The Natural-Law Tradition in Christian Social Ethics

By Grabill, Stephen J. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Natural-Law Tradition in Christian Social Ethics


Grabill, Stephen J., Journal of Markets & Morality


While natural law has played an important role in Christian social ethics from the very beginning, over the centuries it has gone through periods of greater and lesser influence in the Christian church. The sixteenth century, for example, was a period of relatively greater influence, as moral theologians (Protestant and Catholic alike) sought to apply the insights of the Christian moral tradition to pressing issues in foreign affairs, domestic governance, trade, and commerce. The twentieth century, however, can be classified as a period of relatively diminished influence. Philosophically, moral realism sustained vigorous assault from both existentialist and analytic philosophers who denied the existence of transtemporal and transcultural moral goods. Many twentieth-century theologians, heeding the advice of Karl Barth in the celebrated 1934 debate with Emil Brunner, rejected the natural-law tradition in favor of an ethic of divine command.

Though indications of renewed and serious interest in the natural-law tradition exist already in the 1960s, the 1990s represent the point at which theologians, public intellectuals, and Christian social ethicists begin to view natural law as a viable means for addressing moral issues in the often hostile and religiously pluralistic environment of the public square. The privatization of religious belief and the impoverishment of public moral discourse provide the backdrop against which the renewed interest in natural law must be seen. The natural-law tradition supplies an antidote to these cultural trends because, according to it, there is a universal moral law to which people of all races, cultures, and religions can have access through their rational capacities. Natural law thus provides moral standards that all persons can grasp without the aid of special or divine revelation. Natural law is particularly advantageous in terms of political discourse and Christian engagement in the public square because it provides a moral vocabulary that can function for both religious and secular interlocutors.

The renewed interest in natural law also seems to derive from a more fundamental concern on the part of Christian scholars, in particular, to promote ecumenical agreement on normative moral concerns and to show respect for the common search for truth among people in all spheres of intellectual life. Increased ecumenical engagement by Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders in public intellectual life is one principal factor that has contributed both to the revival of interest in and endorsement of natural law. This factor can be seen in the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an initiative sponsored by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus to promote unity, and in the 1996 ecumenical gathering of scholars to discuss natural law, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Evangelical Studies Project.

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