Reviving Protestant Natural Law

Jordan J. Ballor
January 17, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Karl Barth's renowned 1922 exposition of the book of Romans was once characterized as a "bombshell on the theologians' playground." Barth's salvo opened a new era of Protestant fideism. It led to a century of critical theological debate, controversy, and revaluation. Then, just over fifteen years ago, another significant volley was launched, this time pushing back against the period of "Barthian hegemony" in Protestant thought.

Stephen J. Grabill's Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics appeared in 2006 and helped open a new era in Protestant moral reflection - Reformed, Lutheran, and evangelical. Grabill's book offered a crucial course correction for Protestant theology. He was responding to an era of evangelical fideism that Barth had helped introduce. In his own context, Barth was pushing back against secularizing and liberalizing theological trends in the late nineteenth century. But this Barthian project coincided with accelerated enervation and balkanization of Protestant social thought. The loss of natural law as a unifying reality across Christian communions led to Protestant ethics' developing along narrower, more idiosyncratic lines in the twentieth century.

In 1934, Barth had famously characterized natural theology and attendant doctrines as anti-Christian, lumping together Roman Catholics, neo-Protestants, and the German Christian party. "In the Church we are concerned with truth, and to-day with an urgency such as probably has not been the case for centuries," Barth warned. "And the truth is not to be trifled with." But in his fervent and radical rejection of natural theology, Barth actually undermined the cause of truth. He unwittingly threw Protestant reflection on the nature of God and human beings' moral demands into even greater disarray.

Grabill's project directly counters Barth's understanding of natural revelation, natural law, and natural theology. Grabill's work, however, isn't merely an argument about the course of twentieth-century Protestant theology and social thought. Rather, Grabill's book can be seen as one of the good fruits born out of a larger historical revision concerning the Reformation, with important implications for contemporary Protestant theology and ethics.

The loss of natural law as a unifying reality across Christian communions led to Protestant ethics' developing along narrower, more idiosyncratic lines in the twentieth century.

A Revision in Historical and Moral Reflection

To understand the larger framework for Grabill's own revisionist project, we must turn to Richard A. Muller's magisterial historical work, notably his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (as well as his many other books, including The Unaccommodated Calvin and After Calvin ). These texts paved the way for a more nuanced, responsible, and ultimately fruitful approach to the Reformation era than had been on offer in previous generations. Muller's work emphasizes the continuities as well as the discontinuities among different eras, moving from the late medieval period, through the Reformation and subsequent generations, and down into the decline of orthodoxy in the late eighteenth century.

Grabill relies heavily on Muller's insights about the ways the Reformers sifted through medieval theology and embraced catholicity. Muller writes in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics :

Where the Reformers painted with a broad brush, their orthodox and scholastic successors strove to fill in the details of the picture. Whereas the Reformers were intent upon distancing themselves and their theology from problematic elements in medieval thought and, at the same time, remaining catholic in the broadest sense of that term, the Protestant orthodox were intent upon establishing systematically the normative, catholic character of institutionalized Protestantism, at times through the explicit use of those elements in patristic and medieval theology not at odds with the teachings of the Reformation.

The goal of the earliest generations of Reformers like Luther and Calvin, Muller argues, was to reform the church in its universal, catholic dimensions - distinguishing essential elements that needed to be retained from accretions that needed to be either reformed or discarded. Their successors sought to translate that impulse into a different context. After the initial reforms commenced, the political and social realities of confessionalization and conflict defined the next generation of reformers. This new situation meant that the Reformers' doctrines and practices needed to be institutionalized and codified. The task of initiating a reform movement is different from the task of sustaining and developing it; appreciating this difference can help correct an older approach that emphasizes a radical disjunction between the earliest reformers, including Calvin, and the Reformed successors.

Muller's work also explores other theological developments of the Reformation era. His studies address not just Roman Catholic doctrines that the Reformers disputed, but also those that were common and catholic and shared with the Roman church. Muller writes,

The Reformation assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the values of the historical church catholic. . . . The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered.

When reform efforts that had initially begun from within the Roman Catholic Church had resulted in ongoing political and ecclesial divisions, later generations of Protestant theologians began to develop more comprehensive, detailed, and robust systems of theology and curricula.

Rediscovering the Natural Law

One doctrinal topic Reformers considered "catholic" and therefore worth preserving was natural law. Grabill's work investigates the importance of the natural law in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Grabill attempts to show "that some of the most formative voices in the Reformed tradition taught that the diminished natural human faculties still function sufficiently to reveal the general precepts of the natural moral law."

Among the more significant correctives Grabill offers to standard Reformation narratives is that of clarifying the legacy of natural law coming from the late Middle Ages and into the Reformation. If natural law was indeed a common medieval inheritance that the early Reformers accepted, then we might expect the contours and diversity of natural-law teaching in the Middle Ages to be likewise carried over into the sixteenth century. As Grabill demonstrates, this is precisely what we find.

Only after Grabill's work could one begin to plausibly argue for a renaissance of natural law in contemporary Protestant theology.

The disputes that originate between Dominicans and Franciscans, nominalists and realists, voluntarists and intellectualists, and other natural-law adherents come over into Reformed thought in dynamic, diverse, and eclectic ways. There are, as Grabill points out, different and diverse types of natural-law thinking in the medieval era. For example, there is not a simple dichotomy between Thomist realism on the one hand and Scotist (or Ockhamist) nominalism on the other. And there is not a simple identification between nominalism and voluntarism either. The mere fact that John Duns Scotus was a realist and not a nominalist helpfully complicates the historical narrative.

The complexity and diversity of late medieval thinking on natural law translates into Reformation thought, which is itself certainly not univocal or uniform. Rediscovering the Natural Law explores individual Protestant theologians over the course of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, showing both widespread affirmation of a kind of natural-law teaching in Reformed thought and a diversity of expression, contextualization, and application.

Grabill's study demonstrates conclusively that "the Reformed wing of the magisterial Reformation inherited the natural-law tradition as a noncontroversial legacy of late medieval scholasticism." Grabill's was the first book-length study to make this case and to do so with such a high level of erudition and detail. Only after Grabill's work could one begin to argue plausibly for a renaissance of natural law in contemporary Protestant theology.

A New Era for Natural Law

In the wake of Grabill's book, a new era of Protestant engagement with the natural law tradition (broadly understood) has flowered. J. Daryl Charles's Retrieving the Natural Law appeared two years later, grappling with the significance of natural law for Protestant ethics. David VanDrunen's work further expanded the discussion, engaging with the Bible and later developments in intellectual and theological history from the eighteenth century onward. Protestant thinkers have also reevaluated Thomas Aquinas , with implications for virtue ethics as well as natural law. Lutherans as well as Reformed have begun to grapple anew with the natural-law legacy of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras.

Grabill himself began a series of translation works that included significant primary sources in Protestant ethical thought (including offerings from Wolfgang Musculus , Althusius , Jerome Zanchi, Franciscus Junius , and Matthew Hale ), and which continues in a second series . Other translation works of important and more recent Reformed theologians, particularly Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck , are significant for an evaluation of the relationship between Protestantism and natural law. More specialized studies continue to appear as well. David Sytsma and Manfred Svensson, for example, document and explore how Reformation and post-Reformation moral philosophy and theology received ancient and classical philosophy, particularly Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics .

Unfortunately, simplistic, polemical, or reductive depictions of the relationship between Protestantism and natural law continue to appear in the scholarly literature. Well after the appearance of Grabill's book, for example, the historian Brad Gregory claimed that Protestant Reformers denied that "the free, rational exercise of the virtues in pursuit of the good," a crucial dimension of natural law, has "any place in disciplining the passions and redirecting untutored human desires."

The polemic or popular effect of these narratives makes it likely that they will continue to appear. The salience of Brandolini's law means that no amount of scholarly correction, sophistication, or revision will dispel all such caricatures. But excellent scholarship, including Grabill's, has rendered such dubious narratives, as the Apostle Paul puts it in another context, "without excuse."

Christians in all times and all places must grapple with and articulate anew what responsible Christian action looks like in every age and every place.

The Reformation's Unfinished Legacy

Grabill has described the development of a coherent body of Protestant social thought as the unfinished legacy of the Reformation. The difficulty of such a task is significant, and his 2006 book was only the first part of a broader project of historical and doctrinal development.

Whatever a revitalized body of Protestant social thought might look like, it will be characteristically different for each tradition. Wesleyans will share elements in common with Reformed while differing from them in some areas of substance as well as style. In the same way, Reformed will have elements both in common with and distinct from Lutherans'. And Protestants' social teaching will differ from that of Roman Catholics and Orthodox in the genre and authority of resources. Appreciation for this diversity should strengthen efforts to use natural law traditions to find ecumenical common ground.

But in another sense, the work of recognizing and applying the historical insights of the Reformation on the natural law will ever be an unfinished and incomplete work this side of the eschaton. Christians in all times and all places must grapple with and articulate anew what responsible Christian action looks like in every age and every place. Each generation will need to rediscover the natural law rightly understood. Just over a decade and a half later, Rediscovering the Natural Law remains an indispensable aid in this Christian endeavor.


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