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The Law of Nature and Nature’s God: One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways

December 14, 2018

The Sermon on the Mount by Henrik Olrik, c1855. In the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus taught the Golden Rule, to “do to others as you would want them to do to you.”

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 tells much about the founding philosophy of the United States of America.  One philosophical principle that the American Founders asserted in the Declaration was the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.”  This universal moral law served as their moral and legal basis for creating a new, self-governing nation.  One apparent aspect of this law is that it was understood in Western thought and by early Americans to be revealed by God in two ways—in nature and in the Bible—and thus evidences the Bible’s influence in America’s founding document.

The “Law of Nature” is the moral or common sense embedded in man’s heart or conscience (as confirmed in Romans 2:14-15).  It tells one to live honestly, hurt no one, and render to everyone his due.  The law of “Nature’s God” as written in the Bible and spoken by Jesus Christ consists of two great commandments—to love God and love others (as found in Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 7:12, Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-28).  The first commandment, first found in Deuteronomy 6:5, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”  The second commandment, often referred to as the Golden Rule and first found in Leviticus 19:18, is to “love your neighbor as yourself” or, as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Thus the content for both the natural and written laws is the same.

The law of Nature and God can be traced through the history and writings of Western Civilization.  This principle is found, for example, in medieval European thought.  In his 1265-1274 Summa Theologica, published in 1485, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas acknowledged a “two-fold” moral law that is both general and specific: … 

Aquinas explained that the written law in the Bible was given by God due to the fallibility of human judgment and the perversion of the natural law in the hearts of many.  In the 1300s, medieval Bible scholars referred to the “Law of Nature and God” as a simple way to describe God’s natural and written law, its two expressions.  The phrase presented this law in the same order and timing in which God revealed it to mankind in history—first in creation and then in Holy Scripture.

During the Reformation period, French religious reformer John Calvin affirmed this two-fold moral law in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, observing, “It is certain that the law of God, which we call the moral law, is no other than a declaration of natural law, and of that conscience which has been engraven by God on the minds of men.”[2]  He further explains, “The very things contained in the two tables [or commandments in the Bible] are…dictated to us by that internal law which…is…written and stamped on every heart.”[3]  Incidentally, Puritan leader John Winthrop, who led a large migration of Calvinist Puritans from England to the American colonies, identified God’s two-fold moral law in his well-known 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, delivered to the Puritans as they sailed to America.  He taught,

There is likewise a double law by which we are regulated in our conversation one towards another:  …the law of nature and the law of grace, or the moral law and the law of the Gospel….  By the first of these laws, man…is commanded to love his neighbor as himself.  Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law which concerns our dealings with men.[4]

During the Enlightenment period, British philosopher John Locke, who was influential to the Founders, wrote of the “law of God and nature” in his 1689 First Treatise of Civil Government.[5]  This law, he further notes in his 1696 Reasonableness of Christianity, “being everywhere the same, the Eternal Rule of Right, obliges Christians and all men everywhere, and is to all men the standing Law of Works.”[6]  English legal theorist William Blackstone, another oft-cited thinker of the American founding era, recognized the two-fold moral law in his influential 1765-1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England.  This law, he believed, could be known partially by man’s imperfect natural reason and completely by the Bible.  Due to man’s imperfect reason, Blackstone like Aquinas observed, the Bible’s written revelation is necessary: …

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

Founding-era Americans themselves recognized the two-fold moral law of nature and God.  American revolutionary leader Samuel Adams was, for example, one significant voice on the law of Nature and God during the American Revolution.  He referred to this law as the source of man’s natural rights in his 1772 Report on the Rights of Colonists, asserting, “‘Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty’ in matters spiritual and temporal is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature.”[8]  Later, in a 1792 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Adams again referred to this two-fold law:

All men are equally bound by the laws of nature, or to speak more properly, the laws of the Creator.  They are imprinted by the finger of God on the heart of man.  Thou shall do no injury to thy neighbor, is the voice of nature and reason, and it is confirmed by written revelation [in the Bible].[9]

In his 1796 Senate notes, American Founder and second president John Adams recognized the two-fold Law of Nature and God as the same moral law:

One great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great principle of the Law of nature and nations—Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you—to the knowledge, belief, and veneration of the whole people.[10]

Official Portrait of U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson

American Founder, Supreme Court Justice, and lawyer James Wilson elaborated on the natural and written moral law in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law: …

Both the natural and written law, Wilson emphasized, are given by God and necessary for fully understanding God’s moral law.  He explained, “The law of nature and the law of revelation [in the Bible] are both divine.  They flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source.  It is, indeed, preposterous, to separate them from each other.  The object of both is to discover the will of God—and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.”[12]  This law, Wilson asserted, upholds the maxims to obey God, to injure no man, and to faithfully fulfill one’s engagements.

In conclusion, while Americans have complete religious freedom and are not required to hold a religious belief in the Bible or Judeo-Christianity, it is important for Americans to recognize and appreciate that the early colonists held a certain philosophical worldview when founding the United States.  This worldview derived largely from Western thought and their beliefs and values.  Indeed, they apparently affirmed the two-fold idea of a moral law for mankind, found in nature and the Bible.  When the Founders wrote the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” into the Declaration, therefore, they were likely referencing the law that came not only from human nature and reason but from written revelation in the Bible.  Thus the Declaration, as Gary T. Amos observes in his Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, “makes the Bible a fundamental part of the legal foundation of America.  …The phrase…incorporates by reference the moral law of the Bible into the founding document of our country!”[13]

Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, c1818

The Declaration’s “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” serves not only as the legal basis for the American founding but is also a testament to the philosophical, religious beliefs and values of a people who sought to create a godly, free, and just nation—a nation that closely reflected the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It is the creed of a people who sought to abide, with God’s grace and help, by God’s law of love.  Citing the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35, American Founder Benjamin Rush expressed well an American view of such values in a 1791 letter on the “Defense of the Use of the Bible in Schools:”

Let us not be wiser than our Maker.  If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into our world would have been unnecessary.  He came to promulgate a system of doctrines, as well as a system of morals.  The perfect morality of the Gospel rests upon a doctrine which, though often controverted, has never been refuted.  I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.  This sublime and ineffable doctrine delivers us from the absurd hypotheses of modern philosophers concerning the foundation of moral obligation, and fixes it upon the eternal and self-moving principle of LOVE.  It concentrates a whole system of ethics in a single text of scripture:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.”[14]

Michael Novak in his On Two Wings:  Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding affirms the biblical, Judeo-Christian values that influenced early Americans and shaped the American founding:  “In those days, faith permeated philosophy and lifted it above its own limitations.  …  The vast majority of the American Founders and the whole ratifying people thought and acted in the conviction that the American theory of rights is religious as well as reasonable.”[15]

[1] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, pt 2/Q 91, Article 5, trans Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros., 1947) in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ccel.org <https://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/home.html >.

[2] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3, bk. 4, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia, PA:  Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 534-535.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion:  A New Translation, vol. 1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Printed for Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 430.

[4] John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630, in Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794, ed. Edmund S. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 2003), 75-93.

[5] John Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government, in Two Treatises on Government, bk. 1 (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 142, 157, 164.

[6] John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, as delivered in the Scriptures, Second Edition (London:  Printed for Awnsham and John Churchil, 1696), 21-22.

[7] William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries in Five Volumes, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 1996, 2008), 41.

[8] Samuel Adams, Report on the Rights of the Colonists, 20 November 1772, in American Patriotism:  Speeches, Letters, and Other Papers Which Illustrate the Foundation, the Development, the Preservation of the United States of America, comp. Selim H. Peabody (New York:  American Book Exchange, 1880), 33.

[9] Samuel Adams to the Legislature of Massachusetts, 17 January 1794, in The Writings of Samuel Adams:  1778-1802, vol. 4, ed. Harry A. Cushing (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), 356.

[10] John Adams, Diary, Notes of a Debate in the Senate of the United States, 24 August 1796, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 3, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston:  Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 423.

[11] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 104, 120.

[12] Wilson, Lectures on Law, 120.

[13] Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), 60.

[14] Benjamin Rush to Rev. Jeremy Belknap, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible in Schools,” Philadelphia, 10 March 1791, in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd ed., by Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 105.  John 13:34 states:  “A new commandment I [Jesus] give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

[15] Michael Novak, On Two Wings:  Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco, CA:  Encounter Books, 2002), 82.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Sources for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Aquinas, Thomas.  The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Part 2, No. 1/QQ 1-XXVI.  Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  New York:  Benziger Brothers, 1911.  Google Books.  See Question 91, Articles 4 & 5, and Question 94, Article 5.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
3.  The American Revolution
4.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
5.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
6.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
7.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
8.  The American Quest for Self-Government
9.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
10.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
11.  The Law of Nature in the Bible

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 1, Activity 6:  Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration, p. 237, 372-376.  MS-HS.

Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration…. 

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, God as Supreme Judge, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Rule of Law, Popular Sovereignty, and Consent of the Governed, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1 to 7.12, 7.18, & pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Matching Card Game:
Beforehand, the teacher should print, copy, and cut the matching game cards for a class set.  If students work in small groups of 2 or 3, the teacher will only need to create 10-15 plastic bags of cards to make a class set.  Before the game, the teacher should show and discuss the art image “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo with students.  Students should be familiar with this image before playing the game.  Follow game instructions.  See “The Creation of Adam” Michelangelo painting and the “Matching Card Game” instructions and cut-outs in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 372-376.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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