Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion)

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Is knowledge of right and wrong written on the human heart? Do people know God from the world around them? Does natural knowledge contribute to Christian doctrine? While these questions of natural theology and natural law have historically been part of theological reflection, the radical reliance of twentieth-century Protestant theologians on revelation has eclipsed this historic connection.

Stephen Grabill attempts the treacherous task of reintegrating Reformed Protestant theology with natural law by appealing to Reformation-era theologians such as John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin, who carried over and refined the traditional understanding of this key doctrine. Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics calls Christian ethicists, theologians, and laypersons to take another look at this vital element in the history of Christian ethical thought.

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    25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
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    The Historical Continuity of Reformed Ethics with Medieval Antecedents, December 16, 2006
    D. Sytsma

    This review is from: Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion) (Paperback)

    In his letter to Sadoleto (1539), John Calvin denied that the Reformers were innovators, expressed that the desire of the Reformers was to remain in continuity with antiquity, and alluded to the Vincentian Canon (AD 434). Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law demonstrates that the Reformed tradition, as it existed from the time of Calvin to the end of the 17th century, made good on Calvin’s claim in the area of theological ethics.

    This book is both a historical and topical approach to the foundations of ethics in the Reformed tradition. Those already familiar with the historical methodology of Reinhold Seeburg, Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, and Richard Muller will find this survey in the history of doctrine a comfortable read. Grabill examines in detail a limited number of interrelated doctrinal topics (natural revelation, natural theology, natural law) as they were formulated by Reformed founders (Calvin, Vermigli) and developed by later successors (Zanchi, Althusius, Turretin).

    Perhaps the most illuminating chapter in this volume, however, is the late-Medieval background to the development of the natural-law tradition. Here Grabill summarizes the research of medieval historians William Courtenay, Francis Oakley, and Heiko Oberman to show that the development of natural-law theory in the late-Medieval period should not be read as a monolithic tradition. Rather, two distinct natural-law traditions existed prior to the Reformation–(1) a realist tradition which builds moral obligation on God’s eternal law expressed in a metaphysics of embedded essences in creation (the Augustinian tradition represented by Aquinas and Scotus); (2) a nominalist tradition which builds moral obligation exclusively on God’s ordained covenant with creation, which was therefore non-necessary yet stable (Occam, d’Ailly, Biel). Grabill’s subsequent chapters read representative Reformers and their successors in light of these traditions, and demonstrate that the Reformed natural-law tradition falls decidedly into the realist, via antiqua tradition of Aquinas and Scotus.

    Grabill’s book challenges the Denifle-Lortz thesis that the magisterial Reformation was an outgrowth of late-Medieval nominalism. His conclusions will therefore likely generate a mixed reaction from both Roman Catholics and Protestants. On the one hand, Roman Catholics and confessional Protestants will find that their past shares much in common on the foundations of theological ethics, so that they have common resources from which to draw in addressing complex moral issues. On the other hand, this book will make thoughtful Roman Catholics somewhat uneasy since one of their means of dismissing the development of the Reformation (viz., continuity with late-Medieval nominalism) is called into question. This book will also make many contemporary Protestants and evangelicals uneasy, as their adherence to various post-Harnack/Ritschlian theological systems which repudiate the use of metaphysics, natural theology, and natural law places them in discontinuity with representative leaders of the universal church extending from the patristic era through the post-Reformation era.

    For those interested in the question of why many contemporary Reformed theologians, especially in the twentieth century, repudiate natural law altogether, Grabill offers two concise chapters. In chapter 1, “Karl Barth and the Displacement of Natural Law in Contemporary Protestant Theology,” Grabill examines Barth’s critique of natural theology and natural law, as well as that of subsequent Reformed ethicists writing in the aftermath of the Barth-Brunner debate (Jacques Ellul, Henry Stob, John Hare, Richard Mouw). Here, as well as in the introduction, Grabill also notes the problematic historical assumption of identifying Calvin as the chief-codifier of Reformed theology, rather than understanding Calvin as one among a network of many theologians who worked closely together to establish a theological tradition which was carried on in the theological schools they established. In the conclusion, Grabill sketches a short history of the development of theological ethics from the late-seventeenth century to the present, based on recent historiography in the secondary literature.

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