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Precedents and prospects for incorporating natural law in Protestant ethics

  • Neil Arner (a1)

I offer three reasons for revising what was, until recently, a fairly widespread assumption about a limitation on Protestant ethical theory. First, I identify a broad and diverse array of contemporary Protestants who are rehabilitating natural law theories or facets thereof. Second, I consider and attempt to rebut two principal objections to the theological coherence of a distinctively Protestant theory of the natural law. With special reference to the theology of John Calvin, I argue that a Protestant account of the natural law need not deny that either (1) sin has dramatically hindered the cognitive faculties of humans or (2) God is somehow subjected to the natural law. Third, I illustrate the ecumenical implications that may result from Protestants’ explicit affirmation of the natural law. I conclude that the Protestant tradition affords both historical examples and conceptual space to accommodate some form of natural law theory.

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1 Significant exceptions to this generalisation include Emil Brunner, Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, each of whom advocates a positive role for the natural law in Protestant ethical theory.

2 Herdt Jennifer, ‘Calvin's Legacy for Contemporary Reformed Natural Law’, Scottish Journal of Theology 67/4 (2014), p. 415 .

3 Ziegler Philip G., ‘Guest Editorial’, Studies in Christian Ethics 28/2 (2015), p. 131 .

4 Barth Karl, No! Answer to Emil Brunner, trans. John Baillie, in Frankel Peter (ed.), Natural Theology (London: Centenary, 1946; orig. publ. 1934), pp. 66128 .

5 Barth, A Letter to Great Britain from Switzerland, trans. Gordon E. H. and Hill George (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 18 .

6 Rogers Eugene F., Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred Doctrine and the Natural Knowledge of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1995); Biggar Nigel, ‘Karl Barth and Germain Grisez on the Human Good: An Ecumenical Rapprochement ’, in Biggar Nigel and Black Rufus (eds), The Revival of Natural Law: Philosophical, Theological and Ethical Responses to the Finnis-Grisez School, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 164–83; Nolan Kirk J., Reformed Virtue After Barth: Developing Moral Virtue Ethics in the Reformed Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014); Couenhoven Jesse, ‘Karl Barth's Eschatological (Rejection of) Natural Law’, in Covington Jesse, McGraw Bryan and Watson Micah (eds), Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013), pp. 3556 ; and Bowlin John, ‘Contemporary Protestant Thomism’, in van Geest Paul, Goris Harm and Leget Carlo (eds), Aquinas as Authority (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), pp. 235–51.

7 Bowlin John, ‘Notes on Natural Law and Covenant’, Studies in Christian Ethics 28/2 (2015), p. 149 .

8 Hauerwas Stanley, ‘On Beginning in the Middle: Nature, Reason, and the Task of Theological Ethics’, in The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1983), pp. 5071 .

9 At the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Hauerwas and Bowlin participated in a panel session that I organised on ‘Contextualizing, Evaluating, and Developing Protestant Perspectives on the Natural Law’. After Bowlin delivered remarks that would later be published as the article cited in n. 7 above, Hauerwas replied that Bowlin had provided just the kind of natural law theory that he can condone.

10 Gregory Eric, ‘The Spirit and the Letter: Protestant Thomism and Nigel Biggar's “Karl Barth's Ethics Revisited”’, in Migliore Daniel L. (ed.), Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth's Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 50 .

11 MacIntyre Alasdair, A Short History of Ethics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966), p. 123 .

12 Wolterstorff Nicholas, Foreword to Porter Jean, Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 1113 ; O'Donovan Oliver, ‘Created Order’ and ‘Authority’, in Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for an Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 3152 and 121-39; McGrath Alister E., ‘Natural Theology and Goodness’, in The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 291313 ; Adams Robert Merrihew, ‘Divine Commands’, in Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 249–76; Evans C. Stephen, ‘The Relation of Divine Command Theory to Natural Law and Virtue Ethics’, in God and Moral Obligation (New York: OUP, 2013), pp. 5387 ; Mouw Richard J., ‘Narrative, Character, and Commands’, in The God Who Commands (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1990), pp. 116–49; and Hare John, God's Command (New York: OUP, 2015).

13 Charry Ellen T., By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York: OUP, 1997); and Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

14 Volf Miroslav, ‘Materiality of Salvation: An Investigation in the Soteriologies of Liberation and Pentecostal Theologies’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26/3 (1989), pp. 447–67; and Volf, ‘Human Flourishing’, in A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2011), pp. 5574 .

15 Messer Neil, Flourishing: Health, Disease, and Bioethics in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

16 Gregory, ‘The Spirit and the Letter’, p. 54, and Herdt, ‘Desire for the Common Good: A Defense of Eudaimonism’, Yale Center for Faith and Culture consultation on ‘Desire and Human Flourishing’ (11 Dec. 2010),

17 Wineburg Samuel S., Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2001), pp. 6, 19 and 22.

18 McNeill John T., ‘Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers’, Journal of Religion 26/3 (1946), pp. 168–82, Little David, ‘Calvin and the Prospects for a Christian Theory of Natural Law’, in Outka Gene and Ramsey Paul (eds), Norm and Context in Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), pp. 175–97; Grabill Stephen J., Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006); Helm Paul, ‘Equity, Natural Law, and Common Grace’, in John Calvin's Ideas (New York: OUP, 2004), pp. 347–88; VanDrunen David, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010); Schreiner Susan E., ‘Their Conscience Also Bears Witness: Natural Law and Societal Life’, in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1991), pp. 7395 ; Herdt, ‘Calvin's Legacy’, pp. 414–35; Lloyd Vincent, Black Natural Law: Beyond Secularism and Multiculturalism (New York: OUP, 2016); and Baker Robert C. and Ehlke Roland Cap (eds), Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (St Louis: Concordia, 2011).

19 See especially Darwall Stephen, ‘Pufendorf on Morality, Sociability, and Moral Powers’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 50/2 (2012), pp. 213–38; Haakonssen Knud, ‘Protestant Natural Law Theory: A General Interpretation’, in Brender Natalie and Krasnoff Larry (eds), New Essays on the History of Autonomy: A Collection Honoring J. B. Schneewind (New York: CUP, 2004), pp. 92109 ; Hochstrasser T. J., Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment (New York: CUP, 2000); and Schneewind J. B., ‘Pufendorf's Place in the History of Ethics’, Synthese 72/1 (1987), pp. 123–55.

20 Herdt, ‘Calvin's Legacy’, pp. 415, 418.

21 Haakonssen, ‘Protestant Natural Law Theory’, p. 92.

22 Barth, No!, pp. 108-9, citing Calvin, Institutes, 1.2.1.

23 Calvin John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill John T., trans. Battles Ford Lewis (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2.1.11, 2.2.17 and 2.5.19.

24 Ibid., 2.2.22.

25 Ibid., 2.2.12 (emphasis added).

26 Herdt, ‘Calvin's Legacy’, pp. 420, 435. Bowlin similarly asserts that a natural law theory claiming universal validity cannot be ‘action-specifying’ or ‘determinate enough to direct us toward any particular course of action or away from any other’. According to Bowlin, such theories – among which he includes Calvin's – can only offer ‘moral generalities’ or ‘moral platitudes’ (Bowlin, ‘Notes on Natural Law’, pp. 144, 149).

27 Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.15 (emphasis added).

28 Ibid., 2.8.1.

29 Subsequent references to CC and TC refer, respectively, to Calvin's Commentaries, 45 vols, various trans. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844–56) and John Calvin's Sermons on the Ten Commandments, ed. and trans. Farley Benjamin Wirt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980).

30 Calvin, Comm. 1 Cor. 7:37 at CC 39:267; Serm. Deut. 19:14–15 at TC, 697; Comm. Rom. 2:15 at CC 38:98; Comm. Jonah 1:13–14 at CC 28:60; Comm. Deut. 22:22 at CC 5:78; Serm. Deut. 5:19 at TC, 189; Comm. Lev. 18:1 and 6 at CC 5:98 and 100; and Comm. Gen. 4:19 at CC 1:217.

31 Grotius Hugo, On the Law of War and Peace, ed. and trans. Neff Stephen C. (New York: CUP, 2012), 1.1.10.

32 Ibid., Prologue at p. 4.

33 Pufendorf Samuel, On the Law of Nature and Nations, vol. 2 of De jure naturae et gentium libri octo, trans. Oldfather C. H. and Oldfather W. A. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1934), 1.2.10.

34 Ibid., 2.3.19.

35 Calvin, Comm. Exod. 3:22 at CC 5:82 and Comm. Deut. 24:16 at CC 5:50.

36 Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. Reid J. K. S. (London: James Clarke, 1961), pp. 118, 178; Concerning the Secret Providence of God, ed. Helm Paul, trans. Goad Keith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), p. 64 ; Comm. Rom. 9:15 at CC 38:356; and Inst. 1.17.1.

37 Calvin, Comm. Isa. 45:18 at CC 15:419.

38 Gustafson James M., Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978), p. 21 ; Mehl Roger, Catholic Ethics and Protestant Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), p. 65 ; Derr Thomas Sieger, ‘Methodological Differences’, in Barriers to Ecumenism: The Holy See and the World Council of Churches on Social Questions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983), p. 9 ; and Pinckaers Servais, ‘Catholic Moral Theology and Protestant Ethics’, in The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1995; orig. publ. 1985), pp. 287–8.

39 Arner Neil, ‘Ecumenical Ethics: Challenges to and Sources for a Common Moral Witness’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 36/2 (2016), pp. 152–82.

40 Joint Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council, ‘Honolulu Report, 1981’, in Meyer Harding and Vischer Lukas (eds), Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1984), pp. 380–1.

41 Second Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission, ‘Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church’, Holy See (1994), §9,

42 International Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, ‘The Church as the Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God: Report of the Third Phase (1998-2005)’, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Information Service 3/125 (2007), §140.

43 Gustafson, Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics, p. 19.

44 McCormack Bruce L., ‘Karl Barth's Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8/3 (2006), p. 251 .

45 Especially congenial to some Protestants’ sympathies is the work of Jean Porter. Her account of the natural law aspires to be faithful to medieval antecedents precisely by being thoroughgoingly scriptural and theological. The natural law reflections of Reinhard Hütter and R. J. Snell, both Protestant converts to Catholicism, are likewise sensitive to typical Protestant concerns. See Porter Jean, Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005); Hütter Reinhard, ‘Freedom and Commandment: The Twofold Center of Christian Ethics’, in Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 145–67; and Snell R. J., ‘Theory and the Protestant Prejudice’, in The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), pp. 4972 .

46 Johnson Thomas K., Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2005), Charles J. Daryl, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), Van Drunen David, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), and Bowlin, ‘Notes on Natural Law,’ pp. 142–9.

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