Thursday, November 5, 2009

Carl F. H. Henry and the Natural Law

I am presently in Washington, D.C. participating in a consultation on American Constitutionalism and Natural Law at the Heritage Foundation. For this reason, I thought it would be nice to post a few comments on the case against natural law offered by the eminent Evangelical theologian, and founding editor of Christianity Today, Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003). Dr. Henry was a giant, and a man for whom I have the utmost respect. One of the great honors of my life was when I participated in a panel discussion with him and several other scholars at a 1997 conference sponsored by Trinity Law School.

Dr. Henry argues that the Scriptural passages most often cited in defense of natural law (e.g. Romans 1 and 2, especially 2:15, which speaks of the law “written on our hearts”) do not teach what natural law thinkers think it teaches, namely, that there are moral truths accessible to those with no direct contact with special revelation. Henry writes:
The dual reference to law of nature and law of God presumably arose from the Apostle Paul's teaching in Romans 1 and 2. John Murray in his volume on Paul's epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary series argues that the term “law of nature” is a Christian concept rooted in Scripture, not a secular concept to be grasped independently of a revelatory epistemology. To interpret Romans 1 and 2 in deistic terms of natural religion is unjustifiable.

Although this is not the place to assess Henry’s exegesis, it seems to me that his Scriptural citation is not based on a careful reading or understanding of natural law. For if he had truly grasped the tradition he critiques he would understand that his own point of view--the alleged biblical rejection of natural law theory--is itself dependent on moral notions not derived from special revelation. That is, Henry is affirming and defending a self-refuting position. Let me explain. By claiming that natural law thinkers have incorrectly interpreted the book of Romans, Henry is presupposing a moral notion that is logically prior to his exegesis of scripture: texts should be interpreted accurately. This, of course, is grounded in more primitive moral notions: to accurately interpret a text one should do so fairly and honestly, and one should pursue the truth while interpreting texts. Both these moral commands are logically prior to, and thus not derived from, Scripture itself, for in order to extract truth from Scripture, obedience to these moral commands is a necessary condition. This means that Henry, ironically, must rely on a moral law known apart from scripture in exegeting the scripture that he claims does not affirm the knowledge of the moral law apart from Scripture.

Someone could argue that I am offering a hermeneutical principle (i.e., a rule of interpretation) rather than a moral one. But I do not think that is right. For these are not mutually exclusive, if one thinks that a proper approach to texts is part of what it means to be a virtuous person. After all, if we discovered that an interpreter of Scripture had been negligent, uncharitable, or dishonest in his biblical exegesis, we would not only suspect error in his interpretation, but we would also attribute to him a lack of personal virtue. This judgment would be at its root, moral.

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