God, Religion, and the New Natural Law


Despite differences in particular religious commitments, a significant number of theists share reservations about the natural law. Natural law theory overlooks the Fall, arrogates the domain of revelation, attempts obligation without divine command, and treats God in the generic and thus in terms alien to the believer—just some of the many objections.[1] In this short essay I offer a broad defense against these charges, particularly claiming that understanding natural law through human subjectivity recognizes how humans actually know and so consequently preserves the uniqueness and transcendence of God.

Appealing to authorities within the religious tradition may go some distance in answering objections, for theology and sacred text tends to vindicate the natural lawyers, especially if the religion has a doctrine of creation. But the charges may have particular traction against the so-called New Natural Law Theory (NNL), with its first-person perspective. As Christopher O. Tollefsen explains, the NNL takes seriously “considerations concerning the nature of human action,” particularly intentions as “agent-centered, or first-personal … from the point of view of the agent as seeking some good.” It is, he continues, “only by adopting the perspective of the acting person that an agent’s action can be best understood.”

NNL operates within the modern philosophical tradition of the turn to the subject, and categorizing the theory in those terms partially explains the ambivalence of certain theists. The turn to the subject, as Bernard Lonergan puts it, studies “oneself inasmuch as one is conscious. . .attends to [conscious] operations and to their centre and source which is the self.”

From the internal point of view of the subject—the concrete, individual, conscious self—human nature and essence are not known first, but last. What we notice first are the objects of consciousness (what we intend or seek) and only then the acts of mind by which the objects are intended, and only then the powers of the soul. (In my judgment, no one explains this better than Lonergan in Insight.) As John Finnis, a major figure in the NNL explains, “one must first know the objects, and thus. . .the characteristic human acts, and thus the human potentialities, and thus the human essence or nature.”[2] Likewise, Robert George argues that human nature is not known first “but would depend. . .on data provided by practical inquiry, reflection and judgment. Those who claim that theoretical knowledge of human nature is methodologically prior … have things, in this respect, exactly backwards.”[3]

Turning to the subject is dangerous business, many think. Etienne Gilson made the epistemological objection that consciousness was a trap from which knowledge never emerged. Heinrich Rommen argued that the natural law required metaphysical foundations rather than consciousness. Others reject the first-person account as overly individualistic and ignorant of the social nature of personhood; if reason is dialogical and interpersonal through and through, it would be regressive to turn to the inner recesses of the subject. Many followers of the theologian Karl Barth argue that emphasizing sociality respects the proper Trinitarian nature of God, whereas the turn to the subject tends to describe God in the generic terms of natural theology. Worse, the turn to the subject replaces God with the subject’s own experience, voiding the primacy of God and tending towards a theological liberalism powerless against Nietzsche and heirs. As Robert Jenson articulates, without God as the originator of dialogue and narrator of the world, “human consciousness is too obscure a mystery to itself for us to script our own lives.”

There are, thus, epistemological and metaphysical objections, and possible worries that NNL misunderstands the communal nature of human reason, formed, as Christians believe, in the image of a Trinitarian community, while supplanting the authority of God with our ephemeral and radically historical subjectivity. In much mainstream theology, unlike NNL, the subject is “de-centered,” overcome by the turn to language and community with social, historical, hermeneutical, and contextual limitations—the death of the subject has been announced for some time now, and yet NNL persists in its “first personal” approach.

In the face of this massive criticism and trajectory of thought, why persist in the turn to the subject? Does the emphasis on the first person in the NNL render it incompatible with the primacy of God?

Perhaps an oft-quoted Thomistic principle is helpful; namely, “The thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower” (ST II-II 1.2). Or, in other words, humans know things the way humans know things, and not in any other way.

In defining the natural law as “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” (ST I-II 91.2), Aquinas claims that the law is known in human mode, which is why he makes the analogy between the knowledge of precepts of the natural law and first principles of theoretical reason—just as being is the first object of the theoretical intellect, so good is the first object of practical reason (ST I-II 94.2)—neither is known by super- or sub-human means. We know the precepts of natural law in the way that humans know things, for all things are known according to the mode of the knower.

Aquinas is clear that humans do not have innate knowledge (ST I 84.3), but that we arrive at understanding and judgment through our own intellect and its powers. Beginning with some sort of experience (either of sense or of consciousness), humans work through inquiry and “abstraction” to understand and make judgments of truth and value.

This account of knowing—we experience, understand, and judge by the means of our own power—is irrefutable, non-revisable, and consistent. Irrefutable: argue that Aquinas is wrong without appealing to some data of experience, without using some understanding, and without making a judgment. Non-revisable: improve or augment his account without doing what he predicts you’ll do. Could anyone provide a better account of knowing that doesn’t always make use of experienced data, possible understandings, and judgments? Consistent: many accounts of knowledge contradict themselves, but Aquinas suggests we know ourselves (and our mode of knowing) in the same way we know the world, i.e., we experience, understand, and then judge ourselves, which is why we know neither our essence nor intellect immediately: “That which is first known is an object … and through the act the intellect itself is known” (I 87.3).

As I read NNL, such is the claim. John Finnis, for example, explains “the principle that truth. . .is worth pursuing is not somehow innate, inscribed on the mind at birth. . . . [T]he value of truth becomes obvious only to one who has experienced the urge to question. . .who understands that knowledge is constituted by correct answers. . . .” In other words, we reasonably judge the value of knowledge only after we’ve experienced its pursuit and understood what truth is. Basic goods are known according to the mode of the knower—us. Further, NNL claims that while basic goods are not derived they are defended dialectically in that any rejection is “operationally self-refuting.” That is, NNL defends itself as irrefutable, non-revisable, and consistent—which is deeply in keeping with the mode of human knowing as articulated by Aquinas, Lonergan, and other proponents of subjectivity properly understood.

So the main reason to continue with the turn to the subject is that we are, after all, subjects who know things the way humans know things—and this claim cannot be refuted or altered without deep incoherence. NNL simply articulates the way things are. Now, if NNL reflects the way humans know and act, then we should be able to respond to the earlier objections given a full understanding of the human subject and the mode of our knowing.

NNL correctly claims religion as a good knowable to reason, but reason claims religion as a good from within the mode of natural or proportionate reason—religion known according to the mode of the knower. So reason can indicate the desirability of knowing God from the standpoint of reason, and, further, reason also tells us the desirability and goodness of knowing God in a mode transcending our proportionate nature. Aquinas, for instance, is able to argue that beatitude or union with God is our complete happiness and ultimate end, just as he’s able to argue that we cannot attain beatitude without a relationship with God transcending our causal power.

Thus, natural law can tell us that (1) union with God is our final end, and (2) that attainment of this final end transcends what is proportionate to us. We can reasonably distinguish our natural desire to have religion from our desire to have union with God. Our apprehension of the good of religion is a wholly natural desire expressed in our dynamism to know all things; we can, by our own power, seek to know everything about everything including knowledge of God insofar as God is knowable by reason. This desire is human, proportionate, and natural.

But we can also desire to know God per se, not merely as first principle but as personal and loved in the beatific vision (or however various religious traditions describe union with God)—this too is a human desire. It is the same human desiring, God is the fulfillment of both desires, but the mode differs radically. In the first mode we are the agent, in the second God is the means by which we attain God. There is one end—God—and two modes (one proportionate and the other not) by which we desire and know God, and neither threatens the other.

Consequently, if we take seriously the human subject, if we know ourselves as we really are and as we really act, then we can reasonably argue that the natural law in no way supplants the act of God in originating dialogue or providing commands insofar as we seek union with God as God is and not merely as we can naturally know the first cause. The mode of human knowing reveals the limits of human knowing and the possibility of knowing elevated by God to modes not proportionate to our own natural powers.

The means by which we overcome the objections to the turn to the subject, thus, is to go all the way into a study of the subject, not by skirting the subject. Perhaps we could even claim that the NNL, with its focus on the subject, particularly safeguards the transcendence of God. Just as God is not threatened when he allows Moses to inscribe the second set of tablets as He dictates, so He delights in our subjectivity as we know those goods of human flourishing, including religion.

R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.


[1] For helpful background, see Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). For discussions on the nuances of natural law as related to revelation, with implications for the so-called new natural law, see Thaddeus Kozinski’s piece “What’s Good? Wherefore Ought?” and J. Budziszewski’s “The Second Tablet Project.”

[2] John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983), 21.

[3] Robert P. George, In Defense of the Natural Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 90.

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  • A Traditionalist

    Your defense of New Natural Law is interesting. Are you willing to accept the implication that you are really a Kantian via your identification with such a school of thought?