Review: Natural Law

Title of Work:

Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal

Author of Work:

Robert C. Baker, general editor, and Roland Cap Ehlke, editor


Pastor Ben Schaefer

Page Number:

Format Availability:


Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, Robert C. Baker, general editor, Roland Cap Ehlke, editor. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 302 pages.

SS.33.Natural Law, A Lutheran Reappraisal.LgRobert C. Baker received his MDiv from Concordia Seminary (St. Louis), and is pursuing an MS degree in health care ethics at Creighton University (Omaha, NE). Roland Cap Ehlke holds MDiv and STM degrees from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, as well as MA degrees in History and English and a PhD degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ehlke has authored and edited numerous essays, articles, and books and served for many years as editor at Northwestern Publishing House. He currently serves as associate professor of philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, WI.

Natural law has a rich and diverse history within Western philosophy and the Christian church. For many modern Protestants, however, the concept and its biblical basis seem to have faded from existence. The general editor, Robert C. Baker, notes in the preface that this book had its genesis when he served as an editor in the recent update of the Lutheran Confessions (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, CPH: 2005,2006). He was “particularly drawn to Melanchthon’s line of argumentation in Ap XXIII, in which he contends against mandatory priestly celibacy on the basis of natural law and natural rights” (xix). This book offers sixteen essays by sixteen authors to help the reader grasp the history and the practical import of natural law. This book is one attempt to add a Lutheran voice to the increasing discussions in Christianity today. It includes various scholarly viewpoints (e.g. pastors, professors, synodical administrators, philosophy teachers, etc.) and connects with many societal issues (e.g. gay marriage, abortion, etc.).

The essays are divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with natural law and the early Lutheran tradition. An opening essay touches on many of the natural law themes which reappear at other points in the book, such as its biblical basis, its demise in society, its connection with the orders of creation, and its concrete applications. Natural law demonstrates a point of contact where Greek philosophers and Christian teachers have found common ground; namely, that “the universe is governed by law inscribed into the nature of things” (5) and human beings can use their reason and conscience to know what is in accord with the law of nature (Rom 1:19; 2:15). One sees the importance of natural law based on its rejection, which led into the “situation ethics” of the 20th century and relativism in the church. This opening essay provides an interesting starting point, but it also seems to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

Moving on to Luther and the other reformers, the book works backwards from the present day in an effort to differentiate Luther and scholasticism from some of the more familiar theories.  Philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment, for example, sought to create a more universal, rational basis for natural law. They envisioned that humans could know every aspect of natural law and morality clearly by using their reason and observation (19). Thus they detached natural law from any traditional foundation and, more importantly, any connection to God.

Luther and the scholastics before him, however, had a much different view of natural law, a view which was rooted in God’s moral will. “It appears that Luther received the basic tradition of natural law from the Medieval Church while emphasizing two aspects: the natural law as the law of love and the corruption of human reason through sin” (31). That is not to say Luther agreed with Aquinas and the scholastics on every point, but they all agreed when it came to recognizing the inseparable connection between God’s divine moral law and natural law. The author’s explanations of Aquinas, Ockham, and others were pedantic at times (23-31), but they did provide a short, semi-painless overview of what Luther was inheriting intellectually.

It’s here that the book takes an unexpected detour with an essay entitled “Luther’s Pragmatic Appropriation of the Natural Law Tradition.” The author, Thomas Pearson, starts by correctly and evangelically distancing Luther from the scholastic thinking because the natural law tradition he inherited did not give an accurate picture of the human condition before God (41), but then the essay puts Luther on a completely different path from much of the natural law thinking noted elsewhere in the book.  Pearson writes, “Ultimately, Luther creates a new account of natural law morality: instinctive, not rational; provisional, not ontologically secured; pragmatic, not divinely commanded; chastened by sin, not robust with natural human possibilities” (63). I was uncomfortable with how pragmatic Luther appeared, as if he was the father of “situation ethics.” Much of Protestantism, especially in Europe, already claims him as such (80). Unfortunately, there is no uniformity to the footnotes between essays making fact-checking more difficult. One author quotes from the Weimar Ausgabe, while the next quotes from the American Edition of Luther.

Luther emphasized the total depravity of human nature to an extent not seen in the scholastics, but he did not deny that the law was written in men’s hearts (cf. Luther’s Large Catechism II, 67). As far as the Lutheran Confessions are concerned, it is inconceivable for the natural law to be materially different from or contrary to the Ten Commandments (70), as another author notes, “The Confessions do not answer the question of how natural law can be known without the Word of God” (75). Given the corruption of human flesh, there isn’t much hope on that front.

I found it interesting to consider what should be included in natural law. “For the reformers, political rights are not part of the natural law” (78). Again the influence of the Enlightenment has shifted the focus from natural law to natural rights.  How do we find a solid footing?  What does Scripture define and what does it not? The final essay in this section proposes a relatively new theological term—only used since the 19th century—“orders of creation.”  Within these orders, as revealed in Scripture, we can understand God’s divine order that shapes life in marriage, the family, and society (92). The encouragement is a good one that “we should let holy writ conclude her own word before immediately turning away from it due to modern-day allergies against irritating words such as ‘obedience,’ ‘head,’ or ‘subordination’” (93).

The second major division of the book focuses on natural law and later Lutheran tradition. It begins with a summary of the work of German jurist, Friedrich Julius Stahl (A.D. 1802-1861).  He lived during the confessional revival in Germany, yet was a jurist of churchly significance for King Wilhelm IV of Prussia.  To put it simply, his main point was that reason cannot take God’s place (115). Tracking his influence on men like Wilhelm Loehe would be rather difficult (99-100), and I wonder if his “contribution” was worth including, especially when more significant thinkers like Karl Barth received no formal treatment in this volume.

Three 20th century theologians are evaluated rather quickly and their responses to Barth are noted. We get a taste of Werner Elert (1885-1954), Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), and Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000). It is good to be aware of the thoughts running around in Lutheranism today, but after reading these summaries I had more questions than answers. The author of the essay seems to agree with me (134). Gerhard Forde is another 20th century Lutheran theologian, who receives some extensive treatment. Much of what Forde taught now permeates the ELCA.  To be honest, I’m not sure why anything Forde offers would be worth imitating in the intellectual or spiritual realm, especially given his denial of divine verbal inspiration and inerrancy (138). The book also fell far short of sounding the warning bell against his teachings and holding forth true Lutheran hermeneutics and theology.

This second major division wraps up with some commentary on what has been happening in the ELCA surrounding issues like gay marriage and sexual immorality.  It’s ironic that this division deals with “the later Lutheran tradition,” since even by the author’s reckoning, “…the ELCA is no longer the church of Luther” (168). It was interesting to read a firsthand account of what happened at the 2009 ELCA convention in Minneapolis and the author’s understanding that the first principle in the ELCA is power (170). A faithful Lutheran pastor will want to guard against synodical power-plays contrary to the Word!

The book’s third major division is arguably the most useful, “Natural Law and Contemporary Issues.” Included here are two highlight essays, “The Natural Law of the Family” by Ryan MacPherson and “Natural Science, Natural Rights, and Natural Law: Abortion in Historical Perspective” by Korey Maas. These are ultimately two good reasons for a Lutheran pastor to own this book. In the first essay a compelling case is made that human personhood is familial, not individual or statist. In essence, the libertarian and the communist both get it wrong (214).  In the second essay, we do well to remember, even with a state-sanctioned murder like abortion, “one is entitled to one’s own opinion…but one is not entitled to one’s own facts” (230).  Both essays presented the historical and theological development of gay rights and abortion respectively.  Both essays had a wealth of footnotes, which are perfect for future reading on the topics or for a conference paper. They were the most interesting essays in the book.

The final contemporary issue the book addresses is adiaphora and ordination. It is true and fitting to include women serving as pastors as something against nature because Paul points to the order of creation in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.  The essay, however, misinterprets the sedes doctrinae in light of modern LC-MS teaching, which allows women to have authority over men, as long as they do not serve as pastors in the church (260). There is also a misunderstanding about Augsburg Confession Article V. The author treats the ministry as if AC V were talking in the concrete, rather than the abstract.  The “means” is not the pastor; the “means” is the Gospel in Word and Sacrament (262-263).

God’s moral will applies to all people, whether you’re a pastor, a politician, or a university professor. An objective standard is something people have and, “…while the law written on our heart may be suppressed, it may not be erased” (275). This book gives apologetic arguments that might strip away the cobwebs on the heart. There is a starting point for conversations in our world and even contemporary natural law scholars are concluding more and more that some belief is necessary (272). A constant, crucial refrain throughout the book was that the gospel alone will change hearts and bring about repentance, but the law has its place. “Without the Law, there is no need for redemption” (168).

Each essay could stand alone. This both helps and hurts the usefulness of the book. If you are reading the book cover to cover, you will find each essay repeating similar facts and judgments. Each author also has their own style which may or may not suit your tastes. For example, an essay on “Natural Law: A Basis for Christian-Muslim Discourse?” provided much information about basic Muslim philosophy and shariah law (235-247), but lacked much practical significance. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for something helpful in preparing a Bible class on these contemporary issues, this book will suit you and your time limitations beautifully. There are also study questions prepared to help the reader (290-298).  I pray this book’s tone will sound out in Lutheran churches: proclaim the law faithfully for the sake of the gospel!