Archive Jordan Ballor Natural Law Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Goal of Natural Law is God’s Glory

The ever-intriguing Eric Enlow has posted an item on Calvin and natural law, arguing that for the Genevan reformer,

If knowledge of our redemption by Christ is “the principle” of all duties, then proponents of natural-law philosophy must admit either (1) that natural-law philosophy teaches Christ as the principle of all duties, or (2) that because natural-law philosophy does not rely on Christ, it is mutilated, “a beautiful superstructure without foundation … a body without a head.” If the former, then natural-law philosophers are really bad at showing the centrality of Christ and need to reform their arguments. If the latter, then natural-law philosophers believe that adequate philosophy does not require foundations.

I think that (2) is true for some natural-law thinkers, but not all. And I think (1) ought to be true for Christian natural lawyers, which I do not take to be oxymoronic.

How might one go about teaching “Christ as the principle of all duties”? In the words of James Gustafson, “Why don’t Protestants use the cosmic christologies of Colossians, Ephesians, and the gospel according to John for a biblical foundation for natural law?”

Girolamo ZanchiThis, I would argue (and have done so, and plan to do so more fully), is a good way to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s project, an attempt to ground ethics in the “cosmic christologies” of the biblical witness. It is also, I would say, a good way to understand the older Protestant approaches to natural law, which must be acknowledged to consist of more than Calvin’s comments on Romans 12:1-2 (where Calvin is actually talking about worldly “philosophy” as such and not simply or only about natural law).

Or as Girolamo Zanchi put it, “In fact, whose responsibility is it to manage all things for the common good? Does it not belong to the fount of every blessing, the ruler of all? I did mention the fact that the goal of law is God’s glory and the welfare of each person, the welfare of the church, and the entire human race.”

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.

2 replies on “The Goal of Natural Law is God’s Glory”

Good post, Jordan. If I understand your question, what you are asking is where is Jesus Christ, the Logos and second person of the Trinity, in that picture of creation order, of natural law? In short, how should we understand Christ’s relation to the creation order, to the natural law? Put differently, in what sense does the Incarnation of the eternal Logos furnish the “ultimate logos or intelligibility which undergirds and directs the created order,” as moral theologian Romanus Cessario has asked? The brief answer to this question here must take as its starting point St. Paul’s teaching that Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). In this regard, St. Paul associates divine wisdom personally with the incarnate Son. Furthermore, he explicitly refers to the pre-existent Christ, the divine Word, as the divine Prototype, in other words, as the true pattern by which “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (Col 1:16). In addition, when Aquinas discusses the eternal law, he identifies the second divine Person of the Trinity with the eternal law (recall that Aquinas affirms Augustine’s claim that natural law is human participation in the eternal law of God. He writes: “Therefore, regarding divine things, we speak of the Word itself, which the Father’s understanding conceives, as the Second Person of the Trinity, and this Word expresses everything in the Father’s knowledge, whether things proper to God’s essence or things proper to each Person or things created by God, as Augustine makes evident in his work On the Trinity. And among other things so expressed, the Word itself also expresses the eternal law itself” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a. 1, ad 2.) Therefore, given his divine status as the Logos/Son, Christ, “the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation” (Col 1:15), that is, “he who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together” (Col 1:17), this Logos/Son “embodies and displays the definitive shape or form that the order of human existence should take in the world” (Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology, 56). John Paul II makes the same point in his 1986 Encyclical Letter, Dominum et Vivificantem. He argues that the Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ, is not only the mediator of redemption but also the mediator of creation. The pope writes, “This Word is the same Word who was ‘in the beginning with God’, who ‘was God’, and without whom ‘nothing was made that was made’, since ‘the world was made through him’ [John 1:1, 2, 3, 10]. He is the Word who is also the eternal law, the source of every law which regulates the world and especially human acts” (no. 33).

Jordan, you know my skepticism about natural-law talk but your approach, with the Bonheofferian Christotelic center, is making me more sanguine. Of course, when you talk about natural-law your way, I don’t think it’s consistent with the way most law people today, e.g., George and Finnis, go about it.

Similarly, Ed’s post really resonated with me. But, with respect to the JPII’s identification of Christ and the Eternal Law, Aquinas concludes in a way that seems more restrained: “Nor does it follow from this that ‘eternal law’ is predicated of a person in God. However, it is appropriated to the Son because of the consonance between a conception and a word.”

For Aquinas, as I read him, the relation between the eternal law and the Word is analogous to the relation between the mind’s conception of a dog and its mental word “dog,” i.e. the Word expresses the conception of the Father, which is the Eternal Law. In any case, it is not clear, here, as it is in Calvin that we gain our needed understanding of moral duty by trusting in our redemption through Christ. Following Paul in Romans 12, it is only in view of God’s mercy that we gain a sense of our “logikos” service. That is, the relation between Christ and our moral duty is different and the mode of our relation to Christ as the source is different for Calvin than for Aquinas and the Roman tradition.

I tried to set out some other ways of relating to Christ through the natural law here:

Here’s my bit on Aquinas and thinking of natural law in terms of our search for the eternal:

Per Aquinas, “it is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.” ST I-II, Q 91, a 2. But we know, as Paul teaches in Colossians, that the eternal law of creation flows from and to Christ. Therefore, if we wish to focus on what is eternal, we must be focusing on Christ. If we wish to find what is outside of flux and change and disintegration, we will find it by reflection on Christ as He is before all things and as He is at the end of all things and as He is now at the Right Hand of the Father. Christians should look for what is truly eternal in their approach to legal normativity and they should do so in relation to Jesus. The test for whether we are in contact with what is eternal is to refer our convictions about legal norms to the one who makes and for whom all is made.

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