Posts tagged with: protestants and natural law

A brilliant assessment of where we are. (HT: American Orthodox Institute Observer).

Subject to the governor of the universe: The American experience and global religious liberty

March 1, 2011 – Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver, addressed the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

A friend once said – I think shrewdly — that if people want to understand the United States, they need to read two documents.  Neither one is the Declaration of Independence.  Neither one is the Constitution.  In fact, neither one has anything obviously to do with politics.  The first document is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The second is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad

John Bunyan

Bunyan’s book is one of history’s great religious allegories.  It’s also deeply Christian.  It embodies the Puritan, Protestant hunger for God that drove America’s first colonists and shaped the roots of our country. 

Hawthorne’s short story, of course, is a very different piece.  It’s one of the great satires of American literature.  A descendant of Puritans himself, Hawthorne takes Bunyan’s allegory – man’s difficult journey toward heaven – and retells it through the lens of American hypocrisy: our appetite for comfort, easy answers, quick fixes, material success and phony religious piety.

Bunyan and Hawthorne lived on different continents 200 years apart.  But the two men did share one thing.  Both men – the believer and the skeptic — lived in a world profoundly shaped by Christian thought, faith and language; the same moral space that incubated the United States.  And that has implications for our discussion today.

In his World Day of Peace message earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern over the worldwide prevalence of “persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.”i   In reality, we now face a global crisis in religious liberty. As a Catholic bishop, I have a natural concern that Christian minorities in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of today’s religious discrimination and violence.  Benedict noted this same fact in his own remarks.


Many of you have read the series that Stephen Grabill wrote about Protestantism and Natural Law. For those of you who have not read it, but are interested, Stephen wrote an eight part series on the PowerBlog. The following exerpt from the first post points to Stephen’s aim of shifting the 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.

You can read the entire series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8.

In June, Stephen gave a lecture at the 2006 Acton University where he talked about the same topic. That lecture has now been posted online and is available for your listening pleasure . Please take some time to listen to a great lecture! Other Acton Univeristy lectures are available from the Acton University 2006 archive.

In this week’s commentary, “Protestants and Natural Law: A Forgotten Legacy,” I ask the question: “So, why don’t Protestants like Natural Law?” The short answer is: There isn’t a short answer. Tracing out the reasons that twentieth-century Protestants have given for why natural law is off limits is complicated and can take a person in many different directions.

In my judgment, the great tragedy in the Protestant rejection of natural law is not merely that Protestants (and particularly evangelicals) have had tremendous difficulty in forming an adequate public language to address moral issues but that the loss of catholicity in Protestant ethics only reinforces the “suspended animation” that many Protestants already experience in relation to the historic Christian church. The sense of being lonely, rootless, and disconnected that some Protestants have bemoaned can be relieved, I would argue, precisely by revisiting key aspects of Protestant and Christian identity from the past.

Thomas Oden can help Protestants to recover a sense of their catholicity with the Church of all ages on the topic of general revelation and natural law. My argument is that Protestants don’t have to look beyond many of their own denominational traditions to discover a once vibrant tradition of natural law. Until fairly recently, some type of natural-law theory was used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world.

Though natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, it is also no panacea for the hard work of “translating” moral ideas into a useable public vocabulary. For more on the promises and limitations associated with natural law, and for why twentieth-century Protestants have been so skeptical, read the entire commentary here.

An extended series about “Protestants and Natural Law” can be found on this blog.

To conclude this series, let’s recap what is meant by natural law by parsing the term.

The “nature” referred to in natural law can mean different things, but I mean by it the divinely engrafted knowledge of morality in human reason and conscience, that which all human beings share by virtue of their creation in God’s image. Theologically speaking, I think this understanding of nature points back to our original creation in God’s image, but it also anticipates the fall into sin, where the divine image was corrupted but not destroyed.

“Law,” too, can vary in meaning, but we have used it here as shorthand for the universal moral law written into the human heart by God. Law as a representation of God’s will can be known through a variety of means such as the Ten Commandments, the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, the pangs of conscience, or the rational intuition of good and evil. When “nature” and “law” are understood in these ways, the claim that natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation is certainly an understatement.

Natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith to culture, although from the fuller perspective of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, natural law has limited but significant value. Natural law is not merely the quest for order on the part of the state and non-Christians as Karl Barth held, it is also a profound source of truth revealed to every person — according to their capacities — through creation, conscience, and reason. When natural law is understood properly, only so much should be expected from it as a source of revelation. God does not save the world through natural law, nor does he reconcile the world through the pursuit of justice; but he does provide a public record of his eternal power and divinity through the law written on the heart.

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

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.

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.

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.