If it didn’t exist before, Dale Coulter is making it happen:

I think that evangelicals largely operate within what I will call a Ciceronian-Augustinian trajectory that runs from Augustine through twelfth-century thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of St. Victor to Bonaventure, and then to Martin Bucer, and on. One could call this a voluntarism, but that classification really does not fit well. It would be better to say that this psychology privileges the role of affections as internal movements of emotion and desire that determine both what reason assents to and what the individual delights in. These internal affective movements are also connected to bodily states such that the human body does matter when it comes to making moral decision, which is why I would say healing of the body is a critical part of salvation. The affections are the integrating center of the human person because they bind the body to the soul. Bodily states inform states of mind because of human affectivity.

The verdicts of human reason, then, are always made in and through the affections because the internal motions of our thought life flow with the internal motions of emotion and desire. We simply cannot extract our imagination and its creative capacity from our affections, just ask the sociopath who has lost the emotional capacity to connect. While I cannot trace out all of the historical links here, they are present. My point here is that Thomas Aquinas is not the natural fit with this trajectory, and that evangelicals should look to other medieval interpreters of natural law before they try to wrestle with Thomas’ Aristotelianism.

That’s smart stuff, as they say.  Coulter understands the nuances of Pentacostal thought better than a lot of folks. And while I’d like to think I might have captured a few of them in the book, I haven’t yet tried to piece those nuances together with the natural law discussion the way he has.  That’s bold, interesting theological reflection.

I need to think through this some more, so take the following with a grain of salt.  But it strikes me that Coulter’s suggestion that evangelicals can embrace the natural law succeeds only if we end up switching out the meaning of the term.  The key comes in his suggestion that “that human affections can lead individuals to the right moral conclusions about particular moral options even if a comprehensive system is beyond reach.”

Three worries here:   first, it’s not clear outside of the special dispensation of grace why we should trust the  ability of human affections to get the “right moral conclusions about particular moral options.”  That’s just the worry about sin’s effects, writ on our affections (and conscience) rather than our reason.

Second, it seems like the point of natural law theory is to develop a “comprehensive system.”  It has a lawlike character precisely because it rejects a particularist account of ethics that borders on situational ethics.  The natural law theory may learn about the nature of the good through particular situations, but the nature of that good is trans-situational and hence lends itself to a sort of comprehensive ethical system.

Finally, Coulter seems to adopt the voluntarist psychology.  But voluntarist psychological accounts tend to lose sight of the objectivity order of created goods, which is why they are so frequently allied with Divine Command Theory.  But if the order of goods is in creation and discernible through our intellect, then it’s not clear why we should adopt the affection-centered approach that Coulter commends as the source for ethics.

I will say this as well:  Coulter’s approach makes me think that the real divide between evangelicals and natural lawyers is not simply an account of differing human psychologies in terms of the noetic effects of sin.  It’s also a divide about the nature of the objective moral order, it’s contents, and our relationship to it.  Sin affects everything, and the problem of perceiving the good and responding to it (which is the problem of living ethically) may not simply be because our minds and hearts are twisted, but because the objective order of goods has been corrupted as well.

I’m not rejecting Coulter’s approach.  Just raising worries.  He’s swimming in deeper water than I can right now, so I hold the above pretty loosely (especially my final point).  Mostly I’m trying to muddle way my through to seeing this relationship more clearly than I do now and I’m grateful for Dr. Coulter’s contribution to that.

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Posted by 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.

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