Created things have a purpose: unpacking some thoughts on ‘natural law’ and how Christians think about beauty

There’s this idea doing the rounds (apparently) that I don’t believe in natural law.

I’m not sure why this idea is doing the rounds (making it all the way to theology lectures at a local Bible college). I guess if there aren’t that many people pumping out content into the Internet, the people who do become interesting enough to discuss.

But this is a pretty major misunderstanding of my position on the created world, and one that I feel I should at least be clear on because it has pretty major implications for stuff like how we Reformed Christians tackle issues like sexuality.

I’ve tried to articulate this paradigm a bit before, but maybe this is a chance for me to be clear. This week at church we’re hitting part 3 of a mini-series on Ecclesiastes, within a series on Wisdom in the Bible, looking at wise use of God’s good world.

Like Proverbs, and Song of Songs, I think Ecclesiastes operates as a commentary unpacking how Solomon wasn’t actually wise, despite the narrative in 1 Kings, because he didn’t ‘walk in the way of Wisdom’ or ‘fear the Lord’ — he didn’t follow Deuteronomy’s commands to “love the Lord with all his heart,” instead, his heart was given to worshipping created things instead of the creator. The narrative about Solomon starts with him asking for a listening, or discerning heart, and then finishes with his heart being led astray to idols because he gave it to the wives God had told him not to marry (in Deuteronomy). Solomon is a picture of the way idolatry corrupts our relationship with nature. And so, Ecclesiastes uses a Solomon like figure and his exploration of giving his heart to all sorts of created things to find meaning, only for him to discover that these created things are ‘hebel’ — the Hebrew word often translated as “meaningless” — the message of Ecclesiastes is that these created things are like vapour; you can’t grab them or build a meaningful or truly wise life by giving your heart to them.

There are bits of wisdom along the way in Ecclesiastes, in its critique of Solomon’s idolatrous wrong use of creation (it’s the thing that ultimately explains how Israel split into two, and how both the north and south ended up in exile). One of the tensions Ecclesiastes brings to the surface for us is unpacked in chapter 3:

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. — Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

Our hearts are wired to be satisfied by something eternal — something that will endure forever — but we keep wanting to satisfy that hard-wired desire not with God, because we can’t get our heads or hearts around him, but with the beautiful things God made. We, in the words of Romans 1, “worship and serve” created things rather than the creator, hoping they’ll fill a void that only God can, and, in Romans 1 this leads to all sorts of grasping and destructive behaviour — but also, it leads to pluralities of sin (systems even) where God doesn’t just give individuals over to their sinful desires, clouding their thinking, but plural thems. In the Old Testament we see this both in idolatrous empires that are condemned for shared idolatrous practices (like at the start of Leviticus 18), or Egypt and Babylon as idolatrous systems with utterly different images of God (and so, of ‘law’ and nature), and Israel taking on corporate idolatry so that they become like the nations and so are sent to live with them in exile. Idolatry and its impact on our thinking and our hearts isn’t just a personal matter, in the Bible, but a cultural one — and cultures become blind to “natural law” or to the created purpose of the things God has made — the more they are impacted by shared idolatrous worship and practices. Calvin expressed the dilemma this way:

…the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols… The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth…”

This area of theological thinking is called ‘the noetic effect of sin’ — the idea that sin (whether individual and original, or systemic/corporate) leads us to wrong thinking or knowledge about God’s world. This means though natural law exists, all of us (because we have idolatrous hearts at birth, and live in cultures impacted by various idolatries that blind us) have trouble recognising natural law; that we do at all is because of God’s “common grace”, or, because sinful idolatry hasn’t yet eradicated the image of God in us (though, over time, the Bible does suggest we “become what we worship,” and this seems observably true of individuals (like Solomon) and nations (like Babylon)).

Wisdom, though, lies in using created things according to their natural design or order or law. Created things — that God has made “beautiful in their time” have a purpose; Ecclesiastes suggests that wise use is to not turn these things into idols, but see them as gifts from God, and so fear him — doing the Deuteronomy thing of loving him with all our hearts, and the Genesis thing of being his image bearing representatives who steward the world according to his purposes as agents of his nature. Romans 1 suggests that “what has been made” (including people) has a function of “revealing God’s invisible qualities,” his “divine nature and power.” I would call this a telos woven into the natural order, and so, I think it is appropriate to operate with a category of ‘natural law’ where “right” or “wise” use of creation (not idolatry, but receiving it as a gift to be stewarded to reveal God’s nature) is what we humans were made to do; and, where we are condemned and face judgment for our failure not just to obey written laws (like Solomon), but this natural law as well. I think when Romans talks about humanity in Adam, and the law, it’s not just talking about Israel being under the law, but also about natural law — our use of creation — and our wrong use of creation condemns us.

Also, with plenty of modern scholars (and not so much with older Reformed thinkers, like those who framed the Confession), I believe Paul is speaking about his pre-conversion experience in Romans 7 — that he is unpacking not just life as an Israelite under the law, but, because he has been universalising the Gospel and its implications so as to include idolatrous gentiles exiled from God because of Adam’s sin, gentiles under God’s natural law (see what he says about gentiles — those without the written law — and nature (natural law even) back in Romans 2:14-15). In Romans 7, Paul is definitely predominantly reflecting on his experience as one who had the written law though, but he has spent the preceding chapters joining the Jewish and Gentile experiences of sin, and re-creation. In chapter 7 he is unpacking the tension between being made in God’s image (common grace), having the law (written, though perhaps also the ‘law written on people’s hearts from chapter 2), and being profoundly impacted by original sin (and the impact of idolatry, and the mind and heart altering slavery to sin and the ‘flesh’). It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the flesh is essentially ‘natural’ — our sinful natures are our natures in Adam (something he unpacks more in 1 Corinthians where the ‘natural’ (or, in the Greek, the ‘psyche’ man) is played off against the spiritual (or, in the Greek, the pneuma man) in chapter 2, and in chapter 15 he makes it clear that the ‘natural’ man is ‘in Adam,’ while the Spiritual man is ‘in Jesus’). When we speak of ‘natural law’ we have to take into account that we are, by nature, unable to really grab hold of the created order because of sin. We can’t even do it when we have special Revelation (God’s word). Because we are idolaters who worship creation rather than the creator.

Paul describes the tension thus (and it’s interesting that the word translated in verse 14 as “unspiritual” is actually just “fleshy”):

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? — Romans 7:14-24

Now. A traditionally Reformed reading takes this as an account of total depravity (which it is), and of the ‘simul justus et peccator’ (simultaneously saint and sinner) nature of Christian life. And so, the Christian has to spend their life mortifying the flesh, seeing ourselves as wretches who aren’t so different from how we were before Jesus rescued us. I’m not interested in rejecting total depravity, or the idea that, this side of glory, God’s sanctifying work does not include mortification; it absolutely does. Our hearts have been conditioned by sin — both inherited and cultural — and we’re not great at recognising just how embedded sin (and idolatry) is not only in our own hearts, but in our societies and structures. And yet, our hearts that were once totally ‘curved in on themselves’ and given to worshipping creation in the place of the creator have been made new. We have the rescue that Paul was experientially crying out for before his conversion — the natural person has given way to the spiritual. We are no longer in Adam, but are in Christ — we are now being transformed into his image, in, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, ever increasing glory. We are not just called to mortify sin, but we have been vivified. We are not just called to stop idolatrous use of creation from idol-factory hearts, but to re-embrace right use of creation as God’s image bearing stewards who he is making more like Jesus. We have a king “greater than Solomon” who leads us home to God, rather than into exile, and models wisdom for us, and new hearts — brought about by the Spirit — that mark us as children of God and allow us to obey both the revealed law of God — especially Jesus as the word made flesh — and natural law, taking created things and using them for their created purpose — to reveal the divine nature and character of God.

If we read Romans 7 the way the Reformers did — in their desire to uphold both the total depravity of man, and the ongoing effect of sin this side of the New Creation, we miss that according to Romans 8 we are already (but not yet fully) vivified new creations in Christ. This leads to an ethic that focuses on mortification with one hand tied behind our back; because the best mortification flows out of vivification — we don’t just avoid wrong uses of creation brought about by disordered hearts and their disordered idolatrous loves, but from discovering right use of creation, and living wise lives that line up with natural law, or nature’s telos. This isn’t to say the Reformers missed out on the importance of vivification, or union with Christ, but that often our use of their understanding of sin is clunky (and that sometimes our forbearers got their exegesis wrong and we’ve got hundreds of years of faithful Biblical scholarship that we should start incorporating into our doctrine and ethics).

Our minds (and desires) are changed by the Spirit. Paul says that people without the Spirit can’t obey God’s law — and if this is true of revealed written law, how much more is it also true of natural law where we’re dealing with the very things we choose to worship in the place of God? Romans 8 says:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. — Romans 8:5-11

If people have the Spirit, they have a different approach to God, his law, and his world. We become people who have the Spirit of new life living in us. There is a massive and glorious ontological shift that makes us heavenly creatures who are united in Jesus and raised with him (not just from death, but into the heavenly realm), not earthly creatures like Adam. There is a whole ethical field available to us that was not previously possible. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus in order to be glorified; and not all of this is in the future — life is given to our mortal bodies because God lives in us now.

Which means we can live wise lives with the world — not like Solomon — we don’t take fleeting vapour and try to satisfy our longing for ‘eternity’ from the created things God made, worshipping and serving them in the place of God, but, instead, can conform our use of nature to God’s natural law in ways that reveal his divine nature and character. We don’t worship the things God has made beautiful in their time, but through them, we worship God. The telos of the beauty God made is for God to be worshipped as creator.

And so, Paul’s intro to all this at the start of Romans 7 should shape our understanding of life in and with the world (and how to read Romans 7 and 8). We are now able to live a “new way” — fruitfully — rather than “bearing fruit for death”…

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. — Romans 7:5-6

And this will involve a fair bit of unlearning patterns of life and uses of nature that come from our old selves, and from humanity in Adam — not just individually, but seeing how idolatry creates systems of sin that misuse nature; it will involve seeing how idolatry blinds people to natural law (and leaves them grasping after natural things to satisfy the eternity written on their hearts), and seeing too that proclaiming natural law, just like proclaiming God’s law, to hearts without the Spirit brings condemnation and judgment, but proclaiming the Gospel and inviting people to have hearts changed by the Spirit is God’s solution to disordered human lives, and to helping people rediscover the telos of the created world as we discover his divine nature and character most perfectly displayed in Jesus.

The Gospel might just be more compelling if we, God’s new creation people, live lives with God’s creation that wisely reveal his divine nature and character. That might be part of fleshing out the Gospel. So natural law is important. Those things we call ‘created ordinances’ like marriage, and sabbath (and even breathing) have a telos, and we humans are blinded to God’s good design by confusing the beauty of created things like sex, or rest, with the beauty they were made to reflect and throw us towards. Our job as Christians is to use that beauty to point to God’s beauty.

Paul unpacks this a little, including by providing a new pattern for non-idolatry, in 1 Timothy, arguably Romans 12 is also a great place to go to see a payoff from our false worship in Romans 1-2 being corrected by the Spirit so that we become true worshippers of God, but in 1 Timothy 4, Paul talks about false teachers who’ll over-react to idolatry by saying God’s created world is bad and should be avoided while we embrace spiritual existence, he says of these teachers:

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. — 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Now. Here’s the payoff for those who’ve followed this whole way.

This framework is why I don’t think making natural law arguments for definitions of marriage in an idolatrous culture was a good strategy. Idolatry blinds people to truth about nature. But it’s why I think Christian marriages that are lived according to natural law, to “reveal the divine nature and character of God” as we receive marriage (and sex) as a good gift from God with thanksgiving are a compelling testimony to the goodness of God. It’s also why those committed to celibacy in order to conform their Spirit-filled lives to God’s natural law are a powerful testimony to God’s divine nature and character as well.

This framework is also why I’m much more supportive of ‘Side B’ Christians; those who are gay or same sex attracted who align their lives with God’s revealed and natural law but attempt to discern a vivified ‘vocation of yes’ with their recognition of beauty in people of the same sex (attraction), than to ‘ex gay’ and affirming Christians who either try to ‘mortify’ sin without vivification, or not mortify sin at all (not recognising the impact of idolatry on our culture and desires).

Side B Christians might use various language, including “celibate gay Christian” to describe their experiences and even their vocation as new creations; acknowledging an attraction to people of the same sex; a recognition of beauty; this attraction (in the testimony of Side B Christians) includes but is not limited to sexual attraction. In the classic Reformed tradition (in which I stand) a disordered sexual desire is to be mortified, it is part of our total depravity/original sin/fleshly nature — but, one way this disordered desire can be mortified might include discovering and practicing the right use of the object of that disordered love and the beauty that has prompted the idolatrous desires.

This is where the distinction between “same sex attraction” and “same sex sexual attraction” is profoundly important. This is a distinction that Side B Christians regularly make, including when they use “gay” to describe “same sex attraction” not just “same sex sexual attraction” — that we would do well to heed. I think this is particularly important in order to be pastorally consistent. I find all sorts of women attractive without desiring sex with them, though my disordered sexual desires spring out of this attraction to women I find beautiful — a “right use” of that beauty for me is not simply ‘not lusting’ but also ‘thanking God’ and loving the person as God calls me to, as a sister. I don’t tell blokes in my congregation struggling with porn, lust, or sexual sin not to love women, or to find them beautiful, but to cultivate a recognition of attraction, or reception of feminine beauty made by God, that isn’t sexual. To glorify God and see his ‘divine nature and character’ in what has been made — including his image bearers — not to idolise or grasp or give our hearts to them (even in marriage) like Solomon did. This is wisdom.

And, while we’re on the issue of pastoral consistency — the spectre of ‘conversion therapy’ looms pretty large in any conversation like this; the ex-gay or ‘not side B’ camp that focuses on mortification or a ‘vocation of no’ and lumps all ‘same sex attraction’ in the ‘disordered love’ basket (not just sexual attraction) runs the risk of justifying various forms of conversion therapy that we’d never implement in pastoral care for an unmarried heterosexual person. While marriage might be ‘an option’ for a single Christian who lusts, it is not the solution, because marriage is a voluntary and mutual union and there’s no guarantee that any single person will enter such a union. The solution is godliness, not marriage. And I’m not sure we’d ever try something like aversion therapy for a heterosexual person, where we teach them to be repulsed by the beauty of women, we would, intuitively (and rightly) encourage people to cultivate right seeing and loving of people we might otherwise desire. It’s also worth pointing out that porn culture and purity culture have bought into the idea that all attraction is sexual, that every interaction is potentially going to lead to sex, and that ‘purity culture’ with heterosexuals has been super damaging because it ends up not being a form of ‘aversion therapy’ for the person struggling with lust, but one where the objects of lust are forced to take responsibility for the perverted male gaze (amplified by porn culture). We’re in all sorts of trouble and the way forward in heterosexual sexuality might also be cultivating a better approach to beauty, rather than aversion, or the pornification of Christian marriages (the sort described in a recent episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill). Neither marriage, nor aversion, is the best pastoral response to someone struggling with lust — cultivating godliness as a vivified person who sees fellow images of God revealing the divine nature and character of God, for his glory, is… that is, after all, the chief end of man (and so should shape how we respond to other humans, and see their ends). This piece from Christ and Pop Culture remains the best article I’ve read on this topic.

The Side B Christian who, by the Spirit, puts to death their sexual desire or sexual attraction — that which involves desires for a wrong use of a person God has made beautiful in their time — by rightly ordering their attraction (a recognition of created beauty) in order to glorify God, seems to me to be fighting with both hands – living new life vivified by the Spirit, with a new capacity for righteousness (right living in accord with God’s nature, as revealed in his written and natural law) as new creations being transformed into the image of life, and through that right use of creation (receiving it with thanksgiving, recognising the divine nature and character of God as creator, and glorifying God through obedience, while recognising beauty he has made according to the telos of that beauty) is a way of life that reads Romans 7 and 8 together, not just one that reads Romans 7 as describing the reality of life for a believer now — one where we constantly look over our shoulder trying to kill the sin behind us, rather than one that looks forward to our new creation life and tries to live by the Spirit towards that telos now.

I don’t think this puts me outside the Reformed theological camp — unless to be Reformed is to read Romans 7 the way some Reformers did, but rather, I think it’s a consistent outworking of not only the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity, but also the Reformed doctrine of Union with Christ. That is, it’s because I believe, with Calvin, that the human heart is an idol factory, that idolatry blinds our hearts and minds (as a judgement from God), and that Paul is talking about pre-conversion life in Romans 7, that I am suspicious of uses of ‘natural law’ in politics and ethics for non-Christians (but big on their role in the life of the new-created Christian), but it is also that I believe that our salvation involves our justification and sanctification being brought about by the Spirit dwelling in us and uniting us with Christ that I believe not only should we ‘mortify’ the old self and its passions and desires, but also, new and glorious life is the project for Christians as we testify to, and anticipate, the future return of Jesus.

We need vivification, not just mortification, or we’re only fighting the Devil and his minions with one arm.