Skip to main content

Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things

J. Daryl Charles
Published by Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2008

God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas

Fulvio Di Blasi
Published by St. Augustine Press in 2002

Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics

Stephen J. Grabill
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2006

“Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal,”

Thomas K. Johnson
Published by Christian Philosophy Today in 2005

Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach

Matthew Levering
Published by Oxford University Press in 2008

Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System

Alberto M. Piedra
Published by Lexington Books in 2004

Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of Natural Law.

Jean Porter
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2004

A Biblical Case for Natural Law

David Van Drunen
Published by Acton Institute in 2012

Natural Law Liberalism

Christopher Wolfe.
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2009

In the wake of the collapse of Enron, together with the more recent financial crises stemming from the prevalence of pragmatic ethics, an approach whose moral bankruptcy has caused financial bankruptcies, there is a growing desire to return to finding some basis for moral absolutes. In her 1958 article “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Elizabeth Anscombe, while rejecting both the Kantian deontological approach to ethics and the Consequentialistic position of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick – approaches she held to be based on some notion of “obligation,” a view she asserts as having no merit if there is no divine Law Giver – wants an objective system of ethics but one not requiring such an obligation. The approach she takes to having an “objective” morality, notes Roger Crisp and Michael Slate, is to focus on an “ethics that can be based…on the idea of a virtue and of human flourishing.”1 So, one answer to the subjective ethical theories of pragmatism, of doing whatever it takes to succeed, is to promote virtue ethics as being an objective ethical standard that could work in the absence of a divine Law Giver.

For those, however, who acknowledge the existence of such a divine Law Giver, there is another objective approach that can be considered, useful even when appealing to non-believers: that of natural law. Thomas Aquinas appealed famously to natural law as a moral approach when challenging non-believers. For Aquinas, there is first the eternal law of God, known to God in its fullness and governing all creation. Second, there is the revealed moral law, given in Scripture, which is fully consistent with the eternal law. Third, there is positive law, used by the state to govern society. Finally, according to Aquinas, all persons have a divinely provided moral awareness, which is natural law. From his synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and biblical revelation, Aquinas asserted that all persons have knowledge of God’s moral law, albeit a knowledge that can be blotted out by sin.2

During the Reformation, magisterial Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin continued to use natural law theory, each having modified the concept critically from that of Aquinas. Luther contended that “the Ten Commandments…are written in the hearts of all people.”3 Calvin, in his treatment of the laws of nations, being concerned with both the constitution of law and the underlying equity upon which those laws are founded, stated that “the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of the conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men.”4 Thus, for him, natural law ought to be the equity underlying civil laws. Calvin likewise made some use of natural law as a theodicy. For example, see his commentary on Romans 2:14. During the rise of Protestant Orthodoxy in the 16th and 17th centuries, several Protestant theologians developed the Reformed understanding of natural law. But once Enlightenment thinkers began to use the term “natural law” to refer to a common moral basis that is derived largely from human understanding rather than from being implanted divinely on the minds of all people, Protestant theologians in particular downplayed the role of natural law in their apologetics.

The acrimonious 1934 debate between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth distanced Protestants further from natural law. Both Brunner and Barth reaffirmed the orthodox Protestant view that the corruption of human reason occasioned by the Fall rendered man incapable of a true knowledge of God arising from one’s own powers of reason unaided by special revelation. Both men were basing their position upon the writings of Calvin. Brunner had asserted in his “Natural Theology” that knowledge of God could be known objectively in creation on the part of those already enlightened by special revelation. Brunner held that the fallen man had knowledge of God through general revelation, albeit a perverted one. Specifically, Brunner held that the law of God could be held in the reason and conscience of the unregenerate. Barth replied vehemently that, apart from special revelation, man did not have any objective knowledge of God’s laws. The intensity of Barth’s reply to Brunner’s position essentially stopped the discussion of natural law among Protestant thinkers, particularly within Reformed circles, for the following half-century. Resulting from the work of Richard A. Muller and others in examining Protestant Orthodoxy in the 16th and 17th centuries, Reformed theologians came to the recognition that Calvinist natural law theory was developed mainly by theologians subsequent to Calvin, a point sadly missed by both Brunner and Barth.5 This research has begun a resurgence of natural law theory among Reformed thinkers.That there has been a natural law tradition among Protestant as well as Roman Catholic theologians is important to note.

C. S. Lewis used natural law apologetically (for which he initially used the term “Tao,” revised subsequently to “Law of Nature”) in his Mere Christianity. He argued from the effect – similar moral norms in a wide range of cultures and over lengthy periods of time – back to the cause – the God who had instilled this moral standard in the minds and hearts of individuals. That law-giving God was the God revealed in Scripture. His Abolition of Man is a more refined argument than the lectures he had given over BBC during the Second World War, which became the basis for Mere Christianity.

With the publication of J. Budziszewski’s Written on the Heart there began a return, especially within Protestant circles, of using natural law as a basis for an ethical system that could be used to find a common moral basis in appealing to non-believers.6 Meanwhile, Roman Catholic scholars were recovering the natural law tradition of Aquinas. This resurgence in natural law ethics appears in both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars seeking to demonstrate the existence of a moral awareness in all people consistent with Scripture or the church’s teachings, yet available to those not acknowledging either the moral authority of Scripture or the moral teachings of the church.

Among the Roman Catholic authors are five that we will examine in this essay. Jean Porter, in her Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law, seeks to develop a theological basis for natural law, starting with Aquinas, particularly using his Summa Theologica as well as other scholastic thinkers. Dr. Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She treats natural law both from its pagan (for example, Aristotle and Cicero) and Christian roots up to the 12th and 13th centuries, asserting that “[t]he natural law is grounded in creation and represents one aspect of the human reflection of the divine Image.”7 The intended audience of Porter ’s book is the reader who is seeking to develop an understanding of ethics valid both for the person who accepts the authority of Scripture as well as an apologetic for an ethical system that one might accept without such an appeal to revelation. For both Roman Catholic and Protestant readers, this book is an excellent exposition of the Thomistic natural law theory for the 21st century. For the Protestant reader, her aim is to locate “the natural law within a specifically theological and scriptural context and draw[…] on it as a basis for a distinctively Christian theological ethic.”8 She maintains with Aquinas that human goodness is a reflection of divine goodness. Protestant as well as Roman Catholic readers can benefit greatly from reading this important contribution toward understanding natural law theory.

Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System, the second book under review, is written primarily from a Roman Catholic perspective by Alberto M. Piedra, the Donald E. Bently Professor of Political Economy at the Institute of World Politics. This work demonstrates why having a moral foundation is essential for a successful market system. Because God has created order in all things, the underlying order within markets finds its origin in natural law. Piedra traces how the French Enlightenment shift away from natural law and the subsequent shift towards socialism coincides with divine authority replaced as the ultimate foundation for all truth. This liberation from divinely sanctioned natural law allowed are-definition of human rights. Additionally, the Scottish Enlightenment led to an economic system in which the autonomous market system, founded on self-interest, was seen to work for the maximum good of society, while ignoring the potential for a fallen nature to cause some persons to act contrary to the good of the community. This blind faith in autonomous economics led to an optimism in the inevitability of progress that would transform society. Piedra gives a thoughtful critique of laissez faire policy – that the market cannot remain free unless it is imbedded within a solid moral and institutional juridical structure. That is, a thriving economy requires a solid moral foundation. This is a point that is ignored by most contemporary free market advocates. Piedra shows next why other 19th-century schools of economics (for instance, German Historicism that sublimated the needs of the state, Marxism with its re-definition of evil, or American Institutionalism with its emphasis on government interventionism to avoid wide fluctuations in the levels of economic activity) rejected the classical paradigm of economics. The market cannot operate outside a solid moral foundation. “Competition is not a source of moral principles.”9 Both socialism and unrestricted liberalism threaten the dignity of the person. Citing the Swiss economist Wilhelm Roepke, Piedra asserts that competition and economic rationality by themselves, apart from an objective moral system, cannot preserve our economic wellbeing.

This leads Piedra to emphasize the biblical foundation for work. Not only are we intended by our Creator to work, but whether our work is self-directed or God-directed is essential to finding meaning and worth in our work. Work is not just producing goods; such a view reduces the human being into a productive automaton. We are intended by our Creator to serve Him through our vocation. Economic theory, divorced from ethical foundations, leads to unsatisfying, meaningless excess. Piedra’s book is very thought provoking, especially useful for those concerned with the current state of economic affairs and how we have gotten to where we now find ourselves.

Another approach to re-stating Thomistic natural law theory for the 21st century is Fulvio Di Blasi’s God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas. With advanced degrees in the philosophy of law from the universities of Milan and Palermo, Di Blasi is currently professor of Philosophy of Law and Human Rights Theory at the Libera Università in Palermo, Sicily, and visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame. The author ’s interest in natural law was triggered by his study of John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), a book intending a “critical defense of classical themes of natural law and of natural rights,” and that has triggered a broad discussion in legal theory and justice.10

Di Blasi considers the development of Thomistic natural law theory within the Salamancan School of Suarez and Vasquez, picking up the Scholastic-Nominalist discussion of the will of God. As distinct from reason, will entails obligation while reason by itself does not. Man’s knowledge of the existence of God entails obligation; man’s knowledge of the characteristics of God implies a corresponding response. For example, knowing that God is good leads us to look for goodness. DiBlasi attempts to show that, while seeking the good and moral duty, as a manifestation of that natural love that one has for God, Thomistic ethics is not hedonistic, which Immanuael Kant had contended. Duty, then, is not done for our good, but for the glory of God. While this is a helpful book in its working out the implications of Thomistic and Scholastic natural law theory, it should not be the reader’s first exposure to natural law theory. Nevertheless, it is quite worth reading for the person who, having already obtained a basic knowledge of Thomistic natural law theory, is interested in applying that understanding to matters of civil law. Important themes are developed, such as the Augustinian theme of charitas, also centralto Aquinas, that our love for God must be our primary motivation.

Matthew Levering, author of Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach, is Associate Professor of theology at Ave Maria University, Naples, Florida. He contends that “the full scope of natural law doctrine is learned best by means of a dialogue between [sic] biblical exegesis, theology, and philosophy, where each enriches the other.”11 He employs the “two books” of revelation – the book of scripture and the book of nature – to ask three questions: “whether there are biblical warrants for natural law doctrine, what kind of natural law doctrine biblical texts support, and what happens when natural law doctrine is left out of constructive ethics arising from the Bible.”12 Levering, in agreement with Aquinas, considers natural law to be the eternal law of God implanted in the minds and hearts of human beings. He cites not only church teachings and thinkers from within the Roman Catholic perspective, but also Luther and Reformed thinkers as well in his treatment of biblical foundations of natural law. In answering his first question regarding biblical warrants for natural law, Levering gives examples of persons mentioned within scripture who had not received special revelation and whose moral understanding was based upon natural law.

Levering critiques anthropocentric natural law that appeared in philosophical traditions from Rene Descartes to Friedrich Nietzsche. In contrast to the anthropocentric approach starting in the 18th century, he treats Cicero’s use of natural law and Augustine’s appropriation of Cicero’s use thereof in his “On the Free Choice of the Will” to defend against God being perceived as the author of sin. Then he examines how the Nominalist-Realist debates under the Scholasticism of the high Middle Ages, and as responded to by the Protestant Reformers, led to Hugo Grotius basing natural law on rational rather than theological foundations. This led subsequently to Rationalist philosophers basing natural law on human reason or Empiricist philosophers on moral sentiments. This approach extended then through that of Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Levering concludes that only by relocating the origin of natural law within the biblical Creator-creature relationship can we have a proper foundation for natural law. That is, the appropriate moral order of society must reflect God’s eternal law rather than merely having a human foundation.

Levering contends that while some philosophers (Cicero, for example) have been able to develop a natural law theory without divine special revelation, biblical revelation gives us a more complete understanding of how natural law complements special revelation. Natural law, thus understood, is an important complement to God’s revelation of Himself to mankind through scripture. “‘Biblical’ natural law, in short, defends a theocentric and teleological story of the world.”13This newly published book is a very thoughtful contribution to the recent literature on a Christian approach to natural law. With its logical, careful structuring, it provides a very informative treatment of natural law, examining both Roman Catholic and Protestant contributions to the current literature. It meets its intended objective: to provide both a theocentric and teleological foundation for natural law ethics.

A final book written from a Roman Catholic natural law perspective is Natural Law Liberalism, written by Christopher Wolfe, professor of political science at Marquette University. He also is founder and President of the American Public Philosophy Institute. In this book, Wolfe seeks to develop the thesis that liberalism, in the sense used by John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin, is not inherently inconsistent with natural law theory. He asserts that the two ethical traditions, natural law and liberalism, were combined in the political theory of John Locke. Indeed, he claims that problems with contemporary liberalism ought to be addressed within the tradition of natural law, and yet be done so consistently with contemporary liberalism, achieving what he calls “natural law liberalism.” The starting point is to “ground … liberalism positively in the truth about the human person rather than negatively in various forms of agnosticism, about man as much as about God”14

In light of Wolfe’s basing political liberalism on a natural law foundation, first he structures his criticism of contemporary political liberalism upon agnostic oranthropocentric foundations. He begins with Rawls’ theory, contending the inadequacies of his concept of “public reason.” While Stephan Macedo has attempted to shore up certain inadequacies of the Rawlsian approach, likewise his modifications are shown to be inadequate in that natural law is necessarily the philosophy of public reason. That is, both Rawls’ and Macedo’s approaches overlook the fact that the source of public reason needs to be natural law. He also denies Ronald Dworkin’s rejection of paternalism, arguing that in the absence of a natural law standard, there is no basis from which to critique paternalism.

Then, having critiqued various contemporary foundations of liberalism, he proceeds to remind us that historically, liberalism has held that there are limits to which government can demand allegiance from its citizens, such as matters of religion. Such an allegiance would make the government totalitarian; but to suggest that there might be some limits on the authority of civil government would presuppose that there is something else governing in those areas, such as natural law. He sees this concept as being consistent with Alexis de Tocqueville’s “spirit of religion.”

In his treatment of natural law, Wolfe starts with the classical thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, for example), then moves to Medieval church doctrine, but ignores the distinction between ecclesiastical and Enlightenment definitions of natural law. That omission notwithstanding, Wolfe has made an important contribution in re-formulating liberalism on a natural law foundation, a contribution well worth considering. Political liberalism would be strengthened by undergirding it with a theistic natural law theory. Wolfe is to be commended for putting a theocentric foundation to contemporary liberalism. Respect for individuals qua individuals and limiting the authority of government over the personal affairs of individuals does indeed need such a moral underpinning. Otherwise, there is the danger of liberalism leading to more government involvement and interference in the routine existence of its citizens, a danger that liberalism might degenerate into totalitarianism. Where Federalist Paper #51 recognizes both that the inherent sinfulness of members of society requires government and also that the inherent sinfulness of those persons within government requires constitutional limits on that government, it also presupposes the need for a moral foundation of its citizens. Natural law is such a moral foundation in a pluralistic society.

Next, this essay examines four recent contributions to the natural law literature from the Reformed perspective. The first is David van Drunen’s A Biblical Case for Natural Law. Van Drunen is the Robert B. Strimple Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary. He starts with the observation that the essence of natural law is based on God’s own nature and His creation of man in His own image. Writing within the biblical-theological structure underlying natural law, van Drunen avoids the Barth-Brunner debate. By restoring natural law to its origin in God’s moral nature, he shows that it provides a point of contact for Christians living in a fallen world among non-believers. Because God created man imago Dei, man is thereby created to be a moralbeing. While fallen, mankind still has moral obligations. The question facing us, from Eden onwards, is whether to submit to God’s moral standard or to create one’s own standard. The moral basis of natural law is thus part of that imago Dei; natural law cannot be understood correctly apart from that image.

Van Drunen uses the two-kingdom doctrine (civil authority versus ecclesiastical authority) by which God rules the world, as developed by Luther and extended by Calvin. While Christ rules the church, the Kingdom of God, the civil kingdom is subject to earthly rulers. The role of natural law is important for this earthly kingdom, being the charter for its civil laws for the purpose of providing justice in the fallen world. Because natural law is the moral standard common to all human beings, it is the suitable foundation for civil law. This means that civil leaders who are Christians are not to impose Mosaic Law upon civil society, but rather are to use the precepts of moral law evident within natural law. Incidentally, this counters the Theonomistic views held by some within the Reformed tradition, although Van Drunen makes no allusion to that view. Those Theonomists who reject general revelation and want to maintain that God’s law is the most equitable legal system would impose Mosaic Law on civil society.

Van Drunen, by observing in Proverbs 6:6-8 that one is to learn from the industriousness of ants which work instinctively, suggests an analogy between animal instincts and human moral understanding available through natural law. He asserts that the similarities between Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Law could be accounted for by recognizing that Hammurabi was simply codifying known law; in other words, natural law. Because of natural law’s divine origin, it is consistent with the Mosaic Law; thus there is an easy explanation for the similarities between these two codes.

This short book is useful for Reformed Protestants to understand natural law within a biblical-historical framework. He shows that a case for natural law can be made within Scripture. The Bible has many examples of peoples living outside the knowledge of special revelation and having both an understanding of moral precepts and being held accountable to them. While it is a short book designed for the lay-reader, it leads to stimulating, thought-provoking insights into the existence and use of natural law within our society.

Stephen J. Grabill takes a much more scholarly approach in his Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. 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. This book lays out the rich Protestant natural law tradition developed by Protestant Orthodoxy during the 16th and 17th centuries which, with certain critical qualifications, continued the natural law tradition of the Western Church. His Introduction is a survey of the acceptance and development of the natural law tradition within Reformed and Lutheran circles subsequent to the Reformation. Grabill reviews the 1934 Barth-Brunner debate. While Brunner had assumed that the imago Dei was not eradicated so thoroughly by the Fall, Barth was concerned that natural theology might supplant theology informed by special revelation. For Barth, a moral awareness written on the heart might compromise the centrality of the Bible and the self-revelation of God through Christ. Beyond this debate, Grabill asserts, is the Protestant presupposition that the natural law tradition is committed essentially to Roman Catholic moral theory. Then he surveys the main reasons contemporary Protestant theologians posit or hold for rejecting natural law theory.

Grabill details how Barth critically misinterprets Calvin’s use of the natural knowledge of God. He also considers the Italian Reformed theologian and contemporary of Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, who made significant contributions to Reformed theological ethics, building on natural as well as special revelation of God, while working within a “broadly Thomistic [framework] with a strong Augustinian accent.”15 Next, Grabill examines the contributions of the Dutch theologian Johannes Althusius and the French theologian Francis Turretin, both of whom developed a thorough natural law theory from within the Reformed tradition. He carefully documents the growth of natural law thinking among Reformed theologians from 1520 – 1722, the period of Protestant Orthodoxy. With his detailed study of these Reformed scholars, Grabill is able to demonstrate, contra Barth, that there was a rich natural law tradition consistent with the high Reformed view of special revelation. Grabill details how this Reformed consensus became unraveled through the work of the Remonstrant Hugo Grotius and the Anglican Thomas Hobbes, as the term “natural law” became redefined from a divinely-instilled moral understanding to a moral foundation created by mankind. This shift in the meaning of natural law was furthered by Samuel von Pufendorf, who, in turn, influenced John Locke (and Adam Smith).

Grabill’s scholarly, detailed book is an important contribution to the natural law heritage from within the Reformed tradition. While thoroughly researched, it is an extremely readable and well-argued treatise on the Reformed natural law perspective. He has given ample justification for Reformed Christians, and others, to embrace natural law as a point of contact with non-believers. This book shows abundantly that historically, natural law theory has been embraced widely within the Protestant tradition as well as among the Roman Catholics.

Thomas K. Johnson, who is Professor of Apologetics and Dean of Czech Programs at Martin Bucer Seminary, Director of Komensky Institute of Prague and who teaches philosophy at Charles University, has written Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal. Johnson writes on the use of natural law after the Protestant reformation, Barth’s fiery denunciation of it with his 1934 debate, and the subsequent reacceptance of the natural law tradition within the Reformed tradition.

Barth’s Nein! had led to a subsequent exorcism of natural law from the Protestant world. Problematically, with the eradication of general revelation, which Brunner held (rightly) as foundational to biblical natural law theory, “Protestanttheology does not have a good way to acknowledge any true knowledge of right and wrong that does not come from special revelation.”16 Consequently, Christians find it difficult to address the moral questions of the day without an appeal to the authority of Scripture, an authority rejected increasingly or even despised by an ever-growing secular society. After a fifty-year lapse, natural law theory is being addressed again among Reformed theologians.

The book reviews Brunner ’s defense of general revelation, and its important grounding of natural law in general revelation rather than autonomous human reasoning. At the same time, Brunner sided with the Protestant view that the Fall and the consequent sinful nature constrains conscience or reason from comprehending the evident moral law. But Brunner had distanced himself from the approach to natural law espoused by Grotius or von Pufendorf. Johnson discusses the continuing debate among the Neo-Dooyeweerdians, Cornelius van Til, and Helmut Thielicke over general revelation and its significance for natural law. He concludes that Christians must not withdraw their voices from the current moral debates, but must cry out prophetically. Natural law, understood as being God’s moral law planted in the hearts of all mankind, gives us a valid voice in the marketplace of ideas. While Johnson’s Natural Law Ethics delves deeply into 20th-century debates within the Reformed camp over natural law, and thus is rather technical or scholarly in its tenor, it is a valuable tool to equip one technically for examining the role of natural law and its ability to give contemporary Christians a voice in the marketplace of ideas. Natural law theory gives the Christian a common ground to make moral appeals to non-Christians.

J. Daryl Charles has written a highly stimulating discussion of natural law with his Retrieving Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things. Daryl Charles has been the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life, James Madison Program, Princeton University and is now the Director and Senior Fellow, Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice, Bryan College. This volume is in the Critical Issues in Bioethics Series from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, the latter half of the book applying the natural law to issues of bioethics, such as euthanasia.

The first half of the book makes the case for Christians using natural law in the public forum of a post-Christian society so as to establish a common ground within which to speak on vital issues in bioethics. But in matters dealing with human life, where laws are being passed or court decisions reached upon some moral basis, is law simply being constructed from whatever whims legislators or jurists might pursue or is the role of the jurist to discover or preserve some higher law? The premise at the founding of our Republic was that the role of the jurist was to ascertain from natural law what the higher law ought to be which governs the particular case at bar. Gradually, the role of the jurist shifted from finding the natural law to asserting positive law, where law is made, not discovered. With positive law, conceivably the court could come down on either side of an issue with equal “justification.” So, the Tanney Court could have decided either that Dred Scott was property, and remained so, or it alternately could have decided that as a human being, Dred Scott was not property, and should have been set free.

Consequently, Charles goes to the first issues: what are the ethical issues upon which laws are made, and what happens to society where those laws are constructed arbitrarily? These must be considered prior to dealing with public questions within the realm of bioethics. Charles shows how abandonment of natural law has left Evangelical Protestants in particular bereft of any moral basis for speaking in the public forum, retreating rather to personal pietism. Thus, especially for Protestants to be able to have a voice in the public forum, Charles recommends that they rediscover the role natural law has played historically. Specifically, he argues that “people of good will – and those of Christian faith in particular – must not only come to terms with the cultural climate but also reacquaint themselves with those ethical resources that contribute to redemptive work in society.”17 If Christians then are to have a voice in the current forum of ideas, personal piety isinsufficient. Because we live in a society that has untethered itself from overtly Christian moral principles or indeed any moral absolutes, where or how can Christians find a voice that is both consistent with their own moral foundations and audible in a post-Christian world? Charles emphasizes that such a voice can andmust be found in what is, sadly, a discarded view: natural law theory. He is clear: “In no sense is natural law a substitute for divine revelation and salvific grace.”18 But as a part of general revelation, the law of God “written on the heart” (Romans 2:14) serves as common ground between Christians and non-Christians. The Apostle Paul, in his own day, used natural law to appeal to Gentiles in a pagan world.

Charles notes that “justice” entails rectifying matters, making things the way they should be. “The way things should be” implies a moral norm. In the absence of some standard, sheer force or a government fiat decides arbitrarily what should be. Given the natural proclivity to sin, even on the part of government officials, such an arbitrary decision may be radically different from true justice. C. S. Lewis warns of this when he refers to “the Abolition of Man.” Against this arbitrary notion, natural law is a bridge to establish a public moral consensus.

In Chapter 3, Charles examines a biblical basis for natural law. He starts with “Lady Wisdom” in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs encapsulates wisdom that can be appropriated to particular matters. Biblical proverbs, like natural law, presuppose certain fundamentals of moral and social life that transcend culture or history. Early Church Fathers appropriated the natural law ideas from pagans such as Aristotle or Cicero; through natural law these pagans had appropriated moral truth consistent with the moral principles revealed in Scripture. Charles observes that “[i]t is the position of classical Christian theology and moral philosophy that the natural law exists as an enduring and concrete expression of divine providence.”19

In Chapter 4, Charles traces the development of natural law from the time of the Protestant Reformation up to the Barth-Brunner debate. Then he outlines its resurgence among Protestant theologians, as well as Roman Catholic theologians in recent times. Given the danger of evangelicals withdrawing from social problems towards personal piety or a devotional life, Charles calls them to an ecumenical dialogue on the role of natural law in Christian ethics, especially in light of the moral “deconstruction” rampant in contemporary society.

How, then, do Christians function as leaven in culture and society? Charles emphasizes the role of solidarity or subsidiarity in Roman Catholic social ethics or, in Protestant terms, sphere sovereignty or the covenant. In either case, there are several levels of responsibility – the family, the church, the local community, the nation as a whole. The fundamental principle for freedom is that a country must never substitute national solutions for responsibilities of individuals, families, or individual communities. Christians in particular must be free to speak out at the local level, in the community. Charles reminds us that the moral roots to sanction the killing of the infirm, weak, or socially undesirables in Nazi Germany were already in place prior to the ascendency of the Nazi political order: “The Nazi experiment was rooted in pre-1933 thinking about the essence of personhood, racial hygienic, and survival economics.”20 The ethical collapse had occurred among the intellectuals, doctors, and scientists already. For this reason, we as Christians must now speak out in the market place; we must reaffirm moral absolutes. Charles asserts that natural law ethics is the best option in a society no longer listening to Christian values based on the assent of special revelation. Hence, we can and must make use of general revelation, in which category natural law falls.

Charles’ book is researched thoroughly, drawing upon a wide range of thinkers and scholars. His arguments are laid out carefully, yet not at the cost of readability. Importantly, he emphasizes the stakes in the contest: natural law provides a way for Christians to be heard amidst the moral collapse occurring around us.

These books give ample reason to contend for an objective public moral standard in an age that rejects absolutes. Degenerative moral bankruptcy has led to recent financial bankruptcy. Society cannot be stable for long when each person does what is right in his own eyes. There must be a return to moral absolutes if Western culture is to survive. Christians from a wide range of traditions can and ought to embrace natural law as a way to appeal to those outside the faith, for natural law provides an approach consistent with the moral foundations revealed in Scripture.

Cite this article
Hadley T. Mitchell, “Natural Law – A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 107-119


  1. Roger Crisp and Michael Slate, eds. Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.
  2. Summa Theologica I-II, q. 94, a. 6. See Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, rev. ed. (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997) fora helpful introduction to Thomistic Ethics.
  3. Martin Luther, “The Larger Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress Press, 2000), 440.
  4. John Calvin, Institutes. IV. xx.16.
  5. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformational Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy ca. 1520 – ca. 1725, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2003).
  6. J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997).
  7. Jean Porter, Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 4.
  8. Ibid., 325.
  9. Alberto M. Piedra, Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System (New York:Lexington Books, 2004), 110.
  10. Fulvio Di Blasi, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Tomas Aquinas (South Bend, IN: StAugustine’s Press, 206), 7.
  11. Matthew Levering, Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2008), 1.
  12. Ibid.,2.
  13. Ibid., 233.
  14. Christopher Wolfe, Natural Law Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),3.
  15. Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rap-ids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 102.
  16. Thomas K. Johnson, Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal (Bonn: Culture and SciencePubl., 2005), 7f.
  17. J. Daryl Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008), 23.
  18. Ibid., 44.
  19. Ibid., 109.
  20. Ibid., 274. Emphasis Charles.

Hadley T. Mitchell

Taylor University
Hadley T. Mitchell is Associate Professor of Economics at Taylor University.