J. Daryl Charles: "Burying the Wrong Corpse: Protestants and the Natural Law"

Although it is difficult -- given the splintered nature of Protestantism as well as the multiplicity of theological fads found within her borders -- to make generalizations about Protestant social ethics in our own day, people who otherwise have very little in common theologically find a remarkable degree of common ground in their suspicion of natural law ethics. This “consensus,” it needs emphasis, is not owing to revisionist theologians and ethicists but rather is the outgrowth of explicit rejection of natural-law reasoning by some of the most influential Protestant thinkers of recent generations. This bias, which unites voices as diverse as Karl Barth, Helmut Thielecke, John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas, is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law. Surely, this contempt needs an accounting.

However deeply ensconced the suspicion of natural law might seem among 20th-century Protestant thinkers, it cannot be attributed to the 16th-century Reformers themselves. Both Lutheran and Reformed streams of the magisterial tradition readily affirmed the doctrine of lex naturalis and cognito Dei naturalis. While it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace, faith and justification, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency. Rather, they assumed the natural law as a moral-theological bedrock in their system and therein maintained continuity with their Catholic counterparts. It is accurate to insist that the Reformation controversies with the Catholic Church were foremost theological-ecclesiastical and not ethical.

Following a contrast of 16th- and 20th-century Protestant voices on the natural law, this paper/essay will set forth the conviction that, in light of the social and metaphysical murk that characterizes our post-consensus cultural climate, ecumenical dialogue on the natural law is both timeless and exceedingly timely.