It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.
James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”
In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.
As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.
Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.
Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.
VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.
The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”
Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”
Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.
As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.