say we have to obey God rather than man? Is that not a form of resistance? Was it not grounded in a law superior to civil law?

    • I agree that the Protestant Resistance theory presents real difficulties but I’m not ready to let it go.

      Depending on how one understands “the Protestant Resistance theory,” I think it may well deserve more scrutiny. If it means “Protestant Reformation,” I’ll sound the trumpet. If it means “Marching on Selma,” I raise my hand. I’m not at all sure the difference is well understood in our time and place. I think many think that to “obey God rather than men” has at least as much, if not more, to do with cultural values and politics than “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”

      But wrt the appeal to NL being more fruitful than many seem to think, word.

  5. Yes, thanks, that’s very helpful. I have a distant relative, who is evangelical rather than Catholic, who looked at me with confusion when I spoke to her of natural law. This was some years ago, but, as I recall, I mentioned Hittinger’s The First Grace and natural law, and she replied, “Name one.” Presumably, had I entertained her wish, she would have listened to the proposition named and determined “whether it was Biblical,” rather than seeing how it might be a proposition derived from natural law as well as divine law.

  6. Sorry, one more point I had meant to include in my first comment: I do think most Christians are right to use “secular” in a negative fashion. The etymology not withstanding, Anglo-American “secularism” seems understandably to have become the translation for French “Laicism.” This latter term might also have a harmless etymology behind it, but nonetheless means that agressive anti-Ecclesial and anti-religious actions of the State that emerge out of Liberal theory.

  7. “Didn’t the Apostle say we have to obey God rather than man? Is that not a form of resistance? Was it not grounded in a law superior to civil law”

    That’s a tough example for me to swallow. Seems to me there’s a difference between disobeying rightful authorities when it impinges on cultic fealty and you are the direct recipient of supernatural revelation to do just that, and arguing for the elevation of natural law (ala MLK) above/against non-cult interfering rightful authority. When the state starts demanding adherence to the emperor’s cult, I’ll start (I pray for the courage), disobeying.

    • Sean,

      If a magistrate told me that I could not preach the gospel, I would disobey him. No magistrate has a right to circumscribe what the church’s gospel ministry. I would be duty-bound to disobey him.

      The natural, creational, intended function of the magistrate is to wield the sword, i.e. to execute justice in the civil realm not to restrict the preaching of the gospel.

      Resistance to civil authorities is what got the early Christians killed. Why do you think that Paul and Peter were martyred? Why were the post-Apostolic believers martyred? They refused to stop meeting. They refused when the magistrate required them to bow the knee to Caesar, they refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.” They refused to put just a pinch of incense on a fire. They refused to renounce Jesus, even pro forma, even when the magistrate promised that everyone would understand that it was only pro forma.

      Those were just acts of civil disobedience to an unjust magistrate and to unjust laws.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I think we missed each other here. Your example of cultic fidelity is what I was arguing for as a legitimate resistance. I was questioning the example of MLK’s use of natural law as even remotely equivalent, as justification for his resistance. As far as I know, the authorities never asked King to renounce his allegiance to Jesus Christ. Although maybe in terms of liberation theology, he felt they had.

    • The point of appealing to King is not to say that I agree with everything he said but ONLY to show that appeal to natural law are not so remote or unfruitful as some folk like to think.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I think herein lies the rub; the level of “sophistication” or development within a particular culture of their application of natural law. If I remember my reading correctly, Dr. VanDrunnen (sp?) noted these sometimes wide variances. Still, in my mind, it’s fairly inequitable to compare “unlawful” resistance against say, human slavery(maybe abortion would be a more relevant reference), as noble a notion as that may be from the perspective of a high development of natural law application, with resistance against a civil authority which is seeking to encroach on/ or even overcome one’s cultic fealty. Resistance against the emperor’s cult seems to derive it’s authority more from special revelation and subsequent cultic allegiance, particularly in the christian’s case, than natural law which, though there’s certainly overlap, has it’s grounding in general revelation and particularly the imago dei.

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  11. Dr. Clark,
    Anytime we talk of what is just and what is unjust, we are implying a law; whether natural law is the best term, I don’t know. The only resistance to such any over all binding law that I can see as being reasonable is when one particular group tries to monopolize the definition of that law. This is the concern of post modernism. Post modernism, as I understand it, wants to eliminate relationships based on domination and in so doing causes natural law to become part of the collateral damage.

    The parts that I really liked about your post include the definition of the word secular, the mention of Protestant resistant theory (I had never heard of it), and identifying the institutional Church as an agent for maintaining the status quo.

    I like your definition of secular as opposed to the purpose-driven definition used by many Conservative Christian brothers and sisters. In addition, not enough attention has been paid to the role of the institutional church in how it maintained the racism of that time. We might want to ask the current institutional Church whether they are helping to maintain the economically repressive status quo of today. That is what many of my OWS brothers and sisters wonder. In addition, Leftist intellectuals have long charged the Church with being an institution of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo.

    This is where I struggled. The link to the letter from a Birmingham Jail did not work (here is another link:

    In addition, we get an insight into the sources King used to recognize natural law when we see how he defined it. He said:

    “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”

    See, what was observed as humanly healthy qualified a tenet for natural law.

    I see no problem or confusion if one regards the Church as an, rather than “the”, agent of transformation. On the lighter side, we might ask why should the secularists have all of the fun? On the heavier side, we must ask what is our duty to those made in the Image of God especially when we live in a world where we have no home, we are secularly forever wanderers.

    Finally, my qualms about natural law comes in who gets to define it and at what level of righteousness is the bar set. Because we rely on revelation and the confessions, will we attempt to be paternalistic and try to enforce the natural law that we think is revealed or will we work with those outside our group and use broad principles. The answer will determine whether the post modernists have a valid fear.

  12. I probably ought to post this link here in case Dr. Clark hasn’t yet seen it, since his work and this website are mentioned by name:

    [EDITED—Darrell, this is family blog. Certain materials are not permitted to be linked on the HB. 'Nuff said]

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