Monday, October 29, 2007

Founding Era Terminology: Nature.

Founding era documents often invoke the concept of "Nature" (as in natural law and natural rights or the laws of Nature and Nature's God). To properly understand its usage, one must know how the Founding era defined "Nature." Put simply enough Nature = Reason. This is how the most learned modern scholarly authorities understand the concept. For instance, in Novus Ordo Seclorum, conservative historian Forrest McDonald -- who read every single document from the Founding era -- stated the Founding era defined "natural" as “discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by God.” (p. xi.) Or as John Locke put it in his Second Treatise on Government: “The State of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and that law....”

God may have played a role in "giving" the natural law. But nonetheless, when dealing with the rubric of "Nature," the means of discovery is man's reason. What God revealed through Nature, man's reason discovered. Or as John Adams put it:

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.

So in essence, Nature was a mechanism by which men could discover eternal, objective, immutable truths, without appealing to revelation. This doesn't mean the rubrics of nature and reason were necessarily opposed to orthodox Christianity. Some orthodox Christians believed the natural law gave an extra-biblical "confirmation" of what the scriptures already revealed. However, the concept of nature-reason had pagan origins (Aristotle) and because it was not in principle dependent on the Bible, such concept could be used, and indeed was used to attack traditional Christian orthodoxy. Deists, who disbelieved in revelation entirely, appealed "solely" to the laws of Nature and Nature's God for their understanding of Truth. And the theistic rationalists -- America's key Founders -- believed God primarily revealed Himself through Nature, partially inspired the Bible, and thus, man's reason determined which parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed.

Because of the potential conflict between reason and revelation, political philosophers who impacted America's Founding often explicated their proper roles. Most of them claimed reason and revelation by in large agreed. Orthodox Christians like Aquinas made clear that the Bible was infallible and that reason supported revelation. As noted above, the deists and theistic rationalists disagreed. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin [and probably Washington, Madison, and many other Founders] believed Scripture was a secondary revelation, designed to support the findings of man's reason. As Franklin put it:

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

Those who desire a more traditional Christian interpretation of America's Founding invariably turn to Blackstone's explication where he defined the natural law as what man discovered by his reason, distinguished between the law of nature and the revealed law, then ultimately combined them and gives "revelation" the trump.

Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law; because one is the law of nature, expressly declared to be so by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never by put in any competition together.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.

A few points in response. First, America's Founders did not view Blackstone's work as sacrosanct. Indeed, Blackstone was a Tory who believed in almost an absolute right of Parliament or the King to govern as they wished and his principles lent far more support to the British than the Americans in the Revolution. As such, Founders like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and others often directed harsh words against Blackstone's theories. Yet, they did have a qualified appreciation for his work. As rationalists who drew from a variety intellectual sources and synthesized them, America's Founders took from Blackstone what they thought useful and discarded the rest. And when appealing to God in the Declaration of Independence, they could have, after Blackstone appealed to "the law of nature and the law of revelation" [my emphasis]. But they didn't. They only appealed to the law of nature and of "Nature's God," both of which refer to what man's reason discovers, not what is written in the Bible. And this shouldn't surprise us given that the author of the Declaration and a majority of its drafting board [Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams] were rationalists who, unlike Blackstone, believed man's reason superseded biblical revelation.

By appealing to reason and not Scripture, the Declaration drew a very low lowest common denominator among deists, theistic rationalists/unitarians, and orthodox Christians. One can argue the appeal to reason in the Declaration makes God unnecessary. Man's reason might not be able to confirm God, but it can still discover immutable principles of human nature. And this is exactly what some modern atheistic natural law thinkers posit -- from Ayn Rand to Daniel Dennett. As Timothy Sandefur explains it:

[T]he simplistic account of law that goes by the ridiculous euphemism “realism” is absolutely inadequate, and...natural law theory does carry weight, if we will not overload it with supernaturalism and appeals to elaborate mystical structures. Many alleged natural law writers base their arguments on such things, and of course that renders their systems subjective, or runs the risk of doing just what the Pragmatist critics claimed: of misinterpreting what is really just conventional as eternal and natural. But there are certain universal factors in human life—things like “limited resources”—which are dictated by nature, and these give rise to universal rules of conduct that exist in societies, not as a matter of mere convention.


For an Objectivist like myself...natural rooted not in any mystical order of the universe, but in the teleology which human nature itself reveals. The positivist argues that morality and law are based solely on convention, and are wholly subjective, and that any attempt to base rules on human nature is flawed because evolution and other modern sciences have demonstrated that human nature is malleable. The pseudo-natural law theorist, on the other hand, argues that human nature is not malleable, it is eternal, part of an unchanging universal order—and this is one reason he tends to shy away from, or even become an outright critic of, evolution. But there is “a third category of statements: those the truth of which is contingent on human beings and the world they live in retaining the salient characteristics which they have.” Natural law politics can, therefore, rest on an account of human nature, even if that nature is the product of a long-term process of evolution that is still going on.


Daniel said...

The Blackstone quote is particularly interesting. He never would have, in the same short phrase, used "natural law" and "law of nature" in completely different senses unless one or both were terms of art with well accepted meanings.

I think you over-state the point of the difference with Aquinas. His use of "natural law" was different. It was dicoverable through both reason and revelation. But, while revelation provided knowledge that reason could not, it did not trump reason. If reason and revelation seemed to be in conflict, that was a misunderstanding of one or both. To harmonize the two, Aquinas was willing to reinterpret Aristotle and revelation. Revelation gave a fuller knowledge, but it did not contradict reason.

This is important because it did begin to change everything. In essence, Aquinas did begin to put reason and revelation on the same level in terms of epistemology. His efforts were not suppressed (much) because he harmonized the two. When problems appeared in that harmony, a choice had to be made. Many chose reason over revelation. The church sought to recover Aristotle's harmonization or to find a new one. Very few chose revelation over reason. (I would argue that, while 20th century fundamentalists reason wrongly, they do not assert that reason is wrong.)

Ron said...

Jon, assuming that I can evoke the wisdom of William E. Channing twice in a week, your post reminded me of his statement that "God does not contradict himself in nature." I think many of his liberal, rational co-religionists shared much the same confidence that the Creator would not resort to trickery or illusion and that personal experience and observation were vital to the weighing and prioritizing of scriptural "revelation."

Our Founding Truth said...

But, while revelation provided knowledge that reason could not, it did not trump reason.>

Daniel, your statement is illogical, for reason cannot bring you salvation, only faith in Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, by the Word of God can bring you this knowledge. The framers and Christian philosophers knew this. Aquinas didn't need to go to Aristotle, the Apostle Paul told the world of man's conscience in

Romans 2:14-15 (King James Version)

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

This conscience is the Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our Founding Truth

Daniel said...

oft: Daniel, your statement is illogical, for reason cannot bring you salvation, only faith in Jesus Christ for the remission

To say that reason cannot give us the knowledge of salvation is to say that reason is inadequate, not that it is fallible. And once we have that revelation, reason can describe it, assess it, and draw conclusions from it and about it. If reason denied the truth of the revelation, then reason would be wrong. But those who claim the truth of revelation may say that it is beyond reason, but almost never that it is in defiance of reason.

Daniel said...

ron quoting Channing: "God does not contradict himself in nature."

It think the vast majority of the orthodox would agree with the statement. Admittedly, there would be a good deal of debate concerning some the implications.

Our Founding Truth said...

To say that reason cannot give us the knowledge of salvation is to say that reason is inadequate, not that it is fallible. And once we have that revelation, reason can describe it, assess it, and draw conclusions from it and about it. If reason denied the truth of the revelation, then reason would be wrong. But those who claim the truth of revelation may say that it is beyond reason, but almost never that it is in defiance of reason.>

Of course, but someone living in the boonies, not knowing of Jesus Christ; their conscience is not going to give them that knowledge. It has been reported that today, there are people in Africa who say Jesus appeared to them because they were searching for God. A guy wrote a book about his conversion just recently; also, the testimony of missionaries exploring the New World, met the Indians, who told them they already knew who Jesus Christ was. Obviously, those Indians were searching, and not pagans.

I believe some of those testimonies were documented.

A true searcher of God, I believe, will be given the true revelation, like Cornelius in Acts 10, because it happens, but reason CANNOT provide ultimate truth(salvation), it will only be perfectly harmonious with reason. God says in Isaiah, "Come, let us reason together" Christianity is reasonable.
Reason has to be inadequate, just from common sense, man is a sinner, and his conscience is corrupt, the founding fathers were not ignorant of this, it's common sense. All the Christian philosophers from Aquinas, Hooker, Locke, etc. and the framers believed this, besides Jefferson, I believe. That quote by Adams does not say reason is superior to revelation but that reason reveals the Law. It is illogical that reason is superior to God's Word, because God is the maker of reason. Logic, destroys that argument. Reason cannot give the Gospel, that can only be received by faith, and by hearing the Word of God.