Anthony Burgess: On Natural Law (Part 1)

“ROM.  2: 14, 15.

‘For when the Gentiles which know not the law, do the things of the law by nature, these having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.’

Before I handle the other places of Scripture that are brought by the Antinomians against the Law, it is my intent, for better methods sake, and your more sound instruction, to handle the whole Theology of the Law of God in the several distributions of it, and that positively, controversially, and practically; and I shall begin first with the Law of Nature, that God hath imprinted in us, and consider of this two ways:  [First], as it is a mere law; and secondly, as it was a covenant of works made with Adam: And then in time I shall speak of the Moral Law given Moses, which is the proper subject of these controversies.

The Text I have read is a golden mine, and deserveth diligent digging and searching into: Therefore, for the better understanding of these words, let us answer these questions:

Who are meant by the Gentiles here? It is ordinarily known, that the Jews did call all those Gentiles that were not Jews, by way of contempt; as the Greeks and Romans called all other nations Barbarians. Hence sometimes in the Scripture the word is applied to wicked men, though Jews: as, Psal. 2, “Why doe the heathen rage?” It may be interpreted of the Pharisees resisting Christ. Indeed, the Jews will not confess, that the word…Gentes, is anywhere applied to them: but this is very false, for Genes. 17 Abraham is there said to be the father of many nations, … therefore they must either deny themselves to be Abraham’s seed, or else acknowledge this word belonging to them. But generally it signifieth those that had not the Lawes of Moses, nor did live by them. Therefore Gal. 2: 14…to live like a Gentile, is, not to observe the Lawes of Moses: and in this sense it is to be taken here; for the apostle’s scope is to make good that great charge upon all mankind, both Jew and Gentile, that naturally they are wholly in sin; and God, being no accepter of persons, will destroy the one as well as the other. And whereas it might be thought very hard to deal thus with the Gentile, because no law was delivered unto him, as unto the Jew, the apostle answereth that objection in this place. But grant it be understood of such Gentiles, then there is a greater question whether it be meant of the Gentiles abiding so, or the Gentiles converted and turned believers; for, that the apostle speaks of such, most of the Latin Interpreters, both ancient and modern, do affirm: and so the Greek Father, Chrysostom, and Estius, a learned Papist, do think there are so many arguments for it, that it’s certain. I confess, they bring many probablereasons; but I will not trouble you with them: this seemeth a strong argument against them, because the apostle speaks of such who are without a law, and a law to themselves, which could not be true of Gentiles converted: we take the apostle therefore to speak of Gentiles abiding so; but in this sense there is also a dangerous exposition and a sound one. The poisonous interpretation is of the Pelagians, who understand the law written in their hearts, in the same sense as it is used, Jerem. 33, even such a fulfilling of the law which will attain to salvation; and this they hold the heathens by the law and help of nature did sufficiently: But this is to overthrow the doctrine of grace and Christ. Therefore the sound interpretation is of the Gentiles indeed, but yet to understand the law written in their hearts, only of those relicts of natural reason and conscience, which was in the Heathens, as is to be proved anon.

The 2nd Question is easily answered, How they are said to be without a law; to wit, without a written law, as the Jews had; so that we may say, they had a law without a law; a law written, but not declared.

The 3rd question, In what sense they are said to do the things of the law, and that by nature. To do the things of the law is not meant universally of all the heathens, for the apostle shewed how most of them lived in the chapter before: nor secondly universally in regard of the matter contained in the law, but some external acts, as Aristides and Socrates, with others. And here it’s disputed, whether a mere heathen can do any work morally good? But we answer, No: for every action ought to have a supernatural end, viz. the glory of God, which they did not aim at; therefore we do refuse that distinction of a moral good, and theological, because every moral good ought to be theological: they may do that good matter of the law, though not well. And as for the manner how, by nature; those Interpreters that understand this text of Gentiles believers, say, nature is not here opposed to grace, but to the law written by Moses; and therefore make it nature enabled by grace: but this is shewed to be improbable. By nature therefore we may understand that natural light of conscience, whereby they judged and performed some external acts, though these were done by the help of God.

The next question is, how this Law is said to be written in their hearts? You must not, with [Augustine], compare this place with that gracious promise in Jeremiah, of God writing his law in the hearts of his people. There is therefore a two-fold writing in the hearts of men; the first, of knowledge and judgement, whereby they apprehend what is good and bad: the second is in the will and affections, by giving a propensity and delight, with some measure of strength, to do this upon good grounds. This later is spoken of by the prophet in the Covenant of Grace, and the former is to be understood here, as will appear, if you compare this with chapter 1: 19.

The last question is, How they declare this Law written in their hearts? And that is first externally, two ways: 1. by making good and wholesome laws to govern men by; and 2. by their practice, at least of some of them, according to those laws: And secondly internally, by their consciences, in the comfort or fear they had there.

[Observation]. There is a law of nature written in men’s hearts. And if this be not abolished, but that a believer is bound to follow the direction and obligation of it, how can the Antinomian think that the Moral Law, in respect of the mandatory power of it, ceaseth? Now, because I intend a methodical tractate of the several kinds of Gods Law, you might expect I should say much about laws in general; but because many have written large volumes, especially the School-men, and it cannot be denied but that good rational matter is delivered by them; yet, because it would not be so pertinent to my scope, I forbear. I will not therefore examine the etymology of the words that signify a Law; whether Lex in the Latin come of legendo because it was written to be read (though that be not always necessary;) or of ligando, because a law binds to obedience; or of deligendo, because it selects some precepts: nor concerning… in the Greek, whether it come of…which is improbable; or of…because it distributes to everyone that which is right: neither the Hebrew word…which some make to come of…to instruct and teach; others of the word…that signifieth a disposition, or compiling of things together as laws use to be.

In the next place, I will not trouble you with the definition of a law, whether it be an act, or habit, or the soul itself: only this is good to take notice of, against a fundamental error of the Antinomian, about a law in general; for they conceive it impossible but that the damning act of a law must be where the commanding act of a law is, and this is frequently urged (as I shewed the last time:) Therefore observe, that there are only two things go to the essence of a law, (I speak not of external causes) and that is, first, Direction, secondly, Obligation: 1. Direction, therefore a law is a rule; hence the law of God is compared to a light. And, Prov. 20. 27. there is a notable expression of the law of Nature, It’s a candle of the Lord, searching the inwards of the belly. So it is observed, that the Chaldees word for a law, is as much as light. The second essential constitute of a law is, Obligation, for therein lyeth the essence of a sin, that it breaketh this law, which supposeth the obligatory force of it. In the next place there are two Consequents of the Law which are ad bene esse, that the Law may be the better obeyed; and this indeed turneth the law into a covenant, which is another notion upon it, as afterwards is to be shewn. Now as for the sanction of the law by way of a promise, that is a mere free thing; God, by reason of that dominion which he had over man, might have commanded his obedience, and yet never have made a promise of eternal life unto him. And as for the other consequent act of the law, to curse, and punish, this is but an accidental act, and not necessary to a law; for it cometh in upon supposition of transgression: and therefore, as we may say of a Magistrate, He was a just and complete Magistrate for his time, though he put forth no punitive justice, if there be no malefactors offending; so it is about a law, a law is a complete law obliging, though it do not actually curse: as in the confirmed Angels, it never had any more then obligatory, and mandatory acts upon them; for that they were under a law is plain, because otherwise they could not have sinned, for where there is no law, there is no transgression. If therefore the Antinomian were rectified in this principle, which is very true and plain, he would quickly be satisfied: but of this more in another place. But we come to the particulars of the doctrine, the pressing of which will serve much against the Antinomian. Therefore, for the better understanding of this Law of Nature, consider these particulars:

The nature of it in which it doth consist, and that is in those common notions and maxims, which are engrafted in all men’s hearts: and these are some of them speculative, that there is a God; and some practical, that good is to be embraced, and evil to be avoided: and therefore Aquinas saith well, that what principles of Sciences are in things of demonstration, the same are these rules of nature in practicals: therefore we cannot give any reasons of them; but, as the Sun manifests itself by its own light, so doe these. Hence Chrysostom observeth well, that God, forbidding murder, and other sins, giveth no reason of it, because it’s natural: but, speaking of the seventh day, why that in particular was to be observed, he giveth a reason, because on the seventh day the Lord rested, not but that the seventh day is moral, (as some have denied.) but because it’s not moral natural, only moral positive, as the Learned shew.

The difference of its being in Adam and in us. This is necessary to observe; for it was perfectly implanted in Adams heart, but we have only some fragments, and a mere shadow of it left in us. The whole Law of Nature, as it was perfectly instructing us the will of God, was then communicated to him: and howsoever God, for good reasons hereafter to be mentioned, did give, besides that law of Nature, a positive law to try his obedience; yet the other cannot be denied to be in him, seeing he was made after Gods image, in righteousness, and holiness, and otherwise Adam had been destitute of the light of reason, and without a conscience. Therefore it’s a most impudent thing in Socinus, to deny that Adam had any such law or precept, and that he could not lye, or commit any other sin though he would; for, it may not be doubted, but that if Adam had told a lie, or the like, it had been a sin, as well as to eat of the forbidden fruit.

The natural impression of it in us. We have it by nature; it’s not a superadded work of God to put this into us. This assertion is much opposed by Flaccus Illyricus, who, out of his vehement desire to aggravate original sin in us, and to shew how destitute we are of the image of God, doth labor to shew, that those common notions and dictates of conscience are infused de novo into us, and that we have none of these by nature in us. And a godly man, in his Book of Temptations, holdeth the same opinion. Illyricus indeed hath many probable arguments for his opinion, but he goeth upon a false supposition, that the Apostle his scope is, to compare a Gentile supposed only to doe the Law, and not asserted to do it, before a Jew who was an hearer of the Law, but not a doer of it: therefore, to debase the Jew, he saith, the Apostle speaketh conditionally, to this purpose, If an Heathen should keep the Law, though he be not circumcised, yet he would be preferred before you; not (saith he) that the Apostle meaneth assertively and positively that any such doe: and therefore presseth the word…which is a particle of the Subjunctive Mood, and is equivalent to…If the Gentiles, &c. But his supposition is false; for the Apostle’s scope is, to shew that the Gentile hath no excuse if God condemn him, because he hath a law in himself: as appeareth, verse 12. As for the other consideration of…though Erasmus render it [cum fecerint;] yet that particle is applied to the Indicative Mood, as well as the Subjunctive. It cannot therefore be true, which he saith, that the Apostle speaketh such great things of men by nature, that if they were true, it would necessarily justify all Pelagianism. I shall not speak of his many arguments against natural principles and knowledge of a God; for he doth in effect at last yield to it.

The extent of it. And here it’s very hard to measure out the bounds of the law of Nature; for, some have judged that to be condemned by the law of Nature, which others have thought the law of Nature approveth: so true is that of Tertullian, Legem Naturae opiniones suas vocant, They call their opinions the law of Nature. There are four ways of bounding this law. 1. Some make it those general things, wherein man and beast agree; as, defense of itself, and desire of life: but by this means, that of natural honesty and righteousness would be excluded; for, a beast is not capable of any sin, or obligation by a law. And howsoever that be much disputed upon, Why God would have the beast killed that killed a man; yet, to omit the thoughts of many about it, that was not because a beast could be tied by a law: but God, to shew the horridness of the fact, would have the very instrument punished. 2. Some bound it by the custom of Nations, that is, jus Gentium; but that is so diversified, that a sin with some was a virtue with others. 3. Some doe bind it by reason in every man: but this is very uncertain, and one man’s reason is contrary to another’s, and one man’s conscience is larger than another’s; even as it is with measures in divers countries, though they have the same name, as a bushel, &c. yet they are different in quantity, one is larger than another. Lastly, Others bound it by the will of God, declared and manifested first to Noah in seven precepts, and afterwards to Moses in the ten Commandments: but these extend the law of Nature not only to first principles, but conclusions also deduced from thence.

The obligation of it, when the law of Nature doth bind: And that is from God the author of it, God only is under no law. Every believer, though justified by Christ, is under the Moral Law of Moses, as also the law of Nature: but now this law of Nature doth not so properly bind, as it’s man’s reason or conscience, as that it is the Vicegerent of God, or a command from him: and thus Cain by the law of Nature found a tie upon him not to sin, and guilt because he did sin in murdering his brother, although there was no Moral Law as yet given. It is true, indeed, our Divines do well reprove the Papists, for calling all that time from Adam to Moses, a state, or law of Nature: and this the Papists doe, that therefore to offer sacrifice unto God may be proved from the law of Nature; whereas those sacrifices, being done in faith, had the word of God, otherwise we were bound still to offer Lambs or Kids to God, which they deny.

The perpetuity of this obligation. This Law can never be abrogated. And herein we may demand of the Antinomian, whether the law of Nature does bind a believer, or no? Whether he be bound to obey the dictates of his natural conscience? Suppose a believer hath his natural conscience dictating to him, this sin he may not doe; is he not obliged hereunto not only from the matter (for that he grants,) but as it is a law and command of God implanted in his soul? I know there is a difference between the law of Nature, and the ten commandments, as may be shewed hereafter; but yet they agree in this, that they are a rule immutable, and of perpetual obligation. Therefore think not, that because he dyed to free you from the curse of the Law, that therefore you are freed from the obedience unto the law natural, or delivered by Moses. To deny this, is to deny that a believer is bound to obey the sure dictates of a natural conscience. I know we are not always bound to follow what conscience suggests, for that is obscured and darkened; but I speak of those dictates which are naturally known.

Other particulars, as, the insufficiency of it to direct in worship, as also, to save men, I do put off, and make application of what hath been delivered.

Use 1. Of Instruction, against the Antinomian, who must needs overthrow the directive and obligative force of the law of Nature, as well as that of Moses; Doth not even Nature teach you (saith the Apostle?) Now if a man may not care for Moses teaching, need he care for Nature teaching? It is true (I told you) sometimes they grant the Law to be a rule, but then afterwards they speak such things as are absolutely inconsistent with it.

There were some (as Wendelinus reports) Swencfeldians, that held a man was never truly mortified, till he had put out all sense of conscience for sin; if his conscience troubled him, that was his imperfection, he was not mortified enough. I should do the Antinomians wrong, if I should say, they deliver such things in their books; but let them consider, whether some of their positions will not carry them nearer such a dangerous rock: For, if the Law have nothing to do with me in respect of the mandatory part of it, then if I be troubled for the breach of it, it is my weakness, because I am not enough in Christ.

Use 2. Of Reproof, to those who live against this Law. Sins that are against the Law of Nature do most terrify. How many live in such sins that the law of Nature condemneth? Doth not Nature condemn lying, couzening in your trades, lusts, and uncleanness? How many Trades-men are there that need not a Paul? Even Tully in his Book of Offices will condemn their lying, sophisticate wares, and unlawful gain. It’s much how far they saw this way. Sins against natural conscience are called Crying sins; and, though men have repented of them, yet how long is it ere faith can still their cry? Have not many Heathens been faithful and just in their dealings? It’s true, that man hath not godliness, who hath only natural honesty; therefore there are many spiritual sins that he never humbleth himself for: as Paul saith, he knew not the motions of his heart to be sin. Hence men are to be exhorted to get further light, and more tenderness than a natural conscience can ever attain unto. Nevertheless, if men so live, as if they had not this Law in their hearts, they are the more inexcusable: Are there not men who call themselves Christians, that yet the very Heathens will condemn at that great day?

Use 3. Why it is so hard to believe in the Lord Christ; because here is nothing of nature in it, it’s all supernatural. The Papists say, we make an easy way to heaven; for, let a man be never so great a sinner, yet if he do but believe, all is well. Now the people of God, sensible of their sin, find nothing harder for, it’s in the law of Nature they should not lye, or steal, but that they should believe in Christ for pardon, when laboring under their offences, here nature doth not help at all. I acknowledge it’s a dispute among Divines, whether in that law implanted in Adams heart, there was not also a power to believe in Christ, when revealed? But of that hereafter; but the orthodox deny, that he had explicit justifying faith, for that was repugnant to the condition he was in. But the thing I intend is, to shew how supernatural and hidden the way of believing is. No marvel therefore if it be made such a peculiar work of the Spirit, to convince of this sin.”

(Anthony Burgess, Vindication of the Moral Law, Lecture 6)


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