Category: Bible and Theology

If the most common Protestant objection to natural law revolves around sin, as we saw in Part 5, we should now address the second most common objection that natural law is a rival to God and Scripture.

Contemporary evangelical critics, such as Carl Henry, object that natural law elevates autonomous human reason above divine revelation. Henry thinks the Thomist doctrine of natural law teaches a universally shared body of moral beliefs that exist independently of divine revelation. This contrasts, he thinks, with John Calvin’s view, which is said to ground the law of nature in divine revelation, thus cutting off the possibility of a so-called independent foundation for morality. The real issue for Henry is his perception that natural law makes God’s existence and the authority of the Bible irrelevant to ethics. For him and many evangelicals following him, it is believed that the very content of morality originates in divine revelation and the Bible. That there is no standard of right and wrong apart from the commands issued by God. Yet, it is fair to ask whether the Reformers juxtapose natural law and divine revelation as Henry does?

The simple answer is no. The Reformers do not hold to a necessary opposition between divine revelation and the doctrine of natural law. By the way, they also do not oppose special and general revelation, grace and nature, faith and reason, or supernatural and natural theology. In a nutshell, they think all forms of natural knowledge come from using the natural powers of acquisition belonging to the mind, whereas all forms of supernatural knowledge come from a graciously infused power bestowed on the mind by God. Like natural theology, natural law arises out of the order of nature. Whereas supernatural theology, transcending the powers of nature, belongs to the order of grace. But, and this is the key point, both natural law and supernatural theology arise as revealed knowledge, not as the product of autonomous reason.

Thus far in the series I have focused on showing that natural law was not only received by the Reformers but also was put to important use by them, in Part 7 I will move into a discussion of the limitations of natural law as understood by the Reformers.

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

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 18, 2006

There’s some discussion at Mirror of Justice (here and here) of Martin Marty’s recent piece in The Christian Century, “Snookered,” which raises the issue of the validity of politicians invoking Scripture, using the example of Tom DeLay.

The new progressive Christian approach seems to be to assert, rightly of course, that “God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat,” and is rather more nuanced and convincing than, say, “Jesus is a Liberal.”

And since so much politics, aside from a few issues, is about matters of prudence and judgment rather than clear moral principles, it seems correct to assert the difficulty of moving facilely from Scripture to public policy.

Even so, the Bible does give us some rather clear guidelines for making prudential political judgements, doesn’t it? After all, “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left” (Ecclesiastes 10:2 NIV). Just kidding, of course.

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.

In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.

Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:

There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.

The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.

The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”

In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.

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

In Part 2, we saw that modern Protestant skepticism toward reason is one of the most significant factors in the rejection of natural law. Divine command ethics, particularly of the variety espoused by Karl Barth, quickly came to dominate the field of Protestant theological ethics in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Karl Barth rejected every form of natural theology and, simultaneously, pulled the rug out from under natural law. But among neoorthodox theologians of the 1930s, only Barth and his close friend Edward Thurneysen remained consistent in their repudiation of natural law. Others, such as Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, and Rudolf Bultmann, opened the door to some new version of natural theology by incorporating philosophical insights into their dogmatic and exegetical work. Brunner took the lead in calling for a return to natural theology and natural law, but was angrily attacked and shot down in an exchange with Barth, his former friend and cohort.

However, the controversy between Barth and Brunner did not settle anything. Some followed Barth in holding that Christian ethics has no use for natural law, since it is concerned with reason and universal principles inscribed in human nature. Barth’s prefered idea based ethics directly on the command of the living God, which as he said “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.” Herein lies the root of Protestant situation ethics, popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher, and criticized by Paul Ramsey as a “wasteland of utility.”

Although Barth never gave a systematic treatment of natural law, throughout his long career he fought against every appeal to it. A theological ethic that bases itself on the Word of God alone, he said, “will not, then, make the disastrous, traitorous use of ‘natural’ theology, which is the only use that can be made of it.” Barth viewed natural law as the self-assertion of autonomous humanity. For this reason, he felt he had to speak an irreconcilable “no” to every attempt to derive ethical norms from the orders of creation, as Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, or from nature, as Roman Catholicism and Protestant Orthodoxy did. “If you really reject natural theology,” he said in response to Brunner, “you don’t stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotizes you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!”

Of course, Barth recognized that there is such a thing as natural law in the same sense as he recognized that there is human religion. At best, in his view, natural law is the quest for order on the part of the state and of non-Christians, who have no other source of moral knowledge, inasmuch as they do not derive such knowledge from divine revelation in Christ and the Bible. Barth’s refusal to find a point of contact on which Christians and non-Christians could meet would ultimately relegate theology to the backwaters and encourage faith to become the province of the private, individual soul. How, then, can Christians go public with their ethic in a pluralistic world where the majority does not accept the Christian source of revelation? Some contemporary Protestant theologians did actually cross paths with natural law, but as Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten describes, they did so “. . . with something of a bad conscience on account of Barth’s strictures.”

In Part 4, we’ll take up the question of why the natural-law tradition fell on hard times in modern Protestant theology.

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

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “Independence Day,” (1979), p. 242

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.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

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.

Ron Sider, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest Of The World? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 144 pp.

“Summing Up Sider’s Legacy”

Ron Sider’s recent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, is a noteworthy achievement. One the one hand, it represents an almost complete shift away from left-leaning government-oriented solutions to social and economic problems that characterize the first edition of his popular Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This movement had already become apparent by the time Sider released the twentieth anniversary edition of Rich Christians, in which he embraced increased access to markets and capital investment as necessary components of solutions to global poverty. In Scandal, Sider explicitly acknowledges this perspective, as he writes of “the stunning success of market economies in producing ever-greater material abundance.”

Sider is thus able to recognize the basic goodness of creation: “Historic Christianity has been profoundly materialistic. The created world is good. God wants us to create wealth and delight in the bounty of the material world.” A key part of Sider’s project is to properly and relatively value the material and temporal in light of the spiritual and eternal. Thus he rightly notes that “historic Christianity also placed firm boundaries on this materialism. Nothing, not even the whole material world, matters as much as one’s relationship with God.” (more…)

Blog author: sgrabill
posted by on Wednesday, June 28, 2006
A Biblical Case for Natural Law by David VanDrunen

David VanDrunen’s new monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, is a must read for Christians who are perplexed about the biblical standing of natural law. It makes a biblical case for the existence and practical importance of natural law.

Through his examination of the redemptive-historical context of natural law, professor VanDrunen is helping to shift debate away from the badly caricatured doctrine of sola scriptura toward a fuller understanding of the biblical theology underlying natural law. As Protestants rediscover the biblical basis for natural law and the doctrinal resources of their own theological traditions, I hope we can recover a sense of our catholicity with the broader and older Christian moral tradition.

John T. McNeill, a renowned Calvin scholar and dean of twentieth-century Reformation studies, once made a bold assertion to this effect: “There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.” Can McNeill’s claim withstand historical scrutiny? I think so, but see for yourself.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Related to Stephen’s last post, the result of this Googlefight speaks for itself: Emil Brunner versus Karl Barth.

By the way, Wipf and Stock Publishers have reprinted the classic exchange of the Barth/Brunner debate, Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth.