Natural Law and Christians in the Public Square

David VanDrunen
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Mar/Apr 2006

How should Christians make arguments about moral and political issues in the public square? How can believers persuade unbelievers about matters of abortion, homosexual marriage, cloning, or war? Christians in democratic societies, along with their fellow citizens, enjoy remarkable opportunities to participate in the political process, but many find this a frustrating experience. Freedom to participate in the political process entails the responsibility to discuss, debate, and compromise with those who hold sometimes very different views on all sorts of moral and social issues. When Christians disagree with other Christians about theological matters, they typically, and rightly, turn to Scripture in order to persuade each other. But when Christians face a moral impasse in the public square, what is the proper way to proceed in order to attain some measure of agreement among the different parties? In this article, I point to the idea of natural law as an answer to this question.

Why Natural Law?

This answer may surprise many readers, so before discussing a couple of specific controversial issues, abortion and cloning, a few general remarks about natural law are in order. Natural law is the moral revelation that God gives in creation itself. Romans 1:18-32 speaks of things that may be known of God from creation, including a great deal of moral knowledge. Romans 2:14-15 speaks of the law of God being written on people's hearts, such that even those without access to the law revealed in Scripture are held accountable to God through their consciences. Many prominent Christian theologians have identified natural law as the standard for civil law and government, including not only medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas but also reformers such as John Calvin. Thus, acknowledging the importance of natural law is neither unbiblical nor foreign to historic Christian theology.

The topic of natural law, however, is very large, and I can only touch on a few of the relevant issues. In what follows, I will be making a few assumptions that there is no space here to try to prove. Perhaps most importantly, I assume that we live in a religiously pluralistic world and that we will continue to do so until Christ returns. God has not established a theocracy in the world today, nor does he will that Christians try to set up a theocracy by their own efforts. Rather, Christians must live in a religiously pluralistic world and work within these constraints, as difficult as that may be.

When we as Christians come into contact with unbelievers, we eagerly proclaim Scripture's message of salvation to them, with hopes that they will submit to that message and believe in Christ. But even if they do not, we must still deal with them respectfully as fellow citizens with whom we share a common life in the public square. Is it possible to have genuine moral interaction with them on matters of political or social concern, even if they will not accept the authority of Scripture's teaching? Since we are called to live at peace with all people as far as possible (Rom. 12:18), this is undoubtedly an important question.

Here is one area in which natural law becomes a helpful resource. When appealing to natural law, believers need not feel that they are compromising their Christian convictions, for natural law is authoritative and true; it is part of God's own revelation, after all. Neither need Christians fear that they are appealing to a standard that is unknown or foreign to unbelievers; God has inscribed the natural law on the heart of every person (Rom. 2:14-15), and all people know the basic requirements of God's law, even if they suppress that knowledge (Rom. 1:19, 21, 32). Most every unbeliever, in fact, accepts the truth of at least some aspects of the natural law. True, they do not accept it for what it really is, the revelation of the living and triune God. But most people, when pressed, would admit that acts such as murder, stealing, and lying are immoral, and they themselves generally avoid such actions. Most people would also claim that law and government exist to protect people against those who would kill, rob, or defraud them.

The fact that most unbelievers, though refusing to worship the true God, still to some significant extent acknowledge and live by the truth of his law as it is known by nature is something for which Christians can be very grateful. Because of this, societies generally retain some degree of order and justice. And it provides Christians with the opportunity to engage unbelievers in genuine moral dialogue on issues of public policy. But how exactly does one make arguments from natural law and thus put it to use in the public square?

Arguing from Natural Law

In answering this question, we should not ask more of natural law than it can provide. Natural law certainly does not reveal to the conscience a detailed public policy. We would do better to begin by affirming that natural law teaches the basics of God's moral law, and hence provides a framework for thinking about law and public policy, from which framework people in the exercise of wisdom should develop particular laws and policies in response to particular situations.

Christians and non-Christians alike through history have offered a variety of so-called "natural law" arguments, some better than others. Christians should generally be skeptical of arguments that rest upon simple appeal to what is or feels "natural." Though it may be true, for example, that the natural affection that most parents have for their children is evidence of the law of God still written on all people's hearts, the presence of sin in the world has produced many sinful desires in all people that, at least at times, feel just as "natural." Natural law cannot be defined in terms of what most people feel is natural most of the time. For Christians, it would seem most helpful to begin not with the feelings of sinful human beings, but with that which Scripture teaches is revealed in the natural law. A passage such as Romans 1:29-32 shows clearly that sins such as disobedience to parents, murder, adultery, theft, and lying are violations of natural law that all people, at some level, know. Christians may be confident that appealing to people's natural knowledge of these things is valid and legitimate, even when unbelievers deny these truths and when believers themselves do not know exactly how to turn such appeals into good arguments.

If unbelievers deny outright that acts such as murder and theft are wrong, there is very little Christians can do except note the utter impossibility of civil life under such assumptions. As noted above, however, most people do not deny this. It seems to me that one of the best ways for Christians to make natural law arguments is to begin with these general truths that most people would not dispute and then attempt to show, by use of wisdom and appeals to common sense, how more particular or controversial actions would or would not be consistent with these general moral truths. In other words, by arguing that particular actions are wrong because they tend to promote killing or stealing (which most people admit are bad things), or by arguing that particular actions are right because they tend to promote life or the protection of property (which most people admit are good things), one may construct natural law arguments that have a certain chance for effectiveness. I do not believe that there is any foolproof way of making persuasive natural law arguments, but if we do attempt to make such arguments in a careful and civil way, by God's grace we may make some progress toward moving society in a more just direction.

Natural Law and Abortion

We may now consider how natural law can be helpful to Christians by considering two concrete, controversial issues, abortion and human cloning. Abortion has been one of the most hotly debated topics in public policy for several decades now, and the disputes show little sign of waning. For many Christians, it seems clear that abortion is immoral and should be illegal, based on biblical passages that demonstrate God's creation and care of children in the womb (e.g., Ps. 139:13-16) and that indicate that unborn children deserve legal protection (Exod. 21:22-25). Yet the so-called pro-choice camp responds by claiming that abortion ought to be legal in order to protect women's reproductive and privacy rights. Does natural law provide any helpful considerations for this debate?

As observed above, nearly everyone, at some level, believes that life is valuable and therefore that lethal violence against others should be prohibited by law. Most people would also agree that this applies, perhaps especially, to those who are weak and unable to defend themselves. Based upon such convictions, people today overwhelmingly condemn infanticide as a terrible crime. Beginning from this widespread acknowledgement of natural law truth, we could attempt to show how these proper moral sentiments are inconsistent with a pro-choice abortion position.

To do so, we might imagine a newborn infant and then begin moving the clock backwards on his young life. As we envision his life in reverse, an appropriate question to ask is at what point something radical happens to this child to change his status from one of personhood, deserving full legal protection of his life, to one of non-personhood, unprotected from the one who would snuff out his life. What we observe as the clock runs backwards is that the development of this child is continuous, without a drastic, radical event to distinguish clearly one stage of life from another. Birth itself is surely not such an event, for there is no perceptible change in the child from just before his birth to just after it. Neither is the transition between one trimester and another such an event. Neither is there any sudden, identifiable point at which "viability" outside the womb may be defined (and this is all the more true as medical technology progresses). The only event that may be fairly identified as constituting a drastic, radical change from one sort of thing to another is conception, when a full set of 46 chromosomes and genetic uniqueness are established where neither existed before. Pointing to any other time as the moment at which a fetus changes status in regard to his right to life is arbitrary. Based upon the social consensus that infanticide is immoral, then, a compelling argument can be made, based upon observation of the natural process of fetal development, that life should be protected from conception on.

What about the objection that there ought to be a right of privacy for a woman's body and reproductive decisions? A couple of considerations might be noted briefly. First, based upon the argument above, there is not one body (the woman's) to be respected here, but two, and there is no compelling argument that the life of one can be sacrificed to the convenience of the other. Second, as important as individual and family privacy is in general, it does not justify infanticide or child abuse done in secret. The argument above suggests that there is no morally significant difference between a child born and unborn, and hence also that there is no morally significant difference between private infanticide and private abortion.

Natural Law and Cloning

A second concrete issue to consider is human cloning. While this issue has not grabbed public attention and stirred emotions to the extent that abortion has, it is an issue that promises to become increasingly relevant and heated in the years to come. Most Christians probably feel an instinctive revulsion to the idea of a cloned human being, but why? Scripture does not address the issue in any direct way. Once again, natural law considerations may help us to work through this issue and articulate moral concerns in the public square that others may understand and appreciate.

As in our consideration of abortion, we might approach this issue by beginning from certain natural law truths that nearly all people, to some extent, acknowledge. Despite the assault on the nature of the family that arises from certain quarters of contemporary culture, most people still recognize the unique, natural, morally rich relationship that exists between parents and children. They acknowledge that parents have certain responsibilities to provide for and train their children, and that children have certain responsibilities to submit to their parents' authority. Most people also acknowledge the important, though clearly different, natural relationship between siblings. They acknowledge that siblings have moral obligations to love and respect each other, without a relationship of authority existing between them.

Beginning with these shared convictions, we might ask what sort of condition a person produced by cloning would find herself in. She would certainly have no normal identity as a daughter and sister. What relationship would she have with the woman from whom she was cloned? In a certain very real sense, she is her mother. Yet, in a strictly genetic sense, she is her identical twin, and therefore her sister. Is the cloned person to treat as a mother a person who is her sister genetically? Or is she to treat as a sister one who decided to bring her into existence by replicating herself? The scenario seems hopelessly confusing. The natural bonds of mother-daughter and sister-sibling (not to mention the troubling removal of any father from the picture), which most people today still recognize as vital for establishing a person's identity and stability in life, are twisted beyond ordinary recognition. One of the revolting aspects of incest is the possibility that a person could become simultaneously the parent and grandparent (or, father and uncle, etc.) of a child, with all of the tragedy and confusion that such a scenario creates for the parties involved, especially for the child. Human cloning produces a scenario even more bizarre.

This is, of course, only one natural law argument among many that might be made in regard to cloning. But it gives some indication, I hope, that natural law arguments may provide some significant grounds for questioning, in the public square, the propriety of cloning a human being.


In this essay, I have suggested that as Christians go into the public square and take up their responsibility of interacting with unbelievers for the sake of civil peace and cultural progress, natural law provides an important and helpful resource. Christians certainly should not be over-confident in their appeals to natural law. Even when we make good natural law arguments, unbelievers will often reject them (as they reject arguments from Scripture). Nevertheless, appealing to natural law allows us to interact with the world at large without acting as if being a Christian and submitting to Scripture is a prerequisite for participation in the public square. It is a way of showing to others and reminding ourselves that our social views are not simply private, Christian opinions, but ought to be relevant and applicable for all people. Appealing to natural law is, in short, a means for moving forward in social matters in a way that both treats all people with civility and respect and also seeks to advance truth and justice.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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