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Natural Law, Lutheranism, and the Public Good

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A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 edition of The Lutheran Witness.

"Where [Moses] gives the commandments, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law."~ Martin Luther (AE 35:173)

Martin Luther's penchant for provocative exclamations is well known. It may nevertheless seem especially shocking that the great champion of "Scripture alone" could appear so blatantly to qualify the authority of the biblical commandments. Perhaps equally puzzling, though, is his qualification's appeal to "natural law," a phrase likely unfamiliar to many readers because it has all but disappeared from contemporary Lutheran discourse.

That it is so infrequently discussed, or even mentioned, might give the impression that there is something inherently un-Lutheran about this concept. As even the above quotation suggests, however, neither an acknowledgment of nor appeals to natural law are foreign to Lutheranism. Moreover, the case for embracing natural law, especially in civic life, may be stronger today than it has been throughout the history of Lutheranism, or even most of the history of Christianity.

What, though, is this natural law? While details differ among its theorists—diversely represented not only by two millennia of Christian theologians, but even by pre-Christian pagans and modern agnostics—certain commonalities emerge. The natural law consists of an objective and universal moral code, the fundamental precepts of which are embedded in human nature, and which are discernible by the natural reason common to humanity.

While illuminating the essence of natural law, the above also sheds light on possible reasons for its apparently having fallen out of favor among Lutherans. That it has been championed by non-Christians may suggest that the concept is un-Christian. That special emphasis is placed upon human reason, rather than divine revelation, may imply that it is unbiblical or rationalistic. And the very substance of natural law being, quite obviously, law, perhaps any emphasis upon it would obscure the central Christian proclamation of the gospel. In short, appeals to natural law may be perceived as elevations of pagan philosophy over Christian theology, reason over revelation, and law over gospel.

With another nod to the quotation above, though, it is worth asking if such fears are warranted; if the teaching of natural law is inimical to the teachings of Christianity, and Lutheranism particularly, what could possibly account for Luther's own bold appropriation of it? Fortunately, we need not explain Luther's embracing a teaching in conflict with the Christian faith, Christian Scriptures, or Christian gospel. We may instead explore the evidence for natural law teaching being, though not unique to the Christian faith, certainly acknowledged by it—not least because it is acknowledged in those Scriptures inspired to reveal the gospel.

Indeed, the locus classicus for the Christian recognition of natural law appears in that epistle Luther himself called "the chief part of the New Testament" and "truly the purest Gospel," St. Paul's epistle to the Romans (AE 35:365). As prelude to his clear proclamation of the gospel, the apostle emphasizes that all stand in need of divine pardon because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). To the Jews, Paul emphasizes, this should be evident in light of their failure to keep those commandments revealed to them on Sinai. But the Gentiles, to whom the Mosaic law had not been revealed, are also without excuse, Paul asserts, because their very deeds "show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness" (Rom. 2:15).

It is Paul's testimony to an objective moral law, being naturally and universally known, that prompts Luther to write on this passage: "This proves that the law was not unknown to them, but that they had a knowledge of what was good and evil" (AE 25:187). It is also Paul's association of this natural law with that law supernaturally revealed to Israel that allows us more clearly to understand Luther's ostensibly dismissive treatment of Moses. If right and wrong can be discerned only with reference to the Mosaic law presented to Israel at Sinai, Luther suggests, then "Moses came far too late"; moreover, he "addressed himself to far too few people" (AE 47:89). That is to say, the whole of humanity prior to God's revealing the Decalogue, as well as the great majority of it subsequently, could have had no possible understanding that murder, or theft, or adultery were moral evils to be shunned.

Such an unlikely conclusion need not be reached, however, because "Moses agrees exactly with nature," says Luther (AE 35:168); though they had not yet been etched in stone, "the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs" (AE 47:89). Nor are such explanations unique to Luther; they are reiterated in the Lutheran Confessions, which likewise assert that "natural law, which agrees with the Mosaic law, or the Ten Commandments, is innate in the heart of all men and is written on it" (Ap IV 7).

Complementing this acknowledgement of the law being "written" on the hearts of all is the recognition that all likewise possess the rational faculties with which to "read" this law. Luther himself would express this position by saying that "this law's light shines in all men's inborn reason," and that there is no one, therefore, "who fails to recognize, and who is not compelled to admit, the justice and truth of the natural law" (WA 17/2:102).

To be sure, human reason has not been unaffected by the fall into sin; as St. Paul makes plain even in his assertion of humanity's innate knowledge of God and his law, sinful humans in fact have a propensity to suppress this natural knowledge (Rom. 1:18-21). Luther vividly describes those who do so as being "like people who purposely stop their ears or pinch their eyes shut to close out sound and sight." However, he continues, "they do not succeed in this; their conscience tells them otherwise. For Paul is not lying when he asserts that they know something about God" (AE 19:54). And again, the Confessions agree, acknowledging that even after the fall there remains in all people a "dim spark of the knowledge that there is a God, as also of the doctrine of the law," such that even "the heathen to a certain extent had a knowledge of God from the natural law" (FC SD II 9, V 22).

Such references to this knowledge being only a "dim spark," or existing only "to a certain extent," do of course highlight the diminished capacities of human reason resulting from the fall. It is on this account that the Lord further condescended to write this law in stone, and subsequently in the pages of Scripture. The content, however, remains the same. Thus Luther, rather than slighting the significance of the commandments, can in fact conclude that "the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses" (AE 40:98). But because the substance of this natural law is more explicitly revealed in the pages of Scripture, one might reasonably ask why any attention to the law written less clearly on the heart is therefore warranted; why place any emphasis upon natural law when Scripture reveals its contents much more clearly?

One important answer to this question is simply that, increasingly, our neighbors do not recognize the authority of Scripture. Indeed, as Robert Newton argued last year in these pages, we increasingly find ourselves in a "post-Christian" culture. That is, our environment differs radically from that of the fourth through nineteenth centuries, when the teachings of Scripture not only implicitly, but often explicitly and even officially, informed the public life and institutions of the western world. A widespread and often officially sanctioned public secularism, together with an increasing religious pluralism, have effectively displaced any privileged status that uniquely Christian teachings once had in civic affairs.

This blithe dismissal of, or even hostility to, Scripture in the public square need not discourage the Christian from social or political engagement, however. The Bible need not be appealed to as the sole source of moral or legal authority. While boldly confessing that salvation is revealed in Scripture alone, the Christian can also acknowledge that the fundamental precepts of right and wrong are not; they are also written on the hearts of all and may there be read and understood by all. Thus, even when the vast majority did still recognize the divine authority of Scripture, Philip Melanchthon could appeal to natural law and natural reason as properly ruling in temporal affairs; "External civil life," he wrote, "is to be regulated according to this natural light" (Loci Communes [1555], VII).

As Christians, we are called to fulfill our many and various vocations by faithful involvement in this "external civil life." To be sure, in a world deeply scarred by sin, such participation will not be without conflict, disagreement, and debate about what sorts of activities ought or ought not be "regulated." Recognizing the fact and force of the natural law, however, the Christian can boldly engage in public and rational persuasion, confident that the knowledge of right and wrong is indeed written on the hearts, and discernible by the intellects, of all whom our Lord has created in his own image.





Korey D. Maas (DPhil, Oxford University), is assistant professor of theology and church history at Concordia University (Irvine, California) and coeditor of Theologia et Apologia: Essays in Reformation Theology and its Defense (Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Issue: "For You, Your Children... and All Who Are Far Off" March/April 2011 Vol. 20 No. 2 Page number(s):

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