In a sequel to the recent controversy regarding natural law discussions at First Things, which we addressed here, Dr Thaddeus Kozinski took Dr Feser to task for, supposedly, positing natural reason as an ahistorical and areligious power of self-direction. If Hart, Dreher, and Leithart grant too little natural law, then Dr Feser grants too much, according to Dr Kozinski. Dr Feser defended himself deftly, and Dr Kozinski’s concerns have been allayed. Both of them raised important points, and even though Dr Kozinski’s charges don’t stick to Dr Feser, the truths he wishes to underscore are profoundly important, as are the truths Dr Feser wishes to underscore.
Both agree that there is a human nature and that the pattern of its actuality is natural law. Both also that natural theology alone will not direct a polity. Dr Feser, following Aquinas, asserts that only a few sages would attain a really comprehensive knowledge of the moral law, and the rest would need revelation; the ghost of Leo Strauss begins to loom at the window here, of course, and neither Dr Feser nor Dr Kozinski frame the question very clearly. Whatever one thinks of the positive Straussian theses – if such there are – the school does frame the question in a more useful way than we see in the conversation under discussion. For if a Laozi or or a Sokrates do attain cosmic knowledge on the mountaintop, then what one has, inescapably, is a sort of Gentile Sinai, not a merely abstract apprehension of an unusually comprehensive sort.
While Dr Kozinski goes too far, under the baleful influence of the Cambridge fideists, in asserting a nearly relativistic version of the truth that practical reason is never isolated from custom, memory, rites and manners, Dr Feser perhaps does not go far enough in explaining the way in which reason is universal within those things, and reason’s intrinsic relation to God.
Dr Feser might say more about the unity of man as a spiritual knower, to clear up any misunderstandings of reason as a mere discursive reason, or as sovereign Cartesian mathematicalizer of the world, which renders man’s life merely peripheral to this transcendent moment of mathematical clarity. Dr Kozinski, on the other hand, might do much more to acknowledge that manners, moral and intellectual customs, commonplaces, and rites are not interlocking deductive corollaries of a hermetically sealed MacIntyrean monad – or worse, of a Foucauldian system of inescapable discourses – but rather that they are different products of human invention, only ever harmonized erratically, partially, and always improvisationally, and that too, as Dr Feser points out (citing Aquinas; Burke makes much the same point), they all have their roots in deep reason, even if the particular ratio is forgotten or distorted.
In short, Dr Feser is right about the integrity of reason, and Dr Kozinski right about the fact that civil theology is what runs polities, since no polity runs on abstract natural theology. John Calvin, of course, said that reason and natural law themselves both point to the architectonic necessity of civil theology, confounding Milbank and Maritain both.
But more is involved here than reason and revelation. For both Dr Feser and Dr Kozinski, the relation between those involves prior principles, the papalist distinction between nature and supernature, and it is important to understand this lest we simply assume that evangelicals and papalists are really talking about quite the same things in these discussions.
Thus a brief reflection on the end of man is in order, since the end of man is the central affair of politics. Both Dr Feser and Dr Kozinski assert the papalist doctrine of the two ends of man, though neither really deal with the controversy about this doctrine among papalist doctors, let alone between those and the evangelical doctors. But in short the idea is that man has a temporal end – roughly what Aristotle calls happiness – and also a “supernatural” end, which is the beatific vision, in which the original nature will be aufgehoben.
The beatific vision is St Paul’s “face to face,” the final and perfect communion of man with God. Christians have always wondered what exactly the relation of this world, not simply as fallen, but even in original integrity, is to that final status promised by the Scriptures, and the controversy about that relation long predates the great reformation of religion five hundred years ago. And it continues to this day. Although it has become something of an arcanum, it is the crucial center of the question of what it is for Christians to live in the world.
Attentive readers will see in Dr Feser’s reply not only the idea of the two ends of man, but also the idea of the donum superadditum. The first follows from the second, and these two ideas are foundational for the papalist view of political order, along with the idea that the visible church is a distinct political community, with its own positive law, and self-sufficient with regard to its aim. The evangelical consensus has always rejected each one of those ideas as Rome has explicated them.
Evangelicals and papalists differ in protology, which is to say, they differ about the nature and status of primordial man. Hodge states the matter with his usual clarity:
The important point of difference is, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural. According to their theory, God created man soul and body. These two constituents of his nature are naturally in conflict. To preserve the harmony between them, and the due subjection of the flesh to the spirit, God gave man the supernatural gift of original righteousness. It was this gift that man lost by his fall; so that since the apostasy he is in the state in which Adam was before he was invested with this supernatural endowment. In opposition to this doctrine, Protestants maintain that original righteousness was concreated and natural….
The obvious objections to the Romish doctrine that original righteousness was a supernatural gift are (1) That it supposes a degrading view of the original constitution of our nature. According to this doctrine the seeds of evil were implanted in the nature of man as it came from the hands of God. It was disordered or diseased, there was about it what Bellarmin calls a morbus or a languor, which needed a remedy…. (2) This doctrine is evidently founded on the Manichaean principle of the inherent evil of matter…. (3) This doctrine as to original righteousness arose out of the Semi-Pelagianism of the Church of Rome, and was designed to sustain it…. (Systematic Theology II.V.3)
Hodge considers the matter at great length, and concludes by noting that Roman theology is however somewhat confused and inconsistent on this point, an inconsistency which played out recently in the Nouvelle Théologie controversy. Even though papalists no longer really try to maintain that by image and likeness Scripture intends two different things – namely the originally unstable “nature” which remains now though in an even more unstable state, and the other the lost “supernature” which is however available once more as “grace” acquired by docile participation in the sacramental and economic system of the institutionalized communio sanctorum – they yet retain the basic theme of nature and supernature.
Of course, everything revolves around what one means by “nature,” and the papalist theologians of our time have been none too forthcoming with definitions. For Protestants, what we see in creation is in basic formal outline what creation was meant to be, but suffering under the effects of the profound moral disorder of man in rebellion against God. Hence evangelicals immediately effected the radical revolution of declaring, with the Bible, that marriage is an estate of nature, and that the clergy has no jurisdiction over it. For evangelicals, marriage and ordinary human society are essentially Edenic in their structure, despite the moral derangement of men themselves, whereas for papalists, these things are inherently profane and imperfect, though provisionally allowable. For them, the gate to supernature is the so-called “counsels of perfection”, and what conforms to those, as they understand them, is “perfect,” whereas the forms of life outside are “imperfect.” Further, for the old evangelicals, the primary problem was not ignorance of a natural law somehow inseparable from supernature, but rather, moral rebellion.
In ethics, this has the surprising consequence that the old Protestant doctors, the teachers of total depravity, often ended up sounding fairly sanguine about the possibility of general rational knowledge of the natural law, whereas papalists tended to reserve clear understanding of that to the Popes and saints. But this is because the evangelicals didn’t see the problem as being one of ignorance of nature, but rather, as one of defiance of nature’s Author. For the evangelicals, man’s reason even after the Fall is capable of really impressive heights of cosmic knowledge and civil righteousness. What man is no way capable of is integral, unitary righteousness, and thus is wholly incapable of pleasing God outside Christ. Further, man’s reason can in no way deduce the mysteries of the economy of salvation. With regard to the natural law, however, man is capable of knowing its outlines and even acting according to it, though not from the motive of love of God.
What follows from the distinction between nature and the donum superadditum is that man has two ends: one is natural, and means felicity and actuality of body and mind, and the other is supernatural and spiritual, and means the visio dei. The temporal power has custody of the one, and the spiritual power – itself a real political order – has custody of the other. Since the first is ordered to the second, it follows that the temporal power is subordinated to the spiritual power, not just by way of obligation to heed its intrinsic moral authority, but rather, legally and politically bound, upon pain of defection from its purpose, to recognize the Roman ministerial corporation and its head as custodian of man’s higher end. All departures from this view are either in contradiction to the Roman system, or are evasively expressed. For an example of the latter, the view of Maritain and Murray is instructive; they seem to liberate the commonwealth from clerical rule, but in the end, it becomes clear that they presume the secularist automaton-State model, and posit something like “Catholic parties” as mediating between the State and its supposed natural director, the clerical corporation.
The evangelical position is that man has only one end, but that this end is not supernature, but rather, restored nature: original integrity renovated and confirmed in what Van Ruler called a “fireproof” or æveternal state. Further, the gate of this destination is justification by faith alone; since evangelicals deny that nature is being “perfected” by a different nature, and deny that God’s favor is any way earned by works, in temporal politics we do not accept the subordination of the “secular” to the “religious.” The universal priesthood exists in and as all the worldly callings, and the gift of provisional restoration destined for eschatological completion comes at the cost of no ascetic amputations. Proleptically full participation in the final state is the spiritual kingdom, and provisional and progressive participation of it is the worldly kingdom, in the classical two-kingdoms doctrine of the Reformers. This is, of course, a far cry from the papalist two-ends theory.
Our two-kingdoms doctrine had medieval predecessors in those who used the old two-ends doctrine to articulate something different from the creation-devaluing two-ends nature/supernature scheme; Marsilius and Dante stand out especially as doctrinal ancestors of the Reformers on this point, and so does Aquinas in certain moods.
For papalist political doctrine, the church is the corpus christianorum organized in dependence upon the central clerical corporation, which has an effective monopoly of the means of grace. This visible organization is societas perfecta, a community self-sufficient with regard to its proper ends. Obviously, the relation between this societas perfecta and the basic Christian household or Christian commonwealth is bound to be extremely complicated.
Evangelicals have always pointed this out. Among moderns, Herman Dooyeweerd saw the matter especially clearly. Although Dooyeweerd misreads Aquinas and the ancients, and we do not endorse either his epistemology or his overextended “groundmotive” analysis, his critical analysis of the papalist system is exact, and is in fact in unwitting accord with the “Protestant scholastics” (such as Hodge) whom he formally disavows. It is worth citing extensively here Dooyeweerd’s discussion of the papalist system in The Roots of Western Culture:
Roman Catholicism looks for the whole – for the total unity – of christian society in the temporal, institutional church. But according to the groundmotive of God’s revelation the true unity of all christian life is to be found only in the supratemporal root community of mankind, which is reborn in Christ. This community is the Kingdom of God, which resides not in a temporal institution but in the hearts of the redeemed. Without a doubt, the church here on earth, in its temporal, institutional organization as a community of Christ-believers, can only exist as a temporal manifestation of the “Body of Christ.” The “visible” church therefore cannot be separated from the “invisible church.” The latter is the “soul,” the “religious root,” of the former. But this temporal manifestation is not identical with the so-called “invisible church” which, as the spiritual kingdom of Christ Jesus our Lord, transcends time and shall exist in all eternity. As man’s soul and religious root unity do not lie in his temporal existence, so too the spiritual root unity and true totality of christian life do not lie in the “visible church” which belongs to temporal society….
Notice then that the roman catholic view of the church conforms with the scholastic conception of the body and soul in human nature….
It is therefore not difficult to understand that Roman Catholicism located the root unity of christian society in the temporal, institutional church. As the “perfect community” of the supranatural realm, the church was the higher “form” of natural society, its “matter.” Natural society, climaxed in the state, was related to the supernatural christian society of the church as the material body was related to the rational soul….
According to the roman catholic view, nature and grace cannot be separated in a truly christian society. This means that the Roman Catholic Church may intervene in the natural realm. Consequently, the relation between the church and the christian (that is, roman catholic) state can never correspond as the relation between two sovereign life spheres. One might be led to think otherwise when Thomas argued that the state is not subject to intervention from the church in purely natural matters. The illusion is broken, however, when we realize that the church reserves for itself the binding interpretation of “natural morality,” to which the christian magistrate is bound as any individual church member. In fact the Roman Catholic Church delimits the boundaries of the autonomy of the christian state. Thus, when Leo XIII and Pius XI wrote their encyclicals Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, they offered directives not merely for the “specifically christian” side of the social and socioeeconomic issues of the modern day; they also explained the demands of “natural law” and “natural morality” for these problems. On both counts, then, the Roman Catholic Church demands that that a christian government subject itself to ecclesiastical guidance. The state is autonomous only in giving concrete form to the principles of natural law in the determination of so-called positive law.
Dooyeweerd sums all this up succinctly by saying,
In this light the antithesis is viewed as an opposition between the apostate principle which that severs “nature” from church dogma and the roman catholic principle that, under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority, places “nature” in the service of “supernatural perfection.”
And as we have seen, that “supernatural perfection” involves the negation of original Edenic order in favor of an angelism whose gates are the so-called counsels of perfection.
Dooyeweerd lays out very precisely what follows politically from the papalist understanding of nature and supernature. To Quadragesimo anno and Rerum novarum, we could now add Humanae Vitae, which expressly claims the clerical corporation is the sole infallible interpreter and guardian of the natural law, alienating Christian reason from the Christian people absolutely thereby, and positioning the clerical corporation as the prosthetic reason of the commonwealth.
Orthodox evangelicals do not at all sever the State from the church properly understood as the corpus christianorum, which is always a multitude in its temporal profile and underlies both magistracy and ministerium, and every other estate; and neither do we allow the representative orders to alienate the powers of that multitude. What we deny is any political subordination of the magistracy to the ministerium, and we also deny that the ministerium possesses any monopoly of access to the natural law or the light of reason, just as we deny that the magistracy possesses such a thing either, though the magistracy alone has the representative office of enacting good law. Evangelical Christendom is uncompromisingly populist and conciliarist. The magistracy and the ministerium are both representative orders of the basic corpus christianorum.
The papalist end of the recent controversy over natural law testifies to the inconsistencies which Dr Hodge saw in their position. They take from natural law and natural reason with the one hand what they apparently give with the other. Thus neither Dr Feser’s optimism nor Dr Kozinski’s skepticism regarding natural law ought to be understood apart from the peculiar political claims and anthropological suppositions of Rome.
As we said before, the question is not at all one of whether natural law alone can be used to decisively settle matters of political deliberation. Natural law says very little on its own, and prudence – itself, as both Dr Kozinski and Dr Feser grant, very much informed by custom, imagination, and communal wisdom – is what translates the dictates of practical reason into action. And further, civil theology is always architectonic. “Natural law” means different – not wholly different, but still different – things for different civil theologies.
Although they differ in their emphases, Dr Feser and Dr Kozinski both hold to a two-ends doctrine which identifies supernature almost hypostatically with the clerical corporation, and which posits revelation, interpreted by the clerical corporation, as necessary for the guidance of commonwealths. For papalists, revelation corresponds to supernature, as does their clerical corporation; for us, nature is already revelation, and later special revelation marks God’s merciful reinauguration of covenantal concord.
The mature evangelical position sharply distinguishes between provisionally maintained nature and finally secured nature, and sees them related as time and eschaton. What follows politically from this biblical wisdom is the great Protestant jurists’ definition of the temporal common good as the primary political end. But the eschatological work of the Word and Spirit is provided for politically too, primarily by room being made for them, which establishes a forum of peace within which the power of prophetic persuasion can work.
In discussions of natural law and the direction of commonwealths, the question is not simply what proportion natural reason and revelation have, but more basically what those words mean in the first place. Papalists and evangelicals mean rather different things by “nature” and “end of man.” What follows from our principles is a secular but not secularist commonwealth, whose secularity is secured by revelation. Whereas the papalist doctrine always subordinates nature to an order of “perfection” created by alienating, our doctrine liberates nature and natural reason. Naturally, the practical policies following from such different principles will themselves differ. For papalists, the only options are either waiting for the masses to accept clerical authoritarianism, or retreat; evangelicals, however, have other ways forward.
 Even if only one anamnetic of the Noahide covenant, rather than theophanous in the specifically Abrahamic sense.
 Here Dooyeweerd should rather have said “donum superadditum,” rather than appealing to his flawed “groundmotive” theory. Although this flawed theory fails him often, he was correct in seeing the nature-supernature theme as the controlling trope of papalism, and was also largely correct here in repeating, in slightly different terms, the orthodox doctrine of the relation between the visibility and the invisibility of the church.
 Dooyeweerd, The Roots of Western Culture (Wedge Publishing, 1979), 130–31.
 Ibid., 134.
Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.