Review of David Van Drunen’s A Biblical Case for Natural Law

by John Frame

 

Natural law as a concept in ethics goes back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelian and Stoic. These philosophers believed that there are natural laws, moral principles that can be discovered in nature (particularly human nature) by reason and conscience. Of course, Aristotle and the Stoics were not concerned about the role of Scripture in ethics. But early, medieval, and Reformation Christians, seeking to integrate Greek philosophy with the Bible, asked how natural law and Scripture are related in our ethical decisions. The problem became especially pointed in Protestant theology, which argued not only for the authority of Scripture, but also for the sufficiency of Scripture, or sola scriptura. If Scripture is sufficient for human life (indeed sufficient for God’s own glory1), what place remains for natural law?

Van Drunen in this book asks, what does the Bible say about natural law? He assumes the authority of Scripture and seeks to ascertain whether Scripture affirms natural law and what Scripture says about it. Strangely, however, I couldn’t find any discussion in the book of the important question of the sufficiency of Scripture. So far as I can tell, the only reference to sola scriptura in the volume is in the Introduction by Stephen Grabill, who says that the doctrine has been “badly caricatured” (ii). Neither Grabill nor Van Drunen indicates how the doctrine has been caricatured, or how it should be properly understood. This is odd, since Grabill begins by citing negatively the common argument that “sola scriptura and the Roman Catholic teaching on natural law are fundamentally opposed” (i). One would think that at the very least this book would attempt to show how those two doctrines should not be opposed, which is evidently Van Drunen’s view. But so far as I can tell, the book does not do that in any clear way. Van Drunen does discuss biblical examples affirming natural law and incorporating natural law into biblical theology. But these discussions, as we shall see, aggravate the problem rather than resolving it.

Some readers will be surprised to learn that I accept Van Drunen’s argument for the existence of natural law. Our disagreements concern the relation of natural law to Scripture, the two-kingdoms doctrine, and the function of natural law within a biblical ethical epistemology.

Much of Van Drunen’s book is taken up, not with natural law as such, but with the “two kingdoms” view of Christ and culture, which Van Drunen advocates. He thinks that the functions of natural law can be best described within that scheme. I think the two kingdoms doctrine is the weakest part of the book. But I shall discuss that later in the review. For now, I will begin where Van Drunen does.

 

Natural Law and God’s Image

In the Introduction, Van Drunen defines natural law as

the moral order inscribed in the world and especially in human nature, an order that is known to all people through their natural faculties (especially reason and/or conscience) even apart from supernatural divine revelation that binds morally the whole human race. (1)2

“Apart from” is a vague expression. I would reject it if Van Drunen had said that natural law can be rightly used apart from Scripture. But I agree that natural law can be known apart from Scripture. According to Rom. 1 natural law3 is known by people who do not have access to supernatural revelation.

In Chapter 2, Van Drunen expounds the biblical teaching that God is a righteous king and that human beings, made in God’s image, reflect God’s righteousness. We too are kings (Gen. 1:26), and so we are created with a moral character (Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10). Van Drunen jumps too quickly, however, from this premise to the conclusion that we have a natural law within ourselves. He says:

Thus, human nature at the beginning was one of righteousness and holiness, of knowledge of God and himself, of a moral commission to rule over creation in a way imitating God’s rule. The image of God carried along with it a natural law, a law inherent to human nature and directing human beings to fulfill their royal commission in righteousness and holiness. (14)

If this means that the image of God in Adam motivated him toward righteousness and holiness, I have no difficulty. But if it means that this image instructed Adam as to what God wanted him to do, I think more argument is needed. And the reference to “natural law” is legitimate only on the second alternative.

In Gen. 1-3, it is clear that Adam’s moral character was not sufficient to tell him God’s will. Adam received direction from supernatural divine words directed to him, telling him his general responsibility to fill and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28), indicating the sources of his food (verses 29-30), forbidding him to take the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17), convicting him and Eve of sin following the fall (3:9-13) and pronouncing curses, mixed with blessings (3:14-19). In the following narratives, there is a regular pattern of divine words and human responses (in obedience or disobedience).

This is not to deny that human beings gain some knowledge from their created nature. I would not claim that all of Adam’s moral knowledge came from outside himself. For example, God told Adam to be fruitful and multiply. Gen. 1:28 may abbreviate what God actually said to him. But I doubt that God gave him an encyclopedic account of the mechanism of human reproduction. There were certain things that Adam just knew, knowledge that God had created within him and/or enabled him to find out on his own. Similarly, when God commanded Adam to abstain from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam presumably understood what tree God was talking about, the difference between fruit and leaves, and what actions constituted “eating.” Adam knew, in other words, how to apply God’s commands to his own specific decisions. At that specific level, his conscience informed him of what acts were righteous or unrighteous.

And certainly Adam understood his own status as the image of God and the dignity connected with it. He understood from the beginning that other human beings should be treated with honor.

My problem, therefore, is not with Van Drunen’s assertion that the human conscience provides us with moral knowledge. It is rather with Van Drunen’s omission of any significant role for God’s supernatural commands informing his conscience.4 God designed us to gain moral knowledge, not by either supernatural or natural revelation alone, but by an organic combination of the two, in which by reason and conscience we apply God’s supernatural revelation to our lives. Van Drunen entirely ignores the dialogue between God’s speech and man’s response that serves as the essential framework of the biblical story.

 

Natural Law and the Fall

On page 14, Van Drunen begins to discuss the Fall of Adam and its effects on human moral knowledge. He rightly notes that according to Rom. 1 people suppress their natural knowledge of morality and thus “turn their natural knowledge of moral excellence into vile degeneracy” (15). What can stop this course of corruption? Van Drunen here refers to “the absolute necessity of special, biblical revelation for knowing the way of salvation from sin offered in Christ…”

But he also insists that despite this distortion of our ethical knowledge, natural law still has a legitimate role to play. He seeks to show “that natural law continues to exist in the fallen world; that man still knows it, though in a corrupted fashion; and that it continues to have positive usefulness today” (16). I agree for the most part with his argument here.5 I agree that fallen people, according to Rom. 1, continue to bear God’s image and that they continue to know the natural law, which removes all excuses for sin (17). And I liked Van Drunen’s argument for the traditional interpretation of Rom. 2:14-15, that it speaks of the continuance of natural law in the hearts of Gentiles, rather than of saving grace in the hearts of Gentile Christians (18-22). The second interpretation is the choice of a number of modern interpreters, but I think Van Drunen is right.

But I think it remarkable that Van Drunen says nothing more in the book about the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth. Certainly that complicates the role of natural law in providing moral knowledge to human beings. If there is a natural law, but man completely suppresses it, then it does not serve as a guide at all. Evidently the suppression is not absolute, because the passage says that natural law serves as an adequate means of removing excuses. So there is a dynamic relation between true understanding and suppression of that truth. To understand the unbeliever’s moral conscience, we must understand not only his exposure to natural law, but also the paradox of his recognizing it while rebelling against it. Van Drunen seems to be entirely unaware of this complication.

 

Natural Law and the Secular Kingdom

My disagreements with the book become more severe in Chapter 3, “Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms Doctrine.” Van Drunen’s basic position is that natural law is God’s law for “civil” matters, and supernatural revelation is his law for “spiritual” matters. This position, in my judgment, is simply wrong.

Van Drunen’s formulation distinguishes the “civil” kingdom from the “spiritual” kingdom. The civil kingdom

…pertains to temporal, earthly, provisional matters, not matters of ultimate and spiritual importance. For Calvin…, the civil kingdom included matters of politics, law, and cultural life more generally. The ends of the civil kingdom were not salvation and eternal life but a relatively just, peaceful, and orderly existence in the present world in which Christians live as pilgrims away from their heavenly homeland. (24)

The spiritual kingdom

…is also ruled by God, but he rules it not only as creator and sustainer, but also as its redeemer in Christ. This kingdom pertains to things that are of ultimate and spiritual importance…Insofar as this spiritual kingdom has earthly existence, Calvin believed it must be found in the church and not in the state or other temporal institutions. (24)

Van Drunen says,

Although necessarily existing together and having some mutual interaction in this world, these two kingdoms enjoy a great measure of independence so that each can pursue the unique work entrusted to it. (24)

Van Drunen finds this doctrine in some of the church fathers, medieval theologians, Luther and Calvin. The attribution of a two kingdoms doctrine to Calvin is controversial, but I shall not enter the debate here.6 My purpose is to focus on Van Drunen’s exegetical argument.

The distinction Van Drunen tries to make between “religious” and “civil” (let’s just say “secular”) is problematic on many levels, though many have made this distinction an important feature of their theology. Those who reject biblical inerrancy have often argued that the Bible is authoritative in religious, but not secular matters. The same argument has been made with regard to the sufficiency of Scripture.7 Others have made a large effort to distinguish in worship between “religious” and “secular” aspects.8

But plainly this distinction is a theological construction. The Bible itself never enunciates it. And outside Scripture, the definition of “religion” is somewhat ambiguous. Let us consider some possible uses of the term.9 The term can refer to truths about God, as when people distinguish the religious from the secular content of the Bible. This usage can be broad or narrow:

(1) Broadly, “religious” may refer to the sphere in which God is at work. But that sphere is universal. Let us keep in mind that God’s lordship over the universe is comprehensive. It is not over one area as opposed to another. Everything is what it is because of its relation to God. So God is sovereign over everything that happens in the world, since he has created all things and “works all things according to his will” (Eph. 1:11). Not only does God forgive human sin, but he directs the course of nature, counts the hairs on our heads, sees the sparrow fall. Heaven is his throne, the earth his footstool (Isa. 66:1).

(2) A narrower understanding of God’s “religious” activities identifies religion with what God does to restore fallen people to fellowship with him. This seems to be what Van Drunen identifies as the religious “realm.”10 But that sphere, too, is universal. God’s choice of people for salvation begins before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-6). And Rom. 8:28 says that “for those who love God all things work together for good.” Salvation is a cosmic event (Rom. 8:19-23, Col. 1:15-20) in which God deals, not only with sin, with Satan, with the evil angels, and with the curse on creation brought about by sin. To be sure, not all people are saved. But everything that happens in nature and history is part of the story of salvation.

(3) “Religion” can also refer to a set of human duties. Broadly, the term can refer to our fundamental obligation to glorify God. But that too is universal. God’s command in Gen. 1:28 is relevant to all of human life. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should be doing it to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). This broad understanding of human religion corresponds to the universal extent of God’s sovereignty I discussed under (1).

(4) When Van Drunen speaks of human religious duties, he takes them more narrowly than (3). Corresponding somewhat to (2), he takes the term as referring to a certain class of human duties, namely those arising out of our redemption from sin. These would include, I presume, repentance, faith, taking the sacraments, participation in the church, obeying the Great Commission, etc. In Van Drunen’s view, these duties are “religious” as opposed to the duties connected with politics, the arts, science, or general culture. He seems to think these religious duties are only for Christians. But in fact these obligations are universal as well. All people at all times are obligated to believe in Christ and to trust his provision for sin. All people are obligated, therefore, to be Christians. Therefore they are obligated to receive the sacraments, to worship, and to make disciples of all nations. That includes living according to biblical morality. So even on this attempt to define “religion” narrowly, it is impossible to make it less than a universal obligation, or to distinguish some area of human obligation that is not religious. Everyone is obligated to believe in Christ and to love as he loved us (John 13:34-35).

Further, it is evident from Scripture that “religious” issues, even in sense (4), intrude into politics and culture. Evil rulers are people who idolize the state, who build cities to their own glory and not to God’s (Gen. 11:4). The evil cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, Sidon, Capernaum and Bethsaida are those that refuse to worship the true God and honor his law.

If that is true, then it is impossible to define a “realm” that is exclusively religious or nonreligious. There is one realm, the creation, the realm in which God works all things according to his sovereign will and demands that we serve him in all aspects of our lives.

But let us listen to Van Drunen’s attempt to define a secular realm:

Fundamental to this [two kingdoms–JF] doctrine is that fact that while God, in the progress of redemptive history, would choose out of the world a people of his very own, he has also preserved a common, cultural realm in which those who love him and those who do not must live and work together. It is this common realm, consisting of both believers and unbelievers, that constitutes the civil kingdom. (26)

I agree that God intends for believers and unbelievers to live and work together on the earth until the final judgment. And since unbelievers have no part in the church or the people of God, the area in which believers and unbelievers work together is distinct from the church. God enables this common effort to take place by his “common” or non-saving grace. But Scripture never calls this common area a realm or kingdom, as Van Drunen’s two kingdom view does.

The “area of common grace” exists because part of the human race, after the Fall, refused God’s offer of redemptive grace in Gen. 3:15. After Cain killed his brother Abel, he “went away from the presence of the Lord” (4:16) and created a civilization in his own honor, a city named after his own son (Gen. 4:17). The people in this society fell deeper and deeper into sin (Gen. 4-6). God’s end-verdict was,

…the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)

The existence of a Cainite society, separate from the people of God (4:26) was an evil. Van Drunen, by calling this society a “realm,” intends to confer some sort of legitimacy on it. But the development of societies in opposition to God is, according to Scripture, profoundly illegitimate.

This is not to say that everything in Cainite culture was bad. God authorized protection of Cain following his murder of Abel (4:15), and that was a good thing. Music (4:21) and metalworking (4:22) are certainly good activities. But these activities should have been done to the glory of God, within the family of God.

Clearly it is wrong to say that God authorizes or approves the development of culture antagonistic to him, or even culture that claims neutrality. There is no neutrality, as Cornelius Van Til constantly emphasized. Everything we do is either for the glory of God or it is not (1 Cor. 10:31). It either comes from the wisdom of God or the wisdom of the world, and these are antagonistic to one another (1 Cor. 1:20-21). Unbelieving culture exists, and it exists by God’s decree and permission, but not by his precept. He does not approve it.

Van Drunen never considers this sort of argument, and this omission greatly weakens his case for the two kingdoms view. He seems to think that natural law is sufficient to generate societies of sweet reasonableness and peace. Scripture’s view is very different.

 

God’s Covenant with Noah

But we should follow his argument further. He says that the civil realm receives its institutional foundation, in effect, in God’s covenant with Noah (following the flood) in Genesis 9. Van Drunen understands this covenant to be a “covenant of common grace” (27). That is, the covenant is made with the whole human race, indeed every creature, “whether devout or not.” He adds,

Furthermore, Genesis 9 makes it evident that the covenant of common grace regulates temporal, cultural affairs rather than more narrowly religious affairs pertaining to salvation from sin. (27-28)

He concludes,

God has established the civil kingdom in the sinful world, a common realm constituted of all people, whatever their religious commitment, in which temporal affairs of justice, procreation, and cultural development are regulated. These affairs are a common enterprise. (28)

In my view, Van Drunen’s treatment of Gen. 9 (based to be sure on that of Meredith G. Kline) reads far too much into the passage. God’s covenant here is, to be sure, a covenant with all human beings. But at the time, “all human beings” consisted of one family, a believing family, who had embraced God’s promise of deliverance through the ark. There is no specific reference in the passage to unbelievers, or to a secular state, or to “temporal affairs,” or to some system of social organization beyond the family.

Noah’s family was a godly family, every bit as much as was Abraham’s later on. The blessing of preservation given to Noah’s family is a gracious promise, which they received by faith. In Chapter 8:20-22 Noah offers a sacrifice to God, and God’s promise to preserve the earth is a response to the sweet aroma. Was this sacrificial ritual anything other than religious?

Indeed, God’s covenant with Noah is religious through and through, even on the narrowest definitions of “religion.” In the New Testament, the flood is a type of God’s final judgment on sin (Matt. 24:37-39, Heb. 11:7, 1 Pet. 3:20, 2 Pet. 2:5, 3:5-6), and also of the baptism of believers (1 Pet. 3:21). Noah is for us a model of saving faith. By constructing an ark, “he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Heb 11:7). God’s promise to Noah is an encouragement to believers that the apparent delay of Jesus’ return is part of God’s redemptive plan (2 Pet. 3:4-13).

No doubt that as time progresses the promise also benefits nonbelievers. In that sense it is common grace. For that matter, all of God’s covenants bring blessing to the world in general. Believers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16). God’s bringing the elect to repentance delays the judgment on the wicked and thereby benefits them (2 Pet. 3:9).

But God’s covenant with Noah is an administration of God’s redemptive grace, religious through and through, just as those with Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ.

 

God’s Covenant with Abraham

As we have seen, Van Drunen regards God’s covenant with Noah as a covenant of common grace, dealing only with secular or “civil” matters, not spiritual ones. I have tried to show this is an erroneous way of understanding that covenant. Similarly, I think Van Drunen errs when he interprets God’s covenant with Abraham as a covenant dealing only with “religious, redemptive affairs” (29).

He points out that in the Abrahamic covenant, “God ratified his covenant promises with a sacrificial ritual” (29), referring to Gen. 15:12-21. But as I indicated earlier, the same was true in the Noachic covenant (Gen. 8:20-22).

Van Drunen adds that the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision, “symbolized salvation through the shedding of blood,” presumably in contrast with the rainbow as the sign of the Noachic. But as we saw, the rainbow symbolized the postponement of final judgment until the full number of the elect are brought to repentance. The two signs seem to me to be equally religious.

And Van Drunen stresses that the Abrahamic covenant is particularistic: not dealing with all people, but separating one family from the others. But the promise of 12:3 shows that this separation has a universal purpose, that all families of the earth will be blessed. Van Drunen emphasizes that this blessing is only for believing families, not for all human beings. However (1) Noah’s covenant also brings ultimate blessing only to believers, those who survive the judgment. And (2) as with the Noachic covenant, the Abrahamic brings blessings on unbelievers in the time before the final judgment. This fact is clear in the stories Van Drunen cites about Abraham’s relations with local kings and tribes, and from the principle I noted earlier: that the presence of believers in society brings many benefits to unbelievers.

Van Drunen insists that in those encounters between Abraham and the larger society he is

…religiously separate from the world but culturally engaged with the world. When it came to life in society, the civil kingdom, Abraham lived according to the idea of commonality established in the Noachic covenant of common grace. When it came to his religious life and eternal hope in the spiritual kingdom, Abraham lived according to the idea of particularity established in the covenant of grace. (29-30).

Here Van Drunen takes for granted his earlier interpretation of the Noachic Covenant, which I countered earlier. But even granting that, what does Van Drunen mean by “living according to the idea of commonality established in the Noachic Covenant” as distinguished from “living according to the idea of particularity?” Van Drunen described the Noachic Covenant as “secular” and “civil.” But he did not indicate anything in the Noachic covenant that required a particular way of life. And in fact there is nothing of that sort in the Noachic covenant. Gen. 9 authorizes Noah to eat meat, to punish violence and murder, and to be fruitful and multiply. In my view, these precepts (except possibly the first) antedated the Noachic Covenant. In any case, the covenant does not establish anything like a secular, civil, or “commonality” lifestyle.

Further, it is odd to suggest that the particularity of the Abrahamic covenant is somehow in tension with Abraham’s cooperation with people outside the covenant. Van Drunen knows this, but he seems to think that such cooperation requires a nonreligious covenant principle of some sort. On the contrary, God’s redemptive revelation teaches believers precisely to live at peace with all men (Heb. 12:14) and to recognize the authority of rulers regardless of their religion (Rom. 13:1-7).

 

God’s Covenant With Israel Under Moses

In the time of the Israelite theocracy, Van Drunen says,

Instead of mingling with unbelieving nations in cultural endeavors, God’s people were now commanded to exterminate the pagans within the nation’s borders (e.g., Deut. 7:1-5). The principle of commonality in cultural matters that was established in the Noachic covenant was set aside here. (30-31)

Certainly there are times in which peaceful cooperation is the rule, and other times in which the antithesis between belief and unbelief comes to the fore. These times, however, are determined by God’s supernatural revelation, not by general “principles” of commonality or antithesis. For one thing, the antithesis between Israel and the Canaanite nations is not simply an antithesis between belief and unbelief. Israel is to exterminate the nations occupying the land, but it is not to exterminate non-Israelite “sojourners” that pass through. Indeed, the law protects sojourners (Ex. 12:49, Lev. 19:33, Num. 9:14). The purpose of the conquest is to remove unbelieving culture, so that it may not tempt Israelites to be unfaithful to God. It is not to kill all individual unbelievers just because they are unbelievers, because they deserve God’s judgment. In that respect, the conquest is not a type of God’s eschatological judgment, though in many other ways it is an apt illustration of it.

So Israel’s conquest of Canaan is not well described as a “setting aside” of a “principle of commonality.” As we have seen, there was no principle of commonality enunciated in the Noachic covenant. And peaceful coexistence with unbelievers is generally characteristic of redemptive covenants, except when God says otherwise.

This observation is relevant to Van Drunen’s larger thesis about natural law. The believer’s relation to unbelievers is ultimately governed by God’s supernatural revelation, not natural law. Natural law is incapable of making the distinctions needed. In this case, it is incapable of telling us that believers should peacefully coexist with unbelievers in situation A, but not in situation B.

So the situations Van Drunen mentions in which David, Solomon, and others coexist with pagan kings and appreciate their cultures do not require a two kingdoms view of things. There is one kingdom, and God our king tells us when, where, how, and how much to participate in pagan culture.

 

The New Covenant Under Christ

Van Drunen says that under the New Covenant the “principle of commonality” prevails (32-35). Certainly Jesus and the Apostles do not call believers to conquer unbelievers with the sword asIsrael conquered Canaan.11 Rather, they call us to be subject to the rulers the world ( Rom. 13:1) and to respect prevailing customs, except where these entail sin (1 Cor. 10:27-30, etc.). But again, as with previous covenants, the distinctive standards of the new covenant are given by supernatural revelation. They are not the result of some theological extrapolation of general principles such as “religious” vs. “secular.”

 

Natural Law in the Civil Kingdom

After distinguishing the spiritual from the civil kingdoms, Van Drunen proceeds to argue the role of natural law in each of these spheres. Since I have rejected the spiritual/civil distinction, I will not be able to endorse Van Drunen’s conclusions in these sections.

Van Drunen argues that “in a certain sense, Scripture is not the appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom” (38). Why? He argues,

Biblical morality is characterized by an indicative-imperative structure. That is, all of its imperatives (moral commands) are proceeded (sic) by and grounded in indicatives (statements of fact), either explicitly or implicitly. The most important indicative that grounds the imperatives in Scripture is that the recipients of Scripture are the covenant people, that is, members of the community of the covenant of grace. (39)

Since membership in the civil kingdom is not limited to believers, the imperatives of Scripture do not bind members of that kingdom. These imperatives are not “directly applicable to non-Christians” (40).

To respond: The indicative-imperative structure is not the only ground of ethics in Scripture, nor the most ultimate one. The ultimate ground is the character of God, in whose image we are made (as Van Drunen indicated on 12-14). We are to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 11:44-45, 1 Pet. 1:15-16, compare Matt. 5:48).

The next highest ground of morality is the creation ordinances that God gave to Adam and Eve before the fall: labor, marriage, Sabbath. These bind people as people, not as members of any redemptive covenant.12 I believe that the Decalogue is largely a republication of creation ordinances applied to Israel’s situation as they approached the land of promise.

If by “ground” we mean “motivation for ethical behavior,”13 then Van Drunen is correct to call our attention to God’s redemptive acts as grounding our obedience, e.g., “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). But there are other motivations. One is simply the fact that God has commanded us to do something, e.g. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:9). Another (also in Josh. 1:9) is God’s promise to accompany us when we obey: “for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Compare Matt. 28:20, where Jesus promises to be with his disciples as they make disciples in all nations.14

Are any of these grounds or motivations available to unbelievers? Yes and no. Unbelievers as well as believers ought to appeal to the character of God and to the creation ordinances, because they are human beings. Unbelievers have no right, as unbelievers, to appeal to God’s redemptive acts and presence; but they ought to become believers, so that they can make this appeal. Given that condition, unbelievers as well as believers should make their ethical decisions based on God’s redemptive acts, his commands, and his presence. The whole Bible, in other words, is God’s standard for all people, believers and unbelievers alike. God has not ordained separate ethics for believers and unbelievers. All human beings are subject to the same standard and ought to be motivated in the same way.

Following his discussion of ethical standard and ground, Van Drunen counsels us to limit our expectations for the civil kingdom. He says, “This perspective gives us no reason to expect the attainment of paradise on earth” (40). This is somehow related to the fact (41) that “life in the present world is one of suffering and hardship and that true peace and justice is attained only in the age to come.” Certainly Scripture tells us that believers must endure suffering in this world, and the texts Van Drunen mentions are to the point.

But I don’t quite understand what that has to do with the two kingdom theory, or the nature of the civil kingdom, or natural law, or the ground of ethical obligation. Nobody to my knowledge argues that it is possible to attain paradise on earth.15 And whether one holds Van Drunen’s view of the two kingdoms, or mine, or some other’s has little to do with the amount of suffering on earth one expects to encounter. I suspect that Van Drunen is importing an eschatological position into the book at this point, amillennialism, for which he has not laid biblical groundwork in the book. In my own view, there is both suffering and blessing for believers in the present world (though no “paradise on earth”). The actual balance between these is best seen in Mark 10:29-31.

Following this parenthesis, Van Drunen presents three biblical ideas that seem to him to indicate an important role for natural law in the civil kingdom. The first is entitled “Things That Should Not Be Done” (42). This refers to the ethical perception of the pagan king Abimelech in his controversy with Abraham in Gen. 20. Abimelech tells Abraham that Abraham has done things that should not be done. Similarly the pagan king in confrontation with Jacob in Gen. 34:7. These pagan kings do not appeal to Scripture texts, but to something like a natural order.

As indicated earlier, I do not question Van Drunen’s assertion that there is such a thing as natural law, that pagans can know important truths apart from Scripture. However, (a) I do think here as earlier that Van Drunen gives too little attention to the possibility that this knowledge is linked to God’s creation ordinances transmitted from generation to generation. But I readily agree that some ethical knowledge may be innate and some is gained from the creation itself (Rom. 1:20). (b) I do not agree that this natural knowledge bears some special relation to a “civil kingdom” that is nonreligious.16 There is no indication of such a context in Gen. 20 and 34 and certainly not in Rom. 1.

The second idea Van Drunen mentions is “The Fear of God” (45-49). Van Drunen claims that this phrase reveals a nonreligious civil morality. But the phrase itself, in which God’s name appears, raises a large presumption against such an interpretation. Van Drunen admits at points in this discussion that his understanding is tentative. The phrase often occurs in Scripture to indicate “the most sincere and genuine piety,” as Van Drunen admits (46). I don’t doubt that the phrase can be used in other ways and may indicate a more general sense of accountability to God. But certainly it is not a nonreligious or secular expression. Most likely it is based on a tradition passed down from ancestors who were true believers. Van Drunen’s attempt to secularize it is not persuasive at all.

The third principle that Van Drunen ascribes to natural law in the civil kingdom is “a common humanity” (49-54). Here he mentions people outside the redemptive covenants such as Job, who believed that he “could not treat (his servants) in just any way he wished” (50). Van Drunen gives other examples of this principle, but I don’t find in any of them evidence of a civil or nonreligious morality. The passage Van Drunen quotes from Job is this one:

If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me, what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15)

But this moral sentiment is profoundly theistic. To call it nonreligious is to my mind absurd.17

It is also strange (and the strangeness pertains to all three of Van Drunen’s examples) that Van Drunen makes no reference to the unbelievers’ suppression of the truth that Paul describes so clearly in Rom. 1:18-32. Van Drunen mentions that earlier in the book (17), but in these discussions of the positive value of natural law he seems to have forgotten it entirely. Surely one can’t give an adequate account of the value of natural law, to say nothing of the nature of our “common humanity,” without any reference to the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth. I would not say that this suppression contradicts everything Van Drunen has said about the positive value of natural law. In Paul’s discussion, the natural law does provide a standard of conduct and leaves people without excuse. The sinner cannot suppress the truth so completely that it has no influence on him. Van Drunen might have developed his view of natural law by analyzing this paradox, the combination of truth and falsity in the sinner’s mentality. That would have been a valuable discussion. Unfortunately he chose instead to ignore the whole issue and to treat natural law as a straightforward, practical revelation about all things secular.

 

Natural Law in the Spiritual Kingdom

In the last major section of the book, Van Drunen seeks to show how natural law operates within the spiritual kingdom—that is, how it is relevant for believers. In the first section, “Natural Law and the Renewal of the Image of God,” he argues that since redemption renews us in the image of God, and since he has earlier correlated the image of God with natural law, therefore, “The present, earthly existence of the spiritual kingdom cannot be at odds with that good creation and its natural law; it far transcends them” (57). This is formulated rather vaguely. I guess Van Drunen is saying that natural law tells us about the earthly creation we are to transcend through redemption, and that that knowledge is somehow valuable. I’m not sure I understand his point.

In “Biblical Ethics and the Natural World,” Van Drunen mentions analogies between nature and morality, particularly in the wisdom literature. Prov. 26:1 says, “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, honor is not fitting for a fool” (58). There are other correlations between human and animal behavior, etc. I have no objections to any of this. In fact, I find it amusing and edifying. But I find nothing here to validate Van Drunen’s two kingdom focus. Precisely the same points can be made by people who think there is only one kingdom. These references to nature merely show the vast extent of the single kingdom in which God rules.

Same for “Biblical Ethics and the Ethics of the World,” where Van Drunen mentions implicit and explicit biblical commendations of pagan morality. He mentions, indeed, the possible dependence of biblical laws and wisdom sayings on those from pagan lands. Again, I see nothing here to contest, except that again he ignores the suppression of the truth among these pagan sages. And there is nothing here that verifies Van Drunen’s general theses about the two kingdoms.

It is interesting, though, that when he cites biblical dependence on pagan morality, he contradicts what he said earlier. Recall that on p. 39 he argued that in Scripture the ground of morality is the indicatives of God’s saving acts. There he intended to contrast Scripture with natural law, to show that Scripture is not a proper standard for the civil kingdom. But here he says that Scripture appeals to pagan wisdom, even natural law itself. These appeals are not appeals to God’s redemptive acts. Indeed, they refute the idea that Scripture and natural law are radically different in their grounding and motivations.

 

Conclusion

To repeat, I am convinced that there is such a thing as natural law. But I am not at all convinced of Van Drunen’s (or anyone else’s) distinction between religious and secular kingdoms, and I do not see any reason to limit the use of Scripture to the religious kingdom as Van Drunen suggests. Scripture is God’s word, and God’s word is the foundation of morality. When we want to draw people, believers or unbelievers, to that foundation, we should be unashamed to refer to Scripture. I grant that there are many cultural forces telling us not to refer to Scripture in the public square. But we should not listen to them. The attempt of Van Drunen and others to convince us not to apply Scripture to civil matters is a failure.18

I do not deny the importance of other distinctions that are sometimes related to these. I am not saying, for example, that church and state are identical. The distinction between these is evident: in brief, the church does not bear the sword, and the state does not administer the sacraments. Nor is there any need to turn our cultural activities into churches, as by restricting our art to gospel tracts. But good art will be art that recognizes the comprehensive lordship of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t imply that there are distinctively Christian and non-Christian brush strokes. It does imply that a Christian artist should not be mistaken for a secular nihilist, or Muslim, or new-age Monist. But given these distinctions, we should confess that culture is Jesus’ culture. To paraphrase Kuyper, as Jesus looks at our culture, he will always say, “Mine!!”

But the distinction between church and state, or Christ and culture, cannot be helpfully understood by the two kingdoms scheme. Civil culture and redemption are both under God’s sovereignty, and under the authority of his infallible word.

And natural law itself is profoundly religious. That is perfectly evident from Rom. 1:18-32, arguably the fundamental text on natural law. There, natural law gives a clear knowledge of God—not just morality, certainly not some secular civil morality—but God himself. Natural law clearly reveals God’s own nature and attributes (verse 20). It even leads to a personal knowledge of God: not just knowing facts about him, but knowing him (verse 20). The suppression of natural law leads to idolatry (21-25), perhaps the most religious of all sins. That idolatry leads in turn to sexual (26-27) and every other kind of sin (28-31). To call this morality “secular” or “merely civil” profoundly misses its intent.

As a treatment of natural law itself, apart from the two-kingdoms construction, Van Drunen’s book ignores the most important issues: (a) The unbeliever’s suppression of the truth of natural law, which Van Drunen mentions on p. 17 and then ignores through the rest of the book. He never struggles with the problem of how natural law can function as a practical standard of human life, when people inevitably suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

(b) The difficulty of arguing ethical issues from natural law. People often say that it is difficult to argue ethical issues from Scripture in a society that does not honor Scripture’s authority. But it is even more difficult to argue from natural law. For natural law is not a written text. Even though it is objectively valid, there is no way of gaining public agreement as to what it says as long as we simply exchange opinions about what natural law says. For example, when people argue from natural law that abortion is wrong, they are essentially pitting their intuitions against the intuitions of others (intuitions which, when true, are often suppressed). Often such arguments are naturalistic fallacies, arguments from “is” to “ought:’ e.g., unborn children are genetically unique organisms, therefore we ought not to kill them. Arguments from Scripture are not problematic in this way.

And (c), granted that supernatural revelation is compatible with natural law in a two-kingdoms context, is there any sense in which supernatural revelation, Scripture, is sufficient for God’s glory and for our faith and life? Van Drunen gives us no reason to think that it is.

 


1 Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6.

2 I believe the last clause, “that binds morally…” is intended to describe the moral order = natural law, rather than its nearest antecedent (“supernatural divine revelation”). I think that to make this clear Van Drunen should have put a comma after “revelation.” Or, better, he should have put a period after “revelation,” then written “This moral order binds…”

3 I usually prefer to speak of ”natural revelation” rather than “natural law,” to avoid some of the problematics I shall discuss in this review. But I agree that natural revelation contains moral content (as, e.g., in Rom. 1:32), so the phrase “natural law” can be used appropriately. I will use it in this review to accommodate Van Drunen’s terminology.

4 In a footnote on 14, he does qualify his account by saying that this natural law does not give “exhaustive moral guidance.” But the lacuna in natural law is not filled by supernatural revelation. It is rather filled by human freedom: “It is probably best to say that natural law provides a general framework in which the moral life should be lived, but that royal image-bearers have a significant degree of freedom within that framework to exercise dominion over the earth in ways appropriate in different contexts.” I agree with Van Drunen that God’s law (whether supernatural or natural) allows such scope for free choice. Not every action is commanded or prohibited. But I still have found nothing in Van Drunen’s account about the place of supernatural revelation in the life of our unfallen first parents.

5 I disagree with his view that Gen. 9:6 is concerned with “a system of civil justice” (16). But that issue will come up more appropriately at a later point.

6 For some who have taken issue with Van Drunen here, see Jason Lief, “Is Neo-Calvinism Calvinist? A Neo-Calvinist Engagement of Calvin’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ Doctrine,” Pro Rege 27.3 (Mar., 2009), 1-12. Van Drunen has also argued the very implausible position that Abraham Kuyper held a two kingdoms view, in “Abraham Kuyper and the Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Tradition.” Calvin Theological Journal 42 (2007): 283-307. But to the contrary see Timothy P. Palmer, “The Two-Kingdom Doctrine: A Comparative Study of Martin Luther and Abraham Kuyper,” Pro Rege 27.3 (Mar., 2009), 13-25.

7 I have responded to this view of the sufficiency of Scripture in my Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 156-75.

8 In Reformed discussions over the “regulative principle of worship,” this is the distinction between “elements” (religious) and “circumstances” (nonreligious). But on this see ibid., 464-481, especially 472-3.

9 I ignore the use of “religion” by Karl Barth and some others, to designate human self-righteousness. I think that is a misuse of a perfectly good word.

10 So far as I can tell, Van Drunen never defines the religious, or the secular either, though he does attempt to define the religious and secular realms in a rough sort of way. But his failure to define religious and secular makes his definitions of the respective realms problematic. In attributing definitions to him here, I am extrapolating inductively from what he says about the realms.

11 There is a spiritual warfare, though, and that is not merely a metaphor. See, e.g., Eph. 6:10-20.

12 I cannot take time to discuss this in detail, but I am perplexed that Van Drunen’s book says nothing about the creation ordinances. For one thing, much of what we call “natural law” may well be based on oral and written transmission of creation ordinances to all nations, in which case natural law is the product of supernatural revelation. Van Drunen should have addressed this possibility, as a challenge to his own understanding of natural law. In any case, the existence of creation ordinances reinforces the picture I have presented, that God never intended us to make moral decisions apart from his spoken words to us.

13 Van Drunen should have clarified the meaning of the term ground, since he gives such weight to the idea.

14 For more on ethical grounds and motivations, see Doctrine of the Christian Life, 19-37, 131-382.

15 Postmillennialists believe that believers over many years can bring about a widely-dispersed saving knowledge of God together with some measure of earthly prosperity. But even they generally distinguish that prosperity from that of Heaven and from the New Heavens and New Earth.

16 The phrase “some special relation” indicates my unclarity as to just how Van Drunen understands their relation to a “civil kingdom” in these passages.

17 Further, there is no indication here that Job gained this moral insight from nature rather than from a tradition of supernatural revelation.

18 There may, to be sure, be times and places where reference to Scripture texts is rhetorically counterproductive. It may even be desirable at those times to make use of arguments commonly associated with natural law. But we must be clear that whatever our rhetoric, our purpose must be to bring nothing less than the standards of Scripture to bear on society.