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Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed
Theological Ethics

by Stephen J. Grabill
Eerdmans, 328 pages, $38

Stephen Grabill not only shows himself to be an astute observer of culture past and present, he also demonstrates a commitment, historically and ethically, to “think with the Church””which, alas, places him decidedly out of step with his own theological tradition. Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics is the latest in the noteworthy series of Emory University Studies in Law and Religion. The book’s aim is both clear and controversial: to assist contemporary Protestants in rediscovering and rehabilitating the natural law and related doctrinal concepts.

Grabill understands natural law as part of “an ancient moral and legal tradition that Christian theologians, jurists, and statesmen have amended, supplemented, and assimilated over time to serve moral, political, legal, and canon law objectives.” It is Grabill’s contention that the natural-law tradition remains largely unbroken in the theology of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century and their orthodox seventeenth-century heirs. Thereafter, Protestant thinkers succumbed to rationalist currents, resulting in “critical modifications” in theological, philosophical, and legal thought.

But what precisely did Protestants from the mid-eighteenth century onward forfeit in their theological-philosophical orientation? According to Grabill, it was a consensus that was shared by patristic, medieval and late-medieval, and early-modern Christian thinkers: the conviction that God promulgated a natural law that directs and binds human creatures; that this “law of nature” has been written on every human heart; that conscience and reason serve as natural lights leading people to act in accord with the natural law; that the Decalogue, in terms of its moral content, defines the contours of the natural law; that despite the pervasive effects of sin in the moral order, the natural law still yields adequate data for humans to distinguish between good and evil; and that, while the natural law is not sufficient for theological justification or redemption, it is crucial to maintaining just and well-ordered civil polities.

Although the vast majority of Protestants would contend otherwise, Grabill’s thesis rests on solid footing and finds confirmation in the writings of the Reformers themselves. Indeed, the magisterial Reformers inherited the natural-law tradition from their Catholic counterparts, and as such their disagreement with the latter was foremost theological-ecclesiastical and not ethical. Only their later heirs can be said to maintain a critical stance of discontinuity in relation to the natural law. One is justified, therefore, in speaking of a catholicity of the natural-law doctrine.

Certainly, with Grabill, it is eminently fair to ask why Protestants have been so critical of the natural law down to the present day, and vehemently so. For Grabill, three broader overlapping tendencies offer explanations as to why this has occurred. Among twentieth-century Protestant systematicians, a primary reason is the supremely negative view of the natural law projected by Karl Barth’s highly influential epistemological criticism of natural theology, coupled with Barth’s advocacy of a strong version of divine-command theory. This has resulted in a radical discontinuity with the natural-law tradition, insofar as it is broadly”and unequivocally”assumed that the natural law negates Christocentrism and the work of grace.

A second reason is that natural-law doctrine is thought to originate in”and be the proprietary fund of”Roman Catholic moral theology. Properly, Grabill points to the influence of Protestant thinkers such as Paul Lehmann, Jacques Ellul, Helmut Thielicke, Carl F.H. Henry, and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as several Dutch Reformed thinkers who, since Barth, have been outspoken opponents of natural-law thinking.

A third and more general reason for the bias against natural-law thinking is the anti-metaphysical predisposition of much nineteenth-century German thought that exerted itself on the Protestant mainstream well into the twentieth century. The result has been a paucity of Protestant treatment of the natural law, which, unhappily, has hamstrung Protestant ethics up to the present. A signal event, as Grabill reminds the reader, was the 1934 debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, which helped rupture the already anemic understanding of the natural law in Protestant theological ethics. Reinforcing a trend that already dated back more than a century, the debate guaranteed the tenor of Protestant theological discourse in the decades to come.

The heart of Grabill’s book is its detailed analysis of several Protestant Reformed representatives. Individual chapters are devoted to John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin, who represent the magisterial Reformation period as well as Protestant orthodoxy.

Calvin himself not only inherits the natural-law tradition but also grounds his understanding in two sources: Scripture and creation. That Calvin is explicit in his affirmation of a duplex cognitio Dei makes Barth’s and contemporary Protestants’ rejection of natural-law thinking all the more remarkable. Protestants today commonly presuppose that Calvinism’s account of total depravity obscures humans’ ability to use reason rightly and therefore to discern basic good and evil. But this is not the case. Universally imprinted non-salvific knowledge of God as Creator serves as a “preconception” of God for Calvin; therefore all people are accountable for their moral agency. This conviction is predicated on human beings’ creation in the image of God and their awareness of God’s existence. While Calvin views the human heart as deceitful and implacably wicked, he observes that the imago Dei is not eradicated; otherwise, there could be no order in civil affairs whatsoever, no holding human beings to any sort of moral accountability.

The theological system of Francis Turretin (1623“1687) is for Grabill particularly instructive. While Turretin, with the magisterial Reformers, acknowledged the role of natural revelation, he is cut in the mold of Melanchthon and Vermigli owing
to his speculative philosophical method. Moreover, the precision with which he formulated Reformed doctrine in the late seventeenth century is, for Grabill, grounds enough to examine his theological system. And yet despite Turretin’s towering stature as a theologian”what one historian called a “champion and grandmaster of Reformed polemics””his theological ethics has been strangely ignored.

This absence is all the more remarkable to the extent that Turretin’s formulation of natural-law doctrine is “systematic and integrated seamlessly with the adjacent doctrines of natural revelation and natural theology.” Grabill believes that Turretin’s understanding and affirmation of the natural law are instructive for Protestants today, not merely because of the symbiotic relation between natural and special revelation but also because of Turretin’s emphasis on the boundaries that circumscribe the natural law’s limited sphere of usefulness. In Turretin’s words, “It is one thing to allow some knowledge of God as Creator and preserver however imperfect, corrupt, and obscure; another to have a full, entire, and clear knowledge of God as Redeemer and of the lawful worship due to him.” The philosopher in Turretin recognizes that natural theology, like the study of philosophia , performs a valuable ancillary role in supporting biblical theology, and that the human mind is capable of apprehending moral first principles”an apprehension that establishes the theological basis for the natural law.

Grabill’s examination of theological ethics in the Protestant Reformed mainstream is utterly compelling, and it represents a shot across the bow of theological ethics, as it were. Protestants for the past 250 years have found practical as well as theological justification for ignoring or vehemently rejecting natural-law theory. And despite its bewildering diversity, there exists across Protestantism a broad consensus that rejects the natural law as a metaphysical notion rooted in divine revelation. This consensus is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major contemporary figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.

In his Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics , James Gustafson has classified Protestant opposition to natural law in the modern era according to two notable philosophical tendencies”historicism and existentialism. To this we might add pietism. There is much in Gustafson’s critique that commends itself, for it accurately gives accounts of both rationalism and fideism as theological responses to the modernist spirit since Hume and Kant. While Catholic and Protestant theologians both have drunk deeply from the wells of modernism (as well as ultramodernism), the absence of theological authority, it goes without saying, has made Protestant thinkers much more susceptible to both heterodox currents and opposition to the natural law.

Twentieth-century aversion to the natural law, it must be emphasized, has been both revisionist and orthodox in character. Revisionist objections to natural law tend to be of two types. One proceeds on the assumption that natural law is “prescientific””and specifically a mirror of medieval social and cultural conditions-and therefore requiring critical assessment by the modern mind. The other tends to conflate (and equate) the innate structure of human nature with a sort of metaphysical biology or inert physicalism. Both mindsets, it goes without saying, are deeply influenced by secularism and metaphysical naturalism.

Perhaps even more troubling in our day is the rejection of natural-law thinking among confessionally orthodox thinkers. Natural law, they presume, fails to take seriously the condition of human sin and places misguided trust in the powers of human reason, which has been debilitated by the Fall. Correlatively, those non-revisionist thinkers who emphasize human depravity typically argue that natural-law theory is insufficiently Christocentric. Christian social ethics, thus construed, is to be located solely and exclusively within a particular understanding of grace. As a consequence, natural-law theory is thought to engender a version of works-righteousness, since it is seen as detracting from the work of grace through Christ. One prominent Christian ethicist has even argued, contra Aquinas and the historic Christian tradition, that natural-law reasoning is insufficient to lead people to basic moral principles and thus is a “primitive metaphysics” that “perverts” the nature of the Christian moral life.

In the face of all this, it is imperative to insist that there is nothing in natural-law thinking that either implies or presupposes meritorious works. Correlatively, the supposition that the natural law supplants grace or that it has a salvific function, and thus is insufficiently Christocentric, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the natural law and of law’s function in the divine economy. In truth, natural law mirrors the moral order of creation, not salvation, and thus underscores the permanent things”that which applies to all people at all times and in all places. In the words of one public philosopher, it denotes what we all can’t not know.

If his account of Protestant”especially Reformed Protestant”theological ethics is faithful, then Grabill has performed a valuable service in plumbing the rich texture of Reformed theological ethics. And if his thesis is correct, then a shot across the bow is surely necessary in our time. In which case, let the battle begin.

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.