March 25, 2011
by Vincent Bacote
Last month I was a participant in a conference
entitled “Natural Law and
Evangelical Political Thought” at Westmont College
in Santa Barbara, CA. Featuring addresses by Robert P. George and J.
Budziszewski along with several panel discussions, the conference allowed
participants to actually “confer”
about the several aspects of natural law—the idea that there are moral norms
common to all humans and intelligible to all.
Among some of the more intriguing and surprising elements of the conference were presentations related to Karl Barth and natural law (with the surprising suggestion that the later Barth may have been less resistant to the idea of natural law), the work of C.S. Lewis as a bridge to evangelical engagement with natural law, and a presentation interacting with the concept of the church as counter-polis.
Regarding the central question of the conference, there is an apparent contrast between evangelical apologetics and evangelical politics on the issue of whether there is some common ground among all humans. Many evangelicals assume mutual understanding when considering how to make a case for the gospel in our current culture. Many of the arguments used to begin a conversation or pursue a persuasive path rely upon the possibility of some agreed-upon claims that at the least make Christianity defensible against skeptical attacks. But this is less the case when it comes to evangelicals and politics. While the tensions in political argumentation often assume strong polarities, they are not all that different from those between say, faith and science. Yet, natural law is not one of the common ways of pursuing common ground in politics. Perhaps this is because of an emphasis on “the Bible alone” or because of an allergy to a tradition often associated with Roman Catholicism. Maybe it is because contemporary evangelical public discourse has often expressed an effort to make moral claims that are both distinctively Christian while also beneficial for all, and the prominence of particularity diverts attention away from natural law discourse.
My participation in the conference focused on the possible intersection between the doctrine of common grace and natural law. Common grace is the doctrine that explains God’s merciful preservation of the world and that also enables and encourages us to participate in every area of life. I sought a link with natural law by looking at Abraham Kuyper’s language of “divine ordinances”. Throughout his long career, Kuyper used this term to describe how God reveals to us the direction for life in all levels of society. These ordinances are discovered not only through revelation in the Bible but also through the created order. In the 1870s Kuyper strongly emphasized that when it came to political life, we discover these ordinances as part of the process of participating in the public realm, and that they have been discovered throughout history by all kinds of people, not only Christians. This indicates not only that Christians ought to participate in public life, but also that specific direction for public policy does not come from the pulpit. There is indirect influence from the church but an ongoing process of discernment in discovering the ordinances that come from creation. The created order is common terrain, a public space where “natural” laws may be discovered. I am not certain whether Kuyper would have ever used the term “natural law,” but I am still considering whether in fact he did affirm the principle even though he used different language. The term natural law does not make me nervous, nor does it betray infidelity toward special revelation. If Christians desire an approach to public life that truly leads to “public” justice, then I believe we have to at least consider how an old tradition might help us.
—Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology
and Director of the Center for
Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College and a
Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.