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Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics.

Stephen J. Grabill. Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics.

Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006. x + 310 pp. index. bibl. $38. ISBN: 0-8028-6313-2.

Though Grabill's book on natural law in the Reformed tradition has only recently been published, many scholars already consider it a turning point in the history of Renaissance philosophical and theological ideas on the natural law tradition and its contemporary relevance. The author describes the aim of the book as showing "that some of the most formative voices in the Reformed tradition taught that the diminished natural human faculties still function sufficiently to reveal the general precepts of the natural moral law" (12). The first part of Grabill's book focuses on the highly influential twentieth-century vertical theology of Karl Barth and its role in severely attenuating the impact of natural law theory on Reformed and orthodox Protestant intellectualist circles. Barth, the author argues, could not afford to compromise the radical priority of the analogia fidei on which his system depends by leaving space for the natural law. God's revelation and the human response it elicits demand a total reorientation of one's life which was impossible before the revelatory event itself. According to Grabill, the most unfortunate consequence of Barth's influence is that it has fostered a rather serious misinterpretation of Reformation history. Quite simply, the lex naturalis was of much greater concern to both early and late reformers than writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Helmut Thielicke would have us believe.

As critical as he is of Barth, however, Grabill does not place all the blame on him. The roots of a divergence in natural law thinking go much deeper than the Renaissance. Already in the late Middle Ages, significant disagreements regarding the nature of natural law were already coming to light. On the one hand, there were the realists such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, who emphasized the metaphysical basis of natural law and reason's ability to discern its operation in natural and political phenomena. On the other hand, nominalists such as William of Ockham and Pierre d'Ailly stressed reason's priority over nature and its constructive function in achieving a sufficient knowledge of human rights and duties. Grabill examines a fascinating array of primary sources to demonstrate how the ongoing debate between these two tendencies spilled over into early- and late-Reformation thinking. The development of a distinctive Reformed theology regarding the exclusive authority of scripture and the absolute efficiency of divine grace made it more and more difficult to integrate a systematic natural law approach into that theology. Grabill is not the only recent writer to note that Calvin's frequent use of such expressions as lex naturae, natura dictat, and naturae ordo does not necessarily point to an elaborated natural law system. Rather, Reformed thinking--and, indeed, all of Renaissance thinking--was still dependent on educational, ecclesial, and political institutions deeply imbued with scholastic terminology and methodology.

The second-half of Grabill's book is dedicated to analyzing the complex story of how rationalism and the Enlightenment remolded Protestant theology into natural theology and the subsequent effects such a theology had on natural law theory. Grabill is careful not to detach the theoretical elements of this remolding from their historical context. At the same time, Grabill's overarching goal throughout these later chapters is to lay the groundwork for a more expansive theoretical project of interweaving natural law principles into a Reformed theological framework. The author is encouraged by contemporary discussions and collaboration between Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic intellectuals in bolstering the role of natural law ethics in the public square, but he senses a greater potential for grounding this discussion in the powerful and creative ideas emerging from the Renaissance and Reformation periods.

The last part of the book offers a synthetic narrative that summarizes the author's more detailed study of primary sources--by John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, Johannes Althusius, and Francis Turretin--presented in the preceding chapters. According to this narrative, the Barthian legacy was in many respects an overreaction to a rationalistic and modernized conception of natural law that was certainly not present at the dawn of the Reformation, and certainly not reflective of mainline Protestantism's potential not only to incorporate natural law theology, but even to make an original contribution. By offering a well-researched introduction to the history of natural law in Reformed theological ethics, the author opens the door to a more rigorous reevaluation of that history and a more confident theoretical reintegration of natural law into contemporary philosophical and theological ethics.


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Author:Gallagher, Daniel B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Previous Article:Teaching the Reformation: Ministers and Their Message in Basel, 1529-1629.
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