Is There A Biblical Warrant For Natural-Law Theories? -- By: Alan F. Johnson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 25:2 (Jun 1982)
Article: Is There A Biblical Warrant For Natural-Law Theories?
Author: Alan F. Johnson

Is There A Biblical Warrant For Natural-Law Theories?

Alan F. Johnson*

With the renewed interest in ethics in the society in general and in evangelical Christian social ethics in particular, it seems appropriate to raise the question of the validity of some sort of a natural moral law (NML) concept as an essential ingredient to a viable evangelical Christian social ethic.

Emil Brunner has noted that “the theologian’s attitude toward theologia naturales decides the character of his ethics.1 Yet the concept has both frustrated and intrigued the Church throughout most of its history. The Christian community has found it hard to live with, as well as without, NML thinking.2 Significantly, several important ethical books published in the late 60s and early 70s have called for the rethinking of NML concepts among Protestant ethicists.3 The challenge has come quite recently from leading Protestant ethicist James Gustafson. He has called on Protestant ethicists to reexamine the Biblical warrant for NML in the light of recent Roman Catholic attempts to establish a firm Biblical warrant for NML concepts. Gustafson believes that Protestant ethical thought that opposes NML thinking must now show why the arguments of recent Catholic scholars, such as Joseph Fuchs, who argue that numerous Biblical texts support an NML concept, cannot bear the weight from an exegetical standpoint that these Catholic scholars put on them.4 Finally, Klaus Bockmuehl of Regent College recently asked Christianity Today readers to reexamine the idea of NML, claiming good reasons for the early Church’s identification of it with the Biblical creation order (“Current Religious Thought,” November 18, 1977).

The mention of NML concepts immediately faces us with an assortment of different ideas, definitions and implications (see Appendix). Perhaps we can begin with the definition given in Macquarrie’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics. There it is stated that NML is “the view that there are certain precepts or norms

*Alan Johnson is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois.

of right conduct, discernible by all men.” Two subcategories are identified: (1) “those rules of justice which may be found written in the hearts or consciences of men,” and (2) “a set of ethical judgments obtained by reflecting on man’s ordinary experience, as contrasted with the divine laws that may be supernaturally revealed. “

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