Natural Law Is Not Enough
At some point, the natural law must be made concrete, inserted into real human life in real context, and applied. This, I maintain, is impossible without some kind of discernible tradition of Christianity governing that process.
Can “Mere Christianity” stem the tide of societal dissolution?
Craig Carter (not without some impassioned campaigning by the American Reformer staff on Twitter) wrote a thoughtful piece back in November 2022 on liberal democracy vis-à-vis Christian Nationalism from a Baptist perspective. A few highlights: “But what if I told you that liberal democracy only works in nations that recognize natural law as true, which historically means almost exclusively Christian nations?” Liberal democracy has “worked” for a while, says Carter, because of the residual conditions of Christendom. “But can we not all agree on the existence of God, the existence of a moral law, and the need to base law on human nature? No? Well, we won’t be able to keep liberal democracy.”1 And so,
Liberal democracy needs Christianity, or it collapses into anarchy. The state requires a healthy Christian church that does evangelism and discipleship effectively. Only those able to control their own desires and impose discipline on themselves make adequate citizens for a liberal democratic nation. Belief in God and a moral order is necessary as the foundation of a free society.
Predictably, then, “As individuals become more atomized and less personally disciplined, the need for social controls increases.”
This is all fairly unobjectionable, as far as it goes, but also not unique to liberal democratic regimes. Any regime requires a healthy Christian church to direct men to God and virtue. And this is part of the point.
A just regime is not merely neutral or indifferent toward higher truths, toward religion. Indifference by the temporal power toward the spiritual power may actually harm true religion and religious vibrancy because indifference (neutrality) relegates religion to the sidelines. Under liberal democratic regimes with a high level of plurality—something relentlessly fostered by all western liberal democratic nations—neutrality is praised as a cure to religious conflict. But when all religions are leveled and further categorized as one among many subsidiary, voluntary associations, the persuasive, pedagogical influence of true religion, of the church, is increasingly diminished. That is, in a sense, by design.2
At the same time, the temporal power suffers for absence of a central cult. Laws, too, are supposed to lead men gradually to virtue. This is right and inevitable. But within a pluralistic playing field, what mechanism can temporal power use to select the undergirding morality to inform its laws?
Now, Carter (or Andrew Walker) will answer, “natural law, of course.” This is basically correct. The question, however, is how natural law is known and taught, especially according to secondary conclusions (i.e., specific applications) which are not immediately ascertainable to all men equally. In a sense, the natural law is known; in another sense, it is learned. John Owen and Johannes Althusius, among others, instructed that the best way to arrive at a fully-orbed understanding and use of the natural law is through the study of good human laws that already reflect higher law, through the teaching of the church, and through scripture.
The problem with regard to how natural law will determine the state’s governing morality is 1) people aren’t great at grasping and applying the natural law; and 2) the temporal power needs the church to promulgate the summary of the natural law republished in the Decalogue as scripture as well as those parts of special revelation that bolster understanding of the natural order. Positing an absolute bifurcation between church and state–far beyond a proper recognition of their separate realms of authority–usually goes hand in hand with an absolute bifurcation between scripture and natural law.3 Neither antithesis helps us faithfully apply natural law today. Also, 3) the particular instantiations of natural law are necessarily contextualized by the polity and culture in which they are applied. If said polity is not already conditioned by a central, governing morality then the extent to which natural law supplies authoritative guidance will be limited, abstract, and largely anemic.