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Biblical Natural Law:
A Theocentric and Teleological Approach

by Matthew Levering
Oxford, 260 pages, $110

The Dominican philosopher Fergus Kerr observes that natural law is “currently perhaps the most contested topic in Thomas Aquinas’ work.” In recent years, scholars have proficiently expounded Thomas’ natural law doctrine in terms of moral epistemology, moral virtue, philosophy of nature, or metaphysics of the good. Yet there is no consensus on how these themes are to be weighed and woven together. Why?

Despite first appearances, in which it seems to be a rather serene and simple doctrine, natural law is a rather complicated and difficult subject in Thomas’ work. Beyond its inherent difficulty also stands the fact that Thomas investigated natural law in his dual role as philosopher and theologian, for which there is no equivalent office or craft in our academic institutions, secular or ecclesiastical. The division of labor in our institutions practically guarantees that only a few theologians have any reason to take responsibility for adapting natural law to sacred theology, and that even fewer philosophers are apt to worry how natural law might be integrated into a theological system.

We should not be surprised, then, that Thomas’ multifaceted account of natural law has devolved into badly integrated partial perspectives. The subject lacks what Benedict XVI calls “breathing room,” which is a point the theologian Matthew Levering proves he understands when, in his new book Biblical Natural Law, he urges theologians to take a more active interest in the doctrine of natural law. He offers his work as a “first step toward reclaiming natural-law doctrine as an exegetical, and not solely philosophical, project—that is, ‘natural law’ as understood by the Christian tradition prior to the modern reconfiguration of natural law.”

Levering distinguishes anthropologies that are “self-giving” from those that are “self-cleaving.” “Biblical natural law,” he argues, “avoids the self-cleaving tendency in anthropocentric natural-law doctrine and instead recognizes human fulfillment as achieved through imitation of the divine ecstasis.” Working in light of the redemption and the revelation of Trinitarian communion, a biblical theologian can affirm both a natural created and graced participation in what Thomas called the eternal law.

Does Levering set the bar impossibly high? Not for a Christian theologian. Any truth about the created order must be integrated within a proper theological account of Christ. Just as the old Adam is understood more clearly in the face of Christ, natural law has a kind of brilliance in the light of the New Covenant. This is precisely why Levering wants to shift the burden of natural-law thinking back to the theologians.

This move does not imply that “natural law, as such, depends upon revelation,” Levering insists. “To imply this would be to deny the workings of the very ‘nature’ that natural-law doctrine defends.” Ralph McInerny puts the point well: “The natural law, as St. Paul remarks, is inscribed in our hearts. But knowing natural law does not entail knowing St. Paul.”

Of course, the theologian will respond that what St. Paul knew of the Christian mysteries can cast a helpful light not only on natural law but also on its situation in the hearts of the sons and daughters of Adam. The doctrine needs historical grit and context supplied by theology. We need to understand how knowledge can go right or wrong in the actual lives of men, beginning with our estimation of what it means to be human. The default options of modern anthropocentrism are to interpret human moral experience as the constructions either of the self or society. “Outside of the framework of revelation, and particularly when one has deliberately rejected the biblical framework,” Levering writes, “it becomes difficult to conceive of an ordering in human beings that is not ultimately a human construction.” While this darkness does not obliterate altogether the grounds for knowing natural law, it surely begets some very strange understandings of it. Christian theologians need to take responsibility for exposing the fruitless antagonism between self and society that dominates contemporary discourse about natural law and natural rights. If Levering is correct, we shouldn’t expect this problem to be understood adequately by the philosophers and social scientists.

Along the way, Levering surveys the history of anthropocentric theories after the Enlightenment rejection of the biblical framework. Scholars of modern natural law and natural rights may justly complain that the survey in Biblical Natural Law is too fast and loose to help us distinguish what is merely incomplete from what is truly a dead end. Is there no “gold of Egypt,” as Origen described Greek learning, to be purloined and rendered amenable to proper use by the faithful? Or does Levering think that modern thought is irredeemably apostate? A more searching treatment of these questions would be welcome.

About the larger issue, however, Levering is surely right. The orthodox theologian is faced with a quandary: To accede to modern anthropocentrisms causes scandal and a flight from natural law by theologians, while to toss out natural law cripples the theology of creation and providence.

This helps explain the cautious approach to natural law by key figures in the early days of the Protestant Reformation and the more severe reaction of Karl Barth and his followers in the twentieth century. These theologians believed that natural law, if understood as the assertion of either self or society, should be rejected as sin rather than folded into a Christian account of creation. Levering is also correct to suggest that a similar reaction to modern natural-law doctrines, if somewhat less prickly than the Protestant version, was more than a little influential in twentieth-century Catholic theology. Although the story remains to be told in adequate detail, Catholic neo-orthodoxy can push natural law to the remote boundaries of theology where it can do no work.

Levering advocates “biblical natural law” as a remedy to these problems. If there is a theory of natural law that will actually help us do theological work, then it must meet two main criteria: It should be strongly teleological, affirming that the human good includes our being ordered to God and neighbor. And it should be theocentric, capable of taking a place within the doctrine of divine providence. Levering puts these together to yield a vision that is very similar to that of Thomas’ doctrine of participation. For Levering, what we share is a two-fold gift, given to us by both creation and grace. “The pattern of ecstasis, made manifest in the natural law and elevated by grace into a personal communion with the Trinity, unifies law and love.” In effect, Levering is arguing that the best natural-law doctrine for theologians is the one found in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), where the idea of “participated theonomy” bridges law and love.

Levering’s Thomism is broad and ecumenical. He makes generous use of contemporary Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox thinkers. He also gives due recognition to Rabbi David Novak’s important work on natural law within the context of covenantal theology. Having different functions in Jewish and Christian theology, covenant and natural law are not a perfect fit, but the notion that participation is what God and men do together throws interesting light on the idea of covenant.

For Levering’s Protestants, the doctrine of participation might alleviate the suspicion that the creature dictates the terms of God’s gifts. For his Catholic readers, it could provide a useful matrix not only for bridging the gap between law and love but also for reaching across the chasm between moral theology and sacramental ­theology. Benedict XVI has been calling attention to all this for many years, notably in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2005).

Of course, even after we finish there remains a nagging practical question. Whatever the strengths of the book’s theory as theology, can it really provide common ground in a pluralistic culture? Only “over the long term,” Matthew Levering answers, and even then only with “bold Christian witness in leading sacrificial lives, lives of ecstatic love.”

Not a bad answer, all in all.

Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.