Rethinking Natural Law: Is It Our Best Strategy For Engaging The Public Square? -- By: Daniel Heimbach
Rethinking Natural Law:
Is It Our Best Strategy For Engaging The Public Square?
Professor of Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Note: this article was published previously in Liberty University Law Review II, no. 3 (Spring 2008), and is here republished with permission of the Liberty University Law Review and the author.
“As an atheist, I respect natural law. Christians have to deny basic laws of nature and deceive their own common sense in order to maintain their belief.”
James Sansom, “Letter to the Editor,” News and Observer (Raleigh), 8 October 2006
How should evangelicals wishing to restore the moral foundations of public life respond to fellow citizens and self-proclaimed atheists like James Sansom, who believe that natural law supports an ethic of self-indulgence against the sort of morality we mean to restore? Should we appeal to the same philosophical system on which atheists rely, or is there a better strategy? Should the success of evangelicals engaging the public square depend on hoping supernaturally grounded moral standards can be restored by alleging no need to rely on God or supernaturalism of any kind? Or is there some more effective strategy?
I will argue that once secular society generally denies the reflected presence of divinely imposed moral standards in nature, appealing to nothing other than nature as it is can no longer be a viable strategy for reviving confidence in the possibility of discovering such standards; and that under such conditions restoring the possibility of discovering such standards depends not on alleging to agree with the irrelevance of supernaturalism, but rather on appealing directly to the reality and relevance of supernaturalism for discerning the reflection of moral order in nature.
Our aim here is limited and should not be misunderstood. We are not disputing the existence of supernaturally imposed moral order in nature. We strongly affirm biblical doctrine on natural evidences justifying God’s universal condemnation of unregenerate humanity. And we believe the order of creation contains a degree of appeal that at times, with God’s help, lifts the thoughts of nonbelievers toward himself. We aim here only to address whether natural law theory is able, while denying the necessity of faith in anything supernatural, to secure common ground sufficient to restore moral foundations required to sustain social order. More especially, we mean to address the viability of using natural law on atheistic terms as a strategy for defending moral standards in the public square at a time when most deny the possibility of discovering in nature any reason for restraining natural passions.
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