Acton Institute Powerblog

Protestants and Natural Law, Part 2

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In Part 1, we saw that the infrastructure of Protestant social teaching is not nearly as sophisticated as Roman Catholic social teaching and that natural law has often been viewed as a bridge between the church and the world.

Historically, natural law has been used as a bridge category to appeal to people of all races, classes, cultures, and religions. Its public value stems, in part, from its ability to speak beyond those who share a prior commitment to sacred Scripture or Christian creeds. As Cicero, the renowned Roman orator taught in De republica, natural law

is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. . . . It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author — its promulgator — its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man.

Natural law is the one universal law to which all people have access by their natural reason, no matter where or when they happen to live.

In much of modern Protestant theology, there is skepticism about this appeal to reason. Protestants believe the bridge has been shattered and replaced with an ethic of divine command. So what churches and faith communities often say on social issues has no way of reaching the other side, and they end up in dangerous isolation from society and from the history of Christian moral reflection.

While Roman Catholics have held firmly to natural law, Protestants of all stripes from mainline to evangelical Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, and so forth, have not. They swing between the extremes of blanket dismissal and hesitant acceptance of natural law, but even among the more favorably disposed, natural law is treated as an uninvited intruder.

So, why have Protestants largely rejected natural law? We’ll address this in Part 3.

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

Stephen Grabill


  • My basic understanding of “natural law” was always in relation to a kind of Taoist “way of life” or a type of Darwinist “natural selection” kind of thing.

    According to your post, it would seem that the normative “natural law” argument was never intended to reflect that thought. It would seem that the “natural law” argument is closer to the argument that Morality is not a relative but an absolute. It definitely appears to be that way from Cicero’s quote.

    The “absolute morality” argument is a big one in apologetic discourse…

    If this is the general thrust of the argument then, I happen to agree whole heartedly…even as a Protestant…but then again, there are multiple trains of thought as far as Dispensational Theology, Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology etc..the latter being closest to my position.

    My argument for the purpose of the Bible then, (specifically the Old Testament) is not to DEFINE the natural law, but to ILLUMINATE the natural law, which proceeds from God.

    The difference being the same as the difference between Making something so, and Explaining something as so…

  • Clare Krishan

    To get an “ahnung” [German for ‘notion’ ‘conception’ mental image’] of what the classists meant by natural law, it useful for us moderns to study examples of its action unimpinged by Greco-Roman culture, a rarity in the West, but not so in the East.

    For me, the Japanese director’s Akira Kurosawa’s film “Dersu Uzala” of Tsarist Russian Vladimir Arseniev’s account of encounters with an indiginous hunter in Siberia at the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries captures those elements of conduct that one ‘assumes’ ‘counts on’ (i.e. not to be rewarded as ‘extra’ordinary). Rather than spoil the movie if you’re not familiar with it, suffice it to say that the ‘golden rule’ (do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you) of the unsophisticated Goldi nomad is markedly more pure than the conventions of utility practised by the civilised corps of army engineers, see