Natural Law and Lutheran Orthodoxy

by Matthew Gaetano

As we’ve discussed in the past, there are quite a few persistent myths about the role of reason in the Protestant tradition as well as the relationship of the churches of the Reformation to medieval scholasticism. In a similar way, one can easily find all sorts of misconceptions about how the longstanding Christian discussion of natural law was received in the Protestant context.

This is a topic that has received a good deal of attention in the past couple of decades (see here, here, here, and here). I thought that I’d offer a few remarks on the subject by drawing on the massive work of systematic theology from the great Lutheran theologian, Johann Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), nephew of Johann Gerhard and a professor for decades in Wittenberg. The usefulness of his work, particularly the Systema theologicum, is not only that it looks back at the history of Western theology from the vantage point of the late seventeenth century (and perhaps the end of “high Orthodoxy” in Lutheranism), but also that he is interested in laying out the “state of the question” as clearly as possible. As his title page makes clear, his approach is to begin with a “didactic section” where he lays out the truth on the basis of Scripture and approved theologians. Then, there is the second section which deals with polemics, where controversial questions are raised and the state of the debate is laid out clearly, with the different positions of various opponents presented in a concise fashion. And, finally, there is a reply to these objections and a discussion of the sources for the sake of an even more complete answer. All in all, it appears that Quenstedt will prove useful for the efforts of The Regensburg Forum because of this clarity and also because he saw himself as needing to challenge both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians. The Lutheran perspective might help us to see some of these controversies from a different point of view.

As we might expect, Quenstedt begins with the distinction between Law and Gospel: “Law manifests the disease; the Gospel exhibits the physician” (c. 925). But natural law, he makes clear, has purposes beyond simply showing us that we are sinners. Quenstedt then starts to clarify the relationship of natural and other types of divine law. One of the main distinctions is between moral law and temporary law. Moral law teaches (praecipio) moral works and obliges to obedience or to penalty. It is a “perpetual and immutable norm of living, the express image of the internal concept of the divine mind according to which God the Legislator judges that which is law (fas) and equitable. This is so that the rational creature might order his whole life — always and everywhere.” He sets this conception of moral law over against “temporary and Judaic” law which only endures for a certain time and which can be abrogated.

The moral law (in contrast with temporary law) is distinguished into natural law and moral law spoken in a special way. The natural law is written in our hearts, while the moral law spoken in a special way is on tablets of stone. Quenstedt’s explanation of the relationship of the natural law and the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) is instructive: “In integral nature [before the Fall], the law of nature and the moral law were entirely the same, but in corrupt nature a great part of the natural law has been obscured by sin and only a certain particle of it remains in the mind of man. For this reason, a new promulgation of the law was instituted in Mount Sinai” (c. 925). But the Ten Commandments are distinct from the temporary laws for the Hebrews found in other parts of the Pentateuch. Indeed, Quenstedt says that, though the Ten Commandments are specially referred to as the “moral law,” it does not differ in species from the natural law.

When Quenstedt begin to describe natural law itself, he starts with the idea that it is connate to human beings. In other words, it is something that is in some way rooted in our nature. But this isn’t a mere instinct or anything along those lines. Indeed, like other scholastic thinkers of the period, Quenstedt wants to make clear that the natural law, when discussed in this context, does not have much to do with laws of nature that pertain to things like falling objects, heavenly bodies, plants, or even beasts. He says that Ulpian’s famous description of “natural law” as “common” to man and brute is improper. He is not denying that there are animal instincts or that there is a general order of the universe, but this Lutheran theologian wants to insist that the “foundation” of law or right is reason, which the brutes do not have.

The rootedness of natural law in man’s rational nature is key. But even though this is part of why natural law is “connatural” to us, Quenstedt disagrees with theologians like Gabriel Vasquez (against whom Francisco Suarez also wrote) that natural law is rational nature itself. It is something distinct from our rational nature and from conscience. Rather, natural law is a “universal rule commanding or forbidding.” It thus stands over rational nature itself and even conscience. For Quenstedt, conscience is, inter alia, an “examination of oneself in accordance with this rule” of natural law (c. 926).

While our rational nature is connatural with the natural law, the efficient cause of this law is God Himself. In Romans 1 and 2, Paul speaks of God as making his will manifest to human beings, even the Gentiles. The law is written on their hearts. Quenstedt talks about this as being born with us, not handed down. There is an “engraving” and “impression” of this natural knowledge on the minds of all human beings. He also wants to clarify that this inscription of the fundamental principles in the human mind by God is not merely potential but actual. I am not yet clear about whether this involves in affirmation of innate ideas, but Quenstedt is not saying that all of the entailments of the natural law are known to us at birth. As will become clear, he is only speaking about the first principles of natural law.

A few principles of the natural law are that God should be worshipped, that one ought to live honorably (honeste esse vivendum), that no one should be harmed, and that one should give to each what is his own. These are principles that cannot be demonstrated; they are first principles. But from these principles, one can deduce other principles, such as the prohibitions of murder and fraud and the obligation of keeping one’s pacts. Our natural corruption after the fall, a depraved education, vicious customs, etc., can pervert even these most basic of conclusions. Quenstedt points out that there are barbarous people and even many sinners in civilized lands who obscure these primary notions. These basic moral obligations can be hidden under ashes, but the embers can never be entirely extinguished unless “humanity is lost” (c. 927).

The form of the law of nature consists, Quenstedt says, in “the directive force of honorable action and the obligative force of consciences” (c. 928). He doesn’t elaborate on this point too much. But part of the issue is that natural law is really a law. In other words, natural law is not just advice. It is not merely our basic inclination towards certain goods in keeping with our rational animality. It is something that directs us, obligates us, and commands us to act (or not to act) in certain ways.

There are multiple ends or purposes of the law of nature. The first is the search for God (inquisitio Dei). From these “innate principles,” one can know that God exist and that He should be worshipped. The realization that there is a God worthy of worship ought to incite man “to seek God and to try to find the true form of worship (cultus)” (c. 928).

The second purpose is proper glorification of and gratitude towards the God who is sought out and found. Of course, as Romans 1 teaches us, many who know God do not glorify Him as God. Quenstedt talks about the “remnants” of the divine image in man and of this knowledge impressed upon us that, because of our sin, is often perverted and turns towards the worship of idols and other man-made forms of honoring the divine being. It turns out that this purpose of the natural law, for fallen man, functions to make human beings “without excuse” when they act in wicked ways. At some level, they know that they are acting against the dictates of right reason, against the law that is connatural to them. Of course, when God impressed the law of nature, it was not his immediate intention that it fulfill this particular function. Making sinful human beings inexcusable arose from the malice of sinful men and our widespread neglect of the law of nature.

The other ends pertain more to our associations with our fellow human beings rather than our relationship with God. The third end of the natural law is the direction of morality and external discipline. Even unredeemed human beings have this law written on their hearts, which functions as a curb (one of the classic Protestant “three uses of the Law”). The natural law thus helps to prevent crime and keep human beings within the limits of duty and honor.

The fourth end is to maintain an honorable way of life. The capacity of human beings by nature to distinguish the just and the unjust “informs us … that we must live honorably, flee what is shameful, harm no one, etc.” (c. 928).

Finally, natural law leads to the conservation of political society. Public tranquility is conserved in part because of the basic knowledge that human beings have of the obligations that they have as rational animals. Quenstedt says, “What the eye is to the body, the law of nature is to the soul. Just as we discern colors through the eye, so we discern what is honorable and shameful through the law of nature. … Without eyes, life is miserable; without the law of nature disciplines collapses, and the republic perishes” (c. 928).

Quenstedt sums up this account by talking about the law of nature as decreed by God (as the supreme power in the universe) upon man. But this decree is impressed upon man by nature so that human beings might be obligated to do what is right and honorable and flee or lay aside what is unjust and shameful. He also speaks about it as a light or dictate of right reason divinely endowed upon human beings, a light which informs man–with common notions–about the distinction of the unjust and the just, the shameful and the honorable. This light is for the praise of the Creator and the preservation of civil society.

Quenstedt believes that the natural law is immutable and cannot be dispensed. God never dispenses his creatures from natural law because it would mean that He would be approving something intrinsically evil. When he takes up examples such as when the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians (despite the fact that stealing is against the natural law), Quenstedt argues that there is no true dispensation from the obligations of natural law. First of all, God is the supreme Lord or dominus (owner) of all things, so He has the authority to change the property rights over particular items from a particular Egyptian to a particular Israelite. Moreover, one might argue that some of these items belonged to the Israelites because they were not paid for their work. However one explains it, Quenstedt wants to make clear that God did not and could not command the Israelites to engage an act of theft.

Another issue that arises when we speak about the immutability of natural law is whether it changes as a result of the Fall of Adam. Quenstedt argues that it is only different with reference to its perfection. “Before the Fall,” he says, “[the law of nature] was perfect and distinct; after the Fall, it is imperfect and obscure” (c. 930). This Lutheran theologian had an account of human nature and divine power that would not allow for a fundamental change in the natural law as a result even of an event as devastating as the Fall of Adam.

One of the controversies that Quenstedt discusses as emerging from his account of natural law is whether or not the observation of the law of nature is salvific. The ancient Pelagians taught that man could be saved through the law. Indeed, Quenstedt says that Ulrich Zwingli and some scholastics also taught that one could be saved without the Word of God and without the Spirit of regeneration by means of natural knowledge and powers. Quenstedt’s response is that, if man could not be saved through the law of Moses alone, how much less could one be saved through the law of nature alone. But, of course, Thomas Aquinas and other major theologians would have agreed with Quenstedt that one could only be saved by divine grace.

In the polemical section (section II), Quenstedt takes up a number of questions. He discusses whether beasts are subject to the natural law. Most of the other points in controversy pertain to the Ten Commandments in particular, such as questions about keeping the Sabbath, about the numbering of precepts of the Decalogue, and about whether the Law should be preached. The only things that really pertain to the natural law as it was taught by the medieval scholastics is whether man can truly fulfill the natural law. He disagrees with Roman Catholic theologians who teach that man can fulfill the law. Quenstedt defines the fulfillment of which he is speaking here as “perfect and consummate.” It is important to note that Quenstedt acknowledges that there is an “inchoate” fulfillment in those who are saved (cc. 983-84). I’m not certain that the Council of Trent and post-Tridentine theologians would argue that there is a perfect fulfillment of the Law. As Session 6 states, “For though during this mortal life, men, however holy and just, fall at times into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just, for that petition of the just, forgive us our trespasses, is both humble and true.” Indeed, Quenstedt openly acknowledges that Roman Catholic theologians try to get around the obvious problems with saying that Christians truly fulfill the law by distinguishing between mortal and venial sins (which is what we see in the passage from Trent just quoted). In other words, Roman Catholics make it possible for Christians to fulfill the law of nature by making an exception for venial sins.

Despite this important disagreement (one that has been treated, at least indirectly, here at TRF), it seems that there is not really a fundamental disagreement about the natural law itself. Is there anything more that a Thomist would want to see in Quenstedt’s Lutheran account of natural law? If not, I hope that this post provides one more nail in the coffin of the myth that Protestants were suspicious of the classical and medieval notion of the law of nature.

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