Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It is hard to make generalizations about Protestant theology, given the inherently splintered nature of Protestantism and the multiplicity of theological fads found within its borders. Nevertheless, people who otherwise have very little in common theologically are remarkably joined in their opposition to natural-law thinking. This opposition is found among both revisionists and those who are confessionally orthodox. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to name a single major figure in recent Protestant ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.

Among more orthodox thinkers, objection to the natural law takes several forms. Many, Protestant evangelicals in particular, presume that natural-law thinking fails to take seriously the condition of human sin and places misguided trust in the powers of human reason debilitated by the Fall. Consequently, natural-law theory is thought to be insufficiently Christocentric and located outside the realm of grace, thereby engendering a version of works-righteousness. These critics remain skeptical out of a concern that natural law is autonomous and somehow external to the center of theological ethics and God’s providential care of the world.

Because much of the bias against natural-law thinking is rooted in theological conviction, religiously grounded objections to natural law must be taken seriously. But the belief, however widespread, that natural-law thinking is insufficiently Christocentric and therefore detracts from divine grace is misguided. Nothing of the sort was believed by the early Church Fathers, the medieval fathers, or the Protestant Reformers. Indeed, Scripture presumes natural law as a realm of “common grace” that is accessible to all people by virtue of creation—hence, in St. Paul’s terms, all are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

However deeply entrenched the bias against natural-law thinking is among Protestant thinkers, it cannot be attributed to the Reformers of the sixteenth century themselves. While it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace and faith, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency. Rather, they assumed that the natural law had a moral and theological place in their system.

The conventional stereotype of such theologians as Luther and Calvin is that, in their concern to stress the primacy of faith, Scripture, grace, and forensic justification, they cared little about—or effectively denied—the natural law of their Catholic counterparts. Natural-law thinking, however, is firmly ensconced in Luther’s thought. In his 1525 treatise How Christians Should Regard Moses, he distinguishes the natural law from the law of Moses, with its historically conditioned components, stipulations, and illustrations for theocratic Israel. “If the Ten Commandments are to be regarded as Moses’s law, then Moses came too late,” Luther quips somewhat wryly, for “Moses agrees exactly with nature” and “what Moses commands is nothing new.” And, he adds, Moses “also addressed himself to far too few people, because the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs. For even if a Moses had never appeared and Abraham had never been born, the Ten Commandments would have had to rule in all men from the very beginning, as they indeed did and still do.”

The law that stands behind the Ten Commandments, according to Luther, “was in force prior to Moses from the beginning of the world and also among all the Gentiles.” Indeed, he adds, “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law.” And where the Mosaic law and the natural law are one, “there the law remains and is not abrogated externally.” Luther’s position is unambiguous: The moral norms that apply to all people, Christians and non-Christians, are the same. There are not two ethical standards that exist within the realm of divine revelation.

Luther adopts the basic definition of natural law set forth in Philip Melanchthon’s commentary on Romans 2:15, for the natural law is “a common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.” “Everyone,” observes Luther, “must acknowledge that what the natural law says is right and true.” All carry along with them “in the depth of their hearts a living book which could give them quite adequate instruction about what they ought to do and not to do, how they ought to judge, and what ought to be accepted and rejected.” There is no person who does not sense the effects of the natural law.

Luther is well aware of the common misperception among religiously minded people that “natural law” is presupposed by only “Christian” societies. To the contrary, he insists, it is verified by human experience that all nations and all cultures possess this rudimentary knowledge. The natural law “is written in the depth of the heart and cannot be erased.” In fact, people bring this awareness, this natural moral sense, when they come into the world. Although this natural law was merely concretized through the Decalogue on Mount Sinai, nations knew of the moral realities behind these laws before the law formally was given to Israel.

In his treatise Temporal Authority, Luther deliberates over particular situations that require Christians to participate intelligibly with unbelievers in the public square. Two such situations that potentially involve believer and unbeliever are the unlawful seizure of private property and resolving financial debts. Luther exhorts his readers to use both “the law of love” and “the natural law.” When love has no observable effect, however, natural law must be our guide, since it is that “with which all reason is filled.” Societies, therefore, “should keep written laws subject to reason, from which they originally welled forth as from the spring of justice.” If neither of the concerned parties is Christian, Luther notes, “then you may have them call in some other judge, and tell the obstinate one that they are acting contrary to God and natural law.” Theologically, Luther is content to allow the natural law and righteousness that comes by faith to stand side by side. And he is representative of the Protestant Reformers as a whole, presupposing the natural law to be at work within all people and thus lodged at the core of Christian social ethics. Otherwise, one could not appeal to the human conscience.

Given the emphasis on divine sovereignty and human depravity in the Institutes, one would expect Calvin to have a dim view of natural law. But he is, in fact, keenly aware of St. Paul’s argument in Romans that the Gentiles “show the work of the law written on their hearts.” Calvin maintains the Thomistic assumption that man is by nature a “social animal” and therefore inclined, “from natural instinct, to preserve society.” No civil order, he insists, is possible without just laws, the seeds of which are “implanted in the breasts of all” by a transcendent lawgiver. Moreover, these seeds remain unaffected by the vicissitudes of life; neither war nor catastrophe nor crime nor human disagreement can alter these moral intuitions, since nothing can destroy “the primary idea of justice.”

In light of Calvin’s attention to human depravity and the effects of sin on the human mind, one might be tempted to exclude natural revelation from Calvin’s theological system. But to acknowledge the pervasiveness of sin and human depravity, for Calvin, is not to obliterate the rudimentary moral sense in each person: “We certainly cannot say that (the Gentiles) are altogether blind as to the rule of life. Nothing is more common than for men to be sufficiently instructed in right conduct by natural law.” He acknowledges that, despite “man’s perverted and degenerate nature,” the image of God is not “totally annihilated and destroyed.” Rather, “some sparks still shine” in human creation. The natural law is “that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance while it proves them guilty by their own testimony.”

Covenant and natural law function together in the political theology of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) as a buttress against tyranny and a safeguard of the rights of the citizenry. Conjoined to the natural law, covenant furnishes the basis for civil obligations binding on all human beings and all societies. With the other Reformers, Zwingli believes that all human laws should conform to the natural law, which he understands to be the equivalent of “true religion”—“the knowledge, worship, and fear of the supreme deity.” The “law of nature,” as Zwingli perceives it, is set by God on the heart of man and confirmed by the grace of God through Christ. This internal light is owing to the work of God’s Spirit in every person and strengthened only after conversion to Christ. Because of human depravity, Zwingli reasons, humans cannot act justly; hence, the necessity of the “law of nature” as the divine imprint on the human heart, allowing even pagan unbelievers basic knowledge of good and evil. Without this “restraining” influence on humans of the natural law, society would descend into anarchy. (Zwingli holds to the belief, distinctive to Swiss reformational polity, that only those rulers and magistrates who are God-fearers properly know the natural law.)

Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), perhaps best known for his role in drafting the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), affirms in even more pronounced ways the “law of nature” as “an instruction of the conscience, and, as it were, a certain direction placed by God himself in the minds and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew.” This ability to reason morally comes from the Creator, who “both prompts and writes his judgments in the hearts and minds of men.” Thereby, notes Bullinger, even the Gentiles possess a basic discernment between good and evil, so that the natural law functions in the same way as the written law, teaching us “justice, equity, and goodness” and having as its source God himself. “Among all men, at all times and of all ages,” he writes, “the meaning and substances of the laws touching honesty, justice, and public peace is kept inviolable,” and thus the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have continuing significance.

Despite the significance of such early-modern natural-law thinkers as Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, who protested injustices in the New World based on the natural law, and Hugo Grotius, considered the father of international law, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a decline in claims of a transcendent source for morality. For social reformers, romanticists, revolutionaries, and enlightened despots—from Hobbes and Rousseau to the complete moral autonomy of reason in Kant and the skepticism of Hume—Enlightenment rationalism represents a break with moral tradition. “Nature” and “natural law” are thus set in opposition to the civitas. Hobbes denies what Aquinas had affirmed, that as social creatures we have a natural inclination toward the good of others. And with Kant, a person is subject to no laws other than those imposed by the self. Individual freedom thus renders impotent the natural law through its severance of law and morality, as well as through the noumenal and the phenomenal.

Through the twentieth century, Protestant theology generally mirrored the Enlightenment culture around it. Despite the cleavage between theological fundamentalists and progressives, objections to natural law have united most Protestants.

Few have argued more vehemently for a rejection of natural-law thinking than Karl Barth, whose examination of intellectual trends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in his book Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, led him to conclude that modern society had embraced an “idealized” and “humanized” understanding of “nature.” This romantic construal of nature, coupled with an increasing secularization of culture, as Barth saw it, blended easily into the core assumptions of Enlightenment thinking and a new humanism. What the spirit of the age demanded of Christianity was a “reasonable” religion, over against the dogma of a revealed, miraculous Christianity.

This emptying of the theistic core created, in Barth’s view, an entirely different religion that had departed from the Christianity revealed through Christ and Scripture. The preoccupation with “nature” and “reason” prepared the way for a secularized humanism that empties Christian faith of its substance, undermines the absolute lordship of Christ, and facilitates the emergence of a “natural theology” that supplants Christocentric faith.

Thus, any theological or philosophical concept rooted in nature Barth viewed as aiming “to undertake the replacement of the command of the grace of God by a sovereign humanism or even barbarism.” Natural theology functions as a Trojan horse inside the walls of Christendom, producing a sort of latent deism. The God of natural law cannot be the God of the Bible, for natural-law theory “creates an autonomous locus of moral reflection completely separate from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It does not take sin seriously and is overly optimistic about the human condition.”

Not inconsequential was a heated debate about natural law that took place between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner during the mid-1940s. Brunner held that nature is normative: It “teaches” and “dictates.” In a sinful world, he wrote in 1937, the “Law of Nature” must be carried out, by which he meant the order of creation. In Justice and the Social Order, written at the end of the Second World War, Brunner observes that “justice transcends human caprice and convention”; it is “a valid standard of sacred authority.” In fact, he argues, if the idea of justice had “remained faithful to its Christian form” and to “the law of nature,” the great breach in the development of law and the state would not have occurred.

The debate between Barth and Brunner is illustrative, for it captures the fundamental disagreement that persists to this day between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The critical question is whether basic moral truths are present and operative within fallen human beings by nature, and thus whether human beings can be held accountable for their actions.

The historic Christian tradition answers yes, but Protestant theology is riddled with suspicion and skepticism about natural-law theory—much of it Barthian, but not all. Another species of opposition to natural-law thinking grounds itself in what it believes to be “radical obedience” to the biblical witness to Jesus. Perhaps the most persuasive representative of this view is Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, whose well-known work The Politics of Jesus argues that the authentic Christian social ethic is rooted in a radical understanding of Jesus’ teaching and a particular reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

In seeking to understand the political order theologically, Yoder believes that two dominant interpretations have clouded our thinking. One rests on the “catholic” concept of natural law, which presumes an overly optimistic view of human nature and capacity for divine revelation. The other, the “Augustinian-reformed” version, entails “necessary compromise” with “the powers” for the purpose of “preservation.” Both of these, Yoder insists, are “unacceptable.”

Undergirding much of Yoder’s work is the assumption that the early Church wrongly absorbed pagan philosophical influence—for example, the Stoic emphasis on reason and the law of nature—which allowed it, by Ambrose and Augustine’s day, to be compromised by the political powers. Christian ethics, according to Yoder, evolved in such a way as to justify Christian presence and participation in the Roman imperium; hence, the need for a “radical critique of Constantinianism.” The history of the Church, for Yoder, is one long, unrelenting road of apostasy and cultural idolatry until the period of the “radical Reformation” in the sixteenth century. Christian ethics, as Yoder conceives it, is located neither in human “nature” nor in rational notions of justice or the common good. Rather, it subsists in our radical obedience to Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent resistance to political and social oppression.

For Yoder, the political powers are always and irrevocably fallen—inevitably opposed to the purposes of God. Revelation 13, not Romans 13, presents the state as it really is. In Discipleship as Political Responsibility, Yoder writes, “The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand.” Because political power is inherently evil, any cooperation with political power compromises the Christian, for the state is “a pagan institution in which Christians would not normally hold a position.” If our understanding of the cross were properly formed, we would avoid the triumphalist temptation and assume our place, with the crucified Lamb, in opposition to the powers in whatever form they might appear.

In his writing, Yoder sets forth what he understands to be Jesus’ prophetic stance over against other standard models of ethical decision making, which Yoder believes have distracted us over the last several centuries. One such distraction is the Catholic insistence that nature and grace do not stand in opposition. This, Yoder believes, has “foreshortened” the vision of the Kingdom of God by its focus on “the nature of things” in this fallen world. The result, he worries, is national idolatry and patriarchy.

Given the genesis of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, with persecution coming from both the Catholic and the Protestant sides, Yoder’s pessimism toward the natural law is understandable, and he is at his best when critiquing the Christian community’s tendency toward cultural idolatry. But he is also at his worst to the extent that he is unwilling to submit his notion of moral formation—and Christian social ethics—to the collective wisdom of the historic Christian tradition. Given his overarching commitment to ideological pacifism, Yoder’s rejection of the natural law might be viewed as a result, not a cause, of his pacifist ethics. Like Barth, Yoder believes that natural law is “an addition” to the Word of God as divine revelation. In this regard, he believes, “the warning of the Barmen confessor [Barth] is still needed.”

In assorted writings, the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas confesses his debt to Yoderian Anabaptism, wishing to advance Yoder’s vision of Christian social ethics. A prolific writer and innovative thinker, Hauerwas has been explicit in his rejection of the natural law—notably in The Peaceable Kingdom and Truthfulness and Tragedy. As with Yoder, the deep-seated distrust of natural-law thinking for Hauerwas is related to the Church’s purported compromise with “Constantinianism.” Accordingly, “the alleged transparency of the natural law norms reflects more the consensus within the Church than the universality of the natural law itself.” This is substantiated for Hauerwas by “the fact that the power of natural law as a systematic idea was developed in and for the Roman imperium and then for ‘Christendom.’”

The natural-law tradition, as interpreted by Hauerwas, is a “culturally assimilationist” attempt at Christian ethics that mirrors the Church’s cultural captivity. Moral theology gives expression to “an unquestioned ecclesial assumption” rather than to the practice of Christian virtue. Hauerwas believes that the “abstractions” of “nature and grace” have “distorted how ethics has been undertaken in the Catholic tradition.” And while Hauerwas does acknowledge contact between Christian ethics and “other forms of the moral life,” he believes these “are not sufficient to provide a basis for a ‘universal’ ethic grounded in human nature per se.”

Responding to ethicist James Gustafson’s charge that his ethical approach is sectarian, Hauerwas reasons: “I certainly have never denied the Christian affirmation of God as Creator; rather, I have refused to use that affirmation to underwrite an autonomous realm of morality separate from Christ’s lordship.” As it happens, the widespread worry about “autonomy”—like the parallel assumption that nature and grace stand in opposition—erects a false dualism that finds no place in historic Christian theology. It is a fairly late development, found predominately in post-Reformational Protestant theology.

Ultimately, Hauerwas believes that “Christian ethics theologically does not have a stake in ‘natural law,’” which he believes to be a “primitive metaphysics.” Mirroring Yoder’s commitment to pacifism and nonviolent resistance to the state, Hauerwas suggests that the natural-law tradition offers justification for war and violence: “If just war is based on natural law, a law written in the conscience of all men and women by God, then it seems that war must be understood as the outgrowth of legitimate moral commitments.” Just use of force and reluctantly going to war for justified purposes are for Hauerwas necessarily “the compromises we make with sin” and “cooperating with sin.” In this context, however, John Courtney Murray’s basic distinction between “violence” and “force” is worth noting: “Force is the measure of power necessary and sufficient to uphold . . . law and politics. What exceeds this measure is violence, which destroys the order of both law and politics . . . . As an instrument, force is morally neutral in itself.”

Far from preparing society for violence, the natural law preserves social bonds and guards basic freedoms. Not only is it the grammar of a common moral discourse that Christians must use with pagans, it is also part of divine revelation, by which the public square is preserved. Christian ethics does not compromise by seeking to work for justice in the public square based on the natural law and shared humanity. One of the most important lessons we Protestants can learn from those who have championed the permanent things is that public morality must rest on public principles—principles that are rooted in the fabric of creation.

“The idea that Christianity brought an entirely new ethical code into the world is a grave error,” C.S. Lewis insists in Christian Reflections. “If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken.” It is no more possible, Lewis argues, “to invent a new ethics than to place a new sun in the sky. Some precept from traditional morality always has to be presumed. We never start from a tabula rasa: if we did, we should end, ethically speaking, with a tabula rasa.”

At the heart of the rejection of natural law by Protestant social ethics is the erection of a false dichotomy between nature and grace, leading to the mistaken assumption, particularly among evangelical Protestants, that the natural law is distinct from “Christian social ethics.” This mistaken distinction fails to see the role our common human nature plays in moral theory and moral discourse—and thus it undermines any attempts to enter the public square, where critical ethical issues are at stake.

At best, we convince ourselves that, in our radical commitment to the ethics of Jesus—or in our radical separation and denunciation of the powers, or in our detached apocalypticism—we most faithfully embody Christian discipleship and Christian social ethics. At worst, we delude ourselves by being severed from the mainstream of historic Christian thought, even when we believe we are acting prophetically. In practice, this posture prevents us from entering into responsible dialogue with unbelievers. There remains no ethical language intelligible to the nonbeliever. In the end, apart from natural law, we lose any basis upon which to build a moral apologetic and to contribute meaningfully to civil society.

For many Protestants, the word law can be explained only in terms of Christ, “the Spirit’s leading,” and a concept of grace that is confined to a reading of the New Testament in ethical discontinuity with the Old Testament. But the quandary of law is not merely a Christian question; it is rather a human question, as Wolfgang Pannenberg has rightly argued. Since law is part of creation, the order of things as they are, it is a biblical, an anthropological, and an eminently theological question: Human beings cannot avoid or deny their true nature, which, made in the image of God, seeks order.

Thus, natural theology concerns cosmic reality, not human autonomy. And cosmic reality entails law. The structure of law is such that it informs the commandments and forms the basis for ethics. The New Covenant in no way abrogates this moral reality. Therefore, law cannot be severed from authentic Christian religion and social ethics.

While love speaks to the proper motivation, law provides the God-given structure within which obedience is performed. St. Paul and St. James speak with one voice in this regard: Love fulfills the law. And short of the eschaton, law will always and everywhere be necessary-for ?justice has an abiding character and a universal shape.

J. Daryl Charles is an associate professor in the department of Christian studies, Union University, and the author of the forthcoming Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things.