Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 77 (November 1997): 56-59.
Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. By J. Budziszewski. InterVarsity Press. 240 pp. $14.99 paper.
A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law. Edited by Michael Cromartie. Eerdmans. 195 pp. $20 paper.
Reviewed by Dean C. Curry
In the preface to A Preserving Grace, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center speaks of a renewed interest among American Christians in natural law, and the publication of Cromartie’s volume simultaneously with J. Budziszewski’s Written on the Heart provides welcome evidence of the revival of thoughtful, religiously grounded thinking about natural law.
These are different kinds of books. Cromartie’s is a thought-provoking collection of conference papers and commentaries covering topics ranging from the secularization of natural law thinking within Catholic moral theology to the understandings of natural law within reformed, or Calvinistic, Protestantism. The book’s focal essays, written by Russell Hittinger, Susan Schreiner, Daniel Westberg, and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, are supplemented by enlightening, and often feisty, exchanges between an ecumenical group of Catholic, mainline, and evangelical scholars that includes Robert George, Carl Braaten, and James Skillen.
Budziszewski’s book, on the other hand, is a more focused, textbook-like discussion of the intellectual evolution of the natural law tradition that includes major units on Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Mill. In covering material in such encyclopedic fashion, Budziszewski’s transitions are sometimes not as clear as they could be and his argument, at times, reads like a transcript of his undergraduate lectures at the University of Texas. Nevertheless, this book is an informative and often interesting primer on natural law.
In spite of their differences of format and focus, there are common themes that run through A Preserving Grace and Written on the Heart. Of particular note is the vigor with which both books defend the natural law tradition. Budziszewski claims that his is "a book with an attitude" whose purpose is to defend "an embattled tradition," while Cromartie hopes that renewed attention to natural law will "strengthen the influence of moral values in our common life." And yet, as valuable as both these books are in terms of defending natural law and its importance to the ordering of our life together, perhaps their most significant contribution lies in helping us understand why natural law has been such a point of controversy to people of faith, and why many people of faith today are once again interested in reclaiming this tradition.
The notion that there exist universal moral principles that are knowable to everyone is an ancient one, with roots that extend back to Aristotle and, even further, to the rabbinical tradition of the Noahide commandments. But as Budziszewski reminds us, it is Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of faith and reason that defined the contours of the Christian understanding of natural law for eight centuries.
In brief, Thomas held Aristotle in high regard, especially his insight that reason provides knowledge of the highest good. At the same time, Thomas was a man of Christian faith who believed that reason was a reliable guide to knowledge only because it was tethered to the Divine. Reason presupposes faith, and both faith and reason come from God. Natural law is the moral law written on every human heart that instructs human beings of their natural good. This law is not salvific—it cannot bring reconciliation with God—but it allows human beings access to those "first principles of practical reason" that point us to the common good.
This Thomist formulation of natural law became an integral component of Christian theology and remained unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation, when, according to Budziszewski, the crisis in the tradition began. The relation of the Protestant Reformers to natural law has been hotly debated for much of this century. This scholarly controversy is succinctly chronicled by Susan Schreiner in her valuable contribution to A Preserving Grace, which convincingly demonstrates that such leaders of the Reformation as Calvin and Melanchthon never assailed natural law. Budziszewski attempts to extend the point, suggesting that the mainstream Protestant Reformers in question "saw no problem with natural law," but Daniel Westberg, in a companion essay to Schreiner’s, is more nuanced, arguing that the Reformed tradition’s stance vis-à-vis natural law has been "moderate"—not opposed to it, but suspicious nonetheless.
Schreiner is convincing in arguing that natural law, or "the dictates of nature," was central to John Calvin’s theological understanding. Budziszewski goes on to locate in other and later Reformers the first natural law "rejectionists," those who believed that the corrupting effects of the Fall undermined any possibility that human reason could grasp the purposes of God. This "bleak interpretation" led, in time, to two responses: one that rejected natural law in toto and another that, rather than rejecting it outright, reinterpreted natural law by focusing not on the order of creation—now corrupt and unknowable—but on the consequences or implication of creation’s ruin. From this latter rejectionist path Budziszewski traces the origins of modern natural law in Hobbes, Locke, and their contemporary secular heirs. It is from among the former group of rejectionists, those who rejected natural law completely, however, that the roots of twentieth-century Protestantism’s hostility to natural law are found.
In both books much is said about Karl Barth’s antipathy toward natural law and the considerable influence of his viewpoint within the Protestant world. In Cromartie’s volume, Carl Braaten summarizes Barth’s views of natural law as "a Trojan horse inside the walls of the Church," whose "cradle is not biblical revelation but pagan metaphysics." In a later essay, William Edgar rightly locates Barth’s critique of natural law within a larger Barthian project of deconstructing liberal Protestantism’s optimistic confidence in human reason. For Barth, sin has "obliterated" (as Schreiner puts it) any possibility of knowing truth apart from God’s word; thus there can be "no common ground, no point of contact" (as Budziszewski suggests) between believers and nonbelievers.
As important as Barth is to understanding Protestantism’s drift away from natural law, it is a weakness of both books that neither pays attention to the impact of evangelical theology and culture in intensifying that drift. In particular, many of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Protestants most closely associated with the theological orthodoxy of the Reformers rejected the Reformers’ embrace of natural law because, from their post-Enlightenment perspective, the epistemology of natural law looked indistinguishable from secular rationalism.
Among evangelical theologians in the twentieth century, this opposition to natural law found an especially influential voice in the scholarship and teaching of Cornelius Van Til, who argued that the unregenerate are "as blind as a mole" in matters of truth. "The sinner," cautions Van Til, "has cemented colored glasses to his eye which he cannot remove. And all is yellowed to the jaundiced eye." To be sure, most American evangelicals have never heard of Cornelius Van Til or his presuppositional theology. Nevertheless, his Word-centered epistemology makes him, along with Barth, a major reason American Protestantism became uncomfortable with the natural law tradition.
There is, of course, another factor that has contributed to the crisis in natural law thinking, and that factor has little to do with theology per se. There can be little doubt that much of American Protestantism’s reluctance derives from the close association of natural law with Roman Catholicism. For much of this century a virulent strain of anti-Catholic bigotry infused Protestant fundamentalism. Ironically, however, it is within the cultural dynamic of the historically hostile evangelical-Catholic relationship that we find an explanation for the renewed interest in natural law addressed by Cromartie and Budziszewski.
Over the past decade much has been written about America’s culture wars and the resulting rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics. While old suspicions linger in some quarters, the commitment to discoverable truth and absolute moral authority among many evangelicals and Catholics has allowed them to forge a common public agenda. In turn, their work on behalf of a common cultural vision has made both groups more willing to focus on the theological beliefs that unite them rather than on those beliefs that separate them. A consequence of this cultural transformation has been that evangelicals are more willing to revisit theological traditions that Catholics and Protestants have historically shared.
As evangelicals and Catholics have pursued their cultural agenda they have had to learn to speak a language suitable for engaging the public moral discourse in American life. This task has proven easier for Catholics, for whom the natural law tradition has always been an integral part of their church’s social teaching. For evangelicals, however, the task of translating their religiously based principles into a public language has proved challenging and even sometimes divisive. Some evangelicals have resisted speaking in a common vernacular, believing that the Christian’s cultural witness should be explicitly Christian and that fidelity to a Bible-only epistemology is an imperative transcending considerations of efficacy in matters of public life. Other evangelicals, believing that biblical faithfulness requires effective cultural engagement, have been drawn anew to natural law.
For these evangelicals, as well as for all people of faith, Written on the Heart and A Preserving Grace provide a useful guide to understanding a rich theological tradition that, for centuries, has well served the citizens of the City of God in their earthly sojourn.
Dean C. Curry is Professor of Political Science at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.