Posts tagged with: protestants and natural law

In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.

Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:

There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.

The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.

The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”

In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.

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

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.

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.