2 Books on Reformed Natural Law / Theology

A popular (mis)perception of Reformed theology is that it rejects natural approaches to theology and ethics. However, this thesis has been challenged recently by a number of Reformed scholars. This dual book review considers two books that make a great pair, as they make a thorough case, historically and philosophically, for the presence and positive use of natural law and natural theology in the Reformed tradition.

The first book is Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), x + 310 pp.  The thesis of the book is the consistent use of natural law in Reformed theology:

The Protestant Reformation carried over, though with some critical modifications  certain theological, philosophical, and legal ideas common to the western Christian church. These common teachings include the idea that God promulgated a natural law that directs and binds human creatures; that this law of nature has been written on every human heart; that conscience and reason serve as natural lights leading people to act in accord with natural law; that the natural law and the Old Law (Decalogue) differ only as means (or conveyors of moral information) but not in fundamental moral content; that while human cognition of the natural moral order was obscured by sin, the natural law still yields sufficient data to assist people in distinguishing between good and evil; that neither knowledge of, nor adherence to, natural law is sufficient for either justification or redemption; and that a natural-law jurisprudence is crucial to maintaining just and well-ordered temporal polities, regardless of whether they are governed by Christian princes or legislatures. (2)

Grabill believes that a recovery of natural law would be useful to contemporary Reformed theologians, because it would give them more contact points with the broader Christian tradition and because it offers an approach to moral conversations with secular culture. However, he does not develop this theme in any detail.

Rather, the book is a historical examination. It begins, somewhat counter-intuitively, in the 20th century with the theologian Karl Barth and a few other theologians. Grabill starts here because Barth and his conversation partners are largely responsible for the perception of Reformed theology as opposed to natural law. Grabill surveys their objections to natural law, but stresses that their objections to natural law stem from their own theological projects and represent a departure from traditional Reformed theology. Their historical claims are suspect because (1) they illegitimately separate Calvin from the Reformed tradition and privilege him against it and because (2) their appeal even to Calvin is suspect.

The second chapter deals with a second source of the misconception that Reformed theology is opposed to natural law. Many Catholic scholars have asserted that natural law belongs to the realist (predominately Thomist but also Scotist) philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages, whereas Protestantism is tied to the nominalist philosophical tradition, which has at best a defective natural law theory. Grabill argues that the difference between the two medieval philosophical traditions has been exaggerated and alleges that, in any case, significant Reformed theologians fall on the realist side.

The rest of the book covers four Reformed theologians, representing the various phases of Reformed orthodoxy according to the periodization of historian Richard Muller. John Calvin (1509-64) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-62) both belong to the pre-orthodox phase, but both are necessary to demonstrate, contra the Barth thesis, that Calvin was in substantial agreement with his Reformed colleagues. Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) was an exceedingly influential Reformed jurist and political philosopher in the period of early orthodoxy; Grabill shows his indebtedness to the very early orthodox systematic theologian Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590). Last, Francis Turretin (1623-1678) was the preeminent Reformed systematic and polemical theologian of the high orthodox era. Also, a conclusion sketches the way natural law thinking succumbed to rationalist influences in the late orthodox era and was transformed into a rather different project.

The first achievement of this book is its thorough coverage of a few highly significant but unfortunately neglected Reformed thinkers. Grabill’s analyses are sure to become a point of departure for other interesting projects. The second contribution lies in its success at reframing the conversation about Reformed theology and natural law. Examining the Reformed tradition as a partial critique of the medieval Western church rather than as a full rejection of it makes possible a more nuanced discussion of continuities and discontinuities, perhaps leading to even more clarity about the distinctive character of Reformed theology. I thought the one weakness of the book was the conclusion, which hastily covers the 300 year gap from Turretin to the present. I would rather have seen a more thematic conclusion that strove to answer the question of what makes Reformed natural law theory distinctively Reformed, or how the broader framework of Reformed theology transposed the medieval natural law tradition into a new key. Despite frequent intimations that this happened, the details are scant.


The second book is Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), xii + 238 pp. This book is a hybrid of historical analysis and analytic philosophy. Sudduth’s goal is to determine whether Reformed theology provides a cogent objection to natural theology, and his conclusion is that it does not. Sudduth distinguishes between natural theology α, which is natural knowledge of God either implanted or acquired, and natural theology β, which consists of formal theistic arguments that codify and develop the raw materials from natural theology α. Sudduth maintains that Reformed theology allows for both types of natural knowledge.

Natural theology can be developed and employed in various ways. The first distinction is between dogmatic and pre-dogmatic natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology occurs within the sphere of Christian theology (i.e., dogmatics), as Christians assert, with the support of Scripture, that there is natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology is used several ways: “(i) confirming and explicating the natural knowledge of God as a biblical datum, (ii) assisting the systematic development of a biblically based doctrine of God, and (iii) strengthening and augmenting the Christian’s knowledge of God” (53). A pre-dogmatic natural theology purposefully brackets out all theistic faith commitments and attempts to construct through reason alone a natural theology that will serve as a foundation for dogmatics. A third use is the apologetic use, which defends theism against skeptical claims. Sudduth shows that the dogmatic and apologetic uses are predominant in Reformed theology. After the Enlightenment some thinkers take a pre-dogmatic approach while others, reacting against the pre-dogmatic approach, back away from natural theology entirely.

After an opening chapter that surveys a very wide range of Reformed thinkers from the Reformation to the present, Sudduth moves on to his main theme of looking at potential Reformed objections to natural theology. He is particularly interested in project objections, ones that do not merely target a particular argument or mode of employing natural theology, but rather insist that the entire enterprise of natural theology grounding theistic arguments is inconsistent with Reformed principles. He identifies three general approaches that might generate project objections.

The first set of objections concerns immediate knowledge of God. If natural knowledge of God were exclusively immediate, then any inferential theistic arguments would be at best redundant. One way of developing this objection would be to say that the naturally implanted knowledge of God is immediate. Sudduth argues instead that the Reformed tradition asserts that there is, alongside the immediate sensus divinitatis, a knowledge that is spontaneously inferred from creation by mature, properly functioning minds. It is inferred in the sense that it rests on premises (e.g., the beauty of the cosmos implies God), but spontaneous in that the inference does not take concentrated reflection over time. It is similar to the automatic inference of seeing a light turn on in a living room window and concluding (perhaps even unconsciously) that someone is inside. Sudduth takes an entire chapter to cover the recent objections of Plantinga and Baillie to natural theology and concludes that the logic of their own positions actually allow for more natural theology than they suppose.

A second set of objections arises from the noetic (cognitive) effects of sin. The thrust of these objections is that whatever theoretical validity theistic arguments might have, the presence of sin  keeps people either from recognizing them or being persuaded by them. Sudduth appeals to the Canons of Dordt and to Calvin, which affirm an ongoing natural knowledge among unregenerate people. Some natural knowledge is necessary for it to perform its role of rendering people culpable for not acting on it. Sudduth does acknowledge, though, that sin affects both the range and scope of natural knowledge for the unregenerate, rendering their knowledge unreliable or at least less reliable. However, he thinks that some objectors have gone astray by focusing on non-propositional or existential knowledge of God, which is not the sort of knowledge natural theology delivers. Also, some have connected too closely the concepts of natural theology and the image of God. Sudduth affirms that regenerate people are in a good epistemic condition to recognize and use natural knowledge. Scripture both authorizes and guides theistic arguments

The third set concerns the logic of theistic arguments themselves. The first type of objection asserts that the theistic arguments are unsound. An underlying premise for many of these critics is that the arguments must function as logically demonstrative proofs. Sudduth agrees that they fail if employed in this manner, but argues that they can be employed as probabilistic arguments that do not form the basis for the knowledge of God but are useful for showing how the knowledge of God is justifiable. Another objection is that the theistic arguments, even if true, supply an inadequate description of the God of the Bible or perhaps even misrepresent God. Barth and other criticized the theistic arguments for not being Trinitarian. Sudduth points out that, if one is not looking to the arguments as a basis of one’s theology or for salvation, they need not be Trinitarian. Further, natural theology in general is not Trinitarian, but it is true knowledge of God; why should theistic arguments, which merely codify natural theology, be held to a different standard? A related objection is that the theistic arguments do not even yield a robust theism, but perhaps simply an Aristotelian first cause or a very powerful but not infinite, eternal, omnipotent being. Sudduth gets into some detail here, but one of his key insights is that the theistic arguments taken simultaneously and cumulatively yield a far more robust theism than they do individually. For theistic arguments to be valid, they do not need to give a complete description of God, but merely offer enough overlap that we can identify the being they represent as compatible with the God of the Bible.

In summary, Sudduth argues that all people possess some knowledge of God and that regenerate people are authorized and guided by scripture to codify that natural knowledge into theistic arguments. These arguments serve to reassure Christians that there is no conflict between rational reflection on God and the biblical witness and to ward off counter-arguments by unbelievers. They may also decrease unbelievers’ warrant in their own positions and increase his willingness to consider Christian claims. The Reformed tradition provides no objection to this project.

I found this book very useful and persuasive. One note of caution is that certain sections use techniques from analytic philosophy that may be off-putting to the uninitiated. However, the book is still intelligible even to those without analytic training, and if a reader decided to skip or skim those parts, I don’t think she would miss any crucial elements.

Together, these two books provide a firm basis for Reformed thinkers to engage in natural theology and natural law from within their own tradition. I hope many do.

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