Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

13 July 2006

Protestants and natural law theory

The Acton Institute's Stephen J. Grabill has been posting a series on Why Protestants Don’t Like Natural Law, which is crossposted here. Grabill is a Reformed theological ethicist and author of the forthcoming book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, whose thesis should be evident from the title. Grabill writes:
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.

I've not read Grabill extensively on the topic, but from these brief posts it looks to me as though he may be conflating two related, though by no means identical, issues: (1) the protestant rejection of natural law theory, and (2) the protestant rejection of the reality which natural law theory purports to explain, viz., God's creation as a normative order. If the central issue is the latter, then there's a genuine problem that he is right to address — and one contributing to the antinomian tendencies we see in much of contemporary mainline protestantism. Grabill quotes Karl Barth, arguably the greatest protestant theologian of the 20th century:

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.”

However, it is possible to agree with the church of the ages that God's creation is an orderly, lawful one, without necessarily accepting natural law theory's account of this. As I see it, there are at least five reasons for rejecting the natural law as a theory, four of which I find persuasive in varying degrees:

(1) It assumes a kind of religious neutrality in which thinking occurs independently of one’s ultimate commitments. I wouldn't wish to wield this objection as a blunt instrument, as some might be inclined to do. Yet this inevitably raises the issue of Thomas Aquinas' use of Aristotle and the Stoics in articulating his own natural law theory. To what extent can one draw on the insights of unbelievers without buying into at least fragments of their religious worldview? This does not have a simple answer, and indeed it lies at the heart of the ancient Athens and Jerusalem question posed by Tertullian in the patristic era. Without going into a detailed treatise here, I will indicate that the tendency for Christians to embrace composite worldviews joining biblical Christianity with other, incompatible worldviews is ubiquitous. I myself do not think that Thomas and his followers were entirely free of this tendency.

(2) It does not take seriously enough the fall into sin and its effects on the epistemic faculties. This is the objection one is most likely to hear from traditional protestants, i.e., from those heirs of the Reformation who are true to their own confessions. Such Christians would not, of course, be at all sympathetic to the antinomian tendencies of so-called mainline protestants. If anything, they might tend to err in the direction of a biblicism that does not take into account the reality of what Abraham Kuyper and his followers labelled common grace.

(3) It presupposes a kind of two realm conception of the cosmos in which the natural possesses a certain autonomy vis-à-vis God himself. This is most evident in Thomas' account of the virtues, in which four cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance — are deemed capable of being attained "according to the capacity of human nature," while the three theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — must be infused in us by God "supernaturally."

(4) Within the field of jurisprudence it has difficulty accounting for the status of an unjust law as a genuine law. Thomas Aquinas quotes Augustine to the effect that a human law that does not conform to the natural law is not a genuine law. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King quoted this to defend his and his followers' disobedience of the segregationist laws of Alabama. Yet as a defence of an act of civil disobedience, this is not fully adequate, because civil disobedience can only be to something possessing a lawful character requiring obedience. It would make better sense to recognize that the laws in question were unjust, viz., that they got the balance wrong, but that this did not diminish the character of these laws as genuine laws. Here the legal positivists, for all their considerable flaws, have a valid point.

(5) Within the realm of theology, it assumes that one can know God apart from his revelation in Jesus Christ, which is the basis of Barth’s objection to so-called natural theology. I think Grabill's objection to Barth is on solid ground, because Barth appears to be rejecting, not simply natural law as a theory, but the very reality of which it is an account. When I was researching my book, I took the opportunity to read relevant sections of Barth's massive Church Dogmatics, and it struck me that the specifics of his ostensibly christological ethics could hardly be based on christology alone but inevitably presupposed the creation order even as he denied it.

Has Grabill read Dooyeweerd? I should think that, as a Reformed ethicist, he would at least know the name. Dooyeweerd himself came to reject natural law theory after initially embracing it, yet, unlike Barth and other 20th-century protestants, he strongly affirmed the reality of God's normative creation order.

I look forwarding to reading Grabill's book when it comes out.

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