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The Catholicity of the Reformation: Musings on Reason, Will, and Natural Law, Part 1

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This post will introduce what I intend to be an extended series concerned with recovering and reviving the catholicity of Protestant ethics.

Protestant catholicity? Isn’t this an oxymoron? It may come as a surprise in light of a common stereotype of Protestant theology, but the older Protestant understanding of reason, the divine will, and natural law actually provided a bulwark against the notion of a capricious God, unbounded by truth and goodness, as Pope Benedict recently pointed out in relation to Islam’s understanding of God. “In all honesty,” he states,

one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God’s “voluntas ordinata.” Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn [the representative of the Islamic doctrine of God] and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

What the pope is saying is that the relationship between God and creation becomes fundamentally distorted when God’s power and will are separated from the covenantal context of revelation. That revelational and redemptive context, in short, is the voluntary limitation that God imposed upon himself and vowed never to rescind. But there is more.

In addition to God’s covenant faithfulness, there is an analogy of sorts between God and us, between, as Benedict writes, “the eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason.” Herman Bavinck, the renowned Dutch Reformed theologian, uses the language of correspondence to describe the analogy: “There just has to be correspondence or kinship between object and subject. The Logos who shines in the world must also let his light shine in our consciousness. That is the light of reason, the intellect, which, itself originating in the Logos, discovers and recognizes the Logos in things. It is the internal foundation of knowledge. Just as knowledge within us is the imprint of things upon our souls, so, in turn, forms do not exist except by a kind of imprint of the divine knowledge in things. So, in the final analysis, it is God alone who from his divine consciousness and by way of his creatures conveys the knowledge of truth to our mind–the Father who by the Son and in the Spirit reveals himself to us” (Reformed Dogmatics, I, p. 233).

It is hard to imagine what Protestants like Bavinck would take issue with in this statement by Benedict: “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”

Yet, many Protestants and Catholics alike, believe that the fundamental postulates of the Reformation severed the correspondence between God and man, the divine intellect and the human intellect, faith and reason. Even the most recent Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “That They May Have Life,” acknowledges “long-standing differences on the capacities of human reason.”

To put it too briefly, Evangelicals (and the Protestant traditions more generally) have accented that human reason has been deeply corrupted by sin. Catholics, on the other hand, while recognizing that human reason has been severely wounded by sin and is in need of healing, have held a higher estimate of reason’s capacity to discern truth, including moral truth. We, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, affirm that the knowledge of God necessary for eternal salvation cannot be attained by human reason alone apart from Divine revelation and the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith’s response to Jesus Christ the only Savior. (These questions are addressed in more detail in our 1998 statement, “The Gift of Salvation.”)

We also affirm together that human reason, despite the consequences of sin, has the capacity for discerning, deliberating, and deciding the questions pertinent to the civil order. Some Evangelicals attribute this capacity of reason to “common grace,” as distinct from “saving grace.” Catholics typically speak of the “natural law,” meaning moral law that is knowable in principle by all human beings, even if it is denied in principle by many (Romans 1 and 2). Thus do we, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, firmly reject the claim that disagreements over the culture of life represent a conflict between faith and reason. Both faith and reason are the gift of the one God. Since all truth has its source in Him, all truth is ultimately one, although our human perception of the fulness of truth is partial and inadequate (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What I hope to accomplish in this blog series is to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as the pope referred to it), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth.

This has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Stephen Grabill


  • A. Scott Crawford


    While admitting my own ignorance to much if not most of modern Catholic Scholasticism, I’d like to provide a couple links to writings that I hope add constructively to the subjects under discussion. The first is to Spinoza’s “A Theologico-Political Treatise”: (The arguments presented in your post are very very close to those Spinoza writes of in his “Ethics”).

    Here’s a sample: “…Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone’s judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure….”

    Without going into overmuch detail, when I can find a good english translation of the appropriate writings of William of Ockham (generally credited with “Nominalism” in the philosophic, if not theological, usage), I’ll post links. This promised, I think there is an abiding and clear difference between what I understand is meant by the difference between “Volunteerism” and “Nominalism”… not only within Christian tradition, but also within the other major faiths of our Time (and meta-physical/meta-ethical philosophic systems throughout recorded history).

    For Aristotle, the purpose of the study and practice of ethics… was to best enable one to ACT, to apply the knowledge gained in as appropriate manner as possible. Here Aristotle differs from Plato, whom by the by was the first writer to use “Logos” in the sense of “Divine Word” (Philo). For Plato virtue was to be attained in the accumulation of knowledge of appropriate actions, independent of application of said knowledge successfully in order to advance a greater good through ones actions. (Obviously I’m being over simple).

    This basic distinction and debate is to be found in most Religions, Ethical systems, and etc. across all human cultures and histories. “Karma” in Sandscrit means “works” (“deeds”). Mitzva in Hebrew, &etc. For the Taoists, knowledge of appropriate action within appropriate context and condition is assumed, for sincere followers of “the way” (Tao), as necessarily entailing action as well. For muslims, the Zagat and other classes of Moral behavior, although often qualified, are never optional if within a faithful muslims ability and means.

    I would suggest that Nominalism in the sense that Ockham (and his precursors) understood it, was a distinction between the performance of Works as a pre-condition to qualify for Christs redemption and salvation independent of ability or means. E.G. Saint Dismas, “the good thief” was redeemed by Christ through faith alone (as performing works whilst being crucified next to Jesus wasn’t within Dismas’ ability). The argument being that Christ, seeing the temper of our faith and sincerity without qualification, does so independently of our Earthy works or lack thereof.

    This said, a sincere Christian, be they Protestant or Catholic or etc. should not need to be ordered or forced to follow Christs example, but would rather try to emulate him in as much as they were able; Yet being imperfect, and bound to fail and falter, it is the sincerity and determination within our Souls to TRY that we are ultimately judged by, rather than the grandness of our cathedrals or the quantity of our charity… which might seem like tokens of sincere faith, but could just as easily be a cynical attempt to buy redemption and salvation with material things rather than through true faith.

    I think it’s also worth offering another point to consider. People of sincere faith and good will, be they Catholic, Protestant Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or etc. can and do live and work with each other towards a common and mutual greater good in harmony despite disagreeing on this or that particular difference between their Faiths. Could a sincere Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Jew believe that were Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Mohammad to find themselves together in the same room… that they would start fighting or cursing each other? Would they damn each other? Or does it seem more likely that they’d set aside their differences to work together for the mutual benefit of all?

    In America, it is not disputations and fighting between people of sincere, if different, Faiths that causes social ill and disharmony… Rather it is owning to those with NO Faith or of Bad and insincere Faith that fuel most interfaith conflicts. So while we calmly consider the philosophic distinctions of variances between our Faiths, let us remember that it is only those who’ve closed themselves to God and Faith that would attempt to abuse Reason and ignorance to pervert what is Holy towards their own material and selfish purposes.

  • Here are some links of interest

    “Chuck Colson” (discusses his view of natural law)

    “Truth and Foreign Policy”

    “Conservatism: An Autopsy” (discusses use of natural law in conservatism)

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