Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Review: Stephen Grabill's Book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theologiocal Ethics

Until fairly recently, Protestants in the last fifty years have neglected their historic roots in natural law theory. Protestant Christian jurisprudential writers have preferred secular philosophies of law like American realism and pragmatism to the legal philosophy held by the Reformers. In fact, to a large extent Protestants in the last fifty years have ignored what the Reformers had to say about law or political philosophy. Stephen Grabill attempts in this noble book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, to explain some of the reasons why recent Protestants have avoided natural law and exactly what Calvin and some of his most noted successors actually believed about natural law.

In his conclusion, Grabill discusses the gradual slide of scholars away from natural law theory. As empiricism and skepticism grew and belief in Augustinianism and the classic understanding of Reformed epistemology diminished, Protestants became increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated philosophical attack in the areas of law and epistemology. While Grabill does not discuss the next phase much in his book, the rise of skepticism succeeded in pummeling many Protestant Christians into pietism and anti-intellectualism during the 1800 and 1900s. Grabill does discuss Karl Barth’s contribution to the loss of natural law awareness. Barth, in substituting a false but spiritual sounding nonsense for the philosophy of higher criticism, convinced many people that in adopting his rejection of God’s general revelation they were being very biblical and very Protestant despite the fact that they were rejecting both what the Bible says about natural law and the beliefs of most of the Christian church prior to 1950. Barth confidently claimed that Calvin himself did not believe in natural law although anyone who actually reads portions of Calvin’s Institutes dealing with these issues can easily see that Calvin did believe in natural law. But Barth’s popularity was such that he swayed many people toward his side and also promulgated the belief that natural law was a Roman Catholic doctrine rather than a Christian doctrine. Grabill goes through much of the history of prominent natural law thinking within Reformed Protestantism. He discusses the views not only of John Calvin but of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590), Francis Turretin (1623-1687) and others. Most of these important second and third generation Reformers believed in natural law.

These various Reformed theologians had slight differences in their theories of natural law and their understandings of its application, but they had a great deal of agreement as well. Grabill summarizes it this way: “Calvin, Vermigli, and Reformed scholastics all share the conviction that Scripture is the cognitive foundation (principium cognoscendi) of theology and that moral arguments can be based on axioms derived from that principium. Consequently they recognize the existence of a natural knowledge of God that is present in the natural order and discernable either in conjunction with or apart from Scripture. This knowledge, however, has no saving efficacy and merely serves to render all people to be ‘without excuse’ for their moral infractions, as Romans 1:20 attests.” The Reformers agreed that knowledge of right and wrong didn’t cause you to do what was right or cause you to be saved. But they did believe that God has not left Himself without witnesses. In addition to the direct and superior testimony of Scripture, God has also revealed Himself by writing the law on our hearts - a law that is very much the same as the principles behind the Ten Commandments. These Reformed scholars were also Augustinian in their epistemology. They recognized that God makes human knowledge, thought, and language possible, in addition to providing us with a moral compass.

Grabill does not go into depth in discussing the political and legal implications of natural law philosophy and its accompanying Augustinian epistemology. I would argue that our Western understanding of law, the rule of law, and the proper nature of jurisprudence, were originally based on the same presuppositions held by the Reformed theologians discussed by Grabill. Men like Richard Hooker and Coke, who shaped the theory and practice of the common law, understood that men were fallen, sinful and not to be trusted to reason or act properly. But they also understood that God had endowed man with the ability to learn language and communicate in a practical way, with an ability to understand universals like justice, goodness, truth, property, beauty, etc. and with a basic knowledge of good and evil in addition to providing man with the ability to reason, albeit an ability damaged by the fall. The way Western law developed presumes all of these things.

The current emphasis in post-modernism and pragmatism on our inability to communicate or know anything objective about right or wrong is changing the meaning of the phrase “the rule of law” and rending the fabric of American law filament by filament. If Christian legal scholars want to reform the American legal system, they must do more than carry it a few decades back up the slippery slope down which it has slipped, and instead restore the theological and philosophical foundations upon which a proper legal system is built. Stephen Grabill’s book is a wonderful step in that direction. I hope and pray that we will see many more similar works appearing in print in the relatively near future.

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