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Reclaiming The Natural Law for Theological Ethics


[1] The purpose of this brief essay is to explain why I think it is important and timely to re­claim the natural law for theological ethics. After World War II "situation ethics" became widespread in Protestant theology, bringing about a collapse of serious moral instruction in the churches. Traditional values and ethical standards dissolved in a stew of agapeism and antinomianism. Church-sponsored efforts to discern the will of God on questions of sexual morality, for example, disregarded the natural law tradition of Chris­tian morality and replaced it with the sociological approach of polling individuals on what they think about sex and marriage. The problem is: if a majority of Lutherans in America approve a certain type of sexual behavior that would not make it right in the sight of God. Numbers are irrelevant in matters of right and wrong, good and bad. 

 What Is the Natural Law?
[2] The concept of natural law was given its classical formulation by the ancient Greeks. They argued that the universe is governed by law inscribed into the nature of things. Humans are endowed with reason and therefore can know what is in accordance with the law of nature. They also have the capacity of choice and are therefore able to obey (or disobey) the law. Christian theologians adopted the Greek philosophical theory of natural law, identifying it with the law of God written on the hearts of human beings to which their conscience bears witness (Romans 2: 15). Thus, for Thomas Aquinas natu­ral law is grounded in the eternal mind of God, knowable to human beings by means of reason and conscience. The unwritten natural law is universal, the same for everyone everywhere. The norm of all positive laws is the natural law. 

 [3] The idea of natural law has played a fundamental role in Western intellectual history. From Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Bonaventura, Hobbes and Locke, Luther and Calvin, Kant and Hegel the idea of natural law formed the backbone of social morality, political philosophy and legal theory. Natural law beliefs informed the framers of the American Constitution. The modern notion of human rights is based on some version of natural law theory. Thomas Jefferson's trinity of inalienable rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- is founded on natural law theory. We all have too much at stake in the western tradition of natural law to see it abandoned by alternative theories, such as utilitarianism, positivism, deconstructionism etc.

 [4] The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers some statements about the natural moral law that I hold as universal Christian teaching, something that I wish Lutheran Churches worldwide, including the ELCA, would have the wisdom to affirm. "The natural law ex­presses the original sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie." "The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life." "The natural law, present in the heart of each man and estab­lished by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It ex­presses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties."

 [5] Its grasp of natural law accounts for the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is far ahead of Protestant Churches in addressing issues of common concern to people of all races, classes, cultures, and religions. In contrast modern Protestant theology has no such bridge category to speak to those who do not share their religious commitment to the Bible and the Creed. Who listens to what the Protestant Churches have to say on any subject whatsoever? They have lots to say, mostly in concert with politically correct ideology, but who listens? Having lost the natural law tradition, they have no credible and convincing basis for addressing the wider human community outside the walls of the church. They can quote the Bible, they can speculate on "what Jesus would do," they can even claim to discern what the Spirit tells them in each existential moment, but there is not a lot of credibility in such discourse.

The Lutheran Doctrine of the Orders of Creation
[6] Luther and subsequent Lutheranism continued to affirm the substance of the natural law in terms of the doctrine of the orders of creation, linking it to a more biblical and theo­logical conceptuality. This doctrine maintains that Christians along with all other human beings exist in a framework of universal structures that are there prior to and apart from biblical revelation and the church. God has placed all human beings in particular struc­tures of existence, such as ethnicity, race, sexuality, family, work, and governance. The law of God and his commandments are revealed through these common forms of hu­man existence and function apart from the gospel and faith in Christ. Luther wrote: "God does not have to have Christians as magistrates; it is not necessary, therefore, that the ruler be a saint; he does not need to be a Christian in order to rule; it is sufficient that he possess reason."

 [7] This means that Lutherans affirm a twofold revelation of God, which lies at the base of a whole slew of dualities in Lutheran theology, for example, God hidden and revealed (deus absconditus et revelatus), creation and redemption, the two kingdoms of God, the old ego and the new, simul iustus et peccator (righteous yet sinful), law and gospel, opus proprium and opus alienum, and so forth. Lutherans are known for taking sin seri­ously, or at least they used to be. After the fall the orders of creation are subject to the conditions of sin; still God preserves them as media through which he addresses the conscience of all human beings. Spanning the entire spectrum of creation, whether in terms of politics, religion, or sex, God is present and active through the law written on human hearts.

 [8] The doctrine of the orders of creation goes hand in hand with the doctrine of the two kingdoms as well as the important distinction between law and gospel. I believe that good theology is the fine art of drawing the proper distinction between the two quite dif­ferent ways that God is active in the world to achieve his ends. The God of the gospel is also the God of the law at work in the secular realm where believers in Christ share a common ground with others of different belief systems. There is no such thing as a secular world in which God is dead or absent. Christians do not need to introduce the law of God into the world for the first time. God works through the law engraved in the nature of the things he creates. God is universally present as the pressure that drives people to do what they must do to sustain life, to administer justice, and to care for their communities. Luther spoke of the orders of creation -- family, state, or work -- as the masks of God (larvae dei), masks of the hidden living God. This is God incognito, whose power we experience in the demands he makes upon us in daily life. Next time you hear the alarm clock, and your conscience begins to make you squirm in agony, that is the hidden God pressuring you to get out of the sack, you lazy fool, to take care of business.

The Rejection of the Natural Law and the Orders of Creation
[9] Neither the Catholic doctrine of the natural moral law nor the Lutheran doctrine of the orders of creation is without its critics. Karl Barth led the assault against every form of natural theology or general revelation whose validity exists apart from knowledge of the Bible or the Christian Creed. Barth held that Christian ethics has no use for the natural law, the very idea that there are universal principles inscribed in human nature and as­certainable by reason. Barth also rejected the Lutheran doctrine of the orders of crea­tion on account of its family resemblance to the idea of natural law. What did Barth offer instead? He wrote that Christian ethics "is always an individual command for the con­duct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision and ac­tion." (Church Dogmatics, III/4, pp. 11-12) Here we have the launching pad of Protes­tant "situations ethics," later popularized by Joseph Fletcher. Parents who raise their teen-agers on "situation ethics" deserve the sleepless nights they are sure to suffer. 

[10] Barth has had his followers. Jacques Ellul wrote many books of which I am fond. But he also wrote a very bad book entitled The Theological Foundations of Law. Following Barth he argued for a christological basis of all law and justice. It represents a massive confusion of law and gospel and of the two kingdoms. The problem with this christo­logical basis of natural law is that only Christians are privy to it, hence, no common ground, no bridge between church and world. This results either in a triumphalist theol­ogy of glory in which Christians must seek to dominate the public square or into a sec­tarian withdrawal into Christian communes in which the members pledge to live by the Sermon on the Mount. If the secular world were void of God's presence apart from the revealed Word of God in the Bible and Christ, then what we would need is something like a Christian coalition to invade the public square and fill it with their sense of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Do we really want to believe that Christians know best what God intends to accomplish in the world of politics, economics, and cultural life?

[11] The Barthian view was championed by one of my teachers at Harvard Divinity School, Paul Lehmann. He renounced natural law in the name of his "koinonia ethics." Follow­ing Barth, he rejected the idea "that there is a common link between the believer and the non-believer grounded in the nature of human reason which enables both believer and non-believer to make certain ethical judgments and to address themselves in con­cert to commonly acknowledged ethical situations." (Paul Lehmann, Ethic in a Christian Context, p. 148). A similar view is promoted by Stanley Hauerwas. A mutual friend once told me that Hauerwas's problem with my theology is precisely my support for the natural law in theology and ethics. Here is what he says: "Christian ethics theologically does not have a stake in 'natural law' understood as an independent and sufficient mo­rality." (Stanley Hauerwas, "Natural Law, Tragedy and Theological Ethics," in Truthful­ness and Tragedy, p. 58). Of course, no Catholic or Lutheran has ever claimed that natural law provides a "sufficient morality." Sufficient for what? In an imperfect world it provides more solid ground than the alternatives that lead to a culture of decadence and death.

[12] My chief objection to the Barthian idea that the one Word of God in the Bible and in Christ needs to be translated into direct social and political programs is that the churches would so exhaust themselves in trying to run the world that they would have little energy and enthusiasm left for doing what they are exclusively commissioned to do -- to preach the gospel of Christ which alone has the power to make people wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3: 15). 

 A Theological Reappropriation of the Natural Law
[13] The common criticism of natural-law theory is that it is a medieval relic, based on a rigid non-historical view of the cosmos, determined by absolute laws and immutable orders that pre-exist in a timeless realm above and beyond the flux of historical change and development. Contemporary advocates of the natural law -- Catholic and Protestant --cannot be so easily dismissed by such a caricature. The writings of people like John Courtney Murray, Robert P. George, and Stephen J. Grabill exhibit the power of natural-law arguments to deal with the critical life-and-death issues of the wider culture (e.g., bio-ethics, capital punishment, weapons of mass destruction, and the like).

[14] No one is interested in a wooden repristination of the natural law that is necessarily tied to the particular metaphysical foundations it received in the Thomistic-Aristotelian syn­thesis. The history of natural law shows a wide variety of interpretations and applica­tions. But they all have some things 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 be universally binding. To the contrary, those who hold to the natural law believe that for a law to be just, it must conform to the structure of reality itself, and not depend on the oscillating opinions of human beings. The law must be the same for all human beings and at all times, so that if murder is morally wrong in America, it is equally so in Africa and Asia. If torture is wrong in Jerusalem, it is equally so in London and Tehran, and so forth. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights formulates rules with respect to freedom and equality that should be binding on all people, not because of any majority vote, but because of an inherent cor­respondence between reason and nature. That is what it means to say that the law is "written upon the hearts of (all) human beings." I know such an idea does not find sup­port in the latest postmodern theory of knowledge. Not to worry! Given enough time postmodern epistemology will become old and for that reason abandoned in favor of something newer still. The issue is truth, not whether an idea is new or old.

[15] This brief essay cannot flesh out the full extent of what it means to baptize natural law into the body of theological ethics. Such a project entails a number of moves, only a few of which I can identify here. The first calls for clearing the ground: there is nothing in our Lutheran confessional documents that speaks against the natural law. They clearly acknowledge what the Scriptures teach, namely, that the Gentiles are able to know the law of God through the works of creation by means of conscience and reason. Secondly, a high evaluation of the natural moral law of God does not detract from the integrity and dignity of the gospel of God, which is totally other and uniquely given to the church of Christ to make known to the nations. That gospel is not "written on human hearts" but comes from the outside, always by means of the external Word (verbum ex­ternum). Thirdly, a Christian theological affirmation of natural law will be different from a purely philosophical assessment, because the idea that the original creation and human reason have been deeply affected by sin is based on biblical revelation, to which phi­losophy can make no appeal. Fourthly, Christian ethics based on the Bible will neces­sarily incorporate the perspective of apocalyptic eschatology, based on the idea of the kingdom of God in the message of Jesus. Natural law or the law of creation (lex creatio­nis) refers to the way God orders the world between the times, between the fall and the parousia. In the eschatological kingdom the earthly orders of creation will be transfig­ured into a new creation of celestial glory portrayed in the book of Revelation by sym­bols that seem opaque to ordinary reason. Unbaptized natural law cannot go there. Its use is limited to the conditions of historical existence on the way to the final judgment and consummation. Its validity is penultimate, but nonetheless to be taken with utmost seriousness.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road
[16] What is the cash value of these ruminations about natural law, Christian theology and ethics? We could choose any number of issues with which to demonstrate the applica­bility of a theological understanding of natural law in Christian ethics. Space does not permit us to deal with a full deck of controversial topics, such as capital punishment, pacifism, just war theory, weapons of mass destruction, contraception, abortion, eutha­nasia, eugenics, cloning, stem cell research, universal health care, and all the rest. The one topic on which the mainline churches seem prepared to impale themselves is ho­mosexuality, including the ELCA of which I am a member, and with that I conclude with an untimely postscript of sorts.

[17] Homosexuality has become a critical moral issue facing almost all churches today. In the light of natural law and the Bible the practice of homosexuality can easily be seen as a disordering of God's creation, contrary to nature and knowable by reason to be mor­ally wrong. I will not attempt to explain why or how the churches have managed to work themselves into a corner where modern cultural trends hold greater sway than two thousand years of Christian consensus on the matter, formed by the Scriptures and natural law. When post-Enlightenment movements in philosophy and theology rejected the natural moral law and post-modern hermeneutics applied its techniques to the Bible, the way was paved for moral relativism. Theology followed along with some kind of agape ethics, giving rise to antinomianism. The dike was broken. Previously con­demned patterns of Christian behavior were now considered licit in some situations, all depending on the quality of relationships. The twin authorities of human reason and re­vealed truth collapsed, creating great uncertainty whether, even among Christians, we can tell the difference between right from wrong, good from evil, and truth from the lie.

[18] We know by reason what the natural law tells us -- the sexual organs are designed for certain functions. God made two kinds of humans, "male and female created he them." (Gen. 1: 27) By the light of reason human beings the world over, since the dawn of hu­man civilization and across all cultures, have known that the male and female organs are made for different functions. Humans know what they are; they are free to act in accordance with them or to act in opposition to them. The organs match. What is so difficult to understand about that? Humans learn these things by reason and nature; no books on anatomy, psychology, or sociology are needed. 

[19] Nor do people first learn what the sexual organs are for from the Bible. Scholars say there are seven explicit passages in the Bible that condemn homosexual acts as con­trary to the will of God. This is supposed to settle the matter for a church that claims its teachings are derived from Scripture. But for many Christians this does not settle the matter. Why not? The answer is that they don't believe what the natural law, transpar­ent to reason, tells us about human sexuality. In my view the biblical strictures against homosexual acts are true not because they are in the Bible; they are in the Bible be­cause they are true. They truly recapitulate God's creative design of human bodies. The law of creation written into the nature of things is the antecedent bedrock of the natural moral law, knowable by human reason and conscience.  

[20] The ELCA has spent almost a million dollars to discern what to teach on matters of human sexuality. It's unbelievable. If the church would have spent a million dollars to educate its membership regarding what is true and false, right and wrong, good and bad on issues of sex, marriage, and family, that would have been money well spent. But to spend a million dollars trying to argue out what should be said in a social statement on sexual ethics is tantamount to moral bankruptcy. Is the ELCA morally bankrupt? We will have to wait and see what comes out in the end.



© October 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 10