In Parts 5 and 6 we addressed the two most common Protestant objections to natural law. And now, as promised, we will see what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law, even as they affirmed its value. (Incidentally, the treatment of the natural knowledge of God that Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Francis Turretin provide, to mention only a few, is completely in step with that of the early church. For more on that topic, click here.)
The widespread assumption that Reformation theology allows no access to natural law—that its view of Scripture, revelation, Christ, salvation, and faith excludes every kind of natural theology —needs serious correction. Yet, in affirming natural law’s value as a bridge, it is also necessary to acknowledge its limitations.
The Reformers hold to the existence of a natural knowledge of morality in creation, conscience, and reason, but they think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. In fact, its primary role is to make people accountable for the basic moral truths they already know by undercutting any excuses they may propose along the way. In other words, according to the Reformers, natural law informs the mind of what is right and wrong, but it cannot ensure that the will shall choose to do good over evil. In this sense, they think natural law is ineffective and insufficient to bring about right action, even if it is a reliable source of moral information.
The Reformers’ assessment of natural law is complicated further when the issue of free will and morality is considered. They think the will is free in the sense that it is not coerced but self-determined, choosing voluntarily, on its own to do or not to do something. This is why people can be held responsible for their choices: They are self-determining moral agents who know right from wrong. The Reformers reject the extremes of the will’s complete unimpeded freedom, on the one side, as well as the will’s external coercion, on the other. Instead, they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption is in bondage to sin and therefore subject to a constant state of sinning.
Underlying the bondage of the will is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Following Augustine, the Reformers see the fall affecting every aspect of human nature with the result that fallen human beings are in bondage to sin. Despite the fact that human nature was originally created good, it has become corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. Thus, prior to the action of God’s grace, the will is in bondage to sin, which means there is no way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where the Reformation doctrine of prevenient grace comes in.
Grace is prevenient; that is, God’s grace precedes any human good will. Prevenient grace does not simply make it possible for people to respond affirmatively to God’s call; it actually brings conversion about. This is true not just of the beginning of the Christian life. Grace is needed at every stage and, in particular, for final perseverance. Prevenient grace is a gift of God, not something that is merited by previous obedience.
Other questions also enter the discussion about natural law in relation to free choice and grace. One such question is whether it is even possible to obey the moral law. The Reformers reject the assumption that “ought” implies “can”: That people can do on their own without divine assistance what they know they should do. While “ought” implies “can” was certainly true for Adam and Eve in the Garden, after the fall they think it is no longer possible to observe perfectly the moral law’s internal and external requirements. The purpose of the law, according to the Reformers, is not to show human ability but to point to grace. Grace gives what the law commands. Tied directly to the law is the question of “good works.” The Reformers argue that even the best of human works are tainted by sin. Thus it is by God’s grace and generosity that he rewards good works. Furthermore, all good works are the gifts of God’s grace and thus, as Augustine put it, when God rewards our merits he crowns his own gifts.
In Part 8, the final installment of this series, I will summarize what I think natural law is.
This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.