Protestant Bias against the Natural Law: A Critique


[1] However deeply ensconced the suspicion of natural law might seem among 20th-century Protestant thinkers, it cannot be attributed to the 16th-century Reformers themselves. Both Lutheran and Reformed streams of the magisterial tradition readily affirmed the doctrine of lex naturalis and cognito Dei naturalis. While it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace, faith and justification, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency. Rather, they assumed the natural law as a moral-theological bedrock in their system and therein maintained continuity with their Catholic counterparts. It is accurate to insist that the Reformation controversies with the Catholic Church were foremost theological-ecclesiastical and not ethical.
Protestant Bias against the Natural Law: A Critique by J. Daryl Charles
[2] In what follows, several influential Protestant voices from the 20th century will be juxtaposed to voices from the 16th-century magisterial tradition, with a view to highlight strongly contrasting attitudes toward the natural law. Following this comparison, the present essay will offer several concluding reflections, proceeding on the assumption that ecumenical dialogue on the importance of natural law ethics is both timeless and timely, especially in a post-consensus cultural climate.

Natural-Law Thinking among the Magisterial Reformers: Ethical Continuity
[3] To the surprise of some, the notion of the natural law is resolutely affirmed in the writings of the magisterial Reformers. The conventional stereotype of Luther, Calvin and company is that in their concern to address matters of faith, Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ, they were suspicious of — or at best indifferent toward — the natural-law emphasis of their Catholic counterparts. Much to the contrary. They remain in ethical continuity with the Christian moral tradition, even when the natural law is not a major focus in their writings compared to their accent on faith, grace and forensic justification.

[4] Natural-law thinking is firmly embedded in Luther’s thought. In his 1525 treatise How Christians Should Regard Moses, the Reformer distinguishes between the Law of Moses, with its historically conditioned components, stipulations and illustrations for theocratic Israel and the natural law.1 “If the Ten Commandments are to be regarded as Moses’ law, then Moses came too late,” Luther can quip somewhat wryly, for “Moses agrees exactly with nature”2 and “what Moses commands is nothing new.”3 And, he adds, Moses

also addressed himself to far too few people, because the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs. For even if a Moses had never appeared and Abraham had never been born, the Ten Commandments would have had to rule in all men from the very beginning, as they indeed did and still do.4

The law that stands behind the Ten Commandments, Luther notes emphatically, was in force prior to Moses from the beginning of the world and also among all the Gentiles. So far as the Ten Commandments are concerned, Luther concludes, “there is no difference” between Jews and Gentiles.5


[5] Reckoning with the possibility of being misunderstood, Luther clarifies his position: “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver — unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law.”6 “Where...the Mosaic law and the natural law are one, there the law remains and is not abrogated externally.”7 Faith, says Luther, fulfills the law, to which assertion he adduces Rom. 3:31. By contrast, those aspects of the Mosaic code that were temporal and confined to theocratic Israel are said to be “null and void” and “not supported by the natural law.”8 Luther’s position is unambiguous: the moral norms that apply to all people, Christians and non-Christians, are the same. There are no two ethical standards that exist within the realm of divine revelation.


[6] Luther adopts the basic definition of natural law that had been set forth in Philip Melanchthon’s commentary on Rom. 2:15: the natural law is “a common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.”9 Everyone, observes Luther, must acknowledge that what the natural law dictates in the human heart is right and true. There is no one, he insists, who does not sense the effects of the natural law. “Nature provides that we should call upon God. The Gentiles attest to this fact...[who] have it [the natural law] written on their heart...”10


[7] Luther is well aware of a common misperception among religious-minded people, namely, that “natural law” is the common fund of only “Christian” societies. To the contrary, insists Luther; it is borne out by human experience that all nations, cultures and people-groups possess this rudimentary knowledge. The natural law “is written in the depth of the heart and cannot be erased.”11 In fact, people bring this awareness, this natural moral sense, when they enter the world. Although this natural law was merely concretized through the Decalogue in a particular manner at a single time and place on Mt. Sinai, nations knew of the moral realities behind these laws before the Law formally was given to Israel.12 Thus, “it is natural to honor God, not steal, not commit adultery, not bear false witness, not murder; and what Moses commands is nothing new.”13


[8] In his treatise On Temporal Authority, Luther deliberates over particular situations that require Christians to participate intelligibly with unbelievers in the public square. Two such situations that potentially involve believer and unbeliever are the unlawful seizure of private property and resolving financial debts. Luther exhorts his readers to use both “the law of love” and “the natural law.” However, when love has no observable effect, the latter is to be our guide, since natural law is that “with which all reason is filled.”14 Societies, therefore, “should keep written laws subject to reason, from which they originally welled forth as from the spring of justice.”15 If neither of the concerned parties is Christian, Luther notes, “then you may have them call in some other judge, and tell the obstinate one that they are acting contrary to God and natural law....”16


[9] It should be emphasized that Luther is perfectly content to allow the natural law and righteousness that comes by faith to stand side by side. As with fellow Reformers, Luther in no way perceives general revelation as canceling out or undermining faith. Rather, the natural law is presumed to be at work within all people and thus to be lodged at the core of Christian social ethics. Were this not the case, Luther observes, “one would have to teach and practice the law for a long time before it became the concern of conscience. The heart must also find and feel the law in itself.”17 Otherwise, it would not become a matter of conscience for anyone.


[10] While Luther’s theology of law extends beyond the scope and time constraints of this essay,18 law for Luther is not, as many Protestants might assume, some “postlapsarian device” or “makeshift repair provoked by the fall.”19 To the contrary, it belongs to Adam’s original righteousness and as such accords with Paul’s statement that the law is “good, righteous and holy” (Rom. 7:12). Properly viewed, then, Luther believes that law presupposes not sin but grace, a conviction that needs more probing by contemporary Protestant theologians. And even the Fall itself does not eliminate law’s original function and identity, in Luther’s understanding.20 “Therefore,” he insists, “the law must be preached wherever Christ is to be preached.”21


[11] For Luther’s co-laborer, reason and revelation co-exist and co-operate; neither is threatened by the other — a unity which, in Melanchthon’s thinking, is assumed by the doctrine of divine providence. This is true even when special revelation is needed to spell out the particulars. For Melanchthon, to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between reason and revelation is to comprehend the relationship between theology and philosophy. Theology, even when theology cannot be demonstrated, enlarges our natural knowledge of God. Hence, Melanchthon can freely speak of “natural light” that is accessible to all.


[12] Consistent with the Reformational viewpoint, Melanchthon distinguishes between three kinds of law — ceremonial, judicial and eternal/moral. The latter, he asserts, has three principal spheres of practical application. First, it is binding on all people in the realm of civil law, furnishing the rudiments by which social order is maintained; reason informs all people that external compliance to moral norms is demanded by human social life. Second, it governs the moral life of all people, convicting them of divine wrath and, in Pauline terms, “accusing the heart”; and, third, it instructs the church, the believing community.22


[13] In Articles 5-8 and 14 of Loci Communes, Melanchthon acknowledges that keeping the Ten Commandments does not merit justification; yet, the unredeemed person must also abide by them because they are a specific expression of divinely-instituted natural law. And even granting that people cannot keep them entirely, he argues that man’s reason — the “natural light” — informs him that external compliance is demanded by human community.23


[14] In posing the question “What is the natural law?” Melanchthon answers thus: “it is precisely the eternal unchangeable wisdom in God which he proclaimed in the Ten Commandments.”24 Natural law, he insists, is a “legal understanding of the law” that “remains in man even after he sins,” inasmuch as “God wants us to know his nature.”25 For this reason, an awareness of the substance of the Ten Commandments is “implanted in all men at their creation.” Melanchthon is struck in the Romans epistle by St. Paul’s observation that Gentiles do the law “by nature”; “by nature” refers to creation and the imago Dei, not some post-lapsarian condition.26


[15] “External civil life,” therefore, “is to be regulated according to this natural light”; God gave us this natural light so that we would not “fall still further into doubt about God’s nature, right and wrong, order and disorder.”27 It needs emphasis that, in Melanchthon’s thought, law does not operate merely as an external restraint, important as this function is; rather, it has an internal, formative function as well.28 This conviction surfaces, for example, in the 1555 edition of Loci, which is filled with references to the Anabaptists. Anabaptists, notes Melanchthon, “for several years have been clamoring that one should not preach the Ten Commandments” — this on the grounds that through the Spirit the believer will “do good works without the aid of the word, and that such good works supersede the Commandments.”29


[16] Given the emphasis on divine sovereignty and human depravity in Calvin’s theological system, one would think that the Reformer might have a dim view of the natural law, in contrast to Catholic counterparts. Such is not the case.30 Notwithstanding the ravages of sin, Calvin is keenly aware of the Pauline argument in Romans, namely, that the Gentiles “show the work of the law written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14). Calvin’s uses of the law — ceremonial, judicial and moral — presuppose his conviction that there are aspects of human law that are both binding and non-binding.31


[17] Informing Calvin’s thinking is the Thomist assumption that “by nature man is a social animal.” Because of this anthropological reality, man is disposed, “from natural instinct, to preserve society,” the result of which is that “human societies must be regulated by law,” without which there would be no civil order.32 The seeds of just laws, insists Calvin, are “implanted in the breasts of all.” Moreover, they remain unaffected by the vicissitudes of life; neither war nor catastrophe nor theft nor human disagreement can alter these moral intuitions since nothing can destroy “the primary idea of justice” that is implanted within.33


[18] Calvin’s understanding of the natural law, properly construed, is an extension of his understanding of providence. It is a “providential bridle”34 that demonstrates the indivisible link between cosmic and moral orders. Human conscience, by nature, is able to discern this connection. But what about the problem of sin? How corrupt is the human heart in Calvin’s view? Thoroughly. And is there any realm of human experience that has gone untouched by sin? Emphatically not. But to acknowledge the pervasiveness of sin and human depravity, for Calvin, is not to obliterate the rudimentary moral sense in each person.


[19] Notwithstanding the emphasis in his teachings on human depravity, Calvin cannot be interpreted as saying that humans are incapable of basic moral reasoning. Rather, he sides with St. Paul: “natural law is 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.”35 The Reformer acknowledges that despite “man’s perverted and degenerate nature,” the image of God is not “totally annihilated and destroyed”; rather, “some sparks still shine” in human creation.36 And on this point he is insistent: if Gentiles by nature have “law righteousness” engraved upon their minds, we surely cannot say they are utterly blind as to the conduct of life; otherwise, they could not be deemed “without excuse.”37


Zwingli and Bullinger
[20] The threefold use of the law, for which the Protestant Reformers are well known, finds a supplemental use — belonging to the judicial realm — in the Swiss Reformational emphasis on covenant, wherein it achieves the status of a socio-political foundation. Covenant not only provides a theological basis for understanding divine work in history, but conjoined to the natural law it furnishes the basis for communal and civil-moral obligations that are thought to be binding on all human beings and all societies.38


[21] In Zwingli’s thought, the natural law serves as a bulwark and primary vehicle by which to resist injustice and political oppression. With the other Reformers, Zwingli believes that all human laws should conform to the natural law, which has been implanted in the hearts of all men. But with even greater emphasis than Luther, Zwingli understands the natural law to be the equivalent of “true religion, to wit the knowledge, worship, and fear of the supreme deity.”39 The “law of nature,” as Zwingli understands it, is implanted by God on the heart of man and is confirmed by the grace of God through Christ. This internal light is owing to the work of God’s Spirit in every person, and only strengthened after conversion to Christ.40 Mirroring the Swiss Reformational distinctive, Zwingli believes that due to the imperfection of reason, only those rulers and magistrates who are God-fearers properly know the natural law.


[22] Law, as the Swiss reformers understood it, has two primary functions. It mirrors grace to the extent that it is a gift from the Creator. And it has a pedagogical use in that the civil authorities protect the moral-social order, punishing evildoers and rewarding the good. Where law does not restrain evil, evildoers force their will upon society. Thus, the natural law mirrors both divine and human dimensions of justice.41 The commandments of the Creator, as Zwingli and his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, insist, are not merely spiritual in their essence; they are to be implemented in the human social context. For this reason, they require civil-legal application.42 Because of the depravity of the human heart, Zwingli reasons, humans cannot do justly; hence, the necessity of the “law of nature” as the divine imprint on the human heart, allowing even pagan unbelievers basic knowledge of good and evil. This “restraining” influence upon humans is owing to the natural law. Without this influence, society would descend into anarchy.


[23] Bullinger, perhaps best known for his role in drafting the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, like Zwingli, affirms the “law of nature” as “an instruction of the conscience...placed by God himself in the mind and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew.”43 This conscience is understood to be “the knowledge, judgment, and reason of a man, whereby every man in himself...either condemns or acquits himself” of what he has done.44 Thereby, notes Bullinger, even the Gentiles possess a basic discernment between good and evil, so that the natural law functions in the same way as the written law, teaching us “justice, equity, and goodness” and having as its source God himself.45 God has left his imprint on the soul of every person, so that each person possesses some knowledge and retains a basic awareness of justice and goodness.46 Have moral norms — and thus the requirements of human societies — changed at all in the period of the New Covenant? Bullinger answers emphatically in the negative. We are still to regard basic moral truth — for example, respecting parents, living out the Golden Rule, and keeping the Ten Commandments — for the natural law reminds us that there exists an objective moral order in which human laws are said to inhere.47


[24] In his important recent volume Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics,48 Stephen J. Grabill has profiled the theological substructure of Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin, who are representative of both the magisterial Reformation period as well as Protestant orthodoxy up to the mid 18th century. Grabill’s conclusion, following an exceedingly thorough examination, is unambiguous: these thinkers operated, theologically, out of a natural-law consensus that was shared by patristic, medieval, late-medieval and early-modern Christian thinkers. While Grabill’s findings might seem surprising, even perhaps disconcerting, to some Protestants, they remind us that the Protestant Reformers’ disagreement with the Church was fundamentally soteriological and ecclesiological, not ethical, in nature.49 While the Reformers protested what they believed to be a neglect of grace and faith, they uniformly assumed and affirmed the role of general revelation, unified in the conviction that Christian ethics presupposes — and stands on the bedrock of — the natural law.


Protestant Resistance toward Natural-Law Thinking in the Last 70 Years: Ethical Discontinuity
[25] It is admittedly difficult, in our own day, to make generalizations about Protestant theology or social ethics, given the splintered nature of Protestantism as well as the multiplicity of theological fads that are to be found within her borders. Nevertheless, people who otherwise have very little in common theologically, remarkably, find common ground in their suspicion of natural law ethics. This “consensus,” it needs pointing out, can be found among revisionist theologians and ethicists as well as among those who are confessionally orthodox. What’s more, it is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.50


[26] James Gustafson has classified Protestant opposition to natural law in the modern era according to two notable philosophical tendencies — historicism and existentialism.51 While Gustafson’s critique is accurate as far as it goes in giving an account of both rationalism and fideism as theological responses to the modernist spirit since Hume and Kant, I would add yet a third tendency, pietism (i.e., a privatization of religious faith), which is usually rendered ineffectual in public discourse.


[27] In what follows, I wish to revisit — ever so briefly — several influential Protestant voices of the last 70 years — Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, Helmut Thielecke, Paul Lehmann, and John Howard Yoder. For our present purposes, I have chosen these individuals to illustrate the inner struggle over the question of natural law, based on a strong opposition that is explicit in their writings.


Karl Barth
[28] To his great credit, the teaching of Karl Barth in the decade before Hitler’s rise to power paved the way for the resistance that took the form of the Confessing Church. This group, emergent within the official state (Lutheran) Church, “confessed with fresh devotion historic Christian commitments in the light of their immediate political situation.”52 One year after Hitler’s accession to power, a conference of confessional church leaders, meeting at Barmen, drew up the brief declaration consisting of six points that became the theological foundation for resistance to Nazi hegemony. Barth played a key role in the Barmen declaration, and, with others, confessed that “Jesus Christ, as He is witnessed to in the Scriptures, is the Word of God which we have to hear, which we have to trust and give heed to.”53 With the declaration, the participants at Barmen affirmed that the sole function of the Church is to preach the Word of God and bear witness to Christ’s lordship. Not for nothing would Barth be removed from his university teaching post in the year following the Barmen synod.


[29] In his important work Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, Barth considers how the assumptions of the 18th and 19th centuries were mirrored in theology and political life. An “idealized” and “humanized” understanding of “nature,” as Barth viewed it, would have serious implications for German thought. Inter alia it would mean “an attitude of detachment dogma.”54 The increasing secularization of European culture, he worried, coupled with a romantic view of “nature,” blended easily into the core assumptions of Enlightenment thinking.55


[30] What sort of Christianity needed to be fashioned? The great desire, notes Barth, was a more “natural” and more “reasonable” religion, over against the dogma of a revealed or miraculous Christianity. The dominant spirit of the time understood “nature” as “the embodiment of what was at the disposal of [man] himself, his spirit, his understanding, his will and his feeling, what was left for him to shape, what could be reached by his will for form.”56


[31] It is Barth’s conviction that the 18th and 19th centuries “longed for a purification of the Church” from elements that were offensive.57 This theological emptying of Christianity’s theistic, Christological and anthropological core constituted for Barth the creation of an entirely different religion, and thus a departure from Christianity, which is revealed through Christ the Living Word of God and Scripture as the mediator of the Word of God. The result is that authority, divine command, and the sacraments all are undermined by an emphasis on “nature” and “reason,” which, for Barth, has pernicious consequences. It prepares the soil for a secularized humanism that empties Christian faith of its substance and undermines or denies the absolute lordship of Christ. Correlatively, it facilitates the emergence of a “natural religion” and “natural theology” that serve as a substitute for a “Word of God”-centered and Christocentric faith.


[32] Thus, any theological or philosophical concept that is rooted in “nature” is viewed by Barth as not merely deficient, but rather heretical, and therefore, a radical departure from Christian — which is to say, Christ-centered — faith. Likewise, any moral theology, that “tries to deny or obscure its derivation from God’s command” and “set up independent principles in the face of autonomies and heteronomies,” and which aims “to undertake the replacement of the command of the grace of God by a sovereign humanism or even barbarism,” is to be utterly rejected.58 For “natural theology,”59 Barth concluded, functions as a Trojan horse inside the walls of Christendom, producing a sort of latent deism or pantheism.60 The God of natural law cannot be the God of the Bible. Natural law theory, he worried, creates an autonomous locus of theological and moral reflection that is severed from grace and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It is overly optimistic about the human condition insofar as it fails to address seriously the matter of sin.


[33] Surely the landmark 1934 debate between Barth and Emil Brunner constitutes a mirror into the inner struggle of Protestant thought.61 At the heart of this controversy lay the epistemological question of whether fallen humans possess a natural knowledge of God. Brunner represented the position that, based on the imago Dei, nature is normative insofar as it “teaches” or “dictates”; humans possess a capacity to “understand.”62 Hence, a basic awareness of God is embedded in creation and can be recognized by all people. As Brunner saw it, the reality of sin does not eradicate reason and conscience as the constituents of the imago Dei, notwithstanding the effects of human sinfulness.


[34] Barth’s famous response to Brunner was a vehement “Nein!” Knowledge that is naturally intuited about God, he argued, is “a possibility in principle but fact.”63 Sin has obliterated any utility of “natural law;” no natural Anknüpfungspunkt (“point of contact”) exists in the aftermath of the Fall. Reason simply cannot regain its original powers.64 The difference between Barth and Brunner is illustrative, for it captures the fundamental disagreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants over natural law to the present day. Ever since the Barth-Brunner controversy Protestant theology has been riddled with suspicion and skepticism vis-à-vis the natural law, mirroring the overwhelming influence of Barth. With few exceptions, it is difficult to identify any Protestant theologian or ethicist of note to this day who has robustly championed the natural law.65


Jacques Ellul
[35] While not particularly known for his theological writings, French legal theorist and social critic Jacques Ellul nonetheless warrants a brief critique, given his adamant and explicit rejection of natural law ethics on expressly theological and Christological grounds. In the brief but significant volume that initially appeared in 1946 and was subsequently translated under the English title The Theological Foundation of Law, Ellul concedes the renewal of natural-law thinking that was occurring in his day. Ellul grants that a response to the disastrous consequences of positivism is needed. However, the state of modern culture and the emergence of numerous and unprecedented domains of law — e.g., laws addressing liability, labor, and social legislation — constitute for him barriers that are insurmountable. The natural law, as he perceives it, cannot address these realms.


[36] With Barth, at the conceptual level Ellul is suspicious of the constant attempt on the part of theologians and natural lawyers to find common ground between Christians and non-Christians. Such an aim, he believes, is misguided, since it reveals a wrong-headed wish to ignore or circumvent “the tragic separation created by revelation and grace.”66 The common humanity that we all share, Ellul insists, is not subject to modification by grace. Thus, to emphasize “nature” is to abandon grace and the “supranatural” and collapse any distinction between grace and what is merely human.67 Natural law, then, as Ellul construes it, becomes part of a major humanist project to bring about reconciliation apart from grace. Even the very desire to create a universally binding law on the basis of the law of God, for Ellul, is “undeniably heretical,” since it presupposes the possibility of non-Christians accepting the will of God.68 Therefore, as Protestant Christians we are “called upon to confront the fact of natural law with the teaching of the Scriptures, the rule of our faith.”69


[37] But Ellul’s bias against natural law is rooted not merely in the fear of rationalist autonomy. Ellul insists that “[t]here is no place in biblical revelation” for “a legal concept, an idea, or law governing all human laws and measuring all human law.”70 And because all justice and judgment in Scripture are understood by Ellul within the context of redemption,71 we cannot therefore understand law without the cross of Christ at the center; only at the Cross do we understand God’s will.72 A Christocentric view of justice, as Ellul sees it, “radically destroys the ideas of objective law and of eternal justice.”73


[38] Ellul is forced, then, to side with Barth on this theological point. He writes: “If one adopts a strictly biblical view, then it would seem that one could hardly do otherwise than to follow Karl Barth on the subject of the impossibility of the natural knowledge of God by man, which leads to the same impossibility for the knowledge of the good.”74 And on this point Ellul is emphatic: “In scripture, there is no possible knowledge of the good apart from a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”75 Ellul does not offer — nor is he able to offer — an account of how Noah or Abraham or Melchizedek knew right from wrong. For him, there is no “normative ethics of the good,” only an “ethics of grace.”76 Ellul is adamant in his contention that natural knowledge of the good does not derive from a knowledge of the will of God but rather competes with it, producing what he views as two moral sources.77 One is either wholly in obedience to the Word of God and Christ the Lord or one is wholly in disobedience. Thus, for Ellul, unregenerate man is incapable of doing what is authentically good; one can only perform what is good as a result of radical conversion. For him there is no innate pre-conversion “voice of conscience” that leads one to an awareness of the need for repentance and conversion, no vestige of the imago Dei that endures.


[39] In the end, Ellul is forced to reject natural law ethics as, at best, a mistaken, “medieval” construct.78 The boundless diversity of moralities existing within human societies is viewed by Ellul as confirmation of his position: “Unfortunately,” he writes, “there is no more agreement among the theoretical moralities than among the lived moralities, which destroys the moralist’s claim to universality.”79


Helmut Thielecke
[40] In volume 1 of Theological Ethics, Helmut Thielecke devotes considerable attention to the subject of law and natural law. It would be “quite erroneous,” he argues, to ascribe to law a kind of “timeless validity.” “The moment we do this,” he observes, “the Decalogue becomes ‘natural’ law” and takes on an abstract and ahistorical cast.80 For Thielecke, “the Law of God has significance [only] for a particular epoch within salvation history”; law cannot stretch as a legal, moral norm from “creation across this interim to the eschaton”81 — a claim that helps clarify his suspicion of natural law ethics. “The Decalogue,” he maintains, “cannot be understood in terms of natural law”; the two “in fact belong to completely different worlds.”82 In truth, Thielecke asserts, the Decalogue is not about natural law but about “natural lawlessness,” given human sinfulness and rebellion.83 The Law of God can only correspond to man as sinner in a fallen world, not as a part of the created order.84 Therefore, the natural law is to be viewed as a “doubtful concept,” one “which man has himself brought into being.”85


[41] Thielecke’s understanding of law is instructive. As a concept, law possesses a purely negative function, corresponding to human sinfulness, i.e., what is forbidden and in need of restraint. Law expresses “concessions [that] God makes to a world which has ‘gotten out of hand’”; it represents, in Thielecke’s remarkably telling words, “God’s virtual capitulation to this world.”86 As it applies to salvation history, God “relativizes” law as expressed in the Old Covenant through the New Covenant, which expresses “the real Law.” In the New Testament, this “relativizing” is thought by Thielecke to proceed “in the Sermon on the Mount” and “in Paul’s relating the Law to transgressions.”87


[42] Observing that Roman Catholic moral theology affirms an objective component of human nature, Thielecke insists that it errs inasmuch as it believes “sin does not permeate all things” but rather understands a sphere of “nature” to remain unaffected and intact, hence its affirmation of the natural law.88 Thielecke is resolute: the conscience cannot furnish any point of contact to divine law89; sin prevents us from “working back to the eternal order.”90 And because it does not take sola fide of the Reformation seriously, it tends to nurture a “false security” that humans can satisfy the law, which in turn undermines the Gospel.91


Paul Lehmann
[43] In his important work Ethics in a Christian Context, Paul Lehmann concedes that the Protestant Reformers “find the Decalogue, the Sermon [on the Mount], and natural law interchangeable.”92 He further grants that natural law ethics is “a very influential answer” to the question of how Christians and non-Christians relate to one another behaviorally and make ethical judgments. Nevertheless, he believes, a theory of natural law is ethically inadequate both in itself and as a possibility open to a so-called koinonia ethic.93


[44] Lehmann’s “complaint against the natural law tradition” is “not that it relates Christian and extra-Christian ethical elements but that it does so in an artificial way and by observing or surrendering the Christian factors.”94 The proper meeting place between Christian and non-Christian, according to Lehmann, must be the “common ethical predicament” and nowhere else.95 In the end, natural law is deemed “insufficient to shape man’s conduct,” so that an additional help is required.96


[45] In The Transfiguration of Politics, the reader acquires essential insights into Lehmann’s theology of creation. Tellingly he writes: “the law subserves order rather than affirms justice and destroys rather than serves the freedom that being human takes.”97 Lehmann grounds this understanding inter alia in the conviction that “an authoritarian understanding and application of law has obscured the human reality and dimension of justice.”98 Alas, the reader learns in Transfiguration that Lehmann, who is writing in the mid 1970s, is a child of his time, for he maintains that law is part of “the Establishment” rather than part of the created order.99


John Howard Yoder
[46] Yet another species of opposition to natural-law thinking grounds itself in what it believes to be “radical obedience” to the biblical witness to Jesus. Perhaps the most persuasive representative of this view is Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, whose well-known work The Politics of Jesus sets forth the argument that the authentic Christian social ethic is rooted in a radical understanding of Jesus’ teaching — and a particular reading of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount.”100


[47] In seeking to understand the political order theologically, Yoder laments that two dominant interpretations have clouded our thinking. One rests on the “catholic” concept of natural law, which is questionable because it presumes an optimistic view of human nature and capacity for divine revelation,101 while the other, the “Augustinian-reformed” version, represents a “necessary compromise or order of preservation.” Both of these, Yoder insists, are “unacceptable.”102


[48] A baseline assumption pervades Yoder’s work. It is the belief that the early church, over time, wrongly absorbed pagan philosophical influence — for example, the Stoic emphasis on reason and the law of nature — which played a significant role in permitting it, by Ambrose’s and Augustine’s day, to be “compromised” by the political powers. Christian ethics, according to Yoder, evolved in such a way as to justify Christian presence and participation in Roman imperium; hence, Yoder’s unrelenting “radical critique of Constantinianism.” The history of the church, for Yoder, is one long, unrelenting road of apostasy and cultural idolatry, apart from the “radical Reformation” in the 16th century. Christian ethics, as Yoder conceives it, is located neither in human “nature” nor in rational notions of justice or the common good. Rather, it subsists in our radical obedience to what Yoder understands as Jesus’ ethics of non-violent resistance to political and social oppression.103


[49] Commenting on “standard ethical discernment” of our time, Yoder advances what he understands as Jesus’ prophetic stance over against other models of ethical decision-making, which he believes have “distracted” us over the last several centuries. One “distraction” is that Roman Catholics keep reminding us that nature and grace, as embodied in the natural-law tradition, do not stand in opposition; the Catholic emphasis, Yoder believes, has “foreshortened” the vision of the Kingdom of God by its focus on “the nature of things” in this fallen world.104 Given his over-arching commitment to ideological pacifism, Yoder’s rejection of natural law might be viewed as a by-product rather a cause of his pacifist ethics.105 But like Barth, Yoder believes that the natural law is “an addition” to the Word of God as divine revelation. In this regard, he maintains, “[t]he warning of the Barmen confessor is still needed.”106


Concluding Reflections: Recovering the “Catholic” Character of Christian Social Ethics
[50] Why the notable suspicion toward natural law among Protestants in recent history? Perhaps, for some, it is simply a forgotten legacy — the vestige of a distant past. For others, perhaps it is an extension of anti-Catholic prejudice. For yet others, it issues out of the belief that nature and grace stand in opposition, or that the natural law is insufficiently logocentric and Christocentric.107 For many, there is the nagging concern that it doesn’t take the pervasiveness of sin seriously enough, and correlatively, that it is too optimistic regarding reason and human “knowing”; hence, an appeal to nature in the public sphere is thought to represent “compromise.”


[51] To this list of reasons we might add yet another, namely, a fear of legalism or even a fundamental misunderstanding of law. For many Protestants, “law” is thought to stand in opposition to the Gospel and grace so that one sees little or no ethical continuity between the New and Old Testaments.108 But Jesus is unequivocal: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law...”109 Law is not merely a “Christian” question, though it is indeed that. It is rather a human question, as Wolfhart Pannenberg persuasively argues in Ethics.110 Law is part of the order of creation, and thus, part of moral reality, to which the imago Dei is ordered. While love speaks to the proper motivation to obey, law provides the necessary God-given structure in which obedience is carried out. Paul and James speak with one voice in this regard: love fulfills the law.


[52] Christian moral thinkers from the early fathers to Aquinas to the magisterial Reformers to 20th-century voices such as Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, John Courtney Murray, and John Paul II have argued for the application of natural-law thinking in the realm of public discourse. All were cognizant of the need to argue for moral first principles on the basis of our common human nature. To do such in a pluralistic environment is not to “compromise” as some suggest.


[53] Someone has said that public morality must rest upon public principles — principles that are rooted in the fabric of creation. Herein we rediscover the utility of the natural law, that is, of general revelation that is accessible to all people externally, via creation, and internally, via God-given reason and conscience. One Christian writer expresses it this way:

The idea that Christianity brought an entirely new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken.111

It is no more possible, therefore, to invent a new ethics than “to place a new sun in the sky. Some precept from traditional morality always has to be presumed. We never start from a tabula rasa: if we did, we should end, ethically speaking, with a tabula rasa.”112 General revelation, thus, does not compete with special revelation; rather, the latter presupposes the former.113

Not only does the natural law not contravene Christian ethics, as an ethical standard it simply cannot be circumvented insofar as it is the source from which all moral judgments spring, based on the orders of creation.


[54] Not only does the natural law not contravene Christian ethics, as an ethical standard it simply cannot be circumvented insofar as it is the source from which all moral judgments spring, based on the orders of creation. Basic human virtues such as faithfulness, justice, mercy, and generosity depend thereupon. As Gilbert Meilaender has recently reminded us, human nature is creation, coming from the very hand of God.114


[55] I conclude. The Barth-Brunner dispute remains. This essay has considered 20th-century Protestant voices who are skeptical of the natural law for chiefly Christocentric reasons and who thereby erect a false dichotomy between nature and grace. It follows, then, that the natural law is purportedly autonomous from “Christian social ethics.”115 Sadly, however, this minimizing (or dismissing) of the role that our common human nature plays in moral theory contributes to an impoverishment of public discourse, thus undermining Christian witness in the public sphere. For if we insist on denying (a) a moral nature that is common to all people, (b) a common moral standard to which all people — religious or not — are held accountable, and (c) a language of moral engagement to which all people have access, then as Christians we remove the basis for developing any robust public philosophy.116 For this reason the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts:

In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all...and with all..., and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.117

An abiding task for the Christian community is to understand natural law in relationship to public discourse.

[56] An abiding task for the Christian community is to understand natural law in relationship to public discourse. Because of the inherent tension in this relationship between faith and culture, we are naturally prone to multiple errors and thus need to be sensitized to their character. One error is the tendency toward relativism, situationism and subjectivism. A consequence of this lack of moral discrimination is our propensity for finding some sort of “neutral” common ground in our social spaces. While there is common ground, there exists no moral neutrality; no aspect of the public realm is neutral or naked. Therefore Christians, like all others, will need to contend in public spaces.


[57] The theocratic temptation, which is abiding in every generation and in every culture, will also at times need chastening. While not many Christians set out to “Christianize” the culture, and while today it is quite popular to jump on the anti-imperial bandwagon, thereby exaggerating its possibility and presence,118 such is nonetheless an ever-present temptation in diverse cultural contexts. Political ethicist Jean Elshtain rightly speaks of Christian citizens as “chastened patriots.” That is, taking our cue from Augustine, we take seriously our earthly citizenship and do not abandon the public square. At the same time, we do this with a certain detachment, ever conscious that we have ultimate allegiances that are not of this world.119


[58] Yet another error is the existential, pietist, even so-called “prophetic” retreat, which fails to take the world — and Christian stewardship — seriously. This tendency might express itself through theological and cultural conservatism — such as one finds in some pockets of Protestant evangelicalism — as well as in more “mainline” circles, where negative sociopolitical reactions to perceived “fundamentalism” have greater effect in shaping one’s belief system than a positive commitment to Christian faithfulness and the “great tradition.”


[59] In response to the mistaken and widespread belief that natural law is “autonomous” and that its emphasis on “nature” and “reason” serves to undermine grace and a distinctly “Christian” or “kingdom” ethics, Aquinas is straightforward: grace perfects nature and in no way is at odds therewith. Virtue — that is, the good — is rooted in the natural obligations of all human beings to God based on the imago Dei. There is, then, no dualism, no discontinuity, in Thomistic thinking between the natural law and “Christian social ethics.” And Aquinas stands in agreement with the teaching of Jesus: the Ten Commandments, which express the contours of the natural law, are summed up in — not abrogated or eclipsed by — the “Christian ethic.” John Courtney Murray expresses it well, observing that the natural law “preserves humanity” and “still exists at the interior of the Gospel invitation.”120 Thus, those Protestants who oppose or reject the natural law, for whatever reason, are burying the wrong corpse.


[60] Implied in the present argument is the conviction that ecumenical dialogue on the place of the natural law in Christian ethics is not only appropriate but indispensable, given both the tradition we’ve inherited and the wholesale deconstruction of metaphysical foundations going on in our culture — a deconstruction that has moral, social and political implications. Thus, in the words of one natural lawyer, “As a metaphysical idea...natural law is timeless, and for that reason[,] timely.”121

J. Daryl Charles is Director and Senior Fellow, The Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice.


1. Luther joins Melanchthon and Calvin in making the threefold Pentateuchal distinction of ceremonial, judicial and moral law, notably in his exegesis of Jesus’ affirmation of the law as recorded in Matt. 5:17. So, for example, “Against the Sabbatarians,” in Luther’s Works [hereafter LW] vol. 47 (ed. F. Sherman; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 88, and “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” in ibid. vol. 40 (ed. C. Bergendorff; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958) 92-93, 97.

2. Ibid., 47:89.

3. “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” in ibid. vol. 35 (ed. E.T. Bachmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960) 168.

4. Ibid., 47:89 (emphasis added).

5. Ibid., 35:168.

6. Ibid., vol. 35:165.

7. Ibid., 40:97.

8. Ibid.

9. Charles L. Hill, ed. and tr., The “Loci Communes” of Philip Melanchthon (Boston: Meador, 1944) 112.

10. LW 35:168.

11. Ibid. and 47:90. Luther adds, “The devil knows very well too that it is impossible to remove the [natural] law from the heart” (ibid., 47:111). Moreover, even the demons themselves help illustrate the reality of the natural law’s intuition. “The very reason for their condemnation,” Luther writes, “is that they possess his [God’s] commandment and yet do not keep it, but violate it constantly” (“On the Jews and Their Lies,” in ibid., 47:168).

12. Ibid., 47:94-110.

13. Ibid., 35:168; cf. also 47:90.

14. “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed,” in ibid. vol. 45 (ed. W. I. Brandt; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962) 128.

15. Ibid., 129.

16. Ibid., 127.

17. Ibid.

18. Luther’s theology of law has frequently been less than fully understood, and a significant reason for this has to do with the standard “law-versus-Gospel” antinomy for which Luther is well known. It needs emphasis, however, that the proper context for this antinomy is the realm of salvation, not ethics. Despite conventional thinking about the Reformer, it is not an all-encompassing rubric in Luther’s theological system that absorbs every other theological topic. And yet the Protestant tendency since Luther has been precisely that, namely, to amplify the law-versus-Gospel presumption, as Bernd Wannenwetsch correctly points out: “The narrow focus on this antinomy as the formal principle of modern Protestantism...has led to a variety of antinomian accounts of law’s fundamental opposition to grace and gospel, in which law is either flatly rejected as altogether ‘heteronomous’ or, by way of a second-order antinomy, reduced to its (formally) negative impact as a mirror of sin or a barrier against anarchy... Apart from the soteriological language game, in which the most extreme contrast of law to gospel is required to convey the radical nature of grace, when it comes to moral theology, the law [in Luther] plays a more complex role (“Luther’s Moral Theology,” in Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003] 124-25, emphasis added).

19. Thus Wannenwetsch, “Luther’s Moral Theology,” 125.

20. This remains true even when the law assumes an “accusatory” function due to sin. Helpful correctives to some Protestant readings of Luther and law are to be found in Wannenwetsch, “Luther’s Moral Theology,” 123-35, and David Yeago, “Martin Luther on Grace, Law and Moral Life: Prolegomena to an Ecumenical Discussion of Veritatis Splendor,” The Thomist 62 (1998): 163-91. More generally, see also John T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Thought of Luther,” Church History 10 (1941): 211-27.

21. LW 47:113.

22. Loci Communes (1555) Art. 7.

23. Much of Melanchthon’s thinking regarding law as displayed in Articles 5-8 of Loci is thought to be in response to Johannes Agricola (1494-1566), who argued that the Christian is “free from the law” (and thus antinomian), even free from keeping the Ten Commandments.

24. Here I am relying on the translation provided by Clyde L. Manschreck, in Loci Communes 1555 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965) 128.

25. Ibid.

26. Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans (tr. F. Kramer; St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992) 89. In Loci, he reiterates that the moral law is “implanted in all men at their creation” (ibid., 128). Melanchthon, however, wishes not to be misunderstood: Paul does not say that Gentiles were righteous before God (ibid., 90).

27. Ibid., 128-29.

28. See, e.g., Deut. 6:5 and Ps. 119:2, 16, 24, 34, 44, 47, 92, 97, 127, 165, 167, 174. This emphasis is found in Article 6 of Loci published in 1543. Law, for Melanchthon, would seem to possess both positive and negative functions: it corresponds to created human nature (e.g., worship, purity and fulfillment); it instructs us regarding our wretched state; it instructs us regarding spiritual reconstruction; and it points us to grace that expresses itself ultimately in Christ (ibid.).

29. Loci Communes 1555, 126. Elsewhere — in his treatise “Against the Anabaptists,” published in 1528 — Melanchthon decries Anabaptists in the strongest terms for their view of the sacraments. The text is reproduced in Elmer E. Flack and Lowell J. Satre, eds., Melanchthon: Selected Writings (tr. C.L. Hill; Westport: Greenwood Press, 1962) 103-24.

30. While it is sharply debated among Reformed scholars precisely how important in Calvin’s writings the natural law is, that he affirmed it whole-heartedly is not in question.

31. Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.7.6-13.

32. Ibid., 2.2.13.

33. Ibid.

34. Susan Schreiner, “Calvin’s Use of Natural Law,” in Michael Cromartie, ed., A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics and Natural Law (Washington, D.C./Grand Rapids: Ethics and Pubic Policy Center/Eerdmans, 1997) 67-69, helpfully examines this metaphor in Calvin’s thinking.

35. Ibid. 2.2.22.

36. Ibid. 1.15.4 and 2.2.12.

37. Ibid. 2.8.1 and 2.2.22.

38. Hereon see Leonard J. Trinterud, “The Origins of Puritanism,” Church History 20 (1951): 37-57; Charles J. Butler, Religious Liberty and Covenant Theology (PhD dissertation, Temple University, 1979); and more recently, Andries W.G. Raath and Simon de Freitas, “Calling and Resistance: Huldrych Zwingli’s Political Theology and His Legacy of Resistance to Tyranny” (unpublished manuscript, University of the Free State, 2001). The interlocking themes of sovereignty, the natural law and covenant retain a special place in Reformed theology, particularly in its Dutch Reformed version, which like its Swiss counterpart, sought to embody a synthesis of the social, political and theological. This would reach its apex in the “sphere sovereignty” and political theology of Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, who believed that no political scheme ever has flourished which was not founded on religious and natural-law assumptions (Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, [9th ed.] 1976),\ 78). For Kuyper, common grace and moral law together constitute the best guarantee and safeguard of certain liberties.

39. Huldreich Zwinglis Werke (Zürich: Schultess, 1828-42) 4.243.

40. Ibid.

41. SW 2.481-83.

42. Ibid.

43. The English translation is drawn from sermons of Bullinger collected and edited by Thomas Harding. See The Decades of Heinrich Bullinger (4 vols.; Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1849) 2.194 (sermon 1).

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 2.195.

46. Ibid., 2.194-95.

47. Ibid., 2.340. In the main, what distinguishes Bullinger from Zwingli, despite the affirmation by both of the “law of nature” as the means by which God restrains human beings, is the ability to avoid the theocratic tendency. While both Zwingli and Bullinger share a high view of the magistrate as ordained by God, for Bullinger, the ministry and oversight of the church is not to be conflated with the magistrate of Romans 13, which bespeaks all political office. The priest is not called “to sit in the judgment seat, and to give judgment against a murderer, or by pronouncing sentence to take up matters in strife,” just as the calling of the magistrate is not to teach, baptize and administer the sacraments (ibid., 2.239).

48. (Emory Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

49. Thus, the contention of Roman Catholic theologian Romanus Cessario that “the sixteenth-century Protestant Reform championed grace and faith to the practical exclusion of all other instruments of divine agency” (Introduction to Moral Theology [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001] 69) needs moderation.

50. As an exception one might cite Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten.

51. James M. Gustafson, Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 62-80.

52. Karl Barth, The Church and the War (New York: Macmillan, 1944) v.

53. Ibid., 7.

54. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, rev. ed. (London: SCM, 2001) 45.

55. Ibid., 41-45.

56. Correlatively, reason was understood as “the embodiment of his capacity, his superiority over matter, his ability to comprehend it and appropriate it for himself.” Thus natural Christianity simply means a Christianity that “presents itself to man in a manner appropriate to his capacity,” and reasonable Christianity means a Christianity that is “understood and affirmed by man in accordance with his capacity” (ibid., 91).

57. Ibid., 92.

58. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics [hereafter CD] (tr. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961) II/1, 527.

59. To condescend to “natural theology,” Barth insists, is to allow “unbelief” and “error” to “disguise” themselves, since they are in “active enmity against God” and constitute a “deprivation of the truth” (CD II/1, 95. Thus, Barth can belittle St. Paul’s strategy of “natural theology” as recorded in Acts 17:22-31. And regarding the suggestion that in Romans 1 and 2 the apostle is affirming the “natural” witness of the natural law, Barth answers in the negative. Gentiles “lack this direction [of God’s revelation] altogether” and “have no impress of it to guard” (The Epistle to the Romans [tr. E.C. Hoskyns; London: Oxford University Press, 1933] 66). Commenting on the same suggestion in CD II/1, Barth cites 1 Corinthians 2 and the deficiencies of the “natural” man. Revelation through creation, at best, is said to be a “sideline” in the Bible, by which Barth means that it is inferior to grace. See in this regard chapter 5 (“The Knowledge of God”) of CD II/1.

60. CD II/1, 93-99.

61. See Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” (tr. P. Fraenkel; London: Geoffrey Bles/Centenary Press, 1946). Strangely, in the last 70 years surprisingly little theological reflection has occurred as to the roots of Barth’s and Brunner’s differences. One exception to this is John W. Hart, Karl Barth vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance (New York/Bern/Oxford: Peter Lang, 2001).

62. Natural Theology, 32.

63. CD II/1, 106.

64. Barth does not deny general revelation, only its utility through the “natural law.” Brunner, in “Nature and Grace,” argues on the basis of general revelation, the imago Dei and divine ordinances that there indeed does exist an Anknüpfungspunkt between the divine and human; otherwise, the notion of “repentance” — which presupposes moral knowledge and “sin” — would be fully meaningless.

65. An exception is Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten. See, e.g., his essay “Protestants and Natural Law,” First Things (January 1992): 20-26. In his critique of Barth’s views, appearing as a response to Russell Hittinger, “Natural Law and Catholic Moral Theology,” in Michael Cromartie, ed., A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics and Natural Law (Washington, D.C./Grand Rapids: Ethics and Public Policy Center/Eerdmans, 1997) 31-40, Braaten properly discerns the flaws in the substructure of Barth’s theological system without denying the importance of Barth’s resistance to totalitarianism in his day.

66. Jacques Ellul, The Theological Foundation of Law (tr. M. Wieser; New York: Seabury, 1969) 10.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid., 13.

69. Ibid. Ellul does not deny that in human civilizations law is necessary, or even that it has religious significance. Rather, what disturbs him is the inevitable evolution of law that takes places, so that an enormous separation occurs between law as a concept and the practice of law in juridical systems. With Barth, Ellul rehearses developments stemming from the Enlightenment, whereby “natural law” was no longer discovered but rather became the product of autonomous reason, exalting itself against the Creator (ibid., 25).

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid., 61.

72. Ibid., 46-47.

73. Ibid., 49. Ellul’s Christocentric rejection of the natural law is further buttressed by his peculiar reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Through the Fall, man loses any resemblance to Adam that he may have otherwise had. Man’s perversion by sin is radical; hence, “we cannot admit the idea of the imago Dei being preserved in man as the foundation of natural law... To identify natural law with the imago Dei means either to admit that man has not totally fallen, or to rob human law of all its value (ibid., 61). Remarkably, Ellul insists that prior to the Fall, “there is no moral conscience [in Adam]; there are [sic] no ethics” (Jacques Ellul, To Will and to Do [tr. C.E. Hopkin; Philadelphia/Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1969], 6). Adam has knowledge of the good and of evil only after the Fall: “...before the alienation, Adam had no knowledge of the good” (ibid., 14, emphasis his). It should be noted that much of Ellul’s critique appears to be a reaction to Paul Ricoeur, and particularly Ricoeur’s views as expressed in The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

74. Ibid., 16. One the similarities in the theological vantage-point of Ellul and Barth, see Church Dogmatics II/2, 747-48.

75. The Theological Foundation of Law, 49.

76. Ibid., 43.

77. See ibid., 73-110 (chapter 5, “The Double Morality”).

78. Ibid., 118.

79. Ibid. 126. Ellul assumes a sort of crude “divine command” ethics which presupposes that human beings, prior to disobedience, had no moral intuition of what would please the Creator. Morality, Ellul believes, is born of disobedience, not the divine image, and “whatever it is of the imago Dei which survives [i.e., original sin, for Ellul], that cannot in any case be the moral sense” (ibid., 42). What humans call the “moral conscience,” Ellul contends, “cannot be a reflection of God, a remainder from man’s initial integrity” (ibid., 43). “Commandment is not based on the divine essence but on the sovereign will of God” (ibid., 268, n. 1). Human beings are not born with the divine essence within, Ellul insists; rather, the “image of God” is to be understood in the sense of humans’ ultimate destiny. In support of this contention, Ellul disputes both the standard translation of Gen. 1:27 — “man was created in the image of God” — and its inference. He believes that the “image of God” is intended to denote promise — which is to say, future actualization or a state of becoming — and not a sacred quality of divine essence at the moment of creation (ibid., 277, n. 3). One cannot understate the tenacity with which Ellul holds to this position. He writes: “To claim to find any other origin than the fall for the phenomenon of natural morality is to run counter to all that the Bible can tell us” (ibid., 269, n. 4). To adopt Ellul’s position in this regard, however, is to deny that men and women — indeed, that Adam and Eve — were created in the divine image. To require, as Ellul does, that human moral reasoning exists only after the Fall, predicated solely on disobedience, is to collapse any theology of creation and cut off Christian social ethics at the knees.

80. Helmut Thielecke, Theological Ethics — Vol. 1: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) 149-50.

81. Ibid., 150.

82. Ibid., 443-44.

83. Ibid., 440, 444. This discussion of the negative character of the Decalogue is found in the section “The Negativity of the Commandments and Natural ‘Lawlessness’” (440-47).

84. Ibid., 569.

85. Ibid., 266, 269. In fairness, we must recognize Thielecke’s great burden that the Christian message not be secularized (ibid., 431, 441, 443, 450-51).

86. Ibid., 569. Significantly, this discussion of the character of law is found in the section “Forms of Compromise in the Religious Sphere” (494-519).

87. Ibid., 149.

88. Ibid., 501-2. Thielecke is convinced that according to Roman Catholic theology sin violates creation “only in a peripheral way”; Reformation thought, by contrast, views the world as “totally permeated” by sin, preventing us from still discerning the “orders of creation” (648). See as well chapter 21, “A Critique of the Roman Catholic View of Natural Law” (420-33).

89. Ibid., 383.

90. Ibid., 398.

91. Thielecke concludes that Luther was “inconsistent,” in that he did not “clearly see the consequences of his doctrine of justification” (ibid., 326).

92. Paul Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context (New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1963) 78, n. 2.

93. Ibid., 147-48. In his writings, Lehmann is inclined through the lens of his “koinonia ethic” to set charity and justice in opposition, thereby creating a false ethical dichotomy.

94. Ibid., 149-50.

95. Ibid., 154.

96. Ibid., 308-9.

97. Paul Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics (New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1975) 257.

98. Ibid., 259. To the objection that law is readily exploited for authoritarian and oppressive purposes, one can willingly grant that where tyranny has ruled, the human spirit has been crushed. It does not follow, however, that in sic law destroys human freedom; in truth, authentic freedom (over against unbridled autonomy) presupposes law as its backdrop. To maintain that obedience and ethical freedom are of a different quality is to erect a false ethical dichotomy.

99. Ibid., 238. The necessary corrective to this faulty view of law is the distinctly Lutheran emphasis on the orders of creation. Thus Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation (New York: Scribner’s, 1948): 107-8: “In creating the world, God has given to all things their order and by that their law... When the Church Fathers were speaking of lex naturalis, they connected it with that Logos in whom the whole world is created and in whom creation has its order... That is why they [Gentiles] know something of justice...” Law, and hence justice, therefore correspond the order of the created world, in the same way that human “nature” corresponds to the imago Dei.

100. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972 [rev. 1994]).

101. John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War (ed. M.T. Nation; Portland: Wipf & Stock, 2003) 120.

102. Ibid., 90.

103. For Yoder, the political powers are always and irrevocably fallen — inevitably opposed to the purposes of God. Revelation 13, not Romans 13, represents the state as normative for all time. In Discipleship as Political Responsibility, Yoder writes, “The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand” (Discipleship as Political Responsibility [Scottdale/Waterloo: Herald Press, 2003] 18). This predisposition toward political power is a recurring theme in Yoder’s writings. See esp. “The State in the New Testament,” in Discipleship as Political Responsibility, pp. 17-47, wherein Yoder’s position finds perhaps its most highly concentrated form. In fact, because the state is “a pagan institution in which Christians would not normally hold a position” (ibid., 25), it follows that participation by the Christian in the affairs of the state constitutes ethical compromise. Yoder believes that as Christians we have failed to understand the Cross with its implications. If our understanding was properly formed, we would be ever-vigilant to the triumphalist temptation and assume our place, with the crucified Lamb, in opposition to the powers in whatever form they might appear. While opposition to the powers is a consistent theme in Yoder’s writings, particularly instructive is his essay “The Power Equation, the Place of Jesus, and the Politics of King,” in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1997) 125-47.

104. See in this regard John Howard Yoder and Donald E. Miller. “Does Natural Law Provide a Basis for Christian Witness to the State? A Symposium,” Brethren Life and Thought 7 (1962): 8-22.

105. In assorted writings, the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas confesses his debt to Yoderian Anabaptism, wishing to advance Yoder’s vision of Christian social ethics. Hauerwas has been explicit in his rejection of the natural law — for example, in The Peaceable Kingdom and in Truthfulness and Tragedy. As with Yoder, the deep-seated distrust of natural-law thinking in ethics for Hauerwas is related to the Church’s purported compromise with “Constantinianism.” Thus, he argues, “the alleged transparency of the natural law norms reflects more the consensus within the church than the universality of the natural law itself” (The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics [Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983] 51). Hauerwas believes that “the power of natural law as a systematic idea was developed in and for the Roman imperium and then for ‘Christendom’ (ibid.). Consequently, the natural-law tradition, as interpreted by Hauerwas, rather than offering an account of moral principles that are “the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge” (thus Thomas Aquinas) and that are intuited by all (thus St. Paul in Romans 1 and 2), is a “culturally assimilationist” attempt at “Christian ethics” that mirrors the Church’s cultural captivity. As viewed by Hauerwas, the “abstractions” of “nature and grace” have “distorted how ethics has been undertaken in the Catholic tradition” (ibid., 55-57). Ultimately, he believes that “Christian ethics theologically does not have a stake in ‘natural law’” (Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics [South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983], 58).

106. John Howard Yoder, “Discerning the Kingdom of God in the World,” in For the Nations, 245. That a Barthian cast can be detected in Yoder’s writings should not be surprising, since Yoder studied under Barth. He writes in the preface of his work Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Nashville/New York: Abingdon, 1970), “To Karl Barth, who taught me to rethink my faith in the light of the Word of God” (7).

107. While “nature” can acquire a variety of meanings, in the natural law tradition it refers to divinely implanted moral knowledge.

108. It is a supreme irony that many opponents of natural-law thinking — indeed, of law as a theological concept — view the “Sermon on the Mount” as the crux New Testament text for Christian social ethics yet fail to grasp its context, established in Matt. 5:17-20. In this introductory text, which must establish and guide our interpretation of Matt. 5:21-48 (the case-illustrations), ethical continuity over against discontinuity as clearly and painstakingly enunciated by Jesus.

109. Matt. 5:17; cf. 7:12.

110. Ethics (tr. K. Crim; Philadelphia/London: Search Press, 1981), 24-41.

111. C.S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” in Christian Reflections (ed. W. Hooper; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 46.

112. Ibid., 53.

113. Few have argued this more persuasively than Emil Brunner in Revelation and Reason (tr. O. Wyon; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946) and Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology (tr. O. Wyon; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947). On this score, Brunner believes that Barth misunderstood the magisterial Reformers, which may in part help explain the vehemence of Barth’s reaction to Brunner.

114. Gilbert Meilaender, “What Lutheran Ethics Can Learn from Other Christian Ethical Traditions,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 9, no. 10 (October 2009), accessible at

115. The assumption that nature and grace stand in opposition would seem to erect a false dualism that finds no place in the mainstream of historic Christian theology, as Oliver O’Donovan (Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986] 15) has well argued.

116. Herein the work of St. Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16ff) — and particularly his address to the Areopagus Council (17:22-31) — is instructive, when not infrequently misunderstood by contemporary interpreters.

117. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1994) no. 39.

118. Clearly, for many on the religious left, it is a time of paranoia in American politics; hence the prostituted usage of the term “theocracy” to designate that which, in social-political terms, undermines their inherently secular assumptions about the public sphere. Consider, for example, the ridiculously shrill works of James Rudin, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2006); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006); and Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2006). Marginally less preposterous is Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007). It is difficult to disagree with one social critic, who observes that the specter of a looming Khomeini’ism has migrated into the realm of pop sociology (Ross Douthat, “Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy,” First Things [August-September 2006], accessible at www.

119. See esp. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War, rev. ed. (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 252-53, 268.

120. We Hold These Truths, 298.

121. Ibid., 320.



© March 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 10, Issue 3