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Written on the Heart

Many Americans likely never heard of the concept of natural law until it was made an issue in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. As then, we would do well to consider a good, clear definition. In the broadest sense of the term, natural law embraces the whole field of morality.

Murder, adultery, incest, prostitution, theft are universally felt to be wrong; they run contrary to the natural law. Defense of one’s own life and that of others, the recognition of the distinct difference of human life from all other animate life, the preservation of human life (including that within the womb), philanthropy, marital fidelity, one’s right to property, all of these are recognized as goods, part of the natural moral order.

Johannes Grundel provides the classic definition of the natural moral law as “the order of things assigned to man by his creator for the development of his human qualities … ; it is to describe the dignity of the person, the rights of man, and give them validity in social life.”

In Roman Catholic thought, natural law, in the strict sense, deals with the moral law as affecting the due order between man and man, and man and society. It comprises the realm of moral obligation that can be determined in the form of norms for the minimum standard of moral behavior and can also be enforceable as law. Among non-Catholic writers, the significant distinction is made that the natural law is not always considered part of the moral realm.

Protestant political thinker J. Budziszewski gives his own definition of natural law and contrasts it with the revealed law of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures: “As a Christian I regard the natural-law tradition as the nearest approach to the truth about the ‘law written on the heart’ which ethical and political philosophy have yet, by the grace of God, achieved. I do not mean to be flippant in speaking of God’s grace. True, the law written on the heart is utterly inferior to the revealed truth of the gospel, for though it tells us what sin is, it tells us nothing of how to escape it. Yet it too is a real gift of God, for we have to know the bad news before we can grasp the Good News.”

In this regard, Budziszewski sounds very much like Clement of Alexandria, who argues that the faith-based knowledge obtained from revelation is more certain than even that of mathematical logic, given the divine origin of the Scriptures. It is surely regrettable that Budziszewski omits any discussion of such philosophers as Clement.

Boethius, too, is missing from Budziszewski’s otherwise excellent overview of classical, scholastic, and contemporary treatment of the natural moral law. Boethius, often called “the last of the classical philosophers,” provides insight into the exercise of human freedom when confronted with the attraction to the summum bonum, which gives man the greatest joy. For Boethius, one is logically compelled to follow the natural law because doing so alone can give man perfect satisfaction.

The philosophers Budziszewski does treat are surely representative of the best of the natural moral law tradition: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Consider the similarity of Boethius with Budziszewski’s summary of Aristotle: “Remember that the highest human good would have two qualities. First, other goods would be sought for its sake; second, it would be sought only for its own sake. What do we know that’s like that? Aristotle points out that almost everyone, in all times and places, gives the same answer to that question: happiness. As he sees no objections to this answer, he accepts it.“

Though not a Catholic himself, Budziszewski is well-acquainted with contemporary Catholic authors who are most often associated with the natural law debate. He provides an insightful discussion of the various positions (though largely on the conservative side, even of Catholic teaching) as promoted by E. Michael Jones, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Joseph M. Boyle.

Both unexpected and refreshing is the thorough acquaintance that Budziszewski has of those sources favored by Catholic apologists, most significantly, that of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Very satisfying is the balance of these sources by way of his masterful treatment of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Helmut Thielicke, all important voices for the Protestant debate. Even the rabbi Moses Maimonides appears in Budziszewski’s study as a voice for the Jewish position on natural law, an inclusiveness seldom found in the best of Catholic writers.

One can only hope to see more Protestant authors make a foray into what is often considered a typically Catholic domain. One should also hope for a continued dialogue among scholars of diverse Christian traditions, to which Budziszewski invites us all in so compelling a fashion.

As an evangelical Protestant publishing house, InterVarsity Press has not usually shown an interest in books on such a subject more traditionally favored by Catholic publishers. Their editors are to be commended for this relatively daring venture. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company has also demonstrated an interest in natural law thinking, as demonstrated in its recent publication of A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law, edited by Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Aquinas serves as an excellent example for Budziszewski of the role of natural law in the life of man: “Everything God made has a nature. However, not everything he made is subject to him in the special way called natural law. Natural law is a privilege of created rational beings–that includes us–because it is a finite reflection of his infinite purposes in their finite minds. This is what Thomas means when he defines it as ‘the participation of the rational creature in the eternal law.’ “

Every chapter ends with an inclusive group of reflection questions, making Budziszewski’s book an excellent textbook for college-level courses in ethics. Budziszewski describes well the scope of his study: “The book is not only about the natural law. For context I have included a great many collateral topics, especially concerning the nature and limits of government. Here I must remark that although all natural-law thinkers agree that politics must have an ethical foundation, the line from ethical premises to political conclusions is often curved or crooked, and they do not always agree about its course.“