Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Protestants and Natural Law

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Protestants and Natural Law

Article excerpt

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. Consequendy, 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 naturallaw 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' 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 diat 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. …

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