Rushdoony’s Rejection Of Natural Law As “Heretical Nonsense” Is “Patently Inconsistent” With The Confession

An examination of the contemporary literature, and the writings of the divines themselves, reveals that the Westminster divines universally held to a concept of natural law, as did other theologians of the seventeenth century who were influential on the divines’ thinking. As such, it is unsurprising that, while there is little express use of the terminology of natural law, the Westminster Confession clearly affirms the principle of natural law.

The Confession’s teaching on natural law is as follows. There is a universally applicable moral law, being a perfect rule of righteousness, which is written the heart of all people and knowable outside of Scripture. That law was originally given as a covenant, requiring perfect obedience as a condition for the attainment of life. Thus, in the covenant of works, God required Adam, to obey the moral law perfectly, in addition to the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree. In creation God wrote the entirely of the natural moral lawn Adam’s heart, who was able to comprehend that law perfectly and without error or sin.

Adam, of course, sinned by eating the fruit, thereby plunging the human race into sin and misery. One consequence is that the law is no longer applicable to believers in a covenantal sense as a means of salvation, and it is not possible to attain salvation through the law. However, the moral law remains binding on Adam’s posterity as a rule of conduct: the moral law continues to apply to all of mankind as a perfect rule of righteousness and not a covenant of works. That law is in substance equivalent to the Ten Commandments, which contain a summary of the entirety of the duties owed to God and man, being fleshed out and expounded in in other parts of Scripture. The moral law, therefore, is both natural, in that it is written on the heart, and positive, being written in much clearer and more authoritative form in Scripture. Although the law is written on the heart of all people, the knowledge of that law is corrupted and distorted by sin and so is not sufficient to give man sufficient knowledge of God for salvation. It nevertheless remains possible for all people to know the requires of the moral law, to some degree, outside of Scripture.

…Properly understanding the Confession therefore requires a thorough understanding of the contemporary context, including the theological beliefs and assumptions of the Westminster divines and the controversies to which the Westminster divines were responding.

…One clear implication is that the attempted retrieval of natural law within the Reformed tradition is not an alien imposition from without, but a return to what is clearly taught in our confessional standards, a fact which must bear heavily on those who seek to be confessionally faithful. Opinions such as those of R. J. Rushdoony that the doctrine of natural law is humanistic “heretical nonsense” are patently inconsistent with the Confession as a doctrinal standard. Given the importance of the Westminster Confession of Faith as a doctrinal standard, a recognition that it clearly affirms natural law ought to prove additional stimulus for its recovery within the Reformed tradition.

Benjamin B. Saunders | “Hidden in Plain Sight: Natural Law and the Westminster Confession of Faith” | Westminster Theological Journal 84 (2022), 200–02.


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