The Law Written on Their Hearts

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


  1. I’ve never liked that term “unchurched” because it’s ambiguous. An “unchurched” person could be a Christian who is relocating to a new church (due to a move, for example). But, “unchurched” is being increasingly used to refer to non-Christians. I think the term should be dropped, and that we should just cut to the chase and call them what they are – unbelievers.

  2. For some of us, it’s not that we are surprised at the natural knowledge of God, but rather when Paul says there are some things that are not so much as named among the Gentiles 1Cor.5:1, that means there is no “civil rights”/natural law case for incest. Ditto homosexual marriage.

    But then certain advocates of 2k are adamant that the church cannot distinguish/speak authoritatively on these matters.

    Much more that one cannot distinguish between those who are confused by all this and those who are allowed to teach and preach.

    At least that would be my take on it.


    • Bob,

      Who says that the church can’t call sin what it is?

      Who says that the church can’t speak against homosexual marriage?

      The HB is not a church (to state the very obvious!) but this topic has been addressed repeatedly on the HB.

  3. Dear Dr. Clark,
    Second to the last paragraph, fifth sentence starts out:

    “When do speak about God’s holy law, let us also speak just as clearly about God’s holy Gospel, …”

    I believe you are missing the word “we” at the beginning of the sentence. Therefore it should actually be:

    “When we do speak about God’s holy law …”

    I agree, however, that Christians in general seem to assume that non-Christians are ignorant of the moral law instead of in some sort of rebellion against the the law that God has placed in their hearts. The signs of their rebellion – as well as the Christian’s dual life as saints in Christ while still remaining sinners in this life – can manifest themselves in many ways. It is difficult to tell what is actually going on in anybody’s heart based on outward appearances. Doesn’t Paul actually say something like this in 1 Cor. 2:11?

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Got no beef with HB.
    Glad you speak up.
    But it does seem to me there is a different flavor over here than at other sites that advocate 2k.
    That’s all.

    Thank you

  5. That is, I get the impression from some 2kers – yeah, I could be wrong – that when somebody advocates civil rights for homosexuals, i.e. marital unions as per a certain wife of an OPC minister, the church cannot speak to this because it is in the civil realm and there is a 2k dichotomy that prevents it. We must have liberty to disagree.

    At least that’s the drift I am getting.

    • Bob,

      1. Distinguishing between 2 kingdoms (or two spheres of God’s sovereign rule over all thing) is an analytical question, it’s not a guaranteed outcome.

      2. In that sense there’s no such thing as “the two kingdoms.”

      3. There have always at least two versions of the two-kingdoms analysis inasmuch as Calvin’s appropriation of those categories was distinct from Luther’s. Once again, there’s no such thing as “the two kingdoms” view of anything.

      4. Why does Misty Irons get to speak for all advocates of the 2K analysis? Are you reading Matt Tuininga’s blog (Christian in America)? I don’t agree with every conclusion Matt reaches but he certainly wants to speak to a range of issues, including homosexual marriage, quite vigorously. I think Dave VanDrunen addressed questions such as abortion and homosexual marriage in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms.

      The issue is not whether Christians can speak to abortion and homosexual marriage or even form private societies to try to persuade people to think differently about such issues. The question is how and when the visible church as an institution may and should speak to them.

      The question is also, as you suggest, one of Christian liberty more than a “2K dichotomy.” We should be very careful if we’re going to start subjecting members to church discipline for advocating laws or civil policies with which we disagree (even if we disagree with them vehemently).

      Can you make the case that it is sinful to say on the one hand that homosexual behavior is sin but that homosexuals have a right to marry or civil unions? I think it’s a serious mistake in policy and contrary to nature, as I’ve argued here at length, but other Christians disagree with me. Am I obligated to complain to the church against those who disagree with me on policy?

      What is the list of other policy positions that should also be subject to church discipline? I’m quite opposed to gambling. I think the civil consequences have been and will continue to be disastrous for our culture. It used to be the case that gambling was a cause for suspension from communion but today there’s a division of opinion about whether gambling is sin. Should those who disagree with me about gambling be subject to discipline?

      Part of the question is the definition of sin. Is it a transgression of or want of conformity unto the moral law to say that homosexuality or gambling is sin but to advocate that the civil magistrate should tolerate or regulate it?

  6. It seems like there are two theses in your post (and other posts, perhaps) and they might be separable. The first seems quite weak, the second much stronger:

    Weak thesis: The components of moral psychology are in some way innate.

    Strong thesis: Certain beliefs in propositions or dispositions to form beliefs in certain propositions about morality are in some way innate.

    Regarding the weak thesis, it probably goes without saying, but in both ethics and moral psychology it has long been thought that there are faculties of moral psychology (moral feelings, moral cognition, specific modules such as the neurological components of empathy, etc.) and that they are innate or are dispositions of innate faculties. Specific findings in the emergence of morality (as Bloom notes) might be surprising, but not neurological and, in some sense, innate basis for the components of moral psychology. For instance, the sensibility or moral sense tradition (Hume, Smith, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, etc.) in early modern ethics held that there are innate (or at least dispositions to have certain) moral sentiments and that these are prerequisites to making moral judgments. One worry with the weak thesis, then, is that the basics of “innate” moral psychology (including the very early emergence of morality—though many of the same studies show morality, in the same sense, emerges as early in many primates as well) are consistent with virtually every ethical theory on offer, Christian or non, from moral realism(s) to moral anti-realism(s). The weak thesis is just consistent with Reformed ethics—but it is consistent with virtually every other tradition of ethics as well, so if the weak thesis is all you are defending then it is hard to see how it is significant, or how it in any way requires a natural law framework to explain.

    For the strong thesis, one might worry there are significant empirical problems with it. It seems that many of the recent empirical work moral psychology presents significantly challenges to it. Many of the most well-confirmed results in current moral psychology includes the finding that moral expression and cognition are highly contingent on key neurological features, such that certain neurological differences change how one sees, experiences, or evaluates relevant stimuli, and that many of these moral modules are highly plastic (much like neurological components of language acquisition like the Broca’s area give humans an “innate” (heritable, etc.) capacity to acquire language, be that language English, Japanese, or !Kung—comparable to the weak thesis above—and the components of moral psychology would seem to be just as plastic). Further, there is very little evidence, one might worry, that there is a uniform set of moral norms people, across cultures, all innately hold to, and that there is no known way in which beliefs in certain proposition can be inherited (though dispositions to form them might be, but again the empirical evidence, one might worry, suggests that any of the dispositions are incredibly plastic and also highly contingent on the specifics of neurological development). So I’d like to hear (or be pointed to) defenses of what might be seen as versions of the strong thesis. However, for relevant research in moral psychology and ethics that seem to challenge it, I recommend the work of Josh Greene Jesse Prinz: The Emotional Construction of Morals, John Doris: Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, and the Oxford Handbook to Moral Psychology edited by Doris for a good overview.

    However, let’s say something like the strong thesis is true. It is not yet obvious why it entails any sort of natural law theory (or at least, a NL theory that any Christian would object to—Dr. K, for example). Nothing in the strong thesis entails that the innate moral beliefs or dispositions to form those beliefs can, by itself, justify any moral belief. In other words, just having an innate belief that P is not yet evidence (or good evidence) that P is true. Isn’t this a common worry of NL critics? Don’t critics of NL reply that any way of acquiring moral beliefs apart from special revelation is unjustified, and that Scripture is required to justify any moral beliefs from outside sources, including what is written on their hearts? Doesn’t this, critics of NL ask, ignore the noetic effects of sin in corrupting one’s innate dispositions (this would also seem to be much more well-supported by the empirical research as well, as referenced above)? And, critics of NL press, even if something like the strong thesis is true, what possible type of moral arguments can we make from it? Appeals to the majority? Question begging psychoanalysis of the doubters? (no no Obama you really know that same-sex marriage is wrong, therefore it is wrong–?) What are we supposed to do in the public square, assure everyone that they really are guilty of idolatry and that, therefore, it should be illegal? Those are, I take it, some of the worries about NL and some of us on the fence have been looking all over for some good answers.

    • PA,

      1. Please mind the comment policy re pseudonyms.

      2. The Word of God is not a theory. It is divine revelation.

      3. You seem to know a priori that there can’t be natural law. The Reformed tradition hasn’t shared this assumption.

      E.g., Calvin on Rom 2:14–15:

      14. For when the Gentiles, etc. He now states what proves the former clause; for he did not think it enough to condemn us by mere assertion, and only to pronounce on us the just judgment of God; but he proceeds to prove this by reasons, in order to excite us to a greater desire for Christ, and to a greater love towards him. He indeed shows that ignorance is in vain pretended as an excuse by the Gentiles, since they prove by their own deeds that they have some rule of righteousness: for there is no nation so lost to every thing human, that it does not keep within the limits of some laws. Since then all nations, of themselves and without a monitor, are disposed to make laws for themselves, it is beyond all question evident that they have some notions of justice and rectitude, which the Greeks call πρληψεις (preconceptions), and which are implanted by nature in the hearts of men. They have then a law, though they are without law: for though they have not a written law, they are yet by no means wholly destitute of the knowledge of what is right and just; as they could not otherwise distinguish between vice and virtue; the first of which their restrain by punishment, and the latter they commend, and manifest their approbation of it by honoring it with rewards. He sets nature in opposition to a written law, meaning that the Gentiles had the natural light of righteousness, which supplied the place of that law by which the Jews were instructed, so that they were a law to themselves.

      15. Who show the work of the law written, etc.; that is, they prove that there is imprinted on their hearts a discrimination and judgment by which they distinguish between what is just and unjust, between what is honest and dishonest. He means not that it was so engraven on their will, that they sought and diligently pursued it, but that they were so mastered by the power of truth, that they could not disapprove of it. For why did they institute religious rites, except that they were convinced that God ought to be worshipped? Why were they ashamed of adultery and theft, except that they deemed them evils?

      Without reason then is the power of the will deduced from this passage, as though Paul had said, that the keeping of the law is within our power; for he speaks not of the power to fulfill the law, but of the knowledge of it. Nor is the word heart to be taken for the seat of the affections, but only for the understanding, as it is found in Deuteronomy 24:4,

      “The Lord hath not given thee a heart to understand;”

      and in Luke 24:25,

      “O foolish men, and slow in heart to believe.”

      Nor can we conclude from this passage, that there is in men a full knowledge of the law, but that there are only some seeds of what is right implanted in their nature, evidenced by such acts as these — All the Gentiles alike instituted religious rites, they made laws to punish adultery, and theft, and murder, they commended good faith in bargains and contracts. They have thus indeed proved, that God ought to be worshipped, that adultery, and theft, and murder are evils, that honesty is commendable. It is not to our purpose to inquire what sort of God they imagined him to be, or how many gods they devised; it is enough to know, that they thought that there is a God, and that honor and worship are due to him. It matters not whether they permitted the coveting of another man’s wife, or of his possessions, or of any thing which was his, — whether they connived at wrath and hatred; inasmuch as it was not right for them to covet what they knew to be evil when done.

      Their conscience at the same time attesting, etc. He could not have more forcibly urged them than by the testimony of their own conscience, which is equal to a thousand witnesses. By the consciousness of having done good, men sustain and comfort themselves; those who are conscious of having done evil, are inwardly harassed and tormented. Hence came these sayings of the heathens — “A good conscience is the widest sphere; but a bad one is the cruelest executioner, and more fiercely torments the ungodly than any furies can do.” There is then a certain knowledge of the law by nature, which says, “This is good and worthy of being desired; that ought to be abhorred.”

      But observe how intelligently he defines conscience: he says, that reasons come to our minds, by which we defend what is rightly done, and that there are those which accuse and reprove us for our vices; and he refers this process of accusation and defense to the day of the Lord; not that it will then first commence, for it is now continually carried on, but that it will then also be in operation; and he says this, that no one should disregard this process, as though it were vain and evanescent. And he has put, in the day, instead of, at the day, — a similar instance to what we have already observed.

  7. RSC,

    Do you plan on giving me more developed answers? Or directing me to literature that you think deals with them specifically? As it stands, I nowhere treated Scripture as a “theory,” and I nowhere assumed a priori that natural law is false or unbiblical.
    I asked you for elaborations on specific points, and raised some possible objections, trying to clarify where certain worries may be raised (e.g., what I called the weak and strong interpretations of your argument in this post) and you reply with some completely uncharitable comments and some common ground (on all sides) from Calvin as if it actually answered questions I raised.
    If you do plan on saying more that is relevant to my post, I look forward to your comments.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Can you make the case that it is sinful to say on the one hand that homosexual behavior is sin but that homosexuals have a right to marry or civil unions?

    As below, that case has already been made in the comments on Althusius, has it not?

    Romans 2 says that certain things are evident to everyone. Everyone knows by nature that murder, adultery, theft and the like are wrong. The question is whether we an extrapolate from that natural knowledge to civil policy. I think we can because that knowledge is divinely implanted, to use Calvin’s language, in every one.

    IOW if both the Bible and natural law forbid incest/homosexuality – not to mention Scripture incidentally tells us that that is the position of natural law (Rom.2, 1Cor. 5) – then the answer seems to follow.

    Further that the civil magistrate might tolerate something on pragmatic grounds (widespread use of drugs in another instance) is not to say there is necessarily a positive natural law case for it.

    Which seem to me what the Irons case was all about. Pragmatic politics is one thing, natural law another and to confuse the two is disciplinable. We may not teach that in Christ’s church.

    Further, I wouldn’t consider gambling a particular egregious/heinous violation of the natural law, as outright theft, much more murder or incest/homosexuality.

    Thank you.

Comments are closed.