Jesse Covington: "The Grammar of Virtue: St. Augustine and the Natural Law"

Recent scholarship notes that Protestant suspicion of natural law is a relatively late development and arose in part over related questions about sin and scripture. Evangelicals in particular have been concerned that natural law theory does not sufficiently account for the epistemic effects of sin hindering accurate moral knowledge. Moreover, they have worried that natural law insufficiently accounts for scripture as the source for reliable moral knowledge. Both issues raise obstacles for one of the central political appeals of natural law theory: shareable moral standards accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike. Recent evangelical engagement with the Christian natural law tradition invites critical interaction between this tradition and evangelical distinctives. St. Augustine’s centrality to Christian thought and his emphases on sin and scripture render him an excellent interlocutor for this discussion. Examining several of his works, I argue that Augustine depicts the role of natural law in a post-lapsarian world in terms of a framework or form of virtue. This contrasts with its substance, which centers on rightly-directed love. While Augustine portrays the precepts of natural law as largely accessible to all, fully obligatory, and necessary for human flourishing, he maintains that full flourishing and virtue remain contingent upon teleological and relational concerns that depend on grace. Moreover, the effects of sin give Augustine rather low expectations what natural law can accomplish in politics: it will not overcome the problems of fundamental disagreement that plague relations between the two cities. Still, he sees natural law as an essential tool for constructing political consensus—a consensus that, while limited, nonetheless rests on the order of the universe arising from the eternal law of the Divine will.