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

Reforming Natural Law

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

Reforming Natural Law

Article excerpt


Reviewed by J. Daryl Charles

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 theologicalphilosophical 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 Earth's highly influential epistemological criticism of natural theology, coupled with Earth'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 EH. Henry, and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as several Dutch Reformed thinkers who, since Barth, have been outspoken opponents of natural-law thinking. …

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