In the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, host Ken Myers talks with J. Daryl Charles, author of Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008). Charles is associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University, and spent the 2007-2008 year as William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ken Myers at this year’s GodblogCon and am quite impressed with the work that Mars Hill Audio does. The conversation with Charles is a good one, in part because it directly addresses the current revival of natural law within certain circles of Protestantism in North America. Within the past few years a number of books have come out that consider the positive role of the doctrine of natural law within the Protestant theological tradition, particularly that of the magisterial Reformation.
Early on in the discussion, Charles credits Acton research scholar Stephen Grabill with opening up this new scholarly interest in natural law. Charles calls Grabill’s book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006) “a very important…pathbreaking work.”
In a review of Grabill’s book published in First Things, Charles writes,
Grabill’s examination of theological ethics in the Protestant Reformed mainstream is utterly compelling, and it represents a shot across the bow of theological ethics, as it were. Protestants for the past 250 years have found practical as well as theological justification for ignoring or vehemently rejecting natural-law theory. And despite its bewildering diversity, there exists across Protestantism a broad consensus that rejects the natural law as a metaphysical notion rooted in divine revelation. This consensus is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major contemporary figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.
Given the historical link between the magisterial Reformation and natural law and the contemporary dissolution of that link, it should be obvious that judging the doctrines of previous centuries by the twentieth-century aversion to natural law (as is done by the reference to Francis Schaeffer in this post) is a serious methodological error. One thing we learn from the work of scholars like Grabill and Charles is that there are varieties of natural-law traditions, and it is as important to identify how these differ and can be distinguished as how they share common features.
In addition to the books by Charles and Grabill, I should also mention two other recent works. The first is David VanDrunen’s short and accessible A Biblical Case for Natural Law. And the second is Craig A. Boyd’s A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural-Law Ethics (Brazos, 2007), which VanDrunen reviews in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (Fall 2008).