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Recovering the Catholicity of Protestant Theological Ethics


Stephen Grabill

The following has been excerpted from Recovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics , released last autumn from Eerdmans.

While the Protestant Reformers inherited the natural-law tradition from their late medieval predecessors without serious question, their later heirs have, more often than not, assumed a critical stance of discontinuity in relation to natural law. In fact, according to one scholar whose views —though well documented and respected —still typify a minority position in contemporary Protestant historiography, “There is not real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.” With the possible exception of Zwingli, writes John T. McNeill, “Natural law is not one of the issues on which [the Reformers] bring the Scholastics under criticism.” Exploring continuities and discontinuities, developments and divergences between the Reformers and their successors and even, more generally, between the Reformation, patristic, and medieval eras in Christian theology sheds light on McNeill's observation about the catholicity of natural-law doctrine. “Where the Reformers painted with a broad brush,” writes Richard Muller, “their orthodox and scholastic successors strove to fill in the details of the picture.” […] Assuming McNeill's conclusion can withstand historical scrutiny, therefore, it is fair to ask why Protestants have been so critical of natural law throughout most of the preceding century.

The reasons, while diverse and somewhat broad ranging, encompass at least three distinct but overlapping sets of issues. Among twentieth-century Protestant systematic and historical theologians, a primary reason contributing to the unfavorable assessment of natural law has been the influence of Karl Barth's epistemological criticism of natural theology, his (along with Emil Brunner's) reinforcement of Calvin as the chief codifier and lodestar of Reformed doctrine, and his advocacy of a strong version of divine command theory. Suffice it to say that particularly within the arena of Reformed theology, the discontinuity thesis was underscored by Barth's acerbic criticism not only of natural theology, but also of any theological formulation not immediately derivable from Christocentric premises.

A second reason is that natural-law doctrine is thought to originate in, and, therefore, to find its natural seat within, the intellectual milieu of Roman Catholic moral theology. Protestant intellectuals for this reason, then, have typically regarded the natural-law tradition to be doctrinally and philosophically tied to Roman Catholicism, and thus open to the standard Protestant criticisms that Rome does not take either sin or history seriously enough. This viewpoint has been articulated by a number of prominent twentieth-century Protestant theologians and ethicists.

A third, more general, reason can be attributed to the anti-scholastic, anti-metaphysical accents of nineteenth-century German liberal theology that continued to exert influence on the Protestant mainstream well into the twentieth century in, for example, Albrecht Ritschl's and Adolf von Harnack's so-called “ethical” theologies. Thus, in commenting on nature and grace in his 1894 recotral address at Kampen Seminary, Herman Bavinck, one of the chief agents in the Dutch Neo-Calvinist revival in the latter half of the nineteenth century, singled out Ritschl's attempt to separate metaphysics from theology specifically for criticism. “According to the Reformation, ”wrote Bavinck, “that which is supra naturam is not the metaphysical doctrine of Trinity, incarnation, and atonement per se but the content of all of this—namely, grace. Not as if the Reformers wished to banish metaphysics from theology—the separation of the two proposed by Ritschl is practically speaking not even feasible. But the metaphysical doctrine taken in itself for its own sake does not yet constitute the content or object of our Christian faith.”

Certain promising indications exist that some leading Protestant intellectuals are presently reevaluating the conventional theological taboos associated with the natural-law tradition. To put matters in context: prior to 1990, if a researcher was interested in locating English-language monographs written by Protestants on natural law after 1934, the year of the infamous Barth-Brunner debate, it would be nearly impossible to do so. While a mere handful of dissertations have been written on natural law by Protestant authors, all of which appear after 1960, only one concentrates on the relationship between the natural-law tradition and the Reformers and Protestant orthodoxy. Even among these, none move much beyond the descriptive task of showing either that a modified tradition of natural law can be found in select theologians or periods of Protestant theology, or conversely, that Protestant theology is unable to assimilate natural law on account of theological hesitations. As might be expected, most of these authors focused on adjudicating the merits of the Bart-Brunner debate, systematically presented the viewpoint of a particular theologian, developed an extended criticism of natural-law theory, or surveyed twentieth-century Protestant viewpoints on the subject. It is important to recognize that the most scholarly and systematic treatments of natural law so far by Protestant analysts have been conducted almost exclusively within a contemporary (or twentieth-century) frame of reference.

My contention is that the contemporaneity of these studies in particular, and the paucity of Protestant treatments of natural law in general, act as contributing factors themselves to the profound gap in historical understanding of the development of Protestant ethics. This gap by its very existence helps to establish historical plausibility for the claim that, particularly among Protestant systematicians and historical theologians, the 1934 debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner had two principal consequences. First, from a theological and anthropological point of view, the debate helped to rupture the by then anemic natural-law tradition in Protestant theological ethics by questioning and ultimately denying the epistemological reliability of the post-lapsarian natural human faculties. Second, from a historical point of view, the debate served to reinforce a trend begun already in the nineteenth century to bestow upon John Calvin the misplaced accolade of being the chief early codifier of Reformed doctrine.

To address the fundamental inadequacy of Calvin as chief early codifier position, it is important to acknowledge, first and foremost, that the theology of Protestant orthodoxy, forged in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a final, dogmatic codification of the Reformation, occupies a seminal—even if, in the minds of many today, a non-normative—position in the history of Protestant thought. “Not only is this scholastic or orthodox theology the historical link that binds us to the Reformation,” insists Muller, “it is also the form of theological system in and through which modern Protestantism has received most of its doctrinal principles and definitions. Without detracting at all from the achievement of the great Reformers and the earliest codifiers of the doctrines of the Reformation—writers like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Bullinger—we need to recognize that not they, but rather, subsequent generations of 'orthodox' or 'scholastic' Protestants are responsible for the final form of such doctrinal issues as the definition of theology and the enunciation of its fundamental principles, the fully developed Protestant forms of the doctrine of the Trinity the crucial Christological concept of the two states of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, and the theme of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.” Such increasing doctrinal complexity and sophistication is also evident in the doctrines of natural revelation, natural theology, and natural law.

Although the tradition of natural law atrophied during the years 1934 to 1990, in the last decade of the twentieth century Protestant historians, theologians, and ethicists began to express renewed but cautious interest in natural law.

Since 1990 Protestant theologians, historians, and ethicists have become increasingly more interested in the natural-law tradition as a resource for discussing moral issues in the often hostile and religiously pluralistic environment of the public square. Indications of renewed interest in the natural-law tradition can be seen in the work of such scholars as Nigel Biggar, Rufus Black, Carl Braaten, J. Budziszewski (now Roman Catholic), Michael Cromartie, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Arthur F. Holmes, Paul Helm, Alister McGrath, Susan Schreiner, David VanDrunen, and Daniel Westberg. The privatization of religious belief and the impoverishment of public moral discourse provide the backdrop for the renewed interest in natural law. The natural-law tradition supplies an antidote to these cultural trends because, according to it, there is a universal law to which people of all races, cultures, and religions can have access through their natural reason. Natural law thus provides moral knowledge that all people can grasp without the aid of special or divine revelation. Natural law is particularly advantageous in terms of political discourse and Christian engagement in the public square because it seems to provide a moral vocabulary that can function for both religious and secular interlocutors.