Book ReviewsPhilosophyReformedTheology & Spirituality

Book Review: Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense

David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Davenant Trust, 2017), 142 pp.

Introduction

A recent book by David Haines and Andrew Fulford, and published by the Davenant Institute, called, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense, seeks to acquaint Protestants with the natural law tradition as it was received and developed by the Magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century and the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century.

Natural law, once the basis of Christian ethics, legal, and political theory, has fallen on hard times, especially amongst Protestants. As Stephen J. Grabill surmises, in his treatment of natural law from a Reformed perspective, since the late twentieth century “a cloud of suspicion and hostility has engulfed” the natural law, as illustrated by the 1934 debate between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.1 Grabill identifies Barth’s influence, along with the “anti-metaphysical accents of nineteenth century German liberal theology,” and the improper conclusion that natural law necessarily requires distinctly Roman Catholic theological commitments, as the reason for natural law’s demise in Protestantism.2 To this list could be added neo-Calvinism’s penchant for critiquing the Thomistic nature-grace scheme, which, as David VanDrunen has noted, often results in caricature.3 It is interesting that waning confidence in the natural law specifically, and natural theology generally, largely coincided with similar skepticism toward the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.4 Both forms of divine revelation—both special and general—came under attack simultaneously, though from different angles and theological camps. Whilst conservative theologians battled for the Bible in the 1970s, the legitimacy of natural revelation continued to be eroded with relatively little resistance.5  The rise of legal positivism—typically attributed to Jeremy Bentham and John Austin and popularized in practice by Oliver Wendell Holmes—wherein law is merely a human construction resultant of the political will to power, also contributed to natural law’s decline.6 At the same time, the influence of Immanuel Kant’s critique of the proofs of God’s existence began to undermine natural theology.7

In recent days, however, there has been a renewed enthusiasm for at least reconsidering, if not recovering, the relationship between Reformed theology and natural law. This arguably has been a result of an ad fontes movement in Reformed circles, led by scholarship from Richard Muller and others, which has sought to define the Reformed faith on a more historic and confessional basis.

I am ashamed to admit that I am only recently acquainted with the Davenant Institute (named after John Davenant [1572-1641], the bishop of Salisbury) but have quickly become a fan and regular reader of their work. The Institute is a confessionally-based8 network of scholars, passionate about recovering classical Protestantism (and the Latin tongue) in all its robust, historically-rooted, interdisciplinary glory. In addition to an online periodical (called Ad Fontes, no less) and blog, the Institute also has begun publishing short treatments (“Davenant Guides”) of various issues in historical theology. So far, these guides have covered “Jesus and Pacifism,” the two-kingdoms doctrine, and natural law (the subject of this review). The Institute has also taken an interest in publishing modernized versions of Richard Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, a worthy endeavor, in my mind, that alone justifies Davenant’s existence. And I am particularly eager to read a collection of essays edited by Bradford Littlejohn (president of Davenant) titled, For Law and for Liberty: Essays on the Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought. Anything I have encountered from the Davenant Institute has been of supreme quality and thoughtful, nuanced scholarship. I unreservedly recommend any of their materials, whatever the subject, but have been particularly pleased with the continued attention given to the natural law in their various publications (an article on the natural law theory of James Wilson in Ad Fontes several months ago was exceptionally good), including the latest book by Haines and Fulford, to which I now turn.    

Review

As alluded to above, prevailing in Reformed scholarship over the past several decades has been a simplistic assumption that the Magisterial Reformers and their progeny broke sharply with all things Roman Catholic in the sixteenth century. It should be noted that this misguided assumption has not gone unanswered; the work of John T. McNeill and W. J. Torrance Kirby, alongside Emil Brunner (i.e. Justice and the Social Order), comes to mind in this regard. They aimed to show that, as McNeill argued, “There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers, and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law.”9 Indeed, the Reformation marked a departure from Rome on an important but narrow set of issues, not a wholesale repudiation of all that had come before. Rather, there is a “trajectory of common methodology in the use of natural theology,” from the medieval era to the Reformation to the post-Reformation period, though there are obvious variations between the theologians therein; no period is monolithic in its thought.10

But, the influence of those who combated the Barthian consensus early on was largely limited to the academy, and there only minimally. It was not until the late 1990s that a discernible, concerted effort began to uncover the relationship between the natural law and the Reformed tradition, within the broader reassessment of Reformed Scholasticism.11 These initial efforts have finally begun to trickle down to a lay audience, a development furthered by Haines and Fulford.

It might be helpful at this point to define what Haines and Fulford say that the natural law is, being that so much debate between the proponents and opponents of natural law has been taken up with definitional contentions:12

By natural law…we mean that order or rule of human conduct which is (1) based upon human nature as created by God, (2) knowable by all men, through human intuition and reasoning alone (beginning from his observations of creation, in general, and human nature, in particular), independent of any particular divine revelation provided through a divine spokesperson; and, thus (3) normative for all human beings. 

Many people may think of “natural law” as referring to the order of creation and its natural processes (e.g. the law of gravity). This is traditionally referred to as the secondary use. In the context of moral philosophy and jurisprudence, the primary (moral) use is in focus, though the two uses are obviously related and both immutable as a reflection of their shared Author. In this way, natural law is not only natural to man qua man, but naturally known to him “through inclination or through connatural, not through conceptual knowledge and by way of reasoning.”13 It has, therefore, a metaphysical element and an epistemological element. Natural law is “founded upon the natures of created beings—specifically, for our purposes, human beings—as those natures were created by God.”14 It is derivative of the eternal law in that it is the eternal law with reference to creatures but not coextensive with the eternal law, since the eternal law is the divine essence or, in the words of Aquinas, “Divine Wisdom” itself.15 And it is not identical to human positive law, which is merely the concrete application of natural law’s precepts.  

As a preliminary critique, it would have been beneficial at this point for Haines and Fulford to have included in their definition the concept of the jus gentium (“law of nations”), which is sort of the natural law analogue to the consensus gentium typically pointed to as a proof for the existence of God, and shows how human law interacts with natural law principles. It is that “which natural reason hath taught to all nations.”16 Like Aquinas, most of the Reformed held that the jus gentium was part of the natural law in that it represented “common principles or primary conclusions,” drawn from the law of nature proper.17 Thus, the jus gentium was not just law between nations, but a testament to universally applicable, right conclusions drawn from the basic common precepts of the natural law and were therefore trustworthy and to be perpetuated. As a caveat, natural law theorists have typically allowed that a given nation’s laws may not always conform to the natural law, and thus, the jus gentium is ultimately a useful but imperfect guide to the natural law’s application. This last caveat is important lest one fall into the stark dualism, as Francisco Suarez did, between the eternal law and the law of nations, wherein the latter can justifiably deviate from the ideal law if such is justified by expedience (e.g. utility and custom).

After offering a concise definition of natural law, Haines and Fulford divide their case for natural law’s merit into two sections. Part 1 covers the philosophical foundations of natural law, and part 2 provides an exegetical case for the same. Situating the philosophical foundations prior to the Scriptural arguments subtly and methodologically furthers the argument that natural revelation—indeed, the natural law—is presumed by, and contained in, the Bible (e.g. Psalm 19, Acts 17, Romans 1-2). This is a predictable truth, if it is accepted that God is the author of both sources of revelation. The introduction rightly begins by showing that the very existence of an immutable, ubiquitous, creating God points to the existence of a fundamental natural (moral) order. The divine, rather than human, origin of natural law is stressed throughout the first half of the book and directly treated in chapter two.

Philosophical Foundations

In the first section (written by Haines), the basic argument is that the hostility to the natural law (tersely outlined above), is both historically and philosophically misguided. The natural law is taught “not only by the Scriptures, but also by the Creeds and Confessions, and by great theologians throughout the history of the Church.” But on top of this, Haines acquaints the reader with the philosophical coherency of traditional natural law theory. Chapter one is dedicated to introducing the reader to key [Aristotelian] metaphysical definitions and categories. If the recent skirmishes on divine simplicity and impassibility have taught us anything, it is that modern evangelicals are unfamiliar with, and thus suspicious of, classical metaphysics. To this end, chapter three fills out the metaphysical picture in a way that should be accessible even to the uninitiated reader.

The Epistemological Debate

Chapter four was, perhaps, my favorite chapter, because it addresses the primary issue of contention within Reformed circles relevant to the natural law—namely, the epistemological question.

The problem is not that some theologians deny the objective existence of a moral order to which all creatures are subjected, but that they deny that man can ascertain such in any meaningful way, much less act upon it, even in a limited capacity.

This position has taken a couple of forms. Some theologians hinge their arguments on what I call “total, total depravity” wherein not only is lapsarian man touched by sin in every area of life, including his rational faculties, but is seemingly left totally incapacitated. Others argue against a generally accessible conception of the natural law based on a sort of church-world antithesis, wherein natural wisdom belongs to the world, and sanctified (Scriptural) knowledge belongs to the saints; “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” as Tertullian famously said. Therefore, anything derived from sources other than specifically Scriptural revelation is necessarily tainted and effectively superfluous.  

Those who hold to either of the two variations of denying the general accessibility of the natural law, it should be noted, do not deny the objective existence of natural revelation, only the ability of man’s reason to draw true and actionable conclusions therefrom. “The general argument is that the regenerate and unregenerate have everything ontologically and metaphysically in common, but do not have any epistemic common ground.”18 There is no epistemological point of contact between the two.

Haines rightly points out that any just law must be promulgated and known by those to whom it applies. God, being perfectly just, has indeed made his law known. Man, though limited in his capacity, comes to knowledge of the natural law through observation of universals, the nature of things in the world. Humans gain knowledge of material essences through abstraction and thereby think God’s thoughts after him. In this way, man participates in, and comes to knowledge of, the eternal law. This is what we might call the empirical way (i.e. discursive reasoning), in which man knows the natural law. But there is also an innate or intuitive way in which man knows it. The combination of the two is what Haines calls “a mediating position,” and is what, in my view, has historically been the position of Reformed theologians.

Though the Reformed tradition has always denied that natural theology is in any way salvific (or Trinitarian), it has affirmed that natural revelation, both on an intuitive and empirical level, provides even unregenerate man with general principles of ethics and conduct, thereby rendering his conscience and conduct inexcusable. This is so because God has inscribed upon the hearts of men his law (Rom. 2:14-15), and continually renews it in them, impressing it upon their consciences.

Per Jerome Zanchi:

Natural law is the will of God… the divine rule… namely, the knowledge of what is good or bad, fair or unfair, upright or shameful, that was inscribed upon the hearts of all people by God himself also after the Fall. For this reason, we are all universally taught what activities should be pursued and what should be avoided.19 

Regenerate people receive a greater understanding of the natural law, because their minds are renewed in the things of the spirit and are being sanctified, therefore, they can better ascertain and apply the natural law and do so to the glory of God in worship and gratitude. In short, they discern the spiritual truths and can act spiritually. What was lost in the Fall was the right ordering of man’s faculties toward God and this uncorrupt, “practical” knowledge. The natural (fallen) man receives not the things of the spirit, neither can he know them. Fallen man lacks spiritual discernment which “consists in the want of power rightly to discern spiritual things, and the consequent want of all right affections toward them… the taste and feelings are perverted.”20

But this is not to deny that the unregenerate person still imperfectly possess “general notions concerning good and evil… whereof the Apostle meaneth whilst he saith that the Gentiles ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts,’ Rom ii. 15.”21 In short, the natural law is generally accessible.

Being in possession of general notions of good and evil, as Peter Martyr Vermigli interpreted Romans 2:14-15, the unregenerate man is capable of virtuous acts in accordance with the natural law unto civil righteousness, or just actions toward his fellow man, only (i.e. an “eternal sense”).22 He can draw correct applications and conclusions from the general precepts of the natural law, but he cannot remedy his own depravity or acquire saving knowledge of Christ thereby.

This basic view has been historically affirmed by theologians from Vermigli to William Ames; Samuel Rutherford to John Calvin; and pervades the Reformed confessions. Haines is to be commended for toeing the line on this point.   

Exegetical Section

The second half of the book is dedicated to exegetical arguments derived from the predictable pericopes of Deuteronomy 4, Job 31, Acts 14 and 17, Romans 1 and 2, among others. A benefit of the chapters by Fulford is that he is able to draw on the most up-to-date scholarship, such as a fantastic article by C. John Collins on Romans 2:14-15 (the locus classicus of the natural law) in which he convincingly argues that the phrases “law unto themselves,” “the work of the law,” and “accuse or even excuse,” employed by Paul are conscious allusions to Aristotle’s Politics and The Art of Rhetoric.23

Beyond Christian texts, Fulford also expertly—and in a way that totally surpasses my own meager exegetical abilities (noetic effect of sin?)shows how the natural law is attested to in extra-canonical Jewish sources (e.g. Testament of Naphtali, Wisdom of Solomon, Pseudo-Phocylides). Using comparative analysis, doing this work informs not only our reading of the Old Testament, but also our understanding of how the New Testament authors make use of the Jewish sources. I thoroughly enjoyed this section because 1) so many opponents of traditional natural law doctrine write it off as either unscriptural or as an innovation of medieval theologians as a result of inordinate influence of Greek philosophy; and 2) because Fulford’s expertise is so far outside of my own. Fulford’s section rounds out the book nicely and mitigates against what I see as the weakness of the so-called New Natural Law Theory, which, in my experience, often rejects direct Scriptural arguments. At least in the Reformed tradition this is an impossibility, since the natural law must always be understood within a Scriptural paradigm.  

Critique

My only real criticism of Haines and Fulford is that they did not do more. Obviously their volume was designed to be small (I easily read the Kindle edition in one sitting) and introductory, and thankfully they do not sacrifice nuance and scholarly quality to achieve this. However, I did find myself wishing that they had gone further at three points, all of which would have been best included in the first portion.

First, I wish that Haines had more extensively addressed the epistemological problem. This is the true battleground, at least presently, of the debate amongst Reformed authors. This is not to say that Haines did a bad job; I just wanted more.

Second, although this point is made in passing later in the book,24 I did not notice an explicit reference to the relationship between the Decalogue and the natural law. Christian natural law theory has traditionally held that the Mosaic Decalogue summarized the natural law, which was again restated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. This is important to emphasize, in my view, because it reminds us 1) of the shared authorship between Scripture and natural revelation; 2) it supports the traditional exegesis on Romans 2; and 3) hearkening back to the epistemological debate, it mitigates against the Van Tilian critique of natural law, viz., that a natural law generally accessible to man via the reason renders man autonomous. Perhaps I missed it, but I did not think this point was sufficiently emphasized. In the seventeenth century, Reformed scholastic mind, the lex naturalis was identical to the lex Mosaica (though the latter did not exhaust the former) according to substance and distinguished according to form.

Finally, it may have been helpful, given that Davenant is dedicated to a sort of Reformed catholicity, to include some Roman Catholic sources beyond Aquinas. Obviously Aquinas is the most basic source for all natural law theorists and thus, must command much of any case for the natural law. Haines does a good job of showing how Aquinas employed Aristotelian categories for his own purposes, and certainly makes note of the fact that Reformed theologians followed Aquinas in many regards. But Reformed authors of the High Orthodox period also drew on other, then more proximate, Catholic thinkers quite freely. Francisco Suárez, Jean Bodin, and Pierre Grégoire come to mind. As Otto Gierke showed in his magisterial Natural Law and the Theory of Society (1934), from the late sixteenth century onwards, natural law theory underwent exponential development in both Reformed and Catholic camps. Hence, both parties were willing to borrow from one another. There was similar interaction between Reformed and Lutheran scholars. A historical survey of natural law was outside of the scope of Haines and Fulford, but perhaps they could have, at least partially, alluded to this reality via cited sources to illustrate the ecumencial uniformity on many points of natural law doctrine.

Conclusion

Overall, Natural Law: An Introduction and Biblical Defense is a brisk, nuanced, and edifying little book. It embodies the mission and principles of its publisher, and exhibits the venerable abilities of its authors. I look forward to any further writing that either Haines or Fulford produce on this subject, and recommend their introductory treatment to any interested party, whether that be the curious novice, amateur enthusiast (like myself), skeptical curmudgeon, or seasoned expert.


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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