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Uneasy Bedfellows?: Natural Law and Protestant Theology

June 13th, 2008 | 3 min read

By Tex

If there is one idea that comes up in every lecture at Acton University, it is a particular view of the human person mentioned in shorthand as “Christian anthropology.”  This view of the human being as a person made in the image of God, made free, and having an essence or nature is integral to the second most bandied idea here at Acton—natural law.  Natural law, briefly described, is that law which is universally binding and universally accessible through the right operation of human reason.  While not necessarily a Christian idea, also being promulgated by Roman Stoic philosophers in an attempt to unify the Roman Empire across the vast geographic, cultural, and religious divides contained under the standard of the Imperial eagle, Christian theologians and thinkers found that a very similar idea was implicitly and explicitly stated in the Bible.  Drawing on this notion of universal truth, universal morals, and the unity of reason across the human race Christians were able to make sense of the universal message of Gospel in a variety of very different social contexts.

In more recent decades, however, the idea of natural law has fallen on hard times both among the world’s irreligious as well as, interestingly, many Protestant evangelicals.  In a thoughtful and clarifying Acton University lecture this morning, Dr. Stephen Grabill argued that much of the Protestant rejection of natural law can be traced to certain doctrinal emphases arising out of 19th century church teachings.  Besides tracing the historical legacy of 19th century Protestant thought, Grabill also suggested that many of difficulties plaguing evangelicals as they engage with their secular culture on social and political issues can be easily connected to an abandonment of the Christian heritage of natural law.

For many Protestants today, and more especially those in the Reformed tradition, natural law poses two problems, both of which have anthropological roots.  First is the problem of the nature of fallen man.  Theologians have argued about what sort of effect the Fall had on mankind and to what degree it distorted or destroyed the image of God in man.  Some Christians have argued that the Fall defaced but did not erase the image of God—men are fallen but are still capable of seeing, understanding, and moving towards goodness in some way.  This capability of seeing, understanding, and moving is located in part in the mind of man, as well as in his will, and desires.  In effect, while man has been tainted by sin he is capable of hearing and recognizing echoes of goodness as they are presented to him in the world and he can respond appropriately to them, however shadowy they might appear.

Other Christians posit that the Biblical language regarding the nature of man after his expulsion from Eden is sufficiently bleak to justify the view that, whatever the image of God in man might look like after being broken in the Fall, man is either unable or incapable of seeing, understanding, and moving towards goodness in any way; this view is most often articulated by Reformed theologians and thinkers like Barth and Van Til.  Salvation by grace alone and apart from any works of mankind is only one conclusion of this anthropological characterization; another conclusion is that, whether or not there is such a thing as natural or universal law, men are incapable of understanding or being obedient to this law in any meaningful fashion, without the saving grace of God applied through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the individual.  This view of man makes it quite impossible for Christians to appeal to natural law and human reason as they communicate with non-Christians and attempt to rationally argue with them over issues of the common good.

Dr. Grabill suggested that this anthropological position (that of Barth, Van Til, et al) is inconsistent with Christian doctrine in general and with the thought of the early Reformers as well.  Barring deeper study in this issue (and I’m going to have to sit down with a copy of Herman Bavinck’s Dogmatics as soon as I get home), I am left with this question: Even if the early Reformers did not spell out an anthropology inconsistent with natural law and an apologetic that begins with a unifying appeal to human reason, were the seeds of such a view of mankind implicit in the fundamental Reformation formulation of the doctrines of original sin and salvation?  In other words, are the dogmatics of Barth and Van Til the logical conclusion of the Reformation’s theological assertions?