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.

To Reading and Reviews

A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy

George Cross was one of the early 20th century’s premier disseminators of Friedrich Schleiermacher and, consequently, of Protestant liberalism. His The Theology of Schleiermacher paraphrased Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre over a decade before its translation into English. Prefixed to Cross’ summary was a chapter narrating Schleiermacher’s place in the history of Protestantism. Cross penned this in 1911, when liberalism was still a vibrant movement and seemed the next phase of Reformation.

A confessional Protestant such as myself may not enjoy reading such an essay, since liberalism is a deviation from (or development of — eye of the beholder, you know) traditional Protestant teaching. We rarely applaud those who expose our inconsistencies and poke at our weaknesses. Yet, Johann von Staupitz sagely observed, “Great certitude of salvation awaits him who ponders the good in others, who often contemplates his own evil deeds, and who makes it a habit to condemn himself and justify others.” Outside perspectives are healthy, especially from those who have examined our beliefs and found them unsatisfying. Lessons must be learned from the faltering of Protestant orthodoxy, though this piece will not develop them.

Sympathetic reading does not, of course, rule out critique. Cross’ essay illustrates that theological history is often as much the writer’s theology as his subjects’ history. Indeed, the whole work is so suffused with the assumptions and definitions belonging to Protestant liberalism that it is impossible such a narrative would be penned by one of a different persuasion. His first sentence, “Schleiermacher takes his stand as a theologian avowedly within the position of Protestantism” is a theological assertion, the forerunner of many to come.

Cross informs us that “a due appreciation of Schleiermacher’s views” requires “a true apprehension of the nature of the Reformation.”

Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Cranmer, Calvin, Knox helped to make the Reformation, but even more they were made by it. They and their many fellow-laborers who organized it and gave it equipment for active resistance to the church of Rome secured a relative permanence to the forms which it then assumed, but it is now clear that in so doing they overlooked or even suppressed many of its most important elements. The Reformation as a religious movement was not produced by theologians and statesmen but by the idealist prophets and preachers who awakened the spiritual aptitudes of the people and stirred their wills to action.

Cross is clear that the people who are normally called the Reformers are not, in fact, the architects behind the Reformation. They cannot be, because they were politicians and theologians, and neither politics nor theology was the point of the Reformation. Both, in fact, belong to Catholicism.

In every country where the Reformation was finally established it was done by means of the support of the state but it had to take such a form as the state was willing to tolerate, namely, a modified Catholicism. This is true in respect to ecclesiastical organization and ritual and not less in respect to doctrine….

Still more important, perhaps, was the Catholic habit of mind which was carried over into Protestant theology. The idea that Christianity is at bottom doctrine, that revelation consists in the external communication of doctrine, that it reposes on authority and miraculous attestation, that the Scriptures are an authoritative (the Protestants said, the only authoritative) legislation in matters of belief and practice; all these, as well as the method and the world-view of Catholic theologians, were taken over into Protestant orthodoxy. In saying this we do not aim to minimize the achievements of the early Protestant thinkers or the spiritual value of the great movement which they carried out. In their exegesis of Scripture they were greatly superior to their Catholic opponents; and in the deliverance of multitudes from moral thraldom by their impressive preaching of the atonement of Christ and the free justification of believers they were the ministers of a service of unspeakable worth to mankind; their devotion to their cause was of the heroic type; and yet the consciousness of the debt we owe to them must not blind us to the fact that much of their theological thinking was unmistakably of the Catholic type.

So, it is not theology per se that Cross finds Catholic, but the conviction that Christianity is “at bottom doctrine” and that it rests on an authoritative Scripture. Words and propositions stifle authentic religious feeling. The theme of authority as Catholic is prominent already and moves even more into the foreground as Cross discusses the Anabaptists.

Their common rejection of infant baptism carried with it the renunciation of the whole Catholic system and, of course, that portion of it which was retained as authoritative by the Protestants. This was the head and front of their offending. Their demands were for a complete abandonment of Catholicism and a reinstitution of the churches of the primitive Christian times….

We see, therefore, that the practice of rebaptism which gave the Anabaptists their name was in itself a comparatively unimportant thing with them; its importance lies in its signification of deeper things. They held to the prerogative of the individual with God; the immediacy of the relation of the soul to God; the apprehension and ministration of the Christian gospel by the common man; personal obedience as the essence of Christian faith; Christian churches as free associations on the basis of a common spiritual experience; the spiritual equality and freedom of all believers. The practical issue of these views was the rejection of the entire Catholic conception of the church—apostolic succession a worthless figment, priestly mediation a vain pretense, the sacraments impotent and useless. Along with these went the negation of the church’s authority, of the blindingness of its creed or its canon of Scripture, and of its right to call in the secular arm to support its teachings….

Instead, then, of a radical reconstruction of the forms of Christian self-expression we see in Protestantism, as then established, a conservative reform…. Established Protestantism was a compromise. It represents an inconsistent combination of Catholicism with Christian radicalism. In nothing is this more evident than with respect to doctrine. The consciousness of the immediacy of human relationships with God, of the spiritual character of that relationship, and of the freedom that springs from it, was the moving impulse of the Reformation, but it was fettered by being bound to creeds that reposed on outworn scientific, philosophical, and ecclesiastical assumptions.

At last a clear picture emerges. If Catholicism is associated with authority, and Protestantism is about freedom, defined as a lack of authoratative boundaries to religious feeling, then the true Protestants were the Anabaptists. (Ironically, Cross’ narrative agrees with several Catholic and Anabaptist assessments, but not with Protestant ones.) Equipped with these definitions, the rest of the essay is entirely predictable, though still quite incisive at points.

According to Cross, the intellectualist and compromised nature of Protestantism guaranteed that it would descend into minute bickering and evangelistic impotence. The rationalist side of Protestant thought encouraged deism and the offshoots of the Enlightenment. Natural theology was a disaster, producing more skepticism than faith. The inefficacy of Bishop Butler’s apologetic, the best natural theology could offer, shows the untenable nature of the whole enterprise.

Roman Catholicism trained the peoples of Europe to depend, in religious matters, on authority—the authority of the church. When the Protestant Reformation led to a renunciation of that authority by many, they were compelled to substitute for it another ground of certainty in religious matters. The influence of mysticism, of new religious aspiration, and of the new intellectual awakening drew in one direction; traditional belief and the established methods of theology, as well as the instinct of order, drew in another. The resultant compromise gave to Protestant theology a double basis, the Bible as an external authority in some matters, and the individual human reason in others. But it was inevitable that a strife should arise and that one of these should encroach on the domains of the other. The trend of thought gave the advantage to the second of these.

Protestantism was saved by revivals—pietism, the Great Awakenings, Methodism—in which Christians, throwing off the chains of stuffy creeds and confining institutions, experienced God directly. What were the fruits of these revivals?

It may not be possible to describe the fundamental nature of this great revival of Christian faith in a word. There is, however, one outstanding conviction that seems to have wrought itself by means of the Revival into the fiber of our thinking—the unimpeachable worth of the individual man. We see how nearly identical it is with the motive power of the Reformation. It is working a like revolution in our thinking. The effect on prevailing apprehensions of the nature of religion has been immeasurably great. In the first place men have come to see that religion is a universal, though distinctive phenomenon of human life, not to be identified with any of the doctrinal formulae, established organizations, or forms of worship formerly regarded as indispensable to it. In the next place, it is implicitly admitted to be a matter of individual concern and every man is understood to be capable of a conscious enjoyment of it and of an immediate certainty of its divine character. It is further seen to be a matter of experience, and this experience has been acknowledged in ever-widening circles to be a prerequisite to personal participation in Christian activities. And finally, as admittedly a matter of inward experience, there has been an increasing recognition of the value of the emotions in religion.

Cross explains how Hume and Kant tore down rationalism and offered a new basis for philosophy.It is at this intersection of revivalistic pietism and critical idealism that Schleiermacher makes his advent.

Schleiermacher aims at laying a foundation for theological science by first of all expounding the nature of religion. He finds religion, as Kant had found the fundamental moral law, in the human consciousness as such—it is a necessary and inalienable constituent element of human experience in its highest interpretation. It cannot therefore be a product of thought (it is not to be identified with a doctrine or sum of doctrines or to be viewed as the effect of such); or of moral action (it is not an inference from moral principles or a belief involved in the subjection to a universal moral law) ; but it is an original human endowment.

In fact, Schleiermacher’s theology is the culmination of the ages:

Did space permit, we might show how upon a foundation of Christian religious faith he built the product of the rich speculative genius of Plato, the sin-consciousness of Paul and Augustine, Luther’s and the Anabaptists’ immediacy of fellowship with God, Calvin’s all-embracing divine purpose, Spinoza’s self-differentiating substance transmuted into the principle of causality, Leibnitz’ mirroring of the universe in the individual, Lessing’s philosophy of the revelation which, at the same time, is education, with Kant’s conviction of the incompetency of pure reason to establish religious truth running through it all. How all these elements, shot through with the Moravian warm love for Jesus Christ and the fellowship of grace, were recast in the crucible of Schleiermacher’s own thinking and were built up into a massive system, the following exposition will make an effort to show.

Although I titled this piece “A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy,” and I hope I delivered on that title, my narration and arrangement of the material positions me to offer the reverse. This confessional Protestant, upon reading Cross’ essay, realizes that liberalism is not Protestant at all, but a fusion of philosophical idealism and Anabaptism shot through with higher critical attitudes toward Scripture.