March 10, 2011

The Law of Nature (or Conscience)

By C.H. Dodd

"When Gentiles who have no law obey instinctively the Law's requirements, they are a law to themselves, even though they have no law they exhibit the effect of the Law written on their hearts, their conscience bears them witness, as their moral convictions accuse or it may defend them" (Romans 11:14-16).

Verses 14-15 are conceived in the same spirit as 1:19-20. Pagans have in "natural religion" both a knowledge of God through His work in creation, and also a knowledge of the eternal principles of right and wrong, a "law written on their hearts;" and so, although they "have no Law" (in the sense of a special revelation) yet "they are a law to themselves."

Here Paul comes very close to the Greek moralists. Thus Plutarch (quoted by Wettstein on this passage) asks, "Who shall govern the governor?" and replies, "Law, the king of all mortals and immortals, as Pindar called it; which is not written on papyrus rolls or wooden tablets, but is his own reason within the soul, which perpetually dwells with him and guards him, and never leaves the soul bereft of leadership." Similarly, Aristotle says, "The cultivated and free-minded man will so behave as being a law to himself" (Eth. Nic., 1128A).

This inner law, according to the Stoics, is the "law of nature". Their teaching was that, as the whole universe is rational, each member of it has an immanent law of its being which is consonant with its function in the whole. Thus, for man, right and wrong are determined by the immanent law of human nature as such; and man, being himself rational, is capable of discerning this law and living by it. What is in this sense "natural" is right; what is "contrary to nature" is wrong. A man's "conscience" - that is, his consciousness of himself as a rational and moral being - recognizes the immanent law of his nature, and judges his own actions by its standard. This doctrine of the law of nature and the judgement of conscience is perhaps the most important permanent contribution of Stoicism to ethics.

The Stoics invented the term "conscience", and Paul is speaking exactly like a Stoic when he says, "Their conscience bears them witness, as their moral convictions accuse or it may defend them." Neither for Paul nor for the Stoics is conscience a legislative faculty: it does not make the law; it recognizes it and judges conduct by it. The law is for the Stoic the law of nature, for the Jew the Law of Moses, for the Christian the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) or, which comes to the same thing, the Law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:2). This saves the Stoic and Pauline doctrine of conscience from the anarchic individualism which is the danger of some modern forms of doctrine.

Now for Paul the Mosaic Law is the most complete revelation of the will of God there is, in terms of precepts and prohibitions; but the "law of nature" is not a different law, but only a less precise and complete revelation of the same eternal law of right and wrong. Thus the pagan's obedience or disobedience to the law of nature is on all fours with the Jew's obedience or disobedience to the Law of Moses.

In spite of his pessimistic judgement on pagan society, Paul here admits at least the possibility that "Gentiles who have no law obey instinctively [literally, "by nature", in accordance with Stoic teaching] the Law's requirements." Nor is this a merely formal admission in passing: he makes use of it in his argument that a good pagan is better than a bad Jew (2:23). For the purpose of his general argument, he takes the extreme view that no one, whether Jew or pagan, does or can obey the law; but in concrete cases he allows that in some measure at least the good pagan (and of course the good Jew, as he implies in 2:28) can do the right thing. We note this as against the doctrines of "total depravity", and the complete impotence of the human will, which have been attributed to Paul. He would no doubt have agreed with the pessimistic author of 2 Esdras with whom he has so much in common: "Thou shalt find that men who may be reckoned by name have kept Thy precepts; but nations Thou shalt not find" (2 Esd. 3:36). His immediate point, however, is to maintain against his supposed Jewish interlocutor that the pagan has just as good a chance of being "acquitted on the day when God judges the secret things of men" (v. 13), as any Jew, just as the Jew who sins "under the Law" is as certain of condemnation as those who "sin outside the Law".

From The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Fontana Books (1959) pp. 61-62.