natural law theology

Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Natural Law and Theology

on November 7, 2017

The proper role of reason in the Christian faith has historically been a point of controversy between the Catholic Church and at least much of Protestantism, with Martin Luther and many subsequent Protestants holding that Catholic teaching represents a compromise in Christ’s lordship. Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University discussed Catholic versus Protestant versions of natural law at a conference commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and sponsored by the Center for Evangelical Catholicism in Greenville, South Carolina on Oct. 21.

The “standard narrative” about the difference is that “the Catholic Church teaches that human beings are capable of knowing by unaided reason the existence and nature of both God and his moral law,” while Protestantism holds that “cognitive powers so corrupted by sin cannot provide to human beings the power to know God and his moral law, apart from special revelation [i.e., Scripture].” Catholic teaching, Beckwith said, is held to say that we must know God by natural reason before we have faith, while Protestantism holds that it is “perfectly rational” to believe without natural theology. But Beckwith holds that this “standard narrative” is wrong. He maintains that Protestantism and Catholicism are really “not that far apart at all” regarding the deliverances of human reason regarding natural theology and natural law.

Beckwith defined natural law as “normative guidelines for human action that are at their root not artifactual [i.e., man made].” Contemporary legal theorists often hold law is entirely artifactual. All Christians, Beckwith said, should reject this, and anyone holding to a natural law theory necessarily rejects this. Catholic natural law theory involves belief in 1) universal immutable truth;  2) human beings can know these truths; and 3) human nature is the basis for knowing moral truth. All persons are held to possess this knowledge, and are inclined to it even when they are not immediately aware of it. Quoting J. Budziszewski’s expression, Beckwith said that natural morality is “something we can’t not know.”

Understanding correct motivation for action is the point to natural law. In natural law doctrine, natural law is the basis for positive law (i.e., the law enacted by the state). Human statutes are positive laws that protect human goods. Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to natural law in his letter from a Birmingham jail when he declared that “an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

Natural law in turn derives its authority from from the “eternal law,” or order in the mind of God, Beckwith noted. The precepts of natural law, although involving basic universal moral knowledge such as prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, etc., are not always clearly understood in all their applications by everyone.  For clarity in the interest of practicality, the divine law of Scripture, and also positive law enacted by human authority, are needed. Also, because of the fall of man, natural law “may be enbedded in laws and customs that include mistakes.”

Beckwith gave as an example the permission for abortion, in which the killing of another human being is justified by defining the unborn child as not a person. The error, Beckwith said, according to the Catholic Church (with which Evangelicals are generally in agreement), is holding that a person is reducible to what he does. Instead, what a person does is the result of what he is.

Protestant critique of the natural law springs from different motives. Beckwith identified two principal kinds of objectors. These include first, the “frustrated fellow traveller.” For these persons, natural law is judged to have failed social conservatives in the culture war. Beckwith identified Alan Jacobs of Baylor University as an example. He concedes that natural law may be more appealling in the future to people who now find it unpersuasive, but Jacobs maintains that it has been of little value in our immediate circumstances. Beckwith pointed out, however, that natural law judgments have rarely if ever received unanimous support. This is because controversial issues involve “the secondary precepts of the natural law” (e.g., that abortion is murder). He noted that one can be “habituated” by evil opinions or customs to violating details of the natural law.

“General principles” of natural  law can also be rejected, although people who dissent in fact appeal to natural law. Beckwith gave the example of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Obergefell (same-sex marriage) decision. Kennedy did not invent a new normality for same-sex marriage but wrenched fragments of natural law and misused them. Permanence, exclusivity, and conjugality are gone as requirements for marriage, but Kennedy still appealed to other aspects of marriage (“transcendent importance” and beauty).

Beckwith believes that Jacobs’ concern about the ineffectiveness of natural law in the current context is “understandable,” in view of the way in which John Rawls’ liberalism has affected American law. In this view, law must be justified by reasons everyone accepts. Since natural law is advanced as a reason independent of religious doctrine, but not accepted by many liberals, Protestant critics such as Jacobs judge it to be ineffective. But, Beckwith said, advocates of natural law are not advancing it as an answer to the concerns of liberalism, but as a way to describe how societies actually are.

Secondly, there is the “solo scripturist,” (as distinct the actual Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura”), who finds natural law a “poor substitute” for the Bible. Biblical law is explicit and unchanging, unlike natural law, which is inferred from observation of human beings. Beckwith pointed to theologian Carl F.H. Henry as an example of a “solo scriptura” objection to natural law. He declared that natural law is unacceptable to Protestants because it 1) is independent of the Bible; 2) is a universal set of moral beliefs (presumably accepted by both believers and unbelievers); and 3) can be understood by human reason despite original sin.

But Beckwith said that Aquinas acknowledged that more than natural law is needed. Divine law (in Scripture) gives the proper answer when natural law might lead to different conclusions. Additionally, Beckwith said, the Bible seems to refer to natural law when it shows Cain aware it was wrong to murder Abel, and when people grasp that the point of moral examples in Scripture, such as the prophet Nathan’s example of a rich man taking a poor man’s ewe lamb in condemning David’s adultery and murder, and Jesus’ reference to a father not giving his son a stone instead of bread. Also, natural law is not a complex system of rules, Beckwith pointed out. It may be obscured by errors of reasoning or “vicious customs,” according to Aquinas, so that the Catholic view of natural law does take account of the noetic effect of sin (its effect on our reasoning).

Beckwith then turned to another part of the controversy concerning Catholic and Protestant approaches to the natural light of reason, namely, natural theology. This is the philosophical project to acquire knowledge of the existence and nature of God without the aid of divine revelation. Beckwith said that while the Catholic Church affirms that the natural light of reason provides certainty about God’s nature and existence, the church is not committed to “particular philosophical arguments” about God’s existence and nature.

In responding to Protestant critics of natural theology, Beckwith noted that “some of the strongest proponents of natural theology are Protestants,” men such as William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Douglas Groothius. Beckwith again referred to Carl Henry as an opponent of the use of natural reason in theology. Henry and Colin Brown of Fuller Seminary saw Christian natural theologians as presenting a “two-step process” to draw people to God, first a rationalistic process of inferring God’s existence and nature, which is then completed by divine revelation and theology. In fact, Brown claimed, while there is a universal awareness of God, it is “not a rational deduction to be drawn by those capable of following certain arguments.” But the Catholic Church, Beckwith says, does not see natural theology as a necessary pre-condition of faith.

“What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible by the natural light of reason, [but rather that] we believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This same position, Beckwith said, can be found in the writings of Aquinas. Against the claim that natural theology is too hard for the ordinary person to understand and thus an impediment to a faith that requires it, the Church says that what moves us to believe is not natural theology, but God himself

Beckwith believes that Protestants have interpreted Catholic doctrine in modern categories. He referred to Alvin Plantinga’s claim that entirely proper beliefs may not be deduced from reason. Belief in God and Christian doctrines, Plantinga says, are “properly basic.” Thus, Catholics and Protestants are not as far apart on natural theology as they are often presented. “What we know through faith is different than what we know through reason, but it is still knowledge,” Beckwith said.

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