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Natural Law from Noah to Milton Friedman: A Review of David Vandrunen, “Politics after Christendom”

May 29th, 2020 | 28 min read

By Justin Hawkins

In recent decades, Protestant theologians have rightly restored Natural Law to its vaunted place in their ethical and theological lexicon. Among those legions to be credited with restoring it is David VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary in California. Two of his earlier volumes in particular, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (2010) and Divine Covenants and Moral Order (2014), have charted a path for Reformed Protestants both to appreciate their own tradition of the Natural Law, and to return it more closely to its native Biblical idiom. Politics After Christendom constitutes a third volume in this project. After recovering the Reformed natural law tradition and grounding it in the Bible in those two earlier volumes, VanDrunen is now prepared to say something about its relevance to politics in the Post-Christian west.

In the review that follows, I provide a running analysis and summary of his argument, before concluding by placing the book in the context of larger debates in Christian political theology. I then level three critiques of VanDrunen’s most recent volume: (1) the methodology of this book does not hold promise for moving beyond intractable political debates today or untangling thorny puzzles in Christian political theology, (2) that this book will unintentionally contribute to the secularization of Christian political theology in the contemporary west, and (3) that it will reinforce a prevalent (though in my estimation, mistaken) view that Natural Law theorizing and Reformed political thought suffer a persistent anemia in the face of widespread societal ills, which almost always cashes out in a defense of the status quo. Readers ought therefore gladly accept VanDrunen’s invitation to think within the great Natural Law tradition, and dissent vigorously from his novel deployment of it.

Politics After Christendom, Part 1: Ethical Theory

Politics After Christendom is divided into two large sections. In Part I, VanDrunen provides the theoretical apparatus that informs his political theology. In Part II, he sketches the way that the Noahic covenant might shed light on a series of perennial political questions.

VanDrunen’s major innovation into Christian political theology is to give pride of place to the Noahic covenant of Genesis 8–9 which, VanDrunen claims, is unique among the covenants for being merely preservative, while the other Biblical covenants are redemptive.[1] Therefore the civil government, since it is grounded in the Noahic covenant, is likewise merely preservative of common human life, and not perfectionistic, which VanDrunen recognizes to be a departure from the vast majority of historic Christian political theology:

The proposal in these next two chapters presents a challenge to many contemporary political theologies, since it claims that the Noahide covenant is not simply an underutilized detail useful in political-theological reflection, but a foundational element that illumines the whole enterprise of political theology (80).

It may strike the reader as strange to ground an entire political theology on the exegesis of so short and skeletal a framework which nowhere mentions civil governments, and VanDrunen agrees. Therefore, his method for the remainder of the book is to proceed from logical, or probable, or prudential inference from what is explicitly stated in the Noahic covenant, to what might be entailed by it: “it is a modest ethic, although that seems appropriate given the limited, preservative purpose of the covenant: this ethic deals with things that are absolutely necessary for the human race to survive. But if we probe a little deeper, we discover that this threefold Noahic ethic implies a number of activities beyond what the text says explicitly” (81).

Understanding this move is crucial for what follows in the rest of the book. VanDrunen acknowledges a loose fittingness between the surface-level, literal meaning of the Noahic laws, and the theoretical apparatus in Part 1 of the book, which VanDrunen claims are entailed in that surface-level literal meaning, and the particular policy framework he suggests in Part 2 of the book. This is a strength of the account, rather than a weakness. Everything that occurs in Part 2 of the book is to be construed as prudential means for attaining the explicit ends identified in Part 1.

Reflecting upon the nature of civil government ostensibly entailed in the Noahic covenant, VanDrunen identifies four features: “legitimate but provisional, common yet accountable” (25). Legitimate means that “civil government has a right and even an obligation to carry out its proper work” (25). I take this to be a claim about civil government in se, and not any particular civil governments. It is possible for VanDrunen to hold that civil government is legitimate in principle, and yet a particular instance of civil government is worthy of disobedience or resistance (Chapter 11), though he never permits that such a government may, in fact, be illegitimate. He stakes this claim against the neo-anabaptists (John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays). Provisional means “set in place for a limited time and purpose until something greater arrives” (29). He makes this argument against those who “believe that legitimate political institutions, in some way or another, participate in the redemptive work of Christ” (48), such as Eusebius and the liberation theologies of James Cone and Rosemary Radford Ruether, who would, I suspect, be surprised to find themselves categorized with Eusebius here. These all hold the mistaken “redemptive-transformationist vision of Christian public life” (54). VanDrunen is intent to deny this transformationist vision of Christian political engagement: “I reject the fundamental idea these two paths hold in common: that legitimate political institutions should be redemptively transformed and can thereby manifest the new-creation kingdom” (55).

Much of VanDrunen’s argument depends on his claim that civil government is common. He contrasts common with holy, which is the category that includes the Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic covenants, and eventually, the church. Because civil government is common, while the legal codes given under those redemptive covenants are holy, those latter laws and institutions have no claim on civil government today. Therefore OT Israel does not constitute a common civil government by VanDrunen’s account: “These considerations make it doubtful that Christians should ‘regard the society and laws of Israel as a paradigm,’ or as ‘a model . . . for the nations’” (90).

Given that much Reformed political theorizing has historically focused precisely on articulating a political ethic with the Hebrew Republic[2] as its exemplar, this is one place where VanDrunen’s intervention into the Reformed tradition has the effect of narrowing that tradition considerably. In effect, VanDrunen rules enormous amounts of scripture out of bounds for the purposes of Christian political thought. I will argue below that if VanDrunen’s approach is followed here, it will contribute to the gradual secularization of Christian political discourse.

One important implication of the provisionality and commonality of political institutions is that they are ineligible for redemption: “Christ does not save or redeem political institutions. . . . Are political institutions among the particular things Christ redeems? Scripture never speaks in this way” (118). Whatever might be meant by the command for kings to “Kiss the Son” (Psalm 2), or by the promises that “the kingdoms of this world are now become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15), is left to the imagination of the reader.

VanDrunen also identifies the Noahic covenant as a restatement of the natural law, which he defines thus:

By ‘natural law,’ I refer to the idea that God makes known the basic substance of his moral law through the created order itself. Human beings therefore know this law simply by virtue of being human, even apart from access to Scripture or to other forms of special revelation. They know it through their natural capacities as they live in the world (126).

As previous commentators on VanDrunen have noted, this simple epistemic access to the Natural Law seems to struggle with the claim from Romans 1 that people hide the truth even from themselves through their sin. VanDrunen would be on better ground here to follow earlier Reformed[3] (and Roman Catholic[4]) Natural Lawyers and say that the Biblical covenants re-articulate the particulars of the Natural Law, which was previously promulgated with our nature, but subsequently obscured by sin.

VanDrunen identifies himself as largely sympathetic to a Thomistic theory of natural law (125). However, as we shall see below, in Part 2, which he calls “an exercise in natural law reasoning (126), he departs significantly from Aquinas on a number of crucial issues, including the pedagogical function of the law, the question of religious toleration, and the kinds of economy policy that the Natural Law entails. It is, in fact, rather difficult to see any significant way in which he agrees with Thomas about the Natural Law, except at the level of the bare existence of that Natural Law.

Nevertheless, in keeping with his earlier efforts to make the Natural Law more Biblical, VanDrunen argues for significant overlap between the Natural Law and the Noahic Covenant: “if all human beings know their responsibilities under the Noahic covenant through natural law, then the commands of Genesis 9:1–7 and the natural law must have the same basic moral content” (133). But there is a problem for VanDrunen here. In his telling, the Noahic covenant does not promulgate any laws regarding religion. If the Noahic covenant contains “the same basic moral content” as the Natural Law, then we would expect the Natural Law likewise not to entail any religious content. But this is precisely what Romans 1 denies. There we read that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world” (Rom. 1:20). Therefore it is not the case that the Noahic covenant and the Natural Law promulgate “the same basic moral content,” nor is the divergence a trivial one.

Again, VanDrunen seems to be aware of something rather like this difficulty, and attempts to address it:

Are love of God (the first commandment; Romans 1:30) and coveting (the tenth commandment; Rom 1:29) natural-law issues? Yes. All human beings must answer to God on the last day about these things. But the Noahic covenant summarizes the Natural Law merely by pointing to matters absolutely essential for the preservation of the human community here and now (134).

So according to this revised account, it is not the case that the Noahic covenant and the Natural Law have the same basic moral content, nor is it the case any longer that what the Noahic covenant has promulgated to temporal governments is the work of justice (since, recall Augustine’s famous argument in City of God that justice is giving to each his due, and worship is what is due to God, therefore a just republic gives due worship to God).[5] Instead, the Noahic covenant articulates only a subset of the natural law and an imperfect justice. Viewed in this way, VanDrunen’s argument for the importance of the Noahic covenant actually constitutes a limiting principle against allowing human law to conform more closely to the Natural Law, rather than a full-throated endorsement of the harmony between human law and natural law.

Politics After Christendom, Part 2: Political Ethics

In Part 2 of the book, VanDrunen applies this apparatus to perennial political puzzles today: (pluralism and religious liberty, family and commerce, justice and rights, customs and laws, authority and resistance). Before entering into a discussion of his particular claims, it is worthwhile to stress what connection VanDrunen understands there to be between that apparatus of Part I and the political payout in Part II:

If the arguments of this book thus far are sound, and the Noahic covenant is both the foundation of political communities and God’s means for communicating the natural law, then the traditional Christian teaching that civil laws ought to be grounded in the natural law is correct. This does not imply that civil laws should attempt to enforce all aspects of natural law morality, which the Christian tradition has always denied. But since a political community’s laws ought to promote the proper goals for which that community exists, its laws must be grounded in the natural law morality that orients people toward these goals. Insofar as the natural law itself is relatively indeterminate, then, political communities have to exercise prudence and discretion as they develop their laws. These laws ought to be just and advance the purposes for which the community exists, but there is no single way for them to accomplish this. We cannot expect to find a detailed civil code hidden within the natural law. The natural law provides certain boundaries and orients a certain direction, but cannot provide a comprehensive public policy (137).

There is much to be admired in this paragraph. VanDrunen is correct that Christian ethics has long held that the law cannot command every virtue or condemn every vice (citation), yet I am unaware of a place where the natural law rules out of hand entire swaths of virtue that can never fall under the jurisdiction of human law, as VanDrunen does here.[6] Moreover, his account of how the Natural Law underdetermines a public policy is likewise laudable. This is one of the great insights of the current generation of Reformed divine command theorists who identify the compatibility of divine command with natural law.[7] For these theorists, Divine Command specifies what is obligatory, from within what the Natural Law provides as the Good, since the Good provided by the Natural Law does not naturally produce action-guiding moral norms, nor a coherent social program.

Given the claim about loose entailment, we can move quickly through this second section of the book, because it is less central to VanDrunen’s project. His discussion of customs and laws, and the polycentric account of law that is produced here, is genuinely fascinating and noteworthy.

I suspect the inclusion of this second part weakens the project as a whole. The topics covered here do not obviously emerge out of the Noahic covenant, nor do they capture many of the debates in American public life together. Most subjects receive merely a cursory glance (race receives four pages of discussion), and in no place is a theme treated so exhaustively as to parry objections vigorously. VanDrunen goes to some significant effort in Chapter 12 to demonstrate how his conclusions in Part II align neither with a liberal nor a conservative policy, but instead represent “conservative liberalism” (370).

But there is, in fact, a name commonly given to exactly the constellation of religious non-establishment, heterosexual marriage, a market economy that is loosely regulated (if regulated at all), and limited government. It is simply the Fusionism of Libertarianism and Social Conservatism that marked the mid-1980s American GOP. This, in fact, presents one of the great surprises of this book: an enormous amount of novel ethical apparatus is deployed to undergird an extremely conventional political program. At a time when the fissures between Social Conservatism and Libertarianism are re-emerging,[8] and when adherents to the tradition of liberalism are attempting to recover a “lost history”[9] that de-centers the laissez-faire markets that have produced such staggering inequality, the second part of VanDrunen’s text reads like an attempt to prop up this dying coalition, but without taking seriously the critiques levelled against it.

Objection #1: No Way Forward

I am not optimistic that the methodology of this book holds promise for moving beyond intractable political debates today, or untangling thorny puzzles in Christian political theology. Perhaps this is not one of VanDrunen’s intentions. If so, then my critique here is less a critique of VanDrunen, and more a prediction of what success it might have in moving the Christian political theology more broadly. Insofar as one of the strengths of a novel paradigm is that it helps sort extant data more coherently than previous paradigms,[10] VanDrunen’s new Noahic paradigm does not, to my eye, hold much promise.

The reason for my skepticism is how skeletal the Noahic covenant actually is, which leaves the connection between it and any social program extremely tenuous and without enough material upon which the desirability of a certain political program can be measured. Earlier generations of Christians realized how skeletal the Natural Law was, but had recourse to the entirety of scripture to shed light upon it. But VanDrunen’s isolation of much of the scriptural witness within a covenant of redemption, instead of a covenant of preservation, blocks that historic move. The result is almost inevitably eisegesis.

Take, for example, VanDrunen’s treatment of Genesis 9:4, which states: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” This is part of the Noahic covenant, and therefore, for VanDrunen, of the Natural Law. But it is difficult to see how such a strange commandment might constitute the natural law, and perhaps its strangeness accounts for why VanDrunen neither mentions it with any sustained attention, nor explains its omission.[11]

Yet, if we were to apply VanDrunen’s method of probable entailment from skeletal instruction to this passage, the result might go something like this: the commandment that human beings not eat the lifeblood of animals combined with the fact that the Noahic covenant is between God and every creature, suggests that creatures have rights to be treated in a particular way as well as humans.

We ought therefore to be ardent advocates of humanitarian food production systems, with the attendant regulatory agencies that policy would require. Moreover, given that every creature in the world is a covenant partner with God through the Noahic covenant, we have strong Noahic grounds for a movement of environmental conservationism, perhaps including categorical bans on industrialized farming and a ban on genetically modified poultry, a policy of national parks to preserve segments of creation against privatization and development, strong emissions regulations on auto manufacturers and factories, and perhaps even a Green New Deal to stop the ravages of anthropogenic climate change. In short, by reflection upon that passage, and following VanDrunen’s own method closely, we might produce a social policy that is diametrically opposed to the one VanDrunen advocates.

Of course, an opponent to the policy outlined above might respond that this is altogether too much to infer from one phrase of the Bible, or perhaps even a rather brazen attempt to read one’s own political program into scripture.[12] And they would be correct.

But the critique cuts both ways. If we cannot infer a National Parks program from “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood,” or a Green New Deal from “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood,” then it is extremely unlikely that we can we infer a policy of laissez-faire, unregulated economics from “be fruitful and multiply,” or the incoherence of human rights policy from “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” But that is precisely what VanDrunen takes himself to be doing. If these difficult and perennial questions of political philosophy are to be solved, we shall not solve them by reference to, and probabilistic inference from, the prooftexts provided by the extremely skeletal Noahic covenant.

Objection #2: VanDrunen’s Project is a Secularizing One

My second concern with VanDrunen’s project is that it contributes to a creeping secularization in Christian political discourse. By this ‘creeping secularization,’ I mean political theorizing without reference to theological concepts, sources, and rhetoric. VanDrunen argues:

The Noahic covenant must indeed be foundational for Christian political theology. Christians properly evaluate their political communities and authorities according to the normative pattern established by this covenant, not (for example) by the Mosaic Law, the shalom of the Old Testament prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, or the vision of new creation. The Noahic covenant indicates what ends Christians should seek from their political communities and what expectations they rightly have of them (123).

But of course, this method would be altogether foreign to both the traditions of American political thought and Reformed political thought. Many of the high points of American history are marked by reference to non-Noahic scriptural sources. From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to Puritan colonists and negro spirituals comparing Independence and abolition to the Exodus, [13] to MLK’s famous invocation of Amos, American luminaries have long had explicit reference to scripture in their public persona.[14] VanDrunen’s intense focus on the Noahic Covenant would rule most of those concepts out of play.

But it is not simply Lincoln and MLK on whom VanDrunen might call foul. With this methodological intervention, VanDrunen sweeps aside the legitimacy of the entire Hebrew Republic movement, which is undergoing a minor renaissance in political theory.[15] The renewed attentiveness to the Hebrew Bible in political theory is to be lauded by Reformed Christians. It is no novel observation that most of the major figures of early modern political philosophy — Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Milton, Spinoza — all spent serious amounts of time reflecting on the political structure of the Mosaic Covenant. Nor is it any surprise that those political theorists under the influence of Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing have continued to overlook those extended commentaries on the Bible. While these spheres of political theory increasingly come to see features of liberal democracies as the fruit of historic reflection upon the Hebrew Bible, VanDrunen holds that we can defend many of those same principles with vanishingly little reference to any of those Christian theological concepts, sources, and rhetoric. This is not a strategy I find promising.

The clearest place in VanDrunen’s argument where the secularization of Christian political witness appears is in his treatment on economics, where implicit secularization seems the result of his Two Kingdoms doctrine. There he rehearses an argument, which he has published elsewhere,[16] that Christian theological critiques of free markets (e.g., Kathryn Tanner and Radical Orthodoxy) tend to do so based upon explicitly theological, and typically eschatological reasoning, while free-market defenders more often employ the language and arguments of natural law.

Given that arguments from eschatology are not fitting for common political communities, those critiques can be absorbed and deflected away from influencing the construal of market economies today, even while those arguments still expose real deficiencies in market economies. By this ingenious Two Kingdoms device, VanDrunen admits the validity of theological critiques against the character-deforming tendencies of commercial society, while simultaneously neutering that critique. The opportunities for such a method to prop up injustices in history by siphoning off theological critique is obvious.

Focusing the entirety of Christianity’s social witness on the Noahic covenant suffers a particular irony, for we find in that very same chapter the notorious Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:25), which was perhaps the most commonly cited prooftext in defense of the long history of abuse, enslavement, and murder of African Americans.[17] Are we to imagine that those who found cover for their racism in that story had simply failed to read the Noahic covenant written there on the same page? And are we to imagine that we might have dissuaded them from those vile errors simply by drawing more attention to that covenant? Against that racist hermeneutic, I am altogether unwilling to disarm historic abolitionists from drawing upon the promise that there is, in Christ, “no slave or free” (Gal. 3:28).

This point is delicate, and therefore must be made carefully. It is a non sequitur to lay blame for complicity in social ills immediately at the feet of Two Kingdoms proponents. Kathryn Tanner has demonstrated that Christian doctrines do not automatically produce social programs in that way.[18] Moreover, given the continuing wisdom of that old maxim that abuse does not invalidate proper use, not every advocate of a given theological paradigm is necessarily responsible for the most heinous deployment of it. However, careful attention to the history of theology demonstrates endlessly the manifold ways in which doctrines are corrupted toward the propagation of injustice. Learning from those errors demands articulating a doctrine and a social program with as few opportunities for abuse and misinterpretation as possible.

It is this that VanDrunen’s theory fails to do when, for example, it emphasizes retributive justice to a society addicted to mass incarceration. It is this that VanDrunen’s theory fails to do when its endorsement of “enterprise institutions” has no critical bite against an institution like Amazon, whose CEO is currently the richest man in the world and may be on track to become the richest person in history, on the backs of exploited and vulnerable workers. And it is this that VanDrunen’s theory fails to do when it removes from the armories of justice so many of the Biblical and theological categories, sources, and rhetoric that have marked the American political tradition.

Objection #3: Trading the Birthright of Historic Natural Law for the Porridge of Libertarianism

My final objection to VanDrunen’s argument is that he presents a version of Natural Law that reinforces a standard trope by the critiques of Natural Law, namely, that it valorizes what is historically contingent and results in a status quo ethics. In particular, he trades the birthright of Reformed Natural Law for the Porridge of Libertarianism.

Consider again VanDrunen’s discussion of economics, to which I alluded above. Even if we were to accept the argument that explicitly theological considerations ought to be bracketed (and I have argued above that it would be unwise to do so), VanDrunen’s claim that critics of capitalism proceed from eschatological, and not natural, assumptions, is simply untrue. The long Thomistic strand of economic thinking argues for the universal destination of goods as a postulate of natural law.

Christians share an historic rejection of usury[19] with Islamic and Judaic economic reasoning. They share it also with Aristotle, who says it is a violation of nature.[20] The book of Proverbs, which VanDrunen sees as something like a compilation of Natural Law maxims, likewise condemns it (Prov. 28:8). Therefore it is puzzling why non-usurious lending is not one of VanDrunen’s principles for Noahic economics, while, say, “the finer attainments of human culture” (243) is. It is not simply that VanDrunen departs from this tradition of usury critique; he does not even mention it in this volume.

To consider another recent example of Christian economic theory, Eugene McCarraher’s enormous Enchantments of Mammon argues that capitalism has created a rival, and false, ontology. Capitalism is not, for McCarraher, something that can be neatly cordoned off into another kingdom; it is a rival religion that deforms nature itself. All of these are arguments from nature, not from eschatology, that have the effect of massively undercutting the laissez-faire claims of VanDrunen.

Instead of these sources, VanDrunen’s argument relies heavily on libertarians like Deirdre McCloskey (whom he cites fifteen times in the span of eight pages, with no reply given to the devastating theological and ethical criticism McCloskey’s trilogy has received from Christian ethicists[21]).

One might reply here that because the natural law underspecifies the policy means by which the revealed goods are to be attained, an economic theory more consonant with the long tradition of Christian economic thinking (like, for example, that discussed in the book of Leviticus) might be compatible with the natural law at the same time. On this account, both laissez-faire capitalism and Levitical redistribution are equally valid specifications of the precepts of the Natural Law. But VanDrunen actually seems to rule this argument out. When considering whether the poor are the rightful object of the government’s welfare, VanDrunen says:

Helping the poor is a great good, of course. But because I do not believe that the idea of positive welfare rights is compelling or even coherent, I cannot come to such an easy answer about whether government is properly authorized to pursue this good (342f52).

And a few pages later, he again rejects any kind of public welfare system:

There seems good reason to keep charity toward the poor in private hands as much as possible. Given the industriousness and creativity fostered by free interaction in a market economy, private endeavors to help the poor are likely to be more robust, efficient, and innovative than programs run through a government bureaucracy…even so, given the universal reach and concern of the Noahic covenant, it is plausible that a community’s law could rightly authorize government to extend relief to the needy who stand outside the reach of other assistance. Yet the larger argument of the chapter suggests that this stands on the outskirts of legitimate state authority (348).

With this, VanDrunen has proven far too much, for in his zeal to rule out redistributive welfare policies of any kind, he has accidentally ruled out precisely the economic structure by which God governed the Hebrew Republic (which all of the Christian tradition has held to be consistent with the Natural Law). It is no novel claim that the economic policies given by the Mosaic covenant are not those of libertarianism or neoliberalism. They include redistribution of the means of sustenance and production and a persistent program of debt relief to prevent massive inequalities from forming in the society (Leviticus 25:1–4, 8-10).

Moreover, there are several public relief policies that are instituted throughout, perhaps the most famous of which is not harvesting the corners of fields (Leviticus 23:22), which is a centerpiece for the book of Ruth. Most of the Reformed tradition has claimed that these Mosaic laws specify the Natural Law,[22] but VanDrunen seems to imply rather that they have transgressed it and are unworthy of emulation.


Against those opponents of Natural Law who claim that these kinds of regressive outcomes of Natural Law theorizing constitute a reductio ad absurdum on the entire enterprise of Natural Law itself, advocates of the Natural Law who desire for it to continue holding prominent place in political discourse must demonstrate its potential not to sit complacent in the face of conspicuous injustices in the world. My fear is that interpreting Natural Law through the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms will run contrary to that outcome.

As a counterproposal to this Two Kingdoms version of the Natural Law, students who might be interested in the form of Natural Law theorizing that is impatient with injustices ought to look to Vincent Lloyd’s recent Black Natural Law (Oxford UP, 2016).[23] For Lloyd, the black tradition of natural law represents a stream of thought less susceptible to valorization of the status quo, and instead “catalyzes social movements and offers a critique of the wisdom of the world” (Lloyd viii).

The story he tells accents the natural law critique of unjust laws, which might reach its highest point in the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where King cites Aquinas’s famous dictum that an unjust law is no law at all, and therefore cannot compel obedience. It must be said that VanDrunen, at the crucial moment, permits resistance to tyranny by holding to precisely that dictum (354-6), for this he must be lauded. But revolutions against tyrants are the most extreme cases. Of far more practical value is an ethical and theological program that would allow citizens to ameliorate the more quotidian injustices that mark our life, and put a wealth of theological and ethical concepts into play in order to achieve those good ends. I do not hold much hope that VanDrunen’s framework will allow us to do so.

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  1. VanDrunen has made this claim before in his earlier work. John Frame has levelled what seem to me to be strong arguments against the claim that the Noahic covenant is not redemptive, to which VanDrunen does not respond in this book: It is not obvious to me that a covenant marked by sacrifice to God, and used as a parable for salvation in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:20–21), is merely preservative, rather than participating in redemption. VanDrunen does not respond to these concerns in this volume.
  2. Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard UP, 2010).
  3. Calvin, Institutes 2.8.1.
  4. Aquinas, ST I-II, Q98, A6, res.
  5. City of God XIX.21.
  6. The relevant citation from Aquinas here is ST I-II, Q96, A2, res: “now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft, and such like.” This sounds like the Harm Principle, though it is important to note that for VanDrunen, the harm principle constitutes the ceiling of human law’s legitimate jurisdiction, while for Thomas, it constitutes the floor of human law’s legitimate jurisdiction. Were there to be a group of people inordinately virtuous, the laws could be more exacting in the vices it prohibits, whereas for VanDrunen, even a virtuous people could not legitimately be bound by more virtuous laws, because those more perfectionistic laws are absent from the Noahic covenant. For Aquinas, human laws are non-perfectionistic by concession; for Vandrunen, human laws are non-perfectionistic on principle.
  7. For representative examples, see Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford UP, 1999); Neil Arner (2012), Theological Voluntarism and the Natural Law: The Integrated Moral Theories of John Duns Scotus, John Calvin, and Samuel Pufendorf (unpublished Yale dissertation); C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (Oxford UP, 2014); John Hare, God’s Command (Oxford UP, 2015).
  8. For an early condemnation of this union, see Russell Kirk’s 1981 essay Chirping Sectaries.
  9. Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2018)
  10. Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962)
  11. He mentions this text six times throughout the book (63, 64, 64, 65, 81, 215). Contrast this with his treatment of Genesis 9:6, which he cites, again by my count, at least seventy-six times, including an entire chapter on justice, which purports to be a gloss on this passage.
  12. Though I note also that I am not the first to see the care of creation as a possible entailment of the Noahic Covenant. See Pei Tsai (2015), “The Importance of the Noahic Covenant and its Function as the Basis of Creation Care,” Reformed Theological Seminary MAR thesis. Available at:
  13. Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (Basic Books, 1985).
  14. For a defense of this long tradition of religious argument against the Rawlsian objections to it, see Chapter 3: Religious Reasons in Political Argument, in Jeff Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton UP, 2004).
  15. Julie Cooper, “The Turn to Tradition in the Study of Jewish Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science (May 2016, 19:67–87).
  16. David VanDrunen, “The Market Economy and Christian Ethics: Refocusing Debate through the Two-Kingdoms Doctrine,” Journal of Markets and Morality 17, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 11–45.
  17. The most extended discussion of this history is David Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton UP, 2003). A popular-level treatment comes in an appendix to John Piper, Bloodlines (Crossway, 2008).
  18. Kathryn Tanner, The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice (Fortress UP, 1992).
  19. Consider two examples. Aquinas: “To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice” (ST II-II, Q78, A1, res). Duns Scotus: “But the industry of the user does not belong to the one who loaned the money; hence, to want to receive the fruit of the money is really a desire to have the fruit of another’s industry but which the other has not given to him” (Scotus, Is a Penitent Thief Bound to Restitution?), in John Duns Scotus, Political and Economic Philosophy. Trans. Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M. (St. Bonaventure, New York: The Franciscan Institute, 2001)
  20. “There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural” (Politics I.10, 1258b3).
  21. As a representative example, see Matthew Arbo, “Materially Blessed are the Middle Classes, for They are Virtuous: A Review Essay on Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Trilogy” Studies in Christian Ethics (April 29, 2018).
  22. See Chapter 2: ‘For the Land is Mine’: The Hebrew Commonwealth and the Rise of Redistribution in Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard UP, 2010).
  23. For an energetic engagement with Lloyd’s claims, see the Syndicate Symposium on his book:

Justin Hawkins

Justin R. Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Religious Ethics and Political Theory at Yale University. You can contact him, or read more of his writing, at