Natural Law Today

The following was a lovely little intro to the fall and rise of natural law thinking in Reformed ethics that I had penned for the paper I’ll be giving at the AAR this month, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms?”  Unfortunately, as with most lovely little intros, it had to receive the axe, but here on the blog it may live out a long and happy retirement:

 Until quite recently, the concept of natural law was anathema in many Reformed contexts, and even today, it continues to face an uphill battle in many arenas.  In his seminal work, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Stephen Grabill suggests three key reasons why natural law spent much of the twentieth century in exile from an otherwise vibrant tradition of Reformed theology and ethical reflection.  First, the towering figure of Barth, and his resounding 1934 “No” to natural theology (and to Emil Brunner) could not help but cast a long shadow over his successors, convincing many that the concept of natural law was insufficiently Christological and at root humanistic.  Second, even in those sectors of the Reformed faith where the name of Barth was not always hallowed, another consideration prevailed–anti-Catholicism.  Natural law, we all knew, was the product of medieval scholasticism, and hence must be jettisoned if we were to be truly Protestant.  Third, in more liberal circles, the anti-metaphysical turn of late 19th-century German liberalism looked suspiciously on anything so medieval as natural law theory.  Other reasons might be added–much of American Protestantism has been captured by a wholesale biblicism, a conviction that the more one can attribute to Scripture, and the less to any other authority, the better.  Natural law, on this conception, was seen to be in inherent rivalry with the authority of Scripture, and must be jettisoned.  Nor was this suspicion without foundation.  Beginning certainly in the 17th-century and well underway by the 18th-century came a turn in natural law thinking that detached natural law from special revelation and made it the province of autonomous reason.

But just when it might have seemed that all these reasons had conspired to purge natural law from the earth, it has begun a dramatic comeback in the past couple decades.  Again, some good reasons are not hard to spot.  The legacy of Barth has at last begun to wane, or at any rate, to be evaluated more dialogically than reverentially; centuries of Protestant-Catholic hostility have begun to thaw, and partnerships between Reformed and Catholic theological scholarship have emerged to an extent that John Knox is surely rolling in his grave.  Perhaps even more decisively, within an American context dominated by aggressive evangelical politics and shallow evangelical biblicism, it has become increasingly clear to thoughtful public theologians and political theologians that we need a broader foundation for Christian engagement with a secular public square.  For this task, natural law seems to offer great promise.

But with promise, of course, comes potential pitfalls.  With the rapid revival of natural law thinking, and its enthusiastic application to political theology by a rising generation of young theologians like myself, we must not casually brush aside the suspicions of an older generation, and must ask ourselves some hard questions.  First, what about Barth’s concern?  Is natural law un-Christological?  Will a politics of natural law necessarily detach us from a politics of Jesus?  Certainly folks like Stanley Hauerwas are inclined to worry on this score, and justly so.  As disciples of Christ, we must be suspicious of enshrining any standard for just political life that ignores the witness of Jesus, and his challenge to principalities and powers, that fastidiously sweeps the Sermon on the Mount off into the closet of spiritual life, leaving us free to live by another standard in public.  Second, what about the biblicist concern?  Does natural law give us a way to float free from Scripture, following a detached set of ethical principles discerned by reason, not revelation?  Must not the Bible, while not the exclusive basis for all our actions, remain at least the touchstone by which they must all be in some sense tested?  Third, to put a sharper point perhaps on the previous two concerns, what about the Fall?  The Enlightenment gave a bad name to natural law by imagining our reasons to be uncorrupted and capable of perfect access to and application of the natural law.  If we are to be Reformed, if we are to be in any sense the heirs of gloomy old John Calvin, then surely we must insist that natural law, like anything else, needs to be redeemed.  A simple creation/redemption schema, in which natural law governs the realm of creation, and Scripture that of redemption, will not do, because all things are made new in Christ, which includes political life and the standards that govern it.

9 thoughts on “Natural Law Today

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    Heh, don't get too excited. Part of the reason it was cut was that it didn't really lead into what I was actually doing in the rest of the paper–in particular, those concluding three potential pitfalls are not addressed, since I just focus on some of the historical problems in VanDrunen's presentation, and what their ramifications are. The rest will have to wait for another paper.Anyway, I'm probably going to look into publishing the paper after I present it, so I won't be able to post the whole thing here. But I suppose I could send you a copy.


  2. If you can send it, please do. I am very interested in natural law issues. For instance, a question was recently posted to me by a fellow NSA grad who follows the "natural law as autonomous fancy" view. He posed that regarding health care, why shouldn't we just start with the 5th commandment and work out a solution from the Bible Alone? I presume he meant trying to find OT case laws that could be applied to modern situations, though he didn't say that explicitly. Anyway, his idea is similar to something you asked in your intro above: whatever good we see in nature/the world, shouldn't Scripture be the ultimate touchstone for whether a given idea is right? I'm trying to figure this out in context of natural law issues, because I am suspicious of the idea of all things coming from the Bible. I don't think that's what the Bible is for, though of course if it does say something about some issue of life in the world, we do need to give its words final credence because they are God's.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Your suspicions are well-grounded. If that's what you're wrestling with, though, you'll want my other paper then–"Sola Scriptura and the Public Square: Richard Hooker and a Protestant Paradigm for Political Engagement." I'll send it right along.


  4. Maybe I should modify what I said above about giving the Bible final credence because it is God's words. Natural law comes from God, too, so the question should be more properly "Should either standard be held superior to the other, or should they be seen always to be working together and to be congruent?"Bible Only advocates always say that the Bible is "clearer" than natural law or any other standard, but I'm really sure that's true. While natural law properly speaking is a basic "orientation" to seek good / avoid evil, the prudential outworking of these simple principles is open to error. But before the Bible Only person says, "Aha! Gotcha! Natural law conclusions can err but the Bible can't," I would want to point out the rather obvious fact that interpretation of Scripture can err, too. Maybe the perceived disjunction between natural law and Scripture comes in part from the desire of many Protestants not just to have an infallible standard of truth, but to have an infallible personal cognition of that infallible standard.


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Precisely so, Tim. Hooker makes that retort to the Puritans–that natural law is God's law too. The perspicacity question is a good one, though. It does seem that the Bible must be clearer and more precise than natural law; but, on the other hand, Biblical interpretation seems to be almost as debated and changeable as interpretation of natural law when you look at history. But I do say *almost*…I expect that we could show, if we really looked at it thoroughly, more ability among people who take the Bible seriously to agree about what it commands than ability among people who take natural law seriously to agree about what it commands. But thankfully, we have both, so we're not stuck trying to interpret either one by itself."Maybe the perceived disjunction between natural law and Scripture comes in part from the desire of many Protestants not just to have an infallible standard of truth, but to have an infallible personal cognition of that infallible standard." Great line. I think this is key. Once one abandons the quest to have an infallible answer to every question and solution to every problem, natural law starts to look a lot more useful, and the clean-cut, prepackaged answers that we got "straight from Scripture" start to look a bit naive.Of course, now I'm going to get accused of relativism…though I tried to address this in my "Why I Won't Convert" post and follow-up comments a couple months ago.


  6. Right on differing interpretations of natural law. I saw this a few years ago when I was doing more research on 15th century conciliarism: both papalists and conciliarists appealed to natural law, yet their principles of government were 180 degrees opposed. I understand the desire to say the Bible is clearer than natural law, but I've seen natural law arguments for absolute monarchy and natural law arguments for constitutional republicanism. On the other hand, I've seen sophisticated Bible-based arguments for both positions, too, so I am not sure we should say that either one is clearer than the other. As Protestants, if we hold to the classic notion of sola Scriptura, we have to say that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, and that automatically means that other standards to which we appeal are not infallible. But just saying that Scripture is the only infallible rule is not enough to secure proper interpretation of Scripture. I think many Protestants today are in the grip of a Cartesian quest for absolute certainty, and they read the classic Protestant doctrine of "clarity" through that lens, which leads to arrogant Fundamentalism of interpretation. I'm not sure at this point to what extent we should allow natural law considerations to aid in the interpretation of Scripture, but it seems that they could be of some use.Just thinking out loud.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Sorry for the really slow response, Tim. Well, the traditional Protestant response on this issue is to distinguish the way that Scriptural authority functions in different realms. It is the infallible and comprehensive rule of faith, but, though it may be infallible as a rule of practice also, it is not comprehensive. Therefore, there is nothing wrong here with using natural law considerations to aid in its interpretation or application, or even in lieu of it when it has nothing to say directly to an issue. The perspicuity of Scripture was a doctrine originally meant only to apply to those fundamental teachings of salvation that comprise the heart of the Christian confession and that define the way to salvation. (see this post) In classical Protestant teaching, then, natural law was not necessary to aid our reading of Scripture here, but it could serve in other areas. Of course, Hooker would go somewhat further and argue that natural law must serve as a necessary foundation, and reason a necessary instrument, even for accessing Scripture as the rule of faith, and scholars disagree as to whether in so doing he went too far, and beyond the orthodox Protestant pale.


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