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Uneasy Bedfellows?: Natural Law and Protestant Theology

June 13th, 2008 | 4 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. 

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