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May 27, 2010
This chapter was certainly the weakest so far, and the weakness, unless I’m missing something, is rather simple to identify and describe, so this review shouldn’t take so long.  His approach in this chapter is quite simple: examine the treatises of six prominent “Reformed resistance theorists”--three from among the English Marian exiles (John Knox,  John Ponet, and Christopher Goodman) and three from among the Huguenots (Francois Hotman, Theodore Beza, and the author of the Vindiciae)--and look for any appeals to non-Biblical sources, all of which can then be lumped under the heading of “natural law.”  The result is rich in scholarly-sounding footnotes but quite lacking in substance.

  The problem with this chapter stems from VanDrunen’s failure, as I have mentioned a couple of times, to ever take the time to adequately define “natural law,” distinguish between the dramatically varying forms of the doctrine, and attend to the significant implications of these variations.  I had hoped that, reserving as he now was an entire chapter for a discussion of natural law, he would remedy this serious gap in the argument.  Unfortunately, the account of natural law in this chapter is, if anything, even more flattened and insubstantial than what we’ve had heretofore.  Indeed, although this admittedly sounds harsh, it is hard not to feel at many points throughout this chapter that VanDrunen simply used a computer to do a word search for “reason,” “nature,” and “natural” in the writings of these resistance theorists, and then copied and pasted any hits into the paragraphs of this chapter.  Repeatedly, the reader is simply bombarded with a lineup of quotations such as “nature instructs us to defend our lives with liberty” “let nature teach you the absurdity thereof [viz., rule by women],” or, in fact, with any quotation demonstrating the use of extra-biblical sources, and is not given the benefit of any careful reflection on how these thinkers see the law of nature imparted to us, what epistemological and ethical authority the appeal to nature has for them, and how they understand the relationship between natural law and Biblical law.  

Without such reflection, it is difficult to see how this chapter is to offer any substantive contribution to VanDrunen’s argument in this book.  This sort of claim is repeatedly made: “Though the authority of Scripture is placed front and center, this author also does not hesitate to combine appeals to Scripture with appeals to natural law or other non-biblical sources.  One of the most evident ways is the author’s use of biblical history alongside of ancient and more recent history to illustrate his points” (132).  It is not clear to me, however, that this claim in itself proves anything other than that these writers were intelligent, educated, articulate human beings.   Indeed, here is a sampling of the sorts of things that VanDrunen appeals to as evidence of the presence of natural law theory:
Goodman, we are told, invokes “natural law” because “In the first chapter of Superior Powers, Goodman recounts the story of Acts 4 in which the Jewish leaders threaten the apostles.  Goodman, without appeal to the biblical text itself, remarks that these threats were against both reason and God’s word” (130).  In the next paragraph, we are given another example: “Deuteronomy 17 commanded Israel to choose a king ‘from among his brothers.’  In part, says Goodman, this was because foreigners would not have a ‘natural zeal’ for the people and, especially, because Israel was to avoid ‘that monster in nature,’ namely the rule of women” (130).  
Under the heading of invocations of natural law are any use of analogies drawn from nature, e.g, when in Hotman’s treatise, “The relationship of king and kingdom, he says, is like that of tutor and student, guardian and ward, pilot and passengers, pastor and flock, and commander and army.  In all of these examples, the obvious from everyday life provides the political conclusion” (139), or when Ponet “in his defense of tyrannicide, asserts that society can kill a tyrant just as a person can cut away an incurable part of the body that otherwise would destroy the whole.”  Citations of heathen writers and mention of examples from secular history also are taken by VanDrunen as forms of appeal to natural law.
Now it is hard to see how these sorts of citations do not simply represent basic principles of good writing in any age.  For instance, I would not consider myself a natural law thinker, but if I were to write on, say, the Biblical call to love and mercy--to overcome evil with good--then, even on this clearly evangelical doctrine, I might well make all manner of appeals to “nature” and non-Biblical sources.  I might, for instance, offer many historical examples of how self-sacrificial mercy turned out to triumph over evil, where the seemingly rational course of retaliation failed.  I might quote non-Christian authors, ancient and modern, who also recognized the value of mercy--for instance, I might quote Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will only make the whole world blind and toothless.”  In making such appeals, I would simply be following the good rhetorical strategy of seeking to illustrate my point via as many different routes as possible, and the good theological strategy of trying to show that God’s commands are not arbitrary, but fit the grain of the universe.  In this latter aim, I might be said to be appealing in some sense to natural law, but only as an illustration, or as an authority clearly subordinate to Scripture, not as an independent basic of norms.  To this extent, almost any theologian could be said to “make use of natural law,” but this would thus be a very unhelpful way of speaking.  
Clearly, for these thinkers to serve the purpose VanDrunen has for them, they would have to make use of natural law in a rather more robust sense.  Let us revisit briefly the thesis which VanDrunen has set forth at the end of chapter 3, and then ask what questions this chapter would need to address in order to advance that thesis.  That thesis, as I understand it, is this: natural law provides a universally accessible, ethically normative account of how life is to be lived in the civil kingdom, such that the institutions of that kingdom can be established and operated successfully, by pagans or Christians, without recourse to the laws of the Gospel or Christ’s work of redemption, governed only by appeal to these principles established in creation, and rationally discernible by all.  I think this is an accurate summary of what he is proposing as his nifty synthesis of natural law and two kingdoms doctrines.  
Now, what would we have to find in these resistance theorists to substantiate or advance this thesis?  
1) We would have to find an account of natural law as not merely universally binding upon, but universally recognizable as binding, by Christians and pagans alike.
2) We would have to find a clear use of natural law by these authors not merely in an illustrative or testimonial function, but in an authoritative function.  
3) We would have to find evidence that these authors viewed natural law as providing not merely a basis for political life, but a fully sufficient basis.  
Let me elaborate on each of these.
First, it will not do simply to establish that these thinkers saw in natural law a universally binding set of ethical principles that were built into the world from creation, and that served as a basis from which moral duties could be deduced.  After all, if this natural law existed and were in fact built into creation, but we were such that, because of sin, we could either not discern its principles, or could discern its principles but not recognize them as ethical norms (as in, for instance, the modern liberal who recognizes the seeming “unnaturalness” of homosexuality, but does not see this as prescribing any ethical norm), then it would only be a useful authority for Christians.  As Christians, redeemed and enlightened by revelation, we are able to recognize the principles of the natural law for what they are, and are able to understand that, since God is their author, they are ethically binding upon us; but can unbelievers make use of natural law in the same way?  For natural law to serve as the rule for life in the civil kingdom, a rule accessible to both believers and unbelievers and, then natural law would not only have to exist, but would have to be, on some level, recognized by unbelievers as an authoritative rule for life in the civil kingdom.  For these thinkers, I do not think that natural law can be reliably recognized in this way--they all hold to the doctrine of total depravity, as VanDrunen himself recognizes: “these writers, obviously reflecting their Reformed theological perspective, viwed human reason itself as badly corrpted.  Though nature confronts all people with the divine law, reason as a human faculty is not inherently trustworthy....What reason ought to comprehend by nature and what it actually deos are therefore different things for these writers” (134).  But he does not seem to recognize how dangerous this admission is to his thesis.  

Second, it will not do to establish that these thinkers appealed to natural law as a form of evidence in arguments regarding politics.  Following off of the previous point, if it is true that natural law exists, but is also true that our discernment of it is limited, then natural law only becomes usable once it is illuminated by the clear truth given to us in Scripture.  We might say that natural law, in this scheme, is like the moon to Scripture’s sun--we do indeed receive some light from natural law, and, those lacking Scripture can stumble along slowly by that light, but Scripture is the source of the knowledge and authority that natural law offers, and will be necessary if we are to make much headway at all.  On VanDrunen’s thesis, however, if natural law is to be the basis for life in the civil kingdom, without recourse to special revelation, then it will need to be authoritative in itself; it can’t merely serve as extra illustration or substantiation for principles whose authority is established by direct appeal to special revelation.  And, from what VanDrunen gives us in this chapter, it seems like this latter use is the use it has in these resistance theorists.  I already quoted VanDrunen saying, “Though the authority of Scripture is placed front and center, this author also does not hesitate to combine appeals to Scripture with appeals to natural law or other non-biblical sources.  One of the most evident ways is the author’s use of biblical history alongside of ancient and more recent history to illustrate his points” (132).  A little furhter on, he says, “This author, then, together with the other five, clearly refused to limit his argumentation to Scripture, but frequently resorted to a wide variety of natural law and other non-biblical sources to buttress, illustrate, and shape biblical claims” (132).  He frequently perceives in these authors a “harmony between biblical and natural law sources” (129).  Or what about when VanDrunen quotes Beza’s justification for why heathen writers may be appealed to: “they are not so far removed frm the standard of justice that it may not justifiably be said that justice was on one side and injustice on the other” (140).  Clearly discernible in this quote is the idea that there is a pre-established standard of justice (presumably drawn from Scripture), that can serve as the benchmark against which heathen thinkers can be judged.  Where they measure up to it, they may be usefully quoted; where they do not, their opinions are of no authority.  Throughout, the picture here is one of Scripture as the necessary foundation, and natural law as providing additional support; these thinkers, it seems, would not be able to imagine using natural law as itself the foundation.  

The third point is closely related to the second, but pertains more to the content than to the authority of natural law.  Even if, for these thinkers, certain arguments could be not only substantiated but in fact established on the basis of the natural law, this is scarcely enough for VanDrunen’s purpose.  On the thesis he wishes to argue, the natural law provides a sufficient and authoritative rule for life in the civil kingdom; it doesn’t simply give us a few useful principles here and there, which must then be filled out by appeals to Scripture, but it gives us a complete blueprint for civil life.  Special revelation, then, need not inform life in the civil kingdom.  But this does not seem at all to be the way these resistance theorists are using natural law.  Scripture is the clear backbone of their argument, and where they think that certain political principles can be established by natural law, they often use it.  But if you challenged them, “Here, rewrite your entire treatise proving all these principles simply by recourse to natural law, and without these unnecessary appeals to Scripture,” I expect they would’ve looked at you like you’d gone mad.  But unless natural law was, for these authors, such that it could be used as a blueprint for political life on its own, then it is hard to see how its use by the resistance theorists really proves anything for VanDrunen except, “Well, certain principles for political life can be recognized, and have been recognized even by unbelievers, by looking at nature and history.”  But it’s hard to see how proving this is proving anything significant at all.
Before closing, I should mention a couple final problems with the appeal to natural law here.  First, consider this litte quote: “This is not to say that all of their interpretations of the content of natural law are palatable to most contemporary readers.  Knox’s condemnation of the rule of women as a ‘monster in’ and ‘repugnant to’ nature is a case in point” (137).  This points a big problem with the appeal to natural law, a problem I mentioned in the discussion of chapter 3 as well: the multicultural challenge to natural law, the fact that their perception of it is quite different than ours.  If the whole point of natural law is that it is a universally recognizable standard, apparent in nature and capable of being grasped by our reason with sufficient precision as to render it a foundation for civil life, then how do we account for the fact that, at least to how our reasons grasp nature, these thinkers got many principles of natural law appallingly wrong?  Is the rule of women against natural law?  If so, then why are we so unable to see it?  If not, then why was Knox so misled?  And, since either we or he are clearly in grave error in our interpretation of natural law on this rather significant point, how can we feel confident that we are not making similar blunders across the board in our attempts to grasp it and apply it?
Second, I want to voice my theological concern with the attempt to appeal to natural law in political life, as these resistance theorists do.  If “natural law” or heathen authors, or history, or whatever it may be, is being appealed to in support of a principle that seems to directly oppose the principle given to us in Scripture, then something is wrong.  By the nature of this chapter, this problem screams to be addressed.  Here all these theorists are attempting to construct theologies of “resistance”--of armed rebellion, despite the fact that there seems to be some quite clear New Testament teaching against it.  For instance, “Vindiciae at several places speaks of natural law as teaching a principle of self-preservation: ‘nature instructs us to defend our lives and our liberty, without which life is hardly life at all’” (135).  Am I the only one who is hearing alarm bells?  Doesn’t Christ teach us (at least in many circumstances) not to seek to defend our lives and our liberty, and to abandon the principle of self-preservation for a principle of self-sacrifice?  Whatever the use of natural law, it should not be appealed to in contradiction to evangelical law.   And this concern, of course, is what makes me so suspicious of VanDrunen’s whole project--the attempt to found the civil kingdom on natural law generally means an attempt to inoculate the civil kingdom against having to follow any of Christ’s commands, since it can operate by a different and often contradictory ethical standard. 


Well done Brad. Well done.

June 1, 2010 at 5:39 AM  

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