Rationalization and Natural Law: Max Weber's and Ernst Troeltsch's Interpretation of the Medieval Doctrine of Natural Law
Honnefelder, Ludger, The Review of Metaphysics
In Max Weber's And Ernst Troeltsch's interpretation of the religious and social development of Western civilization, the concept of natural law has a pivotal role. Weber's thesis runs as follows: In the reception and transformation of the Stoics's concept of natural law the Christian faith finds the key that makes it possible to mediate between the originally world-denying claims of the gospel and the "norms of the world."(1) Since natural law must be regarded as having "the purest type of normative rational validity,"(2) its prevalence is of central importance for the rationalization that is linked to the Christian faith.
The backdrop for this thesis is provided by Troeltsch's far more detailed and extensive studies of the social doctrines of various Christian churches and groups.(3) According to Troeltsch's interpretation, the reception of the Stoic concept of natural law is as crucial to Christian ethics as the reception of the concept of logos is to Christian dogmatics.(4) Just as the concept of logos mediates between the truth of revelation and the truth of reason, so the concept of natural law mediates between the moral demands of the gospel and the principles of a worldly ethos. Since there is a distinction between an absolute natural law, which is identical with the radical ideal of the Sermon on the Mount, and a relative natural law, substantially corresponding to the Ten Commandments and to political and social reality,(5) such a mediation--which must be oriented on the relative natural law--must qualify the original radical Christian claim.(6) Whereas the old church allowed both forms of the natural law to stand alongside each other without mediation and was therefore unable to overcame their estrangement within the surrounding social reality,(7) the Christian Middle Ages succeeded in uniting both forms by replacing the distinction between the gospel (or church) and the world with a distinction between the natural and the supernatural,(8) interpreting each as a level of a metaphysical whole.(9) When this idea of a metaphysical hierarchy of reality, attached to the concept of natural law, became linked to the notion of society as a structured organism, as taught by Aristotle and Paul,(10) the concept of natural law assumed a virtually fundamental status: it grounded both moral(11) and social(12) philosophy and enabled the rise of the unified culture"(13) characteristic of the Christian Middle Ages, from which the Reformation later departed in order to regain the radicalism of the gospel.(14) By linking the concept of natural law to the organic interpretation of the social, the Christian Middle Ages could also assign a central role to the church: just as the divine law is the bracket that binds together the levels of moral laws, so the church is the bracket that holds together the members of the social organism.(15) Its interpretation as the "boundless, comprehensive, and guiding institution of salvation,"(16) together with the strong attachment of natural law to eternal and immutable principles, must, in the last consequence, lead to a "conservative, organically patriarchal natural law."(17) Consequently, those elements that were already contained in the medieval form of the natural law but not in the Platonic interpretation of the social order, and which in its later secular form gave it its progressive, even revolutionary, power, remain repressed: the idea of the dignity of the person, the associated' freedom and autonomy of individual reason, the resulting responsibility of personal conscience, and the significance of one's vocation, which stems from the place of the individual within the whole.(18)
With the thesis that the doctrine of natural law represents an essential contribution of the Christian Middle Ages to the course of Western development, and that this contribution is particularly effective in the doctrine of natural law found in Thomas Aquinas,(19) Troeltsch and Weber formulated an insight that stands the test of contemporary research, regardless of their highly questionable presentation of this doctrine in detail. …