Emerging Christian Ethics
Part 1: Modern Approaches to Ethics
(d) Aquinas' Natural Law Ethic
Thomas Aquinas represents the classic representation of “Natural Law” Ethics, which posits that God reveals himself in the rational ordering of Nature (what is called “General Revelation”), and thus any human being, through his or rationality, should be able to determine right and wrong.
The ultimate definition of the Image of God in humanity, according to Aquinas, is that humans are rational beings.
“To the natural law belongs those things to which a man is inclined naturally, and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1-2.94.2).
Aquinas points to the evidence that every human has a conscience that tells them what is right and wrong—even the vilest of murderers values his own life.
However, the conscience needs to be trained, and that is the role of society—to properly train the conscience. Laws in society train the conscience and restrain evil, creating the environment for conscience to be developed.
Natural Law was the declared basis for the start of The United States of America. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These words tell us that the American founders believed that there was a certain natural law, and that if we use our capacity to Reason, it will become “self-evident:” We all have “rights,” including life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
However, Karl Barth challenged this view that even unbelievers in God can arrive at ethics through natural means and Reason. Barth counters Aquinas by saying that our ethical life is not a matter of rationally understood natural law (which relies too heavily on human reason and is merely a human invention). Barth contended that anything that humans invent really just amounts to becoming an idol, something created by us and for us. Barth says that Aquinas’ God is nothing more than a watchmaker—he created the cosmos, wound it up, and then let it go. He says that the God of Christianity is the God who actually comes to earth in human form—revealing to us the God who is not a watchmaker but a Redeemer, revealing through Christ what is right and wrong.
Of course, there is a middle ground (and this is hinted at by Aquinas himself when he insists that Divine Law is higher than Natural Law and Societal Law): Beyond general revelation is special revelation (and this is known through Scripture). Aquinas says that salvation is found in Divine Law, not Natural Law.
The middle ground is found in Reformed Theology, offering this promising resolution: The idea of "Common Grace"—the grace that is common to all humanity. It's "common" because it is experienced by all of humanity. It's "grace" because it is undeserved favor from God. And it is the possible resolution because it posits that not only does God give all of humanity general blessings, such as rain, sunshine, food, drink, clothing, and shelter, God also gives society, without necessarily renewing everyone's hearts, significant moral influence so that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted. This is why non-Christians can have an internal sense of right and wrong, can be elected to office in order to pass, execute or judge righteous laws, and can be more ethical and more compassionate people than even some who confess Christ!
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