24 May 2011

Natural Law as a Theology of Glory

(As no one has posted in a while, and I'm in a bit of a tissy, it's time to play the dissatisfied grouser again)

Let me say at the beginning - there is much in Natural Law that is true -- there are points that some people claim as Natural Law that I would quibble with, there are applications I would object to - but there is a Natural Law.

However, I fear that it's current upswing in popularity is coming from a Theology of Glory point of view (a point of view I think it can be attached to quite easily... pre-reformation Catholicism was the domain of the theology of Glory).

Now, why do I say this? Because Natural Law is being viewed as a means of changing the world, of improving this world, of making this place a better place, as though this world isn't being prepared for destruction and renewal. Natural Law is being viewed as the last, best hope we have for keeping society from spiraling off into chaos, for making people moral.

Here's the problem.

Natural Law is God's Law.

What is the first commandment? Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

If one is an unbeliever, who by definition neither fears God nor trusts Him, why in the world would you give a (insert euphemism of your choice) about God's Law?

Seriously. Why? Will someone who denies that we were designed by God care about our arguments that stem from God's design? Will someone who thinks that we choose to be whatever we wish to be care about the "laws" of nature that he, as a fallen creature, delights in ignoring anyway?

But, but, but if we just show the Law, and show it well... then they will be better.

"It was a false, misleading dream, that God, His Law had given. That sinners could themselves redeem and by their works gain heaven" -- even a heaven on earth. "The Law is but a mirror bright, that brings the inbred sin to light, that lurks within our nature." Natural law does nothing to deal with *our* fallen nature.

But, but, but if we just get good laws passed.... then they will be better.

"Trust not in princes, they are but mortal. Earth-born they are, and soon decay. Naught are their counsels at life's last portal, when the dark grave doth claim its prey. Since, then, no man can help afford, trust ye in Christ our Lord!" This world is sinful, through and through. All around us we see nothing but death. The Law will not change that - the Law does not give life.

But, but, but the law works as a curb! That will make them better.

Eh... perhaps. If they listened. But how does a curb work? Only with threats of punishment - that things will be bad if you transgress. And arguing from a perspective of "natural law" doesn't do that. Natural Law appeals to what is right... not to punishment.

The lost must be shown that they are lost - that by giving into their sinful desires they receive no peace, no comfort, no joy. That sin offers nothing but false promises that do not deliver. The thing about sin is that, while it sounds good, it is bad. Show the consequences... not the back story behind, the reasons why. Sinful, selfish man doesn't care about nature, what should be... he cares only for what he wants to happen to him.

And even then... apart from Christ, that only leads to a slightly more gentle crushing, a slower, slightly less painful death. Apart from Christ, we only give people moral morphine, dulling the pain as they remain dying people in a dying world.

"My own good works all came to naught, No grace or merit gaining; Free will against God's judgment fought, dead to all good remaining." Apart from Christ, people are dead. Even if they play nicely, even if they bother me less and less, they are still dead. And all their works, however nice, however moral, however seemingly in accord with natural law they are, come to naught.

Of course, this was the point of Luther's Heidelburg Disputation - point number one:

"The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him."

Or as the hymnist sings - "From sin our flesh could not abstain, Sin held its sway unceasing. The task was useless and in vain, Our guilt was e'er increasing. None can remove sin's poisoned dart Or purify our guileful heart - So deep is our corruption."

Law will not save the world. It might curb some things... but only when people are convinced that what they want is actually bad for them (at least when we have people voting on laws). Otherwise, it all comes crashing down.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Just to give a slight bit of additional food for thought.

A theology of glory calls a thing what it is not.

Are we calling Natural Law "hope"? If so, we are giving in to a theology of Glory, for the Law no hope ever brings.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

These are good thoughts, Rev. Brown. Even though I have put a bit of energy into studying the natural law, I too have been wary of the increased focus it has been receiving. Not in that the study of something good is wrong, but in the attitude that may accompany the study, as you say, one of progressivism.

In conversation with your post, I'd mention a few things: The scholastics, interestingly, while they did formulate their bodies of thought with the hope of constructing a comprehensive body of knowledge, at the same time recognized that the natural law is God's law, and that one could not know it in any real material sense apart from revelation. The natural law was revealed most clearly in the Scriptures. It is only with the early Modern Period and the Enlightenment that we see the claims that natural law can be known apart from God and through pure reason. And, it is also in this period that we see natural law theorists producing more and greater detailed precepts of the natural law, as if through their superb reflection, they were able to come up with some sort of code of the natural law.

The other thing that I would say is that, in a very limited way it may be possible to appeal to the natural law even with unbelievers, because a potential acknowledgement of some kind of order to the universe does not require them to confess God in his truth. Also, one can make arguments about punishment, or at least consequences, i.e., if one does not follow the natural law, he will face natural consequences, etc.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


I sort of think along things this way. I equate Natural Law to Socialism. We were designed to have all things in common, for each to take only what he needs and for the good of others. Thing is... that doesn't really make people into good folks... behold the experiments with Communism and Socialism in the past century.

Rather, you need an approach to sinful man (if thinking just socially) that acknowledges sinfulness... like capitalism. Run the system on greed, deflect it so that one's greed might benefit another. Again, vast flaws, but it moves forward.

Rather than an appeal to natural law (Don't do this, it is wrong), I think appeals to enlightened self-interest is more apt (don't do this, it will hurt). Which, of course, is why I see hope when I hear pop songs about heart ache and depression... they are all about the false promises of the world, the pain that the ways of this world can lead to.

Then I can say, "Well, I could have told you that would happen -- behold the Law which tells you it would turn out this way... now hear the Gospel which gives peace."

People need to hit bottom first... or at least be shown the bottom is coming before they are going to care at all about "Law". That appeal to natural Law always has to follow the demonstration of consequences... NL can be a response, a way of showing why we know that pain would be the result of their actions. It's the second thing -- not the first.

Which I think agrees with your last paragraph.

Anonymous said...

You've piqued my interest, Rev. Brown. You write,

"I fear that [the natural law's] current upswing in popularity is coming from a Theology of Glory point of view..."

If I may ask, to what are you referring? The renewed interest in natural law theory following WWII? Recent popular texts by Reformed authors dealing with the subject? Any of the various "schools" of natural law theory among Roman Catholic authors? Or, perhaps jurisprudence or philosophical approaches?

You also write,

"Natural Law is being viewed as the last, best hope we have for keeping society from spiraling off into chaos, for making people moral."

Knowing a few natural law authors myself, I'm not sure that I've run across such a claim. However, I'm curious why such an approach would be unacceptable--even from a Lutheran point of view--when we're dealing with civil law in the temporal realm. Isn't that the duty of the magistrate: to enforce the natural law?

Robert at bioethike.com

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


You ask to what I speak when I say, "I fear that [the natural law's] current upswing in popularity is coming from a Theology of Glory point of view..."

What I am noticing is twofold:

1. I hear and see people referring to Natural Law more often. It just comes up more often.

2. When it comes up, it seems (and again, this is amorphous - I haven't done a study... hence words like "it seems" or "I fear" rather than "I am convinced") to be used almost as a trump card, an Ace in the Hole for contentious hot button issues of morality.

Thus, it's not being looked at just as "Truth" - not just because it is good and right, but so as to manipulate and shape society. I'm seeing it less often in informative roles (this is what is Truth) but rather in argumentative or persuasive roles - and those roles are focused not on the Church, not internal things, but rather being focused on using Natural Law arguments on those outside the Church to change society.

It makes me nervous seeing that be the talk of the kingdom of the Right. In my history class at my congregation, I've just gone over Finney and his social activism. I'm in the Bible belt, where that is what we get... I just get apprehensive and wonder if this focus on NL isn't just almost a back door (and conservative) "social gospel" style move, where the focus becomes on the bettering of society.

You ask, "However, I'm curious why such an approach would be unacceptable--even from a Lutheran point of view--when we're dealing with civil law in the temporal realm. Isn't that the duty of the magistrate: to enforce the natural law?"

Partially my concerns come from the interplay between the two kingdoms. Is it the job of the Church to fix society and make them change, or is the Church to be a bastion of light in the midst of a world of darkness? If we focus on changing the kingdom of the left, do we abandon the true duty of the kingdom of the right for the red lentil stew of temporal order?

And some of this stems from our own political set up. The Church is not teaching "the magistrate". We are not giving counsel to our God given king, speaking to him about his God given duties. We rebelled (Does anyone want to take on the fact that our sin of rebellion was against our God given king?) and established a Republic -- so now instead of teaching and proclaiming the truth to our leader, there seems to be more of a concern about manipulating people into establishing rules we want.

And again, I'm in the Bible Belt - I'm surrounded by folks who are going to change the world for Jesus with 7 simple steps to a better life.

And I guess some of this is my cynicism as a Classicist. We are a rich, decadent culture... and cultures that are rich and decadent always undergo moral collapse. Every rich and decadent culture of the ancient world did the same. If we think a redoubling of focus on Moral Law will prevent this I fear our hopes are in vain. Luther describes the Gospel being the brief shower that gives growth... the Law won't halt drought of love that comes when the Gospel is ignored and showers elsewhere.

Well, the tornadoes are heading towards us and should be here in a half an hour, so I'm going to start getting things ready. Take care and well.

Remember, the world is very evil. Thus is life - come quickly, Lord Jesus, and save us from these bodies of death.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rev. Brown. God bless you and your people during these storms.

Again, I'm curious. Why should the Church not support the betterment of society?

Here I'm thinking of individuals acting in their proper vocations as citizens, seeking the improvement of the lives of all.

And as for manipulating society, that's been going on for years. Currently, the Progressives are in control.

I would argue that, at least for the sake of women and children, who flourish best in loving, intact families, we should contend for traditional marriage consisting of one man and one woman for life.

Similarly, in Ap XXIII, Melanchthon argues:

"So now, marriage should be strongly defended by the strictest laws and warning examples. People should be encouraged to marry. This duty belongs to public officials, who should maintin public discipline. Meanwhile, the teachers of the Gospel should do both of these things: encourage unchaste people to mary; encourage others not to hate the gift of chastity."

I'm not aware where natural law is being promoted as an "ace in the hole" or a "trump card" for public morality. You would have to provide a citation of that. Most liberal thinkers reject natual law outright.

Where natural law can be used, and used succesfully in my opinion, is in providing a substantive critique of positive, or man-made law. That's a traditional service that natural law theory has rendered to moral contemplation.

Robert at bioethike.com

Pr. H. R. said...

I think you are over thinking it. See Romans 2. Anytime a pagan says, "That's not fair" he is appealing to natural law. Natural law is the only basis for human society, pagan or Christian. And as Paul makes clear in these two chapters, while man is fallen, he still has access to the natural law and is therefore "without excuse" - and he can still even live a "civilly righteous life."

That all men lead a civilly righteous life is good for all other men and is the chief aim of the civil order created by God, and a secondary aim of the other two orders created by God Church and Household.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

To both Robert and HR,

Again, what I think it boils down to is this:

I rarely trust social reform.
I rarely trust arguments that aren't derived directly from Scripture.

When the argument that comes from the within the Church to the world doesn't involve the Scriptures... it seems like we abandon a clear and continual focus on the Word of God for an attempt to improve the morality of the world.

Civil righteousness is nice... but it isn't Christ's righteousness.

The Church *should* focus on the betterment of society... but by the proclamation of the Gospel, which gives people redemption and the New Life. Natural Law will change no one's heart... and there will still be nothing but death... death that we are more comfortable with because it isn't as icky looking.

I just don't see how the Church focusing less upon the proclamation of Christ and Him Crucified and more on social reform is going to bring about much good. Moreover - many bodies in the past have twisted and decayed into primarily social reform groups... have fallen into an utter theology of glory.

I fear this. I don't think we are, not yet... but I fear this. Let's just keep aware of it.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

To demonstrate that I'm not a totally heartless heretic:

This article - http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2011/05/24/sex-marriage-experiment-work/?test=faces is excellent.

While it acknowledges that there is an natural order... it's focus isn't that we must follow it. The focus is upon negative consequences that have come from avoiding it. It uses Nature Law without focusing upon it.

It's not a discussion of natural law that will move sinful man - it's the desire to avoid consequences.

Pr. H. R. said...

The Church's role toward sinful man is to preach Law and Gospel. Her goal in this is that thereby God might gather his elect to His Church and grant salvation.

But there is a secondary effect from the Church's prophetic role: human society, even those who do not come to faith, ordering itself according to the Law (again, see Romans 2).

This is especially true for us Confessional Lutherans since we acknowledge in our Confessions that it is good and right for Christians to serve as civil magistrates. On what basis should civil magistrates make laws, enforce laws, decide cases, etc.? On the basis of the Gospel? Hardly. On the basis of Natural Law.

The deep libertarian streak in me likes your position - but it is essentially Anabaptist: since governance has nothing to do with the Gospel, it's no business of Christians and the Church. Christians and the Church have more important things to do than get mucked up in making laws and trying court cases.

I like that, but I can't square it with the Confessions at all. Christians are called to exercise vocations in the civil realm - and they simply must, in that realm, operate under natural law.

A rereading of How Christians Ought to Regard Moses is good for this too. Luther certainly didn't hesitate to put Natural Law front and center. . .


Rev. Eric J Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Actually - that's it in a button.

Are we concerned with making good law (proper) or changing society (glory)? One is good, fine, and salutary... the other skirts a line that I think can lead into bad, bad theology.

(Besides, the really fun anabaptists created their own perfect societies all running on "God's" law. Fun in Munster, anyone?)

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

(edited from above with a typo removed)

Christians have that business if that is their vocation. The *Church* doing it, and preachers who are figures of the Kingdom of the Right... that is what makes me edgy. It's the right, not the left - don't be confusing the kingdoms, because the preaching of the Law isn't to make good citizens, it is to convict concerning sin.

That and I've got preachers talking about "winning the culture for Christ" echoing in my ears, making me shudder.

Again, I'm not saying that this is fundamentally what happens whenever Natural Law is invoked... it's just that I become dubious of attempts to change the culture in the US, especially with the horrid history we've had of that... Finney terrifies me more than social disorder.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Or let me give a lengthy quote from Luther (What Luther Says 4791) that sort of revolves around my thoughts and concerns:

"[Christ says:] I do not want to be a Moses who hounds and plagues you with threats and intimidations; but I give you laws which you can and may well keep without a command – if indeed you love Me. For if this is not the case, it is futile for Me to give you many commandments; for they will stay unobserved anyway. Therefore if you want to keep My commandment, see to it that you love Me. And remember what I have done for you that you should justly love Me, since I sacrifice My life and limb for you and shed My blood for you. Therefore for My sake remain united and friendly to one another that you may jointly cling to Me with your preaching and that one may bear the other in love and not cause separation and sects. For I have honestly and truly deserved this of you. It certainly is bitter work and is costing Me my life and limb to redeem you. I subject Myself to death and cast Myself into the jaws of the devil to take sin and death from you, to destroy hell and the power of the devil. I give you heaven and all I have. I shall gladly overlook it if you fail and err at times, are weak and frail, or even fall into gross sins. Only cling to Me again, and come back to My love and forgive one another as I forgive you, so that the bond of love among you may not be torn asunder.

He begins this admonition here, but He will emphasize it further and more strongly later on; for He desires to impress this deeply on them as He leaves them. For He knew well enough that there would be many of them who would indeed boast of His name, calling themselves Christ's disciples and preachers of the Gospel, but would nonetheless think more of their own ideas, honor, and glory than of the blood and death of Christ. They would not value His grace and unspeakable love and everything He devoted to our salvation so highly as to endanger or surrender their enjoyment, their honor and power, and rid themselves of their own smartness and wisdom. They would be more interested in being considered and commended as learned and wise than in knowing what is becoming of Christ and the pure doctrine of the Gospel. Even at that time Judas had begun this movement as its head and forerunner. Then came the false apostles among the Jews and their disciples and heretics; every one of them wanted to be the smartest and to rule Christendom over the heads of the apostles and the true disciples. This continued until finally their were as many wiseacres and masters as preachers and parishes. Matters grew steadily worse and worse the longer Christendom stood. Finally they developed into the dirty dregs of the papacy."

Whenever we start to focus more on reason and what should be obvious to the world, we run the risk of slipping away from the Gospel.

Whenever we become more concerned with the ordering of life here than the proclamation of Christ and Him Crucified, we end up slipping away from the Gospel.

Whenever we worry more about instructing people in the right way to live rather than showing them the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we fall into this.

We will not change the world. People who do not love Christ will not do good. Evil might be curbed... thanks be to God that the State does that... but when the Church thinks that the State is doing a poor job and tries to take over, that is when the decay of the Church speeds up incredibly. What else is the medieval Papacy than that?

Boaz said...

Pr. Brown:

Natural Law is essential for preaching.

It isn't necessary for those already Lutherans, because, as your quote explains, Christian love and freedom have little need for reason; man lives by the Word. Natural Law isn't really needed for any Christian, because we have Scripture to use to correct error. It isn't necessary for those despairing of sin, because you start with the Gospel. It isn't necessary for the religious, as then you preach like Paul in Acts 17.

But, how do you proclaim the Gospel to a people that reject Christinaity, reject all religion, and that pretend sin does not exist? A people that embrace only the natural world and reason, which is really a corrupt reason that justifies every sin?

We talk to others with the intent that they gain an understanding of God. That necessarily means attacking the error.

The answer is natural law, which is simply the explanations from reason for why sin is wrong, why wrong actions prevent human flourishing, fullfilment, eudaimonia, that is, the life God originally intended for man. Natural Law arguments appeal only to the conscience written on everybody's heart and the reason of all men created in God's image.

From there, using reason and natural Law arguments, the other person is forced to play on his own home field, and must use logic and reason to argue. Natural Law identifies sin by showing how sinful conduct hurts neighbor and oneself. There's a lot of underbrush that's grown up in the field since Aristotle that complicates these explanations, and much of it, having been written by Catholics and Aristotelians, is unnecessary or wrong. (particularly when it comes to the interaction of reason and the will, or the ability to develop and improve one's will, areas Lutherans have nailed down)

Most atheists and pagans will readily admit it's wrong to hurt people, that life and beauty and friendship and truth are good things for all humans, and that they have acted at times in contravention of those good things. They will usually admit that everybody who has ever lived has acted wrongly. They will admit that a perfect world would have no such evil or suffering (and maybe use that as an argument against God!) And, sometimes, they will admit to shame or guilt for their sins, or angst over their legacy in the world.

From there, you offer Gospel and forgiveness, the solution to guilt and existential angst, and explain that in Christ, God has provided the way and promise of a perfect world.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Boaz - Yep - Natural Law is necessary for preaching, especially for those who are outside of the faith. But it's when natural Law gets used outside of that -- when it is used to argue that "X" must be wrong and made illegal when people go "huh, what are you talking about" that really makes me nervous.

Boaz said...

The same Natural Law that convicts sinners, which is private morality, is the only possible basis for positive law.

Positive law is simply don't do X or you will receive punishment. But without morality, there's no basis to say what X should be. What is the purpose of law, society, life? Natural law & morality provide the purposes that positive law serves.

Natural Law is the only way Christians have to participate in democracy. If they don't use Natural law to "argue that 'X' must be wrong and made illegal," then Christans have no ability to participate in a democracy that isn't explicitly a theocracy.

The problem is that most natural law philosophy is done by Catholics, who torture reason to manufacture justifications for whatever current Roman teaching is. Eg, contraceptives always bad, natural family planning good.

The Lutheran instinct to focus on motives behind acts ("Why do you want to know if you can do X?") is much closer. One can use contraceptives to support marriage when children pose serious health risks, as marriage and health are both good ends leading to human flourishing, and creating new life would be wrong due to the health risks. One can't use contraceptives when the couple prefers dogs to children, as one acts to prevent a new life when new life would be good, for no good end.

Natural law is much more open ended than many Catholics teach. It's essentially Christian freedom as Luther taught. Natural law posits a number of goods for humans that are incommensurate. Beauty, Truth, God, Family, Friendship, Justice etc. There is no hierarchy; actions are good and loving so long as they are directed towards one of these goods, and do not directly act against these goods.