Third Mill Q and A

Posted: March 29, 2010 in Uncategorized


Is Natural Law the same as General Revelation?

I have a question concerning Natural Law.  I just finished reading your article and I was wondering if natural law is essentially general revelation.  If not how are they distinct?

Are you saying that in order to understand natural law adequately you need the “spectacles” of scripture?  If so, and if general revelation and natural are the same, are the primary purposes of general revelation to condem the unbeliever and to glorify God?


Natural law is essentially the moral content of general revelation. Natural law THEORY consists of various views of how to extract and use that moral content.

Natural law theorists differ somewhat among themselves. Since I wrote that paper, I’ve read books by Jay Budziszewski, which I’ve found very impressive. He uses natural law mainly as a moral argument for God’s existence and then as an indication that we need much more than NL, which we find in Scripture. I disagree with Jay on a few things, but generally he and I are in synch.

Roman Catholic versions of NL theory tend to be unpersuasive to me. The idea that birth control is wrong because it breaks a “natural” connection between sex and procreation seems to me to be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. Further, I disagree with the “two kingdom” folks who think that we should try to enforce politically only the contents of natural law and not the contents of Scripture. Rather, I believe that Christ is Lord of all, even politics, and that our goal should be nothing less than a Christian society.

Indeed, I believe that you can’t adequately understand NL without the spectacles of Scripture.

The primary purpose of NL-General Revelation is of course to glorify God (Psm. 19:1). That’s true of everything. The more specific purpose of General Rev. is to leave the unbeliever with no excuse for his sin (Rom. 1). But GR also, of course, serves to help the believer apply Scripture to his daily decisions. It furnishes minor premises for moral syllogisms.

answer by John Frame

  1. J. Budziszewski says:

    John, thank you for your kind words. Since you seem to put me on your side concerning the so-called naturalist fallacy, though, let me add a few words of clarification. Those who hold that classical natural law reasoning commits a naturalist fallacy argue that it is impossible to infer an “ought” from an “is” — that purely descriptive premises aren’t enough to generate an evaluative conclusions — and that natural lawyers don’t grasp the point. How should one respond? To be sure, classical natural lawyers agree that some ways of getting from descriptive premises to evaluative conclusions are fallacious. For example, it would be fallacious to argue “Frank is presiding over the meeting, therefore Frank ought to be presiding over the meeting.” This may be the sort of thing you are worried about. In other words, you may fear that classical natural law thinkers reason that whatever is the case, ought to be.

    That’s not in fact how we reason. On the other hand, there are some perfectly valid ways to get from descriptive premises to evaluative conclusions, and we do use those. For example, in a seminal article in 1956, the analytical philosopher Peter Geach called attention to an interesting difference among adjectives. Adjectives, of course, serve a descriptive purpose. Now as Geach pointed out, certain kinds of descriptive adjectives, called “predicative,” mean the same thing no matter what kind of object they refer to. For example, the descriptive adjective “red” is predicative — “red” means the same thing whether we are talking about a red hat, a red ball, or a red rock. But Geach went on to explain that certain other kinds of descriptive adjectives, called “attributive,” don’t mean the same thing no matter what kind of object they refer to. For example, the adjective “fast” is attributive — the rate of speed that “fast” indicates in the case of a fast walker isn’t the same thing as what it means in the case of a fast rocket ship.

    Now let’s ask a question. Which kind of adjective is the adjective “good”? Is it predicative or attributive? Obviously, it’s attributive — a good thighbone is “good” in one sense, but a good pencil is “good” in a different sense. If “good” has so many different meanings, then how do we know when an object is good and when it isn’t? Geach’s answer was that we bear in mind the function of the object. A thighbone is good if it is suitable for supporting the body, because supporting the body is its function. A pencil is good if it is good for writing with, because writing is its function. But do you see what Geach has done here? He has shown how a purely descriptive premise (what the function of a thing is) has perfectly valid evaluative implications (a thing is good when it fulfills its function).

    In fact, the possibility of this kind of inference is built right into our everyday language — it’s reflected in the two kinds of descriptive adjectives — which themselves, I may add, reflect something about the structure of created reality. Failure to notice the difference between the two kinds of descriptive adjectives is probably at the root of the complaint about the so-called naturalist fallacy.

    That may be a bit abstract. Let me bring it down to earth. The function, or inbuilt purpose, of eyes is that they see. That’s a descriptive premise. But if seeing is their function, then eyes that see well are good eyes, and eyes that see poorly are poor ones. Already we have an evaluative conclusion. We can generate a second evaluative conclusion too, because good is something that ought to be pursued; that is simply what it means for something to be good. Therefore, the appropriate thing to do with poor eyes is to help them be good ones. If it were really impossible to derive an ought from the is of the eye’s function, then the practice of medicine would make no sense!

    The natural functions of things, by the way, aren’t just in the eyes of the beholder. They are in the things themselves — built into the design of God’s creation — and they can be empirically investigated, just like other facts. We don’t just imagine that the function of the eyes is to see; we infer it from the double fact that (a) they do see, and (b) apart from their doing so we have no way to explain why we have them. In exactly the same way, we can infer the functions of the respiratory powers, the sexual powers, the capacity for indignation, the faculties of reasoning, and so on. These functions ought to be respected and not undermined.

    Recognition of the purposes built into creation is only one of the ways that classical natural law theory learns from general revelation. Other ways include the witness of deep conscience, which St. Paul said is “written on the heart,” and the witness of natural consequences, which kicks in when we ignore the other witnesses. However, those ways don’t concern us at the moment.

    You remark that the mode of reasoning which I have been describing is a “Catholic” way of thinking. As a Protestant-friendly Catholic, allow me to comment that until quite late in Protestant history it was also a Protestant way of thinking. Calvin embraced it, and he also embraced its implications, for example the wrong of artificial contraception. The procreative and unitive functions of the sexual powers are linked. What God has joined by the order of His creation, let no man put asunder.

    I am not much of a blogger, and will give you the last word, but readers who wish to know more might want to take a look at my 2009 book, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (

    Pax Christi,
    J. Budziszewski

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