Thomas Goodwin’s Christocentric Natural Law

Timon Cline
Friday, December 3rd 2021

Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) is most often studied for his contribution to congregational ecclesiology as one of the Dissenting Brethren, though Mark Jones has made his Christology a source of interest lately and Joel Beeke often sings his praises. Rarely, if ever, mentioned is Goodwin’s theory of natural law, which is surprising given the close relation between ecclesiology and natural law in the seventeenth century.

Goodwin’s rather dispersed treatment of natural law will be of interest to evangelicals for two reasons. First, he demonstrates the appropriate skepticism when considering the natural law in ethics and epistemology. That is, he fully and eagerly acknowledges the existence and operation of natural law in rather traditional fashion but not at the expense of a Protestant orthodox realism of man’s fallen existence. In this way, Goodwin urges evangelicals to fearlessly affirm natural law and its real, perennial effect and presence. It is not tantamount to denying the effects of sin, noetic and otherwise. Nor does it cede salvific, sanctifying knowledge to the natural, unregenerate man. Goodwin, ever a quirky and creative theologian, is both more confident of natural law’s presence and perseverance and less glowing about man’s fallen condition than most Protestants today. Perhaps, this will satisfy some evangelicals who are skeptical of natural law’s (rightful and welcome) resurgence in their circles—but I won’t hold my breath. Lamentably, natural theology in general continues to attract evangelical ire.

Second, and following from the first point, Goodwin presents a uniquely Christocentric formulation of natural law in terms of his attribution (as to its epistemological source) of natural law (i.e., republication) post-fall. Unlike his contemporaries (and most before him), Goodwin insisted that none of Adam’s natural knowledge survived the fall—this is necessitated by the combination of Goodwin’s supralapsarianism and view of the covenant of works. For him, post-fall knowledge must not be only quantitatively distinct, as most everyone would affirm, but also qualitatively distinct, which garnered less contemporary support. By contrast, the standard narrative acknowledged the noetic and ethical effects of the fall and, therefore, held that the natural moral knowledge was greatly reduced and dimmed in Adam’s progeny; and further that not all people comprehend it equally. Enter the necessity of its more stable republication in Scripture (see Aquinas, Summa 1.1).

Goodwin affirmed all of this except the belief that, as stated, anything at all survived the fall. Because he viewed Adam’s knowledge in the covenant of works to be ultimately salvific and sanctifying, none of that knowledge could be available to lapsarian man, else the necessity of the gospel suffers. Accordingly, Goodwin answered the republication question somewhat differently. In addition to its Scriptural attestation, Goodwin uniquely attributed the republication function to the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, relying on a reading of John’s Prologue well-represented in the exegetical tradition. Goodwin’s supralapsarian assumptions led to a unique formulation of certain aspects of natural law insofar as he considered questions of source and function that others did not and determined that Christ is the purveyor and guardian of natural law in man, a work of “common mediation.”

Given Goodwin’s sizeable corpus, and that any mention of natural law was sporadic and never centralized, we will concentrate on one text here, The Work of the Holy Ghost in Our Salvation.

True Religion and Its Pretender

Goodwin’s central concern in this rather lengthy work is to distinguish true, sanctifying grace from its counterfeit, that which is merely natural. The latter comprises an admittedly true but unregenerate and, therefore, limited understanding. It is religion unrefined by grace unto saving faith.

Goodwin identifies two principles of religion, faith and conscience:

the object matter of all religion is reduced to credenda and agenda, so the principles within us are answerably thus generally expressed by these two, faith and conscience. Faith looks upward to the things of the gospel, and takes in all supernatural truths, with application to a man’s soul. Conscience looks both inward, to our own actings [sic] within; and outward, to the law or rule which is to guide us.

The rule of the conscience is connected to the covenant of works and, in turn, faith (“the inlet or receptive of the dominion of grace”) with the covenant of grace, such that the latter does not destroy the former but perfects it, elevating the conscience to its proper activity with full knowledge. He who is only under the dominion of conscience is under the curse of the law. The principle of conscience is purely natural but the principle of faith is supernatural. To the same end, Goodwin situates Romans 2:14-15 and Jeremiah 31:31-33 in opposition to one another, distinguishing between these two principles and conditions: the law written on the heart by nature and the law (re)written in the “inward parts” as the “proper fruit of the covenant of grace.”

Mentioned already is that the conscience is a necessary but insufficient principle of true religion (i.e., when it is unregenerate). Goodwin does not seek to diminish its power and significance, only its sufficiency. “This faculty is the Zion or Tower of David in the soul, from whence the law goes forth to the outmost ends thereof… the great officer of state, betrusted with the executive power of [the] law, to see it done and performed.” For this demonstration, Goodwin invokes Plato, Seneca, Epictetus, Hierocles, Tully, and Marcus Antoninus, all of whom variously referred to this faculty as synonymous with right reason (recta ratio), or “the practical part of reason in the mind, which guides a man in his actions according to the eternal law of God.” Hence, “to obey God, and to live according to right reason, were all one.” John Selden (1584-1654), the Erastian jurist, Hebraist, polymath, (and then Chrysostom) is recruited by Goodwin to affirm this tradition consistent in the main with Christian formulation of the conscience faculty, if in inchoate form:

Conscience is that only principle in a man, under whose cognizance comes all that hath the notion of what is morally good or evil, and which with one and the same eye vieweth [sic] a rule or law forbidding evil or commanding good; and together therewith do we take a glance of God, as the supreme judge, giving that law, and backing it with threatenings [sic] or promises of rewards.

Conscience, as Hierocles put it, says Goodwin, is “the suscipient [i.e., recipient] of the divine laws…. It is communis intelligentia… as Cicero speaks.” It is the rule of right reason and the judge of all action unto God and between men. Here, Goodwin is clearly in step with what William Ames and others before him had held, viz., that the conscience is not the source, so to speak, of the natural law; it does not contain it. That function is performed by the synderesis, the “storehouse” of the natural law which cannot be diminished or corrupted, whereas the conscience as the judging faculty of practical reason consults the natural law to inform its judgments. It is in this application, judging process that man runs into problems insofar as his conscience can be seared and his adherence to practical reason corrupted:

And by the way, let me add this, that those that say there is no use of the moral law to a Christian, may as well say that there is no more use of that faculty of conscience in the soul of a Christian. Put out that faculty out of man’s heart, if you tear out that other, namely, the obliging part of the law. Even as if God would annul colours and light, he must also take away and close up the sense of sight.

The conscience is decidedly good and so is the moral law it apprehends and judges in accordance with. It is a powerful faculty that can achieve much and “yet fall short of the glory of God.” This deficiency, in fact, serves “thereby more to magnify [God’s] sanctifying grace.”

Goodwin distinguishes between a conscience truly sanctified by grace and a conscience merely enlightened. The latter possesses an improvement and yet falls short of grace. This enlightenment is a supernatural work of God and yet lacks the “infusing of a new habit, or spiritualizing [of] that faculty.” But it is only via a true, saving work of grace that the conscience is fully enlarged via “a supernatural light of things revealed in the gospel.” The difference is between a “conscience zealous of religion… joined with a pure heart, and… a conscience zealous of religion… joined with a defiled heart.”

Nevertheless, the non-saving but supernatural enlightening of the conscience can be prepatory, as Goodwin thinks it was for Paul (e.g., Acts 9:15; 26:9). Here is something akin to Calvin’s belief in non-saving but real work of the Holy Spirit in the unelect within the visible church.

“New Plants”

Accordingly, Goodwin is interested in delineating the operations of the conscience per the natural law even in the unregenerate—this also to further emphasize the distinction between the two states. For it can produce true good judgments and resultant works even in them. It “binds [man] to his good behavior,” and may “have a real respect to God, to whom… conscience looks, and from whom it fetcheth its binding power.” “Thus Darius, a heathen, Dan. 6:14, was so displeased with himself, when he was put upon putting to death so just a man as his conscience told him that Daniel was.” But the good effects of natural conscience should not be mistaken for true holiness.

It is within this section of the discourse that Goodwin’s distinctive views come to light. First, he says that the light of the conscience, its content (i.e., natural law), is “from God upon a new account.” Meaning that “these sparks of moral light… of moral virtues and inclinations in the will and affections” are not “relics of the former image of God [pre-fall].” On the contrary, the heart of man was “laid waste and desolate” by that event. And necessarily so, insists Goodwin, for if the opposite were true then “this controversy were at an end, for then these remaining sparks of conscience must be of the same kind with that primitive holiness… so every man by nature would be in part regenerate, which is the highest perfection here,” an idea repugnant to Goodwin’s opinion of the nature and content of the covenant of works, as stated. That would also, were it the case, encroach upon the covenantal merit of Christ himself. Instead, Goodwin argues that the light available to natural conscience is not residual “stumps of stubble” but “new plants… through another kind (as herbs that are wild in wildernesses are from those in gardens).”

Second—and here’s the real, Christocentric kicker—Goodwin attributes this new planting to God, as others had, but specifies that it is “through Christ’s general mediation for all mankind… de novo, out of pity to the totally ruined condition of man’s nature; out of which by the curse, all stems were utterly rooted out and stubbed up; the nature of man being left… as an abrasa tabula, devoid of all good (Rom. 7:18)… as Christ’s curse upon the temple was, that not as much as a stone should be left upon a stone.”

And so, “though these sparks of light and… common notions of God and goodness, are indeed the imperfect shadow of that former image created in true holiness… yet they are no way the relics or remainders of it, but indeed are new donatives over and above that birthright of nothing but sin.” Anything good remaining is a “common mercy” albeit unequally distributed. (Notice that Goodwin, like Francis Turretin (1623-1687), does not employ the term “common grace” as it would imply salvific or holy content.)

Notice too what Goodwin is not saying. He is not saying that the faculty of conscience as such was destroyed by the fall. Indeed, being metaphysically integral to human nature, it endures. Rather, the “fire and light of it,” that is, the content, is what was extinguished utterly and required new planting post-fall. As he puts it,

“Our consciences are the paper, that is all we bring, which the very renewal or revival by the law typified. God at first formed both by one immediate hand, in the state of innocency [sic]; but after man had broken these tables, man finds the stone, but God the letters, and writing still.”

More fully explicating Christ’s mediatorial role herein, Goodwin invokes John 1:9, “He englighteneth every man that is born into the world,” thereby situating himself within the exegetical tradition on the subject but with renewed Christological import.

Additionally, and in classical fashion, Goodwin referenced Proverbs 20:27. As Robert Greene has expertly shown, invocation of this passage is a staple of the natural law tradition, from Aquinas onward. Goodwin explains that the soul of man is called the “candle of the Lord, “because we are all in the dark… if God had not brought in and set up de novo that candle within us… And as a candle is extrinsecal [sic] to the room… in respect of its original.” (Elsewhere, “Common light in heathens is but a candle on earth.”) Again, this light is “vouchsafed thus to all, more or less [meaning “unequally”], through the mediation of Christ… a mediation as he hath made for the upholding the whole creation.” (Goodwin cites John 1:5, 9, 10 on this point in contrast to the “light of life” spoken of in vv. 12-13.)


A few observations as to sources and to set Goodwin in context: It is probable—he is scant in citation—that Goodwin is influenced by three main sources. First, Calvin’s understanding of law, specifically the concept of Christus mediator legis. Second, Girolamo Zanchi’s (1516-1590) minority view of the state of natural law post-fall being, that of total destruction and wholly new republication, a view that even John Owen (1616-1683) did not hold. Third, John Arrowsmith’s (1602-1659) Theanthrōpos (1663), a commentary on the Johannine prologue. Mark Jones has attested to Goodwin’s appreciation for all three save Arrowsmith, but the latter’s commentary would have been known to Goodwin and, in any case, was contemporary to Goodwin and agrees with his own approach to the pericope.

It is also probable that Goodwin’s Christocentricity in his natural law was picked up by later Puritans, such as the New Englander, John Wise (1652-1725), who in his Vindication of Government of New England Churches (1717) cited both John 1:4-9 and Proverbs 20:27 in route to saying that it was an “admirable Effect of Christ’s Creating Power in hanging out many Lights to guide man through a dark world” that man had cognizance of natural law, and this attributable to “Christ’s goodness.” More practically, Goodwin’s Christocentric approach could provide more comfort to those evangelicals apprehensive of wholeheartedly embracing the natural law tradition—one, it should be said, from which the magisterial Reformers never departed. Goodwin’s insistence that fallen man brings nothing to the table and that Christ provides all and upholds, epistemologically and morally, is surely something that the skeptics could at least provisionally endorse. In that paradigm, man’s innate ability is totally diminished and Christ’s mediatorial work, albeit common in this instance, exalted. If they were to embrace Goodwin’s unique posture, before the skeptics know it, they might find themselves situated comfortably within the classical tradition within which Goodwin worked.

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo MagazineThe American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.

Friday, December 3rd 2021

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

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church