[David VanDrunen previews his new book Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014)]
Natural law continues to be an important and controversial topic in political theology. While it is tempting to suspect that nothing new could possibly be said about natural law after so many centuries of reflection, several features of contemporary discussion lend vibrancy to the field and create prospects for new and constructive work. Three features of recent natural law scholarship strike me as especially interesting. One is the widespread sentiment against associating natural law with autonomous human reason. A second feature, building upon the first, is that natural law theory ought to be reintegrated with biblical ethics and its traditional theological moorings. Third, a fledgling renaissance of interest in natural law has broken out among Protestant scholars, many of whom write from within circles that have been skeptical about or even hostile to natural law theory over the past century. I present my book in this context, encouraged by these developments but convinced that their promise remains unfulfilled. As a Reformed theologian and lawyer, I hope in part to advance the renewed (but still young and controversial) interest in natural law among Reformed and other Protestant thinkers. But I also seek to contribute to broader discussions about this topic, especially since natural lawyers from various traditions have called for the development of more biblically informed and theologically rich natural law theories.
My book offers an account of natural law that is unique, as far as I am aware: a thorough Reformed biblical theology of natural law that uses the biblical covenants as the primary grid for approaching the subject. The account is unique in its approach and distinctive in some of its claims, although in many respects its substantive conclusions stand firmly in the broader Christian natural law tradition, especially in its realist renditions. The book’s approach has several benefits. The detailed biblical study of natural law is something that every Christian natural lawyer—even those who take a philosophical or other approach to the subject—ought to deem important and relevant. Furthermore, the focus upon the biblical covenants ought to resonate especially well for Reformed thinkers, who are accustomed to viewing these covenants as foundational for understanding Scripture and building a sound theology. Focusing upon these covenants also highlights the temporal movement and progress of the biblical story, and thereby situates natural law within that unfolding dynamic rather than treating natural law as an ahistorical abstraction. Finally, a covenantal view of natural law leaves no room for moral neutrality or rational autonomy: all perception and response to natural law transpires within a covenant relationship with God and thus entails accountability toward him.
Part 1 of Divine Covenants and Moral Order examines the covenantal foundations of the natural moral order and God’s government of the whole world through natural law. It begins, in Chapter 1, with a study of how the opening chapters of Genesis describe God’s establishment of natural law through a primordial covenant of creation. Through the covenantal act of creation, God made human beings in his image, as his royal representatives in this world. God thereby oriented them toward fruitful and productive work toward the goal of attaining life in a consummated new creation—alongside a threat of judgment for disobeying this commission. Subsequent chapters explore the aftermath of humanity’s failure under the natural law of the covenant of creation. God brought a measure of judgment upon the world, but allowed human history to unfold and postponed the full and final judgment until its conclusion. Scripture portrays a twofold purpose of God within this history: on the one hand, a plan to preserve the natural order and to enable the human race to pursue, in a limited way, many of its original obligations and, on the other hand, a plan of redemption by which God bestows salvation upon his people and brings the first creation to it originally intended goal: consummation in a glorious new creation. The rest of Part 1 explores the first of these purposes. Chapter 2 is foundational, arguing that the post-diluvian Noahic covenant reestablished the natural law, in a form refracted for a fallen world. Through this covenant, which God entered with the entire creation universally, he promises to preserve the created order and communicates a minimalist natural law ethic geared to promote the survival and partial thriving of the common human race. Chapters 3-5 confirm and enrich the tentative conclusions of Chapter 2 through detailed studies of many subsequent biblical texts. In these chapters I examine how God governs the nations of the world through the natural law of the Noahic covenant. I look first at the accounts of Sodom and Gerar in Genesis 19-20, then at the Old Testament prophets’ oracles against foreign (non-Israelite) nations, and finally at Christian theology’s traditional locus classicus for natural law, Romans 1:18-2:16.
In Part 2 attention shifts to examine the redemptive covenants God established, first with Abraham, then with Israel at Sinai, and finally with the New Testament church. These chapters explore how these special covenants and their participants relate to the natural law that continues to bind all people under the Noahic covenant. After Chapter 6 discusses the Abrahamic covenant, Chapter 7, the longest in the book, examines the relationship of natural law and Mosaic law, arguing that God gave the Mosaic law, in part, as a republication of the natural law in a form geared for the special condition of Old Testament Israel. Chapter 8 turns to the Wisdom literature, and Proverbs in particular, and claims that growth in wisdom involves perception of the natural moral order. Finally, Chapter 9 argues that Christian moral obligation under the new covenant reflects the natural law in all sorts of ways. But it also suggests that the New Testament teaches an eschatological ethic that reflects Christ’s fulfillment of the natural law in his suffering and then entry into the new creation. This eschatological ethic instructs Christians to pursue certain practices that confound and transcend natural law obligations, practices by which they anticipate the life of the age to come. Chapter 10, the conclusion of Divine Covenants and Moral Order, presents a brief for why Christians need a theology of natural law. It then explores some implications of my biblical theology of natural law for social life in the public square, reflecting upon issues such as justice, religious freedom, political liberalism—a preview for a subsequent volume aiming to focus in depth on such matters.
David VanDrunen is Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California