Natural Law, Protestants and the Infidel

I picked up a second hand copy of Helmut Thielicke’s 2 volume “Ethics” in St Peter’s Bookroom (East Melbourne) yesterday. And put it down again. (If you would like to purchase it, it’s still sitting there for $20–a bargain). What interested me is his discussion of “orders of creation” and “natural law”. This was done in the context of the “argument with the Roman Catholics”.

I well remember sitting through Pastor Noel Wiess’ classes on Ethics at Luther Seminary and listening to him dismiss almost the totality of Catholic ethics on the basis that “it was natural law”. He instead preferred the “Faith active in Love” model. Of course, that eventually translates as “doing what I think is right on the basis of my warm fuzzy feelings for others”.

An article entitled “Protestants and Natural Law” in First Things by J. Daryl Charles does an excellent job of showing the recent origins of the antipathy to natural law in Protestant theology, stemming from Barth (but obviously also from folk like Thielicke).

In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict bases his entire ethic upon a “grammar of peace” derived from reason and natural law. A point which both Benedict and Charles make is that only the natural law makes it possible for Christians to dialogue on ethical issues with secularists and adherants to other religions. The ethics of radical discipleship to which Barth (and Bonhoeffer) called the churches is essential for Christians to hear–and as Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, “There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel”–but unless we wish to wait for the conversion of the entire world before we make any headway on matters like weapons disarmament or ending abortion or feeding the hungry we need a platform from which to discuss the essential dignity and rights of the human being.

Natural Law gives us that starting place. As Christians, we recognise that it has its source in God just as much as the revealed law, but it is not necessary to affirm this to affirm the basic validity of natural law. Human reason alone (an attribute which is common to a majority of human beings–even though it often doesn’t seem that way) is sufficient to establish the basic dictates of the natural law. As Luther wrote in “Against the Sabbatarians” (not in “How Christians Should Regard Moses” as Charles indicates):

If the Ten Commandments are to be regarded as Moses’ law, then Moses came far too late, and he also addressed himself to far too few people, because the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs. For even if a Moses had never appeared and Abraham had never been born, the Ten Commandments would have had to rule in all men from the very beginning, as they indeed did and still do.

Of course, there are plenty of secular philosophers who have wished to deny the existence of a “natural law” (Kant, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau), but if anything, the process of interreligious dialogue has proved them wrong on this. There are some things that all human beings who care to put their minds to it can agree upon. (The unfortunate thing is that so few are ever ready to do so.) It is for this reason that I have argued elsewhere that the world’s religions can co-exist peacefully without giving up their claims to absolute Truth or their right to seek converts (the Catholic Church certainly doesn’t) as long as they are agreed on this absolute truth of natural law: the dignity of every human being is sacrosanct and to be respected and protected above all other rights and responsibilities.

We must also learn from this in our political debate. So often we are regarded as “pushing our religious views” when all we are doing is arguing on the basis of natural law. In this, we need to improve our argumentation so that we make it clear that when we defend human life, or institutions upon which the well-being of human life depends, we are arguing upon the basis of natural law, derived not from revelation but from reason (even though we are motivated by Christ’s love to do so).

Unfortunately, most of the secular world today has lost the sense that Luther had, ie. that the 10 Commandments were not something novel exposed upon humanity by a capricious God from outside, but are already written upon the hearts of every human being. As Pope Benedict says, the natural law is as internal to human ethical behaviour as grammar is to language: it is “the grammar of peace”.

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2 Responses to Natural Law, Protestants and the Infidel

  1. tonybartel says:

    You did rather well to even stay awake in that particular class. It contained some of the most unispiring lectures I have every attended.

  2. Schütz says:

    Who said I stayed awake?

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