Innate Morality?

A common theme for naturalists scrambling to find a justification for the morality they appeal to everyday is to claim that morality is innate within us. A couple examples of many should be sufficient: Christopher Hitchens made this claim to Douglas Wilson and President of the American Atheist orginization, David Silverman, made this claim in a debate about the New Testament with Dr. James White.

This brings up two questions for me.

  1. Is this consistent with the Naturalist’s worldview?
  2. Should Christians believe morality is innate?

Morality being innate solves no problem for the naturalist. Douglas Wilson rightly pointed out that lots of things were innate to us when we were, as he wittingly put it, “another kind of critter.” In other words, the first problem with this claim, is that according to the Evolutionist worldview, lots of things are innate to species which are lost during evolution. Humans (allegedly) were very different in our nature from what we are now. Thus, for the naturalist, an innate morality is subject to constant change, and therefore can be lost.

A stronger refutation though is that many things are apparently innate within us which conflict. Humans may have some innate desire to help their neighbor, but it doesn’t take a PhD in anthropology to realize humans clearly have innate desires to fight their neighbors. Humans sometimes desire to love their enemies, and sometimes desire to blow up their enemies.

So, can we slaughter our enemies? If so, when can we? How can we? Our innate instincts have many different faces. Thus, the atheist needs an external, objective standard to determine between our innate feelings, and when they conflict. You cannot introduce a third innate mechanism to decide between the two conflicting innate feelings.

What is interesting for the Christian is that there is a sense in which innate morality is a biblical concept. The Bible certainly affirms a concept of a morality in which God gave us innately. Our moral accountability and moral awareness are aspects of bearing the image of God. It separates us from animals.

This is one of Paul’s very arguments to the Jews in Romans 2, Paul is condemning the Jews for thinking they were “good” just because they merely possessed the Law. They didn’t follow it or obey it, they just took it as a stamp of approval from God. In Romans 2 Paul reminds them that the Law was meant to be lived, and in verses 14-15 Paul says,

“For the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (emphasis mine).

Clearly, all people have an innate moral compass, programmed by God. Paul uses innate terms like nature, hearts, and conscience. A portion of God’s Law is pregrommed in human beings. They know right and wrong innately.

The difference between the two sides, however, is that the Christian can not only justify innate morality, but can also defend it’s objectivity. The naturalist cannot do either.

Another example of biblical innate morality is Paul’s example of Abraham being justified by faith. In Romans 4, Paul teaches that Abraham was in need of justification. He needed to be saved, but Abraham long preceded the Law. He had no law to break. Thus, the only way he was sinful was if he somehow knew God’s Law without having one specially revealed.

That being said, there are other passages that shed light on this issue, and make it more difficult. Paul continues his argument in Romans, and after telling the Jews that the Law was not given to save them, the obvious question they had was, “Well, what is the point of the Law then, Paul?” And in Romans 3:20, Paul answers this hypothetical objection with, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Is Paul contradicting the point he just made in Romans 2? As Paul continues his discussion of the Law, he adds to the apparent confusion.

Romans 7:7,

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'”

How do we harmonize these texts with Romans 2? First, Paul says that the law is written on hearts and that we can be condemned without it; but, Paul also says the Law was given to bring about the knowledge of sin, and that some things he didn’t know were wrong without it.

The key is this: while all human beings, being made in the image of God, have innate, objective morality written on their hearts, it’s only enough to damn them. We know enough morality innately to stand before God without excuse. However, we do not have a whole, complete understanding of Law and sin without extra revelation outside of that innate morality.

Theologians debate the content of the Law innately revealed, but the general agreement is that we have enough innate morality, as Paul says in Romans 2:1, to perish. We know what’s moral and wicked with enough clarity that when we sin before Christ, we have no excuse; those who have never read the Bible have no excuse.

But, the Law opens our eyes even more, and exposes the holiness of God with a force that is much more blunt and powerful than we experience innately. Special revelation completes the picture. It further exposes our sin; it further makes us subject to God’s Law; it further reveals His character, but along with it comes a revealed Gospel.

A Gospel which saves us from the Law. Both the generally and specially revealed Law.

Romans 3: 19-28,

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

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