Paul Bloom, in the NY Times Magazine (May 5, 2010), writes:
A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.
That such a state of affairs should be surprising testifies to the influence of non-Christian, essentially Pelagian accounts of human nature that have tended to dominate the story since at least Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). As the article observes, the idea of innate, natural, knowledge of fixed moral laws was anathema many influential modern psychologists. According to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Jean Piaget (1886–1980), and others “we begin life as amoral animals.” This premise has been basic in the education of teachers for decades. The research is being conducted at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University and was highlighted recently on the CBS News program “60 Minutes.” What surprises (late) Moderns did not surprise Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who, in his Confessions, who contradicted Freud and Piaget ca. 398 AD:
Afterward I began to laugh—at first in my sleep, then when waking. For this I have been told about myself and I believe it—though I cannot remember it—for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realized where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied—either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me—I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves—and I avenged myself on them by crying. That infants are like this, I have myself been able to learn by watching them; and they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.
It is, I think, a mark of the degree to which we’ve all been influenced by Modernity that Christians are surprised by the doctrine of the natural knowledge of God, which includes the doctrine of the natural knowledge of the moral law of God. These doctrines, however, were basic to Christian teaching among the Fathers, most of the medieval theologians, and the Protestant Reformers. To be sure, there have been significant variations in the Christian natural law tradition(s). E.g., Thomas tended to relate natural knowledge and natural law to “reason” as a universal principle in a way that the magisterial Reformers did not. In my experience, among confessional Reformed folk, the ideas of the natural knowledge of God and the natural knowledge of the moral law, have often been viewed with suspicion. Some of our writers/teachers in the twentieth century seemed to think only of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) when they thought of natural law. Because I encountered Reformed theology in that context I recall being a little surprised by the openness and frequency with which Calvin wrote about the natural knowledge of God and the natural knowledge of the moral law in his Institutio. Has Karl Barth’s (1886–1968) stout denial of natural law (NEIN!) exercised more influence (even) in confessional Reformed circles than we realize? The way some in our circles speak about the natural knowledge of God and the natural knowledge of the moral law sounds more like Barth than Calvin. Calvin (and the Reformed tradition), however, was deeply influenced not only by Augustine but also and even more so by the words of the Apostle Paul:
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 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rom 2:14–16).
For Paul all humans are born with a knowledge of the same law that God gave to Moses at Sinai. His point is that none of us is immune from prosecution on the ground that “we did not know.” We do know. There are not two moral laws. There is only one moral law. It can be expressed in “the ten words” (Decalogue) and it can be expressed more briefly in Matthew 22:37–40:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Our unchurched neighbors know the law. When we speak to them about God’s truth we may expect the Spirit to use that natural knowledge to convict them of their need of righteousness. That’s not to say that we should not speak the law, we should but we shouldn’t assume that they have no knowledge of God’s moral standard. They do. When we do speak about God’s holy law, let us also speak just as clearly about God’s holy Gospel, that the Son became incarnate to obey that standard perfectly on behalf of helpless sinners. Finally, this doctrine also means that the Pelagian story, that we are the victims of bad influences, has always been a myth. Those influences do exist but they are only outside of us because they were first inside. It is not what goes into us that defiles but what comes out (Matt 15:11) Related Posts Natural Law