Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), x + 310. $38.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by W. Travis McMaken (August 01, 2007)

Stephen J. Grabill, a theological research scholar at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and editor of the “Journal for Markets and Morality,” provides an excellent introduction to the Reformed natural law tradition in his recent volume Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. This volume, the product of Grabill’s dissertation at Calvin Theological Seminary, hopes to “rediscover and rehabilitate natural law and related doctrinal concepts” (2), aspects of the Reformed tradition largely ignored in the wake of, among other things, Karl Barth’s critique of natural theology. Grabill believes that fear of “tacit acceptance of Roman Catholic theological and philosophical presuppositions” (9) and latent anti-scholasticism (cf. 4) have also been involved in this eclipse.

Grabill’s volume champions the richness of the Reformed natural law tradition by means of three interwoven movements. First, the Barth – Brunner debate over natural theology is identified as the impetus for the 20th century eclipse of natural law in the Reformed tradition. Second, the role of natural law and related concepts is explored in the thought of Reformed theologians from various stages in the development of Reformed scholasticism in order to overcome fears concerning covert Roman Catholicism. And third, resulting familiarity with the thought of these figures helps to overcome latent anti-scholasticism. The attention given to these Reformed authors is also important because Grabill strives to overturn the notion, which he laments as a result of the Barth – Brunner debate, that John Calvin is the measure of all Reformed theology.

Medieval scholastic antecedents to the Reformed natural law tradition are explored in Chapter two (Grabill’s treatment of Barth in the first chapter will be addressed later), where Grabill sketches the basic contours of realist, realist mediating and nominalist understandings of natural law. All these positions ground natural law in God’s will: “what makes something ultimately obligatory is that God commands it” (58). Differences between them pertain to divergent understandings of how God’s will, natural law and eternal law relate. Indeed, Grabill argues that the nominalist position does not entail relativism. It simply affirms that God could have chosen another moral system than that which God did in fact choose, although “[h]aving chosen this one…it is binding” (66). This chapter concludes with a brief look at Calvin on “the potentia absoluta / ordinata distinction” (68), setting the stage for the following chapter.

Chapter three addresses John Calvin (d. 1564). Grabill’s argument is that “Calvin, at least in principle, leaves open the formal possibility of developing a systematic doctrine of natural law founded upon the natural knowledge of God the Creator” (71). Much of this material deals with the duplex cognitio Dei in Peirre Viret and in Calvin. The result of this analysis is Grabill’s conclusion that on the one hand Calvin repeatedly affirms that humans can know God salvifically only through Jesus Christ as found in Scripture, while on the other he repeatedly denies the claim that without Christ there is no valid knowledge of God whatsoever. (81)

Always eager for an opportunity to distinguish between Barth and Calvin, Grabill notes that the former “argues Christ alone as revelation, whereas Calvin…maintains both special revelation apart from Christ and general revelation” (85). In the final analysis, Grabill understands Calvin as broadly realist in orientation, and concludes that – if nothing else – Calvin’s treatment of the conscience leaves open the possibility of developing doctrine of natural theology and natural law that satisfies Reformed scruples about “the human fall into sin, with all its attendant epistemological frustrations and ambivalences” (96).

Peter Martyr Vermigli (d. 1562), a former Augustinian monk who was later closely associated with Thomas Cramner and Martin Bucer, is the subject of Chapter four. Thanks to Vermigli’s “formal training in the via antiqua and the medieval Augustinian traditions” he was able “to develop a more internally consistent and sophisticated understanding of [the doctrines associated with natural law] than was possible for Calvin” (121). Vermigli’s sophisticated use of the distinction between contemplative and practical knowledge reinforces this notion. He affirmed that a certain basic knowledge of God “is apparent both from the handiwork of creation and being engrafted in the human mind” (117). This latter notion refers to God creative activity with reference to the soul, which is the seat of the conscience for Vermigli (112). With reference specifically to morality and the natural law, Vermigli believed that the post-lapsarian human will is capable of partial knowledge of and obedience to God, although this lacks salvific capacity.

Chapter five is devoted primarily to Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius (d. 1638), although considerable time is spent investigating the theologian Jerome Zanchi (d. 1590). This chapter tends to focus on the relation between various types of law:
Proper law, or positive law developed by humanity, is the application of natural law to particular circumstances. One interesting point found in this chapter is the notion, advocated by Zanchi, that natural law is not a ‘relic’ of the imago Dei or something associated with essential human nature, but moral knowledge restored by God in post-lapsarian humanity (cf. 139).

Like Zanchi…Althusius holds that the moral precepts of the Decalogue are derivative from the logically prior lex naturalis, that is, the universal knowledge of morality God implanted in the human mind at creation. (132)

Francis Turretin (d. 1687) is the subject of the sixth and final chapter. Turretin’s “theological system is self-consciously scholastic…and self-consciously Reformed” (152). In Turretin, the themes developed thus far are brought together into a higher synthesis than previously achieved. Grabill summarizes his position well: “Although God provides true knowledge of himself in the works of creation and providence, natural revelation is a nonsalvific but morally culpable source of information about God” (158). The moral force of natural law arises both from God’s nature and from the nature of humanity as rational beings in this created order. Those precepts that derive from the former are immutably necessary, while those deriving from the latter are contingently necessary (cf. 170-173). This formulation is a critical affirmation of the realist natural law tradition, and as a repudiation of nominalism.

A sketch of the Protestant natural law tradition’s development into the modern period, with the suggestion that these thinkers tended toward Remonstrant and Socinian positions opposed by Turretin (cf. 176), is offered in conclusion. Barth is once again addressed in much the same way as in the first chapter, where Grabill attends to Barth’s rejection of natural theology and natural knowledge of God in his debate with Brunner. Although this treatment leaves something to be desired, it does identify the crux of Barth’s concern. Grabill writes that, for Barth, “knowledge moves in only one direction, from above to below” and notes that Barth intends to “eliminate the possibility of moving from man to God” (33). After a brief consideration of divine command ethics, Grabill concludes by considering Jacques Ellul, Henry Stob, John Hare and Richard Mouw on the question of natural law.

Grabill’s treatment of Barth is the Achilles heel in an otherwise very well researched and executed volume. Although Grabill casts his project as a rediscovery of the Reformed natural law tradition after Barth, he does not offer arguments as to why Barth was incorrect in assessing natural law. In the place of arguments, Grabill prefers to describe Barth negatively as ‘Christocentric’ or ‘actualist’ without explaining why these things should be rejected. Grabill does strongly critique Barth’s interpretation of Calvin on natural law and natural theology. But it is not the same thing to establish that Barth was incorrect in his interpretation of Calvin and to establish that Barth was incorrect to reject even Reformed versions of the natural law and natural theology traditions. More is expected from someone who recognizes, as Grabill does, that it was “Barth’s desire to go further than the Reformers” specifically by “repudiating the Augustinian deposit in prolegomena” (188). Furthermore, there is no evidence that Grabill has given any attention to Barth’s treatment of the knowledge of God in the opening paragraphs of Church Dogmatics II/1. This is especially unfortunate since Barth here provides an illuminating treatment of the biblical text, interpreting Psalm 8, Romans 1 and other key passages (cf. CD II/1, 100-128).

This avoidance of Barth’s arguments calls into question the success of Grabill’s project to “rediscover and rehabilitate natural law and related doctrinal concepts” (2). Rather than addressing Barth’s arguments, Grabill merely sets him to one side. If the Reformed natural law tradition is to be rediscovered and rehabilitated after Barth, it will have to be done in deep conversation with Barth. This sort of rapprochement between Barth and the greater Reformed tradition on these questions might be pursued through a consideration of Thomas F. Torrance’s epistemological realism. Indeed, Torrance appears to move in this direction in his short work entitled Juridical Law and Physical Law (Scottish Academic Press, 1982).

These difficulties aside, Grabill has provided a valuable resource on and introduction to the Reformed natural law tradition. Though the endnote format is frustrating, Grabill’s notes are often illuminating. A 34-page bibliography provides a helpful guide for further study. Grabill’s chapters on the various Reformed thinkers from Calvin through Turretin provide excellent introductions to their understandings of natural law and related doctrines, and throughout these chapters he achieves fine balance between engagement with secondary literature and with primary texts. For these reasons, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, though weak in its treatment of Barth, certainly has a place in Reformed theological studies.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.