Natural law theory rests on the assumption that there is a source of common ethics and common wisdom irrespective of theological confession. This common system of ethics is said to serve as the basis of a common judicial system. This common legal order is supposedly accessible to all rational men, however men define rational. This presumed commonality is the basis of the civil law’s legitimacy. Natural law is said to be grounded in the nature of man as a rational being, whether or not he was created by God. Because natural law has authority irrespective of theological confession, it is to be the basis of civil government, for civil government has authority over all men who reside in a geographical area irrespective of their confession of faith. So runs the familiar intellectual defence of natural law theory.
There are a number of issues in the Church today that are controversial, and one of these is the use of the law of God, today. Why is it controversial? Because the Church has been confused on this subject, almost since the first century.
What has happened?
Early on, there was a great tolerance in the church for the Greek’s Hellenistic natural law philosophy. We had a blindspot, which we still have: a widespread failure to note that the Greek’s natural law philosophy, was humanistic – utterly in opposition to Biblical faith. In fact, there was little understanding that law and religion were inextricably linked. We couldn’t tell the wheat from the tares.
The idea that God gave the law to Moses in 1,500 BC had no credibility with the Greeks. Their approach to law was essentially pragmatic: “we work it out as we go along.” Natural law can be made to suit almost anyone’s purpose and it has, including totalitarian dictators.
So the early church had little answer to the Greek philosophy and law, and was unable to stem the tide of this Hellenistic influence. Because law always has religious presuppositions, the church was glibly accepting a Greek philosophical and legal Trojan horse. The soldiers haven’t stopped spilling out of it ever since, with dire consequences for the church and culture around the world. Here’s an example: religion and politics don’t mix.
But this has to change, and we must play our part in initiating the change in our generation. How do we do this? By considering how to apply the law of God today, and starting the ball rolling.
The Bible has a lot to say about the applications of God’s law to society, regardless of the era.
One of the key New Testament texts is Romans 13:8-10:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
One writer who grasped the implications of Paul’s teaching, was John Murray. He wrote:
If love is the fulfillment of the law, this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love…it is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice…this appeal to the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments]demonstrates the following propositions:
1)The Decalogue is of permanent and binding relevance.
2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love.
3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility.
4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.
God promised the generation of Moses, that the embrace and utilisation of God’s law in Isarel would cause other nations to say, “…surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut.4:6). Later, God promised through Isaiah in 700 BC that the nations would stream to the house of the Lord, and the result would be that “…the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa.2:3).
As Jesus neared the end of His ministry, He had some blunt words of warning for Israel. “…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Mat.21:43).
What was He referring to? Israel had been in rebellion against the Lord, for almost the whole period since they had left Egypt. The periods of revival and restoration under godly kings had been incidental, rare periods in the whole 1,500 years. Now, Israel was about to commit their worst possible offence: they would conspire against and murder the Son of God. And as a result there would be a transfer of the inheritance of Israel, and the culmination of judgment on Israel would be the destruction of the temple, along with the death or enslavement of every person in Jerusalem to the Romans, in 70AD. This is what Jesus was speaking about in Mat.24:1-34; Mk.13:1-30, and Luke 21:5-32. The Christians would need to make sure they had exited Jerusalem by this time.
Whom would the inheritance be transferred to? The church.
This is what Paul was referring to when he explained that “…the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph.3:10). The focus has now shifted in geographical terms from Israel and Jerusalem to the church international, and the implications of this are remarkable.
The church has a great deal to contribute to the world. That is what God has placed us here for, as “…the pillar and support of the truth” (I Tim.3:14). One of our most important roles is evangelism, but we must also be concerned and active in influencing society and government, especially in the adoption of God’s law as the basis for every society. Every other law system is chaotic and ultimately leads to totalitarianism.
It is true that there is a great deal wrong with the church, and there is much to do in terms of reforming this vital social institution. This process will take generations. But we must take heart that we won’t be doing this alone, because God is with those who want to see His house strengthened and purified, and who will do it His way.
And as the church shakes off the influences of humanism which have plagued it for centuries, it will again be able to take its God-ordained place in the community, declaring the truth to the community concerning the applicability of God’s law today, and the need for the embrace of God’s law around the world.
May this happen soon, because it can only do us good.