For a simple, general definition of Natural Law as used in the field of Ethics I can best borrow that given by J. Gottschick in the Schaff—Herzog Religion Encyclopedia since the term has a long history and the definition varies with the conceptions of God and the Cosmos.
The above work defines as follows: “Those absolute and universally valid imperatives and that are innate (inborn) in the reason of every individual and necessarily come into consciousness with the development of the mind.”
The writer further elucidates as follows: This thought originated with the Stoics who wished to show that “the good” is not binding because of arbitrary human statute, but because of inner necessity, and to establish, in contrast to the former ethical particularism, a system of morals binding on every one. The thought was plausible by reason of the fact that among the peoples of the earth a far reaching unanimity in moral judgment actually prevailed.
History tells us of the mighty tyrants of the empires of which Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome are so well known to us from the Bible. Gibbon in his—“The Decline and Fall of Rome.” Vol. IV. Ch. 44, gives a full picture of the Roman state among which he quotes from one of the ancient codes, “The pleasure of the emperor has the vigor and effect of law, since the Roman people, by the royal law have transferred to their prince the full extent of their own power and sovereignty.”
So highly exalted above the people was his despotic majesty that he was deaf and insensible to the interests and desires of the people and held in his hand their fortunes and lives.
Into this dreadful darkness there was injected a natural light by the influence of Greek philosophy which sought after the fundamental relation and purpose things and the ethical values of life. Consequently they taught that there is a higher law which obtains above the will of citizen.
When the Christian Church began its spread and influence in the nations it was of course immediately confronted with the question of its own authority. It taught as we know, that there is a kingdom of God whose law is the Word of the Gospel yet at the same time it felt that it did not have dominion over all of life but stood before the question in how far its Gospel and doctrine was also regulative for the life of the state and apparently somewhat unconsciously it took over from the existing general ethics that which seemed unobjectionable and reasonable and added to it the principles and spirit of the gospel of love.
However not only did the church confess the abnormality that had come into the world by the fall, but even the unbelieving ethic held that there had once been a golden age wherein there had reigned a natural law of freedom and equality—a time that, alas, was no more. And so the logical conclusion seemed to be that the natural law only has relative force, and the inequality and violence and oppression which resulted from sins entrance made necessary the bridle of governmental force.
It was especially Augustine (354-430) who labored through his great gifts and deep biblical insight, to trace the principles for the organization of the church and for the civil polity, in such a way that the two might be brought into harmony of conception. He took his stand in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as Creator. Even though that original creation was broken by sin this did not affect the reality that God still controlled the broken world by His laws and to His purpose.
The two parts of the broken creation he called the “City of God” and the “City of the World.” And although the great earthly states are often the concrete embodiment of the city of the world, they are not necessarily so and may become by ordering their polity and life according to the doctrine of Scripture, a manifestation of the city of God, For this state the laws must be in harmony with the eternal law of God, although they are founded upon a natural law increated by God in the mind of man, as afterward reasserted in Scriptures. Thus the state is the type and shadow of the righteousness of God’s dominion, and under the guidance of Christ’s law of love, does have its own organization, but is subordinate to the Church’s place and purpose as City of God.
With Constantine we have a Christian Emperor and with him the beginning of a nominally Christian empire. From that time there arises through the edicts of the pope and the decisions of the Synods a new body of law alongside the old Roman civil law- system. It is known as Canon law that is, the canonized edicts and decisions of the church as they were used also in civil affairs. This of course became a tremendous source of influence in the life of the European Middle ages. And thus it comes that through the ages there is the stream of Natural-law and Scriptural principles combined ruling the life and thought of the peoples.
However, from this principle there were departures to the right and to the left, either depending upon the philosophy of the leading figures or the utilitarian consideration of the times or both.
In the Italian Renaissance we have a Macchiavelli (1469-1527) who sets aside the entire traditional ethics and religion and builds his civil polity upon the law of necessity, that is, political necessity. And whatever necessity may dictate as advantageous to the state the ruler is justified to resort to. Thus his book “The Prince” presents a system of unscrupulous political trickery as a civil polity.
On the other extreme we have those who set the natural law even above the will of God and maintain that due to the primacy of the intellect man can know and trace these eternal principles by reason even if there were no God.
But there is a distinct contribution made to the entire field of natural law by the great Remonstrant Hugo de Groot (rotius-1483-1645) who is known as the father of Natural Law. His motive was to find a law or principle for the ordering of the disrupted civil and religious Europe of his day,—a law that lay above the religious divisions. In his classic work “Concerning the Rights of War and Peace” he sought to point out such a universal code of civil conduct, a kind of international law. In evolving this structure Grotius uses a two-fold approach, 1. He tries to prove that a thing does or does not necessarily accord with the rational and social nature of man, 2. he observes the conduct of all peoples and from the thing they all do and feel in common he distils natural laws and from these he draws out the practical precepts. This approach rests on the supposition that what is everywhere found must have a deeper common cause. And strange though it may seem to us who are accustomed to the one rule of morals of Scripture, Grotius easily tolerates a disharmony between his ethics and his natural-law principles.
The attitude of the Reformers is instructive in this respect.
Melanchthon, the most liberal of the Reformers, under the influence of the Scholastic Theology, uses quite freely the conventional conception of “law of nature,” “natural rights” of which we and all people have an inborn knowledge. For this there is, of course the presupposition in the teaching of Scripture, Rom. 2:15.
Luther has a more negative look upon the state. He does teach that the state has its authority from God, but on the other hand that the kingdom of the magistrate is the kingdom of the world, and is thoroughly evil. The civil power has the calling to avert a general self-destruction, but if you are the victim of all manner of violence in that world do not be surprised. That is the way of things in that realm. With its wrath and sternness it is a picture of hell.
(It is Calvin who saw also here, better than the other Reformers, sees the true relations and the place of natural law. Being on the one hand, bound by the teaching of Scripture, especially, Rom. 1:19 and Rom. 2:15, to the fact that there is a natural revelation of God. He also saw the depravity of the mind and held that all natural knowledge was to be completely checked by Scripture’s light.
Coming to Kuyper, we have a very large development of the theory of natural law, because Kuyper has, of course given a complete Staatkunde worked out in great detail. However with Kuyper we have the strange phenomenon that in the period from 1880 to 1894 the term natuurlijke Godskennis (which is closely related, to natural law) has given way to the term Gemeene Gratie.
However, Kuyper maintains that the government has in Holy Scripture the basic principles, the natural theology can even at its highest stage only give in a very weak form.
Summarizing, I think we may establish the following: