Jan 14, 2014

Natural Law and Ephesians 2:1-3

What idea of natural law would be consistent with Ephesians 2:1-3’s description of natural man?
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (ESV)
In this light, Christians must hold either that (1) natural man lacks the ability to know or follow the natural law, or (2) natural man's following the natural law is consistent with being sinful. To put it another way, if man’s reason and will are sufficient for lawful actions via natural law, then either (1) natural man lacks reason/will or (2) the kind of lawful actions involved in following natural law are consistent with being dead in trespasses and sins, i.e. natural law does not lead to righteous acts.
A more severe condemnation of mankind could not have been pronounced. What does [Paul] leave to us, when he declares us to be the slaves of Satan, and subject to his will, so long as we live outside of the kingdom of Christ? …
Where is now the free-will, the guidance of reason, moral virtue…? What will they find that is pure or holy under the tyranny of the devil? …there is no obscurity in the apostle’s language; and all men who live according to the world … are here declared to fight under the reign of Satan.
Calvin seems to grant that will, reason and moral virtue are related, as do proponents of natural law. What he denies is that men can will, reason and attain moral virtue while they are under the tyranny of Satan. He denies, not that men can know natural law by reason, but that natural man can reason or will truly while he remains dead in sin.
In other words, a Christian idea of natural law cannot be determined simply by associating human reason with moral virtue; it must also take a position on whether human reason and will operate naturally before regeneration in Christ.


  1. In a world where human reason is held as the height of excellence, morality declines, as you point out. It is only through careful study, such that you have done, that one can ascertain the truth—that is that virtue and reason are not one and the same, nor can one be had without the other. I wonder which you would say is best, to live in blind faith without reason or blind reason without faith? How does one come about a balance? Very interesting article as always. I shall continue to read your posts with great interest.

  2. That's a very thoughtful post.

    I don't believe there is a necessary dichotomy involving (1) and (2). In particular, I think (1) brings together two related but separable things: [a] natural man's ability to know the law; and [b] natural man's ability to follow the law. Passages like Romans 1:18-20 suggest that natural man does retain some awareness of natural law. At the same time, this doesn't suggest natural man has the ability to follow that law. Rather, that knowledge only adds to natural man's condemnation under the law. And I think that condemnation is attested to in that Ephesians passage.

    That said, I do think Christian thinkers have played loose with the term "law written on the heart" as Paul expresses it in Romans, reciting the OT. As I understand, this speaks to something above and beyond mere knowledge of the law or the witness of conscience. Only those on whom God has regenerated will have the law written on their hearts.

    I'm still working through these issues. So I still have much to learn and think through. This post has been helpful, including the commentary by Calvin. In fact, I like that passage by Calvin and endorse every word of it. But I would be mindful of a distinction between -- on the one hand -- the Biblically-based doctrine of total depravity or radical corruption -- and on the other hand -- a doctrine of "utter depravity." I heard a good R.C. Sproul broadcast making the distinctions between the two. Speaking for myself, I believe fallen man can act virtuously toward his fellow men, on some level. But this obviously does not mean such actions contribute to fallen man's salvation. Even a drunken thief can be nice to his own children. No work of any man can overcome his fallen nature, pay his sin debt, or merit God's favor. Only the work of Jesus Christ, imputed to unrighteous sinners by God's grace through faith alone can save fallen man.

  3. Aquinas had the same thought as yours about the meaning of a law written on the heart in Romans, i.e. that it referred to regenerate Christian gentiles.

    The critical issue seems to me to specify our statements like "I believe fallen man can act virtuously toward his fellow men, on some level." What level?

    Even more importantly for Christians, should regenerate man act virtuously toward his fellow men in the society by using the same tools of quasi-virtue, reason and will, or by relying on strengths peculiar to the regenerate.

  4. For a rather more positive take on Calvin's place for natural law in the world of civil administration, see my article, God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law, vol. 22 Journal of Law & Religion (2006) downloadable at http://ssrn.com/abstract=986323.

  5. I can only second the recommendation of Scott's "God's Bridle" article, which I think I have read over a half dozen times on various occasions and always to my profit.

    But I hope and think that there is nothing I have written above that is in conflict with its conclusions about Calvin. As the title suggests, i.e. depicting natural law as God's Bridle not God's Chariot or Saddle, Scott's article is very carefully delimited in its praise of natural law and detailed in outlining Calvin's limited, ambivalent view of its place.

    It is precisely such a highly tempered view of the possibilities of natural law as Calvin had which, I think, Christians are required to adopt by passages like Ephesians 2:1-3.

    Perhaps the real disagreement among those otherwise convinced by Calvin's account is whether what currently goes by the name "natural law" is sufficiently Calvinistic or unduly optimistic in its goals, whether it is serving to focus attention on Christ's kingdom or distracts away from it. This is not so much a difference about natural law as about the current Christian deployment of it.

  6. Thought provoking, though I think this passage only presents a natural law dilemma for those under the banner of Reformed theology. Outside the confines of Total Depravity (though, I realize this is defined many different ways) I don't think it takes much mental effort to reconcile this passage and say, Romans 2:14-15:

    "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them."