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Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal

Robert C. Baker
Published by Concordia Publishing House in 2011

Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things

J. Daryl Charles
Published by Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2008

Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Though

David VanDrunen
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2009

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and executive editor of the Journal of Markets and Morality. He is the author of Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus and visiting professor of business at Kuyper College. He is also a doctoral candidate in historical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.

In recent years, after decades of neglect, the relationship between the traditional Christian doctrine of the natural law and the Protestant Reformation and its subsequent developments has started to receive sustained attention. In some ways this is quite curious, as John T. McNeill noted in a significant article on the topic over sixty years ago: “There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.”1 The reason for this fundamental continuity is rather straightforward. Contrary to many reductionist accounts of the Reformation, the basic point of departure with the Church of Rome had less to do with questions related to law, politics, or ethics, and more to do with properly theological questions about salvation, ecclesiology, and faith. As the historical theologian Richard A. Muller has shown,

the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.2

J. Daryl Charles captures some of the insight in such recent corrective scholarship on this point when he notes that the Reformers “assumed the natural law as a moral-theological bedrock in their system and maintained continuity with their Catholic counterparts. It is accurate to insist that the Reformation controversies with the Catholic Church were foremost theological and not ethical.”3

But if McNeill, Muller, Charles, and so many others are right on this point about the significant, albeit certainly not uncritical, continuities in the Reformers’ reception of late-medieval theology, what accounts for the (literal) antinomy toward natural law that has characterized Protestant theological and ethical reflection over the last century? There are a number of contributing factors. It must be admitted that there has been a temptation toward antinomianism in Protestantism from the beginning. This is a temptation that has now and again gained ascendancy in Protestant thought.4 And even though there was significant doctrinal continuity between the late-medieval and Reformation eras, as time passed and the efforts at reform became confessionalized, institutionalized, and codified, characteristically Protestant (Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist) ways of approaching the relationship between nature and grace, law, and gospel became more and more pronounced. So Protestant suspicion of natural law is a particular instance of broader ambiguity about the role of law in Protestant thought.

But there are more recent causes for widespread Protestant disavowal of natural law, and there is perhaps no better microcosm of this than appears in the case of the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner over natural theology in the early 1930s. The implications for disavowal of natural theology for the doctrine of natural law should be obvious, for as Stephen Grabill makes clear in his recent study, there are a complex of interrelated doctrines directly implicated in the controversy. As Grabill writes: “contemporary Protestant and Reformed theologians generally hold a low view of natural law because the 1934 Barth-Brunner debate obscured the orthodox Reformed understanding of natural revelation, natural theology, and natural law.”5 Or as Charles contends: “Natural law is the moral aspect of the penetrating arrow of general revelation.”6

In this controversy Emil Brunner argued: “In the long run the Church can bear the rejection of theolgia naturalis as little as its misuse. It is the task of our theological generation to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis.”7 Barth strongly disagreed, and instead wrote

my opinion concerning the task of our theological generation has been this: we must learn again to understand revelation as grace and grace as revelation and therefore turn away from all “true” or “false” theologia naturalis by ever making new decisions and being ever controverted anew.8

The differences between the two theologians was clear, as was the outcome of the controversy. As John Baillie, who introduced the controversy in its original English translation in 1946, would write later: “Dr. Barth’s position seems to me untrue to the facts but clearly argued; Dr. Brunner’s position seems nearer the truth but, because it is not sufficiently far advanced beyond the other, to be involved in confusion and unreal compromise.”9 Barth’s rhetorical superiority would win the day, ushering in what Grabill has called the “period of Barthian hegemony” from 1934-1990.10

These three recent works by J. Daryl Charles, David VanDrunen, and a Robert Baker- and Roland Ehlke-edited volume of Lutheran contributors are the latest evidence that this hegemonic rejection of natural law among Protestants has been definitively overcome.11 These works represent in turn a broadly evangelical approach from an author raised in an Anabaptist (particularly Mennonite)12 tradition, a Reformed and specifically Presbyterian theological history arguing the close connection between natural law and two-kingdoms thinking, and an edited volume on the variety of historic and contemporary Lutheran appraisals of natural law.

Ecumenically-Engaged Evangelicalism

J. Daryl Charles’ book is a sustained call to reintegrate natural-law thinking into Christian ethical reflection, particularly as such reflection relates to bioethical issues. For Charles, the existence of the natural law is critically important for a variety of reasons. In the first place, natural law acknowledges the existence of moral absolutes, norms for human behavior that govern people in all times and all places. The existence of a moral order, a natural law, provides solid ground amid the shifting contexts of human life, a foundation without which, as in post-modernity, “we appear to lose any basis upon which to build a moral apologetic and to preserve civil society.”13

In this sense, then, Charles’ project has a distinctly practical bent. It is not simply because the natural law exists that retrieving a sense of it is important; it is because natural law has such a critically important role to play in providing normative direction for Christian engagement with the world. For Charles, the contemporary “breakup of any ethical consensus that heretofore may have existed in Western societies” requires a return to the foundations of ethical reflection and discourse, asking and answering basic questions about the purpose and structure of human social life.14 For Charles, natural law’s ability to provide answers to these basic questions cogently is its most meaningful feature.

In this way, natural-law thinking “provides a common grammar for moral discourse and a common basis for moral judgments in a pluralistic environment.”15That is, the existence of a natural law provides a bridge between the realms of the sacred and the secular, a common connection between all human beings. Natural law, therefore, not only helps the apologetic and evangelistic tasks of the Christian church, it makes these tasks possible. Charles argues that “only the natural law is able to mold a public moral consensus,” because

it bridges the gap between Christians and non-Christians; it assumes the acknowledgment of and distinction between good and evil; it expresses itself in the recognition of basic moral guidelines for society; and it is the source of political-legal and moral wisdom by which civil society governs itself.16

Charles’ book is an explication of this basic perspective in a series of essays, moving generally from theoretical and historical explorations of natural law to contemporary application, particularly in the realm of bioethics. The book ap-pears as part of the Critical Issues in Bioethics Series, edited by Dennis Hollinger and Francis J. Beckwith and affiliated with The Center for Human Dignity and Bioethics, but the bulk of the book is focused on the foundational questions associated with natural law and attendant considerations concerning human dignity and responsibility rather than with examining the particular details of bioethical controversy. It is not, in this sense, a handbook for natural-law answers to bioethical conundrums.17 The virtue of Charles’ study on this score is that it provides an over-arching perspective that is so often missing from discussions about applied ethics, whether in the fields of business, engineering, medicine, or scientific research. That some of the sections were first published previously accounts for some of the repetition of argument and sources that appears in the text.

Charles’ conviction that the Reformation break with Rome did not include disagreement over the basic methods and forms of ethical reflection fuels his desire to make ecumenical connections today. “As to ethics,” Charles claims of the Reformers, “they maintained full continuity with their Catholic counterparts.”18 Natural law then becomes not only a bridge between the church and the world, but also becomes a way of uniting Christians of various traditions and ecclesiastical communities for a common purpose. Thus, writes Charles,

ecunemical dialogue on the place of the natural law in Christian ethics is both necessary and timely, especially given the wholesale deconstruction of metaphysical foundations going on in our culture—a deconstruction that has moral, social, political, and legal implications.19

To this end Charles generously employs insights from Roman Catholic social teaching throughout his argument, in large part because such resources are lacking from an evangelical perspective. The Roman Catholic tradition never abandoned reflection on the natural law in the way that Protestants did, and thus was able to develop a coherent body of social thought. Thus, by retrieving the natural law Charles is also hoping to help reform evangelical social teaching:

Because evangelical thought-life tends to be strongly devotional and interior, evangelical public witness in the main has suffered to the extent that it lacks the theological-philosophical arsenal of Catholic social thought to enter and contend responsibly in the marketplace.20

Charles’ study is a forceful and substantial argument for the indispensible role of natural law in evangelical, and more broadly Protestant and ecumenically Christian, social witness. Whether natural-law thinking is as univocal as Charles seems to think, and whether the natural law is the only valid means of cultural apologetics and social engagement available to Christians, are somewhat stronger claims that must be tested against the variety of natural law views held by Christians of different traditions. 

Calvin against the Neo-Calvinists

David VanDrunen’s recent work on natural law ambitiously attempts to connect the Reformed conception of natural law to a doctrine of two kingdoms.21 In making this case, VanDrunen traces the two doctrines and their varied inter-relationships and construal from Augustine, through the medieval period, to the Reformation and beyond, up to the present day. To handle in a single volume nearly two millennia of doctrinal development on a single theme would be audacious enough, but the novelty of VanDrunen’s attempt is also noteworthy in the close connection he makes between natural law and the two kingdoms. The purpose of this project is clear; VanDrunen is interested in disputing the Reformed credentials of much of contemporary neo-Calvinism, associated with thinkers who self-identify as inspired by the legacy of the Dutch theologian, journalist, and politician Abraham Kuyper.22 Thus VanDrunen is concerned that there is a great discrepancy between Calvin and the neo-Calvinists:

The differences between Calvin and his neo-Calvinist followers today, however, are often striking, yet largely unobserved. For instance, Calvin identified only the church with the redemptive kingdom of Christ and denounced the claim that civil government was a part of Christ’s kingdom. But today Reformed intellectuals frequently assert that Christ’s kingdom penetrates every legitimate social institution.23

By contrast VanDrunen traces natural law and two kingdoms as foundational concepts for Reformed social thought that find expression in important distinctions between sacred and secular social institutions. The basic formulation of the two kingdoms idea for VanDrunen is that “God rules the spiritual kingdom as its redeemer and the civil kingdom as its creator and sustainer but not as its redeemer.”24 Natural law is intimately involved with this model because natural law is the basis of and standard for law in the civil kingdom.25

The results of VanDrunen’s historical investigations into the transition between the medieval and early modern eras align with those that emphasize the basic catholicity of the Reformation on this point. Thus, writes VanDrunen, “Whatever medieval school or schools may have influenced particular Reformers, therefore, natural law was part of a common, catholic theological inheritance.”26 VanDrunen’s exploration of the views of “John Calvin and his Contemporaries” in chapter 3 is of critical importance to the overall development of his thesis. VanDrunen is careful to note the recent scholarship that has corrected the historiographical errors of viewing Calvin as the chief codifier of what it means to be Reformed (a particular form of the “great thinker” approach).27 For as Richard A. Muller has rightly observed: “Calvin was not the sole arbiter of Reformed confessional identity in his own lifetime—and he ought not to be arbitrarily selected as the arbiter of what was Reformed in the generations following his death.”28 Thus VanDrunen seeks to avoid the mistake of viewing “Calvin as practically the exclusive standard by which to judge subsequent Reformed theology.”29 Even so, VanDrunen’s focus on Calvin in this chapter is admittedly “primary.” In fact, of the roughly fifty-page treatment of “John Calvin and His Contemporaries,” Van-Drunen’s treatment of Calvin accounts for forty-seven pages, while attention to “his contemporaries” garners about four pages. Major figures of direct relevance to VanDrunen’s case, such as Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, elicit nary a mention, while others, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Wolfgang Musculus, are summarily found to be in broad agreement with Calvin and dismissed.30 It is true, in VanDrunen’s defense, that Calvin is of primary importance for his purpose of engaging the position of contemporary neo-Calvinists, if only because so much of the Reformed heritage of neo-Calvinists is embedded in their identification with the Genevan reformer’s legacy.

A larger difficulty, however, is that the exclusion of figures like Zwingli and Bullinger, and the short shrift given other figures associated with the Zurich view of the relationship between church and state, undermines the historical viability of VanDrunen’s two kingdoms thesis. For VanDrunen, “if the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine meant anything it meant that the external government and discipline of the church was not left to the civil magistrate.”31 But precisely those figures that VanDrunen overlooks, or treats dismissively, represent Reformed dissention from such a definition of “two kingdoms doctrine.”32 The virtue of VanDrunen’s study is his comprehensive and systematic treatment of Calvin’s doctrine. This section will be indispensible for years to come for those attempting to understand the Genevan reformer’s views on natural law and civil and ecclesial authorities. But an unfortunate side-effect of this methodological approach is that it reinforces the now defunct perspectives on Calvin as the apotheosis of Reformed theology. 

And the difficulty for VanDrunen’s thesis is neither limited to his definition of the two kingdoms nor limited to the sixteenth century. Given the close identification of the two doctrines in his argument, we might expect to find some significant historical exceptions to VanDrunen’s depiction of the development of Reformed social thought on the topic of natural law as well. By carrying the conversation forward to modern times, VanDrunen has done a major service to the project of recovering Reformed thought on natural law. But by marrying his exploration of natural law so closely to his view of the two kingdoms, VanDrunen has limited the effectiveness of his argument.

The greatest obstacle to the validity of VanDrunen’s natural law/two kingdoms model is precisely the question of magistratical care of religion. For by VanDrunen’s own definition, “if the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine meant anything it meant that the external government and discipline of the church was not left to the civil magistrate.”33 But, in fact, in many instances the Reformed did leave the care of religion within the purview of the civil magistrate. To this VanDrunen can only say that there is an inconsistency, an incoherency, or an incomplete application of the two kingdoms principle.34 Thus, admits VanDrunen, “the early Reformed tradition’s granting the magistrate authority over religious affairs could not be fully reconciled to its clear distinction between the two kingdoms.”35 Perhaps. But perhaps the proposed distinction between the two kingdoms along the lines of natural law is not so unequivocally clear in the Reformed tradition.

A single example from a period somewhat removed from the “early” Reformed should suffice. John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787) was a Scottish Presbyterian of some significant renown and influence. And yet even as late as 1780, long after the death of John Locke and at the same time as the American Revolution, a figure like Brown could argue for some level of magistratical care of religion under the published title, The Absurdity and Perfidy of All Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Popery, in Britain.36 In his description of the “foundation” of “civil and ecclesiastical power,” it is true that Brown sees difference. He writes of the former, “Magistracy is founded on God’s universal dominion over all nations; and hence the law of nature is the immediate supreme rule of its administration.” By contrast, “ecclesiastical power is founded on the œconomical or mediatorial headship of Jesus Christ over his church, as his spiritual kingdom; and hence the immediate standard for regulating the exercise of it, is that Revelation, which God hath given to, and by him, in his word.”37

And yet it is not simply the case that natural law rules in the civil realm while divine law governs the ecclesiastical sphere. Brown introduces the “scriptures” as authoritative in the civil realm

only as introduced by the law of nature, requiring magistrates as well as others to believe and obey whatever revelation, duly attested, God is pleased to grant them—or, by magistrates subjecting their consciences, as followers of Christ, to the scriptures as their only rule to direct them how to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.38

Similarly the “laws of nature have regulating force in the church by virtue of the general precepts of scripture.”39Thus, there is a distinction between two institutions, the civil and ecclesiastical governments, in John Brown of Haddington, but the neat division between the two kingdoms along the lines of natural law is not nearly so apparent as VanDrunen’s narrative would lead us to expect. The linkage of natural law and two kingdoms as defined by VanDrunen seems to be as likely a source for inconsistency or incoherence as the writings of these various Reformed theologians themselves, for as VanDrunen admits, the civil magistrate’s care of religion is “a logical conclusion” given the identification of the natural law with both the first and second tables of the Decalogue.40

VanDrunen’s concern about the excesses of transformationalist thinking among neo-Calvinists ought to be well-heeded, and his concern to reintegrate the concept of natural law into contemporary Reformed theological ethics also fits well with the larger corrective offered in his own previous work and the scholarship of figures like Charles, Boyd, and Grabill.41 But in setting up Calvin against the neo-Calvinists, VanDrunen has run the risk of shaping the historical record to align with a particular side in a contemporary dispute and flattened out the variegated contours of the diversity in the Reformed tradition on these points.

Lutheranism and the Limits of Natural Law

It is fitting to look next at a collection of essays from a Lutheran perspective, as the doctrine of natural law has a significant but controversial role in the history of Lutheran theology. The contributions in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisalcover much of the historical ground at issue from the time of the Reformation, but also bridge the gap from the early modern to our post-modern age, and they do so from a variety of denominational perspectives, with contributors representing the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as well as other smaller or international Lutheran bodies.42 The volume opens with a foreword from J. Daryl Charles in which he summarizes and reiterates the basic case made in Retrieving the Natural Law, and the contributions to the volume are divided up into three sets of five essays. The first set of essays examines natural law in the context of the early Lutheran tradition. The middle section takes up later developments in Lutheranism with respect to natural law, while the final set of essays examines various contemporary questions from a natural-law perspective.

In the section tracing the early Lutheran views on natural law, Carl E. Braaten, whose work on the natural law over previous decades stands as a remarkable con-tribution, explores the basically positive reception of natural law in the Christian tradition. Thus, he writes: “The view of natural law was the common conviction of philosophers and theologians for some twenty-five hundred years, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Bonaventura, as well as from Luther and Calvin to Kant and Hegel.”43 It is apparent from such a list, he notes, that “the history of natural law shows a wide variety of interpretations and applications.” But even so, “they all have some elements in common. They all oppose cultural relativism, the notion that laws are mere moral conventions that vary among societies, with no transcendent ontological claim to being universally valid and binding.”44 This understanding of the natural law’s implications for social life resonates strongly with Charles’ contention about the necessity of defending moral realism in a post-modern age.

Gifford A. Grobien’s essay adequately covers the necessary historical ground from the medieval period to Luther.45 He rightly notes that some form of natural law teaching was universal among a variety of medieval thinkers, notably including Ockham.46 Thomas D. Pearson’s essay picks up the story with Luther, arguing that Luther’s natural law thinking “divides along the fault lines of the ‘two kingdoms’ doctrine. Natural law does scant work throughout Luther’s biblical and theological endeavors, but it does substantial, albeit often conflicted, work when his focus is on the domain of civil righteousness.”47 As many have done before him, Pearson juxtaposes the nominalist Luther with the realist Thomas, who has “a complete natural ontology of law,” and sharply contrasts their notions of natural law.48 And yet as the historian David C. Steinmetz has so rightly observed, “the story of Thomas Aquinas and Protestantism has yet to be written, and it is not identical with the story of Thomas and Luther.”49 Roland Ziegler’s contribution stands as a signal study of “Natural Law in the Lutheran Confessions.”50 He provides an important perspective on why the question of natural law often receives so little mention in confessional documents of the Reformation era. Ziegler writes that “because natural law was not the object of doctrinal controversy in the sixteenth century and because it had not been a central focus of the Christian faith, it does not occupy a prominent place in the Confessions.”51 Armin Wenz explores the relationship between natural law and the typical Lutheran doctrine of the “orders of creation.”52 Affirmation of creation orders, even apart from explicit discussion of the natural law, should still be understood as a variety of natural-law thinking.

The middle section of essays is that which embodies the most diversity in terms of form and substance in this volume. The middle section, ostensibly focusing on the natural-law thinking of post-Reformation Lutheranism, opens with a fine essay by Jacob Corzine on the German Lutheran Friederich Julius Stahl (1802-1861), a nineteenth-century jurist who rejected what he saw as rationalistic natural-law thinking in Hegel. Corzine rightly notes that Stahl’s “rejection” of 45 The middle section of essays is that which embodies the most diversity in terms of form and substance in this volume. The middle section, ostensibly focusing on the natural-law thinking of post-Reformation Lutheranism, opens with a fine essay by Jacob Corzine on the German Lutheran Friederich Julius Stahl (1802-1861), a nineteenth-century jurist who rejected what he saw as rationalistic natural-law thinking in Hegel. Corzine rightly notes that Stahl’s “rejection” of 45 natural law had a particular referent, “intentionally limited to the modern era, and specifically, to what he perceives to be rationalist.”53 John T. Pless picks up the story following the Barth-Brunner debate, in the work of Werner Elert (1885-1954), Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), and Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000).54 These three thinkers attest both to the latent resiliency of natural law thinking, even if it appears under other guises, as well as to the ongoing Lutheran and more broadly Protestant suspicion of natural law. Robert C. Baker transitions as the middle essay in the volume to more characteristically contemporary concerns. He examines the work of Gerhard O. Forde (1927-2005), who is understood as having moved over his career to embrace a theological method that “reduces the civil use of the law to a thin prudential ethic and the ‘categorical imperative’ forbidding using others as a means to an end.”55 The “acid test” referred to in the essay’s title is from one of Forde’s own expressions, that “the acid test for any method is its practical consequences.” By that measure, concludes Baker, 

given the current state of theological disarray, especially as it concerns human sexuality, perhaps it is time to reconsider the usefulness of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theological methods, which reduce systematic treatments to a few controlling categories and offer thin versions of ethics.56

The contribution by Marianne Howard Yoder and J. Larry Yoder consist of varied and occasional reflections on the development of the ELCA teaching on moral issues, particularly with regard to human sexuality.57 This is one of the sections in the volume that reads as particularly intra-mural, in the sense that it is quite narrowly focused on direct experiences with a particular denomination. But this is also one of the particular strengths of this contribution, as it speaks quite movingly to the sense of betrayal a member has when his or her church drifts away from traditional Christian moral teaching and provides a glimpse into why some members would exit the ELCA to form a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). The final essay in this section consists of an intriguing interview focused on indigenous religious practices in Africa and implications for international missions. The focus on what might be called an expression of “natural religion” underscores the interrelated character of doctrines like natural revelation, natural theology, natural law, and natural religion. Carl E. Rockrohr concludes with a significant challenge for Christian cross-cultural engagement: “The biblical teaching is that neighbor has access to natural law. Can the neighbor be respected enough to be taken seriously for the natural law that does exist in his beliefs?”58 This is a deeply meaningful question that warrants serious reflection from those involved in international missions, aid, and development.

The final set of essays brings Lutheran perspectives on natural law into direct engagement with contemporary issues. Ryan C. MacPherson takes up the question of natural marriage, and argues convincingly that “what harms the family will ultimately ruin society and civil government, and vice versa; similarly, what strengthens the family ultimately will improve society and civil government.”59 The central importance of the family as “a prepolitical institution from which society originates and in which human persons spontaneously take form” complements Charles’ contention “that natural law and human civilization are closely connected. When the human soul is disordered, virtue collapses. And when human communities and cultures are disordered, they collapse.”60 Other essays in this section focus on the question of abortion, interreligious dialogue, and the question of woman’s ordination in ecclesiastical contexts.61 Albert B. Collver III’s essay, “According to Nature, Adiaphora, and Ordination,” makes the case that natural-law teaching has significance not only for providing a bridge to engage the broader culture, but also as a norm for the church’s own moral practice and ethical reflection. He writes that “the Church itself is weak on the teaching of natural law,” and resulting in a situation in which “vices and moral corruption that even pagan philosophers could identify via the natural law, the mainstream Protestant church has difficulty in identifying as sin.”62 In this vein, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church that “even pagans” do not tolerate such behavior can be seen as a kind of natural-law argument applied within the church (see 1 Cor. 5:1).

The volume’s final essay by Matthew E. Cochran, “A Way Forward? Continu-ing Conversations on Natural Law,” captures well the value of these Lutheran perspectives on natural law. It is quite possible, amidst other evangelical and Reformed enthusiasm for the utility of natural-law thinking today, to come away with an overly optimistic perspective of the doctrine. But as Cochran writes, “God’s law calls us to be holy, yet we are anything but. The natural law can help expose our plight. God’s law, revealed in nature and recorded in the infallible Scriptures, still curbs and exposes our sin and points out our need for a Savior.”63 The positive contribution of Lutheran reappraisals of natural law to contemporary discussions might well be to provide a much-needed voice of moderation and caution, without lapsing into outright rejection of the existence of natural law or its actual, albeit limited, usefulness.64

We might expect this kind of ambivalence about the natural law from a tradition that has such a marked and methodological distinction between law and gospel. Ziegler sums up the Lutheran consensus well when he writes that “natural law has the same ambiguity as natural revelation. God did not leave man without witness to Himself; man does know something about Him. However, such knowledge is a mixture of truth and error.” Natural law is a kind of law that functions like the law in general, serving as “a witness in man’s conscience that atheism and materialism are self-defeating ideologies.” The natural law thus condemns and holds even non-Christians morally culpable. And yet, “even if individuals do not realize this, natural law still serves as a means to maintain some form of civil order and as a basic knowledge about the difference between good and evil.”65

Prospects for Protestantism and Natural LawThe fact that a conception of natural law could find some measure of utility in the thinking of figures as theologically diverse as Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Luther, Calvin, and up through the centuries until today, argues strongly for its adaptability and relevance for a variety of intellectual and social contexts. It is the case, however, that McNeill’s claim of “no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law” means that all of the variety and diversity of medieval approaches to natu-ral law found their way into the thought of the Reformers and their followers. That is to say, there is no single medieval view of natural law that is univocally or universally controlling for the Reformers. Even if the thought of Aquinas has been understood to be the fullest expression of natural-law thought, the Reformers were not solely indebted to Thomas for their natural-law thinking.

Prospects for Protestantism and Natural Law

The fact that a conception of natural law could find some measure of utility in the thinking of figures as theologically diverse as Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Luther, Calvin, and up through the centuries until today, argues strongly for its adaptability and relevance for a variety of intellectual and social contexts. It is the case, however, that McNeill’s claim of “no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law” means that all of the variety and diversity of medieval approaches to natural law found their way into the thought of the Reformers and their followers. That is to say, there is no single medieval view of natural law that is univocally or universally controlling for the Reformers. Even if the thought of Aquinas has been understood to be the fullest expression of natural-law thought, the Reformers were not solely indebted to Thomas for their natural-law thinking.

The implications of this for contemporary Protestant natural-law thinking is important, because it means, among other things, that Protestants cannot simply adopt the methods and conclusions of Roman Catholic social thought, even though there is much that can be adopted and much more that should be instructive. Charles rightly contends that there is much to be learned on questions of moral theology from Roman Catholic social teaching, and he effectively employs papal encyclicals throughout his book. But if evangelical social witness is to address its lack of a “theological-philosophical arsenal of Catholic social thought,” it must do so by working out its own varieties of moral reasoning, including natural-law discourse, and not simply by adopting distinctively Roman Catholic approaches.66One point of departure, for example, would be the differences in approach to tradition as a normative element in apprehending Scriptural teaching.67 For Protestants to formulate contemporary expressions of social thought on the basis of natural law adequately requires that they continue to become more familiar and increasingly conversant with the approaches that have already been taken within their own traditions, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or otherwise. As Carl Braaten writes, “even when we do not agree with the Roman Catholic application of natural law in every case of moral dispute, there is much to admire about a church that knows where it stands on the critical issues of the day and offers cogent arguments to explain its teachings.”68 In this way the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought offers both a challenge and a model for Protestant churches today, to develop their own knowledge of where they stand and why on contemporary ethical issues. The reintegration of distinctively Protestant approaches to natural law is absolutely critical to this project.

But natural law is not the entirety of the story. It is not, in itself, a panacea for what ails church and culture. As Charles notes, “the natural law is not the end of ethics, to be sure; it is rather where we must begin.”69 And beginning again with natural law means that it must be integrated and related to other significant doctrines, common grace, natural revelation, natural theology, and natural religion among those previously noted.70 VanDrunen’s work is a monumental effort to explore natural law in relation to the doctrine of two kingdoms, and on this point there is much work to be done to distinguish and relate Reformed and Lutheran approaches to these doctrinal interrelationships.71 But the doctrine of natural law must also be brought to bear on other doctrines, especially including that of vocation, which can be seen perhaps as a “third leg” of the stool of Protestant social thought, along with natural law and two kingdoms.72 The work of Gustaf Wingren on Luther and vocation is a helpful point of departure for such discussions, as vocation appears as a nexus for understanding the relationship between the two kingdoms and natural law, or the orders of creation.73 As William J. Wright notes in his recent study, “Wingren clearly showed the centrality of the two-kingdoms idea in all of Luther’s thought.”74 With respect to other questions, Charles has continued to explore the relationship between natural-law thinking and peace churches and movements, particularly on the question of just war.75

And it is precisely at this point that the Protestant natural law project runs into the dogged echoes of Barth’s “No!” For as Charles puts it, the rejection of natural law goes along with rejection of just-war thinking for “pacifists and separationists.”76 It may be, as Charles contends, “given his overarching commitment to ideological pacifism, [John Howard] Yoder’s rejection of natural law, then, might be viewed as a by-product, not a cause, of his pacifist ethics.”77 If natural law and just-war thinking are necessarily connected, we might expect those coming out of peace movement and Anabaptist traditions to continue to reject both the former as well as the latter. There is some reason to believe, however, that just war does not necessarily follow from natural law, as there is in fact some evidence of appreciation for natural law in the thought of Anabaptist figures like Pilgrim Marpeck, Leonhard Schiemer, and Menno Simons.78 But if these two are not necessarily connected, and given the real diversity of attitudes within Anabaptist circles, then the challenge for Protestant advocates of natural law will be to disentangle natural law from just war and show how the natural law might help bring coherence to faithful Anabaptist witness.

One thing the work of Charles, VanDrunen, and Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal makes clear is that the question of natural law and Protestantism is increasingly becoming not that of “If” but “How?” As VanDrunen writes:

Probably the biggest question that faces those wishing to revive the Reformed doctrine of natural law is how, concretely, Christians can make natural law arguments in the public square with theological integrity and some degree of persuasiveness to a religiously mixed crowd.79

These recent writers, among others, have shown conclusively that natural-law thinking belongs in the arsenal of contemporary Protestant social thought, particularly those working from traditions associated with the magisterial Reformation. The German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that in the Christian witness in and to the world today, “we must replace rusty weapons with bright steel.”80 As these works make clear, the Protestant rediscovery, retrieval, reappraisal, and redeployment of natural law are absolutely essential to burnishing that “bright steel” and reinvigorating Protestant social thought.

Cite this article
Jordan J. Ballor, “Natural Law and Protestantism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:2 , 193-209


  1. John T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion 26.3 (July 1946): 168.
  2. Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 39.
  3. J. Daryl Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 114.
  4. This temptation is not unique to Protestantism, of course. There has, in fact, been a tempta-tion to oppose radically any normative sense of law and turn the gospel into an excuse for licentiousness from the earliest days of the church. See, for instance, Paul’s indictment of this line of thinking in his letter to the church in Rome in Rom. 6:1-2. But the Protestant traditions have struggled against antinomian tendencies from the beginning. On the Lutheran side, see Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997). On Calvin and the “Libertines,” see Mirjam G. K. van Veen “Calvin and His Opponents,” trans. Gerrit W. Sheeres, in The Calvin Handbook, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 158-160. On later developments on the Reformed side, see David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990); and Gert van den Brink, “Calvin, Witsius (1636-1708), and the English Antinomians,” Church History and Religious Culture 91.1-2 (2011): 229-240. More recently the invective against “cheap grace” by Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be understood as a rejection of antinomianism. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 49: “Luther’s deed cannot be misunderstood more grievously than by thinking that through discovering the gospel of pure grace, Luther proclaimed a dispensation from obeying Jesus’ commandments in the world.”
  5. Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 17.
  6. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 130.
  7. Emil Brunner, “Nature and Grace,” in Natural Theology, trans. Peter Fraenkel (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 59.
  8. Karl Barth, “No!” in Natural Theology, 71.
  9. John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), 30.
  10. 0Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law, 21. Even during this period, however, there were still important advocates of natural law within Protestantism. See, for instance, Paul Ramsey, The Truth of Value: A Defense of Moral and Literary Judgment (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humani-ties Press, 1985); and Carl E. Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 129: “A new-style natural law will have to emerge under the new conditions of historical understanding and in light of the biblical eschatological horizon of the kingdom of God, if it is to satisfy the demands of modernity and Christian faith.”
  11. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law; David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); and Robert C. Baker and Roland Cap Ehlke, eds., Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011).
  12. Charles identifies himself as “one who grew up in the Anabaptist — and specifically Men-nonite — context.” See Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 149, n. 145.
  13. Ibid., 152.
  14. Ibid., 3.
  15. Ibid., 44.
  16. Ibid., 62.
  17. See, for instance, David VanDrunen, Bioethics and Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).
  18. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 125. Italics in the original.
  19. Ibid., 155.
  20. Ibid., 21. Italics in the original.
  21. David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
  22. On Kuyper and his influence on contemporary evangelicalism, see Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
  23. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 4. See also VanDrunen, 174: “To put the point simply: Calvin did not hold a contemporary Reformed one-kingdom view in which the redemptive kingdom of Christ embraces all areas of life, and neither did these eminent thinkers and confessional documents of Reformed orthodoxy.”
  24. Ibid., 74.
  25. Ibid., 5, 201.
  26. Ibid., 54-55.
  27. On the limits of the “great thinker” model, see James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 30-31.
  28. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 8. For the background of the “Calvin as chief codifier” idea in the Barth-Brunner debate, see Grabill, Rediscovering Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, 3-7. See also the discussions related to Calvin and his relation to succeeding generations of theologians in Carl R. Trueman, Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 120-129; 183-189.
  29. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 67.
  30. See Ibid., 115-118. Charles’ work, even though it is not primarily historical in nature, holds up well by comparison, as Charles has separate and brief but balanced treatments of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Bullinger. See Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 115-125.
  31. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 180.
  32. See, for instance, Emidio Campi, “John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Reassessment of Their Relationship,” in Calvin und Calvinismus: Europäische Perspektiven, eds. Irene Dingel and Herman J. Selderhuis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 97-101; Charles D. Gunnoe Jr., Thomas Erastus and the Palatinate: A Renaissance Physician in the Second Reformation(Leiden: Brill, 2011), 163-173; W. J. Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2007); and Jordan J. Ballor, Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).
  33. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 180.
  34. Ibid., 314: “Theological coherence demands that one cannot have both traditional two kingdoms-related concepts like the distinct, dual mediatorship of the Son as well as the notion of a ‘Christianized’ culture.”
  35. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 213.
  36. John Brown of Haddington, The Absurdity and Perfidy of All Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Popery, in Britain (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1780).
  37. Ibid., 69. Italics in the original.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 201: “Therefore, since natural law teaches the first as well as the second table of the Decalogue, and since natural law is the standard for civil law, a logical conclusion was that magistrates were to have concerns of the first table within their purview.”
  41. See David VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2006); and Craig A. Boyd, A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural Law Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007). See also Matthew Levering, Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). It should be noted that some of the best critiques of transformationalist excess have come from within the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition itself. See, for instance, Calvin P. Van Reken, “Christians in This World: Pilgrims or Settlers?” Calvin Theological Journal 43.2 (November 2008): 234-256.
  42. Robert C. Baker and Roland Cap Ehlke, eds., Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011).
  43. Carl E. Braaten, “A Lutheran Affirmation of the Natural Law,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 5.
  44. Ibid., 12.
  45. Gifford A. Grobien, “What Is the Natural Law? Medieval Foundations and Luther’s Appropriation,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 17-38.
  46. Ibid., 29.
  47. Thomas D. Pearson, “Luther’s Pragmatic Appropriation of the Natural Law Tradition,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 41-42.
  48. Ibid., 45. See also Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, 194: “The Thomist view is that we reach the knowledge of God through the knowledge of things other than God. The Lutheran view is rather that God reveals Himself to us directly, but in a veiled form.”
  49. David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 58. See also more generally John Witte Jr., Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  50. Roland Ziegler, “Natural Law in the Lutheran Confessions,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 65-78.
  51. Ibid., 65.
  52. Armin Wenz, “Natural Law and the Orders of Creation,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 79-95.
  53. Jacob Corzine, “Friedrich Julius Stahl: A Lutheran’s Rejection of Natural Law,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 103.
  54. John T. Pless, “After Barth: Three Lutheran Appraisals of Natural Law,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 117-134.
  55. Robert C. Baker, “Natural Law, Human Sexuality, and Forde’s ‘Acid Test’,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 153.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Marianne Howard Yoder and J. Larry Yoder, “Natural Law and the ELCA,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 157-177.
  58. Carl E. Rockrohr, “Natural Law in African Context,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reap-praisal, 196.
  59. Ryan C. MacPherson, “The Natural Law of the Family,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reap-praisal, 202-203.
  60. Ibid., 217; Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 19.
  61. Korey D. Maas, “Natural Science, Natural Rights, and Natural Law: Abortion in Historical Perspective,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 221-234; Adam S. Francisco, “Natural Law: A Basis for Christian-Muslim Discourse?,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 235-247; Albert B. Collver III, “According to Nature, Adiaphora, and Ordination,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 249-266.
  62. Albert B. Collver III, “According to Nature, Adiaphora, and Ordination,” 255, 265.
  63. Matthew E. Cochran, “A Way Forward? Continuing Conversations on Natural Law,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, 281.
  64. A good summary of early Lutheran perspectives on natural law appears in Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 64-71.
  65. Ziegler, “Natural Law in the Lutheran Confessions,” 76-77.
  66. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 21. The failure to work out such approaches would be an implicit admission of an affirmative answer to the probing question of Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
  67. On the historic differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches to tradi-tion, see Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 361-422.
  68. Braaten, “A Lutheran Affirmation of the Natural Law,” 8.
  69. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 142.
  70. See, for instance, Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art,trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2011); Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009); Owen Anderson, The Clarity of God’s Existence: The Ethics of Belief After the Enlightenment (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008); and James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
  71. As Braaten writes, “The doctrine of the orders of creation goes hand in glove with the doctrine of the two kingdoms as well as the important distinction between Law and Gospel. Christian theology practiced by Lutherans is treated as a fine art of drawing the proper distinction between two quite different ways that God is active in the world to achieve His ends.” See Braaten, “A Lutheran Affirmation of the Natural Law,” 9.
  72. 2See David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), which discusses the concept of vocation.
  73. See Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004).
  74. William J. Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 40. See also Pless, “After Barth: Three Lutheran Appraisals of Natural Law,” 130-131.
  75. See J. Daryl Charles, Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005); and J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).
  76. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 31.
  77. Ibid., 139.
  78. See, for instance, Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 266, 268, 321.
  79. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 432-433.
  80. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Ethics as Formation,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 81.

Jordan J. Ballor

Calvin Theological Seminary
Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.