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Divine Law versus Natural Law

November 28th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

The distinction between divine law and natural law is that natural law can be deduced by man by introspection and observation, but divine law is revealed only by direct communication from God. One question is whether divine law can ever contradict natural law. Or, perhaps a little different:

Is a sin evil because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is evil?

In considering this question it is useless to think about sins that are forbidden by both natural and divine law, sins such as murder, theft, and adultery (in their traditional, uncontroversial, contexts). Rather, the question becomes important in situations such as the following: Is it okay to divorce a man for wife-beating? Did God really command the Israelites to slaughter Canaanite children? Is it just for people to be damned when they never had a chance to hear the Gospel?

As these examples indicate, the question bears heavily on the fundamentals of Christianity. If God forbids sins because they are evil, we are saying that we have a reason independent from God for thinking something is evil, and that reason trumps any reason we might derive from the Bible or systematic theology. Thus, if we believe that killing children is always wrong, so a good God could not command it, we must either reject God’s goodness or reject the books of Genesis (Abraham and Isaac), Joshua (the Canaanites), and Kings (I think— David and the Amalekites).

I think it’s important to believe that sins are wrong because God forbids them, not the reverse. Here are some reasons:

1. Otherwise you must reject the reliability of the Bible. This is not just a rejection of inerrancy: you must reject substantial portions,and, implicitly, all of the Bible that refrains from condemning those portions.

2. Because we are all biased when it comes to our own actions, when we are deriving natural law we will tend to exclude our own misdeeds from being called sins.

3. Because we are all culturally biased, when we are deriving natural law we will tend to exclude misdeeds that our own culture allows from being called sins.

4. Otherwise we have in effect replaced God with a higher divinity, the source of natural law, in which case we should move directly to worship of that divinity.

Note that if you are willing to throw out Christianity altogether, these reasons disappear. Indeed, that is the response of some people. They acknowledge, correctly, that the Christian God’s law conflicts with what we think is right and wrong in our culture, and they conclude, incorrectly, that He is not God. In effect, our culture is their god.

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  1. Anton Sherwood
    December 6th, 2008 at 09:52 | #1

    I blogged on a similar question once upon a time.

  2. Anonymous
    December 2nd, 2008 at 04:26 | #2

    I had never thought about that. I always assumed that the Natural Law was essentially coincident with Divine Law. There is only one thing I would like to add. Assuming that God says that something is a sin because it’s against the Natural Law does not imply that the origin of the Natural Law is outside God, as you seem to suggest. It does imply that parts of the Bible are incompatible with a just God, but I don’t think that it rejects Christianity. I believe that the Bible was written by God inspired people. Had God wanted to give us an error-free account of His will and perhaps he would not have given that task to prophets and other people. Any error in the Bible should be attributed to those authors, not God. Even the Gospels might have some glitches here and there, although they are not sufficient to alter an essentially correct and accurate vision of Our Lord Jesus. But in the end I would stick with the prevalence of Divine Law over Natural Law because I believe it comes directly from the source, while the Natural Law is subject to the constraints of our particular time and place, and to the twists of culture, interpretation, and prejudice.

    Ps: I like a lot your writing, although slightly anti-catholic at times. Go on with it!

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