Book ReviewsPhilosophyReformed

On The Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (A Book Review)

Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, trans. E. J. Hutchinson (Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law, 2nd Series, Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018), 202 pp.

Over the past couple of decades or so, there has been a remarkable surge of interest in post-Reformation Reformed theology, with a particular emphasis on republishing previously untranslated primary sources. A natural result of this trend has been an accompanying enthusiasm for assessing early modern Reformed natural law theory.

Stephen J. Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics; David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and A Biblical Case for Natural Law; and Brad Littlejohn’s The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Thought stand out as recent contemporary syntheses of recovered doctrine. (See also my review of David Haines’ and Andrew Fulford’s Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense.) As someone who is passionate about recovering the robust natural law tradition for modern times—in which both the magisterial Reformers and their progeny stood—I have found these and other new works to be of immense help and encouragement.

Yet, the series put out by CLP Academic called “Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law”, edited by Jordan Ballor, has been—in my opinion—the most welcome addition to the genre. This series continues to place long-forgotten primary sources into the hands of modern readers, scholar and layman alike.

Up until recently, my favorite installments in the series were Johannes Althusius’ On Law and Power and Girolamo Zanchius’ On the Law in General, though the first-time publication of Matthew Hale’s manuscript on natural law was particularly exciting as well; but then I got my hands on Niels Hemmingsen’s On The Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method and subsequently devoured it in a few days.

Published in 2018, the addition of this volume to the series serves not only to compound the historical corrective of the whole project—namely, to show the basic continuity between medieval and early modern authors, both Reformed and Catholic on natural law and theological ethics—but also to move the goal posts, as it were, chronologically backward (in a good way), thereby reframing the discussion.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the old narrative (see example) that placed the first-generation Reformers in a position of unqualified antithesis with both Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the natural law tradition (and that the post-Reformation Reformed orthodox subsequently reintroduced medieval sophistry into the allegedly pure doctrine and method bequeathed to them by Luther and Calvin), has now been sufficiently disproven. The work of Richard Muller, William van Asselt, and others has been occupied with constructing a better, more nuanced narrative. On the question of natural law in particular, a subject which many modern Reformed folks have no patience for, it has become difficult to argue with the sheer number of primary sources that conflict with the now outdated narrative of antithesis. The translation and publication of Neils Hemmingsen’s work contributes to the crushing defeat of older scholarship. And in this regard, the introduction by editors E.J. Hutchinson and Korey D. Maas alone is worth the price of the book.

Hemmingsen rarely appears in the textbook accounts of the Reformation era, but in his own day he was preeminent in the Lutheran world (though  later in life he was dismissed from an academic post at Copenhagen for espousing crypto-Calvinist views on the Lord’s Super; there’s still hope for you, John Ehrett!). His career began under the tutelage of Philip Melanchthon, beginning in 1537.  Hemmingsen, too, taught in Wittenberg for some time before returning home to Denmark, where he, with the help of Johannes Bugenhagen, instituted the Wittenberg model and was awarded the unofficial title Praeceptor Daniae (Melanchthon was known as Praeceptor Germaniae). Though not to the level of Melanchthon, Hemmingsen enjoyed some international renown. Reading his On the Law of Nature (1562) will convince anyone of Hemmingsen’s scholarly bona fides and worthiness of the title he bore in life, and long thereafter in the memory of Reformed and Lutheran Christians.

Melanchthon’s influence on Hemmingsen is apparent. Not only did the latter employ the former’s textbooks in the theology (i.e. Loci communes and Enchiridion) and Greek curriculum in Denmark, but Hemmingsen’s own 1555 publication on philosophy and  theological method (De methodis libri duo) has been described as a treatise on “Melanchthonian epistemology.” Some of this epistemological commitment is present in the work currently in focus. Indeed, the editors of Hemmingsen’s book instruct that the author can be more readily understood if he is read first and foremost as “an inheritor and promoter of Melanchthonian Lutheranism.” Most importantly, this insight alerts the reader to the intellectualist (rather than voluntarist) bent of Hemmingsen’s work (following Melanchthon).

As the editors also point out in the introduction, Hemmingsen serves to debunk the tired criticism that the Reformers, if they did not abandon the concept of the natural law entirely, sought to make it wholly dependent on Scripture (they also cite Luther to the effect of disproving the same). In truth, Hemmingsen, Luther, and most of the rest held that the Ten Commandments, instead of being the source of the natural law, was a republication of the natural law originally implanted (“concreated” or “inbred”) in human minds by God.

Accordingly, the natural law is the source of the Decalogue, not the other way around. Indeed, the natural law is chronologically prior to the law delivered to Israel from Sinai, though both are entirely consistent by way of their common authorship. This, of course, is not to deny the necessity of the republication of the natural law (in substance) at Sinai and (in summary) at the Sermon on the Mount because of, as Aquinas put it, “the uncertainty of human judgment.” In sum, the law of nature is the law of God; the same law republished at the two mounts and possessed by even the gentiles (Rom. 2:14-15).

Along these lines, a reader should not engage with Hemmingsen without grasping the stated purpose of his work, viz., to demonstrate “how far reason is able to progress without the prophetic and apostolic word.” The reason for this purpose is explained in the epistolary introduction by the author. Because of this purpose, Hemmingsen’s use of Scripture is sparse, which is not to say that it is not at work both explicitly and in the background. I will not treat this aspect more here, except to say that, since this move by Hemmingsen might dissuade some Evangelicals, it was quite common in Hemmingsen’s period and beyond to bifurcate topics in this way. Considering arguments from natural law did not require explicit reference to Scripture (for the reasons given already), though the “apostolic witness” was at work on the periphery throughout, truth being unified in substance and in source.

For instance, Samuel Willard—a seventeenth century New England Puritan—once publicly chastised an interlocutor for invoking a Scriptural argument in a debate, the parameters of which was supposed to be philosophical. Willard, one of the most prolific preachers of his age, saw this move as cheating, and, for the same reasons, the division between Scriptural arguments and philosophical ones (i.e. natural reason) was legitimate in such a format and discourse. This did not necessitate the belief that man could, in any way, come to saving knowledge apart from grace and special revelation in the Word of God.

At this point, it might be helpful to provide Hemmingsen’s definition of the natural law. After working through definitions from Cicero and others, he writes:

“The law of nature is a certain knowledge, imprinted on the minds of men by God, of the principles of knowing and of acting, and of the conclusions proved from these principles that are in agreement with the proper end of man. Reason constructs these conclusions from the principles by necessary consequence for the government of human life, so that man may recognize, want, choose, and do the things that are right, and avoid their opposites; and God has bestowed on men the conscience as the witness and judge of all these things.” 

The rest of the book is taken up with explicating this definition. (Don’t worry, my Reformed brethren, he addresses the matter of man’s apprehension of the natural law, though you may not like the answer). Following a chapter dedicated solely to this definition, Hemmingsen outlines “The Principles of Knowing and Acting in General” (wherein the classical “faculty psychology” is demonstrated), followed by a consideration of what man knows of the natural law in his three states of life (pre/post-Fall, and in glory). He then spends a chapter expositing the Decalogue vis a vis natural law, mirroring this first exposition with a similar treatment of the classical virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and courage). Finally, the Teacher of Denmark concludes with a treatment of the conscience.

For reasons purely related to my personal research projects this year, I was particularly pleased to find Hemmingsen (in his chapter on conscience) using the language of synteresis (“preservation” of the common notions), or what William Ames called the “storehouse” of the first principles of the natural law. As Hemmingsen explains, the synteresis supplies the major proposition of the practical syllogism, whilst the conscience supplies the minor, and the judging faculty considers the final result. Hemmingsen contrasts Hector and Oedipus to illustrate the work of man’s faculties. The synteresis says that honorable things must be done and are worthy of praise. The conscience discloses that to defend one’s country bravely is honorable. Therefore, the judging faculty declares that defending one’s country bravely is worthy of praise because it is honorable. The same process works in the negative, as in the case of Oedipus’ incestuous relations with his mother (i.e. it is unworthy of praise because it is dishonorable). 

Hemmingsen discusses the working out of the practical syllogism in the conscience (a term, he tells us, with multiple uses) at length for a full chapter. This aspect of Hemmingsen’s work alone dispels certain hasty conclusions, which have been uncritically peddled around the academy for decades, regarding early modern natural law theory and the exegetical tradition behind the synteresis concept (i.e. Prov. 20:27; John 1:4, 9). The idea (and the exegesis) reaches back to Jerome and is certainly present in Aquinas, and endured after Hemmingsen in Matthew Hale, Edward Reynolds, Robert Sanderson, and others during the period of High Orthodoxy (1620-1700) in Protestantism.

Each chapter of Hemmingsen’s marvelous book is replete with etymological studies and classical allusions—unlike, for example, Zanchius, he does not cite sources from the civil law tradition, such as Justinian’s Digest. (To note on the etymology: Hutchinson, one of the editors, is a professor of classics at Hillsdale College, thus the translation reflects his care for Hemmingsen’s use of ancient wisdom). Indeed, especially for the uninitiated, Hemmingsen is an education in classical sources and in the early modern use of the same. Hemmingsen, like many of his contemporaries, employs the standard sources such as Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and Cicero with ease and often. More eccentrically, he includes extended quotes from Homer and other authors of antiquity, but they are not cumbersome or purely for ornament, but are instrumental in a way that adds substance and weight to his ethical or epistemological arguments. The editors helpfully offer parenthetical translations of any non-obvious Greek words (and, obviously, all of the Latin is translated).  

More need not be said. The reader will glean little from further summary but should rather purchase Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature post haste. I particularly urge the skeptical Reformed student to get a hold of this new translation (since Lutherans seem to have less trouble with accepting their position in the natural law tradition), as well as other works mentioned in the same series. There is much to grapple with therein, and whether the Reformed reader comes away in agreement or disbelief, they owe it to their tradition to engage their own heritage with a posture of deference (which is not to say, absent of an uncritical eye) and a teachable mind. Tolle lege


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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