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J. Daryl Charles on the Revival of Natural Law

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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).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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Comments

  • Joe DeVet

    Hooray for these efforts to revive a sense of the natural law. It seems to me in our culture, this may be a way to find common ground between us and “secularists” in dealing with issues of morality and public policy. In addition to the many benefits it can have in the formation of the Christian community itself, of course. Professor J. Budzisczewski of University of Texas has provided several good popular works on natural law, such as “Revenge of Conscience” and “What We Can’t Not Know.”