Posts tagged with: natural law

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).

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, November 21, 2008

The latest issue of Religion & Liberty contains an essay I wrote for Acton about whether the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians can be saved. A student at my university (Houston Baptist University) read the essay and formulated a number of thoughts on his own. I was so affected by what this undergraduate sent me, I had to pass it along:

I have strong beliefs about limited government, states rights, individual liberty, free-markets, etc. But these beliefs come under fire when I see how one person’s pornography addiction leads to rape after years of unsatisfiable self-gratification, or when innocent children are born fatherless to promiscuous mothers.

There are 2 things I’ve come to realize. First, that every law is a removal of liberty. Second, that every system of law is either based upon the will of man, or based on that which we perceive to be Natural Law. Given this reality, the latter necessitates a belief in higher power, while the former holds no basis for the concept of “inalienable rights” whatsoever.

Without a giver of freedom the only “freedom” is that which is given by he who is stronger to he who is weaker.

Libertarian belief in liberty is founded in the idea that we have a God-given right to such liberty, and in that sense they share commonality with social conservatives.

But Liberty without order is chaos. There’s no doubt, law in our land is based on Natural Law. So the question is not whether we should legislate morality, but to what extent it should be done.

This is a question I still struggle to answer.

The young man’s name is Wesley Gant. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that regularly emerges from students who attend Acton events and/or read Acton publications.


The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 10, 2007

Here are some book reviews of note from recent weeks that you may find to be of interest:

Blog author: blevitske
posted by on Monday, June 18, 2007

At last year’s Acton University, a few Austrian attendees made an interesting youtube video celebrating their rediscovery of the huge and obvious contributions Austria has made to free-market economics. But what about the countries that don’t have an entire school of economic thought named after them? My conversations with international participants at this year’s conference underscored two themes over and over again. First, that even the unlikeliest countries have some philosophical heritage undergirding capitalist thought. Second, that AU attracts the kind of people who want to recapture — not necessarily import — foundational principles to apply them within their own cultural context.

From Poland, a place where communism was much more than a nebulous ideology not so long ago, Jakob Baltroszewicz learned at AU how to frame capitalism in a more positive light for those in his country who are still “infected” with traces of the old regime’s tendencies. Despite Pope John Paul’s profound contributions to the capitalist legacy, “People still think in Poland that being a good Catholic and being a good capitalist are incompatible,” said Baltroszewicz. “We have a word for it — homo sovieticus. It means someone who is still sick with the Soviet way of thinking about the market and his role in it.” Baltroszewicz is currently studying Michael Novak’s moral theology at the Pontifical Academy in Krakow. He plans to stay connected to Acton as he works to revive Poland’s interest in the principles of its own free-market philosophers, especially as expressed in John Paul’s Centesimus Annus. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 15, 2007

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, and rightly so.

Here’s a bit from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality.

When I was in elementary, middle, and high school in Virginia, the government celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day. Res ipsa loquitur.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, December 15, 2006

The January 2007 issue of First Things features a lengthy review of Stephen Grabill’s new book on Protestant natural law thinking (no link to the review, unfortunately). J. Daryl Charles, an assistant professor at Union University, has this to say about Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006):

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 consenus 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.

The Charles review, titled “Reforming Natural Law,” goes on to say that Grabill “has performed a valuable service in plumbing the rich texture of Reformed theological ethics.”

For a limited time, the book is on sale in the Acton Book Shoppe for only $20.

Stephen Grabill delivers his address at today’s Lord Acton Lecture Series Event

Stephen J. Grabill, Acton’s Research Scholar in Theology, delivered an address today based upon his new book which explores the complex and often-overlooked relationship between Protestantism and natural law.

In Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Grabill calls upon Christian ethicists, theologians, and laypersons to take another look at this vital element in the history of Christian ethical thought. He appeals to Reformation and post-Reformation era theologians such as John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin, who carried over and refined the traditional understanding of this key doctrine. If you weren’t able to attend today’s lecture in person, you can hear it by clicking here (7 mb mp3 file).

Two new and intriguing books from Cambridge University Press have crossed my editorial desk recently. Anticipate reviews to appear in the Journal of Markets & Morality sometime next year; but in the meantime I wanted to give them each a plug.

Both draw on the philosophical tradition of the natural law to address contemporary debates in social/political thought. The argument of Christopher Wolfe’s Natural Law Liberalism is summed up in a blurb by Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley: “No one who reads this book should continue to think that natural law is somehow incompatible with liberty, human equality, and limited democratic government.”

Speaking of Notre Dame, Mary Keys is an associate professor of political science there, and she offers a treatise on Aquinas, Aristotle, and the Promise of the Common Good. Her point of departure is the inadequacy of contemporary efforts to articulate a compelling vision of the common good, such as John Rawls (liberal), Michael Sandel (communitarian), and William Galston (pluralist).

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.