The Modern Christian Response to Natural Law

Emerging Christian Ethics
Part 1: Modern Approaches to Ethics
(e) Christian Deontological Ethic

In response to an ethic like Aquinas’ Natural Law Ethic, some Christians have stressed that the only true way to know what to do or not to do is to rely solely on the Scriptures. They affirm with Natural Law ethicists that God is the God of order and absolute morality. However, they insist that there is a gap between humanity and God that is too large to be spanned by human reason. Humanity’s fallen capability to Reason, therefore, is limited to the realm of our understanding the natural world (thus affirming the sciences), but Reason cannot be brought over into the realm of ethics.

This is the “Trust and Obey” ethic. These Christians believe that what we need to do is read the Bible, the ultimate Rule Book for life, and obey the commands found there. According to this view, the most important part of being human is not, as Natural Law ethicists contend, Man’s Reason. It is Man’s Will—our ability to choose to obey God. They are confident that the Bible, plainly read and correctly interpreted, is that which humanity must obey in order to be moral.

The problems, of course, are at least two-fold. First, these Christians are suspicious of human reason, but they are attempting to make a rational argument to prove their position. Watch the line of Reason: If God is sovereign, then it he must have put in place moral requirements for humanity. If humanity is fallen, then we must distrust reason and rely on faith alone in God and His Scriptures for moral guidance. This line of argument is a rational case…so we can legitimately ask, “Why should we trust this use of Reason if we must distrust Reason?”

Second, these Christians authentically believe that the Bible is perspicuous (clear) enough to understand it in order to follow its commands. However, even if we all agree that the Bible is God’s Word to humanity that reveals His glory and His will for us, we must also say that the Bible is often a difficult revelation to interpret.

Those who insist on simply following the divine commands of the Bible actually say that we must follow certain rules of interpretation in order to understand it correctly. However, even within these ranks there are variances in interpretations, and in the larger Christian community there are even further disparities in how we understand God’s Will on ethical issues (that’s why some Christians can be for Capital Punishment and others against it, some for women in ministry roles, others against it, etc).

The problem, in the words of N. T. Wright is that “most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question…much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.” (Wright, How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?)

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Anonymous said...

We still deal with dogma/theology as part of how we as communities dialogue on how to communicate the identity and significance of Yeshua of Nazareth to our contexts.

As I understand from Alister McGrath's "The Genesis of Doctrine", the narrative structure of scripture transmits the key conflicts that existed among early Christians in this regard.

We evince the Spirit of Truth(1 John 4:6) when we listen to our fellow believers and work out our inevitable conflicts in a loving non-acrimonious manner.



Byron said...

Bob Robinson suffered an aortic aneurism in the wee hours of Thursday night/Friday morning. Emergency surgery went well, but this is a serious thing. A fuller report is on my blog, www.byron-harvey.com. PLEASE PRAY FOR OUR BROTHER AND FRIEND.

sabbath day's journey said...

Missing you SO much, Bob. Our day at Cafe Momus came and went, and I missed you more. I'll be so glad when you are home again, and I pray for you every day. You have such a great presence, such a lively spirit. Can't wait to bask in them again.

Tight hugs,