Human Nature and Law by Terry Johnson

Romans 1:18-32

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

"Who are you to impose your morality on us?" snarled an angry radio talk show host, repeating a question that is asked a thousand times a day. The assumption behind the question is that moral choices are entirely a matter of personal choice and preference. The pervasiveness of moral relation is well known and frequently lamented in our circles. Less understood is the assumption that goes with it, that is, that nothing can be said inherently to be suitable or appropriate to the dignity of human beings because human nature itself cannot be known. "What is man?" the Psalmist asks (Psalm 8:1). "We don't know," the contemporary world answers. Consequently all options for man are open.

I was going to entitle this message "Man's Nature and Law. But I knew that my title would be perceived as politically incorrect. Many would be more offended by my use of "exclusive language" than in the subject to be explored. I take this observation as a sign of the depths of silliness to which our civilization has descended. The use of the exclusive term "man" rather than an inclusive term like "humanity" or "persons," would immediately close the ears of those with tender social consciences and end the conversation (though do note the abrasive "man" attached to "hu" and "sons" attached to "per," leading me to suggest to un-amused feminists that we need to start calling ourselves "hupers").

But now I'm getting sidetracked, so back to the point. Behind the title is the observation that previous generations of Americans and Europeans enforced "Christian" moral teaching because they were convinced that human nature could be known. They believed that both Scripture and nature teach what man is. We can know, they reasoned, what is suited to human nature, or compatible with human nature, and therefore right for human beings. Similarly we can know what is degrading to human nature and, consequently, ought to be prohibited, since no one ought to be subjected to that which dehumanizes. There were always gray areas that were debated. But the main outlines of the discussion were agreed upon.

Harmony between the revelation of God in nature and the revelation of God in Scripture is in fact the Bible's own view. The Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 1 is that humanity can know the truth of both God and morals through nature. Regarding God:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Regarding morals, note his argument from nature:

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (Romans 1:26,27)

The "unnatural" is identified with the "indecent' and the "degrading." He said similar things a few sentences before these:

Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. (Romans 1:24)

"Lust" in the heart leads to immorality or "impurity" so that their bodies are "dishonored." That which is unnatural and immoral is also "degrading" and "dishonor(ing)" for its participants. In verse 28 he says further that a "depraved mind" leads them "to do those things which are not proper."

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, (Romans 1:28)

For a mode of conduct to be not "proper" is for it to be unsuited or unfit for human beings, or, in a word, unnatural. "Does not even nature itself teach you?" the Apostle Paul asks elsewhere (1 Corinthians 11:14). Yes, it does teach us. In fact, the Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 1 is that one doesn't need a Bible to know that homosexual acts are morally wrong--nature reveals it. One might call it the argument from anatomy. Nature's design shows us how our body parts are meant to function, and in particular, how the parts designed to generate life were meant to be used. When used contrary to nature and placed where they do not belong is to pervert their function, reject the natural order, and rebel against nature's God. It is s compounding of sin, for it requires a rejection of God's revelation both in Scripture and nature.

This is true not only of homosexuality, but a whole host of sins listed by the Apostle:

being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; (Romans 1:29-31)

He then concludes:

and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)

"They know the ordinance of God," he says. "All people know, by nature, that the comprehensive list of sins in the preceding verses are not only wrong, but deserve God's judgment. There is still a natural law, and all people know it," writes David VanDrunen, commenting on Romans 1 (A Biblical Case for Natural Law, Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2006, p. 18). Further along in his argument the Apostle Paul writes of pagans without the law of Moses:

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, (Romans 2:14,15)

Gentiles "not having the law" nevertheless know the law of God because God has written it "in their hearts," their consciences "bearing witness" to the truth, condemning them or defending them. Again Van Drunen comments:

"This is a natural law because human nature itself proclaims this law and judges whether it has been kept; people are ‘laws unto themselves' because their own nature declares it." (my emphasis, p. 19)

Freedom
The American system never envisioned unfettered human freedom. The founders and their descendants did not mean to create a world in which consenting adults could do whatever they might agree to do. They understood that human corruption is such that individuals and groups might agree to do that or be pressured into doing that which was an affront to the dignity of any human being. Consequently they outlawed prostitution, polygamy, pornography, public nudity, abortion, and sodomy because they were convinced that such behavior is inherently degrading to its practitioners, who often were seen as victims. Another way of saying this is to say that they could not imagine that any sane person, or any person free from desperate personal circumstances, or any person not overcome by soul-destroying greed, would voluntarily agree to sell his or her body, agree to share a bedroom with a second or third wife, agree to strip naked and pose or perform sexual acts for cameras or audiences, agree to kill their unborn child, or agree to sodomize or be sodomized. People are at times overcome by these corrupting afflictions and influences and consent to do the unthinkable. Sometimes they are even convinced, or convince themselves, to murder and rape. Yet society rightly prohibits them from acting on their impulses. Why then does self-degrading behavior persist? We can elaborate several reasons.

    1. Mental incompetence. While on a mission trip to Peru I witnessed an older woman walking down the street with the bottom half of her dress torn away, leaving herself exposed. She seemed oblivious. Those who saw her felt pity. Why? Because we instinctively knew her to be humiliating or degrading herself. She was obviously mentally incompetent. Who else would shame oneself in this way except someone who was mentally deranged? Answer: no one with a clear mind. Those with clear minds do not publicly disrobe, do not perform in pornographic media, do not kill their unborn, or engage in homosexual acts. Only the fog of a sick mind could overcome one's natural defense against moral degradation.
    2. Desperation. Strippers, porn "stars," prostitutes, and women who abort their children are often driven to do so by financial desperation. They perceive that they have no alternatives. So they sell their bodies or destroy their children to avoid poverty or ensure survival. It is interesting that as actresses become more successful they become less and less willing to disrobe. The inherent shame of public nudity is not dissipated by frequency of experience, but only, it would seem, by increasing financial security. What else but fear, insecurity, or despair could persuade one to offer one's body to lecherous men, bare one's body before a world of viewers, or destroy one's unborn child?
    3. Exploitation. Sometimes the powerful are able to provide sufficient financial or vocational incentives, or perhaps social recognition or advancement, to persuade the weak, needy, or vulnerable to prostitute themselves. This reason is closely associated with the preceding, except the motive for consenting is more greed than despair. Secretaries are persuaded to become mistresses, junior partners are persuaded to have affairs, girlfriends are persuaded to abort their child because of an offer that can't be refused. The powerful are able to make the "payoff" so great that the natural resistance of the weak is overwhelmed. Most people will do anything if enough money is involved. Yet should everything be legal? Should we allow, for example, people to sell their organs, an extra kidney for example, if the price is right? Should society allow consenting adults to participate in Gladiatorial Games leading to death if they are willing to do so, having been made willing by the dream of great wealth? or fame? Only the mentally incompetent, the desperate, the oppressed (or greedy) would voluntarily engage in such behavior. Consequently a just and compassionate society would legally protect the exploited ones from the perversion or persuasion of the powerful. A just and compassionate society would understand what man is, would understand what degrades man, and would legally protect the weak from the dehumanizing exploitation of the strong.

Instead our political discourse is dominated by the language of "rights." Freedom for "consenting adults," disregard for "victimless crimes," and the right to do what I want "in the privacy of my own home" are the core concerns of our society.  Popular media indulges benign portrayals of prostitutions ("Pretty Woman"), homosexual romance ("Brokeback Mountain"), and even glamorizes the lives of strippers and porn "stars." Some have even begun to speak of "sex-industry workers" and have contemplated unionization. We are normalizing that which is our shame. We no longer seem to know what man is or care about what humiliates, degrades, and dehumanizes him. Consequently we are no longer able to protect the weak or ourselves from these assaults on human dignity.

Social Schizophrenia
In truth, we know better. Society still will not allow consenting adults to mutilate each other or kill each other. Society will not allow two people to voluntarily establish a slave-master relationship, complete with shackles and chains. Society will not allow a storeowner to turn a customer away from the lunch counter merely because of the color of his or her skin. We still have some sense of what is sick, humiliating, or degrading. Ironically the only group that still employs nature-based moral terminology is the feminist movement. Feminists regularly speak of pornography as objectifying women, as turning women into playthings, into objects that exist for the gratification of men. They speak of this as degrading and dehumanizing for women. The problem is, the feminists cannot answer the question of "why" it is dehumanizing. If all the players in the porn game are consenting adults, why not? Pagan feminists have no answer to that question because they will not acknowledge that human nature can be known and that certain behavior inherently degrades and dehumanizes, while other behavior is fit and apt for human beings.

A preview for a popular show was broadcast during a football game a couple of weeks ago in which a woman in her underwear was to be seen climbing atop a man in an office into which a group of unsuspecting co-workers were entering. My thought: this is animalistic. These are the copulating practices of animals who have no self-control, who wear no clothes, and who know no shame. For the creators of the show it was meant to be funny. Apparently for average Americans it is thought to be funny too. For those who know what man is, it is degrading for all who are concerned: the man, the woman, the writers, the cameramen, and the audience.

Public Moral Environment
Alas, we are dismissed as prudes. But our concerns are more profound than typically realized. As the feminists have recognized, what dehumanizes one dehumanizes all because we inhabit a common social space. We all breathe the same social air and walk the same social landscape. When the threshold of degradation lowers, that degradation spreads and alters our common environment. A modern day Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in the 1950's and awakened in 2000, would be astonished at the commonplace violent, vulgar, brutal, even animalistic images by which we are surrounded. We are assaulted by sensuous images on billboards as we drive down the street, by provocative scenes on the television as commercials interrupt our game-watching, by enticing pop-up invitations as we maneuver on the internet. The normalizing of dehumanizing behavior has cheapened the value of all of our lives. Privacy issues are never quite so simplistically private as some would suggest.

What is man? There can be no more serious question. Yet our society doesn't know the answer. What degrades and dehumanizes man? Our society doesn't seem to know that either. The general public has been disarmed by the language of "rights" and "freedom," and public life is morally at sea, drifting towards a disaster, brought on by a morally degraded, dehumanized, and desensitized citizenry. Consequently one of the tasks of the church today is to remind the world of the dignity and sanctity of all human life. We have a "prophetic" responsibility to speak to our society. What is man? He is made in the image of God. He relates primarily not downward with the animals, but upward, as the Psalmist reminds us, having been made "a little lower than the angels" (Hebrews 2:7,9; cf. Psalm 8:5). Are we thereby imposing our sectarian moral values? No, we ask our countrymen with the Apostle, "doesn't even nature teach you" these things (1 Corinthians 11:14). And does your conscience not bear witness to the truth of what we say (Romans 2:14,15)? As neighbors we should be careful to treat others with dignity and respect. The way that we treat our neighbors should demonstrate our respect for the sanctity of human life. As citizens we should work to protect both the weak and our common public life from the vulgar and crude, and prohibit that which dehumanizes and degrades our fellow-citizens. Our public laws should reflect the dignity and sanctity of all human life by what they allow and disallow, by what they encourage and discourage.

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