Natural is Not Neutral

Russ Reeves at Tolle Blogge (another great blog name!) makes some thoughtful comments on my “Christ is Lord of All But…” post. I agree with him that it may be that we agree more than it seems, but he raises a few questions that I want to address.

Russ says,

The economic materialist won’t argue that he or she can better account for the political, social, and theological causes more completely, but rather that that none of those elements are relevant when it comes to historical causation.

I did face this in an admittedly obscure part of my admittedly obscure book on Caspar Olevianus. Yes, there are historians (some Marxists, some Freudians, radical subjectivist late modern types) who openly refuse to address historical facts. I reply by saying that it’s not possible to have a reasonable discussion with those folk and so I don’t try. For example, some Marxists and Hegelians are so ideologically driven that the facts are (no pun intended) immaterial to their research and conclusions. The conclusion of the story was never in doubt. The proletariat were being oppressed. However much I may disagree with their eschatology, some Marxists do work with facts, however, and though I have learned a fair bit from some of them. Sometimes their determinism gets the better of them. In the case of German nobility who became Reformed in the late 16th century, I argued that the best explanation for their conversion to Calvinism was not economic/material determinism but rather religion. These German nobles who converted to Calvinism did so at great personal risk. Economic determinism doesn’t explain the fact of their conversion most satisfactorily. They had everything to lose socially, politically, economically but they converted anyway. The Marxist explanation of the behavior of the counts just doesn’t explain their behavior.

The second question is what counts as revelation. Russ writes,

I don’t think the question is whether Christian historians should claim revelatory insight into historical causation or view history through the lens of redemption. The question, rather, is whether redeemed people with transformed minds whose understanding of creation and the cultural development of creation is any different from those who reject any belief in a creator, or humanity as image-bearers of that creator, or the pervasive reality of sin as rebellion against that creator.

Some transformationalists do claim “revelatory insight into historical causation.” That’s the focus of the discussion in the CT roundtable to which I referred. Christians routinely ask me to interpret the history of post-canonical providence. Evangelicals routinely claim to have a unique insight into the meaning of the Reformation and but ignore the Ignatius of Loyola and the rise of the Jesuit movement. Some brands of Calvinists regularly appeal to the First Great Awakening as a “good” revival and the Second Great Awakening as a “bad” revival (except to the degree it produced good religious experience) on the basis of their interpretation of providence. In such cases, the line between canonical history and extra-canonical history begins to blur. As I understand the Reformed doctrine of providence, we say that God ordained both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the “First” GA and the “Second” GA (the scare quotes to indicate doubt that either was really what they’ve often been said to be). We can interpret the redemptive and spiritual significance of canonical history because we have an inspired, canonical interpretation to guide us. We don’t have the same sorts of interpretative guides for post-canonical history so we should be a lot less cautious about saying what providence was doing in this or that event.

There is no question whether historians with renewed minds interpret the meaning of proximate causes differently than non-Christians do, but does that meaning give us any help in the historical (i.e. proximate) interpretation of them? I don’t see how.

The third question is the matter of neutrality. Russ writes,

t’s worth keeping in mind that while it’s true that first-century Christians did not pin their hopes in transforming the government of Rome to oppose abortion, neither did they think they were arguing on neutral ground; Roman law, after all, protected not only abortion but infanticide of unwanted children, in complete accordance (it was believed) with natural law.

This is a very important issue. Russ seems (please note the qualifier) to identify the adjective “natural” with “neutral.” This gets to the skepticism that a lot of Reformed folk have about natural law and the move that is frequently made to identify it with the dreaded “neutrality.” As a Van Tillian I reject the idea of “brute facts.” CVT was absolutely right about this. There is no such thing as uninterpreted reality. I understand this to mean that when it comes to any particular fact we are not allowed to assign just any meaning we will. It’s not as if the unbeliever gets to say what he wants and we get to say what we want about “facts” and the one with the most facts wins — when it comes to ultimate issues. If we point to the empty tomb, the irrationalist says, “Weird things happen.” He autonomously assigns a false meaning to the empty tomb. The irrationalist’s refusal to submit to the divine interpretation of the tomb is no reason, however, for denying the existence of facts (which some classes of folk, who strongly identify with CVT’s apologetic, seem to do sometimes. I’m not saying that Russ is doing that. It is a mistake to transfer the transcendental argument from our apologetic to the work of history, botany, or road paving. The TAG doesn’t really settle the proximate arguments about the best way to assemble and explain the facts of the rise of Donatism in the early or whether Tertullian was really a Montanist (probably not, says Gerald Bray). The move to use the TAG to interpret proximate questions is a confusion of categories. It is true that the unbeliever has to use borrowed capital to make sense of anything. The very act of attempting to account for the best interpretation of post-canonical history usually entails the assumption of order which seems to entail the assumption of one who orders and so forth. If I were doing apologetics with an unbelieving historian I would point out how he denies the existence of God with his mouth but affirms it with the way he lives his life. Arguing about the best proximate interpretation of an historical event is not apologetics, however.

The second mistake, and I do think Russ is doing this one, is to identify natural revelation with the Van Tillian category of “neutrality.” This gets back to the comment I made in the first post that there is a class of Van Tillians out there who have embraced a sort of skepticism about natural revelation that is not entirely faithful to Van Til. Though it doesn’t get a lot of attention, it seems to me that CVT had a robut doctrine of natural revelation and that he did not share the skepticism that some have adopted. Yes, CVT did make statements about “natural theology” that might tend in this direction and so the picture isn’t completely clear. Part of the problem is that some have attempted to build a positive natural theology and that is contrary to the Christian faith. We only know of grace and salvation from special revelation.

That does not mean, however, that we should not accept natural revelation as, well, revelation. Russ’ implicit argument is that the Roman law protected abortion therefore we can see that one can appeal to natural law to justify anything and therefore natural law is a wax nose that isn’t really fixed and that doesn’t norm anything.

The argument assumes that anything anyone does or claims to be natural is really natural! This is a large and false assumption. Sinful people distort natural revelation to suit their own purposes and the distort special revelation to suit themselves. Those distortions do not justify jettisoning special revelation any more than they justify jettisoning natural revelation or natural law. Let us be clear, the only thing that is revealed in nature is law. Let us also be clear that the basic content of natural law is identical to the basic content of the Decalogue. This has always been the confessional Protestant view. Adam knew the substance (minus the Israelite particulars) of the natural law. All human beings have always known that idolatry is wrong, that murder is wrong, that there is one day in seven for rest, that coveting is wrong, that hating one’s neighbor (including infanticide and abortion) is wrong. All human beings know that adultery is wrong. Even when we corrupt the creational law of God we substitute other laws for it. We are inveterate legal creatures. We are, as Mike Horton says, “hard-wired for law keeping.” It was this same natural law to which the Apostle Paul appealed in Rom 1-2. He wasn’t a skeptic about the reality of natural law.

I think that one reason why we are sometimes uneasy about all this is that, in reaction to modern criticism of the bible, we got used to appealing to and defending the bible as special revelation. We were right to do so. In that climate, however, the antithesis between belief and unbelief is everything. When it comes to special revelation there is no common ground. In such a climate natural revelation and common ground recede into the background.

Common ground, however, is not neutrality. The common, creational ground, on which both the Christian and the non-Christian stand, is still revelatory. It’s still created. It still testifies to God’s existence and the sinner’s rebellion. Plug in her CVT’s child on the lap and the man of water etc. That truth, however, doesn’t mean that the ONLY thing we can discuss with the unbeliever is his rebellion against God. In that case apologetics swallows up everything else. There is a place for common life. There is a place for making common cause with my unbelieving neighbor to achieve, common, creational purposes whether street paving or offering an historical interpetretation of the proximate causes and meaning of an historical event.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Two quick comments. I do realize there are some who would claim revelatory or redemptive insight into the meaning history (with an academic specialty on trans-Atlantic revivalism, I face the revival v. revivalism thing often); I only wish to claim that this doesn’t exhaust the options. There is another approach that can be fairly described as a distinctive Christian perspective on history that does not rely on these formulations, but is rather a biblically and theologically-informed interpretation of creation and the cultural development of creation by human beings as image-bearers fallen into sin. I’d say that most prominent Christian historians who claim a distinctive (or even “outrageous”) Christian perspective would fall into this camp in varying degrees.

    Second, on natural law, while I don’t take natural to mean neutral, I do think many Christians do. Most evangelicals I have encountered who reject the idea of a distinctive Christian perspective on non-theological subjects do so on the basis of a supposed neutrality (“being a Christian economist just means being the best economist I can be”). Rejecting this, I do heartily affirm that what is creational (preferable to “natural” in my opinion) is universal, common to all people as created beings. Through creation God teaches everything from his existence to proper sexual relations to how to farm. However, the obstacle to rightly understanding creation is not merely sloth in the application of reason (though this is often a factor) as it is rebellion in the pursuit of sin. The problem being idolatry rather than ignorance, the real problem of an ideology like economic materialism is not that it fails to account for all the facts, but that it fails to account for the facts because it is an idolatrous notion of reality. On abortion, a natural law claim that all human beings know abortion is wrong needs is fine, but it’s rare to hear a follow up from the natural law theorist on why in fact many human societies, even societies that were home to some of the great ancient jurists, have acted as if they did not believe abortion, even infanticide, was wrong. That historical fact demands some kind of explanation, and I think special revelation helps us form a distinctively Christian one.

  2. Dr. Clark, your take on natural law confuses me.

    If the entire Decalogue is revealed Naturally, and everybody knows that violations deserve death (Rom 1:32), then why not Theonomy? To narrow the question, since the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, why shouldn’t the state regulate it, and even impose a death penalty for violating it (especially a State that might find itself populated by Christians who have an even better handle on Natural Law because the Decalogue is revealed in scripture, and regeneration mitigates our unrighteous truth-suppressing)?

  3. Rube,

    Have you read any of the Natural Law stuff to which I’ve linked on the blog? There’s a great gulf fixed between historic Reformed natural law theory and theonomy! The former is the great and sane alternative to theonomy.

    Now, if by “theonomy” one simply means “God’s law” generically and not the Mosaic civil penalties, then fine, it’s “theonomic” but no one has meant the word that way since Van Til. Certainly the theonomists don’t mean it generically.

    The Reformed have always insisted on the abiding validity of the moral law, to borrow a phrase. I’ve written on this before on the HB. Check to Old HB archives.

  4. Man alive…you had your Wheaties again today, didn’t you? Fantabulous stuff.

    “Russ’ implicit argument is that the Roman law protected abortion therefore we can see that one can appeal to natural law to justify anything and therefore natural law is a wax nose that isn’t really fixed and that doesn’t norm anything.”

    I recently had some similar exchanges where the conclusion seems to be, “If natural law is appealed to, and the conclusion is that abortion (as we understand that policy and fruaght social issue as 21st century Amereicans), then natural law has broken down.” This is puzzling. It seems to suggest that NL is only good if my conclusions win the day. It seeems a lot like saying, “Democracy is a problem if my candidate loses.” There is nothing wrong with the process just because you lost; you simply lost (no implicit statement here about democracy, just making a point!). Moreover, the only other option, then, seems to be to pull out special revelation arguments to win the day. Well, if we are going to “break the glass and pull the God-lever,” why didn’t we save the time and effort and resources and just do that from the start? In short, it sure seems like an instance of borrowing “the factor of indisputability” from special revelation and applying it to common endeavor.


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