In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?
The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.
To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).
Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.
But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.
To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.
In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.
This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.