Acton Institute Powerblog

Logic, Natural Law, and Right Reason

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In some of my reading lately, a connection occurred to me of the sort that is so obvious once consciously realized that you feel almost idiotic for not making the linkage before. G. K. Chesterton considered logic to be a tool, an instrument of reason to be used only in service of the truth. He writes,

The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic.

In this Chesterton is emphasizing the importance of first principles, or principia. He summarizes it this way: “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it” (G. K. Chesterton, Daily News, Feb. 25, 1905). Taken by itself, logic alone is ambivalent, in the sense that it can be pressed into the service either of truth or of falsehood.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a similar observation with regard to the natural law, understood as distinct from and not dependent on special revelation. He writes, for example in the case of the state,

But both the concept of the contents of natural law are equivocal (depending on whether this natural law is derived from certain particular data or from certain particular standards); and it therefore fails to provide an adequate basis for the state. Natural law can furnish equally cogent arguments in favour of the state which is founded on force and the state which is founded on justice, for the nation-state and for imperialism, for democracy and for dictatorship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” in Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995], 334).

In this way, Chesterton and Bonhoeffer make similar cases regarding the characteristics of logic and natural law, if both are abstracted from a dependence on biblical revelation.

This connection should not really be all that surprising, as Bonhoeffer himself identifies a created or natural law with reason: “Reason—law of what is created—of what exists” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles West, and Douglass Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005], 362).

All this follows a long tradition of relating natural law and reason in the Christian tradition, and is itself continuous with the contention of the Eminent Pagan, Cicero, who equates the two: “There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil” (Cicero, De Re Publica, Book III). Aquinas reiterates this connection, defining natural law as “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (Summa Theologica, II.91.2).

Aquinas’ definition is cited approvingly by the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, who says, “the lawe of nature is that light and iudgement of reason, whereby we doe discerne betwixt good and evill” (Wolfgang Musculus, Common places of Christian religion, trans. John Man [London: Henry Bynneman, 1578], 69). In this way, elements of both Protestant and Catholic natural law traditions have identified the natural law with “right reason,” picking up on the Ciceronian theme.

As Chesterton notes, the “rightness” of the reason depends on the proper foundation, that is, the truth of Biblical or special revelation. It is a fundamentally Augustinian point that reason alone, without illumination, cannot reach true first principles about the existence, attributes, and character of God. This is where the discontinuity between the pagan and Christian concepts of natural law come in. There is fundamental agreement about the methodology, so to speak, of natural law as “right reason,” but disagreement about the particular content of that rightness and the abilities of natural man to pursue it. For reason to be “right,” it needs the benefit of special revelation.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Michael JR Jose

    Well I think that Chesterton has it right, and Bonhoeffer does not. One of my old psychology lecturers enjoyed pointing out that syllogistic reasoning can be accurately and logically carried out on any mythical beast or power or substance, such as dragons or The Force or phlogiston, but the truth of it depends on starting with real observables.

    CS Lewis in ‘The Abolition of Man’ (and elsewhere), makes it clear the PRECEPTS of the Natural Law (he calls it the ‘Tao’, Confucius wd be proud of him), are above all simply SEEN to be the case, that we should ‘do good and turn from evil’, qv, Psalm 34). That ‘do as you wd be done by’ and ‘do not do what you do want done to you’ are two sides of the same logical coin is a basic moral perception. You have to be taught these as moral facts, not decide if you agree or not. Grass is green, the sky is blue – you are taught the colours, it is not your choice or deduction. (And let there be no trivia about labels: ‘verde’ is green in Spanish, and ‘chloros’ is green in Greek, this is mere phonics.)

    Bonhoeffer, like many a Protestant, is redefining the Natural Law to a lower status without explicitly stating his demotion from the Plato-Aristotle-Aquinas-Hooker classical standard. This is a biblical position (Rom. 2:15). He is trying to blindside the natural knowledge of good and evil (as the apostle Paul says ‘written on the heart’) because he wants to elevate the status of biblical revelation. Man is not so Fallen as that. If a man is pathologically or socio-pathologically incapable of seeing good and evil, right and wrong, he is eventually locked up, neutralised, or eliminated in one way or another. Bonhoeffer is too subjectivist and too relativistic for his own good, or at least the way he is presented here he is. If Man had no conscience before he was saved, he would have no guilt before he was saved, which is when his guilt is taken away! The Fall is not absolute in this respect. The corruption of the Will is also severe, but not complete. Martin Luther himself did not subscribe to so negative or subjectivist position as Bonhoeffer (see last chapter of ‘Written on the Heart’ by J. Budziefski for quotes.)

  • Michael,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and engaging response. I think we read B. differently on this point, esp. as related to the one quote I passed on, which I doubt is enough to explicate a full view of B.’s view on the grounding of ethics. From this quote, B. seems to me to be making the same point as Chesterton…right reason, logic, or natural law, whatever you want to call it, needs to be founded on the correct first principles in order to work properly.

    I have made the case elsewhere that B. is not Barthian on this point, although his formulation of natural law is not without its problematic aspects. To sum up very simply: B. argues for what I would call a Christological natural law, whose ontological foundation is in Christ the Logos. This natural law can be participated in by pagans, but they can never achieve true epistemic perspective on the One who is the ground for the world, the natural law, and so on. The end of the quote from above which I omitted may illumine this a bit more: “A solid basis is afforded only by the biblical derivation of government from Jesus Christ. Whether and to what extent a new natural law can be established on this foundation is a theological question which still remains open.”

    Another relevant quote on the following page here: “for pagan government the answer is that there is a providential congruity between the contents of the second table and the inherent law of historical life itself. Failure to observe the second table destroys the very life which government is charged with preserving. Thus, if it is properly understood, the task of protecting life will itself lead to observance of the second table. Does this mean that the state is after all based on natural law? No; for in fact it is a matter here only of the government which does not understand itself but which now is, nevertheless, providentially enable to acquire the same knowledge, of crucial significance for its task, as is disclosed to the government which does understand itself in the true sense in Jesus Christ. One might, therefore, say that in this case natural law has its foundation in Jesus Christ.”

    You also have to take into account what the term “natural law” is understood as within the context of the Barth-Brunner debate and the state of theology in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, that is, as something that can simply be argued from without any reference to or grounding in special revelation. The difference may be in what is understood as the necessary first principle, whether it is the moral observables you speak of, or the Bible. Aquinas, I think, inclines toward the latter, at least within the context of this discussion of the role of argumentation and logic.

    In response to the question whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument Aquinas [url=]writes in part[/url]: “the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of fai!
    th by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.”

  • Peter Escalante

    The thesis of this article seems to be that as material logic is to formal logic, so is to special revelation to natural law. But this is not true in the traditional understanding. Chesterton’s point is sound because formal logic can indeed make valid propositions with ghost terms, which are not objectively true. But natural law is not a formal system; it is the inner sense of the right lines of human being, and thus of human action. Natural law is more a kind of ontological truth, and thus has no “valid/true” distinction within itself as logic does. Where one might find something like that distinction in ethics would be in the question of “valid positive law”, in a purely formal sense, and natural law which is the measure of all true positive law. Positive law can get it wrong while having the form of law; natural law can’t.

    That said, what the whole Christian tradition agrees on is that the heart of man is depraved, and that his self-interest interferes radically with his ability to will and do the Good as he was created to. Special revelation and the grace of God work to correct this, but, grace does aid and presuppose original and remnant nature. Further, although I agree with Mr Ballor’s reading of Bonhoeffer and not with Mr Jose’s, the picture of the Protestant take on natural law given by Mr Jose is only true of many Protestants after Kierkegaard, and true of almost none of them before him. The Reformers and the mainstream Protestant tradition all had a high view of natural law and remnant reason for purposes of civic righteousness; it was with regard to heavenly, original righteousness that they thought that one needed to look wholly outside himself for the work to be done. Hooker, as the work of WJT Kirby and others has demonstrated, was simply the close disciple of Luther and Calvin. None of the classic Protestants were really Biblicist in the sense of thinking that remnant natural reason was to be replaced by the Bible (mis)construed as a system of creational knowledge, nor did they think that natural law needed the data of special revelation (they thought rather that the pure natural law and the law of God were identical). It was rather that human actors needed grace and the illumination of special revelation to be truly righteous and for unobstructed proprioception of natural law. Roman and Protestant Christian basically agree on this, but Roman Christians regard the magisterium of a persona moralis, the visible church, as the organ of authoritative apperception of natural law, whereas evangelical Christians regard the regenerate of heart of real persons as the authoritative organ. And both agree that non-believers are quite capable of wide and deep knowledge of creation,and civic righteousness in sometimes even heroic degree.

    Lastly: Bonhoeffer is right about natural law and the State. States are communities, and their law is positive and customary; natural law, as such, is not and cannot ever be the direct foundation of a political community. It is, however, the inner and transcendent life and measure of the historic and positive law; a measure in principle accessible to both believer and unbeliever. But the Reformers and the Protestant consensus after them definitely denied that specially revealed Mosaic law is somehow the norm of the positive law of Christian commonwealths, except insofar as it simply set forth the natural law, or insofar as it happened to be exemplary to reason. Hence, again, special revelation did not stand, for them, to the natural law as material logic does to formal logic.



  • Joe


    If we start with the most basic Natural Right of free will, then all natural law follows as the right to something implies the right to that which is necessary to exercise it.  Furthermore, it would be difficult to argue that our free will is not self-evident to all men, and also an inalienable part of our nature as, essentially, our will defines us.  So, assuming these precepts, free will gives us a right to our life, so we can sustain and exercise our will; the right to our labor, so we can seek food and shelter to sustain our life; the right to MOVEABLE property which we create through the use of that labor and which is necessary to sustain our life, and even then, only so long as we retain the active use of that item.

    Now here’s the crucial part of this line of reasoning: if there is no such thing as the Creator, then everything we do is a function of some natural law which governs the universe, just like the Newtonian laws which govern the motion of bodies.  If everything we do is a function of the universe, then we have no more choice in our actions than a body has in how it moves.  This leads to the negation of the very CONCEPT of morality: there can be no right/wrong if there is no choice.  And if there is not choice, there is no free will, yet we all KNOW we have free will.  Arguments that we only perceive to have free will do not hold; they fall under the condemnation of logic being able to argue in both directions.  If there is no such thing as free will, then you should never be able to even imagine it.  But you can imagine concepts that do not and will never exist because you are capable of creating, which is an act of will, which ultimately points tot he necessity of a Creator.

    Further evidence for this is found in the record of human society.  ALL societies have shown certain common understandings of morality.  For instance, ALL known societies have had some notion of murder, and have held it to be wrong.  Even cannibals and sacrificial societies have held the notion of a wrongful killing.  Where they differ is in how they define what constitutes murder.  This is better described as culture, not as differing moral codes.  This strongly suggests the factual existence of a universal moral law, which in turn requires a transcended authority to establish.

    Respectfully submitted for your consideration.