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Creation or Nature? Or both? Oliver O’Donovan and Carl F. H. Henry on Natural Law, the imago Dei, Creation, and Gender Distinctions.

November 20, 2020
By Tim Walker

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.

As the distinction between the genders continues to be erased, Christians must wrestle with how they will engage their non-Christian, secular neighbors with what they know to be true about God’s world. In engaging their neighbors, Christians have God’s special revelation that tells human beings they are made in God’s image as distinct, complementary genders, male and female. What Christians have wrestled with for millennia is whether they have moral resources outside of God’s special revelation in Scripture to make appeals to their non-Christian neighbors for an objective moral, natural law. Particularly for our time, on what grounds do Christians engage their non-Christian neighbors about the objective reality of gender distinctions and a normative nature to those distinctions? At the root of these questions lie discussions about natural law, the doctrine of creation, the imago Dei, and divine revelation.

Christian ethicist, Daniel Heimbach, offers a sufficient definition of natural law. According to Heimbach, “this moral ideal or ethical law is in some way present in nature or the natural order of things; that what this moral ideal or ethical law demands is knowable in some natural way (by reason, or intuition, or experience, or sensation) by men in their natural state (apart from revelation, regeneration, or specialized training); and that what this moral ideal or ethical law requires may or may not be the same for all people, for all time, in all places.”[1]

Carl F. H. Henry and Oliver O’Donovan are two prominent Protestant moral theologians who have developed public, political theologies apart from natural law theory. They provide accounts of the objective moral character of creation and human beings as made in the imago Dei yet without appealing to natural law. Rather, their accounts are thoroughly theological, while affirming that the normative features of reality and humanity can be and are known by even those who do not have Christian presuppositions. By looking at their treatment of natural law and their proposals for Christian engagement with the world around them regarding gender distinctions, Henry and O’Donovan both show that Christians have the rich theological resources of the doctrine of creation and the imago Dei at their disposal for moral reflection and cultural engagement. Though having those resources, unresolved ambiguities in Henry’s and O’Donovan’s treatment of natural law show that Protestants can embrace natural law while maintaining robust commitments to the doctrine of creation’s and biblical anthropology’s role in moral reflection and engagement.

Henry, The imago Dei, and Divine Revelation

Henry was a Baptist theologian, professor, the first editor of Christianity Today and a leader in the burgeoning evangelical movement that came out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early twentieth century in the United States.[2] Coming from the Baptist tradition, Henry was an early advocate of evangelical social and political engagement and frequently argued in his writings against what he called natural law “strategies of engagement.”[3] Henry thinks Christians have the sure foundation of God’s moral law in the special revelation of Christian Scripture, and they can and should appeal to that revelation when engaging in society, politics, culture, and their non-Christian neighbors.

In addition to having the epistemic resources of Holy Scripture, humans are made in the imago Dei and thus able to receive divine revelation, but with the caveat that being made in the imago Dei does not guarantee true moral knowledge about God’s world. Finite creatures, especially post-fall, need God’s revelation in his word to know God’s moral will for their lives. In his discussion on the imago Dei, Henry asks whether any moral content can be established by humans merely from being created in the imago Dei. Henry gives three reasons that no detailed theory of morality can be developed by solely being made in the imago Dei. First, because humans are sinners, they know the imago from the perspective of revolt against God. The imago remains, yet the moral content of the imago is falsely perceived and exposited by sinful human beings. Second, general revelation does not define the precise moral content given in the pre-lapsarian imago Dei. He says, “Scripture assuredly exhibits the moral claim in its fullness. It is certainly more comprehensive in content than is our knowledge solely from general revelation.”[4] Third, because God addresses humanity in statutes and precepts in external revelation, even to pre-fall humanity, the creation narrative gives evidence of the necessary dependence on divine revelation for an adequate knowledge of the moral content of God’s will.[5]

Henry concludes that the image of God in humanity only establishes human beings’ capacity for a relationship with God and provides for moral accountability. Every human being is guilty of sinning against the law that they know based on their being made in the image of God. Rebellious humanity uses the “law written on their hearts” to erect “spurious alternatives to the Divine moral law which enable him in self-delusion to ‘justify himself’ by works.”[6] Henry thinks that any morality that is not directly established on or does not appeal to divine revelation is an attempt by fallen humanity to circumvent moral accountability to God and establish moral integrity apart from the work of Christ.[7] Nevertheless, some moral knowledge survives the fall; and because of the enduring nature of the conscience post-fall, “the moral content which man always bears because the imago enters into the stuff of which ethical theories are made.”[8] Ethical theories are put together wrongly by “man-as-sinner.” Consequently, an “ethics of natural-law” is ruled out, because “the sinner in the handling distorts the imago-content.”[9]  Though Henry wants to affirm some moral content to the moral knowledge known via conscience in the imago Dei, he is skeptical of any attempt of sinful, and more particularly unregenerate, humans to reconstruct or construct the elements of that moral content, like is done in natural law theory.

In a 1995 First Things article, Henry addresses natural law specifically and defines it as the term “used to mean a body of ethical imperatives supposedly inherent in human beings and discovered by human reason. It, therefore, differs from statute law, from the supernaturally revealed law, and even from so-called ‘laws of nature.’”[10] Henry recognizes an ambiguity in the term natural law, but he seeks to differentiate it from any moral law that is merely subjective, evolutionary, pragmatic, or existential and even from the transcendent supernatural (divine revelation). Instead, natural law refers to that

set of ethical norms and imperatives that they commonly perceive without dependence on supernatural disclosure and illumination. Humanity, in short, universally knows a body of morally binding laws that shape a common pattern of social behavior, and moreover knows these imperatives without reference to transcendent revelation.[11]

Any argument for the natural law must be made on natural foundations rather than supernatural ones.[12]

Henry argues that three basic contentions of natural law have evoked broad evangelical objections.[13] These are “(1) that independently of divine revelation, (2) there exists a universally shared body or system of moral beliefs, (3) that human reasoning articulates despite the noetic consequences of the Adamic fall.”[14] Henry affirms these three objections first by epistemically grounding morality solely in both general and special revelation; second, he argues that the imago Dei makes human beings able to receive this revelation; and third, due to the noetic effects of sin, all humanity misinterprets this divinely-revealed morality in general and special revelation and actively uses it in rebellion against God.

Henry grounds knowledge of the divine, moral law in divine revelation, particularly special revelation. In his critique of natural law, Henry asks the following epistemological question: “If, as champions of natural morality insist, human nature is inherently structured with imperatives, how can humans know that these very requirements are ethically legitimate?”[15] He challenges the natural law theorists that they cannot appeal to special or general revelation. All the natural law theorist can appeal to is intuition. What is to guard against the emergence of a potential Hitler or Mao, employing counter-moralities in society based on their moral intuitions? His rhetorical answer is “nothing,” saying, “What humanity affirms solely on the basis of inherent instincts and philosophical reasoning lacks normative force; only what God says in Scripture and has disclosed in Christ is normative.”[16] What God has revealed in Scripture is the ultimate moral authority, and all moral claims must conform to that standard.

Based on Henry’s rejection of natural law theory, one can infer that he would reject any notion that the normative nature of gender distinctions can be known apart from divine revelation. Granting that Henry strongly affirms the abiding nature of the imago Dei, Henry would see attempts to ground the normative nature of gender distinctions on something other than explicitly theological grounds such as divine revelation, the doctrine of creation, or the imago Dei as futile. In short, only theological or biblical grounds for the distinction between male and female are rationally coherent. Non-Christians who acknowledge and live according to a distinction between male and female believe and are living inconsistently with their basic presuppositions. They may not live utterly debauched lives of sexual perversion, because the abiding nature of the imago Dei and the universal nature of general revelation preserve some non-Christians and non-Christian ethical systems from utter depravity. Nevertheless, God’s revelation of his will in Scripture provides the surest and most coherent account of the reality of the distinction between male and female as made in the image of God.

O’Donovan, Moral Realism, and God’s Good Creation

O’Donovan is an ordained priest in the Church of England. He is part of a revival in political theology that seeks to draw out “an earthly political discourse from the political language of religious discourse.”[17] From a distinctly Christian perspective, the goal of his political theology is “to push back the horizon of commonplace politics and open it up to the activity of God.”[18] His work brings the disciplines of Christian systematic, historical, and biblical theology into conversation with classical, medieval, and modern political theory.

O’Donovan sees contemporary debates in ethical theory over the nature of moral judgments, including those surrounding gender distinctions, as debates about ontology, because these debates revolve around questions of natural teleology –– over whether objective purposes exist in nature. By discerning what the nature and purpose of something is, human beings will have the criterion for determining right and wrong and would be able to resolve moral disagreements by making truthful moral judgments about them.[19]

The scientific revolution, of which the current cultural milieu is an heir, tried to dispense with two principles of natural law ethics. The first principle of the natural law ethic is that “reality is given to us, not simply in discrete, isolated phenomena, but in kinds. Things have a natural meaning.[20] The second principle is that “these given kinds themselves are not isolated from each other but relate to each other in a given pattern within the order of things. . . .Things have a natural purpose.[21] This fact leaves science and Christians who seek to know the world around them left with lingering anxiety over the choice between the disintegration and incompleteness of scientific knowledge and “the perception of the world as an integrated whole that our faith demands of us.”[22] Christians must “reintegrate what we see through the lens into a total pattern of understanding,” which O’Donovan believes is supplied by the theological categories of revelation, creation, and eschatology.

Revelation provides the necessary Christian epistemology for Christian ethics. This epistemology should not be confused with ontology.[23] Inherent to any notion of the spoiling and disordering of creation due to the fall is the idea of creation’s original good order. The doctrines of creation and eschatology provide the solution to rejections of natural and historical teleology. Creation’s telos is in creation’s ultimate deliverance from evil and corruption. This telos is not a gnostic configuration: “It is because God is the creator of nature that he does, and will, redeem nature from its state of corruption.”[24] O’Donovan describes creation’s and history’s telos in terms of eschatological hope grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. O’Donovan stresses that creation and revelation are consistent with natural knowledge because nature and natural knowledge are brought about and sustained by the same God revealed in Jesus Christ.[25] In other words, “natural knowledge is restored by revelation, the natural order of things by saving history.”[26] He affirms the use of the term natural or nature, but only in an ontological sense of God’s created order, creation.

Does O’Donovan hold that the nature of things in the created order is transparent to human knowledge apart from special revelation? Like Carl Henry, O’Donovan seems skeptical about humanity’s ability to know the world rightly without the necessary aid of divine revelation. Why? Because of the noetic effects of sin on fallen humanity, revelation is needed to provide a unified knowledge of creation.[27] Fallen humanity misconstrues the order and kinds in God’s good creation. Because of the noetic effects of sin, what is needed is divine revelation to correct human knowledge (both theoretical and moral). He says, “Theology is committed to pursuing a unified vision.”[28] That unified vision comes only through the objective, ontological reality grounded in the divine Logos.[29]

Creation is an objective, ordered totality and not merely the raw material on which God imposed order and coherence.[30] Creation has a real, objective moral order to it. Discussions surrounding teleological order give rise to considerations of the ontological dignity of objective reality.[31] When determining what counts as the flourishing or end of a particular kind of thing, one must see it in the broader order in which it is located. To the specific question of the flourishing of human nature, God establishes this creational order: “Thus in speaking of the order which God the Creator and Redeemer has established in the universe, we are not speaking merely of our own capacities to impose order upon what we see there.”[32] Human beings are constrained epistemologically and morally by the creational order.

Part of that creation is human beings made in the imago Dei. O’Donovan maintains that the imago Dei remains intact and operational after the fall. Humans are beings that continue to know and think, but “knowledge is not that communion with the truth of things around him; but misknowledge, confusion, and deception. He continues to observe the generic and teleological order in the things around himself, but misconstrues that order and constructs false and terrifying world-views.”[33] Knowledge of the moral order of creation is not destroyed because the universe, “though fractured and broken, displays the fact that its brokenness is the brokenness of order not merely unordered chaos.”[34]

Does this view mean that no moral knowledge can be known apart from special revelation of Jesus and his resurrection? The short answer is no.[35] O’Donovan does not understand revelation as giving humanity new knowledge of the moral order that they previously did not possess, but rather “revelation catches man out in the guilty possession of knowledge which he has always had, but from which he has never won a true understanding.”[36] He means that unbelievers and un-Christian cultures can have firm grasps on particular elements of the whole of moral truth, such as the virtue of mercy, vice of cowardice, the duty of justice, or the distinction between male and female. They will not have an intelligible morality, because they do not know how to relate that partial knowledge to the whole found in Christ. In other words, their moral knowledge is incomplete unless “the created order is grasped as a whole, and that includes the relations to the uncreated. . . . If one term of that relation is obscured, the universe cannot be understood.”[37] The revelation of the divine logos integrates moral truth.

So in speaking of the distinction between male and female and the normative nature of that distinction, O’Donovan argues for the objective and teleological character of human bodies as male and female. The cosmos, including human bodies, has a form that must be discerned and respected, even as humans exercise creativity in endowing new forms upon the old.[38] Human bodies have a teleological character based on a distinction between male and female bodies, a teleological character that is an objective feature of reality. He says,“To have a male body is to have a body structurally ordered to loving union with a female body, and vice versa. There is no human maleness or femaleness by itself; there is only maleness and femaleness belonging to the dimorphic opposition of human sexuality.”[39] This dimorphic nature of male and female bodies forms the basis from which anyone should think about his or her sexuality.[40] Because that structure of the human body is an objective feature of God’s good creation, O’Donovan seems to assume it is knowable by Christians and non-Christians alike. He is hesitant to say the normative feature of gender distinctions is grounded in natural law but rather is the fabric of God’s good creation. Because of the abiding nature of post-lapsarian imago Dei and goodness of creation, even non-Christians and secular ethical systems will not escape the objectivity of the distinction between male and female, though sinners clearly can and will distort the goodness of created reality. And when rebel humans come to face their distortion of God’s good creation, Christians have the resources of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to offer those who wish to be restored to God and his purposes for them.

A Way Forward

What we can learn from Henry and O’Donovan’s is that the goods of creation are the goods of natural law. They are coextensive. The moral order referred to by natural law theorists and Protestants, like Henry and O’Donovan, is the moral order of God’s good creation. Both Henry and O’Donovan show that one can be a moral realist on theological grounds yet without being committed to natural law theory as such. This conclusion leaves a lingering ambiguity in Henry’s and O’Donovan’s work over why they will not just call the goods of creation the natural law since they seem to refer to the same moral reality. The reason appears to be that Henry and O’Donovan remain skeptical about the knowability, and thus usability, of appeals to that moral order without the more epistemically secure sources of general and special revelation.

Nevertheless, Henry and O’Donovan believe in an objective, universal moral order of creation and of human beings as created in the imago Dei, both male and female. They both offer a way of cultural engagement for Protestants who are skeptical of appeals to natural law yet who remain realists about the moral order of creation. Christians can openly acknowledge one’s Christian presuppositions about the created nature of reality by God while arguing for the objective, knowable moral order of that creation. In actual engagement in the public square, whether one calls that objective moral order God’s good creation or natural law seems secondary to what the Christian is trying to get others to “see.” What we want others to “see” is the objective and ordered structure of reality and that embracing this structure leads to human flourishing. Because the goods of creation and the natural law refer to the same moral reality, using the term natural law is using truthful speech about that reality. Because of that, Protestants should not be timid to use it.

Henry and O’Donovan show that even for Protestants, particularly that hard to define group called Evangelicals, who may be skeptical of appeals to natural law, have the witness of God’s good creation and the abiding character of the imago Dei when engaging with their non-Christian neighbors on the topic of gender distinctions. Because the natural law and the moral order of creation refer to the same reality, moral claims between image bearers interpersonally and in the public square are morally intelligibile. Christians can say to their male and female neighbors as made in imago Dei, “behold, your gendered body is very good.” God’s good creation, or dare one say “natural law,” and Scripture testify to that moral reality.

Tim Walker is the Communications and Pastoral Care Pastor at First Baptist Church Biloxi, MS. He teaches theology, philosophy, and ethics adjunctly for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and William Carey University.

[1] Daniel Heimbach, “Rethinking Natural Law,” Liberty University Law Review 2, no. 3 (Spring 2008): 4. This definition aims to be broad enough to avoid wading into contemporary, intramural debates surrounding Thomistic natural law, Analytical Thomism, and New Natural Law Theory.

[2] See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) and James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1992) for the history of fundamentalism in American Christianity.

[3] Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Apply the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 187.

[4] Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, 155.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 150.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 157.

[9] Ibid., 159.

[10] Carl F. H. Henry, “Natural Law and a Nihilistic Culture,” First Things (January 1995), 1.

[11] Henry, Natural Law and Nihilistic Culture, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Henry’s treatment of natural law is in view here. An in-depth exploration of his interpretation of the contested ground of the Reformer’s view of the natural law is not essential; Henry has his reasons for rejecting the knowability of natural law, which he nonetheless thinks are consistent with the Reformers’ views. Several interpretations of Calvin’s position of natural law have called into question the view that the Reformers simply rejected it. See Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, where he discusses Calvin’s affirmation of both natural theology and natural law in Calvin’s doctrine of the Duplex Cognitio Dei. Grabill says, “Calvin viewed the knowledge of God the Creator as belonging both to the order of nature and to the general teaching of Scripture. So, far from denying that the pagan philosophers (or even the common folk) have received an elementary and useful knowledge of God as Creator from natural revelation, Calvin showed that because of sin they failed to move from that knowledge to true religion, and thus, in the end, their gifts rendered them yet more inexcusable.” Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, 83. For treatments of Calvin’s view of natural law, also see John T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion 26 (1946): 168-82; Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 39; Susan E. Schreiner, “Calvin’s Use of Natural Law,” in A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law, ed. Michael Cromartie (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 54-55; Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004); and C. Scott Pryor, “God’s Bridle: John Calvin’s Application of Natural Law,” Journal of Law and Religion 22, no. 1 (2006-2007): 225-54.

[14] Henry, Natural Law and Nihilistic Culture, 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (New York, NY: Cambridge University, 1996), 2.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Oliver O’Donovan, “The Natural Ethic,” in Essays in Evangelical Social Ethics, ed. David F. Wright (London: Paternoster, 1979), 21.

[20] Ibid., 23.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 24. A magisterial foray into this issue is Michael Hanby, No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Madlin, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

[23] O’Donovan, “The Natural Ethic,” 26.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] Ibid., 32.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 34.

[28] Ibid.

[29] O’Donovan’s answer to ethical systems that reject the teleology of evangelical ethics grounded in the eternal Logos is the foundation to his entire project, which he begins in this early essay and fully explains in The Resurrection and Moral Order.

[30] O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 32.

[31] Ibid., 34.

[32] Ibid., 36.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 88. Because of the sinful nature of humans, O’Donovan argues that the nature of idolatry is to take one part and define the whole in terms of that part.

[38] O’Donovan, Oliver. “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 11, no. 1 (1983): 150.

[39] Ibid., 152.

[40] Ibid.

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