Natural is Not Neutral

In 2008, another blogger (Russ Reeves) made some thoughtful comments on my essay, “Christ is Lord of All But…” This post was made in response to his comments. The original essay was recently republished on the Heidelblog, and you can find that here.

I agree with him that it may be that we agree more than it seems, but he raises a few questions that I want to address. He writes, “The economic materialist won’t argue that he or she can better account for the political, social, and theological causes more completely, but rather that none of those elements are relevant when it comes to historical causation.”

I did face this in an admittedly obscure part of my book on Caspar Olevianus. Yes, some historians (some Marxists, some Freudians, and radical subjectivist late modern types) openly refuse to address historical facts. I reply by saying that it is not possible to have a reasonable discussion with those historians, so I do not try. For example, some Marxists and Hegelians are so ideologically driven, that the facts are (no pun intended) immaterial to their research and conclusions. The conclusion of the story was never in doubt. The proletariat were being oppressed. I may disagree with their eschatology, but some Marxists do work with facts, however, and I have learned a fair bit from some of them. Sometimes their determinism gets the better of them. In the case of the German nobility who became Reformed in the late sixteenth century, I argued that the best explanation for their conversion to Calvinism was not economic/material determinism, but rather religion. These German nobles who converted to Calvinism did so at great personal risk. Economic determinism does not explain the fact of their conversion most satisfactorily. They had everything to lose socially, politically, and economically—but they chose to convert anyway. The Marxist explanation of the behavior of these nobles just does not explain their behavior.

The second question is what counts as revelation. Reeves states,

I don’t think the question is whether Christian historians should claim revelatory insight into historical causation or view history through the lens of redemption. The question, rather, is whether redeemed people with transformed minds whose understanding of creation and the cultural development of creation is any different from those who reject any belief in a creator, or humanity as image-bearers of that creator, or the pervasive reality of sin as rebellion against that creator.

Some transformationalists do claim “revelatory insight into historical causation.” That is the focus of the discussion in the Christianity Today roundtable to which I previously referred. Christians routinely ask me to interpret the history of post-canonical providence. Evangelicals routinely claim to have a unique insight into the meaning of the Reformation, but ignore the Ignatius of Loyola and the rise of the Jesuit movement. Some brands of Calvinists regularly appeal to the First Great Awakening as a “good” revival and the Second Great Awakening as a “bad” revival (except to the degree it produced good religious experience) on the basis of their interpretation of providence (more on this discussion in chapter 3 of Recovering the Reformed Confession). In such cases, the line between canonical history and extra-canonical history begins to blur. As I understand the Reformed doctrine of providence, we say that God ordained both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the First Great Awakening and the Second. We can interpret the redemptive and spiritual significance of canonical history because we have an inspired, canonical interpretation to guide us. We do not have the same sorts of interpretative guides for post-canonical history, so we should be a lot more cautious about saying what providence was doing in this or that event.

There is no question whether historians with renewed minds interpret the meaning of proximate causes differently than non-Christians do, but does that meaning give us any help in the historical (i.e. proximate) interpretation of them? I do not see how.

The third question is the matter of neutrality. Reeves writes,

It’s worth keeping in mind that while it’s true that first-century Christians did not pin their hopes in transforming the government of Rome to oppose abortion, neither did they think they were arguing on neutral ground; Roman law, after all, protected not only abortion but infanticide of unwanted children, in complete accordance (it was believed) with natural law.

This is a very important issue. Russ seems (please note the qualifier) to identify the adjective natural with neutral. This gets to the skepticism that a lot of the Reformed have about natural law, and the move that is frequently made to identify it with the dreaded neutrality. As a Van Tillian I reject the idea of brute facts. Van Til was right about this. There is no such thing as uninterpreted reality. I understand this to mean that when it comes to any particular fact we are not allowed to assign just any meaning we will. It is not as if the unbeliever gets to say what he wants, and we get to say what we want about facts, and the one with the most facts wins—when it comes to ultimate issues. If we point to the empty tomb, the irrationalist says, “Weird things happen.” He autonomously assigns a false meaning to the empty tomb. The irrationalist’s refusal to submit to the divine interpretation of the tomb is no reason, however, for denying the existence of facts, which some classes of folk, who strongly identify with Van Til’s apologetic, seem to do sometimes. I am not saying that Reeves is doing this. It is a mistake to transfer the transcendental argument from our apologetic to the work of history, botany, or road paving. The Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) does not really settle the proximate arguments about the best way to assemble and explain the facts of the rise of Donatism in the early church or whether Tertullian was really a Montanist (probably not, says Gerald Bray). The move to use the TAG to interpret proximate questions is a confusion of categories. It is true that the unbeliever has to use borrowed capital to make sense of anything. The very act of attempting to account for the best interpretation of post-canonical history usually entails the assumption of order which seems to entail the assumption of one who orders and so forth. If I were doing apologetics with an unbelieving historian I would point out how he denies the existence of God with his mouth but affirms it with the way he lives his life. Arguing about the best proximate interpretation of a historical event, however, is not apologetics.

The second mistake, and I do think Reeves is doing this one, is to identify natural revelation with the Van Tillian category of neutrality. This gets back to the comment I made in the original article that there is a class of Van Tillians out there who have embraced a sort of skepticism about natural revelation that is not entirely faithful to Van Til. Though it does not get a lot of attention, it seems to me that Van Til had a robust doctrine of natural revelation and that he did not share the skepticism that some have adopted. Yes, Van Til did make statements about natural theology that might tend in this direction, and so the picture is not completely clear. Part of the problem is that some have attempted to build a positive natural theology that is contrary to the Christian faith. We only know of grace and salvation from special revelation.

That does not mean, however, that we should not accept natural revelation as, well, revelation. Reeves’ implicit argument is that the Roman law protected abortion, therefore we can see that one can appeal to natural law to justify anything and therefore natural law is a wax nose that is not really fixed and that does not norm anything. The argument assumes that anything anyone does or claims to be natural, really is natural. This is a large assumption. Sinful people distort natural revelation to suit their own purposes, and likewise distort special revelation. Those distortions do not justify jettisoning special revelation any more than they justify jettisoning natural revelation or natural law. Let us be clear, the only thing that is revealed in nature is law. Let us also be clear that the basic content of natural law is identical to the basic content of the Decalogue. This has always been the confessional Protestant view. Adam knew the substance (minus the Israelite particulars) of the natural law. All human beings have always known that idolatry is wrong, that murder is wrong, that there is one day in seven for rest, that coveting is wrong, and that hating one’s neighbor (including infanticide and abortion) is wrong. All human beings know that adultery is wrong. Even when we corrupt the creational law of God, we substitute other laws for it. We are inveterate legal creatures. We are, as Mike Horton says, “hard-wired for law keeping.” It was this same natural law to which the Apostle Paul appealed in Romans chapters 1 and 2. He was not a skeptic about the reality of natural law.

I think that one reason why we are sometimes uneasy about all this is that, in reaction to modern criticism of the Bible, we got used to appealing to and defending the Bible as special revelation. We were right to do so. In that climate, however, the antithesis between belief and unbelief is everything. When it comes to special revelation there is no common ground. In such a climate natural revelation and common ground recede into the background.

Common ground, however, is not neutrality. The common, creational ground, on which both the Christian and the non-Christian stand, is still revelatory. It is still created. It still testifies to God’s existence and the sinner’s rebellion. That truth, however, does not mean that the only thing we can discuss with the unbeliever is his rebellion against God. In that case, apologetics swallows up everything else. There is a place for common life. There is a place for making common cause with my unbelieving neighbor to achieve common, creational purposes whether street paving or offering a historical interpretation of the proximate causes and meaning of a historical event.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. Great stuff! I’m always confused when people say “I’m a presuppositionalist when it comes to apologetics,” asking myself whether they are saying they just get to make a presupposition, whichever one they happen to want, for no reason.

  2. I still don’t understand how useful natural law is.

    While Paul says the law is written on the heart and serves the function of causing a man’s conscience to convict him:

    –18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

    — 15 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.

    He then goes on to show the noetic effects of sin make it seemingly useless apart from revelation or the restraining providence of God.

    –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.

    –Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,

    –And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

    Patience and restraint of evil here:

    Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

    –Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

    So my question is. How do you know what is natural law apart from scripture? Logically you can’t get an ought from an is so Empirical observations can’t ever teach natural law.
    Plato and Aristotle thought it was natural to do many things that conflict with scripture.

    I am all for two kingdoms and finding common ground in the civil sphere but I can’t help but wonder if the rise of christendom in the west has created an environment where we take the biblical influence on society for granted and just call it natural law. If I am Daniel in exile in Babylon am I appealing to natural law or standing on the word of God? What about India or China? How is this doctrine to be objectively demonstrated and applied without scripture in a lasting and stable way?

    • Michael,

      When coming to a new or unfamiliar subject it is best to withhold judgment until one is better informed. So, my recommendation is that you do more reading. After, natural law has been a part of basic Christianity since apostles through the early, medieval, Reformation, and orthodox periods. It was only in the early 20th century that it came to be doubted and then typically by heterodox writers (e.g., Barth and his followers). Some neo-Kuyperians, who were not well grounded in the tradition also came to doubt it but skepticism about natural law is a distinctly minority view.

      I learned about natural law from reading Calvin. Here is an essay on what I learned. After that, take a look at these resources and this bibliography.

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