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Assorted Thoughts on Evangelicals and Natural Law

March 28th, 2011 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

It's humbling and daunting to have played a small part in starting something of a real online conversation (and a serious one at that) about the relationship between evangelical theology and the natural law.

I'm something of a bit player in the dialogue, as most of the participants are considerably  beyond me both in  education and understanding.  But continuing my tradition of impertinently blazing ahead when wiser minds might sound caution, I thought a few brief replies might be in order.

First, I want to underscore that my goal in writing the piece was to signal my hopes for a real and substantive rappaprochement between the two schools of thoughts.  That was why I mentioned the work of Grabill and Van Drunen (and could have added Jordan to that list).  I would have thrown O'Donovan into the mix as the best evangelical resource for this, but space considerations prevented me.  If there's ever an "evangelicals and natural lawyers" together, I'll be among the founding members.

Second, Davey Henreckson and others were right to remind us that there are different strands of "natural law."  If I conflated the versions, it's only because from what I can tell evangelical Protestants are no more amenable to Russell Hittinger/Jay Budziszewski style NL than the new natural law.  On this point, I would be delighted to be wrong.

The issue at the surface is evangelicalism's general ambivalence about the effectiveness of natural law style arguments, to which Robert George responded:  "I do not reject reliance on the Gospel and grace.  At the same time, I believe that reason, though manifestly fallible, and certainly weakened by sin, is itself a profound gift of God."  What's more, as a commenter pointed out, George has argued for something like a "moral ecology" and the role of law within that ecology.  All helpful reminders of George's understanding of the matter.  I wish I would have put this all a bit more carefully.

However, the differences between the two camps still seem to be quite real.  As Greg Forster points out, the divide between Catholics and evangelicals seems to happen precisely in our description of the nature and influence of this moral ecology:

And the particular challenge for evangelicals is that our theology implies that the social system of approval for sin, while it cannot eradicate the witness of the conscience, will always maintain the dominant position over its influence – except insofar as the Holy Spirit regenerates people, and those people in turn have an impact on the social system, if only by their presence within it.

Forster's ending hits precisely the right note:  "Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it."

Allow me to (tentatively) try to unpack what I think is the heart of the disagreement.  Everyone grants that natural law can't get at the totality of the moral field.  But part of the question for Christian moral discourse in the public square is whether that should occur in a way that brackets the revelation of Jesus or happens within its confines.  In short, moral philosophy or moral theology?  The question doesn't necessarily presume a hostility between the two modes of discourse--moral theology might and should use the language and conceptual tools  of philosophy to do its work.

But in O'Donovan's characterization, in doing so we do not say something different from "the good news."  The evangelical worry about the proclamation of an ethical system that is outside the good news itself is that it inevitably presents a misleading understanding of the moral field (because it is not the full picture) and people's ability to apprehend it and live within it.

This is, I think, why there is such handwringing among evangelicals about the effectiveness of natural law arguments.  It's not a numbers game per se, as though a host of people changing their minds would settle the matter one way or another.  Rather, it's a question of what sort of moral order and understanding the arguments are presupposing and the way in which that relates to the good news.

I'd say one other thing which may risk alienating some of my evangelical friends.

I'm wary of exacerbating the contest between reason and our other faculties.  Our emphasis on voluntarism over and against rationalism is deeply problematic, in that it calls into question the fundamentally rationality of the created order.  One not need be a rationalist to affirm that the moral order the gospel reveals is a rationally ordered one, and that it is discernible in and through the exercise of deliberation (rather than contemplative prayer or Bible roulette).

But that isn't to affirm the total rejection of voluntarism, either.  My hope is that we can somehow get behind these to an account of creation and the relationship of God's activity in the world that, in the last analysis, doesn't make us choose between the two.

That was partly why I tried to point (albeit hastily and poorly) at the very end toward something like a theological aesthetic as a way of shaping our rational intuitions.  My point was somewhat  similar to Chesterton's approach in Orthodoxy (for more on that, see my essay).  Chesterton learned his aesthetic first principles in the cradle, of course.  But what Chesterton heard hints of in the cradle was made manifest at Golgatha, and we live in a world where the haziness of moral discourse and the decline of nursery tales requires the sharp edges of the cross in order to discern the moral shape.

This way of doing things needs unpacking, of course.   But if my reading of O'Donovan is anywhere close to right, this is (I think) the sort of direction that evangelicals sympathetic with the natural law--like me--need to head.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.