Protestants and Natural Law

My recent interaction with Paul VanderKlay regarding natural law motivated me to spend some time looking into the relationship of Protestant thinkers with natural law.  Of course, most people consider natural law as a Catholic concept…but such thoughts seem silly to me.  For anyone in the West, ALL intellectual concepts before the Reformation were, in some form or fashion, Catholic concepts – either originated by or integrated by people who were attached, strongly or loosely, with Rome.  To label these as Catholic does nothing to clarify.

I have addressed this issue before, when it was pointed out to me that one specific Protestant writer stated boldly that there is nothing in Scripture that affirms or points to natural law.  My response, using only Scripture, was playfully entitled Natural Law, Sola Scriptura.  In this post, I will examine the issue of the separation directly – it appears to be much broader than just one Protestant thinker here or there.

This will be a somewhat long post, and yet will only scratch the surface on this topic.

Martin Luther

After giving a description of the development of natural law, beginning in pre-Christian Greece and continuing through Aquinas, when coming to Martin Luther, Thomas D. Pearson offers:

But was Luther even aware of the Thomistic account of natural law? There have been doubts about the scope and depth of Luther’s familiarity with the works of Aquinas.

I know from what I have read on the topic of Transubstantiation that Luther was arguing against Aquinas on this topic without understanding Aquinas very much at all.  Brett Salkeld writes, in his book Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity:

What [Luther and Calvin], and all the Reformers with them, rejected was not what Thomas had affirmed.

It would be reasonable to assume that this was just as true on the topic of natural law.  In any case, Pearson suggests:

Nonetheless, it was not Aquinas who immediately influenced Luther on this subject, but a movement whose point of departure was in important respects alien to that of the Thomists: nominalism.

very short description: “In metaphysics, nominalism is a philosophical view which denies the existence of universals and abstract objects….”  The most influential medieval thinker on this topic was William of Ockham.  Returning to Pearson, after noting that traditional depictions of nominalism are distorted, he suggests…

…the critical emphasis of nominalism on the will of God, rather than on divine reason, as the essential theological datum about God’s nature, has remained secure.

Hence, human reason cannot intuit the natural law that follows from God’s reason.  Therefore, it is only the Christian whose will is in alignment with God’s will who can discern the natural law.  This is clearly at odds with observation, as there are many who openly describe themselves as atheists or agnostics who yet are quite good at discerning the natural law; they may not label it “natural law,” but their views are quite consistent with natural law.

Maybe this is the problem: anything an atheist develops inherently must not be from God.  If so, there is no valid thought on any subject anywhere in the world.  So, this is not worth taking seriously.

The natural law may be written on the human heart, but for the nominalist it is the Christian whose will moves in harmony with God’s will who alone can appropriate what the natural law demands.

One might conclude that this still does not eliminate the concept of natural law as described by Aquinas, but Pearson isn’t finished:

The nominalist representation of natural law also diminishes the teleological element that is vital in the Thomist version.

By removing the idea of teleology – that everything in creation has a purpose, is made for an end – I am not sure how any concept of natural law can survive.

In the end, nominalism’s rendition of natural law replaces reason with will, nature with commands, teleology with obedience.

Which perhaps explains Luther’s insistence of the unity of rule in the king or prince – this, and the fact that his protector saved him from an almost certain death at the hands of the Church.  Yet, will is a dangerous master when deployed by anyone other than a loving God.  Perhaps it was God’s will that the universe be created in a manner conducive to and operating according to reason; I am good with that notion.

…Luther does indeed directly mention natural law in a number of his writings, he does not employ any vestige of the traditional apparatus of classical natural law theory as it existed prior to the nominalist movement.

Hence, we find things like Luther’s strong reaction against peasant revolts – it does not accord with “natural law” (as Luther understood it) for anyone to revolt against the ruler – the ruler’s “will,” in other words.  From an earlier post on Luther and this peasant revolt in Swabia:

By May 1525, the peasant armies seemed unstoppable.  Luther would respond further: to murder a peasant in rebellion wasn’t really murder, therefore…

“…let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.  It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”

[The cite is taken from Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.]

Pearson’s paper is very good and worth reading in its entirety for those interested, offering further details of Luther’s writing and contrasting this with Thomistic natural law – despite Luther referring to it as natural law.

John Calvin

Taken from Calvin’s Concept of Natural and Roman Law (PDF), by Irena Backus.

Adapting the Stoic concept of prolepsis to Christian philosophical norms, [Calvin] demonstrates that God implanted in the consciences of pagan nations an understanding of right and wrong and of justice and injustice, sufficient to remove any excuse for sin.

What is prolepsis?

…the Stoic doctrine of preconception [prolepsis] is an innate disposition to form certain conceptions. The most frequently mentioned preconceptions are the concept of the good and the concept of God.

Returning to Backus:

…Calvin separates natural moral law from biblical precepts and makes it stand for innate knowledge of right and wrong.  It is this innate knowledge that enables nations who do not know the Bible to have legal systems.

So far, so good.  This seems not too distant from the idea that natural law is discoverable by man’s reason, making it available to believer and non-believer alike.

Therefore by removing natural law in all its expressions from the purview of the church, Calvin automatically puts it in the purview of rulers and magistrates, in other words in chief civil legislators.

This, in my view, is problematic.  Backus continues (and forgive the length of this cite):

The other important difference, apart from the fact that neither Aquinas nor the glossa refer to the concept of prolepsis, is that Aquinas further defines natural moral law as participation of the law of God (lex aeterna) in every rational creature or the rational guidance of all creation. From this eternal law all creatures derive an inclination to those actions and ends that are proper to their natures. The term natural law applies specifically to the way in which rational creatures participate in the eternal law of God.  This is particularly important as it implies that to Aquinas the term natural law applies in its strict sense not to the natural tendencies and inclinations of man on which his reason reflects but to the precepts that his reason enunciates as a result of this reflection.  This metaphysical definition of natural law, which allows human reason a certain amount of autonomy in the moral realm, is absent from Calvin’s work.

I know that Calvin gets painted with a broad brush regarding total depravity, and, at least to my understanding, it doesn’t mean that which the worst caricatures of this idea portray it to mean.  But to the extent that everything about man is tainted by the fall, the last sentence would seem a reasonable conclusion from Calvin’s theology.  Yes, there is evil in each one of us.  But there is also good.  To allow this good to do its work, some autonomy is required.

Thus, despite similarities of terminology, Aquinas’ and Calvin’s concepts of natural law turn out not to have a great deal in common. Aquinas assigns to natural law an objective status of a set of precepts given by God that man can enunciate and apply to individual actions as a result of reflection.

There are other writers who touch on the natural law views of Luther and Calvin, commenting more favorably regarding a continuity from Aquinas to these two.  However, I find the above noted sources far more detailed.  Further, the pushback I have directly and indirectly encountered – along with the complete absence of this concept of natural law in any of my church experience in my many years of attending Reformed Protestant services – suggests to me that, whatever the truth is regarding this continuity (or not) from Aquinas to the Protestants, the teaching of natural law is absent in these Protestant circles.

And Others

By Stephen Grabill:

In his opening address at the first Christian Social Congress in 1891, the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper emphasized the catholicity of natural law in relation to Pope Leo XIII’s new encyclical Rerum Novarum. “We must admit, to our shame,” said Kuyper, “that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism. The encyclical Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII states the principles which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots.”

At the heart of Rerum Novarum, and the recent encyclical Deus Caritas Est by Pope Benedict XVI, is an appeal to reason and human nature, but not in a way that denigrates faith or revealed truth. “From God’s standpoint,” insists the pope, “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” The Christian Church fulfills its responsibility to form consciences and to promote justice, when, as Pope Benedict insists, social teaching is argued “on the basis of reason and natural law.”

Alas, apparently few in the Reformed tradition would follow this lead:

In much of modern Protestant theology, there is skepticism about this appeal to reason. Protestants believe the bridge has been shattered and replaced with an ethic of divine command.

Grabill goes on to note that Protestants of all stripes, when regarding natural law, hold views ranging from blanket dismissal to hesitant acceptance.  But even those favorably disposed consider natural law “an uninvited intruder.”

From Carl E. Braaten:

Karl Barth is a central figure in the branch of modern Protestantism that rejects natural law. Barth held that Christian ethics has no use for an approach that concerns itself with universal principles inscribed in human nature and ascertainable by reason. Instead, he insisted, ethics is based directly on the command of the living God, which “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.”

Leaving no defense against rulers who do not operate based directly on the command of whatever god rules them.


It is unfortunate that Luther so clearly suggested that monopoly authority rests in the king, even to the point of insisting that the peasants who revolted against the king could be slain without remorse.  It was (the faulty interpretation of) Romans 13 on steroids.  It is further unfortunate that law was tied to the king’s will, with the faulty assumption that the king’s will would reflect God’s will.

Once William of Ockham and his nominalism was introduced as the basis for natural law, any meaningful basis for natural law was lost.  Without a purpose, a telos, without universals, on what basis is an ethic to be determined?

Jordan Peterson burst on the scene a few years ago.  Many like to separate the “political” Jordan Peterson from the “search for meaning” Jordan Peterson.  The two cannot be separated, as both “Petersons” are aiming at the need for natural law.

The “political” Peterson was driven by the understanding that human beings are created with proper ends, and that political society was purposely destroying the possibility of achieving such ends; the “meaning crisis” Peterson understood that human beings had no healthy ends at which to aim, because political society was purposely destroying the possibility of achieving such ends.  It is the same issue.

As I have previously written:

There has been plenty of discussion in the last few years about what has been labeled the meaning crisis in the West.  I find that resolving this meaning crisis and moving toward liberty are both addressable by the same thing (and only this one thing): how is one to live?  The answer is easy: according to man’s purpose.  A second question: how do I find meaning?  That answer is easy: by living according to man’s purpose.  What is man’s purpose?  Beatitudo: Love.

A lion in a zoo has plenty of food without the struggle of the hunt, access to free healthcare, and is protected in every physical way.  Is he living a meaningful life?  To ask the question is to answer it.  His life has meaning if he lives according to his purpose – and that purpose isn’t going to be found in a zoo.

This is why the search for meaning must incorporate the importance of a natural law ethic.  It is the ethic that conforms to man’s purpose, and a life lived according to man’s purpose is a life of meaning.

Unless and until this entire “meaning crisis” discussion both overtly names and grapples with natural law, it will be a futile discussion.  Humanity, human liberty and human dignity will suffer for it.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.