Spectacles Prescribed: A Review of VanDrunen’s “A Biblical Case for Natural Law”
I have spent the last week down at Westminster Seminary California auditing the “Baptist Symbolics” class at IRBS. This weekend they are having a conference on Two Kingdoms theology and I saw that David VanDrunen’s long anticipated book on natural law and two kingdoms was just published. In honor of that, I wanted to post an essay that I wrote critiquing VanDrunen’s previous work on the topic. The essay was written for the 2008 Trinity Foundation Christian Worldview Essay Contest, the topic of which was John W. Robbins’ book Freedom and Capitalism: Essays in Christian Politics and Economics, and has been slightly revised for this post.
Truth is God thinking.
History is God acting.
Law is God commanding.
Against these propositions, secular philosophers muster all the forces at their command.
So begins Robbins chapter on natural law in his book “Freedom and Capitalism”, though it might just as well have introduced the work as a whole. John Robbins did not see economics and politics as simply a practical matter. He recognized that all thought, including economic and political, is a reflection of one’s submission to God. If one fails to bring every thought captive to Christ, one fails to obey Christ’s command and ultimately, to glorify God.
I believe the most effective way to show the value of Robbins’ book is to apply its principles and example to current challenges facing us today. In his forward, Robbins mentions the threat posed by David VanDrunen’s attempt, as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary California, to revive natural law theory in Reformed theology. However, due to the fact that “Freedom and Capitalism” is a collection of previously written work, VanDrunen’s work was not specifically mentioned or critiqued beyond the forward. Thus I will endeavor to apply what I have learned from Robbins to the case of David VanDrunen’s book “A Biblical Case for Natural Law.”
In his introduction, VanDrunen notes several objections against natural law that he intends to address in the book. Two of these are: (1) that natural law detracts from the authority and priority of Scripture, and (2) that the use of natural law does not take seriously the fact of human sin and its dire impact on moral reasoning. He does this by arguing that God has established two separate kingdoms, that the image of God was not lost in the Fall, and that natural law is to govern the civil kingdom.
VanDrunen argues that God has established two different kingdoms through two different covenants with two different purposes. He argues that God established the civil kingdom through His covenant with Noah and the spiritual kingdom through His covenant with Moses (The nation of Israel was not a spiritual kingdom. See links at end). He states: “According to the principle of the Noahic covenant of common grace, the cultural task is to be pursued by the human race as a whole… [Christians] must pursue a common cultural task with the world at large.”ii He claims that special revelation’s supremacy over the nation of Israel was temporary, while the natural law that governed pagan nations throughout the Old Testament is to be the standard used today by members of the New Covenant, in matters of civil rule. (VanDrunen ignores the fact that the Noahic Covenant contained special revelation, not natural, and that the special revelation was directed specifically at civil law: Gen 9:5-6 – ironically a command the majority of civil rulers relying on “natural law” reject today). In support of this claim, VanDrunen cites Jeremiah 29:1-9, in which Jeremiah commands exiled Israelites to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” From this passage, VanDrunen derives a common purpose, a common cultural task to achieve peace and prosperity.
He rightly notes that “such a command must have been bracing for these Israelites who had been told that they were not to seek the peace and prosperity of the Moabites and Ammonites who sought fellowship in the Promised Land (Deut. 23:3-6) and who would later be told, upon returning to the Promised Land after exile, not to seek the peace and prosperity of the pagans then inhabiting that land (Ezra 9:12).”iii However, contrarty to VanDrunen’s assertion, Jeremiah 29 does not teach that Israelites are to pursue a common task with the Babylonians because of a common covenant made with Noah. Jeremiah instructs Israelites to seek the welfare of Babylon, not for Babylon’s sake, but for their own. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Quite contrary to VanDrunen’s belief that “all human beings, of whatever religious commitment, are to intermingle and cooperate in pursuit of cultural progress,” distinct from God’s redemptive purpose, this passage teaches that civil peace is to be sought for the benefit of God’s people.
VanDrunen argues that the image of God is righteous dominion. Because man was created in the image of God, a righteous ruler, he was created to righteously rule over creation. In “Freedom and Capitalism” Robbins briefly shows Gary North’s error in believing that the image of God is dominioniv. He has elsewherev argued that dominion is not the image of God, rather, dominion is given to man because man is the image of God.
On the other hand, there is much to affirm in VanDrunen’s argument that the image of God is man’s innate knowledge of what is righteous. He musters Romans 1:18-32 and Romans 2:14-15 to his defense, noting that “Paul teaches that there is a natural law that continues to bind all people and that people actually know something of this law.”vi However, VanDrunen’s conclusions from this argument are not to be commended. VanDrunen attempts to overcome the problem of sinful suppression of knowledge of God’s law by citing Romans 1:32. He emphasizes that all sinful men know God’s law. However, unlike VanDrunen, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that though all men know this law, all ignore it and insist they do not know it.
Romans 1 cannot be used to defend the claim that a theory of political philosophy can be derived through fallen man’s unaided reason precisely because such men will ignore any such knowledge. Robbins notes: “Paul says that men suppress the truth in unrighteousness; they refuse to glorify God; they are ingrates, fools, and do not like to retain God in their knowledge… Men cannot construct theories upon this innate information, for their intellects are depraved (Romans 8:7).”vii
The result of VanDrunen’s understanding of natural law is that we are to look to fallen man to determine what is right and what is wrong. Robbins shows how this has worked out historically by quoting the Marquis de Sade:
“Nature teaches us both vice and virtue in our constitution… we shall examine by the torch of reason, for it is by this light alone that we can conduct our inquiry.”… de Sade concludes that, “there is just as much harm in killing an animal as a man, or just as little, and the difference arises solely from the prejudices of our vanity.” Since it is nature that prompts us to murder, steal, slander, and fornicate, and since we have a “natural inclination to such actions and ends as are fitting” – to quote Thomas Aquinas – none of these things can be wrong, for Nature is normative. The logic is commendable; the conclusion, reprehensible.”viii
Even more problematic is what VanDrunen claims is the content of this natural law that has been written on the hearts of all men. The Westminster Confession of Faith (which I assume VanDrunen professes to hold to as a faculty member of Westminster Seminary California), states: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”ix Among the Scriptural support offered by the Confession is Romans 2:14-15. The Confession continues: “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments…”x Thus the Confession identifies natural law with the Ten Commandments.
However, VanDrunen argues that special revelation “is not meant to serve as the moral standard for the civil kingdom.”xi He claims, “Biblical moral instructions are given to people who are redeemed and are given as a consequence of their redemption.xii The Ten Commandments, for example, provide not an abstract set of principles but define the life of God’s redeemed covenant people… The point is that the moral instruction given in Scripture cannot be taken simply as the moral standard for the world at large.”xiii With this statement, VanDrunen is in direct opposition to his Confession: “The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.”xiv
What is amazing is that VanDrunen calls upon this very same Confession in support of his argument. He cites WCF 19.4, which states that Israel’s judicial laws have expired, and claims it supports his assertion that “Christians cannot rightly appeal to the moral lifestyle set forth in Scripture as directly applicable to non-Christians.” (p. 40) I agree with VanDrunen that we must not simply apply every command in Scripture to all people of all times. We must be sensitive to the context. But VanDrunen is not arguing simply that we shouldn’t apply all commands in Scripture to all men. He is arguing that we should not apply any commands in Scripture to all men, and he uses 19.4 to support that assertion. Yet, 19.3 prefaces 19.4 by explaining that it is not referring to the moral law, which remains binding on all men. That VanDrunen accidentally skipped 19.3 in his reading of the Confession is not likely.
VanDrunen’s denial that the natural law written on the hearts of all men is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments may perhaps be motivated by a desire to appease the minds of fallen men. If he believes we are to work with unregenerate sinners in a common task, he must set aside Scripture, for Scripture is foolishness to the world and “the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).
He acknowledges that any attempt to define natural law apart from Scripture “demands limited and sober expectations.”xv VanDrunen then proceeds to use Scripture in an attempt to show how a common, natural moral standard was used to govern the civil kingdom during the time of the Old Testament patriarchs. He cites Genesis 20 as evidence that Abimelech knew “what ought not to be done” in regard to taking someone else’s wife. Rather than simply acknowledging that the 7th commandment was written on Abimelech’s heart, and that this was just as much a spiritual issue as it was a “civil” issue (Gen 20:6 “sinning against me”), VanDrunen prefers to develop a shadowy form of a possible natural law consisting of the protection of marriage as well as a prohibition against sexual violence (referring to an additional example in Gen. 34:7). Such a view is so incredibly forced that it boggles my mind why so many people appeal to it.
VanDrunen ends his book with the bold and absurd conclusion that “natural law and unbelieving interpretation of natural law become an important part of biblical ethics in the spiritual kingdom.”xvi In support of this claim, VanDrunen references the pagan phrases found in Proverbs and the fact that Hammurabi’s laws predated the Ten Commandments (the reason for which is blatantly obvious to anyone who has read WCF 19.1, 2, 5). He concludes by commending Christians to learn what is righteous from their neighbors who are in rebellion against God’s righteousness. So much for trying to retain the authority and priority of Scripture. Robbins’ conclusion provides a much more biblical answer: “Natural law theory is, in the final analysis, a form of idolatry. What has nature to do with law? Nothing. Law is God commanding.”xvii
In striking contrast to VanDrunen’s work is Robbins’ “Freedom and Capitalism.” Robbins’ collection of essays is clear, powerful, and most of all, built upon the foundation of God’s Word. I rejoice that John W. Robbins has entered God’s rest and has ceased from his works, yet I pray that the Lord has not left us without a servant to continue his work. The radically biblical worldview presented in “Freedom and Capitalism” needs to be proclaimed and applied throughout the land.
i “For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.vi.1.
Freedom and Capitalism (Robbins’ essay on natural law is incredibly good and it’s not available online)
I am not a theonomist (and neither is Robbins). For some reasons why I am not a theonomist, and to elaborate on my comment that the nation of Israel was not a spiritual kingdom, please review these posts:
The Mosaic Covenant is Typological
Mixing Types and Antitypes in the Blender
The Westminster Confession of Faith is Dispensational
Obedience in the Covenants
For some more of my thoughts in regards to the pagan literature in the Proverbs, see my response to Greg Koukl’s essay:
The Cure of the Psyche
To see some of the arguments in my essay fleshed out against some living, breathing 2K advocates (including Jason Stellman) see the comment sections of these two posts:
Is Transformationism Postmillenial?
Two Kingdoms: Natural Law
(and the posts that preceded that discussion):
The Two Kingdoms, Part One: Theocracy
The Two Kingdoms, Part Two: Exile
Two Kingdoms, Part III: Exile, Cont’d