The Utility of Natural Law

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The LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) has now published a document on The Natural Knowledge of God, which also addresses the related topic of “natural law.” Readers of First Things will know that a recent article there published on this subject has sparked some heated debate. The Utility of Natural LawThose who might follow the regular (and regularly brutal) internecine feuds of the Reformed community might also know that natural law has become a contentious issue, part and parcel of the ongoing Reformed debate concerning two kingdoms theology.

Though I have no desire to wade too deeply into these waters, it is worth at least a brief reminder that Lutherans also have a dog in this fight—not only as a matter of historic Lutheran doctrine concerning the reality of natural law, but also regarding its continuing validity and utility. (For a quick introduction, do see, in addition to the brief excursus in the above-noted CTCR document, the essays gathered together in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal.) On this latter point, the utility of natural law, I offer here only a few remarks as they relate to Christian participation in the public square.

First, by way of looking backward, it is worth recalling that the reformers granted something like practical primacy to the natural law in matters pertaining to the “left-hand” kingdom of God. Not only would Melanchthon insist in his 1555 Loci Communes that “external life is to be regulated according to this natural light”; Luther could be even more blunt in his 1525 How Christians Should Regard Moses: “Where [Moses] gives the commandments, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law.”

That is to say, in the public square, concerning public law, policy, and moral norms, debate is best carried out not with reference to that special revelation unique to a particular religion, but by appeal to that natural knowledge of the law possessed by all (even while recognizing human attempts, often successful, to suppress it). Even believing rightly that the Decalogue, or the Sermon on the Mount, much more clearly reveals these moral norms, the practical logic of Melanchthon’s view is evident, perhaps especially in the contemporary context of our pluralistic and multicultural society.

To see this logic, the (stereo)typically beer-swilling Lutheran need only ask how he would take to a Mormon or Muslim legislator introducing a bill to prohibit such imbibing on the grounds that his personal religion opposes it. Or the introduction of a bill outlawing blood transfusions on the grounds that Jehovah’s Witnesses deem them sinful.

This is merely to say that one should be willing to acknowledge a distinction between that which is recognized as a moral truth (even with the aid of Scripture) and the sorts of arguments with which such a truth might be persuasively advanced and defended. The unwillingness of many contemporary American Christians to recognize this distinction has, I would submit, been an absolute disaster—and in more than one respect. Not only do appeals to personal religious convictions prove entirely unconvincing to those not sharing such convictions (and so serve no temporal good in the left-hand kingdom); but explicit appeal to Christianity in what are primarily moral or legal issues unwittingly fuels the perception that Christianity—like every other religion—is fundamentally a religion of law, concerned above all with moralism and legalism (and so does a disservice to the Gospel concerns of the right-hand kingdom).

Putting it crassly, this approach invites preventable losses in both kingdoms. Better, then (though no silver bullet, to be sure), is to take a line not unlike that set forth in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession itself. Not only would the Lutheran confessors there go so far as to deem it “insane” to govern civil society by the specific laws revealed in Scripture (16.3); but, despite their unambiguous hostility to Aristotelian philosophy when and where it intruded upon the Gospel, they could just as forcefully assert that “Aristotle wrote so eruditely about social ethics that nothing further needs to be added” (4.14).