Persuasion or Discipleship? Confidence, Creation, and Reconsidering Biblical Natural Law as a Strategy for Christian Cultural Renewal

Published July 7, 2021

Countermoves (Carl F.H. Henry Institute)

A few years ago, I gave a set of talks to a large, suburban Christian school in Florida. Having recently published a book on the rise of transgenderism, that was the focus of my talks—to explain how we got to this moment in Western civilization, to understand the issue itself, to explain what it is that Christians believe when we confess that God created us male and female in his image, and to defend that confession’s intelligibility. The goals of my talks were historical, evaluative, explanatory, and apologetical analysis. Only if these four goals were met first would I consider my talk designed to convince a hardened skeptic, if any were present. And even then, maybe it wouldn’t. Resigned to the possibility that I may not actually persuade the non-Christian of the unsoundness of gender ideology, I am forced to ask myself a more fundamental question about the purpose of moral explanation: What if I am chiefly concerned with Christians understanding the rationale and reasonableness of their ethical convictions before I’m concerned with persuading the gender-fluid ideologue of their foolishness? 

Though I had not used the phrase “natural law” in my talks the night before, that’s what my audience had been receiving. I wanted my audience to know that Christians were not the weird ones for believing in the static categories of maleness and femaleness. Indeed, I wanted them to know that it was their secular progressive neighbors that are trafficking in absurd, delusional conclusions when they reject the truths of nature and human embodiment. 

Before the second night of my talks, something I’ll never forget happened. A middle-aged teacher who taught at the school caught me in the hallway before the night’s programming and said, “Thank you for your talk last night. I had no idea that we as Christians have good reasons to believe what we believe.” This statement jarred and saddened me deeply. Here was a mature Christian who had just now been told that their ethical convictions were defensible on the grounds of rational coherence. This moment has stayed with me for years now because this teacher’s admission of her ignorance of the soundness of Christian ethics captured the confused priorities for how Christians think about the use of the natural law: Is the natural law utilized for the sake of the believer’s own understanding of their ethical system, or for the sake of persuading the skeptic? 

These goals are not mutually exclusive, of course, but deciding why I’m utilizing natural law argumentation is the difference between believing what’s most at stake: The shoring up of Christian doctrine and the building up of the church with a holy confidence in the Triune God of Order or believing that mere intellective arguments alone will salvage Christianity from its cultured despisers (because I don’t believe that, either). In my talks at that church, and what I strive for as a professor, I was trying to accomplish one main goal: To bolster the confidence of the Christian that what we believe is not merely sectarian or fideistic, but correlated to reality as such, and that when objective categories of maleness and femaleness are jettisoned by secular progressivism, secular progressivism is not just abandoning Christian thought, but reality itself. Cultural disintegration reifies the Christian apologetic, no? The war on reality waged by secular progressivism cannot continue apart from what Henry Kissinger called the “dissolution of all social bonds” where the outcome is “extremism, despair, and brutality”— what Kissinger spoke of the civilizational catastrophe wrought by totalitarianism. To see the stakes of contemporary culture’s decline as anything else than a reversion to totalitarian impulse is to miss just how egregious our sins are as a culture. When the culture rejects nature like it has, the church must reassert its confidence in God’s creation ordinances. Retrieving confidence in creation order constitutes an act of revolt against the anti-culture of secular progressivism. For the Christian to love their neighbor means for them to love their culture. There is no better way to love your neighbor and their culture than to proclaim the kingship of Jesus Christ and the moral foundations necessary for God’s common grace to bless both neighbor and culture (Matt. 5:13-16).

Such terms force us back to the “why” of the natural law. Consider Romans 1-2, the locus classicus of the Bible’s teaching on the natural law. When Paul writes his statements on creation order and the law “written on their heart,” Paul is writing this letter to Roman Christians. He’s writing to explain the unfolding mystery of God’s plan; that the universality of man’s sinfulness corresponds to an indiscriminate, impartial need for justification. For Paul’s audience to understand the perilous state of the world, they need vivid understanding of the world’s revolt against God’s moral law (Rom. 1:18-32). His audience needed a confidence in creation order to understand the world’s rebellion against it. Such is the same for our day. To understand cultural revolt, we must understand nature and moral order.

My reason for writing is simple: I am exhausted—in fact, painfully exhausted—at the notion that questions of the natural law’s utility is measured by its ability to convince; or that we only deploy the natural law when we are seeking to translate Christian public ethics into publicly accessible terms. Such an erroneous presupposition lies at the heart of Protestantism’s rejection of the natural law: Because we believe that man’s reason is tainted by sin, we advert to a narrow biblicism to account for our public ethics. We are trying to proof-text our way out of the cultural mess we’re in, but that is not an effective strategy for a culture that rejects the theistic presuppositions of Scriputre’s authority. I want no fewer biblical citations, but for biblical citations to be buffeted by a confidence in the rational soundness and explanatory power of our ethics. And therein is an irony: By immediately adverting to a narrowly defined biblicism for our ethics, we are admitting that creation in itself has no observable order; that the transgender activist has just as much reasonableness in cultural debates as does the Christian; that the Bible is the only way to appeal to what is true. Paul quotes pagans in the pages of the New Testament (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33). All of this merely suggests that for Paul, there was no incongruency between what is true for a Christian and a non-Christian if, in fact, the proposition coheres logically and corresponds to reality. I never want to cultivate an intellectual attitude and epistemological constraint that the Bible does not apply to itself.

But to my original point, it is the transgender activist who is the one thwarting creation; the Christian is the one upholding creation’s integrity. None of this is meant to diminish the authoritative significance of the Bible for Christian ethics, but to understand how the Bible speaks of creation. The Bible’s authority is so supreme that it draws outward to an engagement with the creation that God is Lord over. The Bible is the supreme authority over a Christian’s life, but the Bible’s declaration of creation’s intelligibility likewise attests to the Bible’s very own truthfulness about the universality of Christian ethics.

As one who stands in the Reformed tradition, of course I believe reason is affected by sin, but what if redeemed reason restores our understanding of nature? What if Christians are the ones illumined by the Holy Spirit that are to herald the divine standards for social righteousness (Isa. 28:17; Jer. 6:16)? This forces us to re-evaluate the place of the natural law in the Christian life: What if the natural law’s purpose is not first to convince the non-believer, but to explain the coherence of a moral system that Christian believe was ordered by the eternal law and inscribed in nature? In other words, what if natural law is less about apologetics, and more about discipleship? What if a system of natural law explains the grasp of goods (such as family life, the pursuit of beauty, and natural justice) that billions of non-Christians intuitively act upon countless times throughout their day? Just imagine if Christians were catechized to have greater understanding of the world that God placed them in. We would move from our theological ghettos to active confrontation with a secular world that cannot explain its haunting aches of despair and meaninglessness.

In Protestant circles, one of the primary objections raised to natural law is that it persuades no one not already committed to the Christian worldview. First, that’s an overstatement, as even atheists seem to recognize that Christian morality anchors and reflects universal moral dimensions benefitting civilization. Even the New Ague guru of our age, Oprah Winfrey, finds herself echoing the natural law when she recently said that “every human born to the planet wants the same thing and that is to be accepted to be loved and to live in health and safety as our authentic selves.” Moreover, when non-Christians follow traffic signals and take care of their children, they are reflecting the natural law. But secondly, the primary reason Christians should care about the natural law is that it gives us rational, coherent ways of understanding the structure of God’s creation order. Take marriage, for example. If the conjugal definition of marriage is dispensed with, it is not only the Bible’s definition of marriage that is rejected, but also the soundness of marriage as a distinct institution apart from all other relationships. Obergefell was not just a revolt against the Bible, but against sound reason and logic. The reception of Christian ethics in a pagan world says nothing as to the necessity and binding reality of the natural law.

The result of rejecting the natural law tradition is the deracination of Christian ethics, which leaves Christians in a two-fold mess: We are unable to explain the coherence of Christian ethics to either the Christian or the non-Christian. As one of my mentors likes to say, “There is no truth without order, and no order without truth.” Christians believe in truth. Let’s now better understand that corresponding order, for in discovering the depth and intricacy of order we better glorify the truth that is there to set us free (John 8:32).

The world both borrows from and obscures the ethics necessary for cultural survival from the Christian worldview. From the idea of human dignity to human rights, secularism offers no coherent way for cultural survival that won’t eventually justify tragedy under its banner. The goal of Christian natural law ethics is for Christians to understand the enduring coherence of God’s creation order and to expose the absurdity of unbelief. For ethics to be Christian, we need not only Christian theological concepts like sin, kingdom, mission, salvation, and repentance. We need to operationalize those concepts into workable paradigms like human flourishing and the common good, all of which are tangible entailments of gospel ethics worked out in the lives of ordinary Christians who have the confidence and knowledge of the role of gospel ethics in our culture.

The path before us is a stark binary of options: Paganism or Jesus Christ; chaos or order. Absurdity and barbarism can only work for so long as a strategy for cultural dissolution until nature strikes back. Who knows where we are in our descent, but the West is in the throes of a convulsive death rattle, and there is to be no renovation to Western order apart from a rehabilitation of Christian natural law ethics. But before we seek to persuade others, we need to be persuaded ourselves.

Andrew T. Walker is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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