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.


Divorce Culture

When I logged into WordPress yesterday, I decided to click on one of their “Freshly Pressed” blog posts, entitled “Divorce of the Decade.”  It was, more or less, a short, casual post announcing the news story that Elin Nordegren had finalized her divorce with Tiger Woods, and cheering her on for it.  It concluded, “By not being with Tiger, peace (and dignity) is what you will get. Now, that’s priceless.”  Sixty-two comments followed, almost all of them some variant on “Absolutely!  Way to go for her!”  This struck me as a trifle surprising, but then I remembered a poll I had seen some months ago, shortly after the story of Tiger’s infidelity had first broken, in which an overwhelming number of respondents had voted that Elin ought to get a divorce, overruling a small minority that said she ought to at least give him a chance to make things right.  And I recalled similar comments last summer about Mark Sanford, the Argentiniaphile governor of South Carolina.  Back when he had publicly promised to try and make things right with his wife, and she had initially said she was open to reconciliation, a prominent Washington Post columnist had written an article all but rebuking her for saying so, and suggesting that she ought to divorce him.  A chorus of women commented on the story with loud “Amen!”s.

Is this what our culture has come to?  Of course, it may well be that both Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods’s later actions showed that they were not serious about reform and reconciliation, and so perhaps (depending on your theological position on marriage) divorce was a legitimate and commendable option in the end.  But as a first response to the revelation of infidelity–even serious infidelity?  I suppose I had naively thought that in a majority Christian culture, there were still a great many people who viewed divorce as a last resort, and who thought that forgiveness and a valiant attempt at reconciliation was the right response to infidelity, at least, so long as there was an apparently genuine penitence.  Apparently not; the comments I read on both these stories revealed that we have become a culture of vengeance and strict justice rather than forgiveness: the only relevant question is “Did he do it?” and if the answer is “Yes,” then you are absolved of all duties except the duty to look out for yourself and make the guilty one suffer.  (It’s the same mindset, unsurprisingly, as we have revealed in foreign policy since 9/11.)  

I can, however, end on a positive note.  At their general convention this past summer, the Southern Baptist Convention unabashedly owned up to the problem of a divorce culture within their own ranks, and vowed to take serious steps to tackle the problem.  It’s well worth reading about here and here and here.


What is Liberalism?

What does it mean to be theologically liberal?  The term, like all terms used pejoratively more often than not, is frightfully slippery.  To my American evangelical friends, the line to liberalism is generally crossed somewhere around denying literal six-day creation.  After that point, for many, there’s a pretty straightforward progression running to allowing women deacons, then allowing women ministers, then condoning homosexuality, then ordaining homosexuals (with a denial of the historicity of Scripture thrown in somewhere along that line).  On the other hand, I know and respect a minister here who would be fine with all of the above, but would not at all consider himself a liberal.  For him, the difference is that for him, God is at the center of everything, whereas for the liberal, Christianity is basically humanism with God as a sideshow, an assistant, an important additional factor.  Or, to put it more dogmatically, the difference is perhaps over the deity of Christ; if everything depends on God, then Christ must be God, but if it’s mainly about being a good human, then no need for Christ to be anything more than that.  

This ambiguity is a bit surprising because it’s not as if “liberal” were merely a pejorative term, one of those things that everyone calls everyone else but no one admits to for themselves.  There are millions of Christians who would enthusiastically identify themselves as “liberals” and would wear it as a badge of pride, and there have been for decades.  But the battle-lines have not always been the same.  Originally, they were mainly theological: a liberal was someone who denied fundamental doctrines like the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the rest.  Now, these yardsticks don’t seem particularly important, and debate seems to center around ethical and gender role questions.  Some might at first suppose that the shift is just one of a retreating battle line–liberals consider their doctrinal innovations already established, and now they’re moving on to other issues.  But that is clearly not the case; many of the people pushing for ethical liberalism are a very different group than the earlier group pushing for doctrinal liberalism, and are indeed often doctrinally orthodox on those earlier disputed points. 

Conservatives might want to say that the common element, the fount of liberalism, is a denial of Scriptural inerrancy and sufficiency.  Once you let that go, then liberalism of one sort or another will follow.  But I’m not so sure anymore if this is as simple and neat a solution as it seems.  For one thing, there are many Catholics who would not hold to a Protestant doctrine of Scripture, but would insist on the ability of tradition to supplement Scripture, an attitude that it seems might open the floodgates of liberalism; but many of this persuasion are staunchly conservative.  Moreover, if we once allow that there is a diversity of genres in Scripture, a simple appeal to Scriptural inerrancy is not so simple.  For instance, I might confess that I believe Scripture is entirely authoritative and without error in what it wishes to teach us about doctrine and practice.  I might just argue that certain portions of Scripture do not aim to teach us doctrine and practice directly, or in all the same way.  Job, for instance, may be intended as an edifying story, not a historical account.  What if I’m convinced that the same is true about Genesis?  Is this liberalism?  What if I believe that Genesis is a perfectly authoritative story, just not perfectly authoritative history, because it was not intended to be history?  Couldn’t I say I am actually taking the Bible more seriously than the fundamentalist, because I am willing to pay serious attention to the variety of genres it presents to me?  Likewise, I might take the Bible with full seriousness, yet argue that some of its particular ethical commands were intended only to be particular, to apply to a certain context, and that they do not apply in other, later contexts.  (For instance, most evangelicals effortlessly do this with things like the usury prohibition.)

Perhaps we could propose something like this as a distinguishing criterion: If someone honestly desires to apply and act on what they take the Bible to be saying to them, they are not a liberal, but if someone says, “Yes, I know that the Bible intends to say to us X, but I think it’s wrong and I will do Y,” then they are a liberal.  The problem, of course, is that this reduces everything to intentionality, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If someone honestly believes that the Bible’s warnings on homosexuality do not mean to condemn modern homosexual couples, are they not a liberal?  The problem becomes more pressing when we consider dogmatic questions, like the deity of Christ.  If someone honestly believes that Scripture doesn’t teach the deity of Christ, and thinks they are taking Scripture with full seriousness, do we not call them a liberal?  

Alternatively, we could make the criterion straightforwardly credal–if you affirm what is in the Nicene Creed without reservation, you’re orthodox; if you want to amend it, you’re liberal.  But that of course leaves us with the dilemma that much modern “liberalism” is ethical, not dogmatic, and the creeds have nothing to say about ethics. 

I confess that I do not have a clear answer to this question.  Perhaps a clear-cut defintion isn’t necessary, but it would be nice to be able to pin it down more precisely than common parlance seems to.  I welcome answers that any readers might want to suggest.