Do the Canons of Dort Reject Natural Law?

Jeremy writes to ask whether the Canons of Dort 3/4.4 require Reformed Christians to reject the civil use of natural law.

In the Canons we confess:

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, and natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. By no means, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and hinders in unrighteousness, which by doing he becomes inexcusable before God.

To arrive at a sound interpretation we have to understand the Canons in their immediate context and in their broader context. First, Synod confessed that, even after the fall, there remain “glimmerings of natural law” by which they meant “some” (natural) knowledge of God. According to synod, we all know “the difference between good and evil.” So, there is universal natural knowledge of God and of his moral law. This is was teaching of the Westminster Standards not quite thirty years later.

According to Synod, however, there are limits to what natural light and law can do in a fallen world. The first limit is that, because of the fall and its consequences, “the light of nature is insufficient” to bring us to a saving knowledge of God. This was standard 16th-century Protestant teaching.

The key expression for this question is:

But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.

The context of the limit on its civil natural function is the limit on its saving power. First we have notice that the light of nature is “so far” from doing something. What is that something? It’s so far from being sufficient to lead us to salvation or sanctity. That’s the sense of “conversion” here, meaning the dying to self and living to Christ. Why is this? Because on the gospel can do such things and natural law, however beneficial, is still only law. Again, this is standard Protestant theology.

Synod, wishing to stress the limits of natural law in soteriology continue by saying that it is so limited that it is we are incapable of using it rightly even in “things natural and civil.” First notice that Synod does not deny that there are things “natural and civil.” However we construe these words we cannot take them in a way that obliterates the existence of things “natural and civil.” Second, it does not say that we cannot use them “rightly.”

It depends upon how one understands what the Synod intended by “incapable” and “aright.” In the immediate context the Synod is addressing the incapacity of fallen man to make use of the glimmerings of natural light and law to know God savingly. The synod was well aware of the tradition before the Reformation and in the Reformation, which is well documented, teaching the existence and relative perspicuity of natural law for civil life. The modifiers “incapable” and “aright” shouldn’t be construed to mean “not at all.”

Remember that the intent of CD 3/4 is to re-assert the doctrine depravity not to articulate a theory of civil government.

CD 3/4.1 says:

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy. But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and in the place thereof became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obstinate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.1

They were responding to the teaching of Arminius and the Remonstrants that downplayed the effects of sin. The force of the construct, “so far…that” is not to deny the existence of natural law and light (which it explicitly affirms) but to limit it and to preclude the reintroduction of the Arminian view of human nature via natural law. As we’ll see below, they had some reason to be concerned about that.

3/4 Article 5 makes explicit the connection between natural law and the Decalogue:

In the same light are we to consider the law of the Decalogue, delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses. For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet, as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from his misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse,4 and man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.

Again, this was Calvin’s doctrine of natural law. The law of nature is substantially identical to moral law given to Adam before the fall and re-stated at Sinai. The point here is to compare natural law and the Mosaic law. Both expressions of the law have similar limits.

That this was the intent of Synod is clear in article 6:

What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the gospel concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.

The contrast is between the law and the gospel. Law as such, whether natural or specially revealed at Sinai simply cannot do certain things and chief among them is to save sinners. Only the gospel can do that.

So, how should understand the Synod’s intent in limiting the function of natural law and light in “things civil and civil” (in naturalibus ac civilibus )? To understand the original intent, this phrase can’t be de-contextualized from the 17th century and re-contextualized in ours. So, what could this language have meant in a context where it was normal for Reformed writers to talk about natural law as a guide for civil society? Was this international synod, composed of representatives a variety of civil and political systems, intending to deny any function of natural law in civil life? Such an interpretation seems unlikely.

Part of the answer to the question would be in the writings of the Arminians (and their successors). What had Arminius and his students said about natural law/light? We know that Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) was an advisor to Oldenbarnevelt (a political opponent of the orthodox) and a supporter of the Remonstrants (and their doctrines advocated in the Remonstrance), a rationalist, and sympathetic to the Socinians. He was stoutly opposed by the orthodox, contra-Remonstrants. He was also an advocate of a doctrine of natural law that is being re-considered. He’s traditionally been regarded as a rationalist and a secularist. He was opposed by the orthodox. Cocceius interacted with him at length. He was in the Erasmian tradition that gave more authority to reason than Luther, Calvin, or the orthodox Reformed were willing to do. Like Erasmus, he taught a soteriology that downplayed the effects of sin on the intellect and the will. (Here’s an online bibliography of Grotius’ writings and a brief introduction to Grotius)

Even those who argue that Grotius’ wasn’t a secularizing force, acknowledges that reason played a major role in Grotius’ doctrine of natural law which separated it from that of the earlier Reformed and the orthodox Reformed view. It is evident from Grotius’ Rights of War and Peace (1625) that he wrote about natural law rather differently than did the Reformers. He made reason, rather than divine revelation, the source of natural law (see e.g., Book 1). This article, however, argues that Grotius changed his mind over the definition of natural law, that he began with a voluntarist notion (that it comes from the divine law) to a more rationalist idea.

We should interpret the language of CD 3/4 in this context. One way to evaluate whether the canons intended to upend the Protestant tradition of natural law theory to that point is to see how it was taken by the Reformed in the period around the Synod (1618–19) and after.

The Italian Reformed theologian, Giovanni Diododati (1576–1649), in his Pious Annotations on the Holy Bible (1605) on Romans 2 wrote:

V. 9. Of the Jew] viz. Without any distinction of nations or persons: but yet in such sort that Gods judgement shall begin with his own household: and that those who have had most knowledge, shall be most grievously punished. Now the Apostle makes here a sweet digression to the Jews, to include them also in the universal condemnation of the world, and into the necessity of having recourse to Christs righteousness, and to Gods grace in the Gospel. The Gentile] the Ital. the Greek: namely the heathen. Rom. 1. 14 16.

V. 11. Of persons] viz. Of respect or reference to these outward qualities, of Nation, condition or other, which make nothing to the cause, Acts 10. 34.

V. 12. Without law] Namely, of Moses, which was the written law. Without] viz. without being judged by Moses his law, but only by that which is imprinted in their hearts: see Annot. upon John 5. 45.

V. 13. For not] As much as to say; I speake thus because that the Law cannot bring any salvation to man, by the knowledge or profession thereof, as the Jews believe, but by the perfect observing of it, which being found no more in them then in other nations, they are also comprehended within the general curse, and bound to seek after their righteousness in Christ. Justified] that is to say, de clared just and worthy of the reward, according to the covenant of the Law.

V. 14. For when] viz. The knowledge of Moses his law gives the Jew no great advantage above the Gentile, for the Gentile hath also his natural law (though less perfect) imprinted in his soul, by which he is instructed, and bound to do well, and debarred from doing evil, which are the two properties of all laws.

V. 15. The work] Namely, the two aforesaid properties Bearing witncss] for the conscience is but a correspondency and relation of a mans spirit unto the law: either to bind or unbind him, to accuse or excuse him, to condemn or absolve him: wherefore seeing the Pagans have a conscience, they have also a law (Pious and learned annotations upon the Holy Bible: plainly expounding the most difficult places thereof, London, 1651).

Andre Rivet (1572–1651), a significant Reformed theologian contemporary to the Synod of Dort, who was delegated to attend but prevented by the French crown, addressed natural law in his Catholicus orthodoxus, oppositus catholico papistae (Leiden, 1630). He defined natural law as “innate provided to all rational creatures” (At lex naturalis est innata omnibus creaturis ratione praeditis, 168–69). That law was given before the written law, it is distinct from the civil and ceremonial laws given to Moses. I cannot see, however, that he comments on the civil use of natural law.

Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639), a delegate to the Synod, in his Loci Communes (Leiden, 1647), 311, appealed to natural law in defense of his doctrine of the Sabbath.

The French Reformed theologian, Samuel Maresius (1599–1673), in his Collegium theologicum (Groningen, 1659), has a locus “On the Law of God” in which he discussed natural law for several pages (pp. 210ff). As part of his explanation of the natural or moral law, which he characterized as “ab omnibus semper et ubique praestanda” (211). He argued that it was given by God in creation. It was re-stated under Noah (p. 213). It’s a relatively detailed account in which he repeatedly asserted that the natural law is immutable because it is grounded in the divine nature. He also appealed to the natural law relative to the sabbath and polygamy and divorce (217). He attacked the Socinians for denying the immutability of the moral law which leads to subversion of the first table which leads to blasphemy, idolatry etc. (218–19). This seems to be an affirmation of the civil use of the natural law.

Maresius’ discussion of natural law deserves more attention than is suitable for a blog post but this quick survey of Reformed authors around and after Dort doesn’t lead one to the conclusion that they understood CD 3/4 to be a rejection of natural law nor does one find denunciations of natural law or of its use as a guide in civil society.

Synod may have been critical of some applications of some natural law theories (e.g., Grotius’) but it’s unlikely that synod intended to reject the doctrine of natural law taught by Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon et al. The continuity between the pre-Dort and post-Dort Reformed doctrine of natural law seems quite strong.


1. Residuum quidem est post lapsum in homine lumen aliquod naturæ, cujus beneficio ille notitias quasdam de Deo, de rebus naturalibus, de discrimine honestorum et turpium retinet, et aliquod virtutis ac disciplinæ externæ studium ostendit: sed tantum abest, ut hoc naturæ lumine ad salutarem Dei cognitionem pervenire, et ad eum se convertere possit, ut ne quidem eo in naturalibus ac civilibus recte utatur, quinimo qualecumque id demum sit, id totum variis modis contaminet, atque in injustitia detineat, quod dum facit, coram Deo inexcusabilis redditur.

5 comments

  1. Given that understanding, and given that the Canons are not infallible, in your opinion would it be better for the phrase “even in things natural and civil” to be removed from 3/4.4?

    • Hi Jeremy,

      If the language is understood in its original context, according to its original intent, it’s fine.

      I agree entirely with the Canons and have subscribed my name to them en animo as a minister and as a member of a seminary faculty.

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