What Can We Do With Natural Law?

The two principal reasons the Heidelblog exists (and its parent organization, the Heidelberg Reformation Association) are, first, to encourage Reformed confessing Christians to recover their confession, i.e., both the confessional documents but also the broader and classic Reformed theology, piety, and practice, which formed the context they were written; second, to help others discover the that confession (in both the narrow and broad senses). I genuinely believe that we have something to offer the broader Christian world, things we used to share with other traditions but which we and they have both lost. One of those lost treasures is the idea of natural law.

The Great Christian Tradition

It was a commonplace among Christian theologians in the ancient world, especially as they combatted the Gnostics, that creation (nature) is, in itself, good. Holy Scripture says this: “…and God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10; ESV). They denied the goodness of creation. They also radically set the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New Testament. According to the Gnostics, the God of the Old Testament was a minor deity (Yahweh), who was the Creator. They saw creation as inherently evil, however, and thus knew that the deity who had made it must be a minor figure. The Medieval church defended the goodness of creation (per se) against the Albigensians for many of the same reasons. The Protestant Reformers defended the goodness of creation (per se) against the Anabaptists, for whom grace more or less obliterated nature as a category.

Through all that period, from the ancient church, through the Medieval church, and into the Reformation and Protestant orthodoxy, Christians taught some version of natural law, i.e., the notion that God’s nature is reflected in a set of abiding moral principles or laws that are known, through universal sense perception, by all humans, in all all times and places. The Patristic writers took it as a given that there is a natural law because the Apostle Paul clearly teaches the existence of natural law in Romans 1 and 2.1

Paul writes,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:19–21; ESV).


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; ESV).

According to Paul, God is known truly but not savingly through nature. God has “made it manifest” to them. Paul assumed what the early, Medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation Christians assumed, that the world was made to be known and we were made to know it—the natural knowledge of God universal. God has revealed his existence, his deity, and his divine power through nature, which testifies to these realities. For example, all humans see the evidence of design. We know there is a Designer. We see some evidence of justice in this world. If a human judge is to be feared, how much more the Divine Judge? Paul says explicitly, “for though they knew God…”. We may not deny that humans have a true, non-saving knowledge of God.

It is also true that sinful humans suppress that knowledge. Thus he says that we all became, by nature, after the fall, “futile” in our thinking and our “foolish hearts were darkened.” Indeed, he elaborates on the subjective effects of the fall in the next chapter. The Jews have the law of Moses but the Gentiles have natural law. This is the force of “through nature” in verse 14. They have it by “nature.” Thus, even the Gentiles do, by nature, what the law requires. They are a “law unto themselves” even though they do not have the Mosaic law. The conscience reflects that natural law and natural knowledge. It testifies against them and they seek to excuse themselves, but the very fact that they must excuse themselves proves that they are under the law of nature as a kind of covenant of works. The things they excuse now will be exposed at the judgment, as Paul says.

This is how the Reformed spoke about the natural law in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods.2 The Reformed churches positively confess the existence of natural “light” and “natural law.”

They wrote, however, as did the Medievals and the Reformers, during Christendom. That is, they all assumed that there must be a state-church. They assumed what today is being called “Christian Nationalism.” They were theocrats. For the most part they could not imagine a world in which there was not an established church in which the state punished religious heretics and enforced religious orthodoxy.

The American Heresy?

It is fashionable on the American left to denounce “American exceptionalism” but only someone who is utterly ignorant of Western history could fail to see how exceptional the American experiment has been. Most of the pilgrims who came to these shores sought religious freedom for themselves but not for others. They were mostly theocrats. They wanted the state to enforce what they understood to be religious orthodoxy and to punish what they understood to be religious heresy. About 150 years later, however, the founders of the American Republic rejected the theocratic assumption. They did not establish a “Christian Nation” or a “Christian Republic.”

They did invoke natural law, however. The Declaration of Independence says, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”. The Constitution was intended to preserve those liberties. Indeed, more than a few at the Constitutional convention did not want there to be any list of rights, lest later generations assume that Americans have only the ones enumerated in what would become the Bill of Rights. Even so, the Bill of Rights is merely a “for instance.”

One vital but neglected aspect of the American experiment is to acknowledge that there is a Creator and to confess that the Creator has revealed in nature certain things. It proposes to govern society not on the basis of special revelation (e.g., Scripture), but rather on the basis of what Christians know as natural revelation, including natural law. The federal government was to be secular even if most of the people were nominally or culturally Christian.3

The American proposal is that natural law can be known and that it is sufficient to govern civil life. What is the confessional Reformed Christian to do with the Canons of Dort (CD 3/4.4) on this topic. 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.

Contra Karl Barth and the theonomists (and theocrats) who deny the existence of natural law, the Reformed churches (as noted above) affirm it clearly. As stated above, natural law is law and, as such, cannot save, regenerate, or justify a sinner. Only grace does that. Only grace brings a sinner to a saving knowledge of God.

What about the clause “incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” Aright to what end? The context is salvation. The article speaks of salvation just before that clause and just after it. It seems odd to insist (as some do) that the delegates were rejecting the use of natural law in civil life. Here we need to keep in mind the argument with the Remonstrants. They were denying the effect of the fall. They were, as Synod repeatedly said, Pelagian. They truly thought that people could reason their way to God and that they might even be saved without a personal faith in Christ. We probably do not quite appreciate how radical some of the Remonstrants had become by the time of Synod (and after).

We see this in Canons 3/4.5:

In this respect, what is true of the light of nature is true also of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses specifically to the Jews. For man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse (Canons of Dort, 3/4.5).

Synod was distinguishing law and gospel, which the Remonstrants had muddled.

There is nothing in the Canons of Dort that prohibits the American Experiment. We are free to build our civil life, our secular life on natural law. This idea might be unfamiliar and it is true that many of us are out of practice but, like any other skill, with a little effort we can learn to do it again. Just recently we posted a video clip of Alan Keyes showing us how to make natural law arguments in the public sphere. There are good natural law arguments for the protection of the unborn, against same-sex marriage, against the transgender ideology, in favor of civil liberties and even limited government.

Some Christians might think that arguing from nature for policy positions is like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. It is not. The Christian conviction is that the same God who gave us holy Scripture also gave us what we call, in the Belgic Confession (art. 2), “a beautiful book.” Remember, civil life, as important as it be, is not the kingdom of God. In our civil, secular life, we are not seeking to impose the Kingdom of  God. We extend the Kingdom of God not through political power or the sword but through the due use of the ordinary means of grace, prayer, the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the holy sacraments. City Hall is not the Church and the Church is not City Hall. These two institutions represent two spheres in God’s kingdom, the sacred and secular, as Calvin wrote. In civil life we are seeking to live together with other Christians from other traditions, with pagans, with Muslims, Jews, and others. That is a wonder of the American experiment. Each of us is entitled to hold our faith and to invoke our sacred Scriptures (or none at all) in worship and in our daily lives (hence the importance of the first amendment), but no one is entitled to seek to impose the Bible or the Quran on the rest of society. That way lies the path of religious hostility and, eventually, violence.

To be sure, as Americans, Christians are free to argue for the death penalty from the Torah and for other policy and legislative positions from any part of Scripture they will. My case is not that Christians may not make such, essentially theocratic, arguments but that our civil life is better served when they do not. The Scriptures are right. The Christian faith is right but, as a matter of civil life, we have a compact with our neighbors not to seek to impose our religion on them nor they on us. If Christians make theocratic arguments for their policy positions, then why may not the Muslims in Dearborn, MI make theocratic arguments from the Quran? There is, after all, no Mosque-state distinction in the Quran.

Is any argument ever really utterly secular? From an epistemological point of view, ultimately no, but we are not talking about epistemology or ultimate things. We are talking about, as David VanDrunen has helpfully said, penultimate things. In that case, we may speak about secular arguments and the like. The Declaration speaks of the Creator. It does not say Christ or Yahweh. That fact kept the Covenanters from participating in American civil life for a very long time, but we Americans have no national covenant except to live and let live so far as our secular, penultimate, civil life is concerned.


1. E.g., Tertullian, De Cor., 6; De Res., 58; Adv. Iud., 2; De Virg., vel. 11; Ireneus,Adv. Haer., 4.15.1; Arnobius,Adv. Gent. 5.27.

2. See David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought. Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010); R. Scott Clark, “Calvin and The Lex Naturalis,” in Stulos Theological Journal 6.1–2 (May–Nov, 1998), 1–22; Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2006); David VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law. Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics, No. 1. (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2006); David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law. Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014).

3. See D. G. Hart, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). See also Scott McDermand’s review.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. A brilliant essay Dr. Clark, and very much needed perspective in a time when Christians seem to be shrinking away from the Goliath of Secularism. Natural Law arguments are persuasive even among those that might otherwise reject the truths of perceived “religious” biblical arguments.

  2. All too often, I have to help people in industry understand that they can not change the laws of physics. I would respond with a discussion from natural law. These are warranted and may be accompanied with the consequences if natural law does not govern the fabrication of a project. Not too often, I would use the moral law as it applied to the circumstances at hand. Also, I have encountered one big name proponent of Postmilenialism that I heard at a conference use the advances in natural law (implied in his comment) and claim they supported the Postmilennialsim. I did not agree as it seemed to be an obvious illegitimate application transfer.

    The read was refreshing. Thank you.

  3. “ In the so-called modern period, however, focus shifted from the objective world to the subjective human knower. Reason was no longer primarily an instrument for discovering truth in the world but the means for imposing truth upon the world. The world has meaning, in other words, insofar as human beings project meaning onto it. But since moderns believed that all humans shared the same rationality, they thought that as long as they used their rational powers properly, they would all project the same meaning onto the world. Now, in our postmodern world, people not only reject the objective meaningfulness of the world but also question whether reason is universal. For postmoderns, then, each person (or community) imposes its own distinctive meaning onto the world and there are no established criteria for judging whose meaning is better. People are left to construct their own stories and own theories, and each one has his or her own “truth.” – David VanDrunen

    There is a powerful entity that seems to resemble the subjective human knower:
    “It is a sort of disease when you consider yourself some kind of god, the creator of everything, but I feel comfortable about it now since I began to live it out.” – George Soros

    “An open society such as ours is based on the recognition that our understanding of reality is inherently imperfect. Nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.” – Soros

    “I advocate an alliance of democratic states, with a dual purpose. One, to promote what I call open society. I talk about an alliance of open societies which would first foster the development of open societies within individual countries, because there’s a lot that needs to be done in that effort…
    And secondly, to establish basic international law and international institutions that you need for a global, open society.” -Soros

    “ Major media outlets in the US have ignored the leak of thousands of emails from billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.
    …The first thing that we see is the megalomaniacal nature of Soros’s philanthropic project. No corner of the globe is unaffected by his efforts. No policy area is left untouched.
    On the surface, the vast number of groups and people he supports seem unrelated. After all, what does climate change have to do with illegal African immigration to Israel? What does Occupy Wall Street have to do with Greek immigration policies? But the fact is that Soros-backed projects share basic common attributes.
    They all work to weaken the ability of national and local authorities in Western democracies to uphold the laws and values of their nations and communities.
    They all work to hinder free markets, whether those markets are financial, ideological, political or scientific. They do so in the name of democracy, human rights, economic, racial and sexual justice and other lofty terms.
    In other words, their goal is to subvert Western democracies and make it impossible for governments to maintain order or for societies to retain their unique identities and values.
    …. Parallel to these efforts are others geared toward rejecting the right of Western democracies to uphold long-held social norms. Soros-supported groups, for instance, stand behind the push not only for gay marriage but for unisex public bathrooms.
    They support not only the right of women to serve in combat units, but efforts to force soldiers to live in unisex barracks. In other words, they support efforts aimed at denying citizens of Western democracies the right to maintain any distance between themselves and Soros’s rejection of their most intimate values – their sexual privacy and identity.” – The Jerusalem Post

  4. Just a quick note thanking you for clarifying natural law & 2KT. This has actually inspired me to not simply give up on society and my fellow non-believing citizens wholesale (and/or seek to bunker down and segregate myself from the society at large whom are being fed a strong delusion).

    I also want to thank you for not throwing around the Great Tradition moniker which I find to be a loaded, distracting, off-putting term that can be unnecessarily divisive. The best of philosophical and theological tradition (throughout the ages), definitely verifies and affirms natural revelation, so I get the intention. But I think there can be civil unity and theological/religious sharpening with well reasoned, charitable outreach, even to those on our fringes….

    Natural Law and related terminology provide clarity. The “Great Tradition” is seemingly a lofty (as it is confusing) concept. Maybe it’s more of a scholastic or academic pursuit of rediscovery that is much more comprehensive than the areas I’m focused on. So if you would forgive my ignorance in advance.

    I don’t follow James White anymore (never really did), and was also troubled by his associates, but I think, maybe, he could have been reached.
    I don’t see any liberal-conservative divide here, but those are the charges that ultimately gets tossed around. Obviously, our most fundamental concern is orthodoxy as per the biblical and reformed tradition.

    Anyway, good stuff!!! Thank you!!!!

    • AJ,

      FWIW, there is a Great Tradition but it also needs to be defined. I think of it as those who affirm the ecumenical faith. It’s what we typically mean when we speak of “catholicity.”

  5. “there is a Great Tradition but it also needs to be defined.”

    Agreed! I think if it can be further defined/clarified, including the exact purpose it’s serving. That would be immensely helpful!

    “Affirm the ecumenical faith. It’s what we typically mean when we speak of “catholicity.”

    Ok, I think that works. If somebody like JW can’t submit to that, then he has made his bed with Wilson….

    There were some harsh criticisms in the comment section of your Babylon Bee interview. There’s lots of work to be done for sanity to prevail.

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