Posts tagged with: natural law

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.

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.

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.

So, why don’t Protestants like Natural Law?

The short answer is: there isn’t a short answer.

So starting now, and continuing for who knows how long, I plan to tell the story of the Protestant struggle over natural law, from complete rejection by Karl Barth in the 1930s to the recent hint of renewed interest among Protestant intellectuals. My view is that natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation — one that contemporary Protestants desperately need to rediscover. Along the way, I’ll respond to standard Protestant objections and discuss what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law.

For much of Christian history, some type of natural-law theory has been used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world. But in recent times, Protestant churches and theologians have rejected natural law as a way of showing their differences with the tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology.

The scope and unity of Roman Catholic social teaching is impressive, but without the recurrent appeal to natural law, it would lack a skeletal structure upon which to build its body of social teaching. Modern Protestant social ethics, by contrast, has no skeletal infrastructure of comparable strength. Unlike Roman Catholic moral theology, which is done in the context of the magisterial (or teaching) authority of the church, Protestant ethics has never had a “supreme court of appeals” to decide what’s licit and illicit. While the Bible is the principal authority in Protestant ethics, the matter of determining “authoritative” moral teaching is complex and subject to personal interpretation. To a fault, I might add.

In his opening address at the first Christian Social Congress in 1891, the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper emphasized the catholicity of natural law in relation to Pope Leo XIII’s new encyclical Rerum Novarum. “We must admit, to our shame,” said Kuyper, “that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism. The encyclical Rerum novarum of Leo XIII states the principles which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots.”

At the heart of Rerum novarum and the recent encyclical Deus caritas est, by Pope Benedict XVI, is an appeal to reason and human nature, but not in a way that denigrates faith or revealed truth. “From God’s standpoint,” insists the pope, “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” The Christian Church fulfills its responsibility to form consciences and to promote justice, when, as Benedict insists, social teaching is argued “on the basis of reason and natural law.”

We’ve barely begun, so check back soon for part 2.

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

In some of my reading lately, a connection occurred to me of the sort that is so obvious once consciously realized that you feel almost idiotic for not making the linkage before. G. K. Chesterton considered logic to be a tool, an instrument of reason to be used only in service of the truth. He writes,

The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic.

In this Chesterton is emphasizing the importance of first principles, or principia. He summarizes it this way: “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it” (G. K. Chesterton, Daily News, Feb. 25, 1905). Taken by itself, logic alone is ambivalent, in the sense that it can be pressed into the service either of truth or of falsehood.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a similar observation with regard to the natural law, understood as distinct from and not dependent on special revelation. He writes, for example in the case of the state,

But both the concept of the contents of natural law are equivocal (depending on whether this natural law is derived from certain particular data or from certain particular standards); and it therefore fails to provide an adequate basis for the state. Natural law can furnish equally cogent arguments in favour of the state which is founded on force and the state which is founded on justice, for the nation-state and for imperialism, for democracy and for dictatorship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” in Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995], 334).

In this way, Chesterton and Bonhoeffer make similar cases regarding the characteristics of logic and natural law, if both are abstracted from a dependence on biblical revelation.

This connection should not really be all that surprising, as Bonhoeffer himself identifies a created or natural law with reason: “Reason—law of what is created—of what exists” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles West, and Douglass Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005], 362).

All this follows a long tradition of relating natural law and reason in the Christian tradition, and is itself continuous with the contention of the Eminent Pagan, Cicero, who equates the two: “There 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” (Cicero, De Re Publica, Book III). Aquinas reiterates this connection, defining natural law as “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (Summa Theologica, II.91.2).

Aquinas’ definition is cited approvingly by the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, who says, “the lawe of nature is that light and iudgement of reason, whereby we doe discerne betwixt good and evill” (Wolfgang Musculus, Common places of Christian religion, trans. John Man [London: Henry Bynneman, 1578], 69). In this way, elements of both Protestant and Catholic natural law traditions have identified the natural law with “right reason,” picking up on the Ciceronian theme.

As Chesterton notes, the “rightness” of the reason depends on the proper foundation, that is, the truth of Biblical or special revelation. It is a fundamentally Augustinian point that reason alone, without illumination, cannot reach true first principles about the existence, attributes, and character of God. This is where the discontinuity between the pagan and Christian concepts of natural law come in. There is fundamental agreement about the methodology, so to speak, of natural law as “right reason,” but disagreement about the particular content of that rightness and the abilities of natural man to pursue it. For reason to be “right,” it needs the benefit of special revelation.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Winners of the 2005 Acton Essay Competition have been announced. The topic for the 15th annual competition:
The human person, by virtue of being created imago Dei, is an independent being, individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, a co-creator, and inherently social. Accordingly, human persons possess intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties with respect to the recognition and protection of the dignity of themselves and other persons. These truths about the human person’s dignity are known through divine revelation, but are also discernible through reason.

Kony Kim, Master of Arts student in Theological Studies at Westminster Seminary California, took first place with the essay titled, “Imago Dei: The Transcendent Basis of True Liberty and Just Authority.” Read Kim’s essay and all of the other finalists at the competition homepage.

One of the articles provided to be used in the formation of these essays was a chapter from Alberto Piedra’s Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System (Lexington, 2004). Piedra’s book was recently reviewed by Matthew Lee at Mere Orthodoxy, who writes, “Piedra is well-read and the book is well-researched and thorough. I would highly recommend it to any interested reader, and suggest that readers interested in having a robust Christian worldview carefully consider his arguments.”