Protestantism has an odd history, at least over the last two hundred or so years, with regard to the doctrine of natural law. Catholics, on the other hand, have a rich intellectual history with regard to this subject. One of the excellent seminars that I attended at Acton University yesterday was taught by Dr. Stephen J. Grabill, a staff member of Acton who is also a research scholar in theology with the Institute and the editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. His most recent book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, was recently published by Eerdmans and is an important contribution on the natural law debate.
What then is natural law? Dr. Grabill defined it as “the foundational principles of morality that are not only right for all, but at some level known to all.” It equates, in some sense, with the biblical reference to “a law written on the heart.” It is an appeal to all mankind that establishes foundational principles of morality known to reason and conscience. Christians do not believe that men know God savingly through natural law but they have generally believed that natural law makes moral truth public, universal and nonexclusive.
Dr. Grabill demonstrated that both Luther and Calvin, as did their immediate theological heirs, clearly believed in natural law. Martin Luther believed we were born with a common judgment about God inscribed on our souls and Calvin defined this as “that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance while it proves them guilty by their own testimony.” Man is a social being, thus the “seeds” of law are planted in his mind. This is why nothing can destroy the primary idea of justice that results from this law in our soul.
The famous twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth, in doing battle with liberalism and state socialism, came to embrace a very anti-natural law position that then came to dominate much of intellectual Protestant life for almost a century. Barth rejected the idea that God can be known, even in part, through creation. When Emil Brunner challenged the great Barth a huge controversy ensued. This put natural law on the back burner of serious Protestant theology for decades. Recently, this position is being rethought and Dr. Grabill is a leading thinker in this recovery.
Grabill argued that the rejection of natural law leads to a false division between nature and grace. He believes that we lose the basis for a real moral apologetic in the wider culture if we surrender the doctrine of natural law. Truth can be known in creation, conscience and reason but this truth will never rise to the level of redemption. What it will provide is a public record of God’s power and divinity that allows serious Christians to pursue both evangelism and virtue formation. Evangelism is the priority but we need both. I believe Grabill gave good and compelling reasons to rethink the modern Protestant response to the natural law argument. I look forward to reading his book and going further with these arguments. I was not taught a strong natural law position in my own theological training so I have work to do.