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?”
This, 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.”
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.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.