There are certain tenets most of the world’s societies and cultures have abided by since the dawn of time.

Many consider murder, theft, dishonesty and other violations of human relationships to be taboo.

Such prohibitions hold the world together and prevent it from becoming chaotic and bloody.

I read a concise summary of this in a reader’s comment on Religion News Service. Jack wrote:

There is a thing that Catholics call natural law, Protestants call common grace or general revelation, and Jews call the Noahide laws.

It says that God has revealed to all human beings, through nature, reason, and conscience, the rightness or wrongness of things.

Most secularists and pagans have a similar set of ethics.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive exploration of a topic that fills books and comprises university courses.

Nor is this saying, as many Christians who object to it think, that we do not need the Bible. Not at all.

However, it does point to a commonly shared broad set of universal values in mankind.

Below are a few broad brush citations as examples of the larger picture.

Secularist thought

Aristotle believed mankind was meant to pursue a higher state of being. This quote is from Jonathan Jacob’s paper ‘Aristotle and Maimonides on Virtue and Natural Law’ (pp 47, 48):

In Aristotle’s ethics, practical wisdom is the action-guiding intellectual virtue, and it is crucial to the genuineness and unity of the ethical virtues overall …

In Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that contemplative activity and intellectual immortality are our best end, but also that we are human beings in need of political life and the ethically virtuous activity that is part of our perfection. There is a bit of oscillation between urging us to transcend our humanity and reminding us of it and its needs and excellences; the interpretive difficulties are well known.

Noahide Laws

In 2014, I wrote about the biblical account of Noah and the covenant God made with him and humanity after the flood. God caused the flood because mankind was so evil He decided to destroy everyone except Noah and his family. The rainbow He sent afterward was a sign of this covenant.

That covenant provides the background for the Noahide Laws in Judaism. Judaism holds that the Noahide Laws extend to non-Jews as a sign of divine grace and a share in the world to come.

The New World Encyclopedia lists the seven laws, which forbid murder, theft, unnatural sexual relations and eating a living animal. The seventh law decrees the establishment of a legal system with courts to ensure justice.

Natural law

The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations (e.g. Church of England) teach that natural law predominates in human behaviour. Thomas Aquinas developed this in a religious and philosophical context.

Wikipedia has this definition of natural law (emphases in the original):

Natural law is a philosophy that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature, and universally cognizable through human reason. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze both social and personal human nature to deduce binding rules of moral behavior. The law of nature, being determined by nature, is universal.[1]

The article explains that natural law was part of ancient Roman and Greek philosophy. It also has a place in Islam.

The Catholic Church:

understands human beings to consist of body and mind, the physical and the non-physical (or soul perhaps), and that the two are inextricably linked.[111] Humans are capable of discerning the difference between good and evil because they have a conscience.[112] There are many manifestations of the good that we can pursue. Some, like procreation, are common to other animals, while others, like the pursuit of truth, are inclinations peculiar to the capacities of human beings.[113]

Natural moral law is concerned with both exterior and interior acts, also known as action and motive. Simply doing the right thing is not enough; to be truly moral one’s motive must be right as well. For example, helping an old lady across the road (good exterior act) to impress someone (bad interior act) is wrong. However, good intentions don’t always lead to good actions. The motive must coincide with the cardinal or theological virtues. Cardinal virtues are acquired through reason applied to nature; they are:

  1. Prudence
  2. Justice
  3. Temperance
  4. Fortitude

The theological virtues are:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Charity

According to Aquinas, to lack any of these virtues is to lack the ability to make a moral choice. For example, consider a man who possesses the virtues of justice, prudence, and fortitude, yet lacks temperance. Due to his lack of self-control and desire for pleasure, despite his good intentions, he will find himself swaying from the moral path.

Common grace

The concept of common grace is one that grew out of the Reformation and is predominantly, though perhaps not exclusively, a Calvinist one.

It is not saving grace and its proponents are careful to distinguish between the two.

Wikipedia defines common grace as:

the grace of God that is either common to all humankind, or common to everyone within a particular sphere of influence (limited only by unnecessary cultural factors). It is common because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. In this sense, it is distinguished from the Calvinistic understanding of special or saving grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.

I’ve written several posts on common grace, which include several citations from the Revd Michael Horton who is also an author and university professor at Westminster Seminary in California.

The Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof wrote:

[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.

I am not sure why Christians object to a common, natural order amongst everyone. Without it, we would be like the societies which existed in Noah’s time and God would be extremely disgusted with all of us.

Common grace and natural law do not replace or obviate the need for saving grace. No one ever said they did.

However, they do help to explain the survival of people in the world, social order and why we are generally outraged at atrocities such as genocide, war and social problems.

If objectors can come up with better ideas, let them do so.

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