Thursday, December 11, 2008

Putting James Wilson in Context

In reading James Wilson's work, one understands why many Roman Catholics may feel an affinity for the US Founding, despite the fact that the "Protestant" US Founders oft-expressed appalling anti-Roman Catholic bigotry: The US Founding heavily relied on natural law theory and Roman Catholics have embraced natural law through the teachings of Aquinas, who in turned adopted natural law from Aristotle.

Protestants have differed on whether natural law with its excessive use of reason and its antecedents in Aristotle is compatible at all with biblical Christianity. Francis Schaeffer, for instance, didn't think so. Tom Van Dyke, in this comment, nicely sums up why Christianity and natural law are compatible:

Paul in the Epistles sez that the natural law is written on man's heart. That's how Aquinas could give the pagan pre-Christian-era Aristotle his props.

It's not "reason" exactly. It's our human nature, our humanity itself, just as God created us. Some soft spot that lets us love art and not be robots. Aristotle found his way not only with an open mind but with an open heart. Aristotle was a mensch. If you know your Yiddish, a mensch has a brain and a heart. Otherwise, he's not a man.

Compare Aristotle with [the modernist] Thomas Hobbes, who made a damn good argument that we're just sophisticated and calculating social animals, and you see the difference.

America's Protestant natural lawyers rarely cited Aquinas but they did cite Locke, who in turn cited Hooker who in turn was the Anglican heir to Aquinas. AND the Founders loved Aristotle as well.

But one thing to understand about the natural law -- and this is something that Christian America apologists often don't get -- is that it defines as what man discovers from reason. And, though, ultimately "Christian" natural law believes in the synthesis and perfect agreement of reason and revelation, it eschews simply looking up verses and chapters of the Bible as proof texts and quoting them as trumping authority. So if one is a Protestant like Francis Schaeffer who likes to do that because man's unregenerate reason is the "devil's whore" as it were, the natural law of the American Founding (i.e., "the laws of nature and nature's God") is not likely to resonate with you.

And so it is that I am going to post a long excerpt from James Wilson's Works. Wilson was one of the most important Founding Fathers, one of six (I believe) who signed the Declaration and the US Constitution. And he played a key role at the Constitutional Convention. And, as a common lawyer and expositor of how Americans viewed "the laws of nature and nature's God," he is a much better authority than Blackstone who was an English Tory who believed in the very Parliamentary supremacy against which America revolted.

Wilson's theories, as we will see shortly, are certainly reminiscent of Aquinas'. After quoting this long excerpt, my next post will feature some reasons why evangelicals/fundamentalists don't embrace the natural law. In short, it's too "man" centered and philosophical. It DOESN'T view the Bible as central. I quoted all of Chapter 1 and about half of Chapter 2. I end at a point in Chapter 2 where Wilson refers to the natural law as that which is written on man's heart by God, the point of connection between the Bible and Aristotle to which Mr. Van Dyke alluded. Wilson rarely cites scripture in an authoritative "verse and chapter" sense. There are however, some biblical references very mildly peppered throughout; the bulk of said contents are derived from natural law reasoning-philosophical rationalism. The same thing can be said of John Witherspoon's Lectures on Moral Philosophy which are not at all Calvinistic but rather the product of Witherspoon's naturalism and rationalism. Indeed there Witherspoon relies on Samuel Clarke the British naturalist-rationalist Anglican divine who was nearly defrocked for peddling Arianism in the Church.

Anyway, here is a long excerpt from Works which hopefully helps to put Wilson's theology of law into better context: [For the sake of space please see Wilson's quoted excerpt here at Positive Liberty.]


Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

I haven't read Wilson yet, so I'll hold off commenting on other stuff you say here, but I have a few nits to point out that do not rely on Wilson:

You omit the most important questions when you claim "one thing to understand about the natural law ... is that it defines [natural law] as what man discovers from reason". The critical questions that this leaves unasked, but which the founders asked and answered in protestant Christian terms, is where does natural law get its authority from, how much authority does it have, and who can enforce this authority? Specifically, does natural law give subjects authority to revolt against a legitimate sovereign, even one ordained by the Christian church?

Regarding Blackstone and revolution against parliament, it is incorrect to suggest that Blackstone would be irrelevant to the founders because he supported "the very Parliamentary supremacy against which America revolted". The founders supported the same sort of parliamentary supremacy as Blackstone, they simply pointed out that America had its own assemblies, which didn't go by the name of parliament but otherwise had the same sovereign function in America that parliament had in Britain.

Our Founding Truth said...

America's Protestant natural lawyers rarely cited Aquinas but they did cite Locke, who in turn cited Hooker who in turn was the Anglican heir to Aquinas.>

Kristo, Hooker did not get his authority from Aristotle, but from Paul in Romans 2:14-15.

. . . an exact rule wherby humane actions are measured.(64) The rule to measure and judge them by is the law of god . . . Under the name of law we must comprehend not only that which god hath written in tables and leaves but that which nature hath ingraven in the hartes of men. Els how should those heathen which never had bookes but heaven and earth to look upon be convicted of perversnes? But the Gentils which had not the law in books had saith the apostle theffect of the law written in their hartes. Rom. 2 (FLE 5:312).

Hooker believed obviously, since he was a Christian, reason inferior to revelation:

The lawe of reason doth somewhat direct men how to honour God as their Creator, but how to glorifie God in such sort as is required, to the end he may be an everlasting Saviour, this we are taught by divine law, which law both ascertayneth the truth and supplyeth unto us the want of that other law. So that in morall actions, divine lawe helpeth exceedingly the law of reason to guide mans life, but in supernaturall it alone guideth. (Lawes I.16.5; 1:139.3-10)

I don't know if you read my earlier post on another thread, it was our church reading for two sunday's ago; how ironic, but Biblical Natural Law is 700 years before Aristotle, given to us by David in Psalm 40:

8I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You can deal with OFT as you'd like. I've spent enough time engaging him that I'm now inclined to ignore him; he's incorrigible. I could argue that he's exhibit a of Barton's malign influence, but I realize that would be unfair to Barton.

OFT knows little about history of philosophy [for instance he apparently doesn't know that Hooker was the Anglican heir to Thomas Aquinas and Aquinas derived his theory of natural law by explicitly relying on Aristotle and incorporating his teachings into Christendom] and likes to throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall and sees what sticks. Sometimes something insightful will stick. But most of it is either reading things into the record that are not there and non-sequiturs (i.e., for any lurkers unaware of the term, conclusions that do not logically follow from the evidence presented).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Despite eliding Aristotle, the quotes here are apt. And we may note that the Psalms likely predate Aristotle.