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Natural law and Protestantism revisited

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One of the more pervasive myths surrounding the Protestant reformations is that they represented a wholesale rupture with the moral traditions that preceded, particularly with respect to natural law. In an influential recent study, for instance, Brad S. Gregory claims that “those who repudiated the Roman church uncoupled the medieval discourse on natural rights from the teleological Christian ethics within which it had been embedded.”

Scholarship on this point has not always been so blinkered, however. John T. McNeill wrote in 1946 that “there is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.” One of the important implications of this is that the diversity of the late medieval period with respect to natural law came over in all its dynamism into the Reformation era as well. Contrary to many historical narratives, there is no single, unvariegated, and univocal school of natural law coming from the medieval scholastics. There is, in fact, diversity and variegation around some common ideas and themes.

Korey D. Maas, in a recent piece for Public Discourse, takes on another set of popular mischaracterizations of the relationship between Protestantism and natural law. In an incisive analysis, Maas shows that “neither Luther nor his colleagues and heirs ‘abandoned’ natural law. Nor did they recast it in a voluntarist mold. They embraced and defended it along entirely traditional lines.”

Maas, an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College, has also co-authored along with the classicist E.J. Hutchinson the introduction to a forthcoming volume by the major Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600), On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method. This volume inaugurates the Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law (Second Series), which continues and extends the earlier series. The goal of the earlier volumes as well as those appearing in the new series is to bring back these primary sources on key elements in the development of modern thinking, thereby hopefully beginning to definitively dispel some of these persistent caricatures.

As we eagerly await the appearance of Hemmingsen on natural law in English, be sure to read Maas’ piece, and check out a review essay I published some years back, “Natural Law and Protestantism—A Review Essay,” which surveys some recent works that are helpfully revising the historical record.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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