Natural Law, Lutheranism and the Public Good

by Rev. Dr. Korey D. Maas

Are the fundamental rules of right and wrong revealed to those outside the faith?

Where [Moses] gives the commandments, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law.
— Martin Luther (AE 35:173)

Martin Luther had a penchant for provocative exclamations. It seems especially shocking that the great champion of “Scripture alone” could so blatantly appear to qualify the authority of the biblical commandments. But perhaps equally puzzling is his appeal to “natural law,” a phrase unfamiliar to many today because it has all but disappeared from contemporary Lutheran discourse.

Because it is so infrequently discussed, some might get the impression that it is inherently un-Lutheran. But as Luther’s comment suggests, neither an acknowledgment of, nor appeals to, natural law is foreign to Lutheranism. In fact, the case for embracing natural law, especially in civic life, may be stronger today than it has been throughout the history of Lutheranism, or even most of the history of Christianity.

What is natural law?

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While details differ among its theorists—diversely represented by two millennia of Christian theologians and even by pre-Christian pagans and modern agnostics—certain commonalities emerge. The natural law consists of an objective and universal moral code, the fundamental precepts of which are embedded in human nature and which are discernible by the natural reason common to humanity.

The above also sheds light on possible reasons for why it fell out of favor among Lutherans. Being championed by non-Christians might suggest that the concept is un-Christian. Special emphasis is placed upon human reason, rather than divine revelation, which may imply that it is unbiblical or rationalistic. And since the very substance of natural law is law, some wonder if any emphasis upon it would obscure the central Christian proclamation of the Gospel. In short, appeals to natural law may be perceived as elevations of pagan philosophy over Christian theology, reason over revelation and Law over Gospel.

Are such fears warranted?

If the teaching of natural law is contrary to the teachings of Christianity, what could possibly account for Luther’s own bold appropriation of it? Fortunately, we don’t need to explain why Luther embraced a teaching in conflict with the Christian faith, Christian Scriptures or Christian Gospel. Instead, we can explore the evidence for teaching natural law as acknowledged in those Scriptures inspired to reveal the Gospel.

Indeed, the locus classicus (the chief example) for the Christian recognition of natural law appears in that epistle Luther himself called “the chief part of the New Testament” and “truly the purest Gospel:” St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (AE 35:365). As prelude to his clear proclamation of the Gospel, the apostle emphasizes that all stand in need of divine pardon because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). To the Jews, Paul emphasizes, this should be evident in light of their failure to keep those commandments revealed to them on Sinai. But the Gentiles, to whom the Mosaic Law had not been revealed, are also without excuse because their very deeds “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15).

It is Paul’s testimony to an objective moral law, naturally and universally known, that prompts Luther to write on this passage: “This proves that the law was not unknown to them, but that they had a knowledge of what was good and evil” (AE 25:187). It is also Paul’s association of this natural law with that law supernaturally revealed to Israel that allows us more clearly to understand Luther’s apparently dismissive treatment of Moses. If right and wrong can be discerned only with reference to the Mosaic Law presented to Israel at Sinai, Luther suggests, then “Moses came far too late;” moreover, he “addressed himself to far too few people” (AE 47:89). That is to say, the whole of humanity before, and much of it after, God’s revealing the Ten Commandments could have had no possible understanding that murder, theft or adultery were moral evils to be shunned.

An unlikely conclusion

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But this isn’t quite the case. “Moses agrees exactly with nature,” says Luther (AE 35:168). Though they had not yet been etched in stone, “the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs” (AE 47:89). Such explanations aren’t unique to Luther; they’re reiterated in the Lutheran Confessions, which also assert that “natural law, which agrees with the Mosaic Law, or the Ten Commandments, is innate in the heart of all men and is written on it” (Ap IV 7).

Complementing this acknowledgement of the Law being “written” on the hearts of all is the recognition that all likewise possess the ability to “read” this law. Luther himself would express this position by saying that “this law’s light shines in all men’s inborn reason,” and that there is no one “who fails to recognize, and who is not compelled to admit, the justice and truth of the natural law” (WA 17/2:102).

Human reason has not been unaffected by the fall into sin; as St. Paul makes plain in his assertion of humanity’s innate knowledge of God and His Law, sinful humans have a propensity to suppress this natural knowledge (Rom. 1:18–21). Luther vividly describes those who do so as being “like people who purposely stop their ears or pinch their eyes shut to close out sound and sight.” However, “they do not succeed in this; their conscience tells them otherwise. For Paul is not lying when he asserts that they know something about God” (AE 19:54). The Confessions agree, acknowledging that even after the Fall all people have a “dim spark of the knowledge that there is a God, as also of the doctrine of the Law,” such that even “the heathen to a certain extent had a knowledge of God from the natural law” (FC SD II 9, V 22).

Such references to this knowledge being only a “dim spark,” or existing only “to a certain extent” highlight the diminished capacities of human reason resulting from the Fall. It is on this account that the Lord further condescended to write this Law in stone and subsequently in the pages of Scripture. The content remains the same. Luther, rather than slighting the significance of the commandments, concluded that “the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses” (AE 40:98). But because the substance of this natural law is more explicitly revealed in the pages of Scripture, one might reasonably ask why any attention to the law written less clearly on the heart is even warranted; why place any emphasis upon natural law when Scripture reveals its contents much more clearly?

The important answer

Our neighbors do not recognize the authority of Scripture. Robert Newton argued last year in these pages that we increasingly find ourselves in a post-Christian culture. Our environment differs radically from that of the fourth through 19th centuries, when the teachings of Scripture not only implicitly, but often explicitly andeven officially, informed the publiclife and institutions of the westernworld. A widespread and often officially sanctioned public secularism,together with an increasing religious pluralism, have effectively displaced any privileged status that uniquely Christian teachings once had in civic affairs.

This blithe dismissal of, or even hostility to, Scripture in the public square should not discourage the Christian from social or political engagement. The Bible should not be appealed to as the sole source of moral or legal authority. While boldly confessing that salvation is revealed in Scripture alone, the Christian can also acknowledge that the fundamental precepts of right and wrong are not; they are also written on the hearts of all and may be read and understood by all. So, even when the majority did still recognize the divine authority of Scripture, Philip Melanchthon could appeal to natural law and natural reason as roperly ruling in temporal affairs. “External civil life,” he wrote, “is to be regulated according to this natural light” (Loci Communes[1555], VII).

As Christians, we are called to fulfill our many and various vocations by faithful involvement in his “external civil life.” In a world deeply scarred by sin, such participation will not be without conflict, disagreement and debate about what sorts of activities should or should not be “regulated.” Recognizing the fact and force of the natural law, however, the Christian can boldly engage in public and rational persuasion, confident that the knowledge of right and wrong is indeed written on the hearts, and discernible by the intellects, of all whom our Lord has created in His own image.

> Did you know? Gallup studies indicate that “76% of Americans [are] saying moral values in the United States are getting worse.”

> Did you know? The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 57 percent of Americans believe “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.”


Additional Resources

Discussed by men from Plato to Aristotle, Hobbes to Locke, natural law has been a controversial topic throughout time. Yet the church has become silent on the topic, allowing it to be virtually forgotten, until now. The Lutherans are rejoining the conversation, and you can too. If you’re interested in learning more about natural law and how it frames our life together, take a peek at some of these helpful resources.

> Luther, Martin. How Christians Should Regard Moses (1525), in Luther’s Works: American Edition, 35:155–74.

> Luther, Martin. Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Concordia Publishing House, 2008): 54–101.

> McNeill, John T. “Natural Law in the Thought of Luther,” Church History 10 (1941): 211–27.

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> Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics (Concordia Publishing House, 1968): I:371–376; 531–533.

> VanDrunen, David. A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Acton Institute, 2006).

> To read more on this new book, go to http://www.lcms.org/pages/reporter and search for “Natural Law.”

> To read more on natural law, go to http://www.nlnrac.org/

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> Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal presents engaging essays from contemporary Lutheran scholars, teachers and pastors, each offering a fresh view of natural law within the context of historic Lutheran teaching and practice. Thought provoking questions will help readers apply key Bible texts to their daily lives. To order, visit www.cph.org.

About the author: Rev. Dr. Korey D. Maas is associate professor of theology/church history at concordia university, Irvine, calif., and a contributor to Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal.

March 2011

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