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Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion) Paperback – October 5, 2006
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From the Back Cover
Is knowledge of right and wrong written on the human heart? Do people know God from the world around them? Does natural knowledge contribute to Christian doctrine? While these questions of natural theology and natural law have historically been part of theological reflection, the radical reliance of twentieth-century Protestant theologians on revelation has eclipsed this historic connection.
Stephen Grabill attempts the treacherous task of reintegrating Reformed Protestant theology with natural law by appealing to Reformation-era theologians such as John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin, who carried over and refined the traditional understanding of this key doctrine. "Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics" calls Christian ethicists, theologians, and laypersons to take another look at this vital element in the history of Christian ethical thought.
About the Author
Stephen J Grabill is a research scholar in theology at The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the inaugural editor of the Journal of Markets and Morality. While this is his first book as a solo author, he was a contributing author for Beyond Self-Interest.
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Graybill's interest is to prove John Calvin's patent admission of the natural law premise in his 'Institutes' (from its original publication through to its final revision) and to faithfully resolve the Reformer's treatment of its biblical meaning and purpose from its corruption at the hands of Calvin's commentators. Though I am grateful for the author's painstaking work on this matter (fully half the book comprises footnotes of his studious sojourn), I can imagine a more succinct manner would have distanced the outcome from "the academy" and warmly delivered it into the welcoming ears of a common audience. Even so, it is the most accessible effort I've found.
Stephen Grabill (research scholar at the Acton Institute, inaugurating editor of The Journal of Markets and Morality, PhD, Calvin College) explores in this volume the history of the natural law in the Reformation and in the Reformed tradition. The chief issue that he explores is the recent break among Reformed Christians from an ancient natural law tradition that traces its way back from the Middle Ages to the Patristic Age. Grabill argues that this tradition was a part of the early universal church, and that even the leaders of the Reformation never doubted its place in theology. Grabill therefore questions why the Reformed churches have broken from this tradition. He does this by exploring the writings of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to those of our modern day.
Grabill traces the recent shift to the influence of theologians who split from the natural law tradition for epistemological reasons in the twentieth century. These theologians believed that, due to man's fall, reason has been irrecoverably tainted and therefore, the natural law, which relies predominantly on reason, is not trustworthy. They hold instead to the competing school to natural law theology--divine command theory--which teaches that Scripture alone is able to lead man to truth on matters of God and morality.
This volume, which is particularly dense in some sections, reads at times like a research dissertation. The first paragraph of page 175, for example, begins with a sentence spanning eight lines and is broken up by only two commas. The non-theologian lay reader will find occasional passages difficult to digest. For the most part, however, the work is readable, and it is to my knowledge the best scholarship available on the Reformed tradition's view of the natural law. The following review summarizes the main ideas that Grabill seeks to convey.
2. Karl Barth
The theologian who has more than any other led this split from natural law theology is Karl Barth. Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed theologian who led the confessing churches in their opposition to Hitler's regime. Struck by the indifference of many of the mainline churches in confronting and opposing the Nazi regime and the ease with which the Nazis swept through Reformed Europe, Barth grew deeply disillusioned and his confidence in reason was shaken: if Christian men and women could cooperate with a regime that so clearly violated all of the biblical precepts, then clearly the faculty of human reason is deeply flawed. Barth thus discounted the place of the natural law in informing ethical questions and found it to be completely incompatible with Christianity. "Resistance to Hitler will be built on a really sure foundation, insists Barth, `only when we resist him unequivocally in the name of peculiarly Christian truth, unequivocally in the name of Jesus Christ.' According to Barth, all arguments based on natural law ... do not lead to the light of clear decisions, but to the misty twilight in which all cats become grey. They lead to--Munich" (p. 38). For Barth, Jesus alone through Revelation could become the firm foundation for resolute opposition to Hitler. The faculty of reason and natural law could have no place in this equation. For Barth, "the choice is stark: Jesus Chris or natural law? There is no common middle ground" (p. 38).
Barth, in his passion for truth and justice, and his righteous indignation at the Christian churches that failed to act in accordance with Christ's commandments, commits a logical fallacy that leads him into divine command theory: he assumes that it was the employment of reason by the Christian churches that led to their cooperation with the Nazis. Yet he overlooks the possibility that the natural law, written on every man's heart and offering knowledge of God's eternal law through man's exercise of reason, might affirm rather than negate Christ's commandments and that the problem of the Christian churches was that they were neither obeying the Scriptures nor heeding the natural law. Barth is quick to cast the blame on man's reason and he overlooks the possibility that the cooperation with the Nazis was a betrayal of both God's law as well as of the natural law.
The consequences have been far-ranging. In Reformed seminaries across America today, seminarians are taught to distrust the natural law and to any teachings that come outside of the Scriptures. Yet as Grabill shows later on in the book, this teaching is a departure from rather than an affirmation of the Reformed tradition as it was mediates by John Calvin and later Reformed theologians.
3. John Calvin and the Other Early Reformed Thinkers
As Grabill convincingly shows, the fathers of the Reformation saw themselves affirming a natural law tradition that they found present in the early fathers of the church and that continued right into the Middle Ages of the Catholic Church. They never took issue with natural law reasoning and they did not consider the natural law and Christian orthodoxy to be an either-or dichotomy. Rather, they viewed the natural law to be consistent with biblically orthodox Christian doctrine. The reformers did take issue with some of the natural law teachings of the Catholic Church--namely, they placed less trust on man's postlapsarian reason and its place in the discernment of the natural law and instead placed more trust in man's conscience--yet they left intact the basic precepts of the natural law without addition.
Grabill cites the writings of many of the leading reformed theologians from the sixteenth century until the present day to prove that the distrust of the natural law is a phenomenon that can only be traced to the twentieth century. Calvin writes, for example, that the moral law is etched in all peoples' consciences: "all people are culpable for breaking the moral law because their conscience, operating in conjunction with the knowledge of that law etched in the mind, dismisses any ground for rationalization based on ignorance of the written law's demands. In short, people are obligated to act in accord with the written law because of the engraved knowledge of what it requires of them" (p. 88). Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) similarly affirmed the place of the natural law in theological ethics and formulated a "sophisticated doctrine of natural law on the basis of a modified Thomist understanding of the natural knowledge of God" (p. 97). In like manner, Francis Turretin (1623-1687) "employs the mind's natural capability of apprehending first principles immediately and of appropriating knowledge derived by inference to supply the requisite data upon which to construct the doctrines of natural theology and natural law" (156). According to Turretin, Reformed orthodoxy uniformly teach that "there is a natural theology, partly innate ... and partly acquired" (p. 156). The true notions of God are revealed "partly in their hearts [innate] and partly in the works of creation [acquired]" (p. 157).
None of this is to say that the natural law tradition of the early reformers looked identical to that of the Catholic Church. Indeed, there were important questions involving questions of faith, works, grace, intellectualism, reason, and conscience, where the two groups disagreed. Yet the point that Grabill is making, and that he successfully conveys, is that the early reformers did not hold the same suspicions towards natural law thinking that the Reformed churches hold today.
The state of affairs in the current Reformed church stands in contrast to that of the early Reformed Church. The current church holds that thinkers such as Calvin, although they may have held to a natural law ethical system, were simply over-influenced by the Catholic doctrines of their day and were unable to reason out the full consequences of such doctrines. Yet even if this were true, then modern Reformed theologians would have to concede that the earlier Reformed theologians were holding on to a tradition that traced back to the Patristic Age and continued into the Middle Ages through such scholars as Thomas Aquinas. It is the modern theologians who stand disconnected with a tradition that has lasted nearly two thousand years.
Today, however, things are changing in the Reformed Christian world. Several noted Reformed theologians have expressed renewed interest in the natural law tradition and take careful steps towards exploring its place in their own tradition. Grabill holds that there is nothing in the natural law tradition that is intrinsically incompatible with Reformed theological thinking, and he is hopeful that this new interest may lead to a restoration of the place of natural law in Christian ethics. This book will prove to be a key resource in the process.
This book is both a historical and topical approach to the foundations of ethics in the Reformed tradition. Those already familiar with the historical methodology of Reinhold Seeburg, Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, and Richard Muller will find this survey in the history of doctrine a comfortable read. Grabill examines in detail a limited number of interrelated doctrinal topics (natural revelation, natural theology, natural law) as they were formulated by Reformed founders (Calvin, Vermigli) and developed by later successors (Zanchi, Althusius, Turretin).
Perhaps the most illuminating chapter in this volume, however, is the late-Medieval background to the development of the natural-law tradition. Here Grabill summarizes the research of medieval historians William Courtenay, Francis Oakley, and Heiko Oberman to show that the development of natural-law theory in the late-Medieval period should not be read as a monolithic tradition. Rather, two distinct natural-law traditions existed prior to the Reformation--(1) a realist tradition which builds moral obligation on God's eternal law expressed in a metaphysics of embedded essences in creation (the Augustinian tradition represented by Aquinas and Scotus); (2) a nominalist tradition which builds moral obligation exclusively on God's ordained covenant with creation, which was therefore non-necessary yet stable (Occam, d'Ailly, Biel). Grabill's subsequent chapters read representative Reformers and their successors in light of these traditions, and demonstrate that the Reformed natural-law tradition falls decidedly into the realist, via antiqua tradition of Aquinas and Scotus.
Grabill's book challenges the Denifle-Lortz thesis that the magisterial Reformation was an outgrowth of late-Medieval nominalism. His conclusions will therefore likely generate a mixed reaction from both Roman Catholics and Protestants. On the one hand, Roman Catholics and confessional Protestants will find that their past shares much in common on the foundations of theological ethics, so that they have common resources from which to draw in addressing complex moral issues. On the other hand, this book will make thoughtful Roman Catholics somewhat uneasy since one of their means of dismissing the development of the Reformation (viz., continuity with late-Medieval nominalism) is called into question. This book will also make many contemporary Protestants and evangelicals uneasy, as their adherence to various post-Harnack/Ritschlian theological systems which repudiate the use of metaphysics, natural theology, and natural law places them in discontinuity with representative leaders of the universal church extending from the patristic era through the post-Reformation era.
For those interested in the question of why many contemporary Reformed theologians, especially in the twentieth century, repudiate natural law altogether, Grabill offers two concise chapters. In chapter 1, "Karl Barth and the Displacement of Natural Law in Contemporary Protestant Theology," Grabill examines Barth's critique of natural theology and natural law, as well as that of subsequent Reformed ethicists writing in the aftermath of the Barth-Brunner debate (Jacques Ellul, Henry Stob, John Hare, Richard Mouw). Here, as well as in the introduction, Grabill also notes the problematic historical assumption of identifying Calvin as the chief-codifier of Reformed theology, rather than understanding Calvin as one among a network of many theologians who worked closely together to establish a theological tradition which was carried on in the theological schools they established. In the conclusion, Grabill sketches a short history of the development of theological ethics from the late-seventeenth century to the present, based on recent historiography in the secondary literature.