075 Necessary Natural Law


The Natural Law is one of the most durable of all ethical positions. Somewhat out-of-fashion for several decades, especially where legal positivism flourishes, it has recently experienced a lively comeback in significant quarters. This is markedly evident in Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1997) by a professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas, J. Budziszewski. Interestingly enough, “Before anything else,” he says, “I am a Christian; this means, among other things, that I am a Christian before I am a philosopher” (p. 179). Thus he can declare: “One good really is supremely important: the good of holiness, for everything must be done for the sake of God” (p. 201). Granted that ultimate focus, however, there are still subordinate goods, secondary issues which legitimately merit our attention. In the realm of ethics, therefore, he finds the “natural-law tradition as the nearest approach to the truth about the ‘law written on the heart’ which ethical and political philosophy have yet, by the grace of God, achieved” (p. 11).

Budziszewski organizes his presentation around three natural law advocates (Aristotle; Aquinas; Locke) and one adversary (Mill). His explanations and critiques, punctuated with clever analogies and contemporary illustrations, enable one to see the importance of their views. Aristotle argues, for example, “that the good of a human soul lies in the activity of using and following reason, and its highest good lies in the activity of using it and following it excellently” (p. 23). Aquinas moves beyond Aristotle, urging us to envision God as the sun in whose light we see What’s real, and given that truth we can live rightly and well. Locke, while introducing some novel perspectives, still roots the natural law in God, not man’s mind as Kant will do. While clearly aligned with Aristotle and Aquinas, he maintains a balanced perspective, pointing out weaknesses and flaws in both friends and foes (e.g. Mill).

After surveying the philosophical scene, he wraps things up with a concluding section, setting forth his own convictions. In a chapter devoted to “The Art of Teaching,” he heeds George Orwell’s dictum that “We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men” (p. 171). Thus the first task is to “unlearn” what has too often been taught in the schools! Rather than flattering students’ prejudices and pride, classical teachers are called to help them embrace an authentic humility which should enable them to see the truth. Rather than amplifying the dominant culture’s propaganda, classical teachers much teach so as to awaken land fine tune “baloney-meters” which enable students to toss aside untruths. This means education should include logic and math, courses which train the mind to think clearly. He even includes a helpful appendix, “Elementary Reasoning,” to help readers without a background in logic get started!

Budziszewski also provides “A Christian Appraisal of Natural-Law Theory.” Scripture and Christian Tradition certainly seem to approve it. Yet, because of sin, we are less than able to do what we know the law commands. Man’s passions and pride all too often keep him from doing what he knows is right. The natural law is indeed “written on the heart” of every man; he understands it well enough. The problem is volitional. We humans are all too human and routinely fail to do what we know we ought to do! Thus the law has value, but it cannot save us from ourselves. That’s up to God alone!

A different approach to the subject is found in A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law, ed. Michael Cromartie (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1997). This volume collects papers presented to a gathering at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as assigned responses and free-floating discussion sessions.

Russell Hittinger, professor of law at the University of Tulsa, leads off with a fine essay entitled “Natural Law and Catholic Moral Theology.” He notes that “natural law” legitimately applies to “any one or a combination of these three foci: law in the human mind, in nature, and in the mind of God” (2). It is important, however, to distinguish what you’re talking about, which was not always done in earlier centuries–patristic theologians such as Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa rather loosely referred to the lex indita, called synderesis by later Medieval thinkers, which primarily resides in man’s mind.

Hittinger anchors his presentation in the greatest of the Medievals, St Thomas Aquinas, illustrating the perennial relevance of the Angelic Doctor. Importantly, “nowhere does Thomas define natural law in anything but theological terms” (p. 5), and he resolutely treats it “from the standpoint of its causal origin (that is, what makes it a law), not in terms of a secondary order of causality through which it is discovered (the human intellect)” (p. 6). The law’s authority, St Thomas insisted, comes only from God! In the hands of secular philosophers, especially during the Enlightenment, the focus of the natural shifted from God to man. “In Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, man is considered in an ‘original position’ under the authority of no pope, prince, or scripture” (p. 9). If there is a law inscribed on the mind, it comes from Nature rather than God.

Though Catholic thinkers, such as Leo XIII, maintained a Thomistic perspective, too many modern philosophers and theologians (influential “proportionalists” specifically named by Hittinger) have misrepresented and reduced “natural law” to a purely human level. To these thinkers, “natural law” means following whatever one’s personal “values” suggest. Nothing is absolutely right or wrong, for the “law” of the heart is not God-given but humanly-devised. Much like Senator Joseph Biden, expounding his version of the “natural law” in the Clarence Thomas hearings, moral decisions must be purely individual choices.

Pope John Paul II–fortunately in Hittinger’s judgment– seeks to return the Church to a more traditional and biblical position. Only when tied to God, only within the parameters of the Divine Law as revealed in the Mosaic Code, can we find both righteous guidance and personal freedom. “The Pope points out that all issues of circumstance, culture, place, and time notwithstanding, certain actions can never be made right; no human ‘law’ can make them right. Just as from the scales and axiomatic measures of music thee can come a Beethoven sonata or a Schoenberg twelve-tone composition, so obedience to the commandments opens the possibility of a creative, fluid, and completely realized human liberty” (p. 22).

Responding to Hittinger, Carl E. Braaten, former professor of systematic theology at the Luther School of Theology, Chicago, gives a most sympathetic and incisive critique. He warmly accepts Hittinger’s invitation for Protestants to engage Catholics and the more biblically-based Thomism, for he reminds us that Luther’s effort was to reform the Church, not shred it. Unfortunately, modern Protestants have not only promoted disintegration in the church but ethical chaos in the congregations. “In this situation of moral confusion and ethical wobbliness, many of our people–pastors laity, and theologians–have welcomed the magisterial ministry of Pope John Paul II in behalf of the whole Church. Drawing as he does on the Bible, the ancient creeds and councils of the Church, and the fathers and doctors of the great tradition” (p. 32), he provides a platform for genuinely ecumenical efforts. The modern Catholics Hittinger condemns seem indistinguishable from Protestants Braaten similarly rejects, for both groups deny the traditional Lutheran commitment to the lex creationis, which insisted on two sources of divine revelation: general and special.

The Lutheran perspective of God’s double revelation sets Braaten against Karl Barth and his dogmatic commitment to Sola Scriptura. “Barth’s attack on both Catholic natural law theory and the Lutheran theology of the orders of creation was so vehement that after World War II many Protestant theologians slid down the slippery slope of situation ethics. Theological ethics based on the orders of creation was aborted, and nothing arose to take its place” (p. 36). The Protestant world still suffers from Barth’s attack, Braaten thinks, and the antinomianism so evident in many circles illustrates Barth’s influence. “Our churches,” Braaten memorably declares, “are mired in the amoral marshland of antinomianism” (p. 37).

Law and Gospel go together. Luther called the Law the work of God’s left hand, the Gospel the work of His right hand. Both hands must function. “The real casualty of the eclipse of law is the preaching of the Gospel. The law is the fundamental presupposition of the Gospel. The Gospel is not the word of God apart from the law” (p. 38). Unless we know we are condemned under the law we cannot respond to the good news of deliverance through Christ.

“Antinomianism in the pulpit turns the Gospel into a sweet anodyne that lulls people to sleep, when they should be roused by the law. The twofold process of demythologizing and psychologizing has removed the negative symbols of the biblical worldview–sin, Satan, the wrath of God, the final judgment and hell. H. Richard Niebuhr captured it well in his caustic characterization of the preaching of liberal Protestantism: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross'” (p. 38). Thus Braaten, a Lutheran, joins Hittinger, a Catholic, in calling for a divinely-rooted natural law perspective which enables the Church to take strong moral stands and paves the way for the proclamation of Grace.

The second major essay, “Calvin’s Use of Natural Law,” was presented by Susan E. Schreiner, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. For all its controversy in the 20th century, she notes that the Reformers basically accepted the Catholic version of the natural law. She then proceeds to illustrate, with copious quotations, Calvin’s support it. His understanding of the Fall and its consequences, of course, led him to discount man’s ability to follow his conscience, but that did not mean he had no natural understanding of moral principles. Solid families, just societies, lasting commitments to social order, all reveal an enduring awareness of the natural law. In her view, there is no significant conflict between Calvin and the Catholic position of his milieu.

Responding to Schreiner, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, links Calvin with Barth to suggest that on a deep level Calvin’s theology cannot be reconciled with the natural law. George surveys the hot debate within Calvinism on this issue, arguing that the case is not as closed as Schreiner suggests. At least part of the Reformers’ agenda, he contends, was a rejection of the natural revelation undergirding natural law ethics.

Daniel Westberg, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, contributes his thoughts on “The Reformed Tradition and Natural Law” to the discussion. He notes that most Protestants, following the lead of theologians such as Helmut Thielicke, still look askance at the “natural law,” thinking it non-biblical, rationalistic, and largely Roman Catholic in nature. Sampling the Reformed tradition, Westberg looks briefly at Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, William Ames, Hugo Grotius, and Emil Brunner, discerning a general drift from strongly biblical to more naturalistic position.

Finally, Joan Lockwood O’Donnovan, an Oxford scholar, discusses “the Concept of Rights in Christian Moral Discourse,” arguing that contemporary “rights” talk has superseded the more authentically Christian “natural law” language of earlier centuries. “Rights” usually mean “human rights” and are rooted (a la Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant) purely in human nature, not God. Subjective preferences or desires become the “rights” which “vicitims” of various hues eagerly claim in courts and classrooms. In time “rights” become “civil rights,” entitlements demanded from social and political structures. When such “rights” are linked with “natural law” the intellectual confusion becomes so complete that meaningful discussion easily collapses. Consequently, she urges Christian theologians to divorce “rights” from “law.”

In response, Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, argues that “rights” talk still serves legitimate ends. Since “rights” are not indispensable, since they are not “foundational moral principles,” he accepts O’Donnovan’s basic contention. “For Christians, as indeed for other non-liberals, rights are derived from more fundamental principles, that is, from norms (including requirements of the common good) and basic human goods (including such intrinsically social goods as friendship, marriage, and religion), which provide our most fundamental reasons for action” (p. 158). Yet, he insists, “rights” can be securely rooted in an objective, divinely-established reality. So concerns such as “rights” to justice and liberty may be rightly celebrated within the natural law tradition. Filled with thoughtful passages, A Preserving Grace allows the reader to engage some of the most thoughtful Christians of our time. Anyone interested in, or concerned for, the restoration of natural law will profit from a study of these pages.

* * * * * * * * * *

Charles Rice, a professor of law at Notre Dame, has a fine treatise entitled 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It Is & Why We Need It (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1993). Rooted in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Magisterium, Rice argues that the natural law contains necessary moral norms which ultimately reside not in “a set of abstract principles but the person of Christ, who shows man what it means to be man” (p. 16). In this respect, yoking the Divine Word with the human conscience, Rice’s explanation of the natural law has fresh perspective and power.

The natural law obviously has a rich intellectual tradition, reaching back to Plato and Aristotle, passing through the Stoics and the great Medievals, lately blooming in Martin Luther King, Jr. In the most basic sense, “natural law is the story of how things work” (p. 27), how human beings run rightly when their moral engines are well-tuned. It is, as Cicero clearly explained, the conviction that “‘right is based, not upon men’s opinions, but upon Nature'” (p. 31). Nature, however, reveals Nature’s God. Thus, in the view of the great English jurist Sir Edward Coke, this is the law “‘which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction and this is lex aeterna, the moral law, called also the law of nature'” (p. 33). Sir William Blackstone, long revered as an authority in jurisprudence, similarly insisted: “‘As man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should, in all points conform to his Maker’s will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature. . . . This law of nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other'” (p. 33).

The greatest of the natural law philosophers, most concur, is St. Thomas Aquinas, and to his thought Rice devotes much attention. Given the assumption that God created an orderly world, orchestrating in accord with His Eternal Law, we rightly expect to discern, through the use of reason, moral principles aligned with it. Most basically, it seems clear that “‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided'” (p. 45). At its most simple and important level, this is the guiding principle of the “natural law.” Everything else flows from this self-evident truth. One would be hard-pressed, it seems, to find folks outside university walls arguing that it’s good to do evil and evil to do good. Our problems come when we misunderstand what’s good or deliberately flaunt what we know. To St. Thomas, five natural inclinations follow this basic truth. One should: 1) seek the good; 2) preserve one’s being; 3) preserve the species through sexual congress; 4) live in community; 5) rightly use one’s intellect and will.

Aquinas and natural law defenders necessarily hold that we can, in fact, know things. For the past 500 years, however, a host of philosophers have insisted we can know nothing more than our own minds. This is the Grand Canyon of philosophy, a monumental chasm separating rival schools and shaping societal policies. Ockham’s nominalism, evident in Descartes and Kant and other “modern” architects, has cut us off from the Real and thus eliminated any “truth” about objective realities. We’re living in Plato’s cave, toying with images and reflections. In Rice’s judgment, however, Aquinas was forever right in teaching that “‘Man’s intellect, by its concepts, knows reality. The ideas are that by which reality is known; they are not that which is known'” (p. 115).

To a considerable extent, Rice holds, the perennial philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas has been sustained by the Roman Catholic Church, especially through its Magisterium, its teachers. Thus he draws upon the documents of councils and papal pronouncements to show how the Church has upheld the natural law tradition. Therein we find a close binding of the Truth which stands revealed in Christ Jesus with the truth we find in the natural law: “‘In reality,’ said the Second Vatican Council, ‘it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear'” (p. 207). And in that revelation we finally see God’s will for us–His law ever convicting us, His grace perfecting our nature.

Structured in question-answer format, this is a fine, tightly-argued presentation. The many quotations have accurate footnotes, and one is encouraged to explore the deepest sources of the natural law tradition.