Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Oliver O’Donovan on Niels Hemmingsen

Sort of; that’s a bit of a stretch, actually. This post is really on Craig Bartholomew on Oliver O’Donovan and the way his gloss of O’Donovan relates to Niels Hemmingsen.

In his introduction to A Royal Priesthood?, Bartholomew has this to say of O’Donovan:

Realism means that this [creation] order is truly present in the creation. This is O’Donovan’s common ground with natural law ethics. But the fall, and this is where O’Donovan distinguishes his approach from natural law ethics, means that not only do humans resist the order, but they are confused about it. We must distinguish ontology from epistemology–the creation order is real and holds for all, but in a fallen world it cannot be grasped outside of Christ. (p. 22)

What’s interesting about this is that it is actually very close to Hemmingsen’s position in his work On the Law of Nature, which he holds while arguing for a natural law approach to ethics, as I argue in a forthcoming essay called “Nature and the Wound of Nature: A Pauline View of the Testimony of the Ancients in Niels Hemmingsen’s De Lege Naturae.” As the title indicates, Hemmingsen holds both to objective order in creation and to the Fall that distorts creation and our apprehension of it.

Hemmingsen’s view is not quite the same as that attributed above to O’Donovan–that is, it is not divided between ontology and epistemology. It is better described as divided between theory and practice. For Hemmingsen, the first principles of the law of nature (e.g., “Worship God”) are evident and known even to fallen reason, but man goes astray as soon as he tries to put these principles into practice. This is because of the “wound of nature,” the only remedy for which is specially revealed by God to the church, His people.

But, though the two views are not identical, they are close enough to show that what might be in view in O’Donovan’s critique of “natural law” are versions of it that leave God out, rather than the theologically informed and theologically motivated versions found in many Christian writers of an earlier period.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.