Friday, November 28, 2008

 

Divine Law versus Natural Law

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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