Anyone who is familiar with the debate over natural law in Protestant theological ethics has likely heard it said: “The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura and the Roman Catholic teaching on natural law are fundamentally opposed.” According to the proponents of this view, natural law is a set of ethical imperatives drawn from human nature and known through reason and it differs thereby from any form of supernaturally revealed legal or moral instruction. While the opponents of natural law reference several lines of theological arguments to develop their case, perhaps the argument most frequently encountered in Protestant circles is that natural law makes God and Scripture irrelevant to moral knowledge. If that is the most common Protestant criticism of natural law, the second most common is that natural law turns a blind eye to the effects of sin on reason and human nature. When combined together, these two criticisms constitute the standard Protestant objection to natural law.
This standard objection found its clearest expression in the acrimonious 1934 exchange between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, which influenced the future course of Protestant theological ethics in two distinct ways. First, from a theological and anthropological perspective, Barth’s rhetorical victory sealed the fate of natural law by insisting that the Fall disordered human reason to such an extent that apart from Christ it is impossible to obtain genuine knowledge of God-a doctrinal assumption that he claimed was supported by John Calvin’s teaching on the noetic “incapacity of the natural man.” Second, from a historical perspective, the exchange reinforced a trend begun in the nineteenth century to press the Reformers into service as final arbiters of modern theological debates. The strategy, particularly in Calvin’s case, was to view him as the chief early codifier of Protestant theology and then to argue that he either rejected or affirmed natural law.
As a result, since 1934, Protestant scholars have exerted an inordinate amount of energy bickering over the “correct” interpretation of Calvin’s admittedly fragmentary teaching on natural law and entirely neglected the sophisticated contributions of his fellow Reformers and the later representatives of Protestant orthodoxy. To move beyond this stalemate today, Protestants must simultaneously rediscover the full teaching of Scripture in support of natural law and then pair that discovery with the untapped doctrinal legacy of their own theological traditions. There are untold riches to be mined here.
Through his examination of the redemptive-historical context of natural law, David VanDrunen is helping to shift debate away from the badly caricatured doctrine of sola scriptura toward a fuller understanding of the biblical theology that underlies natural law. As Protestants rediscover the biblical basis for natural law and the doctrinal resources of their own theological traditions, the prospect for rapprochement between Protestant and Roman Catholic ethics may yet be within our grasp. John T. McNeill, a renowned Calvin scholar and dean of twentieth-century Reformation studies, once made a bold assertion to this effect: “There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.” Can McNeill’s claim withstand historical scrutiny? See for yourself. Ad fontes!
Stephen J. Grabill, Ph.D.
Research Scholar in Theology
The topic of natural law is one of recurring interest in the history of Western civilization. Embraced by some and spurned by others, natural law has been addressed by many of the greatest philosophers, theologians, and political and legal theorists over the centuries. Though different writers suggest various definitions of natural law, the term generally refers to the moral order inscribed in the world and especially in human nature, an order that is known to all people through their natural faculties (especially reason and/or conscience) even apart from supernatural divine revelation and that binds morally the whole of the human race. So many significant thinkers have considered this topic that the publication of another study on it may require some defense.
Part of the reason for the present study is that natural law is a perennially important subject. The claim that all people, of whatever culture, historical milieu, or religion, know the basics of what is right and wrong at the core of their being is a staggering assertion. If it is true, it would seem to have ramifications not only for each person's individual character and conduct but also for politics, civil law, economic life, an every other aspect of culture. It is little wonder that natural law can evoke such strong feelings-whether positive or negative-from thoughtful people.
Another part of the answer, however, is that over the past couple of centuries the idea of natural law has faced a greater degree of skepticism and outright denial than perhaps at any other time in the last two thousand years of Western history. Interestingly, both Christians and non-Christians have critiqued natural law theory, though not for all of the same reasons. The present study seeks to address especially Christians who are wondering about this issue by offering an explicitly biblical defense for the existence and practical importance of natural law. Though the argument presented in this monograph is distinctively my own, few of its claims are brand new. In fact, my biblical argument is rooted in the historic conviction that natural law is taught in Scripture and should be affirmed in Christian theology.
That natural law is a standard part of Christian doctrine in both Protestant and Roman Catholic tradition is not always recognized. Many people are aware that one of the great theologians of the high Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, set forth a doctrine of natural law that eventually came to have great influence, especially among Roman Catholics. The important theologians that followed Aquinas in the later Middle Ages, even those who had significant disagreements with him on many matters, also affirmed the existence and importance of natural law. Though some modern scholarship has aligned the Protestant Reformers against natural law, figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin certainly affirmed it. Calvin, for example, associated natural law very closely with conscience and asserted that natural law is the standard for civil law. In the subsequent Reformed tradition, as in other Protestant traditions, natural law remained a staple of sound doctrine in the centuries that followed.
Given this history, it may be rather surprising to find a significant degree of skepticism toward natural law in much contemporary Protestantism, including Reformed circles. A number of reasons account for this development. One concern among the skeptics is that natural law detracts from the authority and priority of Scripture. Another concern is that appeal to natural law makes human nature rather than God our moral authority, hence producing an ethics based on human autonomy. A third concern is that use of natural law does not take seriously the fact of human sin and its dire impact on moral reasoning. Finally, there is concern that natural law theory presents a monolithic moral standard that cannot account for the historical development of biblical teaching on ethics.
The present study hopes to address such concerns. Although I write from a distinctively Reformed perspective, I hope that the biblical argumentation offered here may also be helpful and persuasive to those of different traditions. By showing what Scripture teaches about natural law, I hope to alleviate concerns that affirmation of natural law in itself entails diminished regard for Scripture (though this is a danger that some natural law theories certainly fall into). By arguing that the reality of natural law is grounded in God's own nature and the creation of human beings in the divine image, I hope to demonstrate that appealing to natural law should not be taken as an appeal to human autonomy but ultimately to the authority of God the Creator. Furthermore, I attempt to be thoroughly attentive to the fallen nature of humanity and the fact that human moral reasoning is indeed radically corrupt; nevertheless, I also argue that our situation in a sinful world continues to demand that we have recourse to natural law. Finally, as I set biblical teaching on natural law in the context of the progress of redemptive history and the series of divine covenants recorded in Scripture, I hope to show that one can appreciate the importance of natural law while giving appropriate consideration to the Bible's historical character.
This study begins with a consideration of what natural law is. The second chapter ponders God's own righteous nature and the creation of human beings in God's image as the important foundation for understanding the biblical teaching on natural law. The third chapter begins to consider the question of whether natural law may have any usefulness in a fallen world. This chapter lays the foundation for the rest of the monograph by explaining the doctrine of the two kingdoms and the progress of the biblical covenants throughout history. The fourth and fifth chapters, then, argue that natural law does indeed have an important, though different, role to play in each of these two kingdoms. As a whole, this monograph presents an argument that contemporary Christians not only may, but ought, to embrace the doctrine of natural law as a biblical teaching that has great significance for life in a fallen world.