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Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach.

BIBLICAL NATURAL LAW: A THEOCENTRIC AND TELEOLOGICAL APPROACH. By Matthew Levering. New York: Oxford University, 2008. Pp. vi + 260. $110.

Levering strives mightily against the modernist conceptions of natural law. He seeks to uncover a renewed moral theology that is faithful to both the book of Scripture and the book of nature: "This study proposes that the full scope of natural law doctrine is learned best by means of a dialogue between biblical exegesis, theology, and philosophy, where each enriches the other" (1). Because human reason has been impaired by sin, a biblical perspective will open up new dimensions of nature that will not be available to persons without the energies of divine grace. Keeping consistent with the tradition of the church, L. maintains that the discovery of revelation and what it teaches about the moral life does not transcend nature, but quickens and renews it with the help of faith. His survey of biblical ethics indicates that scriptural theology is not averse to natural law, but is constitutive of the world and life view of the biblical writers (22-68). A balanced reflection on Scripture is rational and pertains to reason as such. Recognizing that belief in the triune God steers persons in a direction toward becoming other oriented, L. emphasizes that "a true appreciation of natural law comes about when human beings affirm natural law as God's wisdom for human ecstatis toward the goods connatural to human perfection. By means of this 'ecstatic' dynamism inscribed in human natural ordering toward ends, a dynamism healed and elevated by divine grace, ... God draws human beings toward himself" (13).

With the understanding that all normally functioning individuals can discern the natural law through reason apart from the influence of authoritative, divine revelation, modernist philosophers have attempted to provide an alternative viewpoint by grounding morality exclusively in the human person. Not only did this anthropocentric project eventually ostracize revelation from discussion and debate for the purposes of ethics; it also cut itself off from the classical tradition of natural law and, in so doing, ushered in an age of radical moral pluralism (17, 18). By contrast, belief in the Christian God provides moral resolution in a world that is highly pluralistic and uncertain regarding moral matters. Moral pluralism can easily lead to moral skepticism and despair, making it easy, if not inevitable, to doubt the moral efficacy of human beings altogether. To be sure, moral skepticism makes it seemingly irrational to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of another, because there is no guarantee that this is precisely what a particular situation and a certain ethical context requires. In this way skepticism can deplete the task of the building of virtue of any motivating force. What is needed to overcome this skepticism is something that can provide moral guidance--such as divine revelation.

L. traces this development by describing and explaining the secular perspectives of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche (86-139). He concludes: "By locating the origin in 'law' in individual human beings, rather than within the biblical creature-Creator relationship," he argues, "they lack not only the sense of fruitful receptivity that comes from envisioning human beings as created by God (Augustine) or as participating in personified nature (Cicero). They also lack the integral unity of body and soul, and thus distort 'inclinations' as subhuman. Most importantly, they lack awareness of the teleology of the body-soul person as received by the Creator and therefore as aiming at interpersonal communion, both by nature and (far more powerfully) by grace" (138). Distancing himself from his secularist counterparts, L. prefers to follow Aquinas's view on natural inclinations. Human nature is never positioned in a neutral standpoint but is oriented toward an end. Moreover, freedom is never in conflict with the person's natural inclinations but is developed for the good every time one cooperates with nature. What reason naturally apprehends as good is based in the created teleological structure of natural inclinations toward particular ends (with the ultimate end being God himself). When a human action does not cooperate with natural inclinations, the action is said to be evil, or disoriented. L. then discusses the nuances of Aquinas's position by outlining and commenting on the contemporary perspectives of Martin Rhonheimer, Servais Pinckaers, and Graham McAleer (144-83).

Always confident in the soundness of theological reasoning, L. provides a compelling alternative to the prevailing modernist conceptions of freedom and nature. Readers of this pricey book will be richly rewarded with a renewed stimulus of Thomistic natural law. Always clear, concise, and compelling, the book can also serve as a first-class introduction to natural law thinking in contrast to other ethical systems within the Christian tradition.


Duquesne University, Pittsburgh
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Author:Siniscalchi, Glenn B.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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