Monthly Archives: January 2013

Leithart on “The Perils of Natural Law”

However much it pains me to link to First Things, I do appreciate me some Leithart. This piece is right on, in my opinion. Granted I don’t care about being a faithful Reformed theologian, but…

“For Herdt, the cautionary tale of this history (I have only touched on her richly detailed discussion) is not simply that natural law is ill-suited to being “a source of substantive action-guiding moral norms” or “providing concrete ethical knowledge.” The peril is that when Reformed thinkers have looked to natural law for such norms and such knowledge, they have inadvertently “created pressures that tend to empty out the substance of key Reformed commitments that animated Calvin’s thought, leaving behind intuitionist appeals to conscience, empiricist appeals to human nature, or unstable conflations of the two.” Not only did the weakening of theological commitments encourage shifts in the understanding of natural law. The deeper peril was that certain uses of natural law corrode Reformed theological commitments. Herdt goes so far as to suggest that “the secularization of modern natural law discourse is directly linked to pressures exerted by the hope and expectation that the natural law could provide such norms.”

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Chapters XV & XVI & Closing Reflections on Book I & Theological Blogging

Tony Hunt

Chapter XV is really the final chapter of positive instruction in Book I; XVI being a summary and conclusion. The main point of XV is that there are Laws which differ in degree and in authority. There are laws that are positive but are also ‘divine;’ yet not all positive laws are binding, only such as give political force to more universal laws. There are laws that individuals impose on themselves, and which might even engender good, which do not have the force of public law. When such (legitimate) individual conscience is used either to exempt oneself from public laws or to attempt to impose such laws on the public, unrest follows.

Chapter XVI, aside from offering a concise and helpful summation of the main points considered in Book I, also explains that while some might consider Book I superfluous, it is meant to provide a larger schema as to the toloi of laws in their kind. If such considerations were not examined, it would be all the more difficult to judge the matters to which Hooker is going to attend. And in Book II he jumps right in with considerations of Ecclesiastical laws; and having done this legwork, he is able to show – or at least argue – how laws in England, both civil and religious, fail or do not to work toward their proper ends.

I don’t know about other people but I found Book I to be an entirely worthwhile read, even in those sections where Hooker was addressing topics that bore me, or where the spirit of his age was most obvious. Overall I found the very manner of discourse – his measured and rigorous arguments, and his delightful Early Modern English prose – not only enjoyable but worthy of emulating. He clearly cares about the people involved, perhaps especially those against whom he is polemicizing, whom he takes seriously enough to compose so large a work as the Laws. Before I reread this book, I was confused about ‘Natural Law;’ I didn’t know what to think about it, how to accuse it, defend it, or describe it. I found that Hooker does not fit well with modern Natural Law theology, even with the doctrines of those who are supposedly dependent on him. Much of what I thought I had against Natural Law I found was against a particular kind of Natural Law, and problems I imagined I would have with Hooker were often dissolved on close reading. None of which is to say that I think Hooker can simply be bought; hook, line, and sinker. Nevertheless I was surprised by how relevant he is to contemporary disputes in theology. I think that Stanley Hauerwas’ With The Grain of The Universe is a necessary conversation partner, as is Ephraim Radner’s The World In The Shadow of God – among others. Work in aesthetics, for instance, can helpfully supplement Hooker, which tends to be able to talk about fundamental realities while avoiding rationalism. I look forward to seeing how all of this relates to Book V, which Robb and I will begin work on next.

Finally, I wanted to say that I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here. There has been enough junk going on in our lives – perhaps especially mine – so as to prevent us from always blogging as regularly as we had planned, but precisely because we were conservatively realistic in scheduling were we able to let a couple weeks pass between posts without the blog dissolving entirely. While it may be true that the initial wave of internet theology blogging has passed – and I’m trying not to sound hyperbolic here – I think that this little blog, read by like three people, is one of the more serious theology blogs that I know of. Blogs that are going to plow through the Dogmatics spring up like flowers but their output dies out just as quickly; we were able to keep things going. Thanks to Chris Green and Benjamin Guyer for commenting and thanks to Robb for being so patient with me and for all his great work.

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